To the editors:
“Lessons and Hopes in Vietnam” (New York Times, May 24, 2016) is breathtaking in its failure to articulate a single useful lesson from the ten-year US war in Vietnam, and its failure, therefore, to offer any hope that the US will behave more wisely moving forward.
Millions of us who lived through those perilous and hopeful times concluded that the US must learn to live as a nation among nations—not the self-styled “world’s last remaining super-power,” not the uber nation playing cop to the world, and not the arrogant exception to the standards all other people must live by. We hoped the US could at long last learn that war is not the answer, and that wherever the US boot (or drone) comes down, death and destruction, displacement and devastation follow. Those lessons are playing out in front of our eyes every day.
But those are not the lessons learned by Secretary of State John Kerry, senator John McCain, and former senator Bob Kerrey, each a veteran of the Vietnam war and each deeply involved in US international policy today. Their opinion piece is a stunning mishmash of misdirection and mythology, dissembling and deception.
Misdirection: The subtitle of the piece is, “Veterans see a bright future for a country with a troubled past,” and that reference is to Vietnam, not the US. The ahistorical detachment is dazzling. “Troubled past?” Troubled by an invading army willing to commit war crimes “on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command” as Lt. John Kerry said in1971. The US needs to face its own troubled history honestly if it ever hopes to move forward in balance and harmony.
Mythology: “We must never again confuse a war with the warriors,” they write, echoing a legend long-promoted by America-first ideologues, and oft-repeated in an attempt to silence principled opposition to the next invasion, and the next. Veterans were in fact the heart of the largest antiwar movement in US history from 1968 onward—they still are—and peace advocates made a hard distinction then (and now) between the troops who were overwhelmingly African-American and working class, and the powerful masters of war who sent them into harm’s way from the safety of their conference rooms.
Dissembling: They write that “with sufficient effort and will, seemingly unbridgeable differences can be reconciled.” They would have us believe that what we have here, as the warden says repeatedly in “Cool Hand Luke,” is “a failure to communicate.” In reality, when the gun boats and war planes arrived, no amount of effort would resolve the fact that the Vietnamese did not want to be occupied by the US or any other foreign power.
Deception: “Our leaders need to be honest with Congress and the American people,” they write, without a nod in the direction of the ongoing creation of a massive secret surveillance state organized by the CIA and the NSA. They add that the US should “exercise humility in assuming knowledge about foreign cultures,” once again, without a word about the destruction of Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Pakistan, and Iraq. The resultant pain and suffering, the massive refugee crisis throughout Europe and the world, are fresh reminders that a key lesson from the Vietnam war that these former fighters ignore is that wars are a leading cause of forced global migration.
The Vietnam war included the deaths of 6000 people a week—mostly civilians, and including women and children—for ten long years. The lessons Kerry, McCain and Kerrey draw from that catastrophe are anemic at best.