The United States government is making the same mistake in Iraq as it did in Vietnam and is jeopardizing its international standing in the world, former senator George McGovern said Saturday.
The former presidential candidate told a crowd of about 300 people that the U.S. government’s decision to enter Iraq is “cut from same cloth” as the decision to enter Vietnam.
“This business of selling a large part of the American people on the notion that the best way to fight terrorism is to put our army into Iraq is cut from the same cloth of unreality and cynicism,” McGovern said in the keynote speech at a weekend reunion of Vietnam era draft dodgers and deserters.
He told the crowd that Americans haven’t learned as much as they should about the lessons of the past — a reference to the 58,000 U.S. soldiers who died in the Vietnam conflict.
Millions of Vietnamese also died in the war.
McGovern, 83, recalled the messages of two former U.S. generals who became presidents — George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower — as they left office.
They both warned about the dangers of an expanding U.S. military complex.
“We are jeopardizing the very liberties that we profess to be fighting to save by engaging in these costly and in many respects self-defeating wars,” said McGovern. “I wish we would heed the words of these two great generals.”
He said he believes the U.S. may now be heading towards “the misplaced military power of which they speak and I think it jeopardizes the quality of our lives and the standing of America in the world.”
He drew laughter when he closed his speech by saying that those two generals were not liberals “but it just shows that even conservatives sometimes speak the truth.”
He told the audience that he was proud to be a liberal, “even a bleeding-heart liberal.”
The failed 1972 presidential candidate made it clear he was not opposed to war — he fought in World War II — but he never supported the Vietnam War, which he described as a “stupid, useless war.”
“I’m sick and tired of old men dreaming up wars in which young men do the dying.”
McGovern was the Democratic presidential candidate in 1972, losing to Richard Nixon.
He was first elected to the Senate in 1962 and re-elected in 1968 and 1974. He served UN appointments under presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
He left the Senate in 1980 and taught at several institutions.
He has received numerous awards and honorary degrees, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United State’s highest civilian honour, in 2000.
Although reunion organizer Isaac Romano said a month ago that the Our Way Home Reunion and Peace Event might attract as many as 1,000 participants, the turnout for the workshops and panels was much smaller.
War resisters and a few veterans came together on the event’s opening day, participating in a workshop called Healing the Effects of War Together.
Many other panels and workshops through the weekend brought together anti-war activists, veterans and draft dodgers to discuss the implications and effects of their decisions many decades ago.
Most of the participants at the reunion are Vietnam War draft dodgers or deserters, along with a handful of Vietnam veterans including David Cline, the president of Veterans for Peace.
He received several medals for bravery, he said Sunday, but he quickly “developed an intense dislike for the lies that were told us.”
U.S. lawyer Jeff House was at the reunion and told reporters Saturday that he now represents about 20 soldiers who have either deserted from the Iraq war or went to Canada before they were sent to Iraq.
“They refuse to be involved in a giant crime,” said House.
Ernest Hekannen, a Nelson, B.C. artist who moved to this area rather than get drafted for Vietnam, said the U.S. must recognize the “enormity of its deeds in Vietnam or it will continue to commit war crimes.”
The reunion is to honour U.S. draft resisters who came to Canada during the late 1960s and early ’70s and the Canadians who welcomed them.
While it’s not clear how many Iraq War deserters are in Canada, fighting to be allowed to stay, it’s only a fraction of the number of Vietnam War resisters and deserters who moved to Canada.
The reunion is being held in this West Kootenay city, a region where hundreds of draft dodgers settled in the late 1960s and early 70s.
Many draft dodgers returned after President Jimmy Carter granted an amnesty in 1977. It’s believed that about half the original number chose to remain in Canada.
The reunion did not draw any protesters despite some opposition two years ago when organizers first announced the event, along with a bronze sculpture of two Canadians welcoming a draft evader.
At that time, some Vietnam veterans groups expressed outrage at the idea of statue honouring draft resisters.
The bronze statue was unveiled Saturday night and will find a home at Hekannen’s art gallery-home in Nelson.
The art was initially slated to be put on public display in Nelson almost two years ago.
The City of Nelson initially supported the statue and reunion but withdrew its support in face of the controversy. CTV.ca