The Lessons of Viet Nam Ignored Again

Forty years ago I had just graduated from college and entered law school. John Kennedy had been assassinated three years earlier and Lyndon Johnson had been elected President in one of the ugliest campaigns America had ever experienced. Having lied to the American public about Barry Goldwater, Johnson began a long series of lies about the escalating Viet Nam War — a war he had inherited from Kennedy.

I did not serve in that war. I was washed out of advanced ROTC in my senior year because of injuries. All three of my roommates, who were also members of the advanced ROTC, went on to serve — one in intelligence, one in the infantry and one as a helicopter pilot. They joined other young men whom I knew from high school and college — some volunteered, most were drafted.

About this same time, the nascent anti-war movement was gaining steam. Every day the national print and television media carried pictures and stories of the deaths of American soldiers. They were accompanied by a myriad of stories that cast the murderous North Vietnam regime as folk heroes and America has an unwanted aggressor. Spurred by favorable media coverage the anti-war movement gained strength and legitimacy even though elements of it engaged in domestic terrorist acts. Finally, the politicians — never pillars of courage — joined the fray. Eugene McCarthy prodded our conscience and George McGovern became the first of many Democrats to find fault in everything America did.

Somewhere in the midst of all of this, we stopped fighting to win. President Johnson decided to manage the war directly. He ignored his generals and began prescribing battles and strategies designed by a politician for political, not military, purposes. For instance, there were areas used routinely by North Vietnam and the Vietcong rebels to assemble, re-supply, and recover that were declared off-limits to American troops and bomber. They became safe havens for the enemy.

Each new initiative by the anti-war forces in Congress imposed greater restrictions, less support and more criticism. But, while crippling their ability to fight, none in Congress appeared to have the courage to force a withdrawal and accept the blame for defeat. All the while, we continued to throw more and more troops — my friends and classmates — into a meat grinder that simply chewed up these young men without purpose or direction.

The major newspapers and the broadcast television networks embarked on a one-sided, multi-year crusade to create opposition to the war. American atrocities, real and imagined, were headlined. North Vietnamese atrocities, both before and after the war, went unreported. Battle victories were ignored while battle defeats and growing body counts were splashed across page one or led the evening news. All the while, the politicians continued the endless chain of young men into combat.

Throughout the course of the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson proved to be a prolific liar and his successor, Richard Nixon, who promised to end the war, proved to be no better. In the end, over 58,000 young men lost their lives. Another 300,000 were injured with over half of them requiring hospitalization. The young men, who stood in harm’s way at the behest of their presidents and their Congress returned home, defeated, vilified and ultimately confused. Why had they and their comrades been asked to make the ultimate sacrifice? For what purposes was the war fought? And most importantly, why was the war lost?

Historians will continue to debate the first two questions but the answer to the latter is clear and irrefutable. We lost the Vietnam War because the politicians decided not to win

War in an inhumane, but often necessary, act. It is violent, it is barbaric, people die, things are destroyed. It is certainly not for the faint at heart. It cannot be prosecuted politely. It cannot have rules that are imposed only on one side. And it cannot be ended on the assumption that our withdrawal will end the blood shed and the savagery.

In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, hundreds of thousand of Vietnamese were executed or imprisoned by the North Vietnamese and Vietcong. Nearly 2 million people were executed by their allied Khmer Rouge armies in Cambodia. The “magnificent patriots” lauded by the anti-war advocates exacted their revenge with the full knowledge that America’s media would ignore their atrocities.

It is understandable that there are those who are pacifists and abhor the nature of war itself. What is not understandable is how politicians can continue to sacrifice the lives of our young men and women in a war that they refuse to win but will not accept the blame for a loss. Can winning the next election be so important that you will continue to posture rather than act decisively? There must surely be a circle of hell reserved for those who have toyed with our nation’s finest for their own political gain.

In the end, either fight to win or bring them home now.