Saturday, June 10, 2017

A Vietnam veteran looks back


It’s hard to believe that 50 years ago I was a 19-year-old kid in Vietnam sitting on a mountaintop near the Cambodian border in the forests west of Pleiku trying to locate equally young North Vietnamese radio operators with a piece of WWII RDF equipment I’d been told was obsolete...

As I’m wont to do these days, I like to ask anyone who expresses anything positive about the war, can you tell me anything — anything! — that the Vietnamese did against us here in the United States? Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh guerrillas were our ally in World War Two against the Japanese who had driven the colonial French army into its barracks as the French government collapsed and collaborated in Europe. 

Terrorist acts? Not a hint. Well, they were communists, weren’t they? Yes, but they also quoted the US Declaration of Independence at the end of WWII, hoping the US would support their liberation from French colonialism. It was not to be; we supported French re-colonization, which led to 30 years of terrible war on the Vietnamese. And a US retreat based on the war’s ultimate immorality...

When I came home from Vietnam, I submerged and began haunting used bookstores, reading things like The Tale of Kieu and books like Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall and his other books on the French war against the Vietnamese and the insidious transition to the American war. Slowly, I began to understand what I’d been floundering around in in my charmed youth. I began to feel a sense of mission to tell this story, which to this day is like pissing up a pole in our mainstream American culture...

While I have zero trauma from my Vietnam experience, as you may have noticed I have a pretty bad attitude about the military and the war itself. I also have a whopping case of survival guilt. One, because I made it home without a scratch. And two, because I had it so easy. 

My thinking now is all wrapped up in atoning for what I’d call my moral cluelessness at the time. Most Americans not active in the antiwar movement were guilty of this moral cluelessness during the war and many still are guilty of it. It’s a failure — more a willful refusal — to recognize the tremendous suffering we caused the Vietnamese. We obsess on our own losses and our own suffering, our 58,000 dead on the wall in Washington. Not that we should not honor and mourn these dead; it’s that the Vietnamese lost so many more and suffered so much more than we did. 

And when distilled down to its essence, the war really makes little sense except as an expression of Cold War hysteria. We talk about “lessons” learned that never seem to really get at what should have been learned. Few dwell on the fact we slaughtered somewhere between two and three million Vietnamese and Indochinese people. And that’s not counting the immense destruction of infrastructure and upheavals in family life and the legacy of Agent Orange in the ecosystem and a host of other areas of suffering...(emphasis added)

The historian Mark Moyar recently suggested in an essay in The New York Times series Vietnam 1967 that the Vietnam War was “winnable” — if only we had done this or that differently. To me, that kind of what-if, alternative history is an utter waste of time that amounts to fiction like Phillip K. Dick’s famous novel The Man in The High Castle, an alternative history that imagines the Nazis winning World War Two. 

Rambo was that kind of alternative history as pop cinema entertainment. A malaise-ridden nation was presented with the macho Hollywood hero Sylvester Stallone — a man who spent the Vietnam War teaching in a girls school in Switzerland — giving us his trademark sneer all decked out in greased-up pectoral muscles. Brandishing a huge Bowie knife and hand-held M60, John Rambo did what the United States Army, the Marine Corps, the Navy and Air Force could not do. He emotionally won the Vietnam War inside a darkened theater inside our hermetically-sealed minds...

The Vietnamese beat us fair and square. They didn’t beat us in the capacity for mass, hi-tech slaughter; there’s no question we could have “won” if life was only about the ability to kill people by the thousands or millions. They beat us on moral grounds. They were right; we were wrong. As Ho Chi Minh reportedly said: “We can lose longer than you can win.” 

Or another famous line told to Robert McNamara by a Vietnamese diplomat in the 1990s: “We knew you would eventually leave. You Americans could leave; we lived here and we could not leave.” Or as Ward Just put it in a great little book written in 1968 called To What End: Report From Vietnam: “Of course the war was unwinnable. It was useless to fight the Vietnamese. They would have fought for a thousand years”...

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