The Lessons of Vietnam: Ten Years Later

This spring will mark the twentieth anniversary of the landing of the U.S. Marines at Danang (March 8, 1965), as well as the tenth anniversary of the fall of Saigon (April 30, 1975). It is remarkable that there is as much or more interest in the war today than there was either when the marines landed or when Saigon fell. In March of 1965, many Americans regarded our involvement as a rather low-scaled, temporary military intervention; by the end, most people were simply too weary to give the subject further thought. Perhaps the most obvious index of how things have changed is the popularity of the Vietnam Memorial on the mall in Washington—during clement weather, it attracts as many as 10,000 visitors a day. The recent PBS documentary on the war and William Westmoreland’s libel suit against CBS have also brought the war back to the forefront of public interest.

Especially as the time of these anniversaries draws near, we can expect another round of discussion on the “lessons” of the Vietnam War. That we prefer to speak of the “lessons” rather than the “blame” of the war is interesting in itself. Considering that the war represents, by anyone’s estimation, the most serious debacle of American foreign policy during our lifetime, and that it unleashed passions so intense and exotic as to seem nearly untamable in terms of ordinary politics, one might have expected the post-war debate to be less civil, and more punitive in its rhetoric. After leaving office, Lyndon Johnson predicted a divisive debate over “who lost Vietnam,” leading perhaps to a new era of McCarthyism.

Yet, such did not materialize after the war. No public official or military officer—and for that matter, no pro-Hanoi dissident—was brought to trial in order to assuage the public appetite for a scapegoat. As Norman Podhoretz has pointed out in this regard, there were more “insinuations of disloyalty and even treason” thrown around in the wake of the Korean War than after Vietnam. The military, which received the main brunt of moral outrage during the war, was asked to fight the longest war in American history without the legitimacy afforded by a formal declaration of war; but there were no rumblings of a palace coup, and certainly nothing along the lines of a MacArthur incident.

While the political Left temporarily rode a wave of public dissatisfaction about the war, the defeat of George McGovern in 1972 made it clear that the radical Left would be unable to translate this public opinion into a moral mandate against “Amerika.” Rev. Robert Drinan, S.J. (then a congressman from Massachusetts) tried to turn the impeachment hearings against Richard Nixon into an ad hoc war crimes trial. More recently, in America magazine (February, 1979), he has insisted that there ought to be “investigations and even trial” of military and government officials responsible for the war. But during and after the war, the ambition of the Left to settle the “lessons” in such a fashion has proved a complete failure. Of course, it is true that certain elements of the Left (particularly those remaining from the infamous Congressional class of 1974), who are unchastised by the gruesome events which followed our exit from Vietnam, still maintain a strict analogy between Vietnam and every issue of American interest abroad. We Should not overlook the fact that the Left failed in its primary objective—which was never simply a matter of ending the war, but rather of delivering a punitive judgment against America itself.

Whether it is a mark of our civility in understanding that there is no constructive way to focus the “blame” for war, or whether it is also due to a more pragmatic insight that the moment has passed for any party to exploit the issue, it is evident that there exists an unspoken consensus that “blame” is not a proper subject for political debate. With the exception of the Ford and Carter amnesty program, and Ronald Reagan’s occasional remarks about the “noble cause,” the Vietnam War has been assiduously avoided in the presidential campaigns of the past decade. The Republican Study Committee’s brief, “What’s the Matter with Democratic Foreign Policy” (1984), included a section outlining the complicity of many Democrats in the debacle of Vietnam. Despite the fact that this material is potentially quite damaging to some Democrats, it never found its way into the 1984 campaign debates.

Although debate over the war has been politically dormant for the past decade, the untamed passions and unanswered questions have found expression, and flourished, in other areas such as films, novels, essays, and in what Fox Butterfield of the N.Y. Times has called the “new Vietnam scholarship.” The lessons of the war are being reconsidered, and perhaps more important, attitudes are being changed. On one hand, the past decade has seen the emergence of a full-fledged scholarly interest in the war. On the other hand, there has been a sweeping transformation in the popular image and estimation of the Vietnam combat veteran. What these two currents have in common is a revisionist attitude toward the rhetoric and lessons espoused by the radical Left.

