The War Nobody Won

The memorial, an angle of polished black stone subtly sub¬merged in a gentle slope, is an artistic abstraction. Yet its simplicity dramatizes a grim reality. The names of the dead engraved on the granite record more than lives lost in battle: they represent a sacrifice to a failed crusade, however noble or illusory its motives. In a larger sense they symbolize a faded hope—or perhaps the birth of a new awareness. They bear witness to the end of Amer¬ica’s absolute confidence in its moral exclusivity, its military invin¬cibility, its manifest destiny. They are the price, paid in blood and sorrow, for America’s awakening to maturity, to the recognition of its limitations. With the young men who died in Vietnam died the dream of an “American century.”
Thousands of Vietnam veterans streamed into Washington on a crisp November weekend in 1982, along with their families and the families of the dead, to dedicate the memorial. Some were paraplegics in wheelchairs, others amputees. They wore fatigues or business suits, and several came in full combat gear. There were speeches and re¬unions and a parade, and a solemn service at the National Cathedral, where volunteers had held a candlelight vigil throughout the week, reciting the names of the nearly fifty-eight thousand killed and missing in action, one by one. From afar, the crowds resembled the demonstra¬tors who had stormed the capital during the Vietnam war to denounce the conflict. But past controversies were conspicuously absent this weekend. Now Americans appeared to be redeeming a debt to the men who had fought and died—saluting their contribution, expiating their suffering. The faces, the words of dedication and the monument itself seemed to heal wounds. The two names at the head of the memorial—Dale R. Buis and Chester M. Ovnand—evoked my own recollection of a distant event.
I first visited South Vietnam in July 1959, soon after arriving in Asia as chief correspondent for Time and Life magazines. Insurgents were just emerging to challenge the regime created there five years before, when an international conference held in Geneva had parti¬tioned the country following the French defeat. The term Vietcong, a pejorative label invented by the South Vietnamese government to brand the rebels as Communists, had not yet been conceived—and they were still known as the Vietminh, the movement that had van¬quished the French. Several hundred American military advisers had been assigned to train and equip the South Vietnamese army, but signs of serious trouble were rare. Then, on the evening of July 8, an incident occurred at a camp near Bienhoa, the headquarters of a South Viet¬namese army division twenty miles northeast of Saigon. I drove there the next day to gather the details.
Six years later, when the United States was pouring men, money and materiel into an expanding struggle, Bienhoa became the site of a gigantic American base, and the town degenerated into a sleazy tenderloin of bars and brothels. In 1959, however, it was still a sleepy little provincial seat—its church, stucco villas and tree-lined streets the remnants of a century of French colonial presence. Driving through the heat and humidity of a tropical morning, I caught my first glimpses of a land still undisturbed by war. Peasants in black pajamas and conic straw hats bent over rice stalks in flooded fields, the slow rhythm of their labor testimony to the infinite patience of Asia, and busy village markets along the route advertised the country’s fertility. But pulling into the army camp, I could almost taste the start of a war whose eventual magnitude would have then strained my wildest fancies.
The night before, six of the eight American advisers stationed at Bienhoa had settled down in their mess after supper to watch a movie, The Tattered Dress, starring Jeanne Crain. One of them had switched on the lights to change a reel when it happened. Guerrillas poked their weapons through the windows and raked the room with automatic fire—instantly slaying Major Buis and Master Sergeant Ovnand, two South Vietnamese guards, and an eight-year-old Vietnamese boy.
The Americans were not the first U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam. Lieutenant Colonel A. Peter Dewey of the Office of Strategic Services had been gunned down accidentally by a Vietminh band outside Sai¬gon as far back as September 1945. And a daredevil American pilot, Captain James B. McGovern—nicknamed Earthquake McGoon after a character in the Li’l Abner comic strip—crashed to his death while flying supplies to the beleaguered French garrison at Dienbienphu in May 1954. But Buis and Ovnand were the first to die during the Vietnam Era, the official American euphemism for a war that was never formally declared.
My dispatch about the incident at Bienhoa earned only a modest amount of space in Time magazine—it deserved no more. For nobody could have imagined then that some three million Americans would serve, in Vietnam—or that more than fifty-eight thousand were to perish in its jungles and rice fields and their names to be etched, twenty-three years after, on a memorial located within sight of the monuments to Washington and Lincoln.
Nor did I then, surveying the bullet-pocked villa at Bienhoa, even remotely envision the holocaust that would devastate Vietnam during the subsequent sixteen years of war. More than four million Vietnam¬ese soldiers and civilians on both sides—roughly 10 percent of the entire population—were to be killed or wounded. Most of the South Vietnamese dead were interred in family plots. Traveling in the north of the country after the war, I observed neat rows of whitewashed slabs in every village cemetery, each bearing the inscription Liet Si, “Hero.” But the tombs were empty; the bodies had been bulldozed into mass graves in the south, where they had fallen.
In human terms at least, the war in Vietnam was a war that nobody won—a struggle between victims. Its origins were complex, its lessons disputed, its legacy still to be assessed by future generations. But whether a valid venture or a misguided endeavor, it was a tragedy of epic dimensions.
History is an organic process, a continuity of related events, inexorable yet not inevitable. Leaders and the people who follow them make and support choices, but within the context of their experience and aspi¬rations. The roots of the American intervention in Vietnam were planted and nurtured in what Professor Daniel Bell of Harvard has called America’s concept of its own “exceptionalism.”
“Westward the course of empire,” wrote George Berkeley, the Anglican bishop and philosopher, heralding fresh horizons ahead as he departed from England for America in 1726. And, a century later, other Europeans echoed his celebration of the new society. To Hegel America was “the land of the future,” beckoning “all those who are weary” of the old continent, while Tocqueville perceived it to be a beacon, its democratic institutions, natural wealth and individual op¬portunities serving as a model for decadent Europe, torn by poverty, frustration, class tensions and ideological turmoil. The notion of sin-gularity also inspired Americans themselves, and the freighted phrase “manifest destiny” signified belief in their obligation to export their benefits to less privileged civilizations abroad.

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