by R. J. Del Vecchio

It’s been 31 years since the dramatic scenes of helicopters taking Americans and desperate Vietnamese off rooftops in Saigon were first played on television around the world. Yet that war remains an intensely controversial subject, and passionate referrals to it and its supposed lessons are commonly heard in political debates, media stories, and innumerable discussions, including many Internet forums. World War II was an enormously more significant event of the 20th century, yet never generated anything like the level of dispute and accompanying anger, guilt, insecurity, and recrimination that are clearly observable even today. Why is this, why is the experience of that conflict still an open sore on our national body?

Basically, there are three factors involved. The first and foremost is that the USA suffered its only serious international defeat; in the end, the communist North did conquer the US-sponsored democratic South and the allies we had committed to help remain independent went down to total defeat. To a nation that had never lost or run away from a conflict before, and a generation that had heard and ascribed to John Kennedy’s words that “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, …. in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty,” this was truly a traumatic experience. It was as if the team that had won the Super Bowl last year played a charity game with an unrated college team, but abandoned the field in the third quarter, with the score in dispute. The players and all the team fans could feel nothing but badly about it, and sadly wonder where they went wrong, and if they’d lost their edge altogether.

Secondly, it was a long drawn out tragedy that went through several stages over a period of over 15 years, and emotionally exhausted everyone. The later stages involved the most bitter internal strife the society had experienced since the lead up to the Civil War, and the fact that other social conflicts like the Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Liberation were also going on added even more to the stresses people felt. By the time Saigon fell, the great majority of Americans just wanted the whole subject to go away. Avoidance is a classic response to contemplating a highly stressful past that you cannot do anything about; but it often leaves many loose ends, and in this case, very sensitive ones.

Lastly, the complexity of the events and the increasing inaccuracies and biases of media coverage, combined with the very effective promulgation of antiwar views on campuses and elsewhere, added up to a “fog of war” in the sense of the recording and perceptions of what had gone on. Those veterans who had become active in the antiwar movement tended to remain much more politically active than the bulk of other veterans, who went on to jobs, families, and dealing with their memories in various ways. For some the effects of PTSD became very troublesome (as it has for veterans of previous wars), but most blended back into the population and kept their memories sealed away.

Between the publicity generated by the antiwar veterans (both genuine and phony) and dramatic media stories, and then the movies which contributed to the image of Vietvets as messed up losers haunted by involvement in an unwinnable war, the public continued to hear and see things that did nothing to dispel their discomfort about the war. Many veterans experienced feeling levels of isolation and even rejection. By contrast, antiwar activists felt they had won a great victory, and for many, their involvement was as much a source of pride and satisfaction as the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement were to its supporters.

Thus these three factors added up to a minefield of emotions, memories, frustrations, guilt, and confusion about the war and what it meant then and means now. When John Kerry made his service in Viet Nam a central element in his presidential campaign, he ran steamroller over that minefield and set off everything.

There are many points in the history of the war, how it developed, how it was conducted, who played what roles, and how it ended, that are so open to debate that no one will ever be able to establish a definitive and unchallengeable analysis of them. The “what ifs” can never be answered, the reading of minds in the past is impossible.

But there are more than enough hard facts about the war available now, particularly since the memoirs and interviews of major figures in North Viet Nam and the Viet Cong/National Liberation Front have been published, to establish many important aspects of the war factually. Many of the myths and legends of the war’s events are readily disprovable.

For example, there is the myth of the indiscriminate/malevolent use of air power by the U.S. to inflict enormous levels of hurt on innocent civilians. One of the war’s most famous images is a naked little girl, burned by napalm, running down a road in pain and terror. But we know now there were no U.S. planes or pilots or even military advisers involved in that action, both some villagers and South Vietnamese soldiers were burned accidentally when the SVN air force was bombing positions held in the village by North Vietnamese soldiers who had attacked it earlier in the day. And best of all, that little girl is now a woman living as a refugee in Canada, having defected from communist-controlled Viet Nam in a search for freedom.

There is the myth that it was mainly a guerilla war, fought primarily on the communist side by legions of South Vietnamese peasants. Now we know it was not pajama-clad local guerillas that defeated the South, but a final invasion of 20 Divisions of well trained and very well equipped North Vietnamese Army troops.

There is the myth that little North Viet Nam and their VC allies fought on with scavenged supplies and captured weapons, alone against the full might of the USA. But the memoirs and speeches of dedicated Vietnamese communists and nationalists reveal that they considered themselves to have two crucial allies in their drive to take the South; the Soviet Union, which supplied the many billions of dollars worth of tanks, trucks, cannons, fuel, ammunition, and other supplies that were necessary to conduct the intense conventional warfare it took to defeat the ARVN; and the American antiwar movement, which in the end was the major influence on Congress that caused the choking off of essential military supplies to the South.

Lastly, there was the myth believed and publicized by so many antiwar figures that once Saigon fell, the united nation would heal, there would be no reprisals, and the Vietnamese people would march into a new age of peace and prosperity. But the reality was that after Hanoi’s victory, a dark night fell on all the people of Viet Nam, an unworkable communist economic system made them the poorest nation in SE Asia, many thousands were executed in merciless reprisals, a million Southerners went into concentration camps for up to 18 years (and thousands more died there). As time went on, two million people from a culture rooted to the land of their ancestors undertook the largest cultural diaspora of the century in the face of terrible dangers and a death rate of over 25%.

Economics are better in Viet Nam now, since the system finally changed to state-controlled capitalism, but it remains a totalitarian country, listed by several international organizations for its suppression of human rights and the holding of political prisoners.

Do we know exactly what we could/should have done better? Not exactly, but certain points became clear. The main one that the world and the enemies of America in particular have observed is that while you cannot defeat the technology and skill of US armed forces, you can simply wear down the will of Americans to fight if you conduct a prolonged and messy conflict.

Perhaps the key lesson of Viet Nam is that America must choose its battles carefully, and once committed to one, must bring all necessary resources to bear to win as speedily as possible, and be prepared to remain determined to wrest a victory. To continue to allow enemies to win by default would amount to a decision to withdraw from the world as a force for good, and ultimately, invite ceaseless attacks of various forms by any who hate us or wish to take away what we have. And what we have is the greatest human freedom and prosperity the world has ever known. If anything has ever been worth fighting for, this is it.