The War Nobody Won 6

The intransigence of the North Vietnamese and Vietcong was gro¬tesquely apparent in the spectacle of their corpses stacked up like cordwood following battles. In Vietnam after the war, I interviewed Communist veterans who had spent seven or eight years fighting in the south, and many spoke candidly of their fear—particularly when U.S. bombs pounded their jungle sanctuaries. “The B-52 attacks were terrible,” recalled Colonel Bui Tin, who survived more than twenty raids. “The planes flew at high altitudes, so that we had no warning. Suddenly the bombs were exploding around us. We would block our ears, scatter in every direction and look for holes in the ground in an effort to escape a direct hit. The bombing lasted only a few minutes, and we would come out to bury the bodies of our unlucky comrades, many mangled beyond recognition.” Equally horrible was napalm, which melts its victims into a kind of gelatin. Some hideously disfig¬ured survivors, mortified by their appearance, crept off to live in caves and other remote spots. On my return to Vietnam in 1990, I heard of several who had hidden since the war and were just beginning to emerge in hopes of being restored to a semblance of normality. But Vietnam could not afford the luxury of cosmetic surgery.
American soldiers, peering at the torn and twisted Communist ca¬davers, frequently dismissed them as “gooks” for whom the Western concept of life was alien. Reflecting the same attitude, Westmoreland often said during the war, “They are Asians who don’t think about death the way we do.” Such racist remarks oddly nullified America’s official claim to be defending the freedom of the South Vietnamese, who were also Asian. The comments also set me to thinking of the old Mathew Brady photographs of Union and Confederate bbdies at Antietam and Gettysburg, where thousands of young men had sac¬rificed themselves for a cause. But theirs had been a cause that Amer¬icans could comprehend.
Communist veterans I interviewed following the war all evoked their cause—saying that, despite their ordeals, it had been their duty to “liberate the fatherland.” The slogan sounded stereotyped to my skeptical ears, but I knew enough about Vietnamese history to grasp what they meant. The country, a battleground for thousands of years, reveres real or mythical heroes and heroines who resisted foreign intruders, chiefly the Chinese. In addition to spawning the notion that every Vietnamese is potentially a soldier, the memory of these strug¬gles has forged a fierce sense of national identity that pulsates through Vietnam’s theater, literature and folk art. I observed the phenomenon during a visit to a pagoda near Hanoi, where small children kowtowed and burned joss sticks before the statues of fabled warriors who had fought for the country. “Our profoundest ideology, the pervasive feeling of our people,” Giap told me, “is patriotism.” I heard the same analysis from a Vietnamese psychologist over lunch in Hanoi. “Even the lowliest peasant is deeply nationalistic,” he said, “and iir times of war, the sentiment can border on xenophobia.”
Dean Rusk, the secretary of state under Kennedy and Johnson, whose crusade against Communism dated back to the Truman adminis¬tration, finally admitted in 1971 that he had “personally underesti¬mated” the ability of the North Vietnamese and Vietcong to resist. “They’ve taken over seven hundred thousand killed, which in relation to population is almost the equivalent of—what? Ten million Ameri¬cans?” A senior officer in Hanoi later confided to me that nearly a million Communist troops had died and millions more were wounded. When I asked him to calculate the civilian total, he replied, “We haven’t the faintest idea.”
General Maxwell Taylor, one of Kennedy’s advisers on Vietnam and subsequently Johnson’s ambassador in Saigon, had been a key architect of U.S. intervention. But not long before his death in 1987, he confessed to me that the involvement had been both a blunder and a lesson. “First, we didn’t know ourselves. We thought that we were going into another Korean war, but this was a different country. Secondly, we didn’t know our South Vietnamese allies. We never understood them, and that was another surprise. And we knew even less about North Vietnam. Who was Ho Chi Minh? Nobody really knew. So, until we know the enemy and know our allies and know ourselves, we’d better keep out of this kind of dirty business. It’s very dangerous.
Henry Kissinger was also confounded and frustrated by the Com¬munists during his secret negotiations with them. He had sought above all to avoid a repetition of the inconclusive Korean war armistice talks, which had dragged on for two years because, he believed, America had not stiffened its diplomacy with the threat of force. He calculated that the North Vietnamese would compromise only if menaced with total annihilation—an approach that President Nixon privately dubbed his “madman theory.” But, like his predecessors, Kissinger never found their breaking point. His later claims to the contrary, the Communists agreed to a cease-fire in October 1972 only after he had handed them major concessions that were to jeopardize the future of the South Viet-namese government.
The real pressure on the Nixon administration to reach a settlement in Vietnam came from the American public, which by that time wanted peace at almost any price—for reasons that Kissinger him¬self had perceived four years before. Early in 1968, on the eve of Tet, the Asian lunar New Year, the Communists had launched a dramatic offensive against towns and cities throughout South Viet¬nam, which Kissinger saw as the “watershed” of the American ef¬fort in Vietnam: “Henceforth, no matter how effective our actions, the prevalent strategy could no longer achieve its objectives within a period or with force levels politically acceptable to the American people.”

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