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Purging The Ghosts of Vietnam

March 29th marks the thirty first anniversary of America's military withdrawal from Vietnam. In the midst of a new war, we should examine the ending of this other war-the Only War America Ever Lost. 

But our angst and aversion about Vietnam suggest we've still never really come to terms with it. Yet it is precisely in re-examining this other war-in re-opening the wound-that we can find reconciliation about it. We may also find some lessons about how to avoid the same mistakes in Iraq. 

More than anything else, we need to look at the role our government and society played in justifying and prosecuting the War. And the standard we should hold in judging the Vietnam War is the same one we hold for any conduct, official or personal, public or private. It is this: if it has to be lied about, it's wrong. 

This is a brutally simple standard. Its appeal-and its power-derives not just from its simplicity but from its immediate grasp by every moral person. Every child understands this standard and every loving parent recalls it for his children when they stray from it. 

If you have to lie about something, it is wrong. 

By this standard, the Vietnam War was wrong, terribly wrong. The singular hallmark of official conduct throughout the War was the amount of lying that went on to justify it. Not just periodic lying. Not just localized lying. Not just lying about nits. And not just lying by one political side or the other. 

Multiple presidents lied to us for years about Vietnam because they didn't want to be "the first American president to lose a war." 

Our "intelligence" agencies lied to us repeatedly about the threat from a nation of pre-Industrial Age farmers on the other side of the world who, after more than a century of domination, simply wanted to be left alone by western imperial powers. 

The State Department lied, not just to the American people but to the entire world, about our prolonged, illegal bombings of Laos and Cambodia. 

The Pentagon Papers showed us that the military was saturated with lies, from field-level body counts to strategic reviews of progress to fundamental assessments of the War's ultimate winnability. 

Congress lied for years about how the War could be financed without raising taxes and without cutting Great Society programs. The result was the economic debacle of the 1970s. 

And the American people lied to themselves about the War. As long as the boys fighting it were blacks and Latinos and members of the underclass, everything was fine. The Defense contracts were fat and everybody was eating high on the hog. 

As in the fable, it was the children, the college students, who first told us that the Emperor had no clothes. And for a while, our first impulse was to shoot the messenger--literally. Finally, however, the gap between what we wanted to believe and what we could no longer deny simply grew too large. 

By the late 1960s, the fabric of lies that had sustained the War started to unravel. The Tet offensive in early 1968 demolished the upbeat fiction that we were winning the War. Stories of massacres like My Lai began to leak out. Idiocies like, "We had to destroy the village in order to save it," crept into the public lexicon. 


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Live news footage showed the horrors of saturation bombing, defoliation, and napalm. Supposedly serious voices spoke supposedly seriously about, "bombing them back into the stone age." News anchors began intoning a nightly body count of American lives lost. And with the student deferment abolished, middle class suburban white boys began coming home in body bags. 

If there was a salvation, a last redemption of morality for a nation that had badly lost its way, it was that our repugnance at what we realized we had become made it impossible to continue the War any longer. At least we still had shame. 

Compare, for example, our collective appraisal of World War II with how we feel about Vietnam. World War II was an honorable war, a necessary war, unquestionably confronting a global Evil. It did not have to be lied about to justify its prosecution, to sustain the commitment of the people and the country to fight it and win. 

Not incidentally, there is an unmistakable, peaceful finality about World War II that Vietnam, now some thirty years on, still does not begin to possess. 

In fact, it is precisely our lying about the Vietnam War, both then and now, and our knowledge of those lies, without ever having repudiated them, that continues to make the War seem dishonorable. 

The dishonor, of course, belongs not to the millions of soldiers who served there but rather to the War itself. It belongs to the institutions that lied to justify it and to the people whose silence and acquiescence made them complicit in the lies.

And it belongs to those who put our soldiers-our children-in the perverse situation not of doing honorable things honorably, but of having to try to do dishonorable things honorably. For, despite the loftiest motives we might conflate for its beginnings, that is unquestionably what the War ultimately became.

The collective American confusion and angst that still attaches to the Vietnam War comes from the deep understanding that we had betrayed our own essential values, our own essential identity, in fighting it. 

For there was a time, only two hundred years before, when we were the small farming outpost on the fringe of civilization, simply wanting to be left alone to craft our own destiny. It was we-the Americans-who started the modern revolution of self-determination by resisting colonial domination, by fighting against all odds the greatest military power the world had ever known. 

But somehow, on the road to becoming ourselves that very mightiest of imperial powers, we forgot those roots. We lost those values. Instead, we became the army of foreign mercenaries imposing our form of government on a weaker people. We became the brutal military occupier in a War that, before it was over, claimed the lives of 58,000 Americans and three million Vietnamese. 

The stinging, mocking irony of that role reversal is epitomized in the opening words of the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, written in 1946 and borrowed, in admiration, from one of the sacramental documents of America's founding: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: all men are created equal." 

Finally, the dishonor of the Vietnam War belongs to those who continue to try to rehabilitate it, to justify and rationalize that which simply cannot be made good. For, remember: if we had to lie about it, it was wrong. That is as true today as it was then, is it not? And wrong does not get made right by the louder or repeated repetition of original lies. Or, by the continued contrivance of newer, slicker ones. 

There should be no illusions about how hard it will be, but the soldiers who fought and died there will never be truly atoned for and we as a nation will never learn the true lessons of the War until we somehow acknowledge Vietnam as the horrible national mistake it actually was.

Robert Freeman

Robert Freeman

Robert Freeman is the author of "The Best One Hour History" series which includes "World War I" (2013), "The InterWar Years" (2014), "The Vietnam War" (2013), and other titles. He is the founder of The Global Uplift Project which builds small-scale infrastructure projects in the developing world to improve humanity’s capacity for self-development.

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