Viet Nam Remembered
By Patrick F. Cannon
I haven’t seen any numbers yet, but I suspect that Ken Burns’ documentary series on the Viet Nam war will not have had the kind of ratings that made his Civil War series such a success. A few people I talked to said they thought it would be too painful to watch. I did watch it, and it was painful.
I served in the Army from 1961 to 1963, so got out before our country became so deeply mired in Viet Nam’s civil war. By then, we had already taken the first steps in what would become a steadily escalating involvement. Most Americans were only vaguely aware of what was happening. In 1962, while stationed in France, I decoded a classified message that asked commanders to see if any troops under their command with certain skills would be interested in volunteering for service in Viet Nam. Immediate promotion and possible civilian status were the carrots. The stick was you had to extend your term by one year.
I was approached, but as a typical draftee, I turned it down. A couple of years later, in 1965 I think it was, a bartender I knew was called back into the Army. He had the same MOS (military occupation specialty) as I did, so I had a couple of tense years wondering if I would be next. Although I was subject of recall until 1967, I never got the dreaded letter.
By then, I was married and we were expecting our first child. Viet Nam was not uppermost in my mind; indeed, I think like most Americans then I supported our involvement. People of later generations – with the hindsight of history – find it difficult to understand that support. But here’s the thing: by 1962, the Soviet Union had effectively taken over Eastern Europe and tried, but failed in Greece, Italy and France; Mao had been victorious in China; South Korea had been invaded by North Korea and China; the “Wall” had gone up in Berlin; and Russia had placed offensive missiles in Cuba. And those are just the highlights.
(By the way, if all the people who later said they had opposed the war all along had actually been telling the truth, it would have ended much sooner.)
Initial support, then, seemed reasonable to most people. After all, we had stopped the Communists from taking over South Korea; why should South Viet Nam be any different? In the end, what we didn’t realize was that the North Vietnamese weren’t ever going to give up until either they won or were all dead. They later admitted that 1.1 million North Vietnamese army soldiers and Viet Kong fighters had died, along with 2 million civilians, North and South. We had 58,220 dead and estimated that the South Vietnamese army had lost approximately 250,000. What we were willing to tolerate paled in comparison with our adversaries.
Among the many insights in Burns’ documentary is that former North Vietnamese still alive are now questioning whether their sacrifices were worth it in the end. Another is that it’s now clear that our military leaders came much earlier than we then thought to the conclusion that the war could not be won without suffering unacceptable losses. Decisions to expand and continue the war were made by politicians, often for purely political considerations rather than the national interest. Thus, we now remember Lyndon Johnson more for pursuing an unwinnable war than for the accomplishments of his Great Society. Richard Nixon’s legacy is even more complicated. While he “ended the war,” the manner of his doing it still leaves a bad taste.
But like his Civil War and World War II documentaries, it is the stories of individuals on both sides that are most compelling, including those who survived and those who did not. As I said, I escaped the service just in time. Although many of their names are now lost to me, I have wondered if some of those I served with – particularly those who intended to make the Army a career – ended up in Viet Nam and later, on the Wall.
Copyright 2017, Patrick F. Cannon