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Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Apocalypse vu

Ron Rosenbaum has an interesting article in the New York Observer about Vietnam, then and now, I don't know that I agree with everything he has but it is a very good read. This here is probably the heart of the article:

If it required the confluence of the Kerry candidacy and the Swift-boat critics to bring Vietnam to the fore, so what? It was a war that killed nearly 60,000 Americans and, if you believe Robert McNamara, up to 3.4 million Vietnamese (I'e seen the figure three million cited elsewhere). Either one is a shocking figure, even more shocking if it doesn't include, as I don't think McNamara intended it to, the nearly equal number of millions killed in the aftermath: the number that the Hanoi victors killed in their gulags, the approximately two million plus murdered by the Cambodian genocide, and the hundreds of thousands of boat people who died fleeing the new Vietnamese police state in the South. Five or six million dead, and we still don't have a consensus on what went wrong and why. We all piously agree that the Vietnam vets "served honorably," but was the war wise, was it waged honorably? Better now than never. Better now than continuing to sweep Vietnam under the rug, shrouding it with sentimentality without a re-examination of what lessons should and shouldn't be learned from its blighted history, and only bringing it out selectively to credit or discredit some policy, some candidate or other.
Iraq of course is not Vietnam, and in a sense, Vietnam wasn't even Vietnam, but I think he is right that we don't have a consensus on what that war, America's greatest military failure meant. Why it happened, why it failed, and what that should mean to us. I am no military historian and I was born only a few years before the war ended so my knowledge of Vietnam is fragmentary. I think though, that part of the difficulty understanding Vietnam is that it was many things, often opposite things, at the same time. One the one hand Vietnam was a part of the battle against against Communism and eventual atrocities proved the worst fears of the anti-communists. On the other, it was a revolution against corrupt colonial forces by idealistic men who wanted to make their nation better. It was a war of poorly executed strategy and tactics that failed to win over the local populous and at the same time a military success that was eventually lost only by rising anti-war sentiment at home. And of course, it was a war that our soldiers fought nobly in, with an aim to improve the lives to the Vietnamese people and yet, atrocities were committed. We never get to know what would have been. Would it be better to have never gone into Vietnam at all? Should we have stayed longer? Was the war just, but the strategy a failure or did the tactics in the war turn a just war into an unjust one? While the wars are different, in some ways the questions of Vietnam are the questions of Iraq. The answers may differ but the questions are just as meaningful, and as difficult to answer.


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