A Millennial’s Perspective on the Legacy of Vietnam

The first time I visited the Vietnam Memorial was in the fifth grade. There, I observed tearful mourners and cried too without understanding why.

The last American combat troops left Vietnam in 1973, twelve years before I was born and 42 years ago as I write this. No millennials, as my generation is called, lived through the Vietnam War. For most of us even the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union happened too early in our lives to resonate politically. My generation’s perspective on Vietnam is shaped entirely through textbooks and movies.

Through those lenses, the Vietnam War seems to be one of the most costly political and strategic blunders in United States history. Over 58,000 Americans died in a losing effort based on a failed strategic premise. This does not account for the millions of dead or wounded Vietnamese, the refugee problems the war caused, nor the $100 billion tab.

Vietnam’s success is not the legacy of American intervention.

Vietnam today is an economically important and stable country whose leaders have grown closer with America as their growing, communist neighbor, China, looms. The country is open for tourism and business, and it was a Vietnamese invasion (albeit a pragmatic rather than moral one) in 1979 that removed the Khmer Rouge from power in Cambodia and halted a genocide.

Vietnam’s success is not the legacy of American intervention. We were not able to stop a communist takeover of South Vietnam, and the premise on which our involvement was based proved faulty; Vietnam did not bleed red into the rest of Southeast Asia, literally or figuratively.

Learning lessons

But my generation ought to remember Vietnam. We owe the men who died their seat at our table of heroes. The war was not of their making, and our failure to win was not their fault. They were fighting a losing battle, set up to fail. In the names inscribed on the somber dark panels that brought me — then inexplicably — to tears as a child, there is a lesson for a generation that finds itself in prolonged foreign combat. It would be both disrespectful and short-sighted of us to ignore the sacrifice in those names.

But bullets do not kill ideas, and absent a superior ideology to complement necessary use of force, a “hot” war against an idea is destined to be a losing prospect…

The most important parallel between the thinking that led to Vietnam and the War on Terror is the flawed methodology of fighting an ideological battle as a “hot” war. Indeed, there are times when force is necessary, and we have applied it both proportionately and disproportionately at times during the War on Terror. But bullets do not kill ideas, and absent a superior ideology to complement necessary use of force, a “hot” war against an idea is destined to be a losing prospect, a long and futile war of attrition.

We have shown the will to to engage in military confrontation against Communism and Islamic Jihadism, but with similarly disappointing results. We have killed the enemy, many of him, but we are no closer to winning the war. In South Vietnam our support of a corrupt and oppressive president fueled unpopularity and rage that made winning the war impractical if not impossible before it had even begun. US soldiers may have been fighting, killing, and dying at the hands of communists, but they were ultimately defeated by the ideological weight of communism, an ideology for which we possessed no counterweight. Instead of communism, we offered South Vietnam Ngô Đình Diệm, a man whose repressive policies led the monk Thich Quang Duc to his principled and now immortalized self-immolation. Diệm was so bad that, despite initial American backing, a CIA-backed coup overthrew him in 1963.

This was America’s ideological counterweight to Communism

We owe it to the men who died in Vietnam to rethink the very strategy that sent them there. If the prevailing fear behind the domino theory was that if one country became communist, inevitably the next would, then the next and so on, the question then became: how can we stop communism from spreading. The answer became a hot war, and a failed one.

Like in Vietnam, we were militarily superior to our opponent in nearly every aspect…

Today, my generation faces the threat of radical and violent Islam. We responded to a 9/11 with hot wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like in Vietnam, we were militarily superior to our opponent in nearly every aspect — perhaps even more so today than then — and we inflicted far more damage than we absorbed. And yet here we are facing an ideological threat that seems even stronger than before our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, thriving in the chaotic quagmire created by hot action.

Like with any and all movements, the reality of governing must replace the zeal of conquest.

But if military action in Vietnam failed to achieve its objective, the premise on which it was based may have made military action unnecessary to begin with; North Vietnamese forces were fueled by an ideological zealotry we could not match, but the tidal wave of red that was supposed to domino across Asia after the fall of South Vietnam never materialized. Like with any and all movements, the reality of governing must replace the zeal of conquest. As we consider how to confront ISIS, we must realize that military force without diplomatic, political, and economic alternatives is futile. We must utilize all of the tools in our kit to be successful.

Fighting with ideas

Ultimately, the outcome in Vietnam had nothing to do with the collapse of the USSR. Where ideological fervor prevailed in Vietnam, ideological realities imploded elsewhere. The Soviet economic model didn’t work, and we simultaneously built more and bigger missiles and flaunted our Levis and rock and roll. It worked. The threat of force existed, but no bomb brought down the Berlin Wall, it fell to the sheer will of people determined to adopt something better. No one was picking East Berlin. Really, no one.

But just as a bullet kills the VC and the would-be suicide bomber, it does nothing to combat the ideals that propel each of them.

The rules are different now. War is fought differently, and ideologies are even more extreme. Mutually Assured Destruction may have given Khrushchev pause, but it likely won’t sway someone with the belief that this world is irrelevant and therefore hurries towards the reward awaiting him in the next one. But just as a bullet kills the VC and the would-be suicide bomber, it does nothing to combat the ideals that propel each of them.

Millennials owe it to the men who served in Vietnam not to send our generation of soldiers into a war they can’t win. We owe it to the men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan to complement their service and sacrifice with political and diplomatic intervention to ensure that their fight was not in vain.

Our men and women in uniform are the front line in defense of freedom, but if we truly care for them, we ought not take their willingness to fight for granted. Whenever we send American men and women to fight and die overseas we owe it to them to make sure they are entering a fight they can win for a cuse which is morally and politically just. History has shown us that an ideological battle cannot be won by force alone. Too many Americans died proving that point. To fully honor their legacy, we must ensure that we do not send our troops to battle in the future without a robust military, political, and diplomatic toolkit to be successful in their endeavor.

Like communism, Islamic jihadism poses an ideological threat to our way of life. When necessary, we must be ready and able to use armed force to keep ourselves safe, but just as Ngô Đình Diệm was not a viable ideological alternative to communism, nor are the secular Arab strongmen like Saddam Hussein and Bashar Al-Assad going to replug the dam of violence unleashed after 9/11 and the events since. Fundamentalist Islamic governments will not be able to offer their populations the rights, freedoms, or standard of living of the 21st century, but if we fail to offer those things as well, ideological fervor will fuel violence, and no number of hot wars will ever put this ideology to rest. As the United States works to fix the geopolitical quagmire in the Middle East, we must be mindful of what we are hoping to build and how it will provide a better life for the people of the region. Only in that way will we ever truly win the War on Terror.

Will Staton is the Assistant Director of Talent for Democracy Prep Public Schools in New York City. Formerly a history teacher, as well as a religious studies and history major, Will remains passionate about international affairs. When he’s not traveling the country to deliver career readiness professional development, Will reads and writes about a variety of personal and political topics. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the policy or position of he Department of Defense of the United States Government.

Header Image: U.S. Army helicopters providing support for U.S. ground troops fly into a staging area fifty miles northeast of Saigon, Vietnam. AP Photo/Henri Huet, File

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