It was 41 years ago in a place called South Vietnam where I first saw an American administration begin telling lies so often and so convincingly that officials began to believe their own propaganda.
Then, as now, they did so in an attempt to convince the American public and the world that things were going well in a new and different kind of war far from home.
At first the lies were small: about who we were fighting and where they went when the fights ended.
In President Lyndon B. Johnson's White House, the official position was that we were fighting the Viet Cong, the local South Vietnamese guerrillas. No one else was involved, and no wider war was intended. That was true for the first few months after the first American troops landed at Danang in March 1965.
But in the fall of that year, in November, in the remote Ia Drang Valley of the Central Highlands, the battalions of the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) clashed head-on with three regiments of the North Vietnamese Peoples Army.
In four days of brutal hand-to-hand fighting, 234 American soldiers died and the North Vietnamese had lost an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 killed. As the fighting waned, the North Vietnamese withdrew across the nearby border into the jungles of Cambodia.
As cables from both military and diplomatic channels flowed into LBJ's White House, someone carefully crossed out the words "North Vietnamese" and replaced them with "Viet Cong." Any mention of the enemy escaping into Cambodia was excised. It never happened.
When the American commander, Gen. William C. Westmoreland, debriefed 1st Cavalry officers at Camp Holloway near Pleiku after the battles, a battalion operations officer made the mistake of referring to radio reports that soldiers had seen the body of someone who was much larger than the North Vietnamese and wearing a different uniform. There had been speculation that this was the body of a Chinese adviser attached to the North Vietnamese. The Americans had done their best to retrieve the body, but the North Vietnamese had beaten them to it.
Westmoreland became enraged. There were NO Chinese advisers, and no one would ever mention them again. A direct order was given, and it would be obeyed.
Years later, officers who'd fought in that battle dug out the certificates that accompanied their awards of valor and found that the lie extended even to them. They'd been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross or the Silver Star or the Bronze Star with V for gallantry in combat "against the Viet Cong."
A few months later, Lt. Gen. Stanley (Swede) Larsen, who commanded the American corps in that region, was home on leave and gave a news conference at the Pentagon's request. When he was asked where the enemy had gone after the Ia Drang battles Larsen replied: Into Cambodia to rest, reinforce and refit.
Within hours, the secretary of defense, Robert S. McNamara, and the secretary of state, Dean Rusk, both gave news conferences denying everything Gen. Larsen had told the press. There were no North Vietnamese troops, and wherever they'd gone, it certainly wasn't into neutral Cambodia.
There's a moral, and a lesson, in this story from a long-ago war: Don't tell lies when you need the support of the American people for something as serious as a war. Never let the truth be the first casualty of any war. Don't build your foundation on a tissue of lies.
This is written in a week when we've learned from McClatchy Newspapers reporter Mark Brunswick in Baghdad that U.S. spokesmen, military and civilian, were able to boast that American operations in Baghdad had produced a 50 percent decrease in Iraqi casualties from sectarian violence because they'd changed how they counted the dead.
The Americans stopped counting Iraqis who were slaughtered by car bombs, mortar shells or IEDs. They were counting only those who were directly executed by the gangs of militia roaming the streets—a change they somehow had neglected to mention.
This is written in a week when the Senate Intelligence Committee made it plain, once and for all, that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had no links with al-Qaeda or other terrorist organizations—although some of our civilian leaders continue to suggest, insinuate and even baldly claim that he did.
This is written in a week when the White House, which had vehemently refused to comment on reports that terrorist detainees were being held in secret CIA prisons, suddenly announced that those prisoners had been moved to the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
This is written in a week when it should be amply clear to anyone who can read and think that there were no—none—nada—zip—weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when we invaded the country to seize them and make us all safer. A thousand American specialists wasted a year and at least a million dollars searching for even one such weapon without finding anything but a few rusted relics of Saddam's WMD programs.
Yet the administration and its agents hinted, speculated and flatly insisted that there were WMD in Iraq so often and for so long that the number of Americans who believe that lie has grown to nearly 50 percent today from 35 percent in 2005.
The results of these attempts to deceive and manipulate the public are sadly predictable. The American people are turning against the war in Iraq, though thankfully not, this time, against the troops who've been sent to fight it. The administration is so unwilling to acknowledge reality that it can't even recognize it, much less come up with plans to deal with it. And those who were our friends and allies, weary of the bogus cries of wolf about Iraq, are dismissing the cries about Iran.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Joseph L. Galloway is former senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young." Readers may write to him at: P.O. Box 399, Bayside, Texas 78340; e-mail: email@example.com.