On Christmas Day, 1999, I was walking along the shore of Hoan Kiem Lake in downtown Hanoi.
The U.S. dollar is king in Vietnam, and I had used most of my local currency (called dong and don't laugh) only to give to the many beggars who shadowed me as I walked oh so conspicuously down the streets. On one side of the lake I stopped, perplexed, amused and very American.
Before me I saw a Vietnamese man dressed as Santa Claus, fake beard and all albeit somewhat less plump that required. He was charging $2 to pose for pictures with pretty, well-dressed, young Vietnamese girls. Above the ersatz Santa's stall was one of the ubiquitous Communist propaganda posters, something showing heroic Viet Cong soldiers or stalwart workers with some Commie lie written in red ink in the Vietnamese alphabet.
The streets are a non-stop whirlpool of motor vehicles, and despite the posters Communism is but a word to the thousands of striving entrepreneurs who inhabit the neighborhood around Hoan Kiem and throughout Hanoi for that matter. A Communist is just something you have to be to do business.
And everybody was so nice to me. I traveled the length of that country alone armed only with a small pocketknife and never had a bit of trouble. You would never think these people were the enemy 30 years ago.
It is becoming more and more en vogue to compare our current situation in Iraq with our blunder in Vietnam, but while that correlation falls apart in most specifics, there is a particular trend that both wars legitimately have in common.
Illusory fear is the driving force that trapped us in Vietnam for a decade, and it is the same emotion that has us convinced we just can't leave Iraq "until the job is done."
In Vietnam, it was the fear of the aforementioned Communism and its insidious spread via the well known "Domino Theory." For those of you who are under 30 in either age or mental capacity, the Domino Theory held that, if the red stain of Communism were not halted in Vietnam, it would inevitably spread through Asia and along the ocean floor. It would come to the surface somewhere off the coast of Hawaii, drift in with the tide to the shores of California and then sweep like the angel of death into the heartland itself.
It had to be stopped, we said, and so we stayed and our soldiers died for 10 years. And then we lost, came back home and huddled in dreadful anticipation of the Red Dawn.
That dawn never came, because the Domino Theory was, if you'll pardon my euphemism, just so much bovine fecal matter.
Likewise, we cling to some strange need for a perfect victory in Iraq, some absolute good that must be achieved, the creation of a state in our own image that will have the magical power to set right all that is wrong in the world. The theory this time, I believe, is that a stable Iraq is necessary to stem the tide of worldwide terrorism that, if left unchecked, will spread like an evil shadow, or stain, across the Middle East, along the ocean floor and into our living rooms.
But that's already happened, hasn't it?
Indeed, our presence in Iraq is a dream come true for our enemies. It allows them to slowly bleed us dry without risking real exposure. They have but to grab some passing Iraqi teen, flash a the latest picture from the Abu Graib prison, slap a rocket launcher in the lad's hand and send him off to war.
It seems to me like leaving Iraq to the Iraqis, with ample financial support and training, would be better than trying to stay.
So here's what I'm saying, and I'm sure most of you have been waiting with bated breath for my point.
We stuck it out in Vietnam, trying to fight a war that was none of our business because we thought there was some threat to our own freedom if the Communist won the war. That was incorrect as it turns out there was no real threat and Communism died a natural death.
Now in Iraq there is another supposed threat that keeps us there, the threat of international terrorism. But that threat has no serious connection to the situation in Iraq and if we leave and Iraq crumbles into civil war despite all we do well, the threat of terrorism is really neither greater nor lesser.
We should leave, in a reasonable time frame, and not expect everything to be hunky-dory when we go. It will sort itself out.
And 30 years from now I fully expect to find myself strolling down the streets of Baghdad, my best girl by my side, throwing out those precious greenbacks like there's no tomorrow. Now, whether or not Santa Claus shows up is another matter.
Ed Brock covers public safety and municipalities for the News Daily. He may be reached at (770) 478-5753 ext. 254 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.