Why are we making the same mistakes?

On April 30, 1975, the last U.S. helicopter lifted off the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. This marked the end of an unjust war that damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of American and Vietnamese lives. Our leaders lied to the American public to gain support for the war. And as the body counts piled up and the war budget ballooned, it became clear that there was no winning strategy and no exit strategy.

Sound familiar?

If our leaders had only learned from past mistakes, we would not now be occupying another country, spending billions of taxpayers’ money, confronting a determined guerrilla opposition, and bringing death, injury and illness to thousands of Americans and Iraqis.

Members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) recognized the signs of “Vietnam – Part 2” as the Bush administration began targeting Iraq with its rhetoric of stamping out terrorism in 2002. In the lead-up to the current Iraq war, Americans were told that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, was a danger to his neighbors, and had ties to Al Qaeda.

Since then, these assertions have all been proven false. As a result over 1,500 troops [editor’s note: now over 1,600] have died and the number is steadily rising. Our sons and daughters are sniped at, blown up and mortared.

Like Vietnam, the administration went into a war with no winning strategy and is now stuck in a war they can’t win. Because the Iraqi civilian population regards U.S. forces not as liberators but as occupiers, they refuse to report insurgent hiding places or weapons stockpiles. Abuse of prisoners, detention of innocent people, and continuing civilian casualties increase the hatred of Americans among Iraqis.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to the Bush administration, as we saw these events and consequences unfold over 30 years ago in Vietnam.

And as the insurgency grows, American troops are wearing down. In Vietnam, our tour of duty lasted 365 days and then we were home. Over 40,000 of today’s soldiers in Iraq are no longer volunteers but are being held on active duty against their will through the administration’s “stop-loss” program. Soldiers are being sent back for second, third, fourth, and fifth tours in this never-ending war. At the same time, military re-enlistments are way down, and National Guard and members of the Army Reserve are being sent to Iraq to fill in the gaps. These weekend warriors were never meant to be full-time soldiers. As a result, veterans of the Iraq war will face psychological and stress problems qualitatively worse than many Vietnam veterans.

The billions that we are spending on the Iraq war represent a tremendous human and financial cost. Our economy is weakened, and our educational system and our health care will be worsened for lack of resources. The quality of all our lives will be harmed. In addition, the costs will go on for years to come, as our money continues to pay for the Iraq occupation and to meet our responsibility for reconstructing Iraq.

Millions of dollars will need to be directed to help deal with the serious, lifelong disabilities of our soldiers whose wounds, both psychological and physical, will prevent them from living a normal life.

But these injuries aren’t just caused by bullets and bombs.

In Vietnam we faced malaria, dioxin poisoning from various defoliants, and hepatitis C. In Iraq they are facing worse dangers. Of the troops who served in the first Gulf War, already more than 50 percent have received or have applied for disability, predominantly resulting from exposure to toxins. Today our service people are contaminated by our own government.

In addition to local diseases the U.S. is not prepared for, our government has exposed the troops to serious side effects from anthrax vaccinations, and to depleted uranium, which is used to make U.S. weapons more effective in penetrating tanks and armor but causes cancer and other serious illnesses.

In 1969, there were 33,000 fatalities from Vietnam. We could have ended the war then and achieved the same peace agreement agreed upon only a few years later. But the war continued for six more years, and the Vietnam Memorial wall now contains almost 60,000 names.

And now we must ask ourselves and our government: How many names are we willing to add to a future Iraq war memorial?

Barry Romo is a national coordinator of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He served as a lieutenant in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968 in the Americal Division and was an infantry platoon leader. This article originally appeared in the Chicago-area Daily Southtown, and is reprinted with permission of the author.