Vietnam Legacy


            I have a few ideals that remain from my Vietnam days -- days which ended over 44 years ago.  The main ideal is that America is, at its heart, a nation of free people who act together for the betterment of as much of the population as possible.  Sure, we understand that an economic system should be based upon the free movement of capital, the right of labor to organize and protest, or the use of dollars as “votes” for economic choices, etc.  But we also recognize that a totally Free Market can, like the game of Monopoly, become taken over by the luckiest capitalists who will then take all the power unto themselves, because that’s the way the game is played … if there is no referee in place. 


            On that long-ago day when I put on the itchy, new uniform of a United States sailor/warrior and joined the effort to stop the spread of communism, I felt, despite a youthful sarcasm and a lot of doubts, that America did stand for a better system than the Other Side, which wanted everyone to belong to a very large bureaucracy, where all the choices were made FOR the individual and never BY the individual.


            Of course, while I was getting placed in an uncomfortable uniform on this side of the Pacific Ocean, some young man or woman of my same age on the other side of the Pacific was putting on their country’s uncomfortable uniform.  They believed that power-hungry capitalists had taken over the Western World, and these capitalists had hoodwinked the American people into believing that Vietnam posed a threat to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (actually, Ho Chi Minh was a great admirer of the Declaration of Independence, but we were friends of the French back then and Minh was a rebel against them, so the State Department ignored him).  


            They thought we were chumps.  We thought they were chumps.  That’s how you get a war going.  (It’s probably a difficult process to raise an army with a Christian ideal: “Join Up and Kill Another Slightly Befuddled Child of God!") We have to “Defend Against The Enemy,” “Stop The Evildoers,” or “Defend Our Freedom.”  We can’t be soft, we have to be hard, which as everyone loves to forget, is NOT part of our cherished religious heritage.


            Later on, after I had had a glimpse of how incredibly wasteful military actions can be and how the demons of war operate on both sides of the firing line, my feelings about the Vietnam conflict hardened into a belief that the U.S.A. had done a Wrong Thing.  We had turned our backs (both Republican and Democratic backs) on Christian teachings, and we paid dearly for it.  That payment is now graphically shown on a memorial wall in Washington, D.C., which is one of the most incredible monuments ever erected to a regrettable action taken by a country.  It is humble, it is tragic, and it is a touching memorial to always remind us of the price we pay, and that we make others pay, when we pick up a gun instead of a pen to debate differences of opinion. 


            Vietnam colors my thinking and opinions still.  Because of that time, I have a deep distrust of people wearing suits and making patriotic speeches.  I always take a second breath to reflect before following the majority opinion of the moment.  I put much less confidence upon the power of weapons and armies to persuade humans to do anything in particular.  I think Vietnam should have reminded us that violence begets more violence, although the noun changes form from "violence" to "retribution."  


            And most importantly, I will never trust the ideologues who cannot change their minds and adapt to new information.  But that has been the message of people in all the wars ever fought, and so a government “full of confidence” will always be a dangerous thing to me.  I just wish more people could have learned from Vietnam … and World War II … and The Great War …and the Civil War … and on, and on, and on.