In doing research for my latest novel, I read several books on the Vietnam War. I wanted a perspective from sides. There were lessons we might apply to our foreign policies today. The books were,
A Viet Cong Memoir by Truong Nhu Tang. Tang rose to the position of Minister of Justice within the Provisional Revolutionary Government of Vietnam (PRG.) Tang now lives in exile in France.
Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram. Tram was a doctor who treated wounded members of the National Liberation Front (NLF) and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA.) She traveled by foot on the Ho Chi Minh trail into South Vietnam. She was killed by American forces in 1968 with several NVA soldiers. She was 28 years-old. The story of how her diaries survived the war and emerged decades later makes it worth the read.
On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War by (Col. Ret.) Harry G. Summers
Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam by Mark Bowden
For those of us who came of age during the “American” war in Vietnam, these books are quite unsettling.
They are also a valuable lesson for today.
My first inkling that much of what I believed about the Vietnam War was wrong started when I watched the documentary The Fog of War, interviews with Robert McNamara. He was one of the prime architects of American policy, from initial involvement to the escalation putting more than five hundred thousand American combat troops in the country.
I’d also read Stanly Karnow’s Vietnam: A History and referred to it during my research.
In developing one of the main characters in the book, a former Viet Cong fighter (or more properly the National Liberation Front as I learned in my research), I wanted to understand their view of American intervention.
To say it changed my perspective is an understatement.
Most Americans saw Vietnam as a roadblock to the domino effect of the spread of communism. To most Vietnamese, we were just another in a series of colonial powers using Vietnam for our own benefit.
Our single focus on stopping the spread of communism, something we perceived as a monolith led in partnership by the Soviets and China, blinded us to the more distinct emergence of anti-colonial nationalism within countries such as Vietnam.
Contrary to what I and most Americans believed, there were three distinct sides fighting the war. Each with their own purpose.
The South Vietnamese government, supported by us. A democratic government in name only, led by men who rose to power through assassination and intrigue. They used torture and violence to suppress opposition.
The National Liberation Front consisting mostly of Southern Vietnamese seeking self-determination within South Vietnam. They relied on the North for military support, understood they could never defeat the American forces militarily and used a combination of guerilla tactics and political efforts to drag out the war. They understood the anti-war movement within the US would eventually exhaust America’s tolerance for suffering losses.
The NVA and government of North Vietnam. They sought a unified Vietnam under the socialist system. Ho Chi Minh, who died in 1969, held less stringent insistence on reunification recognizing the strength of the nationalist spirit in the south. On his death, a more intense socialist power structure gained control.
Our unwillingness to gain an understanding of the true nature of the political situation in Vietnam, coupled with a rabid Cold War philosophy, effectively eliminated any opportunity to avoid military intervention.
There were some who argued this point but were ignored. The Cold War mentality blinded even the most brilliant Americans to the changing reality of the world.
There is evidence that JFK understood the finer points of Vietnamese nationalism, and perhaps held a less comfortable feeling for our intervention tactics in controlling the South Vietnamese government, but that is academic.
What does this all have to do with today?
In the words of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”
During the height of World War II, sentiment in America about Germany and Japan was one of abject hate. Our efforts were focused on defeating them quickly and completely.
Yet, as soon as we ended the immediate war, we did not seek their total annihilation. We understood that while many Germans were Nazis, it was not all Germans. While some did nothing, others worked secretly to change Germany.
Same with the Japanese. If one asked a Marine riflemen on Iwo Jima about what he wanted to do, the answer would be to kill all the Japanese. He meant to kill the Japanese trying to kill him, not every living Japanese in the world. Even if he didn’t understand that himself.
Today, the world faces the asymmetric threat of Islamic radical fundamentalism and the specter of terrorism. Their goal is to stop the spread of the modern world and the progress of science, rational discourse, and tolerance.
Much like the NLF, the fundamentalists understand they cannot defeat us militarily. They can try to drive us into isolation, or find a way to unleash a nuclear Armageddon, but only if we fail to learn from history.
We must realize that within Islam the majority of the faithful do not condone the violence. They do not support the fundamentalist’s distortion of the Quran. But it is on them to raise their voices and join those who suffer from these terrorist acts in fighting against them.
The solution to radical fundamentalism is not the wholesale destruction of Islam any more than ending the war in Germany or Japan required the genocide of every German or Japanese.
We can learn a lesson from the history of war. We can learn a lesson from the aftermath of Vietnam that blind belief without careful honest analysis to understand those involved can lead to unnecessary horrors.
What happened in Vietnam after we left was inevitable. Truong Nhu Tang left Vietnam, disillusioned by the disaster that Socialism brought to the country. His dream of a self-determined government for the people of South Vietnam dashed on the failed socialist system. This was a man who spent decades fighting for a cause.
Vietnam is just now emerging from the long nightmare. We were never going to change the course of that country.
We spent 56000 American lives winning our way to a Pyrrhic victory. Now is our opportunity to make those lives count for more than a footnote.
There’s a story of a conversation between Colonel Harry Summers (the author of one of the books I mentioned) and a North Vietnamese Colonel Tu during the discussions for the return of American prisoners.
Summers said, “You never defeated us on the battlefield.” To which Colonel Tu said, “That may be true, but it is also irrelevant.”
Before we undertake a policy that involves the commitment of military forces to solve a problem, let’s make sure the result is not irrelevant.