A Sense of Betrayal

Recollections of Vietnam

(Published August 17, 2012)


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“It shook his faith in civilization and civilized man.  It made him mordantly conscious of how thin the veneer of civilization really was, and of that point of no return beyond which men fell … into satanic depths. … He had seen how, under pressure and removed from customary restraints, even the most [civilized of men] could give way to destructive impulses rising from the depths of their own natures: unbridled vanity, greed, and appetite for power that, in its extreme form, swells into the desire to play God. … [His experiences] had taught him that the world was a dangerous place … and an even more disturbing lesson: how dangerous men were.”

The above quotation, from the introduction to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, speaks to the way in which the book’s main character, Marlow’s, journey into the heart of imperialist Africa affected his perceptions of the world and the society in which he lived.  It also speaks to the way in which my journey into the heart of Vietnam affected my perceptions of the world, and the society in which I live.  This theme, the recognition of human capacities for evil and the superficial nature of human moral systems, is not uncommon in literature throughout the ages.

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The war in Vietnam was characterized by lies, deceits, manipulations, and betrayals of “what’s right,” perpetrated by our allies, by our military, and by our government.  Even the Gulf of Tonkin incidents of August 1964, which opened the door for full-scale American combat operations in Vietnam, were lacking in credibility.  The first event on August 2nd, in which the American destroyer, the USS Maddox, was attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats, was apparently genuine.  It was the second “attack” on August 4th, however, that led to the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.  That incident served as President Lyndon Johnson’s legal justification for deploying conventional forces, and the commencement of open warfare against North Vietnam.  Subsequent research has indicated, with almost total certainty, that the second attack never really happened.  President Johnson and his advisors had been desperately seeking a pretext for direct and vigorous military action, and this bogus incident served their purposes well.

It was often stated that the over-riding purpose of the Vietnam War was one of bringing democracy to Southeast Asia, but that wasn’t really the case.  The war was not so much about promoting democracy as it was about promoting anti-communism — an entirely different objective.  While the enemy was fighting an all-out war of national liberation, with the objective of defeating us, we were fighting a limited war in which we did not seek a clear-cut victory, but rather a negotiated, compromise peace.  We were also not fighting a war of territorial objectives, but rather one of attrition in which we hoped the enemy, after we inflicted sufficiently large losses of manpower, would eventually be unable to recover and would simply give up.  That was wishful thinking on our part.  The enemy had an extraordinary will to persist, could absorb losses unthinkable to us Americans, and was quickly able to recover from any damage we inflicted.  Illustratively, it has been estimated that the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong suffered the loss of approximately 1,100,000 troops killed in action.  When adjusted for the difference in population size between Vietnam and the United States, that is the equivalent of having 5 – 10 million U.S. troops killed.  We, in fact, lost “only” about 58,000 troops during the entire war, but that was more than our national psyche was able to tolerate.  Those 58,000 deaths can further be put into perspective by noting that the average number of automobile deaths per year in the United States for the period of 1962 to 1972 was about 49,000. 

The relatively low number of U.S. deaths was, at least in part, a result of the policy of “expend munitions, not lives.”  We dropped seven million tons of bombs in Vietnam, as compared to a total of two million tons dropped by the allies in all of World War II.  That works out to be 350 pounds of bombs for every man, woman and child in all of Vietnam.  The financial cost of this policy was considerable.  According to one estimate, it cost the United States $9.60 for every dollar of damage the air war inflicted on North Vietnam.  According to another estimate, the cost of killing one Viet Cong was $400,000.  But the policy did save American lives.  In spite of all that, we lost the war.  It was the only war that the United States had ever lost, and the impact on the national psyche was devastating.  We could no longer think of ourselves as being “invincible,” and the fact that we could be defeated by a third-rate military power was almost beyond comprehension.

 The young servicemen sent to protect America from the Communist menace didn’t encounter John Wayne heroics.  What they encountered were “free-fire zones,” “recon by fire,” “search and destroy,” and “body counts” — the long and dismal array of atrocities that constituted American policy in Vietnam.  In short, they encountered compelling evidence of “man’s inhumanity to man.”  Disillusionment among the troops became rampant, as evidenced by heavy drug use, “fragging” (the killing of superior officers with fragmentation grenades), an unprecedented number of desertions (most of which did not take place under fire, indicating that they were caused by disgust rather than fear), and “combat refusals” (a euphemism for “mutiny”).  All of this took its psychological toll on the troops and it has been estimated that, among those who served in Vietnam, as many as 30%  — that is, one million servicemen — eventually suffered from what is now known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  One result of this is that more Vietnam Veterans have died of suicide than died on the battlefields during the entire war.  It is germane to note here that, at an average age of 20, the soldiers were 6 years younger than their fathers who fought in World War II — and their youth presumably contributed to their susceptibility to PTSD.  Even today, 40 years later, the Vietnam War continues to take its toll in alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and suicide.

After the Tet Offensive in the spring of 1968, in which the enemy demonstrated its strength and commitment to its cause, and in which the lying of the American government was brought into focus, the mood of the American public turned against the war and those who served in it.  Vietnam Veterans, upon returning home, were shunned and denigrated.  Those who opposed the war vilified them as “baby killers,” and those who still supported the war derided them as “losers.”  The public’s faith in the government, and the honesty and competence of its leaders, was significantly undermined.  The American populace developed a high degree of suspicion and distrust toward authority of any kind — a distrust that continues to this day.  Two popular bumper stickers of the time illustrate the point:  The first was “Question Authority”; the second was, “I Love My Country, But Fear My Government.”  The betrayal of the Vietnam Veterans was exacerbated by the Veterans’ Administration that did virtually nothing to help those who were incapacitated by Agent Orange, PTSD, alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and suicide.  After the conclusion of the war, the majority of Americans neither wanted to talk about it nor to think about it — thus further isolating the Vietnam Veterans and also setting the stage for a repeat performance in the future.