Back in the mid-80s, an Army officer of my acquaintance succinctly summed up the mood of the post-Vietnam military: “It’s OK to be a Vietnam veteran in today’s military,” he observed, “so long as you don’t dwell on it or refer back to it.”
He was right. He had intuited the largely unspoken, but widely understood, politically correct attitude toward our humiliating defeat. Vietnam had been an aberration, the kind of war we would never fight again. And the less said about it, the better.
Ironically, this same spirit of denial and revision has spread to American society in general in recent years. It’s OK to be a Vietnam veteran in today’s America, so long as you remember that war the way President Reagan portrayed it, as a “noble crusade,” and so long as you profess utter admiration for our armed forces and unwavering support for our current crusades.
Thursday, April 30, marked the 45th anniversary of the fall of Saigon — and the end of our Vietnam misadventure. The Vietnam War I remember, and later studied, was anything but a “noble crusade.” It was a profoundly existential experience. Survival was the only moral touchstone, and getting through to our rotation tour dates the only goal we cared about. All the Marines I knew “in country” were profoundly skeptical of the official rationales for why we were there and increasingly embittered by the reluctance of the South Vietnamese to fight their own war.
The exhibit launches Nov. 10 in Washington, D.C.
My fellow Vietnam veterans seem to have forgotten how traumatized we were about all this. We have been co-opted, bought off with belated handshakes and glib expressions of gratitude. We have forgotten what really occasioned all the bitterness and fueled the post-traumatic stress of our generation.
It wasn’t that the country failed to welcome us home or to honor our service with parades. It was the discovery that our leaders had lied to us about the nature and the necessity of the war and that the conduct of the war put the lie to the ideals and values in which we had all been raised to believe.
Would that we all knew then what we know now. Ho Chi Minh was first and foremost a nationalist. Early on, he had appealed to us to help dissuade France from reclaiming its former colony at the end of World War II. But we needed France’s help in blocking communist expansion in Europe, and the ensuing Cold War clouded our judgment. We feared falling dominoes. By 1950, we were mired in Korea and bankrolling France’s Indochina War. With the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, we took over. We sent in intelligence operatives to subvert the Geneva Accords, especially the plebiscite that would have reunited North and South Vietnam under whichever government the majority chose. Having defeated the French, Ho Chi Minh was the hands-down favorite to win. The South Vietnamese president we had installed, Ngo Dinh Diem, was almost as alien to his own people as we were. Ho Chi Minh had cornered the market on Vietnamese nationalism, and out in the countryside, most of the people seemed to want no part of what we were selling.
What’s worse, once we had taken over in our own right, we began to take that indifference personally. Contrary to popular belief, we weren’t forced to fight with one hand tied behind our back. We unleashed a greater tonnage of bombs on Vietnam than we did in all of World War II. We declared free-fire zones. We defoliated large areas with Agent Orange. We made liberal use of close-air support and indirect fire weapons with little regard for the so-called “collateral damage” such weapons inevitably inflict.
Racists that we were, we dehumanized the Vietnamese as “gooks” and “slopes.” Unable to distinguish friend from foe, we viewed them all as potential threats. Hence, the worst atrocity of the war — the My Lai Massacre. Hell hath no fury like a country scorned, especially one that considers itself to be exceptional and eminently deserving of admiration and emulation.
This is not to say that, because we were wrong, the other side was wholly righteous. They resorted to terror. They mistreated our POWs. They were hardly magnanimous in victory. But the irony is that we seem to have won after all.
Vietnam today is what we had tried to make it: a free-market consumer society. The tragedy of it is that over 58,000 Americans and some 2 million Vietnamese had to die just so that Vietnam could get there on its own timetable rather than ours.
So how then should those of us who served in Vietnam feel about participating in such an unnecessary and misguided war? While so many of our contemporaries sat in self-indulgent safety and comfort, we put ourselves on the line. Some of us went in believing. Others suspended judgment or even went against our better judgment. But the great majority of us served honorably and proved ourselves to be better than the muddle-headed politicians who had sent us. That’s something to be proud of.
A native of New Castle, Delaware, Edward Palm served as an enlisted Marine with the Combined Action Program in Vietnam from 1966 to 1968. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in English literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Returning to the Marine Corps in later life, Palm served as the Marine Officer Instructor with the NROTC unit at University of California, Berkeley and taught English at the Naval Academy before retiring as a major in 1993. His civilian academic career included appointments as a tenured professor and college dean. He now lives in Forest, Virginia. Contact Ed Palm at firstname.lastname@example.org
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