With all the anniversaries being celebrated this spring — Appomattox, Selma, Magna Carta, Hubble telescope — it is surprising that nothing seems to have been said about the 50th anniversary of the true beginning of the Vietnam War.
It was in the spring of 1965 that the first bombing raid on North Vietnam (“Rolling Thunder”) took place, the first combat troops were deployed to Vietnam, the first conventional battle between American and Viet Cong troops was engaged in the Ia Drang valley, the first teach-ins happened on American college campuses, and a new national anti-war protest movement, led by the Students for a Democratic Society, first marched on Washington. Yet not a word has appeared anywhere I know remarking on this important anniversary.
I say it is “surprising,” but perhaps not. After all, this country was pretty quick to forget about the war, why we had done it, how we waged it, and certainly how it ended.
With good reason. The war was a major miscalculation, we said we did it to stop a Communist domino effect that never was, our vicious use of Agent Orange gas killed and maimed millions and proved ultimately futile, and it ended in a humiliating defeat for the U.S., the first military loss in our history.
We might have had a public confrontation with Robert McNamara and William Westmoreland, the principal leaders, or Johnson himself, putting them through the kind of humiliation that they deserved for their blood-drenched stupidity.
We might have restructured the Defense Department so that no war of that kind — using massive air firepower and search-and destroy ground tactics, including outright massacres, against a guerrilla enemy, fighting in a distant land that posed no threat to American interests — could ever be fought again.
We might have fashioned a national consensus that this sort of thing was not really who we are as a people and that such a war violated basic American standards, morally as well as politically and militarily — so that no such thing as the Iraq war could happen.
But no, we turned that war into a place where American soldiers were heroes, in brave combat against wily and sneaky yellow people who didn’t fight fair, and didn’t even wear uniforms.
Not only were such POWs as John McCain treated as great men but so were the MIAs, honored with little flags across the country. Hollywood gave us heightened versions of these heroes, Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo” series being typical, and we even had up-close accounts of heroic battles (Hamburger Hill, Full Metal Jacket) of a kind never shown before.
Then a mythology grew up that the only reason we didn’t win in Vietnam was that we weren’t allowed to bomb them back to the Stone Age because the American people were too timid and fearful, in a kind of “Top Gun” image of good guys always beating bad guys if they had enough firepower.
That was the image that Ronald Reagan always sought to project, and after his City-on-the-Hill treatment no true lessons from Vietnam could possibly survive. Even the Pentagon could no longer learn from that war and had no compunction in doing it again — twice, at least.
Somehow, though, even that misguided view wasn’t something that Americans, or at least the pundit class, seemed wanted to celebrate this year.
It seemed best to confine the Vietnam experience to a 1984-like memory hole, where we never had to think of it again, lest the bad memories and harsh self-truths come back.
I don’t presume to be able to change that attitude, strong as it seems to be. I just thought I’d give some of us a chance to reflect.
And maybe to tell some truths to the younger generations for whom the war is probably as distant as World War I is for us.
Kirkpatrick Sale is the author of 12 books on political and ecological themes, including a history of the Students for a Democratic Society. He lives in Mount Pleasant.