Left in Hell

"They were careless people...they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made...."

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

The oil, for one thing, may serve to keep our attention on Iraq long enough to midwife a stable democracy, no matter how hard it is or how long it takes. But recent history is not encouraging, and neither is the history of the United States.

Just for openers, our government seems to have already sold out the Afghans. And never has the handwriting been so bold upon the wall as it is in Afghanistan. When we took it over, our president made a great many promises to stand by the people of that poor and barbarous nation. Bush brought Hamid Karzai, our handpicked president of Afghanistan, to witness the State of the Union speech and be our new best friend.

Now a year later the Afghan army and the Afghan cops are deserting in droves, because they haven't been paid for months. The warlords have retaken control in their areas, the poppy crop is thriving, and we can soon expect a new surge of cheap heroin on our streets. The Taliban is reorganizing, and al-Qaeda is reforming in the mountains. In short, we are seeing restoration of the status quo ante.

Why is this happening? Well, because when the Bush Administration sent its 2003 budget request to Congress, Afghanistan just, sort of, well...slipped its mind. And here is what is most emblematic of the "vast carelessness" of a rich nation; there is no outcry about this in the press. Not even the Democrats seem to have noticed.

Bear in mind that the mess we cleaned up in Afghanistan in 2002 was the result of abandoning Afghanistan after we helped them defeat the Soviets in the '80s. So it's clear that a new crisis will arise to confront us there, because it has happened before, in the living memory of every decision-maker in the American government, in journalism, in the business community. And it's happening all but unnoticed.

Nor is it as though this was a recent thing, that we have a historical record of standing by our friends, even when we don't need them anymore. Andrew Jackson had been an ally of the Cherokee in wars against the Creeks. But he had no hesitance about stealing their lands, uprooting their entire culture, and shipping them to Oklahoma during a freezing winter that killed a quarter of them.One of my favorite novels, as a young man, was A Distant Trumpet by Paul Horgan. It was later made into a fairly horrible movie with the execrable Tab Hunter -- not so much cast as hurled at the role of the hero. The book and movie were the story of the young cavalry lieutenant who finally got Geronimo and of his great friendship with the Apache scout who made that famous victory possible.

As soon as the renegade Apaches were rounded up and sent to die in concentration camps in Florida, places for which their previous desert existence had not prepared them, the scouts who had fought for and with the U.S. Cavalry were packed up and sent to the same place. And the same fate.

The hero, a young cavalry lieutenant, returned the Medal of Honor he received for capturing Geronimo and resigned in shame and grief from the army he loved.

When I joined the Green Berets in 1962 there was a colonel on the faculty of the school who was a hopeless drunk. He managed to successfully get through most workdays. He looked a little rocky, but he did his job. But as soon as the 5:00 whistle sounded he started knocking them back. My fellow student lieutenants laughed at him. It was explained to us that we shouldn't be so judgmental, that he had never been the same since 1959 when the U.S. abandoned the Tibetan guerrillas he had trained, leaving them to the mercies of the advancing Red Chinese hordes.

My fellow lieutenants and I were not much impressed with that story. We felt he should have been made of sterner stuff.

Soon enough we found ourselves in Vietnam. Many of us worked with a people called the Montagnards. They were, and are, a collection of 31 tribes living in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. They are a Malayo-Polynesian people. They don't look like the Vietnamese, and their culture is nothing like that of Vietnam.

We fought alongside them from 1962 until 1973. We loved them. They were a sturdy, reliable people. They were brave, and many of them saved many of our lives. In the time we were with them they changed from a Stone Age people into a modern fighting force, fully capable of defeating the best that the North Vietnamese could throw at them. Over that decade half the Montagnard men of military age died in our service. This fact has not escaped the North Vietnamese. They have stolen the lands of the Montagnards and done everything in their power to obliterate their culture.

In a previous column, I mentioned one of my intelligence agents, who had, pretty much single-handedly, captured a VC civil administrator, actually the most important prisoner our side had captured in the preceding two years. He was more than an intelligence agent; he was a good friend: a sweet, dour, very intelligent man named Nay Luette. By the time Saigon fell he had risen to be the Minister of Ethnic Minorities in the South Vietnamese government. That certainly made an impression on his captors at the "re-education camp." According to other Montagnards, the camp commandant said, "If this moi has such a big brain, we should look at it." They did. They took off the top of his skull to look at his brain. He was alive and conscious when they started. Another friend, Y Jut Buonto, now a city planner in Seattle, had made a name for himself as an intelligence agent and commando leader working for the CIA. He escaped, but the North Vietnamese were not to be cheated of their revenge. They made his mother dig her own grave and buried her alive in it. Want more? I got a million of 'em.

When the Americans left, Luette offered to start a guerrilla movement in our behalf. He knew that without American support the movement would fail. Our embassy, without actually promising support, gave the impression that it would be forthcoming. There are no weasel words in the Montagnard languages. If somebody nods and smiles when you ask a yes or no question, that means yes. The Montagnards fought on for a decade. Y Tlur Eban, one of their guerrilla commanders, told me, "We won every battle and came out of every one worse off than before." Their weapons broke; they ran out of ammo. Their radios broke down. But they couldn't quit because they were wanted men. Four thousand of them set out across Cambodia for Thailand, to find the Americans. Four years later 200 of them arrived and were immediately clapped into a refugee camp to rot.

My friend, the late Don Scott, who had run a civilian hospital in Vietnam for an outfit called Project Concern, spent two years of his life and a quarter of a million dollars of his own money to get them to the U.S. I took a couple of years off to help him. A lot of folks, mostly former Special Forces, jumped in to help.

It's still going on. Carl Regan, at 21 the youngest captain in the U.S. Army, spent about that much time and money to ramrod a movement to get another thousand Montagnards to the U.S. last year. All told there are now more than 8000 Montagnards here. None are on welfare; most work two or three jobs. When we found them they wore loincloths and hunted with crossbows. There are now three or four Montagnard millionaires (one says his favorite English word is "interest"), some Ph.D.s, and one published author.I'm proud of what the Americans who fought with them have done, not so proud of what the government we both fought for has done.

In 1968 there were 2,000,000 Montagnards in Vietnam, and now there are 750,000 and dropping. They are in hell. We left them in hell.

Afghanistan is swiftly becoming another kind of hell.

As for Iraq, we shall soon know if we're birthin' this baby, or if we were just jerking off.

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