By H. D. S. Greenway
Copyright by The Boston Globe
Published: April 24, 2007
BOSTON: When April came to Indochina in 1975, the long war of that generation was coming to a close in chaos and despair. When it came time for "option four," which meant that the only way left out of Saigon was going to be by helicopter from the U.S. Embassy, we saw American Marines furiously chopping down a tree in the chancery garden in order to make room for a landing pad.
The U.S. ambassador had not allowed them to touch the tree before then, which was symbolic to some of the head-in-the-sand attitude that refused to recognize that the war had long been lost.
Hundreds of desperate Vietnamese, who had trusted the Americans, began to gather outside the embassy begging to be let in, to be given a chance to get away.
The mood inside the embassy became despondent. Vietnamese who had served the Americans - people whose status would place them in concentration camps if left behind - were being abandoned all over town. Pathetic telephone messages kept coming in: "There are 30 of us here. Please give us instructions. Please come and get us."
Some Vietnamese who could get close to the chain fence surrounding the embassy stuck frantic notes through the wire. "I work for embassy. Please take me with you."
"Please tell Polgar I am here outside," Polgar being Thomas Polgar, CIA's Saigon station chief.
But many, perhaps most, would be left behind when the last Americans lifted away, bound for the safety of ships in the South China Sea. For a while there would be up country radio messages from Vietnamese employees and agents whom we had abandoned. But they were no longer answered, and in time they stopped.
I learned from George Packer of the New Yorker that a similar betrayal is forming out of the fog of war in Baghdad. Iraqis who threw their lot in with us, many of them interpreters, are being treated as if the United States had no responsibility for them.
Never really trusted by the Americans, despised even by Iraqi government officials and politicians who see them as American lackeys, and excommunicated from normal life outside the Green Zone for being collaborators, they risk instant death when they go home at night, and yet the Americans can find them no room to live in comparative safety inside the zone. Even when they reach other Arab countries they are denied visas and are chastised for "betraying Saddam."
When Iraqis working for the Americans asked the then ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, about immigration visas to the United States, he said: "We want the good Iraqi people to stay in the country."
"To admit that Iraqis who work with Americans need to be evacuated would blow a hole in the administration's version of the war," Packer writes in his recent New Yorker article "Betrayal." He blames the "politics of the American project in Iraq, which from the beginning has been conducted under the illusion that controlling the message mattered more than the reality."
The U.S. war in Iraq is unlikely to end as did Saigon in a frantic helo-lift from the Green Zone. It will be more controlled and gradual, I hope. But planning for those Iraqis who have risked all to work with us should be a top priority. Whether you believe that the war is already lost, or can yet be won, it is becoming clear that no matter what faction or factions come to dominate Iraq, Iraqis who worked for the Americans are not going to be regarded as heroes in their own land. If that were ever a possibility outside of Kurdish territory, it is so no longer.
There are efforts, at long last, to create special immigrant visas for U.S. Embassy employees. These efforts should be accelerated and expanded. As a former American Aid official in Fallujah, Kirk Johnson, wrote: "Despite the bubble we built around our 'Emerald City' in Baghdad, any Iraqi . . . works for the Americans at great risk." Working for the embassy can be a "death sentence" if the word gets out.
When Packer went to the Green Zone to interview sources on this issue, he wrote that "embassy officials struck me as decent, overworked people, yet I left the interview with a feeling of shame."
I can sympathize. Three decades later, I have never forgotten that hurried April departure from the embassy in Saigon, and those we left behind. The shame of that day is with me still.
H. D. S. Greenway's column appears regularly in The Boston Globe.