Tour of Duty or Deplorable Deployment?

In 1969, it took between 10 and 18 hours to get to Vietnam on the Flying Tiger contract planes. A long, numbing flight to a war with no liquor, not even a beer. The stewardesses, who were the last American women we thought we would see, served low-bidder airline meals, a little sorrowfully I thought, treating us like doomed children. Stops were made in Hawaii, where a special lounge separated us from the tourists and honeymoon couples.

At Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon, the main entry point for American troops, the first whack of reality was the heat. We walked down the stairs from the plane into the boil of the Saigon humidity, weighted by duffle bags and weapons, swaddled in fatigues and canvas boots.

This was going to be awful.

But the one thing that kept us mildly sane was the knowledge that it would last only a year. That was guaranteed. You could, you told yourself, put up with anything for a year. Three months later, especially in combat units, you weren’t so sure. Even so, it was the knowledge that every day brought you closer to deliverance from the heat and the noise and the violence and the death that kept most of us from losing it.

This week, the Pentagon informed the 3rd Infantry Division troops in Iraq that they would not be going home on the dates previously promised. In fact they will be extended in their duty “indefinitely.”

Errors of judgment and planning have been made in the Iraq operation, but I can think of no other error so grave. What this means to the average soldier, being cooked by the Iraqi summer sun under his flak jacket and helmet, is that there’s no longer any schedule against which they can hope for escape.

This Baghdad hideousness, this confusion and the damned heat will go on and on. It means, further, that the U.S. government, which acclaimed them heroes a few months back, has failed in its predictions about the war and is solving the problem by leaving them there to pay for the failure.

In Vietnam, every soldier had his short-timer calendar, carried in his plastic wallet. These curious documents, which counted 365 days like weird little advent calendars, were often humorous and sometimes ribald, drawn up by local wags with artistic talent. Every morning meant crossing off another day. And the calendars held the promise that if you could just get through however many days were left, then regular life — with families and cars and air-conditioning and cold beer — would start again. If you got down to less than three months you were termed “short,” the cartoon for which was a helmet sitting on two boots.

The Army could guarantee this one-year tour because there was a draft in place. There were always more infantrymen and clerk-typists coming along. But now, of course, there aren’t. And those on the ground in Iraq are paying for the ultimate and cleverly disguised truth about George W. Bush’s war. Nobody really wanted to fight it. Not really. We want to extend American power and smash terrorists, mostly by listening to the radio and cheering. But actually going and taking part in the miserable day-to-day work well, no thanks. Let somebody else’s kid do it.

Somebody else’s kid doesn’t want to do it. The enlistment numbers are down. They don’t want to be there for the one-a-day lottery that the casualty reports have become. They’ve seen this war on TV, and they prefer the video game. The White House has asked for help among the coalition of the willing, the Pakistanis, for example. They don’t want to go. They’ve asked among the coalition of the unwilling, Germany and India, for example. They are still unwilling. And slowly but surely the willing are being transmuted into the unwilling. So what happens now?

The Pentagon can’t extend the 3rd Infantry forever. In truth, it can’t even extend it for more than a few months without serious reaction from families, some of whom have already begun bringing this unsolvable problem to the attention of their members of Congress. Congress members do not like this question.

In the later years of the Vietnam War, the weekly casualty rate was slightly under 100 U.S. troops killed a week. Gen. William Westmoreland had thought, out loud unfortunately, that if he could get that number under the weekly highway death toll back in the States, the American people would tolerate it. In this thinking, he betrayed a military proclivity for thinking of statistics as merely numbers, not actual people. If you are surrounded by enough generals you can start thinking this way too. But normal people do not think this way. And normal people these days find even the daily toll of one or two American soldiers killed horrible.

The Pentagon has a habit of solving its problems on the backs of those least able to refuse. But the generals have their own subtle ways of making a political point. Our troops in Iraq are acutely aware that the longer they are there, the greater the chances that they will be hit by something: a bullet, a rocket grenade or a suicide bomber. Naturally, morale falls apart. The entire syndrome that wrecked the Army in Vietnam could begin again.

The Pentagon remembers Vietnam, even if the White House doesn’t. Commands are questioned, dedication to the mission falls apart, the heat bakes away the lubricant of civility between officers and men. Worse, troops get letters from wives, “When? When are you coming home? I need you ”

One or two people go crazy, and everyone realizes that they are not that far behind. Reporters sense the story has changed. When will the 3rd Infantry come home? Not in August as expected. Not in September as promised. For Christmas? Well, we can’t say. Army spokesman Richard Olsen at Ft. Stewart described it in this oblique way: “The time frame has gone away, and there is no time frame.”

This is a hideous mistake. There are no short-timers’ calendars, no end of this assignment to look forward to. Nothing you can promise the folks back home. Or yourself, for that matter. The one thing that kept people sane in Vietnam has been taken away. The time frame has gone away, the man says. Not mentioning who took it away.

Besides, as Donald Rumsfeld has told us, the Vietnam syndrome is over. This isn’t Vietnam.

He could be right. It might actually be worse.