(Dateline: Keno, Oregon, Memorial Day, 2017) These days the Vietnam War seldom comes up in casual conversation. Because of my interest in the era and the war I was encouraged to see the New York Times essay by Dr. Mark Moyar discussing whether the Vietnam War was winnable and why we should care.
In years past, articles and books have been written about the Vietnam War. Because history is a subject to learn to avoid future mistakes, understanding the lessons of past action is important. Continuing consideration is necessary because perspectives change and additional information becomes available.
From my examination, I have observed a set of common, unexamined truths about the Vietnam War serve as the foundation for public understanding. They have not been useful for America or many of its people. These truths have failed to fully consider the lessons of the struggle outside of a “correct history” recital based upon ideological, normative foundations.
As a result, our youth have struggled, often without the opportunities, guidance, and order they need. Our nation has not demonstrated the wisdom from the lessons of Vietnam because it has variously failed to engage or has over-engaged in foreign conflict and the cultural expectation of national and community duty has been taken from a broad segment of our countrymen. We have instilled as a vexing aspect of our political culture a “permanent schism”. The American standards of worth since the Vietnam War has moved significantly from national and community service to branding and consuming. We give lip service to the veterans, but largely we do not honor them by emulating their service.
THE STANDARD NARRATIVE & OTHER VIEWS
Our era encourages an amnesia regarding the Vietnam War. Often, we actively prescribe our “correct” history and actively rewrite it to reflect specific normative prerequisites. These prerequisites have advanced some cultural groups to great wealth or to professional status by rejecting national military service in the 1960s and 1970s.
Vietnam era soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines have been the subject of some analysis. The literature defines the war as being fought by “working class” soldiers and not a cross section of our population. The discussion is not unified and the conclusions are varied – please see Christian G. Appy’s Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers in Vietnam,
or in abstract summary
“Correct history” discourages a variety of opinion. A more open history without the assurance of a single narrative will more likely lead us to effective conclusions. The back and forth, active dialectic and open, respectful dialogue is key to this analysis.
There is a standard narrative I often hear. The good guys won both in Asia and here in the United States. I propose by declaring victory and then discounting the lessons of a complex engagement in America and in Southeast Asia, the United States has divided its culture increasingly and has waged foreign wars inconsistent with the lessons of Vietnam War history. I believe, we are continually paying a price in blood and treasure and are not addressing cultural divisions that were increasingly perceptible after Vietnam. This is exactly what Dr. Moyar refers to in his NYT opinion piece, though there is much disagreement to Dr. Moyar’s narrative in the public comments submitted.
Lewis Sorley prepared another history of the war entitled A Better War. This analysis addresses the war’s legacy in its concluding remarks:
While the costs to the United States were modest compared with those suffered by the Vietnamese, they were substantial nonetheless. There were, to begin with, more than 58,000 (American) lives lost, more than 47,000 of them due to enemy action. There was the money expended, perhaps not very significant in the long run, but still a lot of money – $150 billion by one estimate. And there as the splintering of the social compact in American society, already under great stress for other reasons and not easily, if at all, put back together again. Finally, there was the unalterable alienation of those who served from those who did not and would not, a permanent schism derived from absolutely incommensurable interests and values. (Sorely, A Better War, pp 383-384)
PREFACE TO PERMANENT SCHISM
This “permanent schism” has been carried forward as the affliction of the American generation who fought the war. The Vietnam War era was indelible and defining in my life. I grew up on a cotton and horse farm in Central California. My background was working class, though my Mother was a teacher and was committed to her sons improving their education and career prospects. When I graduated from San Jose State College in 1969, I was not a partisan for or against the war. I had been admitted to several law schools, but my draft board advised that my notice to report would be coming soon and no deferments were available for graduate or law school.
