End of the Tunnel

The Vietnam experience was fundamentally different than service in previous wars in terms of both technical and intellectual culture, as the men not only fought in a novel way, but were judged by their society and the international community in a different light.

How the war itself was fought was drastically different than how wars had been fought in the past: the average serviceman in Vietnam saw two hundred and forty days of combat a year, as compared to a mere forty days of combat in four years that would be expected of service during World War II in the Pacific Theatre[i]. One out of ten Americans who were engaged in Vietnam’s unceasing campaign became casualties, while amputations and crippling wounds would come to be three hundred percent more likely than in the second Great War,[ii] as a result of the terrible level of firepower being employed by the engaged combatants. Rather than be deployed to a relatively stable and linear front as was the case in World War II, contesting an enemy which fought with a clear hierarchy of rank and who donned uniforms in combat, the American fighting man in Vietnam was constantly redeployed and shifted to an ever changing tactical geography by means of the helicopter, fighting an elusive enemy that was skilled in ambush and guerilla warfare, forced to endure surprise attacks from all directions. General Westmoreland consequently estimated that without air cavalry, at least three times as many soldiers would have been required in Vietnam, as the eight hundred mile border with Cambodia and Laos was maintained by a system of firebases, supported by fast insertions of combat patrols;[iii] without the ability to quickly redeploy force via rotary-winged aircraft, the ephemeral jungle fronts of Vietnam, infiltrated by indigenous partisans, would have become overrun.

In sum: the typical US serviceman deployed to Vietnam experienced a state of virtually constant combat, with little reprieve, save for the copious amount of narcotics made available to him. While not directly engaged in combat the servicemen were shuttled about in helicopters to secure ground which would be abandoned the next day, the enemy ambiguous and all surrounding, constantly inflicting upon them sniper fire and skirmish, a state of universal anxiety and malaise afflicting a great deal of men. As the US servicemen could not rely on the corrupt and ineffectual regimes of Diem and Thieu to consolidate public support, little sympathy or agreement was levied by the Vietnamese people upon their supposed guardians, and perceived the Americans as at best useful, at worst: invaders in their own right, drawing scores to Vietcong recruitment. Confronted by a faceless enemy and the bumbling incompetence of both the overseeing presidential administrations and the high command, the US servicemen were confronted with a harsh reality in which they bled as pawns in a game of international politicking, two empires vying for influence and hegemony, superficially duty bound to guard the South Vietnamese Republic from Communist coercion, but instead perpetuating a corrupt regime predicated on electoral fraud. As this notion became increasingly apparent to the people of the United States, and indeed the Congress, the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of Americans was wrote off in the damage control policy of Vietnamization, the Indochina region became abandoned, now fatally mangled by foreign adventurism, the lives lost on the altar of patriotism seemingly sacrificed without reason.

It was this environment of doubt and betrayal which was another aspect fundamentally different than in previous wars. While the majority of the American people had supported the Vietnam intervention up until the mid years of the Johnson administration, by the time of Nixon public support was at an all time low, the latter president winning his office on the promise of honorary withdrawal from the region. Domestic dissent spurred widespread protest and the consternation of the academic intelligentsia, forming a powerful base of opposition against the administration’s designs. This distrust of government and the status quo within Vietnam also seems to have also been levied against the troops themselves by the citizenry, as no fanfare or great recognition was awarded to the veterans who finally returned, many completely devastated by the failure of the leadership, dishonored and flayed with memories of carnage and injustice. This is in great contrast to the culture of the soldier during World War II and indeed even earlier conflicts, who returned from campaign to rising jubilation and embracing, to be recognized in their society as great men of honor, granted special privilege and esteem. As Vietnam seemed to be a war fought in a grey moral area, a proxy war fought between empires, seemingly without victory or possible victory, without dignity or justice, and which had inflicted a great destruction upon the people of Indochina, the veterans returned to be judged harshly by the public, and where not rebuked were met with apathy, during a time in which the most moral support and tenderness was called for, thousands of veterans disabled both physically and emotionally.