As for the “new Vietnam scholarship,” it is important to underscore the word “new.” In an article for the Wilson Quarterly entitled “Vietnam as History” (Spring, 1978), Peter Braestrup notes that between 1954 and 1968 only twenty-two dissertations were produced in American universities on Vietnam. Except for the work by a handful of journalists like Bernard Fall (A Street Without Joy, 1961) and Marguerite Higgins (Our Vietnam Nightmare, 1965), and an even smaller number of scholars, such as Douglas Pike (The Vietcong, 1966), there were few publications of scholarly merit available during the early phase of our involvement in Vietnam. It is generally true that even by the end of the war, the only book widely read was Francis FitzGerald’s Fire in the Lake (1972)—a work that romantically portrayed the moral purity of the Vietcong, and that, needless to say, has been almost entirely refuted by historical events of the past ten years. (One of the best short summaries of what has happened in Southeast Asia since our exit is Stephen Morris’ “Vietnam’s Vietnam,” in The Atlantic of January, 1985: for a slightly less current, but a longer and more detailed account, see Nguyen Van Canh’s Vietnam Under Communism, 1975-1982 [1983].) By the time the anti-war movement was at full bay, journalists and academicians were mobilized against the war, preferring the rhetoric of street-theatre to any real research or debate.

It was inevitable that the war and its lessons would eventually prove too interesting to academicians to be consigned once and for all to the political and moralistic slogans of the era. When Guenther Lewy’s America in Vietnam (the first substantive history of the war) was first published by Oxford Press in 1978, Robert Drinan complained that this new scholarship will force “those who fought for years and years against the war [to] have to relive their nightmares.” Yet, it was exceedingly naive of Drinan and others of his persuasion to believe that an event as important as the Vietnam

War wouldn’t undergo a period of revisionist inquiry. It was bound to happen, if for no other reason than the success of the anti-war movement in mythologizing the virtues of our enemy and the vices of the American cause: for example, that our enemy were Vietnamese Tito’s guided more by the ideals of the Declaration of Independence than by Stalinism: that we were fighting against a “people’s revolution” in which the conventional military principles of strategy and tactics had no bearing; that the United States was guilty of systematically violating international law, if not of committing genocide; that our army was riddled with drug addiction and insubordination. These were notions waiting to be scaled down to historical facts.

Three books have been particularly responsible for reorienting the questions and the terms of .the debate over the Vietnam War. First, Peter Braestrup’s Big Story (1977) called into question the way that the Tet Offensive of 1968 was reported by the press. As the former Saigon bureau chief for the Washington Post, Braestrup provided 700 pages of documentary evidence showing that the American public was misled about Tet: what was, in fact, a military victory for the Allies was conveyed as a defeat, or at least a stalemate. While it has not received popular attention, it has made a quiet impact; even the recent PBS documentary on the war clearly distinguished between the Allies’ military victory and the perception of Tet on the home front. Second, Guenther Lewy’s America in Vietnam provided the first truly synoptic view of our involvement in Vietnam. It is still the best one-volume book on the war. The importance of Lewy’s book is two-fold. In the first place, having based his research on empirical and documentary evidence, Lewy has set a standard for subsequent research. After Lewy’s work, the old rhetoric of either hawks or doves simply won’t do. In the second place, although Lewy is not uncritical of some of the basic assumptions which influenced American policy, he found no evidence to substantiate the moral and legal accusations about the way the war was conducted by the United States. Finally, Col. Harry Summers’ On Strategy (1982) has prompted a reconsideration of the military aspects of the war. Summers challenges a notion widely held by both hawks and doves of the era: namely, that we should have geared our strategy and tactics to fight a guerrilla war, rather than pursuing the large unit warfare recommended by General Westmoreland. Summers contends that the fascination with counter-insurgency (the legacy of civilian “specialists”) was precisely what clouded the real nature of the conflict. As he points out, “it was four North Vietnamese Army corps, not ‘dialectical materialism,’ that ultimately conquered South Vietnam.” Though by no means universally accepted by his peers in the profession, Summers’ book has become the centerpiece for debate in military journals and war colleges.

By now it is clear that the so-called “revisionist” studies are only the first steps en route to a, more complete re-appraisal of the war. A recent bibliographic guide to Vietnam studies compiled at California State University selectively lists over 5,500 entries, and more significantly, lists over 70 other bibliographies. All four of the armed services have undertaken multi-volume histories which will be completed in the near future. With these, and with the steady declassification of military and government documents, we can expect scholars to produce a more or less coherent curriculum for the “lessons” as we move into the next decade.

As I mentioned earlier, the other current that has changed public opinion about the Vietnam War is the rehabilitated image of the combat veteran. The change here is not so much which lessons are being learned so much as whose experience has become the subject of the “lessons.” During the war, it was the collective “conscience” of the youth culture, whose every pronouncement was taken to be instructive, if not prophetic, that held sway over the lessons. Among his peers, the veteran was regarded as being either a passive dupe of the “system,” or an aggressive “baby killer.” Unless he joined the ranks of the anti-war movement, his experience was not regarded as affording any lessons. Things have changed. Perhaps it is due to the new patriotism, or to the perception that yesterday’s prophets are now quiche-eaters; what is now apparent is that many Americans believe that the combat veteran has a certain primacy of place in delivering the “lessons” about the war.

