Vietnam: A Retrospective

Reflections on the War in Vietnam

by Mac Lawrence

May 1, 2000


My son was draft age during the Vietnam War. When the casualties mounted and the military needed more bodies, they held a lottery. Dave's number was three - no question he would be called up. What were his choices? Joining the military with intent to kill was not one of them; he had already filed for C.O. status - Conscientious Objector. Would the draft board honor his C.O. beliefs? Luckily he did not have to find out, choosing to continue his college education, a route open to so many young people of the middle to upper class, leaving the fighting to those who wanted to go or couldn't avoid it.

Some people called those like Dave traitors. But it is no more fair to make such a judgment than it was of the anti-war activists to vilify the young men who did the fighting.

Having to face the possibility of my son going to war sharpened my interest in the Vietnam war, to say the least. I had been a naval officer in WWII, but fortunately never had to shoot anybody or get shot at. WWII was, as Studs Terkel said, "The Good War." Devastating yes, but necessary, heroic, clear cut, patriotic. My country calls, I answer.

For me, Vietnam was entirely different. It was the final loss of innocence and illusion about automatic trust in the wisdom of the nation's leaders. It never made sense to me that it was possible to quash an idea (in this case, communism) by violence. Vietnam was such an egregious example of the futility of that approach that I was dumbfounded. What in God's name were our leaders thinking of, to engage in such a war? And what went on in the minds of so many Americans who supported the war?

History says that it was a television war, and that the pictures on TV showing the violence and killing - which is what war is -- was what turned the American people against the war. I don't know. I could not stand to watch the news. I could not even watch M*A*S*H then, though I must have seen each program at least three times during reruns years later. All I could do during the war was try to understand the why of what we were doing, and work to end the madness.

Recently, PBS ran a series on the Vietnam war that was incredibly well done, and absolutely riveting - like the series Victory at Sea that followed WWII. Night after night I sat there entranced, watching the Vietnam debacle unfold, marveling at our arrogance, our stupidity, our ability to ignore reality, our willingness to accept the "light at the end of the tunnel" that no one ever saw, the napalm, the Agent Orange, the massive increases in troops, the body count and body bags, the extension of the bombing into the north and into Cambodia. I saw on film the North Vietnamese as they planned our defeat, knowing that they would eventually win because they fought for the survival of their country and their people. I watched as small, wiry men and women, old and young, walked hundreds of miles carrying heavy weapons and ammunition, setting up their guns and mortars to surround our advanced bases, and shelling our troops methodically and mercilessly. I watched them plan the Tet Offensive, and carry it out.

On our side, I marveled throughout at the courage and sacrifice of our own soldiers, and at the effort and logistics it took to bring to that far off place all that was required to fight a complex war. And I sat there transfixed as one general after another, one politician after another, one president after another -- knowing the truth -- lied to the American public.

And, finally, I watched as America withdrew from a lost war. In the eyes of many, it was a staggering blow to our national pride, strengthening their vow that forever after the U.S. would be so strong militarily that we could wage two global wars simultaneously, and win. The result - certainly part of the Vietnam legacy -- is both a bloated military and a confrontational, kick-butt attitude that now extends far beyond the western hemisphere to the entire globe.

One of my favorite groups is the Center for Defense Information (CDI), a collection of retired admirals, generals, and other high-level military, who understand the limitation of military power and say it plainly. Ordinary citizens can oppose things like NATO expansion, the U.S. as unilateral supercop, and our continued reliance on nuclear weapons. But when CDI's Rear Admiral Eugene Carroll, former director of U.S. military operations for all U.S. forces in Europe and the Middle East, says it, it has decidedly more impact. And this is what he's been saying in speeches around the country - this one given at the University of Missouri March 23.

"This [kick-butt] attitude seems to be at the very root of America's rejection of cooperative efforts to make the world a safer place under the rule of law. Chauvenistic jingoes claim to see a threat to U.S. sovereignty in every agreement which subjects Americans to international norms. Our leaders seem to believe that as the world's most powerful nation we alone are empowered to proclaim and enforce American standards and judgments anywhere in the world. One truth stands out in history: Every nation or empire which would subjugate others will ultimately fail if they attempt to base their dominion on military force."

Strong words. If only Congress and the Executive would listen. But they still don't get it that no nation is wealthy enough to be the superpower on guard everywhere around the globe, and that the rest of the world won't continue to put up with that kind of hegemony. We're still operating on the idea enunciated by President George Bush: "We call the shots."

One final thought: The Samson strength of the military may already be shorn of its power. The razor that shaved it: the computer. Or so I gathered from last weeks' 60 Minutes' segment on cyberwar. Anyone with the smarts and a laptop anywhere in the world can break into any other nation's computer system and take control, disrupting its war-making capabilities, infrastructure, banking systems, power plants, energy and water distribution systems.

Vietnam has left its legacy and its lesson: Better for the world's only superpower to make friends and cooperate than to continue to demand that the world does everything its way.


Vietnam: A Retrospective

Introduction - by Gilles d'Aymery
Prism And Touchstone - by Rick Rozoff
The Road to Wisdom - by Aleksandra Priestfield
Through the Eyes of a Child - by Jan Baughman
The Trauma of Coming Home - by Doug Baughman
Making Sense out of Senselessness - by Eileen Rinde
An Uneasy Peace - by Margaret Wyles
Myths and Reality - by Antony Black
Stay Under the Radar Screen - by Milo Clark
Conclusion - by Gilles d'Aymery


Published May 1, 2000
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