Boomers and the Vietnam Shrug
By Frank Dudley Berry, Jr.
The Vietnam debacle was the second greatest trauma in the history of the United States. (First is the Civil War, without any serious contender, and we may all hope to God that it remains unrivaled on the list.) One respect in which it was not a disaster, however, was the moral perspective. The Vietnam War was colossally unwise. It was never immoral. Anyone who heard Tom Dooley once, let alone all summer long, knew -- or should have known -- that reality.
At base, after all the heat, after all the millions of words, after all the sound and fury, what the war was about was a frightened, even terrified, people resisting the imposition of a relentlessly tyrannical and inhumane regime. The moral judgment should always have been weighed in their favor, and to their allies by association. But as the 60's lengthened, and Vietnam became more controversial with each passing year, that base insight was lost.
Even for a fervent war opponent, the extent to which the war opposition had at base the self-serving interests of the Boomer generation was unsettling. Everyone mouthed the sentiments -- moral language is as easy to mimic as any other -- but the bottom line for a huge percentage of resisters, maybe the majority, was a resentment of being inconvenienced by two years military service, with kp, field drill, and master sergeants with their own view of the world.
Simply insisting the war was badly conducted would not do -- it didn't avoid that inconvenient two years. So the war became an impassioned moral cause, a crusade. 'Hell, No, I Won't Go' became a slogan that was chanted with blazing eyes and an even more blazing self-righteous indignation. The United States Army was recast as an invading army, and the defense of South Vietnam as an imperialist venture, a Western power imposing its will on a Third World people, as so often in the past. America thus became Amerika in those years of mass insanity.
Insisting that the issue was a moral one, rather than simply a matter of political alternatives, neatly linked draft resistance to war opposition. Obviously, if the war was evil and immoral, to participate in any form was to become complicit in the immorality. That inconvenient two year obligation thus disappeared. Consistency with that transparent rationalization is also the reason why Vietnam soldiers were treated so disgracefully shabbily in those years. To the extent that one acknowledged that the troops in Vietnam were not acting immorally, one had to acknowledge that maybe the righteousness of war opposition was in some doubt.
Maybe -- perish the thought -- some of the protest was motivated by selfishness and moral cowardice. That was not a notion that could even be entertained as a thought at that time, let alone spoken aloud. So the troops were vilified and the motives of the protesters never questioned.
This transformation of the dialog from a limited political issue to a great, sweeping moral condemnation that was absurdly blind to the actual facts of Vietnam has had huge repercussions. It was catastrophic for the people of Southeast Asia.
Persuaded by all the inflamed rhetoric that the United States was interfering with the popular will of a distant people, Congress not only withdrew troops, but cut off aid to South Vietnam, at a time in 1974 when many military historians believe that nation might have been able to withstand the assault with reasonable support. The successors to Ho Chi Minh, as Stalinist as he was, overran Saigon in 1975 and imposed the same brutality as they had in Hanoi two decades earlier. Deliver us from evil.
In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge took advantage of the power vacuum the West had left behind to perpetrate the most appalling genocide since World War II, maybe in history, in the killing fields. (In 2005, filmmakers trying to make a documentary about the massacre found too few survivors to contribute.
In the United States, the war protest gave birth to the Great Sacred Cow of the demented Left -- that it had taken to the streets and, by heroic measures, brought an unjust and immoral war to its knees. For many Boomers, participation in the anti-war movement is the most significant moral action of their lives. For many, these are life episodes too precious to rethink critically -- and they don't. But the protests didn't stop the war. What it brought to a halt was the draft, which ended in 1971, as did the protests -- for it is hard to deny that had been the real point all along. The war went on until 1975. And the events that followed? The repugnant atrocities of Pol Pot and the concrete demonstration that North Vietnam had intended all along a ferociously tyrannical Communist regime?
In one of the great acts of collective rationalization in recorded history, the Baby Boomers -- my generation -- shrug their shoulders. Not our problem.
But the fact was that Tom Dooley had been telling the plain, unvarnished truth. The Vietnamese people -- the real flesh-and-blood kind, that live and die, suffer and hope (not the mythic 'People' of immemorial Leftist cant) -- began running from Ho Chi Minh in 1955. They kept running for the next two decades, as far south as the land would take them, then into boats and the open sea when the land ran out. The war was a dumb war, unwisely formulated, stupidly communicated, even more stupidly fought. But it was a just cause and a moral undertaking. It was the protest, with its utter contempt for the actual human reality, that was immoral.