The Vietnam War in Hindsight
The Vietnam War used to be described as the longest in American history, before involvement in Afghanistan, and the conflict remains especially costly. Over 2,700,000 Americans served in uniform in Vietnam, and over 58,000 were killed or reported missing. Estimates of Vietnamese deaths range over one million.
Lingering impacts of the war are important, and Memorial Day provides a particularly appropriate time for reflection. While most U.S. combat forces were volunteers, a substantial number of draftees were engaged. Hostility to the war and the draft fueled anti-war protests on campuses and more broadly.
President Richard Nixon ended the draft in 1973, responding in part to public hostility and also the destructive consequences of the war for our military, especially the Army. Our more recent wars have been smaller in scale.
American troops in Afghanistan occupy outposts reminiscent of Vietnam. In both cases, outrage at foreign invaders in part defines our opponents. On the other hand, forces in Afghanistan are under UN and NATO authority, in stark contrast to Vietnam.
Afghanistan and Iraq insurgencies have not achieved broad support comparable to the revolutionary National Liberation Front (NLF) in Vietnam. The Viet Cong, the NLF military arm, demonstrated exceptional discipline. The Islamic State in the Middle East remains distinct from wider populations.
Nonetheless, the NLF remains germane. A U.S. Army Special Forces major who spent a year in Vietnam discussed his experiences soon thereafter. He described the eerie impact of hearing a letter from his wife read over Radio Hanoi. When later he received that letter through U.S. military mail, the sealed envelope was apparently pristine.
Henry Kissinger was involved in Vietnam policy during the Johnson as well as Nixon administrations. He became convinced Hanoi was not anxious for the Americans to leave, because a large percentage of U.S. materiél was diverted to revolutionary hands.
American society emphasizes practical tangible measures. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara made body counts and weapons captured indicators of Vietnam progress. In hindsight, expanding totals meant the enemy was becoming more numerous.
Tremendous emphasis was placed on destroying COSVN (Central Office South Vietnam), headquarters of the NLF. When bombing raids resulted in major secondary explosions, analysts were pressured to confirm COSVN at last had been hit. The headquarters was vital, but never a fixed location. Rather COSVN was a team of able, dedicated people constantly on the move.
Today, U.S. military strategies reflect Vietnam experience. Special operations officers can achieve top command. During Vietnam, a Special Forces soldier was not going to rise above the rank of colonel.
We are more cautious about intervening in other people’s revolutions. Americans overall remain generally reluctant to send our military overseas.
Perhaps the most important political legacy of Vietnam has been the growing segregation of our all-volunteer military from wider society. Opinion polls reflect this. The off-hand “thank you for your service” ironically symbolizes this distance.
Reintegrating returning warriors remains profoundly important. During the Vietnam War, some vets met hostility and many faced indifference. Death rates from suicide and other causes have been relatively high for Vietnam veterans.
The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C., a black wall below ground level, is inscribed with the names of Americans who died in the war. Architect Maya Lin’s design, selected through competition, represents the ambiguity of the conflict.
Monuments serve only as backdrop to the effectiveness of society, a human challenge for everyone. Aiding veterans is human work, encouraged but not replaced by symbols.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact firstname.lastname@example.org