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Reconsidering Vietnam

We had many strengths, but our principal advantage over the enemy lay in our tremendous military superiority…[the correct strategy was] to avoid a protracted war and to strike the Viet Cong and North Vietnam as soon as possible with enough military force to bring the war to a quick and satisfactory solution.

If Congress had refused to declare war, Davidson says, with all that such a declaration entailed, presumably including mobilization of reserves and even more intensive bombing, the US should have gone home.

Why the United States should have declared war and gone on to win, Davidson never considers. He has little else but contempt for our Saigon allies, although during Tet, he says, some of their units fought valiantly, and civilians failed to go over to the other side as Giap had hoped they would. In a single sentence, Davidson appears to torpedo any justification for the loss of a single American life in Vietnam, much less the taking of Vietnamese lives. We went there to defend, he says, a South Vietnam which

had never been a nation, and it had no precepts of national patriotism or sacrifice for the national good. The extended family (including long-dead ancestors) was the only recognized symbol of unity and loyalty to the country.

Davidson is right to say that the will to defend South Vietnam was weak and confused. But his implication that Vietnamese have no concept of patriotism shows startling ignorance of Vietnamese history, particularly of nationalism in this century, a subject well explored by many scholars, most recently in Australia by Carlyle Thayer and by Greg Lockhart, the author of Nation in Arms: The Origins of the People’s Army of Vietnam.14 Giap’s men were laying down their lives for more than dead ancestors.

Giap’s genius, in Davidson’s view, lay in avoiding direct attacks on American forces and concentrating on the American home front, where a nearly treasonous press, “liberal” civilians, a vacillating LBJ, a Nixon who wanted to get out, and a nervous population which believed what they read in the newspapers combined to defeat themselves. The US army itself, he concedes, began to fray and collapse, fragging its officers and sinking into drugs. The rising numbers of these demoralized soldiers coming home in coffins was the final blow to the war effort. Davidson agrees with George Will’s suggestion that had Antietam been shown on TV, the reluctant McClellan would have been elected president. Censorship and a short war, plus World War Two journalistic ethics, could have kept the home spirit alive. “Even now,” Davidson concludes, “our defeat in Vietnam has taught us nothing.”

Colonel Hackworth would agree, but for different reasons. In his usual blunt fashion he says of Tet, in About Face, that while it may have been a tactical American victory, “the strategic and psychological victory the Communists achieved during Tet—among the South Vietnamese people, the American public, and the American fighting men—was incalculable.” More bluntly still, in a report written in 1968, Hackworth summed up: “The US Army has botched the war.” What the army needed in Vietnam, he suggested, was a great fighter, like Stonewall Jackson, Rommel—or Giap.15

Without mentioning Davidson by name, Clark Clifford, in Counsel to the President, disagrees on almost every point with Davidson’s analysis. On Tet, Clifford says,

the outcome of the Tet Offensive may remain in dispute, but there can be no question that it was a turning point in the war. Its size and scope made mockery of what the American military had told the public about the war, and devastated Administration credibility…the military assessment of the Tet Offensive since it ended was incomplete and self-serving. At the time of the initial attacks the reaction of our military leadership approached panic and their intelligence failure [Davidson’s responsibility; he claims that the army knew what was likely to happen] was a critical factor.16

As for the seditious press, Clifford says that most “of the reporting from the war zone reflected the official position. Contrary to right-wing revisionism, reporters and the anti-war movement did not defeat America in Vietnam. Our policy failed because it was based on false premises and false promises.” It is the hawks who produced defeat in Vietnam, according to McNamara’s successor as secretary of defense, who for some years took a hawkish position himself. “They argued that America’s worldwide strength and credibility were on the line in Vietnam, which was not true…. Then, after the failure of their policies they sought to blame those who had opposed the war.” 17

Bergerud sees this in a far broader perspective. Although many rural Vietnamese may now be unhappy about the way the war turned out, and most would probably have been glad to have been left alone during it, he suggests that

While the war was on, as confirmed by scores of reports and interrogations received by the Americans at Hau Nghia in every phase of the conflict [as Davidson, the chief of Army Intelligence, must have known] peasants perceived the followers of the Front as honest, efficient, and genuinely concerned about the people’s welfare…the GVN, even with massive American support could never create the essential foundation for strong and resilient morale—the perception that it could win. The collapse of 1975 is very intelligible in this light.

