Last Christmas, I went back to a village where I had fought 35 years ago. It is 400 miles north of Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City. The North Vietnamese had also changed the name of the village – to show who had won the war. A solitary Marine squad had fought in that village, living among 6,000 Vietnamese. In 1966, fifteen Americans walked in; 485 days later, eight walked out. More Americans died in the rice paddies around a forgotten place call Chulai than in all of Desert Storm. And for what?
In the village, I visited our old fort, now a kindergarten, and prowled around the moss-covered stone foundations, kicking up old memories. When I walked back out to the paddy dike, I was surrounded by smiling villagers. An old farmer (my age) peered at me and said: “Welcome back, Dai Uy.” A third of a century later, they remembered me, a young captain from decades earlier. They asked by name about the other Marines who had gone home those many years ago and led me through the trails to a palm tree overlooking a bright green paddy. There they showed me a rough marble marker – their memorial to the seven Marines who had lived in that village for a year and a half and who had not walked out.
In the larger geopolitical scheme of things, does the fondness of those villagers for Americans known long ago mean anything? Possibly. It’s fashionable now to say Vietnam was a “bad” war, where even children threw grenades, forcing American soldiers like to do terrible things. It was a country unworthy of our sacrifice. Those who avoided or protested service argued that it was better not to serve. While poll after poll shows that the Vietnam veterans are proud they served, their collective judgment has been ignored by a media which has labeled the war as unworthy.
The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw of NBC News became a best selling book by depicting how ordinary and famous Americans united to fight World War II. As the success of Brokaw’s book attests, winning casts a long shadow; we justly praised ourselves for our efforts in the 1940s. Losing has the opposite effect. No such book will emerge about Vietnam.
The Greatest Generation also were the leaders who sent the next generation into Vietnam. Those same leaders eventually lost heart, abandoned the South Vietnamese people, and transferred to them the blame for failure. Aesop wrote about the fox who, failing to snatch the grapes from the vine, declared them sour. We acted the same way. As a nation, we declared we would help the South Vietnamese defend themselves against the communists directed from North Vietnam and aided by China and the Soviet Union. When the price became too high, many of the same leaders from the Greatest Generation declared the South Vietnamese no longer deserving of our sacrifices. Sometimes we’re not the greatest.
Today, three myths distort the American role in the war in Vietnam. The first myth is that we were defeated on the battlefield. Actually, all American combat forces had withdrawn years before Saigon fell. After their withdrawal, North Vietnam invaded in 1972 and was driven back by South Vietnamese ground forces and US airpower. In recent movies such as We Were Soldiers Once and Young, North Vietnamese willpower is portrayed as implacable and unstoppable.
This is rubbish. As the tragedy of World War I demonstrated, every nation has a breaking point. Three times we had the North Vietnamese on the ropes, and each time it was policy fickleness in Washington D.C. which persuaded them to continue. In the second invasion in 1975, North Vietnam employed Chinese artillery pieces and Soviet-built tanks. We refused to bomb those targets and instead slashed our aid. At the end, some South Vietnamese soldiers were down to one grenade a day.
The second myth is that of moral equivalency – depicting antiwar protestors defying American authorities as being as courageous as the American soldiers fighting the North Vietnamese. After all, the protestors had Woodstock, where it was difficult singing and making love in the rain; the soldiers had the jungles, slogging through the heat and mud, losing 50,000 dead. Some who avoided fighting claimed they were protesting for the sake of those who were fighting. Yet those who fought are proud they did so and in the main saw the protestors as a reason why the North Vietnamese continued to fight. Thanks to the press, we remember the protestors more fondly than we do those who fought. As a nation, we ignored – and often scorned – our servicemen on their return from Vietnam.
Vietnam is depicted as more brutal than World War II. The actions of a few who shot civilians, such as former Senator Bob Kerrey, have received front-page coverage, with the spin angle being that “the war made me do it”. The ‘war’ corrupted American values and decency. The opposite was actually the case. We inflicted less damage on the civilian population in Vietnam than we did in France and Germany. Our soldiers in Vietnam fought as valiantly and as humanely as did the Greatest Generation in World War II.
The third myth is that losing makes little difference. But losing did affect our self-confidence and to this day some countries are wrongly emboldened, believing we can be beaten on battlefield. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, American foreign policy manifested serious dyspepsia. In supplicant fashion, we courted détente – “can’t we all just get along?” – with a supposedly stronger Soviet Union and we permitted a rabble to seize our embassy in Iran. Only gradually did we recover, electing President Reagan, rebuilding our military, challenging the Soviet Union and abetting in its demise.
The historian Stephen Ambrose has observed that, of all the European nations, American GIs in World War II liked best the Germans, against whom they had fought. Similarly, South Vietnamese widely welcome and genuinely like Americans, though they have nothing to thank us for. The septuagenarians in Hanoi control the economic, religious, social, travel, educational, professional and personal freedoms of every Vietnamese. One of the few remaining Bolshevik communist regimes, the dictators in Hanoi memorialize long-ago battles, yet they cannot chart a course into the future.
So Vietnam is mired in a bleak past, while America is the beacon for a shining future. We recovered our geopolitical self-confidence and our martial prowess; for millions of people in Southeast Asia, there was no recovery. That is a tragedy. The South Vietnamese have grace, culture and ambition. Given the freedom to pursue their own opportunities, they would prosper. Some day the yoke will be lifted from the Vietnamese people. But we should have no illusions about the repressive nature of the current regime. Freedom did not flourish when the North Vietnamese took control.
In 1953 when we were fighting a limited war in South Korea, that country was not a model of enlightened democracy. Today South Korea is a thriving democracy, where we still have stationed 25,000 American soldiers to deter an impoverished, hostile North Korea. To our credit, we have stayed the course there.
In contrast, we tired of the limited war in South Vietnam; the war simply went on too long. That we stopped fighting and withdrew most of our aid is understandable if not laudable. In Korea and in Vietnam, we chose two different courses. Today, South Korea’s future is bright and South Vietnam’s future is bleak. That cannot be changed. But we should not let myths turn us into Aesop’s fox and blame the grapes. The day Saigon fell, the Secretary of Defense, James Schlesinger, sent a message to our armed forces.
It read in part: “Our involvement was intended to assist a small nation to preserve its independence…You have done all that was asked of you…You are entitled to the nation’s respect, admiration and gratitude.”
That is the proper, elliptical epitaph to the Vietnam War.