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'The Vietnam War' stirs a depressing hopelessness

Long-time readers might recall a column published way back in April of 2000, on the 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. 

Admitting that, for many Vietnam veterans, acceptance would have to substitute for reconciliation, the column noted that acceptance didn't extend to watching America repeat the war's mistakes. 

"Nothing can bring back the dead," the column acknowledged, "but those who survived can and must insure that our leaders never again are permitted to sacrifice so many so arrogantly in so fruitless an enterprise. That much, at least, Vietnam's veterans owe to themselves."

I should have known better. This week, even as film-makers Ken Burns's & Lynn Novick's much-heralded retrospective on the Vietnam War began airing on PBS, we learned that 3,000 more troops are en route to Afghanistan to join the 10,000+ already there, embroiled in a war now more than half again longer than the Vietnam War and, on current evidence, no more likely to end successfully. 

For Vietnam vets like me, watching the Burns & Novick film is painful less for the memories that its scenes exhume, unsettling as they are, but rather for its portrayal of the misjudgments, misrepresentations, and flat-out lies that produced them.

Reviewing the documentary this week for the on-line blog War on the Rocks, historian Jon Askonas complains that its tagline - "There is No Single Truth in War" - sentimentalizes a much harsher reality. 

"For many involved," he points out "- grieving mothers, angry protesters, veterans who lost their friends, limbs, or peace of mind - the Vietnam War did pretty much boil down to a single truth: A loss, a lie, or a crime of such enormity that nothing else mattered."

With stark clarity, Burns & Novick confirm what we've known for a very long time: 

  That American political leaders squandered their fellow-citizens' lives and treasure recklessly in a stubborn effort to impose a corrupt and detested government on an unwilling Vietnamese population. 

  That they publicly justified those sacrifices as strategically necessary to defeat communism, even while privately admitting that their real purpose was to avoid political embarrassment and electoral damage. 

  That military leaders promised repeatedly that, with just a few more troops and a little more time, they would be able to compel a determined enemy to surrender at the negotiating table what they were unable to achieve on the battlefield. 

In the end, every one of those promises proved expensively empty. That we seem four decades later to be replaying a similar script is unspeakably depressing.

Critics of the comparison will object that the war in Afghanistan was and remains an essential response to the events of 9-11-01. We needed to punish al Qaeda and the Taliban for what they did to us, the argument goes, and prevent them from repeating it. 

Well, let's think about that. Formerly limited to Afghanistan's fastnesses, al Qaeda now extends from North Africa to Southwest Asia. As for the Taliban, briefly driven from their own country, they now again control nearly half of it.

Meanwhile, along with Iraq, the war already has cost more than $2 trillion. That works out to more than a million dollars per 9-11-01 fatality, never mind the opportunity costs to other budget priorities ignored. The same money, for example, would have purchased full university scholarships for every one of the 13,000-odd children born on 9-11-01 and now reaching college age, with money left over.

Writing in a recent review of Mark Bowden's new book Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, former Marine and Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes spoke directly to those who criticize what they disparagingly call the "Vietnam Syndrome."

"If by Vietnam syndrome we mean the belief that the U.S. should never again engage in (a) military interventions in foreign civil wars without clear objectives and a clear exit strategy, (b) 'nation building' in countries about whose history and culture we are ignorant, and (c) sacrificing our children when our lives, way of life, or 'government of, by, and for the people' are not directly threatened, then we should never get over Vietnam syndrome. It's not an illness; it's a vaccination."

Sadly, as the last 16 years demonstrate and this week's events confirm, the vaccination didn't take. Instead, the generation that suffered through the Vietnam War, whether fighting it or opposing it, now stands mute as still another generation of soldiers and families endures the same endless purgatory.

But of course, this time, there's no draft. For most Americans, Afghanistan is a minor irritant that touches them only distantly if at all. So there are no marches on Washington, no riots on the nation's campuses, no hearings in the U.S. Senate.

Were I to rewrite that April 2000 column today, I would know better than to charge my fellow vets with an obligation we've proved powerless to satisfy. 

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