Several years ago I wrote Prowler Ball – A Yankee Station Sea Story about my combat experience flying over North Vietnam at the end of the war in 1972-73. With the coming of the Ken Burns film we have been given a chance to revisit and remember those years. For those who served there certain segments are more poignant than others. But for me, remembering is not enough. Somehow, I would like to understand what happened and moreover, why?
Recently, three books have stood out for me in this process. The fact that none of them are new publications only deepens my resolve to get to a point of clarity. The first two, written after the war deal with the combat experience and the process of how a returning veteran can reintegrate his life into a civilian world. These are Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America by Jonathan Shay. In both of these books he works the western world’s two most long-lived stories of war and warriors into the American struggle in Vietnam. The parallels are both shocking and revealing and are a must for any Vietnam vet and his family.
The third book, The Quiet American by Graham Greene is a different kind of book. That it has twice been made into a film says something about its message. On the one hand, it is a story of a love triangle set against the background of Saigon during the period following the French debacle at Dien Ben Phu. But if you had watched the first segment of the Burns film during which politicians, notably John Kennedy urge America to stay out of Vietnam, then the subtler message of this book resonates. Much like the other book of its time The Ugly American, the failure of American policy against a background of anti-colonial resentment is played out.
Ironically, the reception of both of these books at the time of their release was met by the raging of anti-communist hotheads of the McCarthy ilk. Of course, the Soviet Union was doing its best to destabilize the west, much as Putin and his ally Trump are doing today. But, like everything in the world, nothing is starkly black or white. No, what becomes troubling as one reads pronouncements laid down a dozen or more years before the Tet offensive, or the siege o Hue, or even the Christmas bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong in which I took part, is that the end was clearly spelled out. Nearly fifty-nine thousand Americans had to die to bolster up a strategy that was known to be flawed. The politicians who should have put a stop to this did not have the courage or political integrity to say “enough”.
Would Vietnam have fallen to Ho Chi Minh and Le Duan if we had never been there? Perhaps. What we should have brought to Vietnam was not weapons, but our checkbooks and our training. We are doing that now. Have you looked at where your clothing is being manufactured these days? If you buy at Kohl’s you will see ‘Made in Vietnam’ on the label. I had one of these “aha” moments the other day when I read the label on my new Ping golf clubs–Made in Vietnam.
A long time ago I made it my business to know and understand the foreign markets into which my clients were investing. I did this by walking around and seeing what was really happening. I would tell clients the reality of markets in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and even the then nascent Saigon stock market. Graham Alison wrote a book called Essence of Decision about the mistakes that were made in Cuban Missile Crisis based upon the bias of the decision makers. He pointed out that too often because the observer wanted to see a particular problem in a particular light, his or her judgement made it so, when too often quite the opposite was true. If you shoot at a peasant in a field from a helicopter and he runs, is he an enemy, or just scared? After he is shot dead, who will answer?
If only our leaders had done that with a view to understanding the reality of what the struggle of the Vietnamese was all about, a more peaceful and perhaps more useful period would have ensued and still our clothing and sporting equipment could have been outsourced there. I recommend all of these books to those who like me, would like to understand.