What did we learn from Vietnam? Part 2

Author Todd Gitlin, filmmaker Freida Lee Mock and journalist Andrew Lam on the lasting effects of the war.


Fiona Morgan
April 25, 2000 8:00PM (UTC)

Todd Gitlin, author of "The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage"

The war accomplished the deaths of about 3 million Vietnamese. It accomplished nothing for the political future of Vietnam -- Vietnam became communist, as it would have without our involvement. I can't think of anything constructive that it accomplished, except perhaps to remind subsequent political leaders that they should not arrogantly assume that they can work their political will wherever and whenever they want. It convinced them moreover that they should think twice before committing American military forces without major alliances -- it damaged the prospect for unilateral action, which is a good thing. Overall, it was an absolutely horrible moment in American history.

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I think now of revisionist arguments what I thought then, that they reflect a tremendous ignorance of the discrepancy between what the Vietnamese communists felt about the war and what we did. Vietnam wasn't really very important to us, as the end of the war showed. It was everything to the Vietnamese communists, and they would have fought for a hundred years. I suppose we could have killed them all -- I don't think that's what the revisionists had in mind. But short of pulverizing the country, I don't see how a war could have been won.

It's made American leadership reluctant to commit American force for any purpose other than a weekend war, or a war where we have overwhelming strength and strong international support. Iraq and Kosovo fit the second bill, and Granada and Panama fit the first. This cuts across political lines. The military, if anything, is the most reluctant to repeat the lessons of Vietnam. It doesn't want to take the chance of a prolonged war that incurs significant casualties and it doesn't want to get hung out to dry.

Some people on the left and on the right have concluded from the Vietnam War, on the isolationist side, that the U.S. should not commit military force anywhere for any purpose. I think that's mistaken. Because the U.S. was criminally wrongheaded in the case of Vietnam, it does not follow that there can be no legitimate use of force. I think a use of force toward humanitarian ends is legitimate. It should be done in alliance -- it should not be done unilaterally. It would have been absolutely right to do it in Rwanda, it was right to do it in Bosnia, and it would have been right to do it in Kosovo, where it should have been done earlier.

But the war traumatized American elites and led them to stall where they could have actually done some good with military force. The Weinberger principle is the recourse of elites whose political grip was loosened, or even shattered, by a horrendous mistake in Vietnam, and I'm glad they learned something. It's certainly the case that political support is an absolute requirement in a democratic society for an extended military intervention, and it should be very rare. I would not accept the interpretation that would bar the use of military force in low investment, relatively rapid commitments of military force in cases like Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo. I'm speaking in favor of the possibility, not the inevitability, of military intervention in alliance with substantial other forces whose responsibility should not be usurped by us.

Because the war was so catastrophic, it loosened the ideal of a single American identity. A great deal of American political identity came from the Cold War, and Vietnam seemed to be the logical consequence of the Cold War. Because so much was claimed for the Vietnam War, as a core of American commitment in the world, the catastrophe of the war undermined the country's ability to formulate a common identity. In addition, the centrifugal movements in American society since then have deepened that difficulty.

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The war did a lot to undermine the authority of institutions. It wasn't the war by itself, but in the setting of general revolt. But all in all, the war is an important part in this turn against authority, suspicion of power, suspicion of the government in particular, and that has constructive as well as destructive consequences. Obviously because the war was so unpopular, the draft was ditched, and in that sense America returned to a previous sort of minimizing of citizen commitment. Even today, it would take some immense upheaval to reinstate the draft. Probably, ironically, the war helped accelerate the attempt to technologize war, to make the armed forces dependent on weaponry that would not put American armed forces in harm's way. We've gotten a more professional and a more technologically dependent military in part as a consequence of the aversion to the Vietnam War.

One other element which is elusive is that the war put a hole in the American heart, and it undermined some wishful and partly confirmed mystique of American destiny. It taught many of us that evil wasn't something that grew on trees elsewhere but that grew on our own, as well. Tom Engelhardt has written a book called "The End of Victory Culture" and that concept is right. Much of America's conception of itself was built on a sense of our inevitable rendezvous with destiny and our inevitable triumph. We were the winners. That's what God had given us, the capacity to win. That was broken, and I don't think it has been repaired. It's not easily repaired. That is probably a good thing, on balance, although there's a loss in it also.

Freida Lee Mock, documentary filmmaker, director of "Return With Honor," on POWs who survived years of captivity in North Vietnam

"Return With Honor" was really not about arguing the rightness or the wrongness of the war, but looking at an aspect of that war and how individuals dealt with that. It was a story of captivity. While it's grounded in the Vietnam experience, it's really a universal story of survival.

