Last night we watched the American Experience documentary Last Days In Vietnam. It’s quite simply an amazing film, and one doesn’t have to have supported that war to be moved by the tales of heroism by Americans and Vietnamese alike. It all happened 40 years ago, but director Rory Kennedy and some of the most interesting talking heads I’ve ever seen in a documentary make it come alive as if it happened the other day.
There were vast swaths of the film that played like a thriller; the stories of individual bravery and moral courage. We all know the big picture: the North Vietnamese invaded in March and the corrupt and feeble South Vietnamese government folded like a poker player with a pair of deuces. The US Congress, quite rightly, refused to throw good money after bad and didn’t grant the Ford-Kissinger request for more funds to be stolen by Generals Thieu, Ky and their cronies. The worst talking head is, unsurprisingly, Henry Kissinger who recycles the same lies that he’s been peddling for the last 40 years: Nixon good, liberals bad. So it goes.
One of the most compelling American talking heads is Richard Armitage. Yes, *that* Richard Armitage of Colin Powell and Valerie Plame fame. He was a bona fide hero of the evacuation, choosing to disregard orders in favor of saving the lives of Vietnamese who might have faced death at the hands of the Communists. As I listened to Armitage’s tales of derring-do, I couldn’t help thinking of his role in W’s Iraq War. Both Armitage and his close friend and associate General Powell were opposed to the war and convinced it would lead to disaster. They were right but lacked the individual bravery and moral courage Armitage showed in 1975 and did not resign.
I wish we had more of a tradition of public officials resigning over matters of principle and policy. The Johnson administration was honeycombed with senior officials opposed to the Vietnam War. None of them resigned and went public with their criticism. Hell, even President Johnson had serious doubts about his war policy but he stumbled ahead out of fear of being called weak. Truman was accused of “losing China” and LBJ didn’t want to be the first President to lose a war. Instead, he lost the American people and damaged his place in history. The war itself was lost in 1975. So much for Nixonian “peace with honor.”
Sipping a Maker’s Mark on the rocks later in the evening, I contemplated our two great recent foreign policy disasters and what they did to the country. Vietnam had a more searing impact on the national psyche because *everyone* alive at the time knew someone who served in Vietnam. Presidents had always lied but LBJ and Tricky Dick were exposed telling some major whoppers and people haven’t trusted the government ever since. Their mendacity gave a boost to the Reaganite credo “guvmint isn’t the solution, it’s the problem.”
Bush, Cheney, and Rummy’s Iraq fiasco is turning out to be a bigger geopolitical disaster than Vietnam. The Obama presidency has been, in part, devoted to cleaning up their mess but the rampant instability and violence in the Middle East is Bush’s gift to a war weary nation. The Bushies also lied their way into war, but after Vietnam it was assumed that governments did that so the stench has slowly worn off in many quarters.
The general public is more isolated from the personal side of the Iraq-Afghanistan War experiences: most Americans do not know people who served. They “support the troops” but they’ve never met them. That makes it easier to support the next conflict. I’m not going to advocate restoring the draft since I’m old enough to have contemplated it and to have been relieved when it was ended by my old pal Tricky Dick. There is something to be said for a Citizen army though.
Back to Last Days In Vietnam. It got me thinking of a Vietnamese gentleman I got to know when I was a college student. He had been a Colonel in the Vietnamese Army and was running a liquor store when we met. I was fascinated by his stories of the War and how he and his family fled the country in the nick of time. This fine documentary is full of similar stories, which makes it must-see teevee. It’s also a cautionary tale about the folly of going to war in a country whose culture and history one is unfamiliar with. Unfortunately, we made many of the same mistakes in Iraq. Here’s hoping we can avoid them in the future but history has a nasty habit of repeating.