That the Front itself was then forced to disband by the North Vietnamese remains one of the war’s great ironies.


The two books on postwar Vietnam, by Justin Wintle and John Balaban, are perhaps the most revealing to be published so far. Except for reports by human rights organizations and quick trips by reporters to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the texture of life in Vietnam since the war has been largely neglected.

Wintle is a novelist who was in Vietnam for the first time between October 4, 1989, and January 3, 1990. He wanted to describe Vietnam, the actual country, as opposed to the “Vietnam” we all remember from the war, the

nexus of signs and sounds that describe, simultaneously, American guilt and American prowess. The “real” Vietnam, elusive and incapable of realization as it may be, is never even given a chance. It has become, culturally, off limits.

Of course, as Wintle discovered, it is impossible to escape the war in Vietnam. It is a land of heroes, whom the Party ceaselessly invokes to hide its failures or justify them, but even though he felt like a “sheep under a heavy escort of many sheepdogs,” he tried with some success to decode what he was shown.

His Vietnamese hosts were wary of letting Wintle see things that could have discredited them, and kept insisting, although he had not claimed this, that he was composing a biography of Ho Chi Minh. Within a few days he noticed that Hanoi is so poor that even a general whom he interviewed was slipped a small tip by Wintle’s guides. As he wandered about Hanoi, eating in noodle shops, talking to gigling young women, and trying to find something attractive to buy, he noticed that the Party, after defeating the French, the Americans, and the Chinese, “has simply been unable to deliver the goods as regards the promised benefits of socialism.” It is, therefore, as in all people’s democracies, a great advantage to be a cadre:

Viewed this way, Vietnam…looks like a large protection racket, in which the state plays the role of the Mob or the Mafia or the Triads or the Yakuza…. A disease which is commonly regarded as affecting parts of the capitalist body politic in fact affects the whole of the communist body politic.

Although he has an irritating habit of turning nouns into verbs (“Regularly I was entouraged”) Wintle can be appealing because he does not pretend to understand everything. Near the Chinese border, at Pac Bo, he visits the cave where for a few weeks in 1941, after being abroad for almost thirty years, Ho Chi Minh began to organize the resistance. A nearby pool is fed by what Ho called Lenin stream. Wintle fills his flask and in a burst of inspiration, remembering the Vietnamese word for water, cries out, “Nuoc Lenin, Nuoc Lenin.” His companions, also inspired, repeat the words. “I have, quite unwittingly, done something the retelling of which can do my standing nothing but good.” On his long drive south to Ho Chi Minh City the story follows him. “Among cadres, among former VC, among potatoes big and small alike, among real heroes even, it will always raise a smile, or at the least a nod of approval.”

On his way south Wintle and his “sheepdogs” stop at a small hostel for veterans of the sacred Nghe Tinh uprising of 1930, which the eight-month-old Communist party ineptly organized against the French. He meets a woman who remembers being tortured with a stick called the crocodile because it was studded with crocodile bones. Wintle asks the director what will happen when the last revolutionaries have died; will the hostel’s doors be closed? No, there will be more veterans, from 1945, from the war against Diem and the Americans, and the one against the Chinese. “You see,” the director replies, “in Vietnam, we have all the veterans we want. We may not be very rich in anything else, but for veterans, our supplies will last well into the next century…if not forever.”

But Wintle’s best passages are set in Quang Ngai, just below the 17th parallel, not far from the scene of the My Lai massacre. There he discovers that at nearby Binh Hoa, in late 1966, there was an even larger massacre of villagers, by South Korean soldiers. Wintle insists on going there and the cadres have no time to tell the villagers what to say. One old man “speaks absolutely from the heart. His eyes quickly soak. He simply cannot grasp why, after so many years, a complete stranger has arrived to ask him questions.” At least 502 people were killed by the South Korean Green Dragon Division at Binh Hoa.