I decided to manage my fate and joined the United States Air Force. This was done in the context of a family that expected their sons to perform military duty. My father was a veteran of World War II and my brother was active duty in the Army. In due course, I ended up in Vietnam as a “Palace Dog” serving as an English Language Instructor to the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) by day and a Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) Defense Force member on some nights. Though I never participated in a fire-fight or was in search-and-destroy combat, I carried an M-16 every work day as we boarded a bus and went outside the MACV Annex fence and down the road to the VNAF language school. I never had to fire the weapon a single time in Vietnam though my finger was on the trigger several times.
At night, small arms fire was common beyond the Annex fence. We had very occasional incoming mortar rounds and were gassed on one occasion. The enemy did infiltrate and place explosives on some of the officer and senior NCO quarters nearby in our compound. We were ordered to the defense and walked sentry duty, locked and loaded, along the perimeter fence the following evening. Fortunately, the enemy did not attempt to infiltrate that night.
Thinking about it now, the service was more inconvenient than dangerous. The role of language instructors provided opportunities to engage with my VNAF students. In many cases, their circumstances were dangerous, and their prospects forlorn. Some had survived years of combat as Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) officers while others were combat wounded from previous service as helicopter pilots.
Engaging with the students, their thoughts were how to overcome their desultory prospects. This was in 1970-71, so though they did not know, they had years to go before the collapse of the South Vietnam regime. In the end, the victors from the North did not embrace the former southern soldiers and airmen. Many southern Vietnamese were executed and others were held in concentration camps for many years. America had fled from its commitment to South Vietnam and its soldiers and airmen, never to look back. I have wondered often what happened to my students. How many had lived and, if so, what were their lives now? I do not know how to answer this question, though many years have past, I continue to think about them.
My memory is that when I returned to the United States in September of 1971, life was normal. I still had some time in the Air Force which I served at Mather AFB. There I met and married my wife and started on a family and a living.
I applied to return to law school at the University of California at Davis and though earlier in 1969 while at San Jose State my application was quickly approved based on a good academic record, by 1972 with MACV service on the resume, it was rejected. I believe, the denial reflected the change in America. Most prominently, affirmative action deriving from the civil rights struggle had filled many law school class slots and, potentially, there was no bonus for military service. So instead of UCD law school, my application to the UCD graduate program in political science was re-instated. I worked at the program and would achieve a master of arts in due course. Most importantly for me, some of the professors were sympathetic to returning veterans, and I received the entre’ to a job that opened a 33-year career as a city manager.
What I have observed since the Vietnam era is an inverse relationship between service in Vietnam and esteem in the public’s eye. In the simple matter of selecting US presidents, we have seen no positive relationship between Vietnam overseas and/or combat service and selection for the presidency. None of the presidents of my generation had Vietnam in-country service. This is an anomaly to previous periods where each major struggle (except possibly Korea where President Carter had Navy sea duty on the US K-1 during the conflict but apparently was not on Korean soil), had its presidential overseas/combat representative(s). President Clinton joined ROTC and dropped out because he could, President Bush was an ANG pilot never deployed, and President Trump never served. Others presidential contenders such as Al Gore served in Vietnam but did not achieve the electoral votes, John Kerry served in Vietnam in combat heroically before joining the anti-war movement and ran a close but no luck campaign, and John McCain a heroic example of dedication and sacrifice in combat service as an aviator and POW, lost the election to Barack Obama, a candidate of the new era.
In my estimation, the willingness to serve addressed a test of character. In each case, I voted for the candidate who served in Vietnam and not for the ones who did not. In each case, the American electoral majority disagreed with this standard.
So, we move on and Vietnam recedes into our memory and increasingly from our active history. The generation that fought and resisted it is growing older and is beginning to die out. Vietnam war amnesia is increasing and the urgency of finding and addressing the lessons less urgent. From a personal perspective and maybe only for my personal history, I would like to present a few.
We should never forget those who served.