The politics of the war also presented a unique departure from previous wars. The “Vietnam War” was the first conflict which was not approved by congress, and seems to have been largely initiated by an independently acting executive, working outside of constitutional jurisdiction, a disconcerting precedent which has had contemporary ramifications; instead of outright declaring war, Johnson simply escalated the military presence in Vietnam, bringing the level of conflict to that of a war without being bound to the legal boundaries of a declaration. Additionally, the action itself was not condoned or supported by the international political culture, nor sanctioned by the United Nations, the first modern conflict in which the executive of the United States acted unilaterally against a foreign nation, finally dispelling the Great War pretensions of political isolationism and neutrality from entangling alliances. International criticism of the conflict was compounded by a lack of a clear objective or well defined enemy: each administration seemed to have its unique strategy for defeating the Communists, and none proved to be effective or properly mature, all ultimately relying upon the lazy, colossal arm of American firepower to fatigue the enemy into capitulation. The presidential doctrines, shifted to reengineered aims with the coming of fresh leadership, was further muddled by the ineffectual strategies of theatre commanders, the most critical failures arising from the command of Westmoreland, whose search and destroy tactics were from the outset a complete misallocation of resources and which set for the stage for the entirety of the war, the initial judgments of the abilities of the enemy, vastly underestimated as nothing but a unorganized company of bandits, persisting up until the eleventh hour. This chain of events lies in great contrast to the behavior of the American leadership during the Second World War, who studied their enemy with serious prudence, and sought the approval of international councils in matters of global security. Vietnam was a conflict more so than ever based upon the assumption that superior technology would ensure victory over the enemy, while in the past, wars were considered matters of great gravity, demanding the attention and engagement of the greater civic community, requiring the labors of the whole people.

Vietnam was a conflict of unparalleled intensity, in which a country slightly larger than New Mexico, was bombed in a three year period with more munitions than had been loosed during the entire Second World War,[iv] and perhaps the greatest casualties of all were those that survived the carnage, forever shackled by visions of exploding bodies and cut down villagers; for while at least the dead can rest easy, the living remember: ruined faces and scent of a sickly stench permanently seared into the memory. The insufficient distractions offered by professional bodies and drug abuse, or the material indulgences of the PX, were unable to assuage the mental suffering brought about by such a conflict, and today the images still haunt the survivors. In this fashion the Vietnam War was fundamentally different than wars previous, in which the dignity of death and the decorum of the prisoner were respected by combatants, niceties simply incompatible with a guerilla struggle. While the US servicemen volunteered to protect the seemingly lawful state of Vietnam from what they initially perceived to be an oppressive and coercive rogue collection of criminals and communists, some eventually viewed themselves to be the oppressors by wars’ end, and surely the greater American public, inspired by the civil rights era rhetoric and the liberal affectations of hippie culture, held an even greater conviction in this judgment.

In the future the mistakes of the past can only be avoided by a serious reconsideration of the public conceptions of the good and the rule of law, for the misbehaviors of the presidents which perpetuated the unjust war all operated outside of their office, by decree rather than reasoned deliberation. If education is geared toward cultivating in the people a love of law and justice, then such misconduct would rarely be tolerated in public office. The young men who were mislead into Vietnam also lacked knowledge of the case of things, mislead by sensational propaganda which demonized the Communist cause, as well as old guard delusions of the heroic and noble nature of war. Herein we observe yet another failing in education: the common education does not equip the citizen with the tools necessary to reason through a proposition, to see the errors of faulty logic and the magical thinking of the demagogue. Rather than realize the deception imposed upon them, by laying the reasoning bare with the insight of wisdom, the people readily accepted the lie of a patriotic war against an enemy of no consequence and of no threat, perpetuating a war of imperialism in all but name. Ignorant of the true reality of war, and the suffering being so callously inflicted against “the other,” the carnage and abandon, the young men of our nation were sold the promise of glory and honor, the things our forefathers rightfully fought for, from Lexington to Bastogne, only to die betrayed. In the end, only a proper education in the classical manner, common to the whole of society, will ensure that another Vietnam, or Iraq, does not afflict, by the designs of tyrants, two bodies of innocent people.


[i] Speech by Lt. Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, (reproduced in the Pentagram, June 4, 1993) assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Vietnam veterans and visitors gathered at “The Wall”, Memorial Day 1993.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Speech by General William C. Westmoreland before the Third Annual Reunion of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association (VHPA) at the Washington, DC Hilton Hotel on July 5th, 1986 (reproduced in a Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association Historical Reference Directory Volume 2A)

[iv] Berger, Carl, ed., The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia. Washington DC: Office of Air Force History, 1977, p. 366.