No foreigner has visited this terrible place, Wintle learns, and no Vietnamese journalists. There is no monument there. He later checks war records and finds no mention of Binh Hoa. All Wintle can do is to record the names people tell him. He guesses no one has made an issue of Binh Hoa,

because the Americans were not directly involved, because it was not a matter of westerners slaughtering Asian innocents, but of Asians slaughtering Asian innocents. I detect a distinct whiff of dog eat dog about the matter.

Later he is told what happened by one of the few survivors. He was a baby of seven months, was shot, and is now blind. Wintle wants to shake his hand. “Suddenly he drops his trousers to his ankles and, feeling with his fingers, shows me the scar of the bullet wound in his buttock. The wound is almost as old as he is, yet he has never seen it.” Wintle’s books is full of short episodes like this; he has certainly succeeded in turning “Vietnam” into Vietnam, but he could never escape the war.

John Balaban’s Remembering Heaven’s Face is the best book I have read about both Vietnam and “Vietnam” in a long time. Balaban now teaches English at Penn State and has written poetry about the war. In 1967, after studying English at Harvard (where McNamara told demonstrating students to be more polite) he went to Vietnam as a conscientious objector, to work for International Voluntary Services. After two horrifying years there, he decided to close his notebooks for twenty years, and went home. He returned in 1971 to collect traditional songs and, in 1989, on his forty-sixth birthday, traveled to the North.

The book’s title comes from a scene rarely witnessed in Vietnam by foreigners. Mat troi means “the sun,” or “face of heaven” in Vietnamese; it watches over human beings and “constantly reassesses our fates.” Heaven’s face is said to appear on the alter mirrors in Vietnamese homes, which bear the names of the family’s ancestors; it is covered with a red cloth. Balaban once secretly watched some old men dancing in a courtyard. Their faces, tilted to the sky, are covered in red cloth.

That mysterious dance holds elements of all my memories of Vietnam…they contain a secret witnessing of a strange event, some bewilderment at what I saw, and some threat of violence—all tinged with the sense of the human spirit reaching toward heaven….

During his first year in Vietnam, based in Can Tho in the delta, Balaban made some odd friends. One was a CIA man, removed from his job as station chief because he refused to help carry out a private assassination scheme conducted by the province chief. “I’m not a murderer, Johnboy…. When I was in Greece, we killed some bad guys, but usually they had guns in their hands. This little bastard’s just popping off his enemies. Old ladies. Anybody.”

Another friend was the elusive Dave Gitelson, who worked alone in a remote International Voluntary Service station, where the farmers regarded him, Balaban says, as a kind of Johnny Appleseed with his knapsack full of seed samples and agricultural information. Balaban suspects Gitelson had what amounted to a safeconduct pass from the Vietcong. He was gathering material on civilians killed by the Americans—half of all civilians admitted to hospitals in the delta were war casualties, Balaban says—and he had arranged to pass it on to Senator Kennedy who was visiting Vietnam. Before this could happen Gitelson was found shot and floating in a canal. Balaban, although he has no substantial evidence to support his claims, suspects that he was an early victim of the Phoenix Program, “which we now know was unleashed at that time to assassinate secretly anyone suspected of Viet Cong affiliation.”

He describes the carnage inflicted by the Americans when they attacked the town Can Tho after the NLF had penetrated it during Tet.

The Air Force jets had been dropping cluster bombs that made the air on the outskirts…dance with knives, for each of those cluster bombs contained four hundred bomblets filled with razor-sharp slivers…. It was like a gang mower snipping off everything in its path. Whole families reunited at Tet the night before now lay about us shredded and bleeding to death in the dirt.

