Vietnam: The Longest War

Let me start by saying I am not a Vietnam Veteran, nor am I an historian or political scientist… but I am a veteran of the Vietnam era who was never shot at, nor did I ever shoot at anyone.   I served in the U.S. Army from February of 1966 to March of 1969, an span that history suggests was at the height of the war and a time in which public sentiment turned against the war.  I should also say that I’m pretty sure I would not be where I am today except for the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War is my war.  The war of my generation.  The war that killed and maimed, and psychologically damaged hundreds of thousands of men of my age.  The war that became known as the worst foreign policy disaster in the history of America.  The war that was fought by common men who fought with uncommon valor, and who thought that their sacrifice, their heroism was not only in our national interest, but also a critical element in a larger fight against the spread of communism.  Of course, sadly, they were wrong.

One might think it unusual that I would be writing of Vietnam when Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria are dominating current news cycles and presenting serious new challenges for our policy makers and our military.  You’re right, I probably would not be writing this piece if our small town in Northeast Texas were not preparing to host an exhibit of the Texas Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  I was asked to present a lecture on the history of the Vietnam War as a part of a month-long program honoring Texas Veterans of the War.  My preparations for this lecture stirred long dormant memories and feelings about the War and my small part in it.  I spent a year training to lead men in combat, presumably  in Vietnam and another two years in a classified project to field computer systems to support combat division in the field. Unlike most of my colleagues, my most dangerous assignment was safely navigating happy hour on Friday at the Officer’s Club.  Now all I can do is reflect on the meaning of what happened in a part of the world that few knew about, and even fewer cared about.

Historians would have us believe that the passage of time provides an opportunity to achieve greater clarity and deeper knowledge of important events, but in many ways the Vietnam War is not so far removed.  People are still suffering from damage done to their bodies and their minds by this War.  New information is being unclassified even today.  The Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington, DC wasn’t dedicated until 1982, and it was only in 1995 that the U.S. gave full diplomatic recognition to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.  When I visited visited Vietnam in 2010, I was told by a member of the Vietnamese Parliament that the United States was only rated 11th in foreign direct investment in Vietnam.  Billions to fight a war and now only meager investment in their burgeoning free-market economy.  Now, in 2017, we are 7th after the British Virgin Islands and Hong Kong.  Go figure.  Perhaps, then, this is exactly the right time to look back at the ongoing tragedy of Vietnam, as we are yet again faced with strategic and military decisions for which the consequences will not be known for decades, and the costs will be with us forever.

One of the many oddities of what we call “the Vietnamese War” and the Vietnamese call “the War of American Aggression,” is that it has no beginning.  No official beginning, that is.  I’m tempted to say that at least the antecedent, if not the start, was in 1950 when Truman turned his back on Ho Chi Minh’s entreaties of alliance, and supported instead our friends the French who wanted nothing more than a return to the pre-war colonial domination of Vietnam.  Actually, it was in 1945 that we suffered our first casualty – an OSS officer killed by the Viet Minh.  Others would say the war started in 1955 when Truman established the Military Assistance Advisory Group-Vietnam (MAAG-V).  Maybe it started when JFK sent the first organized U.S. military force to Vietnam in 1961.  Or did it start on August 7, 1964 when Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized Lyndon Johnson to use “conventional forces” in pursuit of our objectives in Vietnam.  Certainly the war was well underway when LBJ agreed with General Westmoreland’s request to commit forty-four combat battalions to Vietnam.  I’m not sure that the start date for the war makes much difference now, but the parallels with what has been happening in the Middle East are obvious.

The end date of the war is a little clearer, but not by much.  The Paris Peace Accords, for which negotiations began in 1968, were finally signed by the United States and North Vietnam on January 27, 1973.  Note that the government of South Vietnam did not sign, nor were the Accords ever approved by the U.S. Senate.  Another one of those pesky Executive Agreements that we’re still arguing about.  In June 1973, the Congress did pass the so called Case-Church Amendment, which prohibited further combat operations in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The legislation allowed us to continue bombing until August 15, which we did.   On April 29, 1975 two marines serving in the protection detail at the U.S. embassy were killed. On April 30, 1975, one day later, the last Americans left Saigon. You tell me when the war was over.  All of this just to try to get to the alpha and omega of the war.