Many in my generation blamed both the soldier and the general for what they viewed as the crime of Vietnam. I believe soldiers were maligned often by those unwilling to serve for whatever reason whether it be a statement of personal morality, fear of war and dying or the inconvenience of interrupting one’s life for national service in a war they did not support. I am profoundly impressed by those who served for the cause of duty and their personal honor. Lt Gen Harold Moore and Joseph Galloway did an excellent job documenting this service in their book, We Were Soldiers Once and Young.
Lt Col Moore’s troops had fought successfully against a larger North Vietnamese force in the Ia Drang Valley. Many soldiers had died in days of combat and many more were wounded. General Moore recorded in his book,
The next day a dozen or so of my troopers stood waiting for me outside the operations tent in the chill early morning fog. They were scheduled to leave that day in route to the United States for discharge upon completion of their terms of service. . . . These young men, each wearing the thousand-yard stare of his old man’s eyes, had gone willingly into the inferno at (Landing-Zone) X-Ray knowing that he had only a few days or a week left on Army duty. We had been together for seventeen months now and I knew them well. … They formed a column of twos and marched off, straight and tall, to the helicopters waiting to take them back to what they called The World. (Lt Gen Harold G Moore and Joseph L. Galloway, We Were Soldiers Once and Young, pp 311-312)
These soldiers’ moral worth is profound. They served their country in the most trying and dangerous circumstances. Their purpose appeared only to follow the law and do their duty. They are profoundly heroic, though I believe most would make no note of it because their preoccupation was doing their duty, full-filling their obligation and many of them coming from working-class and rural circumstances, subsequently living a good life for themselves and their families. Some may after returning home have joined the anti-war movement, which was their right based on their conscience, but they did their duty when they were called upon to do so, with courage and discipline.
My expectation from my service in Vietnam as a Palace Dog which facilitated my association with combat veterans of the era, points for some veterans to a code based on values reflecting their lessons from service in the Vietnam War. A code is a powerful and indelible aspect of a personality. Fundamentally it required doing your duty if it is dangerous, even deadly.
From the code’s perspective using the system for self-aggrandizement is corruption, not following the law or performing what they view as basic duty is an undisciplined failure of integrity and a fatal flaw in due course, and by the perspective of the code, those who focus on insisting others are responsible for their safety and convenience rather than their own personal discipline and possibly the joint actions of their brotherhood both male and female are fragile and vulnerable and ultimately useless. Living the code is the demonstration that resilient actions affirm durable truths.
But the whole truth has not been nearly so clear. The image of the indigent Vietnam veteran is indelible. Why would those who served with discipline and bravery be presumably diminished later in their lives by not living the code? The answer undoubtedly is complex, but this public indigency is only a portion of the story. Many of the soldiers were working-class without strong bases of economic support nor well-formed life objectives. Potentially, when you take the soldier away from the organization they may lose critical behavioral infrastructure. Not all their discipline is intrinsic, but instead it is organizationally enforced. Just talking the code is not enough, the real test is living it and that is a very personal undertaking requiring considerable discipline.
We all have a role in this. America failed in this regard because it has quickly applied a convenient amnesia. When reference is made to Vietnam, a specific recital about the worth of the conflict and the Americans who served in it is presented as “correct history”. If we are a united people, we insist on the code and we work to reinforce and support this expectation among our service members and veterans by supporting the worth of their service. This must be more than simple “lip service”.
We as a nation had acted in this way for some previous conflicts. Our collective amnesia and acting on the correct recital of Vietnam history has been key to developing the environment of the “permanent schism”. For those resolute and strong enough, the code has been enough, for others it has not.
We must be careful to act on the lessons of history and we must be self-examining when defining them. We must be open to beneficial change such as restoring an opportunity draft.
Listening to the cable news, a consistent narrative has us pulling apart as a country. By my observation, we are self-absorbed and increasingly commercial in a very indulgent and petty way. We are not acting on the lessons of history – in fact I believe historical knowledge and dialogue is becoming less considered. We are losing our identity as Americans and the call of public service has in some quarters diminished.
