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Afghan war is not another Vietnam

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
  • Ruben Navarrette Jr.: Value of the military was shown in Osama bin Laden mission
  • He says some on the left criticize Obama for continuing Bush national security policies
  • If critics had their way, troops would've been pulled before bin Laden found, he says
  • Navarrette: War is sometimes needed to serve a greater good

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a CNN.COM contributor, a nationally syndicated columnist and an NPR commentator.

San Diego (CNN) -- For most people, war is a headline in a newspaper or a video on television. But when you live in this city, it's a fact of life.

Up the road at Camp Pendleton, you'll find the members of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, a group of warriors that attracts trouble the way honey attracts bears.

The battalion -- which has a proud history that includes some of the most storied battles the Marine Corps has ever fought, including Guadalcanal in World War II -- has paid an especially high price for its valiant service in Afghanistan. The battalion tends to draw some of the toughest fights. And, according to Defense Security Robert Gates, it suffered more casualties than any other battalion in the 10-year history of the war.

During one seven-month period in which the battalion was stationed near the town of Sangin in Helmand province, these Marines encountered more than 1,000 insurgent bombs.

Just another day at the office.

About an hour away from Camp Pendleton, you'll find the island of Coronado where Navy SEALs train.

Now the men and women in the armed services will likely get a boost from the best news they've had in a while: the killing of Osama bin Laden by SEALs at a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Elsewhere on the spectrum, however, the same event presents something of a moral quandary for those who make up the "professional left."

Can someone be anti-war and believe that the United States is unlawfully "occupying" Afghanistan and should leave immediately, and still be satisfied or even pleased that bin Laden is dead? Do those on the left now consider it possible that sometimes war is necessary to bring criminals to justice and prevent future loss of life?

The phrase "the professional left" comes courtesy of former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. During an interview in August with The Hill newspaper, Gibbs lashed out at hard-core liberal naysayers whom he said would always consider anything President Barack Obama did as not good enough and part of a lurch to the right. In a memorable line from the interview, Gibbs unloaded on the lefties for not being more appreciative of Obama.

"I hear these people saying he's like George Bush," Gibbs said. "Those people ought to be drug-tested."

Now, ironically, after the killing of bin Laden, it is Republicans who accuse Obama of being like George W. Bush by preserving many of the anti-terror policies that provoked the ire of civil libertarians. It was some of these tactics, Republicans claim, that helped provide the intelligence leads that ultimately resulted in the killing of bin Laden.

If that's true, it won't sit well with the folks on the professional left. They have a lot invested in the narrative that they built over the eight years of a Republican administration that liberal bloggers referred to as "the Bush crime family," invading countries and violating individuals' human rights and civil liberties. What are the lefties to think now that an administration they helped put in power seems to be Xeroxing Bush's anti-terror policies?

Maybe they should think that the world isn't as simple as they've made it out to be and that sometimes governments have to do unsavory things to rid the world of unsavory characters.

Speaking of making the world out to be simple, for those on the professional left who are part of the 70 million-strong baby boom generation, why must every foreign military conflict always be compared to the Vietnam War? Whether U.S. troops are on foreign soil for a week, a month or five years, you're bound to hear the obligatory warnings that America is ensnared in a "quagmire."

Right on cue, a few weeks ago, Howard Dean, the 62-year-old former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, urged Obama to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan -- the very place the SEAL team that killed bin Laden is stationed -- because the war was "unwinnable." After all, Dean said, the Vietnam War "showed us we shouldn't prop up corrupt governments and that's what we've got in Afghanistan."

Luckily, Obama did what most Americans do with Dean: He ignored him. But if Dean and others on the anti-war left had their way, U.S. troops would have been pulled out of the region before they took out bin Laden.

Dean's ridiculous invoking of Vietnam reminded me how grateful I am to have come of age after the fall of Saigon. I was born in 1967, about six months before the Tet Offensive -- the bloody battle in January 1968 that historians say changed the course of the war.

My cohorts in Generation X had other traumas -- getting our first civics lesson when Watergate interrupted the cartoon hour, the Iranian hostage crisis, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the Oklahoma City bombing, and, of course, the attacks of September 11.

But at least we don't have to carry around the psychological baggage of Vietnam. We get to keep an open mind to the possibility that sometimes U.S. military action is necessary to serve a greater good -- stopping a genocide, liberating a people, toppling a tyrant, or, as we saw most recently, hunting down and killing a terrorist leader and mass murderer.

Just another day at the office.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.

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