The History and Memory of the Vietnam War

In many ways the memory of the Vietnam War drastically diverges from the actual history of the war. Frequently these differences are propagated by the government, media, or society out of ignorance, contempt, or both. One of the most prominent examples of this is the Tonkin Gulf incident which lead to a resolution with the same name and the escalation of hostilities in the area. The United States government was responsible for starting the incident, but that was not know to the public until long after the war ended. There were social organizations, such as the National League of POW/MIA Families, that would create an alternate view of history to serve their own purposes. Later it was the media, through movies such as Rambo, that would foster a memory of the Vietnam war that was not supported by evidence. The biggest shame of these divergences is that people must expend time and energy setting the facts straight, time and energy that could be better used for exploring the real issues that the nation is or was attempting to solve.

It would seem that the most frequent point of contention surrounding the Vietnam war is its winnability. There are a few people who feel that the United States somehow won the war, most people agree that we lost. Once our loss of the war is entered into evidence the topic turns to cause of the defeat. This theme gains particular importance whenever the US begins preparing for new military engagements.

The hawks pull out the memory of Vietnam in order to explain how their new and improved technology or strategy will yield superior results to what was used in Vietnam. With the recent wars in the Middle East the war profiteers peddled smart bombs that were designed to damage military targets with minimal collateral damage. What is not remembered is the fact that precision bombing was used, too often unsuccessfully, in Vietnam. In Vietnam, as now, there were plenty of examples of errant bombings, such as the Bach Mai hospital. With the recent firing of General McChrystal much discussions about COIN, or counterinsurgency, have been in the news. Based on the reports one would be led to believe that this is some new strategy designed to win the hearts and minds of the indigenous people. What is lost is the similarities to the strategic hamlet programs in Vietnam such as Operation Sunrise. The training of the New Iraqi Army and the Afghan National Army is peculiarly similar to Nixon and Kissinger's Vietnamization plans. There is no indication that there have truly been any significant advances since the ARVN was destroyed in 1975. All of these things are presented as if they are new or as if there have been significant advances in the implementation. Unfortunately it would seem that the only new development is that our opposition is not as well organized or supplied as the NLF and the DRV.

The doves will promptly set about discrediting the hawks' supposed advances, and the conversation turns to winnability. What gets lost is the uniqueness of the situation at hand and the appropriateness of the declaration of war, for both Vietnam and the case at hand. The American war machine sells technology that can win wars, and it would seem that they therefore shape the conversation about a war's winnability rather than about the most cost effective means of meeting the nation's goals. It would seem that if our goals are honorable then we should focus on solving them efficiently in the open rather than relying upon the ancient practice of war and the expensive canned solutions provided by profiteers. I look to the war profiteers as the cause of this because through an economic analysis of the Vietnam war it is clear that only one group of people profited, the military contractors. Every other distinct group in American society, and society as a whole, were economically worse off after the Vietnam war. There is no reason to suspect that this would be different in present and future wars.

This weekend I spoke to a dozen people from various backgrounds who were old enough to have been alive and aware of the Vietnam war. When I asked them about why we were in Vietnam I was surprised that I usually got one of two answers, either “we should not have been there” or “the politicians should have let the military level the place.” I know that my sample size is not large enough to qualify as statistically significant, however the consistency struck me, especially considering that neither of the response truly answer my question. I was a little surprised that there was no mention of the domino theory, it seemed almost as if the answers were reflexive. It almost seems as if there is some sort of groupthink that is propagated by each side of the political spectrum. Unfortunately, as is cliche, those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it, and this bit of apathy could be costly to the soldiers.

In the book Prados makes it clear that there was no such thing as a lost victory. The lessons that Americans should take from the Vietnam war should come from the causes of the war and not the causes of defeat. By taking a class on the subject I have learned a lot about the Vietnam war, and yet I am still not comfortable that I know the true cause. There is a lot machismo type reasons for staying and fighting after the French left, but it would seem the smarter and harder thing to do would have been to withdrawal. The sad things seems to be that the presidents chose the easiest path in order to appear the toughest. So in this sense I believe the common saying that the politicians costs us the war, they lost us the war by allowing us to get into it without clear objectives and timelines.

Originally written August 12, 2010
Published: 2010-11-10