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The men in the film gave an extraordinary sacrifice that most people have never had to do: almost eight and a half years of captivity, which included a tremendous amount of torture. It makes you understand much more the complexities of war, and puts a face on a war that most of us hadn't seen. And it fills in that particular story for Vietnam, because I think there was a public policy not to let people know that we had POWs up in North Vietnam being treated the way they were treated, for political reasons. That war was won ultimately on the propaganda front, and these men were tools, pawns in that whole game. Theirs was a much more political captivity than in World War II.

I did not specifically ask them, was that war right or wrong. We felt that would make the film political in a way that it was never intended. I feel as a filmmaker, if you deal with Vietnam, you deal with Vietnam and its controversies, and you force the audience to take sides. While still doing honor to the story, we felt we didn't have to deal with the politics of that war. In this case, most of those men believed in serving their country. It would have been the same in World War II. They're no different than the men and women who served in earlier wars.

These men of that particular generation who entered in the early '60s into that war are products of the post WWII sense of duty and patriotism. That's part of what was expected of young men. The anti-war movement came later in the '60s -- most of the guys in the film were shot down by '66. What the war means to them was an expression not so much of the specifics of Vietnam but about the issue of duty to country.

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The captives were so isolated that the information they got was very minimal. What they did get were some images of antiwar activists and images of cities burning out -- this is '65-'68. In that context, they didn't understand what was going on in this country. Sitting in prison, I think they didn't quite believe it. But they found out when they came home that it was true, that there were antiwar activists. They came back to a society dramatically transformed.

In the film, one gentleman, Bob Shumaker, says that to question the war when you're sitting in jail was not the time to question it. That was a form of survival. If you began to doubt your mission or your purpose, then your chances of resisting are much weaker. On a personal basis you have to justify the rightness of your actions. All of them believed that they signed up for this, they gave an oath to the Code of Conduct that they would honor their country and they didn't want to betray that. In one sense, it gave them a tremendous sense of strength and self-respect, during that time and afterward. And of course our country treated the POWs very well, contrary to what happened to the men who fought in the South. They were the one group of soldiers who were welcomed home by left and right and given thanks.

The idea of Vietnam never goes away. It continues to be a part of their lives. For many, or for some, they go back and try to do positive things. For example, our Ambassador [Pete] Peterson was a POW for six and a half years. Today he lives in a nice ambassador's residence, about three and a half blocks from the Hanoi Hilton prison, where he had been held.

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I think the Vietnam War was a watershed in terms of our questioning authority. It was the beginning of a sense of loss. Before that time there was a sense of innocence and unspoken acceptance of what the government said. There was a dramatic change, and a healthy one in the sense that people began to question a lot of things. It's tied up with the civil rights movement and the women's movement. But the Vietnam War was the fundamental catalyst. It made us all grow up in a way we hadn't before.

Andrew Lam, journalist with Pacific News Service, whose father was an officer in the South Vietnamese army

Before Nixon went to China in 1972 and effectively rearranged Cold War politics, the Vietnam War gave an effective stall to communist expansion plans, though I must say at a great cost to Vietnam and its people. Vietnam was one of those places where the Cold War turned hot and the Vietnamese, both North and South, were pawns to ideologies that were not inherent in Vietnamese traditions. That the Cold War chess game descended onto Vietnam gave other countries a breather, especially neighboring Thailand, which developed unimpeded and, in fact, benefited directly from the Vietnam War. The money the U.S. dumped into Thailand -- R&R and investment and beefing-up infrastructure to create a middle class -- alone made that country rich, not to mention Malaysia and Indonesia.

I think the Pentagon's lesson from the Vietnam War is that you cannot have a drawn-out war. The body bags that came back and the TV images turned Americans against that war. We see now in the case of the Persian Gulf War the lessons drawn from the Vietnam War are quite simple: Hit your enemies hard, hit them fast, minimize casualties via the use of high technology (smart bombs and computer simulations and satellites) and above all, restrict journalists' movements. The Americans had no chance in a long drawn-out war since Americans' endurance for such things are zilch.

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On the other hand, the South Vietnamese complaint, which is never heard in America, is that they were betrayed. After the Paris agreement, the South Vietnamese army lost air support and even ammunition support. Nearing the end of the war soldiers had to ration their bullets, and without air support were sitting ducks for the North -- which was amply supplied with Russian MIGs and other weapons. The South was outgunned after the Americans left. Many felt they could have defended South Vietnam by themselves if they had arms support.

My experience as a journalist working with many different newspapers is that the majority of those editors now running the newspapers and TV news programs came into their own from their wartime experience in Vietnam. Vietnam, in the cultural context, has a become a metaphor for American tragedy. A country that previously saw itself as chosen by God -- manifest destiny and all that -- is made humble by what some had called a fourth-rate power. Someone who served in Vietnam is understood to be disturbed in the movies. And strange as this may sound, I think Americans believe more in ghosts now because of the Vietnam War. You can look forward if you win a war. If you lose a war, you are held static to the tragedy. Ghosts in a way are a representation of the mystery of the past.


Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan is an associate editor for Salon News.

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