Times Chronicle & Public Spirit

Today’s Vietnam underscore­s folly of America’s wars

- By Stephen J. Lyons Stephen J. Lyons is the author of six books of reportage and essays.

On a recent afternoon in the jungles of Vietnam, it was a miracle that I did not get hurt. The trail I was traversing was a mudslide. As I clumsily climbed over a wet log and landed on my rear end, I imagined an 18-year-old farm boy from Indiana arriving in Saigon in 1968. As his plane taxied, he would have watched the bodies of kids just like him being loaded onto another plane. He would be jetlagged, anxious, homesick and disoriente­d. During a one-year tour, his odds of being killed or wounded would be 1 in 10. He could be one of the 58,000 soldiers killed or one of the 300,000 wounded or one of the 75,000 severely disabled. If he succeeded in returning to the

United States, he could be one of the estimated 10,000 Vietnam veterans who would die by suicide, although unofficial estimates run as high as 50,000.

I remember picking up my draft card on my 18th birthday in 1973. I threw the card the following year into a trash bin.

All the wars the United States has been involved with since I’ve been alive have been a waste of lives on all sides. Today in Vietnam, communists are in charge of a booming market economy. Our other wars? The Taliban control Afghanista­n despite our 20year occupation. Iraq is a mess. I guess nation building is harder on the ground than in theory.

Our incursions seem to make things worse. Our soldiers die and are maimed while we wave flags and trot out injured heroes only to often ignore them later on.

This year, Vietnam is celebratin­g the 70th anniversar­y of defeating France. In 2025 it will celebrate the 50th anniversar­y of sending the U.S. packing. Two superpower­s were bested. In hindsight, it is not surprising, given the incredible nationalis­m that North Vietnam’s leader, Ho Chi Minh, rallied to his side against superior military forces. And we certainly learned nothing from France’s defeat in 1954. The lesson we might have heeded? Hearts and minds are impossible to conquer.

When I was shin-deep in the jungle muck, between slips and falls, where I was carrying only a water bottle rather than a 90-pound pack and an M-16 rifle as the Indiana kid would have been toting, I wondered: What the hell was the U.S. thinking? All the advantage was with Viet

Cong forces, who knew every inch of the jungle terrain and were acclimated to the heat and humidity. Long before an American soldier would be aware of the enemy’s presence, the Viet Cong would see the kid marching like a bull’s-eye and attack him with bullets and boobytraps.

The kid really had only a puncher’s chance of not ending up in a flag-draped casket.

And if the kid survived that tour of duty, years later, he would read former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s mea culpa regarding the war. In his memoir “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam,” McNamara wrote that “we were wrong, terribly wrong.” At the end of the book, he admits: “I concede with painful candor and a heavy heart that the adage applies to me and to my generation of American leadership regarding Vietnam. Although we sought to do the right thing — and believed we were doing the right thing — in my judgment, hindsight proves us wrong.”

Army medic Earl Clarkston said that when he learned that McNamara considered Vietnam a mistake, he thought, as quoted by the Los Angeles Times in 1995: “Tell McNamara to go before the (Vietnam Veterans Memorial) wall and tell the wall that. Let the souls of American veterans hear him say, ‘You died for nothing.’”

McNamara lived to age 93. The soldiers he sent to their deaths did not enjoy such longevity. A trip to Vietnam makes that senseless tragedy even more real.

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