‘Viet­nam syn­drome’ a vac­ci­na­tion for ad­ven­tur­ism

Boston Herald - - OPINION - By GE­ORGE F. WILL Ge­orge Will is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Talk back at let­ter­stoed­i­tor@ boston­her­ald.com.

WASH­ING­TON — Many Amer­i­cans’ moral van­ity is ex­pressed nowa­days in their rage to dis­par­age. They are in­ca­pable of mea­sured judg­ments about past pol­i­tics — about flawed his­tor­i­cal fig­ures who were forced by cas­cad­ing cir­cum­stances to make dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions on the ba­sis of im­per­fect information. So, the na­tion now needs an ex­am­ple of how to calmly as­sess episodes fraught with pas­sion and sor­row. An ex­am­ple ar­rives Sun­day night.

For 10 nights on PBS, Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s “The Viet­nam War,” 10 years in the mak­ing and 18 hours in length, tells the story of a war “be­gun in good faith by de­cent peo­ple, out of fate­ful mis­un­der­stand­ings,” and “pro­longed be­cause it seemed eas­ier to mud­dle through than ad­mit that it had been caused by tragic de­ci­sions” dur­ing five pres­i­den­cies. The com­bat films are ex­tra­or­di­nary; the rec­ol­lec­tions and re­flec­tions of com­bat­ants and oth­ers on both sides are even more so, fea­tur­ing photos of them then, and in­ter­views with many of them now.

A 1951 photo shows a con­gress­man named John Kennedy din­ing in Saigon. There is an in­ter­view with Le Quan Cong, who be­came a guerilla fighter in 1951, at age 12. View­ers will meet Madame Le Minh Khue, who was 16 when she joined the “Youth Shock Bri­gade for Na­tional Sal­va­tion”: “I love Hem­ing­way. I learned from ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls.’ Like the re­source­ful­ness of the man who de­stroys the bridge. I saw how he coped with war, and I learned from that char­ac­ter.” As did an­other com­bat­ant who loves that novel, John McCain.

Eleven years af­ter his Saigon din­ner, Pres­i­dent Kennedy said, “We have not sent com­bat troops in the gen­er­ally un­der­stood sense of the word.” Oblique­ness and eva­sions greased the slide into a ground war of at­tri­tion. Kennedy, his suc­ces­sor (who said, “For­eign­ers are not like the folks I’m used to”) and their ad­vis­ers were de­ter­mined not to make the Mu­nich mis­take of con­fronting an enemy tardily. Tapes of Lyn­don John­son’s tele­phone con­ver­sa­tions with ad­vis­ers are haunt­ing and hor­ri­fy­ing: To na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser McGe­orge Bundy: “What the hell am I or­der­ing those kids out there for?”

In 1966 alone, 18 large-scale U.S. of­fen­sives left more than 3 mil­lion South Viet­namese — ap­prox­i­mately one-fifth of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion — home­less. Just on the Laos por­tion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, more tons of bombs — 3 mil­lion tons — were dropped than fell on Ger­many and Ja­pan dur­ing World War II. By body counts, Amer­ica was win­ning. As an Army ad­viser says in episode 4, “If you can’t count what’s im­por­tant, you make what you can count im­por­tant.”

Vincent Okamoto earned in Viet­nam the Army’s sec­ond-high­est honor, the Dis­tin­guished Ser­vice Cross. He re­calls the pla­toon he led:

“Nine­teen-, 20-year-old high school dropouts ... they looked upon mil­i­tary ser­vice as like the weather: you had to go in, and you’d do it. But to see these kids, who had the least to gain, there wasn’t any­thing to look for­ward to. ... And yet, their in­fi­nite patience, their loy­alty to each other, their courage un­der fire . ... You would ask your­self, ‘How does Amer­ica pro­duce young men like this?’”

Or like Okamoto. He was born dur­ing World War II in Ari­zona, in a Ja­panese-Amer­i­can in­tern­ment camp.

Karl Mar­lantes, a Rhodes Scholar from Yale who vol­un­tar­ily left Ox­ford for Marine ser­vice in Viet­nam, re­calls a fel­low lieu­tenant ra­dio­ing to bat­tal­ion head­quar­ters over 20 kilo­me­ters away the fact that he had spot­ted a con­voy of trucks. The bat­tal­ion com­man­der replied that this was im­pos­si­ble be­cause in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tives re­ported no trucks near there. In a Texas drawl the lieu­tenant replied: “Be ad­vised. I am where I am and you are where you are. Where I am, I see god­damned trucks.”

Weary of hear­ing the pru­dence that was so painfully learned in In­dochina de­rided as the “Viet­nam syn­drome,” Mar­lantes says (in his Wall Street Jour­nal re­view of Mark Bow­den’s book “Hue 1968”): “If by Viet­nam syn­drome we mean the be­lief that the U.S. should never again en­gage in (a) mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tions in for­eign civil wars with­out clear ob­jec­tives and a clear exit strat­egy, (b) ‘na­tion build­ing’ in coun­tries about whose his­tory and cul­ture we are ig­no­rant, and (c) sac­ri­fic­ing our chil­dren when our lives, way of life, or ‘gov­ern­ment of, by, and for the peo­ple’ are not di­rectly threat­ened, then we should never get over Viet­nam syn­drome. It’s not an ill­ness; it’s a vac­ci­na­tion.” The Burns/Novick mas­ter­piece is, in Mar­lantes’ words about Bow­den’s book, “a pow­er­ful booster shot.”

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