The veterans themselves have contributed to this change of attitude by producing a body of literature about the war that has already outdone anything produced by veterans of previous American wars. Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato (1975) , Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War (1977), and James Webb’s Fields of Fire (1978)—to mention only a few—have not only received critical literary acclaim, but have been enormously successful in the marketplace (Webb’s book, for example, has sold over three quarters of a million copies). In terms of “lessons,” this genre of literature does not speak with one voice. One of the best novels, Gustave Hasford’s Short Timers (1979), is so dark in its moral assessment of the war as to make the anti-war veteran Ron Kovic’s autobiography Born On the Fourth July seem positively upbeat. On the other hand, the most successful of the novels, Webb’s Fields of Fire, is a classic story of military virtue and fidelity.

The main point here is that, regardless of the various “lessons” suggested by this literature, the experience of the veteran has become for millions of Americans a way by which the war can be brought into their historical and moral imagination. It is surely an improvement over what we viewed on television fifteen years ago. Moreover, that a book like Webb’s Fields of Fire rather than Norman Mailer’s Armies of Night now provides the material for the popular imagination indicates the extent to which the tables have been turned in terms of whose experience has become the subject of “lessons.” It is interesting, too, that former denizens of the counter-culture have not produced literature exploring their own experience and moral insights. At least in this area, the last decade has seen the ascendency of the Vietnam veteran.

Not only has the combat veteran come out of the closet in reporting his experience, he has also become the subject of mass entertainment. Zebra Books, for instance, plans this year to publish 2.5 million copies of a series of pulp novels called “The Black Eagles.” (If you ever wondered what would happen if Clint Eastwood and Terry and the Pirates were to join forces with the Green Berets, this is it.) Another New York publisher, Tor Books, is preparing a new book by Barry Sadler (of Green Berets fame), the protagonist of which is “the American sniper with the highest record of confirmed hits” during the war. Whereas ten years ago, in film and television, the combat veteran was usually depicted as either pathologically maladjusted (e.g. Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver”), or as a crippled candidate for sensitivity training (e.g. Jon Voigt in “Corning Home”), he is now more often characterized as having virtues no longer found among civilians (e.g. in the recent films “Uncommon Valour” and “Missing in Action”), or as the very epitome of manly eros (e.g. in television’s “Magnum p.i.” and “Matt Huston”). Currently, there are ten prime-time shows with characters advertised as Vietnam combat veterans; and again, with the exception of “Family Ties,” there are no prime-time shows celebrating former hippies.

Although some of this Viet Chic is nothing more than a fad, there is also something intrinsically interesting about the Vietnam veteran that is liable to arouse curiosity for years to come. As a symbol, he is the bridge back to his parents’ generation who f6ught World War II, as well as a bridge to his own peers who lost faith in the liberal ideals of their parents. On the campus at which I teach, for example, groups as divergent as ROTC students and “new wave” punk rockers have taken to wearing Vietnam-era camouflage fatigues. For some, the veteran is viewed as a misunderstood victim, whose camouflage fatigues and “losing cause” serve as the equivalent of the leather jacket and confederate flag. Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”—with its fusion of psychedelic music and helicopter gunship action—is regarded on campuses not as an antiwar movie, but as a glamorization of everything forbidden about the war. In an article last November for Esquire entitled “Why Men Love War,” the veteran and former editor of Newsweek, William Broyles, reports that during the Grenada mission some of our troops went into combat with cassettes playing Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” thus aping in real life the attack scene in Coppola’s movie. Another veteran, John Wheeler, in Touched With Fire: The Future of the Vietnam Generation (1984), argues that the generation of the 1960s was “feminized” by the youth culture and that the Vietnam veteran represents the only unambiguous masculine symbol of the era. The rehabilitation of the veteran’s image, he suggests, involves a need to recover a lost masculinity.

Whatever interpretation might be given to explain the Viet Chic, Americans want to settle their accounts with the veteran—perhaps more than they want to understand the political and ideological issues of the war. Over the past decade there has been a widespread acceptance of the distinction between the soldier and the politics of the war; that there acts of valour, not to mention a kind of adventure worth considering on its own terms, and finally, that the veteran rather than the draft-resister ought to be authorized to speak about the war. These are all worthwhile “lessons.”

