I have spent the last two weeks in a Vietnam of the mind, watching the latest Ken Burns documentary. I’d like to say it brought the era back to life or that I learned a lot, but the indelible mark of that period has never left me. How could it be otherwise?
I was twelve when the first American “advisers” were killed and twenty-eight when Saigon fell and the last fleeing Americans had to be airlifted off the embassy roof. That war, the mindset that made it possible, and the bitter divisions it spawned left permanent scars on my generation’s consciousness.
I did not serve in Vietnam, being too young at the beginning, deferred in the middle, and the possessor of a safe number when Nixon’s lottery made the war into a form of Russian Roulette. Nor did I march and protest the war, though that didn’t make me a part of the silent majority that supposedly supported the folly. I simply didn’t believe that “singing songs and carrying signs” was any match for the wrongheaded power of the state. And Kent State, about an hour away from my hometown, suggested I was right. How many more? A lot.
From the beginning, our involvement in Indochina seemed insane to me, but not unfamiliar. My entire life had been spent immersed in the Cold War mentality that enabled the descent into the inferno of Vietnam. The bomb, the Berlin airlift, the hydrogen bomb, nuclear spies, Stalinism, McCarthyism, who lost China, Korea, mutual assured destruction, toppling socialist foreign leaders, installing tyrannical American puppets, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The fear of appearing soft on communism produced a political environment where it was dangerous not to go to extremes. Thus, Kennedy denounced Ike, the victor of the war in Europe, for permitting a non-existent missile gap, and made an extravagant promise to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe” to fight the international communist conspiracy. Really? Be careful what you promise.
As a result of this macho overreach, in Vietnam advisers led to troops led to 600,000 troops, bombing campaigns, agent orange, the wounding of 153,300 Americans and 58,318 killed, not to mention the annihilation of over two million Vietnamese combatants and civilians.
The war also destroyed two presidents who spent their tenures systematically lying to the American people about the progress of the adventure and the odds of “winning,” whatever that might mean. Since it was also the first TV war, there was no place to hide from the daily spectacle of immense suffering and incalculable waste.
The names of two of my high school classmates have a place on The Wall – one what was then called a Greaser, the other a closeted gay man who was a Marine. I found both of them when I visited that greatest of all 20th century examples of funerary art.
Others classmates came home without their limbs. A good friend dropped out of college and became draft bait. He served in relative safety in the armed forces radio network depicted in “Good Morning, Vietnam.” But he returned a permanently suspicious, pessimistic person.
Another, who made welded-metal art objects in college used the skill to mend tanks in Vietnam and learned several languages in the region. He later had a job with the government that he would not discuss. State? CIA? Another friend seemed bound for a career in science or engineering, but became a conscientious objector whose alternative service took him to a bleak Dakotas Indian reservation. The misery he encountered altered his trajectory to the ministry.
All told, about half of the male members of my class served in that war. Most survived physically intact, but no one in that small town was untouched by collateral damage — the drug habits, suicides, PTSD, and the biter schisms between our World War II parents and their long-haired, anti-American, hippie children.
Which brings us to the way we still are. Perhaps it would all have been worthwhile if the country had learned a lesson. We were certainly taught not to trust government or our fellow Americans with heterodox views, but not to distrust easy answers, big promises, greed in the guise of patriotism, phony populism or the arrogance of power.
So, despite the immense object lesson of Vietnam, we have wasted trillions more on pipedreams like SDI and misbegotten foreign adventures. We have continued to align ourselves with evil autocrats and to earn the enmity of their people, have alienated the Muslim world, launched new ideological and sectarian wars based on faulty intelligence and hubris, but once again without an exit strategy.
We have put our country into the hands of demagogic leaders, including the present version, who promise cities on the hill and deliver profligate waste of other people’s blood and treasure, who set rich against poor, black against white, region against region, who allow the exploitation of our economy by crony capitalists and the corruption of our democracy by any means necessary to assure their continuance in power.
And in a crowning irony, Mao’s China and Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam now play host to cruise ships and booming capitalist factories. Meanwhile, the sons of the hardhat-wearing Nixon Democrats, who once beat up antiwar protesters, are now unemployed and disillusioned. Welcome to the club. In the words of the Vietnam era anthem, “When will we ever learn?”