Ignoring Vietnam

On Christmas day, outside the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, a book peddler with two stumps for arms was hawking a copy of Robert McNamara's In Retrospect. McNamara was secretary of defense under presidents Kennedy and Johnson and a major architect of US involvement in the Vietnam War. I bought a copy.

Vietnam was one of those wars that almost everyone assumed was going to be easy to win, McNamara points out. And, early on, when it wasn't going so swimmingly well, we "took out" our puppet South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem, with a CIA-orchestrated coup, imagining he was the problem.

McNamara was in a meeting with JFK when the news came: Diem had been assassinated. The President visibly blanched, McNamara says, and before Kennedy was assassinated a few months later, he knew that things had only gotten worse in Vietnam without Diem.

When I returned from Vietnam in January, several weeks removed from American media, I was dismayed to see how the news on the build-up for war against Iraq had taken an even steeper slide towards patriotic propaganda: war critics proclaimed by President Bush as un-American, disrespectful of soldiers who are about to be put in harm's way against the "axis of evil," or, as President Johnson used to say of critics of Vietnam, Nervous Nellies.

As the war drums beat on, and I hear more alarm expressed in private conversations, there is still far too little debate in public forums; little to no serious probing into our hidden assumptions -- for example, weapons of mass destruction are safe in our hands but not in other countries.

Hidden assumptions like this will be an easy war to win. We already have our post-victory strategies in place for interim governments, after we "take out" Saddam. After all, wasn't the first Gulf War easily won? Hundreds of thousands of them dead, a handful of us, and most of those by "friendly fire." A real piece of cake.

Maybe. From another point of view, that war is far from over. Just as, if you look closely, World War II was but an extension of WW I, after a false peace, full of broken promises; and Korea and Vietnam (hot spots in the cold war) were extensions of WW II, neither of which we won at all, let alone "easily won," the latter of which we outright lost, costing 58,000 of our boys.

Easily won. That was a recurrent theme in the Ho Chi Minh City War Museum: quotes from politicians and military brass in our early years of involvement in Vietnam, an unquestioned assumption that the war would be short and relatively painless.

No war is easily won. Even when we think we win, we only drive our adversaries underground into cells and cadres that have to practice such austere discipline they become breeding grounds for self-sacrifice. Does any one imagine that the events of 9/11/01 had nothing to do with our relations with the Arab world as they were crystallized in the Desert Storm?

In Vietnam, McNamara says, we nourished the illusion that the people wanted us there. It was but another hidden assumption, and nine-tenths illusion, the same illusion we nourish about Iraq now. In South Vietnam, which was a Western-created state (as was Iraq), we even had a so-called South Vietnamese army fighting by our side. But they and we together were ineffectual against the underground against us, the Viet Cong. Without the assistance of the Viet Cong, the North could have never won against our firepower, our napalm, our Agent Orange, our saturation bombing.

But who made up the Viet Cong? They were the people. They were the Vietnamese.

At what terrible cost will come this "easy victory" made by oil-ambitious politicians and propaganda-fed citizens, half of whom were born after the Vietnam War was over.

McNamara said, in retrospect, he saw that we didn't know what we were doing in Vietnam. He said we had no business being there. George Santayana said, in 1905, in The Life of Reason, "those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

James Ralston is a columnist for the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia.
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