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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- For several days now, I've tried to pin down a phantom of angst, a mental shadow that hovers in doubt and anxiety when I least expect it. It's there when I'm awake. It's there when I dream.

Finally, I have identified it.

It is the ghost of 1968, that newsy annus horribilis that brought us the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the ensuing inner-city riots, the televised and savage beatings of youthful anti-war protesters by Chicago police at the Democratic Convention, the revelation that American infantrymen had slaughtered more than 300 unarmed non-combatants -- women, children, babies, old men -- in a Vietnamese village before piling them in shallow pits, the crushing of liberal reforms in Czechoslovakia by half a million Soviet troops without a whimper from Washington, the capture of a U.S. naval ship and crew by North Koreans, the switch of military momentum in Vietnam with the Viet Cong's Tet Offensive, the takeover of Columbia University by left-wing students protesting the Vietnam War, the official report of a prestigious government commission that now the United States was split into two "separate and unequal" nations: black and white, rich and poor.

It took decades for Americans to put that year behind us. I reported on some of the above events. I was 26. I can remember frequently wondering where we were all headed. I am now 63. I have that same queasy feeling I had in 1968.

Whither America? Where is our country headed?

Call me a hyper-ventilating pessimist if you wish, but there are indicators. The cultural markers are there.

The current White House seems to be losing control in Iraq -- the Bush administration's equivalent of Vietnam, whether they like to hear that description or not.

Retired generals step forward on an almost weekly basis to publicly denounce the White House and Pentagon for their absence of enunciated strategy, stabilizing orders, definition of mission, command control, governing military logic and unified command in Iraq. They write scorching books and articles about it and appear on TV shows. They call for the defense secretary's resignation. That didn't happen in the Vietnam years. The White House and Pentagon continue to deny evidence of what is clearly an insurgency and blooming civil war.

American commanders in Iraq are clearly caught in a centuries-old religious conflict they have not trained for, nor of which they possess adequate knowledge to dampen. One wonders if the frothing neocons and think-tankers who ceaselessly promoted the invasion of Iraq -- or even President Bush himself -- knew the difference between a Sunni Muslim, a Shiite Muslim and a cauliflower before committing to war.

The military is in worsening shape -- and not just from casualties. Terms of renewing enlistments when they expire are now accompanied by huge bonuses -- in effect bribes to remain in harm's way. Little-reported Pentagon statistics are dire. Since the war began in 2003, divorce rates among Army officers have doubled. The Army's officer corps is painfully short-staffed. It has promoted 97 percent of its captains. A Pentagon official told "The New Yorker's" George Packer, "If you're not a convicted felon, you're being promoted to major."

Packer, a terrific reporter and writer, also sees the increasingly stark parallel between Vietnam and Iraq. In an April 10 "Letter from Iraq" in "The New Yorker," he lists three of the most evident: "A President who projects a consistently unrealistic message of success to the public; a Defense Secretary who consolidates power in his office and intimidates or ignores the uniformed military; senior generals ... who appear before congressional committees and at news conferences and solemnly confirm that they have enough troops to win."

The parallels between Vietnam and Iraq "in terms of the moral abdication of leaders," writes Packer, "are not hard to see."

You want cultural markers? Listen to the music. Music was the font of war protest in the Vietnam years. Now we have Neil Young releasing a protest CD on Iraq. Instead of the testosterone-laden "we'll put a boot up your ass" lyrics of 2003, there are more and more songs questioning government idiocy. Hardly anyone calls the Dixie Chicks traitors anymore. Meanwhile, things are rapidly falling apart at home.

President Dubya remains resolute on Iraq, but fails to address a confusing and totally broken health-care system, an economy headed for the precipice, the imminent destruction of the middle class through a favor-the-rich tax system and approbation of outrageous corporate greed, and heating-fuel and gas prices that will trigger national crisis before summer arrives. Homeowners are borrowing money just to pay off winter warming bills. Commuters already owe hundreds of dollars on their gasoline credit cards.

And yet, with serious domestic crises looming, we learn from investigative reporter nonpareil Seymour Hersh that President Dubya is instead concentrating on plans to bomb Iran if that Shiite nation neighboring Iraq continues to pursue uranium enrichment as a path to nuclear weaponry capability.

I know Seymour Hersh. He is controversial in various government strata for his habit of finding out stuff the government doesn't want you to know and then printing it.You may have your own views on the advisability of this, but Hersh is above all a careful and thorough reporter. Time and again, he has been called inaccurate and hyperbolic by those he singes, only to see his alarming reports prove true to the syllable. In "The Iran Plans" in the April 17 edition of the magazine cited above, Hersh writes that Dubya's ultimate goal in confronting Iran is "regime change."

In practical terms, that means getting rid of Iran's loose-cannon, hell-bent-on-nukes president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in much the same fashion we toppled Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

The Pentagon and White House insist they "are pursuing a diplomatic solution" in the Iranian nukes matter, but a former defense official who still handles sensitive issues for Bush told Hersh the current military planning is premised on a belief that sustained bombing of Iran's suspected nuclear-development sites "will humiliate the religious leadership and lead the public to rise up and overthrow the government."

Does this not seem similar to the moronic intelligence predictions of Iraqi reaction once we invaded their country? They were supposed to throw their hats in the air and shower us with flowers once we toppled Saddam. Riiiight. And Hersh has ample backup in his article for the view that contingency plans regarding Iran include the use of tactical nuclear weapons.

European intelligence officials and diplomats who have heard of all this told Hersh such strikes would be counterproductive, making Ahmadinejad a hero in the Muslim world, strengthening his weak political position, and would alienate not only 1.2 billion Muslims globally, but affront forever ordinary Iranians young and old who actually think well of the United States and its culture and would like to see the Stone Age leadership of the mullahs replaced through internal politics and representation.

Such an American military move might also re-energize Hezbollah, the quite efficient terrorist organization with ties to the Shiite nation of Iran that has been fairly quiet of late. As we have all learned from our current adventures in Iraq, Shiites are the majority in Iraq, and such an attack on Iran would probably trigger a military reaction from that country that included invasion of Iraq. A retired four-star general told Hersh the Iranians could take neighboring southeast Iraq and its biggest city of Basra "with ten mullahs and one sound truck."

Talk about high gasoline prices. Iran currently produces more than 4 million barrels of oil a day, and would not be beyond retaliating against oil fields in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, nations friendly to us. A barrel of crude would probably exceed $100 in price. Never mind complaining about $3 a gallon. The federal government would have to start rationing gas in that event.

So, we shall see. Frankly, I hope I am all wet about this. I hope I am proven a nervous Nelly. I hope my night terrors and bad dreams were -- as Ebenezer Scrooge once surmised -- triggered by a bad piece of undigested cheese or other inadvisable eating habits. I hope our beautiful nation and fine way of life survive.

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com April 25 2006