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My Vietnam War, 50 Years Later (Part Two)

Memory, Writing and Politics

Memories like this only reinforce my disgust for the Vietnam War and the unnecessary evil it represents. Again, I challenge anyone to tell me what the Vietnamese ever did to us. The historian Mark Moyar recently suggested in an essay in The New York Times series Vietnam 1967 that the Vietnam War was “winnable” -- if only we had done this or that differently. To me, that kind of what-if, alternative history is an utter waste of time that amounts to fiction like Phillip K. Dick’s famous novel The Man In The High Castle, an alternative history that imagines the Nazis winning World War Two. Rambo was that kind of alternative history as pop cinema entertainment. A malaise-ridden nation was presented with the macho Hollywood hero Sylvester Stallone -- a man who spent the Vietnam War teaching in a girls school in Switzerland -- giving us his trademark sneer all decked out in greased-up pectoral muscles. Brandishing a huge Bowie knife and hand-held M60, John Rambo did what the United States Army, the Marine Corps, the Navy and Air Force could not do. He emotionally won the Vietnam War inside a darkened theater inside our hermetically-sealed, exceptional minds. It’s the same thing Donald Trump is trying to do with the collective American mind as it feels the haunting reality of decline gnawing at its perceptions of greatness.

The author as 19-year-old REMF at Camrahn Bay DF site; the crew playing cards and drinking beerThe author as 19-year-old REMF at Camrahn Bay DF site; the crew playing cards and drinking beer

Nursing our moral loss in Vietnam as if it were an insult doesn’t help. The Vietnamese beat us fair and square. They didn’t beat us in the capacity for mass, hi-tech slaughter; there’s no question we could have “won” if life was only about the ability to kill people by the thousands or millions. They beat us on moral grounds. They were right; we were wrong. As Ho Chi Minh reportedly said: “We can lose longer than you can win.” Or another famous line told to Robert McNamara by a Vietnamese diplomat in the 1990s: “We knew you would eventually leave. You Americans could leave; we lived here and we could not leave.” Or as Ward Just put it in a great little book written in 1968 called To What End: “Of course the war was unwinnable. It was useless to fight the Vietnamese. They would have fought for a thousand years.”

Revisionist “winners” like Mark Moyar should surrender and find another, more productive topic to research. It should be clear that such alternative histories on the Vietnam War are purely political and meant to reinforce our contemporary militarist class and its future options. There’s a reluctance to give the Vietnamese credit for their talent for suffering and survival, which is what beat us. There’s so much we could learn from the Vietnamese in the area of humility, resilience and forgiveness. But we prefer to see those traits as the characteristics of a loser and a patsy. We insist on being winners even if, to borrow the famous Eastwood line, it requires us to be “legends in our own minds.”

story | by Dr. Radut