Mark Bowden on Vietnam War's "tragic and meaningless waste"

Author Mark Bowden on Vietnam

The upcoming 50th anniversary of a key battle of the Vietnam war forces us to once again consider its lessons ... so says Mark Bowden, author of a book about that battle, "Hue 1968": 

From the perspective of half a century, the Vietnam War seems a tragic and meaningless waste. So much heroism and slaughter for a cause that now seems dated and nearly irrelevant.

Vietnam War Medevac
As fellow troopers aid wounded comrades, the first sergeant of A Company, 101st Airborne Division, guides a medevac helicopter through the jungle foliage to pick up casualties suffered during a five-day patrol near Hue, April 1968. Art Greenspon/AP

There are those who still believe the U.S. was right to enter the war, and that it could have been won if not for press coverage, draft-resisters, and weak-kneed politicians. But time and a deeper understanding have not strengthened those views.

Instead, we now see a war that was misguided from the beginning. It was based on false assumptions about Vietnam, and on projecting domestic political priorities that had little to do with the realities of Southeast Asia.

The war was waged in the name of freedom, to stop the supposed monolithic threat of Communism from spreading across the globe like a dark stain. 

But Vietnam was never a good fit. There was no real democracy in South Vietnam to defend. The regimes of Ngo Dinh Diem and the generals who followed him -- including the last, Nguyen Van Thieu -- were deeply corrupt, trampled opponents, and terrorized their own citizenry.

Diem's regime was so bad that the U.S. acquiesced in his CIA-backed assassination. 

Nor was Hanoi the creature of either Bejing or Moscow, although it enjoyed support from both. They were Communists, but they were fighting to free their country from foreign domination, something that we Americans -- of all people -- ought to have understood.  

Atlantic Monthly Press

So the logic that drove us to war, where it was not plain wrong, was a gross simplification.

We had dumbed ourselves down. There were people in the 1950s and '60s who knew better -- those who knew the region's history, who spoke the language, who had lived there, who had advised against entangling us in a distant civil war. They were ignored and systematically banished from the halls of power, replaced by ideologues who were convinced they knew best.

The same kind of simplistic thinking was behind efforts in more recent years to export democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan. We find ourselves today enmeshed in both places with no clear end in sight. 

Democracy is not something that can be imposed or gifted. It arises where there are values and customs to nurture it. Vietnam teaches us to beware of men with theories that explain everything, and to trust those who approach the world with cautious insight and humility.

There are limits to what even the most powerful nation on Earth can do.

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