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Vietnam War contains lessons for today


My nephew sent me an e-mail last week asking for help on a high school history project. His subject was Vietnam. Knowing I had lived there during the war (actually close to five years between 1966 and 1972), while I assisted refugees and worked as a journalist, he wanted to know when I first started to think the United States would not win the war.

I replied, telling him my suspicions were aroused even before I traveled to Vietnam. They started after I read a book by the noted French journalist Bernard Fall, The Two Vietnams. Fall’s first chapter dealt with Vietnamese recorded history, which dates back 200 years before Christ.

What I learned troubled me -- and should have troubled Washington policy-makers. I read that Vietnamese history for millennia has been punctuated by long and tortuous wars, followed by rebellions and revolutions. Together they gave the Vietnamese people a sense of pride and identity and an especially strong national character. Worse, they defined nationalism precisely through their will to resist foreign domination.

Vietnamese national heroes have all been warriors who led battles against foreign forces on Vietnamese soil. Many folk songs boast lengthy struggles for independence: “1,000 years against the Chinese … 100 years against the French.”

None of that readily available information boded well for the poor American foot soldiers, who began to arrive in large numbers in 1965 -- nor for Vietnam or the United States. Washington, meanwhile, was impervious. Sen. William J. Fulbright at the time called that attitude “the arrogance of power.” He had it right. We were blinded by the emphasis we placed on technology, at that time not smart bombs, but new attack helicopters that could sweep in and out “and get the job done.”

Looking back to those horrific years, if I had to choose a single year in which we lost the war, I would say it was 1965. It was in 1965 that we placed large numbers of troops on Vietnamese soil, re-establishing a time-honored template in which to view the war. The North Vietnamese and their southern allies, the Viet Cong, of course, exploited this and sold themselves as the true nationalists, which by virtually any interpretation of Vietnamese history, they truly were.

During my experiences working with war refugees, I spent many hours talking to Vietnamese farmers whose villages had been destroyed. Usually we would drink tea together. We would sit and talk. Sometimes I heard more than I could bear. Nothing I heard changed my initial impressions about the ways that Vietnamese looked at war. Even the Catholics, staunchly anti-Communist, sensed the inevitability of defeat.

Meanwhile, for every Viet Cong bullet fired, the United States would drop five bombs, many filled with napalm. In other words, we were far more destructive. Those bombs created fear and havoc and disdain for the United States, not respect. Bombs never managed to break the North Vietnamese will as Washington touted they would. Instead, they solidified a resistance that grew over the years.

All this I shared with my nephew.

And as I did, of course, I felt troubled by the new quagmire we seem to be getting into in Afghanistan. Vietnam cost the United States some 58,000 U.S. lives. Vietnamese dead ran between 1 and 2 million.

As far as I am concerned, the lessons of the Vietnam War had less to do with military strategy than they had to do with history and culture and language. Military battles always take place within a wider context, and if we don’t understand that context we are almost certain to be defeated.

I know much less about Afghanistan’s history and culture than Vietnamese history and culture. I know enough, however, to realize that insensitivity to those ingredients in life that motivate -- family, social settings, religion, mythology, values and language -- almost assure “defeat,” however one might imagine that.

Today I am deeply troubled that once again we are trying to defeat those we call our enemy through bombs and bullets rather than strategy and stealth. The violent images and the civilian casualties being broadcast from Afghanistan are precisely what Islamic extremists have sought.

During the Vietnam War it became popular in Washington to say the real war was for the “minds and hearts” of the people, but we never thought through what actually was shaping those minds and hearts. It does not seem a stretch to imagine what is shaping the minds and hearts of the Islamic world today.

My fear is that the rain of bombs falling in and around Kabul and other Afghan cities has already “lost” the war -- a war that the United States cannot afford to lose. Some say it is early in the war; I fear it is late.

My hope is -- and I admit I do not see much light yet at the end of this proverbial tunnel -- that wisdom figures from historians to social anthropologists, to religious educators will gain sway and help pull us out of the violent path we are on.

Yes, terrorists must be locked up. But unless we first understand the rage and motivation of those who want to do us in and respond to it as best we can, unless we get to the roots of the divisions and work, however difficult the task might be, to heal these, we are essentially dropping bombs on ourselves -- only ours won’t land for weeks, months, years or even decades to come.

Thomas C. Fox is NCR publisher. He can be reached at tfox@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 9, 2001