The worsening Iraqi refugee crisis has evoked some poignant memories of a muggy May morning 32 years ago at a makeshift refugee camp at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. Military personnel like me and others were there to welcome South Vietnamese refugees to the States. An article I wrote at the time describing my experience said: “The character of a nation is reflected in the faces of these volunteers.”
The “volunteers” (social workers, housewives, college students, etc.) were watching a small, fragile old woman break down in tears as she stepped off the bus. Next, an exhausted young mother holding a tiny baby was followed off the bus by six more small children — the father conspicuously missing. And so it went. Last, a young helicopter pilot stepped off with just the clothes on his back, happy to be alive.
That morning in 1975 was only a few weeks after the fall of Saigon, an event that precipitated a chaotic helicopter evacuation out of Vietnam. The U.S. military airlifted 6,000 desperate South Vietnamese along with about 1,000 Americans to aircraft carriers offshore. The images of crying Vietnamese women, babies in their arms, desperately reaching out to dangerously overloaded helicopters are still with us. Over the next eight months, more than 125,000 Vietnamese were warmly greeted at “Operation New Arrivals” camps like the one at Eglin.
America and Americans opened up their hearts and arms to this “first wave” of Vietnamese refugees. (Hundreds of thousands additional Vietnamese would be given refuge in our country during the next 10 years.) Within a few months the refugees were resettled in communities throughout the U.S. Thousands were graciously welcomed by Americans into their own homes; thousands more were “sponsored” by social and welfare organizations and provided with jobs. The vast majority would become hard-working, productive, loyal and grateful residents of our country.
What does Vietnam have to do with the ongoing Iraqi refugee crisis? A great deal, I believe. More than 2 million Iraqis have fled the carnage in Iraq while, as recently reported in Stars and Stripes, another 2.3 million Iraqis — most women and children — have been displaced internally by the sectarian fighting. They live in squalid conditions and in virtual imprisonment in their own country. The plight of the Iraqis who have fled abroad, mostly to Syria and Jordan, is not much better. Thousands flee their country every month, making this the largest diaspora in the Middle East since 1948.
Our government has been singularly blase and slow in responding to the refugee crisis. President Bush recently bemoaned the fate of thousands of Vietnamese refugees at the end of that war. But now that he has the opportunity (and responsibility) to address the Iraqi humanitarian crisis, he lacks the political will and does little more than provide money for refugee assistance.
Since the war in Iraq started more than four years ago, the U.S. has admitted fewer than 3,000 Iraqi refugees. Earlier this year, under pressure from the United Nations and others, the State Department promised to allow 7,000 Iraqi refugees to enter the U.S. this year. To date, the U.S. has fallen far short of that goal. As in Vietnam, these are men and women who risked their lives by working with U.S. military and government officials, who believed our promises, and who now find themselves the targets of terrorists, insurgents and militia groups.
What if Iraq collapses and millions more Iraqis flee? Will we welcome hundreds of thousands of them as we welcomed the South Vietnamese? Doesn’t the U.S. as an invading and occupying nation bear some responsibility for the crisis? Or, do we agree with former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton’s position that “our obligation was to give [Iraqi refugees] new institutions and provide security” and that we don’t “have an obligation to compensate [Iraqis] for the hardships of war”?
How have Sept. 11 and the war on terror changed our attitudes toward Arabs and Muslims? What are our security concerns when it comes to such refugees? The administration claims, and perhaps rightly so, that it has to be careful to weed out potential terrorists when processing the refugees. They also claim that admitting large numbers of Iraqis would make their return to Iraq more difficult when Iraq is finally “liberated."
Almost 4,000 of our troops have sacrificed their lives to, as we are told, give Iraqis some measure of security, liberty and democracy. But are these very same Iraqis not “good enough” to be let into our country?
Americans must address these questions and issues quickly and frankly. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi men, women and children anxiously await our answers, answers that will reflect and perhaps redefine “the character of a nation.”
Maj. Dorian de Wind (retired) served in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War, but was not assigned to combat duty. He lives in Austin, Texas, and has had articles published in The Austin American-Statesman, among other publications. He wrote this column for Stars and Stripes.