LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Understanding the lessons of Vietnam War

How many American soldiers — Died in this land?
How many Vietnamese — Lie buried under trees and grass …
Now the wineglass joins friends in peace.
The old men lift their glasses. Tears run down their cheeks.
— Poem written by a former Viet Cong Guerrilla

Fifty years ago, in January 1968, the North Vietnamese Army launched “the Tet Offensive.” Militarily for them it was a crushing defeat. It is estimated that 100,000 of their finest soldiers were killed in Tet battles, and all of their objectives went unachieved.

Politically for them, on the other hand, it was a great success; the American people had been repeatedly told that finally the “end of the tunnel” of our longest war was now in sight. They were surprised by their enemy’s demonstrated audacity, and increasingly turned against the conflict. Without popular support in a democracy, eventually a war effort is doomed.

Why should we commemorate and remember the Vietnam conflict? Many nations are happy to forget past defeats, while remembering and glorifying only in victories. It also happened 50 years ago; and 65 percent of our increasingly young population today has no memory of the war.

But this is a question that we cannot ignore. First of all, in some ways the Vietnam War never ended. Passions are easily aroused on both sides, and unlike many events in American history, on this there is no sense of consensus or closure. The popular narrative of America as a bastion of freedom for many has been shattered. Some now argue that that view was always naïve and others believe it is in effect an outright lie.

In any case, while a dialogue can help, the issues that grew out of the war may never be fully resolved. To those who experienced the Vietnam War, it was a defining moment of their lives. To the families that lost loved ones, it is a searing pain that time alone will not erase. The war changed America; in some ways for the good, in some ways for the bad, and often both at the same time.

The all-volunteer army, for example, is accepted and has served the country well in a number of conflicts. On the other hand, the concept of a shared “national service” responsibility has been lost.

In previous conflicts, recruits came from all elements of the population, and many members of Congress had family members in the military. Now members of the armed forces and casualties primarily hit a few families where service remains an intergenerational tradition, or are overwhelmingly from our nation’s lower economic groups. Few decisionmakers even know any of the troops that they have sent in harms’ way.

Our foreign policy is another area that was affected. It is good that we now question our goal before entering a conflict, but consistency is lacking. Sometimes we overreact to provocations, sometimes we hold back, and in other situations at the first sign of a setback we cut and run. Our enemies see an incoherent foreign policy, and test our troops, which of course results in more casualties. They call this America’s “Vietnam Syndrome.”

Examples include failed policies in Somalia, Libya, Iraq and other places, and our inability to rescue our embassy hostages in Tehran.

A dialogue is a needed step towards some kind of closure. Henry Kissinger said “The Vietnam War was a great tragedy for our country. And it is now far enough away so that one can study without using the slogans to see what’s really happened.” We ignore our past at our peril, and our only recourse is through honest study and reexamination.

Larry Koch

EDITOR’S NOTE: On Wednesday, Jan. 31, from 6:45 to 8:30 p.m., the public is invited to attend a free symposium on the Vietnam War at the Dover Public Library. Dr. Samuel Hoff will moderate a panel made up of four distinguished veterans (David Skocik, Paul Davis, Rick Lovekin and Kamau Ngom) and Vie Quoc-anh Nguyen. The program begins with a viewing of Vietnam artifacts and a short slide show. Audience participation will be encouraged. This program is sponsored by Dover Library’s History Book Club, Delaware State University and varied Delaware Veterans’ groups. Call Larry Koch at 335-9344 for more information.

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