It was night. We were each traveling deck-class in Greece in the 1960s. The stranger, clearly another American, wanted to talk. We stood at the rail of the ship, looking over the Aegean, over what Homer had called the “wine-dark sea.” It was so dark that I could hardly see the stranger’s face, but he looked to be in his early twenties. Here is the gist of what he said:
I didn’t have a religious objection to any war; I had an objection to participation in this war [Vietnam]. If called, my choice was to go to Canada, leaving my friends and country, or to be sent to a war that seemed immoral and probably unwinnable, an arrogant post-colonial adventure. On the draft questionnaire, among many other questions, it asked whether I had ever tried to commit suicide. I checked “yes,” then erased the mark as much as possible and penciled an emphatic “no.” When the psychiatrist asked about the suspicious change, I told him “I have never tried to destroy myself and anybody who says that I did is lying.” He obviously felt that he saw through the denial of a self-destructive kid and disqualified me from the draft. I left, having told the truth, happy about not having to decamp for Canada. (end of the stranger’s story)
While it was hard not to credit the Ulysses-like ingenuity of this man, considering his non-warrior beliefs, I was at that point a supporter of JFK, in part because the young President was so cool, perhaps in part because he had written the Foreword for my first publication. In any case, I didn't see the harm in sending a limited number of “advisers” to help halt communist expansion in Southeast Asia.
It was not until watching witnesses at the Fulbright hearings in 1966 that I felt that, among U.S. leaders, the lunatics had taken over the asylum, and not until years later that I discovered that LBJ and some of his advisers recognized that the war was unwinnable but kept sending more troops. He was apparently afraid to be the first President to lose a war, forgetting Korea, the first in what turned out to be an unbroken string of stalemates and other muddles (such as Iraq and, now in its 16th year, Afghanistan).
It was in 1970 that the Wright Institute sponsored a conference on the My Lai massacre and other destruction of civilians in Vietnam, and produced a book, edited by Nevitt Sanford and me, called Sanctions for Evil: Sources of Social Destructiveness. The paperback was brought out by Beacon Press, in the same year when it published Daniel Ellsberg’s “Pentagon papers.”
When the word “war” is mentioned, we tend to think of combat units shooting at one another, which certainly occurred in Vietnam, but what distinguished the conflict was the difficulty in identifying who was a trained enemy and who was just a peasant. When critics of the war called it immoral, they referred in part, to the almost inevitable result of this difficulty. By widespread testimony, the My Lai massacre was not an isolated incident.
Watching the documentary film on the Vietnam war by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, I felt again that the issue was not the courage of those who were ordered to fight, but the flawed judgment of our political leaders, the ones who were supposed to have “all the facts.” They were afraid to be identified as “the cowards who lost Vietnam,” the way the Democrats were said to have had “lost” China.
They were even more misled by a persuasive but idiotic metaphor, the metaphor of a “row of dominoes”: if Vietnam “fell,” then so would Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma, even Indonesia and the Philippines. Well, today Hanoi’s Vietnam is a source of cheap labor and, for some, even a tourist destination. And while the U.S. was chased out of Saigon in 1975, none of the other dominoes has fallen.
Although I came to be “against” the war, the TV film makes me ask why I didn't do much more in the anti-war movement. Seeing those amazing shots of the fighting, I honor the bravery of the troops, as I did then, but feel they were badly used, even scammed, by leaders not courageous and resourceful enough to get out. . It applies especially to LBJ (1963-68 as President), who knew the war could not be won, as shown in the Burns-Novick documentary, but who kept acceding to Westmoreland’s requests for more troops.
Here in brief are some of the arguments LBJ could have used to extract us from further involvement: (a) it’s their war not ours (said but not acted on), (b) the struggle is nationalist, against foreign occupiers, whether the French or anybody, (c) the Saigon government is corrupt, (d) Ho Chi Minh quoted Jefferson favorably, (e) the domino metaphor is striking but absurd, (f) we have to honor the Geneva agreement of 1954, (g) historically, the Vietnamese have fought the Chinese, so it’s not one united communist conspiracy, (h) some of our close allies wouldn't follow us (the UK, etc.), (i) the war is causing too much dissension at home, led by such figures as Martin Luther King, Jr., Senator Eugene McCarthy, Benjamin Spock, and many, many others.
What a different country we would be now if we’d honored the Geneva Accords of 1954 about ending the division through an election,or got out under LBJ and focused not on a post-colonial struggle, but on our main rivals in the world. Johnson didn't have an opportunity to run for a second term anyway. Instead, we got Nixon. We got the myth that the war was lost at home, not an understanding that it was, in effect, a war for an unpopular regime. We got a crystallization of the culture “war” that has been with us until now.
Why did LBJ not withdraw? He feared the wrath of voters who would need someone to blame for a “loss.” It’s a sad fact that for a while anyway, a majority of voters will rally behind almost any military adventure ordered by a President. Later they may feel used, but by then the anger is tempered by terrible losses, by death of buddies and sons and brothers, severe physical injury, psychological torture such as PTSD, and by memories of the team loyalty felt by soldiers.
It’s admirable that, despite the inevitable critiques, Burns and Novick took on the task of trying to depict the complexity of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, an adventure that could offer not the happy ending of many Hollywood films, but the stark outlines of a tragedy, and not the kind that brings reliable catharsis.