Coming to Terms with Vietnam
A local columnist observed recently that America has never gotten over the Vietnam War experience.
This observation is by now familiar, but we rarely hear what it is about the Vietnam War that we are supposed to get over. The column that occasioned these thoughts focused on the moral evil of destroying a poor Asian country for the sake of stemming an imaginary “red tide.” It contrasted American refusal to face up to our conduct in Vietnam with that of the German Chancellor Willy Brandt who traveled to Poland to beg forgiveness for the German armies that ravaged Poland. No American has gone back to Vietnam to apologize to the Vietnamese people. ( Although Robert MacNamara, Secretary of Defense during significant periods of the Vietnam war has admitted in his autobiography that he, and others, were terribly mistaken about Vietnam).
It is not likely that we will ever offer such an apology and not because we are too ashamed of our moral failings in the conduct of that war.
We will not apologize for what we did in Vietnam because it would require us to admit that we lost the war in Vietnam. The richest most technologically advanced country of the world could not defeat a nation of poor rice farmers, who, walking on flip-flops, moved their military supplies on bicycles through the jungle.
That is an embarrassing defeat –as is the defeat by the Taliban-- but it does not only put our military prowess to shame, but arouses profound fears in the national psyche.
Americans have always been exceptionally war-like. In our entire history, our country was never longer at peace than the twenty four years between WW I and Pearl Harbor. On the average we were at peace for about ten years.
Most of the wars were fought against the native inhabitants of this land. We settled on land that was not ours and were, with a few exceptions like the Pennsylvania Quakers, not willing to share the land. We had to have it all and that meant decimating the original owners.
We have been a very violent people ever since we came here, not only against other peoples but also, as Wendell Berry points out, against the land. Where the native Americans traveled a footpath we have bulldozed the land and laid down 2, 4, 6 lanes of asphalt or concrete. We have cut down forests, damned up rivers and are destroying the fertile topsoil of our farms with chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation.
Violence does not only shape action but affects the imagination. The violent see only allies or enemies; no others exist. Enemies are always a threat; the violent are always in danger as long as they have not conquered every last opponent. Enemies not overcome will always remain a threat. The violent live in fear—however much they may deny that.
That helps us understand our inability to come to terms with the Vietnam War. Once again, we saw an overwhelming danger where there was little or none at all. Having failed to subdue Vietnam, we remain in a world we cannot control. To reflect on Vietnam would require us to acknowledge how vulnerable we are, how much more vulnerable we have become since the middle 1970s.
We are not prepared to face up to that. To face up to Vietnam would require the admission that our violent view of the world keeps seducing us into seeing mortal dangers where there are none. There are not only Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years which we attacked under false pretenses but, more ridiculously, the invasions of Grenada and Panama we justified by the need to protect ourselves.
It is not just that our violent imagination makes us paranoid but that seeing the world as one vast struggle, we cannot be at rest or feel safe until we control everyone and and everything.
That was not even possible as long as our world was limited to this hemisphere. In a globalized world we are just that much less safe. Fearful, we cannot recognize Vietnam for the defeat that it was because it would reveal how dangerous our world is for those who only know how to be violent.