The draft though largely condemned during the Vietnam era provided many social benefits to Americans. It was/is critical to amalgamate diverse American cultures that are variously privileged and poor. The draft brought folks together and served as a melting pot instilling a knowledge of other ethnic, racial, religious and regional groups. It offered an opportunity for training which many transferred to careers. For many Americans, it was an introduction to the concept of service. It woke folks up in the morning and instilled the discipline necessary to move along through the day towards accomplishing life objectives. These are important habits and though it may have been rejected at the time, it was to manifest for some in the future.
A national draft would bring us together and allow the opportunity to shape young Americans. It would have to be brushed off and service may be in other areas beyond military including the environment, health, and literacy.
General McChrystal of Iraq and Afghanistan wars fame has documented its value for any future military conflict:
and, in January, 2014, Kathleen Frydl wrote in The American Interest an essay about how the draft has operated historically and, at the margin, the benefit it would provide to the country and the military:
Since Vietnam we have been in continuous war but we have not made progress in achieving victory – The problem is a lack of victory appears normal
With more recent wars, the event was managed closely based upon how to wage war without creating a broad opposition in the American population. This is not the same as learning the deep lessons about how to achieve American support for armed conflicts and to pursue them to a established successful conclusion.
It is in the interest of the government to retain discretion to fight foreign military actions. In World War II, the emphasis was to take major actions achieving victory over a relatively short time-frame. A great many Americans died in World War II. In Korea, a similar approach was applied with 1.8 million Americans involved in a three-year conflict and nearly 34,000 dying.
Vietnam changed this approach. American involvement with the war started in 1955, however, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was not approved until August of 1964. By January 1973 the Paris Accords was signed, so most of the American fighting and dying occurred in this 8.5-year period. Vietnam was the fourth most deadly war for Americans, following the Civil War, World War II, and World War I.
The lessons which appear to have been applied from the Vietnam War are (1) to minimize American battle causalities and (2) to change the formula for victory from rapid attrition through large armies attacking other large armies along with strategic bombing defeating nations to surrender to “shock and awe” and sustaining a focused effort against indigenous guerrilla armies with the subject of victory never clearly understood. By necessity, this has moved towards counter-insurgency operators and nation building to develop indigenous forces and their societies. This is not intended as victory itself but a deferred means to some sort of victory. It has not worked.
The bottom line is the United States should have learned the lesson from Vietnam. Unless an administration can define supportable, sustainable objectives in terms of a basic American interest with a clearly define state of victory, and the objectives are shared with a broad segment of the American public and incorporated in a declaration of war by Congress, American military effort must be restrained. We must be all in for victory – or not in at all.
Beyond opinion and Congressional action, if we are to go to war, all segments of our public must participate. The current volunteer formula which segments the fighting and dying in greater proportions to specific American populations must change. We all must have “skin in the War” – or we cannot be in at all.
In conclusion, our experience in Vietnam has been for many Americans a continuing failure. It has developed as a continuing schism in American culture. As time proceeds we continue to fight wars, and their results appear no more successful with victory always being allusive. Instead on the 24 hour news we hear of this engagement and that skirmish, but there is not a march to victory. We feel progress such as the campaigns led by Generals Petraeus and McChrystal in Iraq only to abandon the country and then to re-engage as the vacuum is filed by the enemy soldiers of a brutal Caliphate.
Every day in my small Oregon town, I see American youth as forlorn and desultory as were my students in Vietnam. They are lost not seeing opportunity or a path to economic citizenship or participation in honorable American service. The din of politics is statements urging action and reaction based on various ideological narratives and statements of personal and party interest, all to little avail because of the “permanent schism’s”wicked frameworks.
We failed to fully consider the lessons of Vietnam and now subsequent conflicts. With this we must change our ways to a full and thoughtful engagement based upon service, honor, sacrifice, and resilience if America is to regain its generally shared purpose and commonwealth.