CAUSES 

It’s a challenge to rationally discuss the cause of a war, when even agreement on when it started is so illusive.  But I must at least try.  Let me give you the punch line first.  As you might have suspected, there is no single cause of the war in Vietnam, but there were major events that contributed to the tragedy.

  1. The failure of French colonialism in Indochina. (1893-1954)
  2. World War II and the rise of Ho Chi Minh
  3. The Cold War, including the pervasive fear of communism, the Theory of Containment, and the so called Domino Theory.

Each of these has been the subject of hundreds of scholarly writings, and no, you will not be burdened here with more of the same.  I will only say that in looking back, what now appears to be irrational fears of communism, and that leading us to a strategy of stopping the spread of communism (Theory of Containment), were the principal villains in the decision to commit our country to a military and economic adventure that ultimately failed at such an  extraordinary cost.  You will be more familiar with the Domino Theory, which held that we must draw the line on communism in Vietnam, or else the whole of Southeast Asia might collapse under the nefarious weight of the commies.

I suspect, but don’t know, of many among us who could extemporaneously define the principle tenets of communism, but those of you of a certain age can certainly call to mind the John Birch Society, and Nikita Khruschev pounding his shoe on the podium at the United Nations and shouting, “We will bury you!” or words to that effect.  We can also call to mind the witch hunt for communists in the government, the Army/ McCarthy hearings which peaked in the 1950s,  and the blacklisting of artists who might have had “relationships” with some dirty commie organization or person.  Yes, we were afraid of the communists, and their rhetoric and their missiles in Cuba and elsewhere.  We hated the Berlin Wall, which was built by the commies, and what it stood for, and we knew that communism had to be stopped in its tracks.  And we would do whatever it took anywhere in the world, and evidently, regardless of the cost.

So the principle rationale for our “intervention” in Vietnam, as reported in a detailed foreign policy analysis by the American Institute of American History, and validated by every serious look at our strategy, was as follows:

  1. A communist takeover of South Vietnam would open the way to communist expansion elsewhere in Asia.
  2. This, in turn, would cause our allies and our adversaries (read USSR) to question the credibility of the United States’ commitments around the world, and
  3. Would invite further aggression and endanger other U.S. alliances.

So you see, we had to do it.  We had absolutely no choice but to commit the blood and treasure of our Commonwealth to the jungles of Vietnam.  Or did we?  A CIA report on the consequences of losing in Vietnam, published September 12, 1967 (we were already thinking about losing?), was finally declassified in December of 1993, and said in part: “Losing…would not permanently damage the U.S. position in the world by opening the way to a devastating chain of communists takeovers or destroying US credibility….further it would not unduly embolden the USSR to mount new insurgencies.”  

What?  Our own national intelligence service opined in 1967 that losing to the dirty commies in Vietnam really wouldn’t be such a big deal…tactically or strategically?  Yet still we forged ahead anyway  We spent more lives and more money; divided our country into war and anti-war factions; the Chicago convention riots; shooting college students at Kent State, and on and on and on.  All for a war whose rationale was fallacious and whose outcome was so disastrous for so many.  Even Robert McNamara, who some would say was the chief architect of the strategy of “containment,” commented with the benefit of hindsight, “…The ideology of a generation of policy makers and a flawed set of policies, more than anything else, explain why the U.S. intervened in Vietnam and ultimately failed.”  An understatement if I’ve ever heard one.

