Los Angeles Times Book Review – February 8, 2004
The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides
Christian G. Appy
Viking: 574 pp., $34.95
Now we get lost so easily in the fog of war is not hard to understand from a distance: We are hard-wired to adapt to our experiences. Indeed, our ability to do so is what has enabled the species to survive and dominate. Yet gathered into modern societies, we regularly abandon our hard-wired selves. Rather than anchoring our collective behavior with information gleaned through concrete encounters in the finite world, we instead project a collective reality that often bears little or no resemblance to our actual individual experiences and exists only as an intellectual construct generated by imagination and expectation.
Nowhere is that dynamic more obvious than in the modern United States on the warpath. With our blood up and the flag in the breeze, we typically act on the basis of what our ideology tells us is appropriate until our senses accumulate enough information to bring us back to earth. By that point, of course, we may be in over our heads. At no time was that dysfunctional cycle more obvious than in the Vietnam War.
And we still have a lot left to learn from it. Had we done so, we might not have plunged ahead blindly following President George W. Bush’s prescribed political script. Though Vietnam was a different war in a far different place, it is godmother to the current U.S. Empire being nurtured in the political and military quicksand of Iraq and Afghanistan. As such, the Vietnam War remains a pressing subject. Indeed, our ongoing ignorance of its lessons has deprived us of what might have alerted us in advance to this looming quagmire. It is no accident that neoconservatives denigrate what they call the “Vietnam Syndrome,” meaning an unwillingness to send U.S. Soldiers to war, even as they promote unprovoked assault and regime change in what passes for the Bush administration’s foreign policy.
The administration’s neoconservatives use the term as a shorthand way to dismiss anyone who has come to a different conclusion about the prospects of U.S. Empire than their own. More specifically, they use it as a means to dispute that the experience of Vietnam – the last time we sent young men halfway around the world to install a government of our choosing in someone else’s country – is more compelling than the ideological fiction they have constructed to underwrite their policy of aggressive U.S. hegemony. It is their interest to make sure no one remembers what happened the last time, so they treat our collective memory of it as some sort of mysterious disease to be shunned at all costs. As the neoconservatives’ new Empire descends into disaster, however, the rest of us might want to backtrack to gain some perspective on why there was such a syndrome in the first place.
Fortunately, Christian G. Appy has provided us with “Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides,” an extraordinarily compelling and digestible book. It is not about the policy that led to the Vietnam War, though it deals with how that policy was made. Nor is it about the history of the war, though it effectively reconstructs much that went on during the decade it lasted. Instead, this is a book about experiences of the war, a portrait of what happened as about 130 Vietnamese and Americans lived it, without the intellectual overlay of either policy or political assumptions. The only narrative comes in brief introductions to the people offering their individual snippets of oral history. The parade of voices provides revelatory vignettes that cut across recollected events from a host of angles.
Any such collection of oral accounts is bound to be no more than a sampling and thus limited. Appy has compensated somewhat for that in the breadth of interviews, which range from a U.S. military commander who lived in an air-conditioned base camp to a Vietnamese teenager who lived in the jungle, subsisting on grubs scrounged among the rocks and devoting herself to rebuilding the Ho Chi Minh Trail every time the Americans bombed it. There are soldiers, doctors, medics, social workers, diplomats, poets, and even a Playboy bunny who came through on a USO tour. Appy has arranged their accounts in clusters, sometimes by subject, sometimes by time frame, sometimes by roles. Occasionally, that eclectic mixture feels overwhelmed by its task, but mostly it yields a presence that is fresh and insightful after all these years.
Indeed, it often sounds prescient. In light of the arrogance of such neoconservatives as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, it is useful to consider the recollections of Chester Cooper, who was the CIA’s chief Southeast Asian intelligence analyst and then a deputy at the National Security Council charged with making war policy 35 years ago. “There were very smart guys,” Cooper said of the decision-makers who oversaw the Vietnam conflict under President Kennedy, “but they also had a great deal of hubris. One of the problems was that they didn’t know that they didn’t know anything.” Adds Paul Kattenburg, former head of the State Department’s Vietnam Task Force: “They came in with this nutty idea that we could manipulate other states and build nations; that we know all the answers.”
As we contemplate the dangers facing U.S. soldiers dispatched by today’s Washington minds to patrol the streets of Baghdad, consider R. Huynh’s memories of being a young girl when GIs were assigned that task in Saigon. “The Americans just blocked off our street on both sides with barbed wire,” she recalls. “To get to our house we were searched by military police. It was like we were no longer in our street. It was their street…I think they honestly did believe they were coming to save our country …. But some did not have the faintest clue about Vietnam. I have always considered Americans very naive …. What they think they see is what they think it is. If they have been trained day and night to look at a picture and they are told that it is a cat, even if it does not really look like a cat, they believe that it is a cat.”
We might listen to the memories of Frank Maguire, a U.S. Army officer who served three Vietnam tours of duty. “I think it’s a national trait that we always feel we know what’s better for everybody,” Maguire said. “It was an attitude of misguided benevolence – that we know what’s good for them and they don’t really understand what’s happening. We really wanted to win their hearts and minds, except we could never find one or the other.”
Or consider the conclusion of Truong Tran, a South Vietnamese staff sergeant who fought alongside U.S. troops. “We also lost,” Tran said, “because we agreed to fight a war that we could either lose or tie, but not win.”
These voices. obscure and now often forgotten, constitute a national resource of enormous importance. If there are truths generated by war, they can usually only be found in the lives that partake of it. In the pages of “Patriots,” those lives haunt us still. Those ghosts may actually provide clues to find the safety that eludes us elsewhere.