|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Random House|
|File size:||3 MB|
Read an Excerpt
The Incomprehensible War
Rocky Bleier, a star football player at Notre Dame in the mid-1960s, had planned to play professionally with the Pittsburgh Steelers. But someone goofed. The Steeler management failed to protect Rocky with one of the many loopholes available, and he was drafted. He became the only one of the thousands of America’s professional athletes to fight in Vietnam. A grenade blast nearly cost him his legs. His career as an athlete seemed to be over. Later, in an interview, Bleier expressed bitterness at only one aspect of his unhappy experience: no one had ever told him what it was all about. Not in basic training, not en route, not in his unit in Vietnam. “I wanted some reason for doing what I was going to do,” he said, “but I never got it.”
Millions of Americans fought in Vietnam; few knew why. Like Rocky Bleier, most of them came home unable to comprehend the reasons for their sacrifice of time — or blood. They found family and friends who were similarly perplexed. The inability to understand was not caused by lack of time to grasp the reasons why, for the war dragged on and on, an unpopular, unending conflict in which victory seemed impossible. A generation grew to adulthood in its shadow. Some of the last to die there had not even been born when the United States first became involved.
As a matter of fact, for most Americans the fighting in Vietnam was cast in the murky, unreal light on the other side of the looking glass. In a simpler age, Lewis Carroll had unknowingly but splendidly described the Alice-in-Wonderland quality of our longest war:
“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time as we’ve been doing.”
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
It was a war to confound even the experts. In a manner of speaking, it was not a war at all. Other clashes in our recent past had been fought according to rather clear rules, in campaigns which could be followed on a map, against a visible and usually vilified foe, and for a recognizable objective. By those standards, then, the war in Vietnam was a nonwar. Soldiers and civilians alike found it fragmented and frustrating. Although it was the best documented and the most reported in our history, it was paradoxically the least comprehended.
Yet there it sits athwart our history. Years and years of it. Easily our longest war. An indigestible lump leaving in its wake a society divided and, altogether, hundreds of thousands dead. It cannot be allowed to remain incomprehensible. If there are to be no more Vietnams, we must know more of the first Vietnam. We must try to fathom the course and conduct of our military involvement there.
Perhaps the first step toward understanding it is to ponder some of the reasons for misunderstanding. They are many.
To begin with, it was a limited war. The United States did not mobilize. Only a small percentage of our population was engaged in the fighting; at home all but the military services and draft-age young men enjoyed “business as usual.” The country sensed no feeling of immediate danger and certainly no spirit of total involvement. It just wasn’t like World War II, people were quick to note, when everyone was involved, when conflict was total.
Most wars, it can be argued, have been limited. One can dig way back in history to say that the final Punic War — when Rome defeated Carthage, slaughtered the population, razed the city, plowed under the ruins, and sowed the furrows with salt — was not in any way limited. And Genghis Khan’s campaigns were most ruthlessly unlimited. But it is hard to find other examples; in some manner or other a limiting factor was always present. Even in World War II our wish to eradicate the Nazis was limited by our capacity to train men and produce machines in numbers sufficient to do it. Similarly, we were quick to accept a limited peace with Japan rather than be forced to invade their home islands and pay total war’s bloody bill.
What made Vietnam so different was that the United States had the strength to do pretty much as it pleased with North Vietnam. Even in the Korean conflict it is doubtful that we had the power to obliterate all of China. In Vietnam, though, for the first time in our history, nothing limited us. We did it to ourselves. To be sure, there may have been overriding political or humanitarian reasons to do so, but the fact remains that artificial restraints were applied. This gave rise to much of the debate and confusion over the war’s conduct. Moreover, those self-imposed manacles severely reduced the strategic options available, which in turn led to further questioning of our military policies.
Dissent and dissenters inside America itself did much to discredit the war by spreading doubt and sowing despair. With that in mind, it is pertinent to recall that this nation has never gone to war in all its long history without significant numbers of people predicting doom or crying shame. The United States is not a militaristic nation. Though we have fought our share of wars, we have never been comfortable with them. Vietnam, in this regard, proved to be not unlike our previous clashes. But the limited scope of the war, combined with its unusual length, made things different this time around. In our last three wars before Vietnam something happened to still or mute the dissenters. The Kaiser’s unrestricted submarine campaign paved the way for our entry into the First World War, Pearl Harbor provided a rallying cry in World War II, and even Korea had the unifying element of naked, unprovoked aggression. Nothing of the sort ever occurred in Vietnam. Neither resounding victory nor imminent danger ever arose to unite our populace. From first to last the home front remained an arena of conflict, oftentimes as active as the war front.
It is wrong to lump all the dissenters together, for they covered a wide spectrum of society. They were housewives aghast at the televised blood-letting and college students faced by the draft, college professors and retired generals, editors and politicians, plain people and sophisticates. They ranged from the far left to the far right. Some were motivated by patriotism, others by communism; some were moved by opportunity, others by morality. However, most had two things in common: they were highly visible and vocal; and their ranks grew as the war years stretched on and on.
In addition to outside dissent, internal disagreement over policies and practices spilled over into the public arena, further clouding the perception of unfolding events in Vietnam. Debate inside the government fueled the countrywide controversy. From first to last the government was peculiarly inept at projecting a convincing case, but not from any lack of trying. Lumberjacks leveled forests to produce enough paper to hold all the competing arguments. The number of books spawned by the war bid well to exceed the number of battles. In an open society, that is how it should have been, how it must be if we are to benefit from our mistakes. But, while such disagreement may have been unavoidable, and perhaps even laudable, it constantly eroded whatever store of understanding a person might have acquired.
In short, debate and dissent, based on emotion as well as logic, grew apace as the war progressed, serving mightily as major contributors to confusion.
Next, the news media must also bear some responsibility for having muddied issues in the war. Never before had a combat zone been so saturated with newsmen. At any given time they numbered in the hundreds, blanketing that small corner of the globe. One might think, then, that reporting would have been better than ever. But, it now appears that press coverage remained generally below the standards set in past wars.
There were many reasons for this. Most reporters in Vietnam were sincere and professional. Their problems, though, were acute. At best the fighting was hard to cover and difficult to describe. A universally understood vocabulary for such wars has yet to emerge; old terms can be misleading while newly coined words take on widely varying connotations. Moreover, the peculiar physical environment in Vietnam, the on-again-off-again pattern of the fighting, the limited aspect of the war, the newness of television reporting, and the impact of the domestic debate itself were mitigating factors which must be recognized. Too, governmental press agencies were not blameless when it came to presenting an accurate picture of events. Nevertheless, despite all rationalization, the conclusion persists that the American press failed to clarify the war in Vietnam and, not unfairly, can be accused of adding to the public bewilderment.
Technology, too, changed the public perception of combat. Television and communications satellites made it possible for the action to come, live and in color, right into living rooms across America. “War is hell” has always been a commonly accepted adage, but saying it is not as convincing as seeing it. Much of what America — and the world for that matter — thought about Vietnam came from the television tube. One story making the rounds was of a television reporter, new to Vietnam and the realities of war, who found himself suddenly in the thick of a hot action. Watching open-mouthed as jets dropped napalm on enemy positions right to his front, he blurted into the microphone, “My God! It’s just like watching television!” Seeing combat through the extremely limited lens of a television camera is a marvel in modern electronics, but not the truest way to learn what is going on.