Colombian Drug War Recalls Mistakes of Vietnam 

Colombian Drug War Recalls Mistakes of Vietnam 
Posted by FoM on February 22, 2000 at 10:36:15 PT
By John Young, Editor of Waco Tribune-Herald
Source: Arizona Morning Star
You could almost hear the choppers of Saigon. President Clinton was authorizing a $1.6 billion package to combat drugs in Colombia. It's not much in war terms. Compare it to the $26.3 billion Lyndon Johnson asked for the war effort in Southeast Asia in 1968. But it compares favorably with the $125 million sought in 1964 for efforts in Vietnam. Johnson soon realized it was not enough. 
He and a pliant Congress were committing our nation to a war on someone else's turf, against an impulse as much as an army. The impulse was hard for Americans to hack: Marxism as self-betterment. Yes, and reefer will make you Einstein. But after a war that stretched over three decades, the West came to the conclusion that short of going nuclear, there was no defeating a popular impulse in Southeast Asia with military might. And half the battle was at home. Washington was losing that as well. The American drug war has a home front and a foreign theater, too. On neither front are we winning. Vietnam was a tortuous groping through alien lands. But in complexity and intractability, the drug war makes that war look like red coats vs. blue coats, wide-open knoll, at 40 paces. In Vietnam we believed we could bomb the enemy to the peace table. In the drug war we've come to believe that we can incarcerate the enemy into compliance. These days you rub your eyes at the official assessments. Was that Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey speaking, or was it Robert McNamara? McGeorge Bundy? To combat the foe in Southeast Asia we built whole cities: fully contained planned residential communities. We called them military bases. Now we do the same for the drug war. We call them prisons. America now has over 2 million people in prison, a city the size of Dallas. Of that, roughly half are in on drug charges, a city the size of Fort Worth. What a human toll - not just the nickel-and-dime users wasting away on obscene federal mandatory minimums. Think of children and families, the geometry of loss that extends out into infinity with dysfunction and more crime to come, those fatherless children society bemoans. Here's the real tragedy, though. Of the billions we spend on our drug war, our only truly effective weapon - treatment to get people straight - commands only a third of the federal drug budget. Treatment is something with the same infinite geometry - people freed of the dope that possesses their brains, free to be self-sufficient and productive. And yet we spend money on military adventures overseas. Even McCaffrey, a military man, has come to admit the general folly of this. Education is something that works, too, but we know some people won't listen, even as the clang of cellblock doors sounds for others in the drug war. Some day the drug war will end, after countless more lives have been trashed and lost at the dictum of leaders who admit to doing what the prisoners have done, just not getting caught at it. Some day we'll look back at the decades of waste and misery and admit our national mistake. We'll reduce, rather than lengthen, sentences. We'll turn to treating drug abuse as a health problem. We might even do what pushers fear most: take away their profit by regulating some drugs that are illegal now. We know drugs kill and debilitate. But is today's lock-'em-up-forever solution any more salutary to the nation's health? As Anthony Lewis wrote recently, there's never a shift in policy about the drug war because any shift would make our leaders ``vulnerable to a charge that they are `soft on crime.' '' In the '60s, any shift in policy made one vulnerable to the charge of being ``soft on communism.'' There are still lives to lose before we find our way back from the jungle. John Young is opinion page editor of the Waco (Texas) Tribune-Herald. The Arizona Daily Star Online - Tuesday, 22 February 2000 Related Article:GOP Worry Colombia Could Become Another Vietnam
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