Yet, a steady diet of this focus upon individual experience is apt to have diminishing returns. In a perceptive article for Commentary (“Of Arms, Men & Monuments,” October, 1984) Todd Lindberg maintains that the media, from the time of Vietnam to the recent tragedy in Lebanon, has “legitimized the radical personalization of the war, and dissociation of the soldier from any larger issue or cause.” He concludes that, “this perspective has come virtually to dominate American discussion of the war.” There is a universal interest in seeing the meaning of war writ small in the human soul; without this dimension it becomes difficult to speak in moral terms about any war. But Lindberg’s point is that television has drawn attention narrowly to the trauma suffered by individuals. Insofar as there are “lessons” to be learned, they can only be gleaned from the effect of war. As a case in point, last year’s PBS series consistently shied away from the broader questions of military strategy and tactics, and failed to report in any detail a single campaign conducted by American forces. Against the background of film clips, the PBS program highlighted the experience of individuals (both American and Communist) in the style of a “60 Minutes” interview. Indeed, one could have watched all thirteen episodes of the series without having the faintest idea of the geography of South Vietnam. The same can be said for the way that the plight of the Boat People was depicted—the proximate and historical causes of their misery were rarely alluded to by the media.

The most ambitious effort thus far to reduce the “lessons” of Vietnam to the experience of individuals is Myra MacPherson’s Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation (1984). In order to assess the war “in human terms,” and “without mythic meaning,” MacPherson has interviewed 500 members of the Vietnam generation: war heroes, feminists, anti-war activists, Agent Orange victims, etc. At the outset, she warns the reader: “This book seeks neither to prove the rightness or wrongness of the war nor to refight old ideological battles, but to illuminate the effect of the war as it was on the generation asked to fight it.” When a subject is controversial,” she adds, “one cannot hope to tell the truth.” In fact, MacPherson’s modesty is misleading. A political writer for the Washington Post, she is not sympathetic to “what is charitably called the new scholarship,” and makes every effort to convince her reader that the war was not worth fighting. MacPherson departs from the legacy of the older Left-wing critics of the war, however, in suggesting that it isn’t even worth understanding.

She is careful to incorporate, and exploit, changes which have occurred in public opinion. Except for her treatment of James Webb (who is guilty of “revisionist hawk talk,” and of entertaining “theoretical views” on the war), there are no diatribes against combat veterans. She goes out of her way not only to debunk the romance of the Left with the Vietcong, but also to criticize the rank and file of the antiwar movement who, in her view, wrongfully enjoyed “class privilege” in managing to avoid conscription or jail. The “brigade who opposed the war,” she concludes, “may not be judged as having been right or wrong but regarded as an historical fact.” The same judgment, though, is rendered against anyone that held, or still holds, a definite opinion about the meaning of the war. For MacPherson, the human toll of the war is incommensurate to any theoretical view about its meaning.

The problem is that such an effort to evaluate the war merely “in human terms” leads to nothing but an amoral perspective. Randomly, a chapter here is devoted to a young man who amputated his finger to avoid conscription; a chapter there deals with the experience of a mother who lost her son in combat. After 700 pages, one is convinced that a disaster happened, but whether it was a holocaust having moral meaning, or a natural disaster like Vesuvius, is left for the reader to determine. By denying intelligibility to the war, save that of the anecdotal and biographical, it is impossible to draw any “lessons” about its impact upon the lives of these individuals, just as it would be impossible to do physics in a universe of effects without causes. It is appropriate that MacPherson concludes the book by inviting the reader to consider the individual names on the Vietnam Memorial (the dust jacket of the book displays a section of those names).

In his book Why We Were In Vietnam (1982), Norman Podhoretz remarks that by 1975 Vietnam had become for the generation that experienced it not only what Munich was to an earlier generation—the “self evident symbol of a policy that must never be followed again”—but had actually “cancelled it out.” That is, many had come to believe that an expansionist totalitarian power would begin to ebb of its own accord, so long as we resist the temptation to intervene in its historical process. What we find in MacPherson’s book is the logical extreme of this attitude. For lack of a better term, it can be called the anti-lesson “lesson.” One wonders whether it doesn’t represent the final exhaustion of the Left in trying to make sense of the Vietnam War. After all, as different species of Maoists and Stalinists continue their ghastly “civil wars” in Southeast Asia, there is no reason to celebrate our withdrawal, and indeed there are many good reasons to have been there in the first place; public opinion will no longer permit a cheap demonizing of “Amerika” and her military; and whatever verdict scholars finally reach about the war, they are no longer intimidated by the rhetoric of the anti-war movement. Having nowhere else to turn, it seems that critics of the war have retreated to the cul-de-sac of the anti-lesson “lesson.”

Americans have come a long way in the last ten years, and are prepared for a more satisfying discussion of the “lessons” of the war. By now, everyone knows that “body counts” were not a reliable yardstick for measuring the success of our cause in Vietnam; we certainly do not need to reexamine the war now in terms of a domestic “body count.” When the anniversaries of our entrance and exit from Vietnam are debated this spring, it remains to be seen whether the media has learned this lesson.

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Russell Hittinger is the William K. Warren Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa.

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