This account could have been matched by hundreds of others that provide irrefutable evidence of the cruelty and illegitimacy of the American war. It occurred after Balaban had been in Vietnam only a few months and he spent much of the rest of his time, despite the reluctance of many official Americans to cooperate, getting a few dozen horribly wounded children to US hospitals. As he says, “I recorded these events in my notebook as if it were a duty, as if having an account of the horrors could somehow mitigate them…. But for twenty years now, I have kept these notebooks sealed shut, and it is clear why: their contents are unbearable….”

Horrible though it all was, Balaban, like William Broyles, Jr., felt he was with friends “more real to me than those around me in my middle age.” One night, drunk and careering around Saigon with several other men, Balaban finds himself outside a strange house.

I want to fuck!” Our friend yelled back in with a kind of fratrat mindlessness.

In seconds the door crashed open and I could see a huge naked black man, his skin a satin glow in the dim lamplight, pointing an M-16 at our friend and asking, “You want to fuck this?”

It’s a mistake, man. We got the wrong house,” someone said. Drunk and turned around, we had blundered into the lair of one of Saigon’s AWOL blacks.

A pacifist, Balaban also carried a pistol in his elephant-hide briefcase to protect himself against a variety of prospective enemies. Eventually he threw it in the river. He says, “I grew up in Vietnam. In this particular sense of growing witness and wisdom, it wasn’t all bad.”

He could not get Vietnam out of his mind when he returned to what GIs called “the world,” and in 1971 he came back to collect the songs, “Co dao,” that were composed by peasants and reached back to “the distant origins of the Vietnamese when they called themselves the Lac and lived in diminutive agrarian kingdoms in the deltas of the Red and Black rivers of the North.” When he had transcribed them he discovered “an amazing index to the continuum of Vietnamese humanism.”

This humanism survived the war. When he cautiously tells people in the street in Hanoi that he is an American, it is “as if I had said ‘Say cheese.’ I am enveloped by smiles…. Someone says, ‘America, number one.’ ” He gives a lecture on American writers at the Institute of Literature. His interpreter, once a student at Yale, speaks perfect English. But when Balaban gets to Thoreau, “Mr. Binh hits his first and only snag. He can’t say aloud: ‘Civil Disobedience.’ He just stops. He’s embarrassed. He’d rather not say the words.”

When he was working in the South in 1968 Balaban had met the extrordinary “Coconut Monk,” Nguyen Tham Nam, who despite some harassment from Saigon “preached pacifism and compassionate regard” on Phoenix Island, a sanctuary from violence. In 1990, he was told by his Communist guides that the monk had been arrested as a “CIA collaborator.” Balaban doubts the government believes this: “probably they just feel threatened by the obstreperous, bent man and his lethal humor.”

In the countryside, to his astonishment, Balaban found that the wounds of war had all but disappeared. “The fields are green and the children are healthy. All have been readmitted into the sane continuum of Vietnamese life, which seemed broken forever.” He condemns the US for its “small and sourgrapes…postwar punishment of Vietnam, our trade and diplomatic embargoes that keep the country in economic ruin. How self-punishing and miserly in American spirit are these policies.” But most of Vietnam’s sixty-two million people have forgotten the war, Balaban believes, as they get on with their harvests. This is not amnesia, he says, but sanity. He advises veterans to visit Vietnam, “…do something good there, and your pain won’t seem so private, your need for resentment so great.”

But unlike those who think only of the American responsibility for what Vietnam has become, Balaban, one of the few Westerners who knows the country intimately, says of the Communists that while they have given Vietnamese back their nation, it is “at such a price in fervid obedience and individual constraint that one senses that mere nationhood isn’t enough.” The sixty-two million “commonfolk,” he writes, “have had enough of war and bravery and nobility of sacrifice.”


Return to Vietnam: An Exchange April 9, 1992

  1. 14

    Simon and Schuster, 1989.

  2. 15

    Hackworth, About Face, pp. 612, 614.

  3. 16

    Counsel to the President: A Memoir (Random House, 1991), p. 474.

  4. 17

    Counsel to the President, p. 613.

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