COSTS 

Oddly, the number crunchers who do so well in other endeavors, don’t seem to prosper in times of war, for the truth is that no one really knows how much the war cost.  Well, maybe it’s not so odd, given that the beginning and end dates of this war is rather a moveable feast.  Believe it or not, I’ve seen estimates of the direct military costs that range from $173 billion to $770 billion.  Hmmm?  Quite a spread, wouldn’t you say.  The indirect cost estimates range from $250 billion to $1 trillion.  Who knows what the bean counters put in the indirect pot, but I know for sure what they don’t include.  They didn’t include my brother Craig, who died thirty years after cessation of hostilities from a failed liver transplant necessitated by cirrhosis of the liver.  I’m no doc, but even I can trace his failed liver to the alcoholism and dope addition he brought home with him from eleven months in-country.  Btw, the numbers above are U.S. costs only.  Who knows what the costs were for our allies, much less our enemies.  We surely need another indirect cost category that would input all the lives lost and damaged in the war.  I’ll give you the particulars below, but suffice it to say that these costs, to me, are incalculable.  To put a number on it would be, well, so horrible that I can’t even contemplate it.  So I’ll not even try, but I will remind you of my friend, bunkmate and comrade-in-arms, Charlie Grizzle, about whom  I wrote in a previous blog entitled http://garyjfernandes.com/in-memoriam.

In short, Charlie was one of those people that you just knew would succeed at anything he did.  But Charlie was killed less than sixty days after he joined the 5th Mechanized Infantry in Vietnam.  Sadly, we will never know what he would have done in the life he did not lead.    There is clearly a cost to our society in his death, but I don’t know how to put a monetary value on it.

CONSEQUENCES

These run from the general to the very specific.  Let me give you a few you might not have thought of:  the draft was replaced with an all volunteer military; the voting age was reduced to eighteen; the War Powers Act was adopted; the monetary cost and related debt of the war initiated a cycle of inflation that plagued our economy; the morale of the military plummeted; our foreign policy tilted toward nationalism and isolationism; the Democratic party was split and its effectiveness undermined; Nixon was elected, leading ultimately to Watergate; the liberal reforms of the Great Society were weakened; trust in government institutions reached a nadir; and the massacre at My Lai and other acts committed in the name of war diminished the moral superiority of the U.S.  I’m sure you could think of others.  All of this before we even get to the KIAs, wounded, missing,   those with PTSD, agent orange victims, drug addicts, and those who suffered and still suffer from a potpourri of emotional and mental distress.  Not a pretty list to be sure.

The death toll of U.S. citizens in all our wars is difficult to contemplate, and toll of deaths related directly to combat in Vietnam is only fourth in a long list behind the Civil War, WWII, WWI, and just in front of the Korean War.  But for deaths related to a failed foreign policy to contain communism, and authorized by legislation relating to a fake event called the Tonkin Gulf Resolution,  the Vietnam War is the leader by far.  Pinning down the exact number of deaths is surprisingly difficult.  Should the death toll include “friendly fire” deaths (yes), suicides (no), training deaths in-country (yes), training deaths in the U.S. (no), ex post facto deaths, i.e. agent orange or other war-related wounds (no).  You see what I mean.  The Vietnam Memorial has 58,315 names etched on its granite face today, but it started with 58,191.  Another reputable source puts the number killed in Vietnam at 58,520.  And that’s just deaths for United States military.  We also suffered 303,640 wounded, of which 74,000 became quadriplegics or double amputees.  If you were to add the 6,000 or so of our allies that were killed, the military deaths of the Republic of Vietnam, Viet Cong and North Vietnam, and then topped it off with the Vietnamese civilians who died, you get pretty quickly to about 2,000,000 men, women and children who died as direct result of the war.

Was it worth it?  Of course, not.  Today, if you were of a mind and had some loose change or an unlimited credit card, you could  buy some fake or authentic Louis Vuitton luggage or a Mercedes Benz sedan in Ho Chi Minh City or even in Hanoi.  Or you could stay at a globally-competitive five-star resort at Hoi An or Nha Trang, or Danang…all of which were scenes of fierce combat not that long ago.  I looks much like the invisible hand of capitalism at work.  Is this what we spent our precious blood and treasure for?

So much for containing Communism.

N.B. I was in Washington, DC last week for a board meeting and was rewarded with a free morning.  After a trip to the Apple store in Georgetown to get yet another iWatch charging cable, I was drawn again to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.  I was early so I didn’t have much competition in finding the wall location of several of my friends.  As I stood in silent sadness, a veteran volunteer approached me and asked if I needed help.  I tried to speak, but couldn’t.  He put his arm around my shoulder and shared my grief.