The Lessons and Scars of Vietnam

Politicians War

Marble Falls       At this point, many can’t remember there was ever a Vietnam War.  Vietnam is a place maybe that manufactured their t-shirts.  It’s a country competing to take away manufacturing plants from China, their historic frenemy, along with others feeding off of the new Cold War and supply chain issues.  It’s even a place where tourists flock.  The wars for the current generation are the new “forever” wars:  Iraq, Afghanistan, and, now, Ukraine.  For some of us, though, the fact that we just passed the fiftieth anniversary of the peace settlement of the Vietnam War still means something.  I talked to University of Houston Professor Robert Buzzanco, a scholar who has written books about the conflict, recently on Wade’s World about the lessons, if any, and the continuing scars, of which there are plenty, from this tragic war.

Buzzanco is clear that we didn’t just drift into this mess and have an “oh my god” moment once we were in the rice fields up to our necks.  His research indicates that the military brass and planners were fully aware that this escapade would be a quagmire before we landed hundreds of thousands of troops.  They had studied the French experience and their defeat to a guerrilla movement, so they knew full well this was trouble for the United States as we became the newest participant in the anti-colonial war that had morphed into a civil war.

For those less familiar with Vietnam, he also noted the level of devastation and death wrought upon what used to be called South Vietnam, our putative ally and partner in the war, afar outstripped what occurred in the north.  Certainly, Hanoi was bombed to smithereens, but the same and more was true in the south.  When the Organizers’ Forum visited the country in 2010, we crawled through the tunnels the guerrillas used to obscure their camps from the planes.  Live, unexploded ordinance is still to be found in fields throughout the country and taking life and limb even fifty years later!

The scars are inescapable, but the same can’t be said about the lessons.  We talked about war crimes, especially since that’s part of the daily news from Ukraine.  Buzzanco didn’t have much doubt that the bombing of civilians and civilian targets, as well as the expansion into Laos and Cambodia, would qualify in that category and have consequences for any country and its leaders, other than the United States.

Having hit the streets and joined the anti-war protests at the Spring Mobilization in New York City at the United Nations and at the March on the Pentagon and then dropped out of college to be part of the draft resistance movement, I was curious how Professor Buzzanco ranked the antiwar movement as a deciding factor in forcing the peace.  He felt it was important, but on a long list.  We debated whether President Lyndon B. Johnson’s biographer Robert Caro was correct in writing that he had learned a lesson from the war and had regrets.  Who knows, but I know that I will never forget my excitement at the news of his resignation, and walking along the St. Charles Avenue streetcar tracks for hours in the middle of the night, so exhilarated that sleep was impossible even though I had to clock in at Luzianne’s coffee plant at 7am the next morning.  I was still constantly 1-A and thought there would finally be a future for me and so many others.

Vietnam and the draft meant life or death for men in my generation.  It forced decisions that dictated our fates, one way or another. I’m afraid we didn’t learn enough from that war, but politicians and elected officials did learn to never try universal conscription since then, which would guarantee constant opposition.  As much as I hated and fought the draft, I’m not sure today during this time of forever wars and the volunteer army, whether that lesson was the right one or just political expediency allowing continued war and buying silence from the roars of protest and mass marches in the streets.