Vietnam. So long ago yet so vivid still in the minds of so many. Long enough ago that the history of the conflict is now taught in high schools and colleges – all too often by young men and women too young to have served there if – in fact – they served at all.

Vietnam. A name conjured up now whenever somebody wants to question what is happening in Iraq. Another Vietnam, they say. Another debacle for America.

Had lunch the other day with an old friend, a career soldier just back from Iraq. He missed Vietnam. Too young. He used to say he was glad. Vietnam raised too many questions for someone who wanted to make the military his life.

He survived other conflicts. Somalia. Lebanon, Grenada, Desert Storm. After Desert Storm, he marched down the streets of Washington to cheers, a hero’s welcome that had eluded American military men and women since World War II.

My father was “Class of ’45,” veteran of World War II, mustered out after the war ended. He came home to cheers, parades and a grateful nation. It didn’t start out that way. Even with the national horror over Pearl Harbor, some doubted the wisdom of entering the war. When American soldiers fell in the first battle in North Africa, Winston Churchill called our military “the unqualified leading the untrained into the unknown for the ungrateful.”

Four years later, Churchill – and the rest of the world – held a much higher opinion of American capabilities in war. The nation that had never lost a war stood proud.

Then came Korea. No victory there. Just a truce – of sorts – and more questions than answers.

Then Vietnam.

“I missed Vietnam,” my friend said at lunch. “I thought about retiring after Desert Storm. I should have.”

I couldn’t help but notice how much older he looked. More lines in the face. More gray in the hair. More emptiness behind the eyes.

Was it that bad? I had to ask.

“Bad,” he said. “Classic FUBAR.”

In military terms, FUBAR is the worst-case scenario. Most military operations start out as SNAFU (Situation Normal, All Fucked Up). If things get worse, they graduate to TACFU (Totally And Completely Fucked Up). When things get really bad, they reach FUBAR (Fucked Up Beyond All Repair).

“A mission without a goal,” he said. “An engagement without rules. The intel was pure FUBAR. No exit strategy. We’re going to be there for a long, long time. Maybe people are right. Maybe it is another Vietnam.”

Vietnam was 10 years, 58,325 dead and many more left scarred permanently. More Americans died in one day of battle in Vietnam than the total casualty count of the Iraq war.

“So far,” he said. “We were in Vietnam for 10 years.”

The news out of Iraq usually brings reports of more American deaths at the hands of Saddam loyalists who use snipers, ambushes and car bombs to continue a war that President George W. Bush says ended months ago. Those who support the Bush administration say the press is exaggerating the problems in Iraq.

“No,” my friend said. “They’re not. The situation is worse. Far worse.”

So why not speak out? Won’t people listen to a career soldier?

“Not this career soldier. I want to get out on my own terms, with my rank and pension intact. My family’s future is more important. I’m no fool.”

From the restaurant window we could see the Pentagon, including the section taken out by a hijacked airliner on September 11, 2001.

“I’ve been a professional soldier most of my adult life,” he said. “I’ve been proud to serve my country even when I thought we might be wrong. But I’m not proud now. And that makes me want to puke.”

As we walked back to our cars, I thought about a day more than 30 years earlier. A young man returning home from war walked through an airport terminal in Los Angeles, back on American soil after too long away.

An older man approached and asked:  “You been in Vietnam son?”

“Yes sir, I have. Just got home.”

Tears welled up in the old man’s eyes. He spat in the young man’s face and walked away.

As my friend, a no-longer-proud career soldier, walked away to his car, I fought back my own tears.

Good morning Vietnam.

(My apologies to my friend Adrian Cronauer for the use of his signature sign-on during his tour with Armed Forces Radio – Saigon. We’ve known each other for more than 30 years and often debate — and disagree on — not only Vietnam but the war in Iraq.)