Did you know that we are coming up on the 50th anniversary of the Gulf Of Tonkin incident, which launched America into the Vietnam War? Beliefnet asked me to write a reflection on the Vietnam War at 50. I considered the war as an affair shot through with pride, hubris, and lies. Here’s how it begins:
In 1971, a US Navy veteran of the Vietnam War testified before Congress, telling senators why he turned against the war. The soldier charged that people were dying because of America’s pride won’t let it admit that “we have made a mistake” by going into Vietnam.
“We are asking Americans to think about that because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?” said the veteran, John F. Kerry, who now serves as Secretary of State. “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” We might also ask, as we mark the 50th anniversary of America’s entry into the Indochina war: How do we think morally and spiritually about a mistake that cost the lives of 58,000 Americans and roughly one million Vietnamese combatants and civilians? The Congressionally mandated guidelines for commemorating the Vietnam War are unhelpful.
They order no critical reflection on how and why America entered into the war. Perhaps this kind of thing is to be expected of the government, but allowing the official story to bound our thinking about the meaning of the Vietnam War robs us of the chance to understand how catastrophic pride can be, and how consciousness of this fact of human nature can spare America deadly follies like Vietnam in the future. Of course we must honor the service of Vietnam veterans, many of whom had no choice but to fight in the unpopular war. We all know that they came home bearing physical and psychic wounds, injuries compounded by the loathing with which many on the homefront greeted them.
This was wrong. The nation has, blessedly, learned from that mistake. But honoring the service and sacrifice of the soldier does not require honoring the cause – and in fact, can serve to retroactively justify that cause, against all evidence. Those soldiers, living and dead, were victims of the hubris and pride of the American leadership, which, in a democracy, ultimately means the hubris and pride of the American people. As early as 1963, senior US government leaders knew that the corrupt South Vietnamese regime was unlikely to prevail against the communist-nationalist insurgency, but did not want to accept it.
I can think of no greater way to honor the dead and the wounded soldiers of the Vietnam War than to recognize, with solemnity and respect, and with utmost consciousness of the tragic nature of all human endeavor, that they died obedient and faithful to a nation whose military and civilian leaders sacrificed them at the altar of vanity and pride. There is no comfort in that – none — except in the possibility of gaining wisdom, of achieving spiritual maturity.