Sunday, September 23, 2007

My essay on Vietnam

Different things motivate me to write about different subjects in my blog. Today's subject is the Vietnam War. I'm reading a book (fiction) about Vietnam, actually listening to it on my iPod. I've already read it. It's Nelson Demille's best-selling novel called Up Country. It tells the story of a retired military cop and Vietnam combat veteran, who goes back to Vietnam to investigate a 30-year old crime.

When I first read the book, I found it interesting, as it offered a different perspective on the Vietnam War. Hearing the story a second time has caused me to think and I realized how very little I know about the Vietnam War, an important part of American history. The Vietnam War was never covered in any of my history or social studies courses. Perhaps, the history was too new or too controversial, probably more of the latter. So, I decided to do some reading about the war, hours of it.

I was a child at the height of the Vietnam War. I remember watching the fall of Siagon on television. I remember the POW's coming home. I remember watching the state funeral of Lyndon Johnson, who didn't live long enough to see the war's end. I think I remember these things. Of course, I was young. I was definitely too young to have an opinion about the Vietnam War.

Before I did my reading, I didn't know the history of Vietnam, as a country. I knew France was involved, but I didn't know to what extent. I didn't know what triggered and escalated U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. I didn't know the role the various U.S. presidents and their advisors played. I didn't know how Laos and Cambodia fit into the war. I didn't know that U.S. soldiers fought two enemies: the invading North Vietnamese army from the North (Up Country) and the Vietcong, communist insurgents in the South. From what I read, the U.S. and South Vietnam army won most, if not all, the battles waged in Vietnam, but lost the war.

During the war, atrocities were committed by both sides. I'm sure there were many more Ma Lais and not just by American soldiers. It was war. Bad things happen. No one knows how they will behave in the situations soldiers face. While I certainly don't condone it, I can understand how a soldier may lose his sense of morality if he just saw his buddy's head blown off by a villager he thought was a friend and ally.

I do not believe that America owes Vietnam an apology unless Vietnam also apologizes for its treatment of our POW's. Actually, we should both apologize to each other. Though we did leave behind a bad legacy in Vietnam. Our use of chemicals to defoliate the jungle canopy may have seemed justified at the time, but its effects are lingering, not just to the Viets, but to our veterans, as well. The Amerasian children left behind are another legacy for which we cannot hold our heads high. From what I've read, these children were treated as outcasts. While we opened our doors to many of these children, these children were still without a country.

After 30 years, much of what happened in the war has been "forgotten." We restored diplomatic relations with Vietnam over 10 years ago. We gave Vietnam most favored nation status and Vietnam is a member of the WTO. Vietnam has one of the fastest growing economies in the region. Vietnam was recently removed from worldwide watch list for religious persecution (against Christians and Buddhists). At the same time, they remain a police state, a one-party state that controlls the press and limits the rights of its citizens. Despite its economic successes, Vietnam remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Open market policies (i.e. free enteprise) will continue to drive Vietnam's economic growth, but I can't believe that people won't eventually want more personal freedoms.

The Vietnam War divided the American public and it still does today. The debate is whether the U.S. was justified in its actions to prevent the North Vietnam communist government from overtaking the South Vietnam non-communist goverment, which it eventually did. After reading pages and pages of documents and essays, I've concluded that there is no right or wrong answer to this question. Wars and the events leading up to them and following them are too complicated to leave us with simple answers. It's easy to have any opinion after you have all the facts, but no one did.

U.S. involvement in Vietnam has always been justified on the basis of the "domino theory." After the second world war, there was a concern that Communism was spreading. Eastern Europe had already been lost. If Vietnam fell to communism, so too, would the rest of Southeast Asia. That was the belief. Of course, opponents of the Vietnam War are quick to point out that this didn't happen. But how do we know that fear of U.S. intervention (as demonstrated in Vietnam) didn't prevent other countries from following a similar path as Vietnam.

Opponents to the Vietnam War claim that it was a Civil War between the North and South and that U.S. troops had no business being in the middle of it. North Vietnam claimed it was a fight for independence, the independence that had been promised after the second world war, as a result of Vietnam's support of the allies. If it was a fight for independence, why did so many northerners flee the government of Ho Chi Mihn before the war and so many South Vietnamese flee after the takeover of Siagon? It was also about communism. There were land purges, persecution of "class enemies", and "re-education" camps. Sound familiar?

Approximately 58,000 Americans lost their lives in Southeast Asia. Thousands more were injured or affected in other ways. Most of the Vietnam vets that I know are normal people, living successful lives. No matter what opinion a person has on the Vietnam War, we should all agree that our veterans were mistreated upon their return to the U.S. We should agree that they deserve our respect and admiration for the sacrifices they made for our country. Many made the ultimate sacrifice. I recall the words to a Billy Ray Cyrus song, "Some gave all, all gave some."

Three million Viets also lost their lives in the "American War," as it's called in Vietnam. Many, many more lives were lost after the American withdrawal, as North Vietnam seized control of the South. The Khmer Rouge committed genocide in the years that followed the Vietnam War. It doesn't matter whether it was U.S. involvement or U.S. withdrawal that prompted it, it happened, resulting in the deaths of millions of people in the killing fields of Cambodia. These losses should also be respected by all Americans.

It's my hope that countries learn from the past, but it seems we are always doomed to repeat the mistakes from the past. Unfortunately, man seems to be programmed for war, not peace.

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