We are now looking back 35 years. Tomorrow, April 30, is the anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, the images in our mind stark. The evacuations by helicopter, as shown above. And this, the image of those helicopters, like one might say of the mission in country, being abandoned, pushed overboard or ditched in the ocean:
Tomorrow is the anniversary, of these events, of April 30, 1975.
But today is also an anniversary:
on this day the last of our Marines (for I was a Marine, and once one, always one), were killed in Vietnam. Records say that four Marines died in country this day, Darwin Judge of Marshalltown, IA; Charles McMahon, Jr. of Woburn, MA; William Nystul of Coronado, CA; and Michael Shea of El Paso, Tx. !2 of the civilians we were evacuating also died.
Perhaps tomorrow, because that is the official’end’ of the U S endeavor in South Vietnam, there will be massive coverage. There should be.
We will see the panic in those Vietnamese being left behind.
At one point during the evacuation Pres. Ford ordered the military to take out no more Vietnamese, because time was running short, Saigon was being overrun, the men and equipment was being taxed. South Vietnamese flew their own helicopters out to the fleet but were not allowed to land, so they ditched with the crews jumping out as the birds ditched in water.
Now we are engaged in two ongoing conflicts overseas. The total deaths of the two conflicts does not yet approach the American losses of Vietnam. The length of the conflicts is still less than the period from when the Marines landed in Danang in 1965 to the final ignominious withdrawal. We still do not know the cost of our endeavors in lives of people lost and broken.
The physical death toll is less – our skill at saving lives has improved, and we are not fighting a military organized by a national state. The cost in broken lives may be greater, given figures of as many as 1 in 5 returning suffering from PTSD and worse.
Neither conflict is yet completed, nor do we necessarily see a similar withdrawal under fire: there is no organized resistance in Iraq on a scale to offer such a threat, and as far as we know the Taliban lacks the capacity (armor, for example), to roll into a major city and force our withdrawal.
And yet, it seems as if we may have learned the wrong lessons. We are much more efficient at killing and destruction. Yet in the process we have not learned how to avoid “collateral damage” of property and deaths of civilians. In Vietnam we doubled down and doubled down again, and it was only when Westmoreland wanted yet another large increase in troops that Johnson finally drew the line. Yet the war went on for the better part of another decade. Yes, the peak year for loss of American troops was 1968, with 16,592 lost. Yet consider these figures:
In 1972, the death toll finally dropped below 1,000, for the first time since 1964. We would continue to account for deaths even after we left Vietnam, as we discovered remains of those listed as missing.
The toll of a war is always more than the lives of American servicemen, as important as those are. Those lives also include the devastation on the families they left behind.
There are deaths of those who fought on “our side” – in Iraq and Afghanistan we have good figures for our partners in the “Coalition of the Willing” and the NATO forces respectively. We rarely have good figures for those we fight, because the numbers of those killed are never merely enemy combatants, given that messy “collateral damage.” And when we do count, it seems somehow obscene, that is, we seem to brag about how many we have killed, the phenomenon of body counts . . .
One result of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan is that there are still mines left from that war that kill and maim. Even if a minefield is marked, it represents a continuation of the war, a limiting of the freedom of movement of those who live near that field, if it is marked. And if it is not, the terror that ensues when someone stumbles upon it.
The damage of the wars continue with those effected long after its end by the weaponry and other means used – think of those from Vietnam damaged by Agent Orange, and in more recent conflicts from depleted uranium.
I make no predictions about how – or if – our current endeavors in Iraq and Afghanistan will end. Perhaps we will not have images like those so ingrained in the memories of those of us who lived through those times – Vietnam was the televised war. The military might try to censor images now, but the ability of handheld devices to record video as well as still photography probably means that images will eventually come out, as we discovered with Abu Ghraib.
No predictions, but a caution. Winners get to write history. We may look back at a particular war and call it good, but not be willing to examine the bad that it did, including atrocities by our own troops. My Lai is not the only exemplar of American atrocities in wartime.
War is hell. And Robert E. Lee was right with his remarks at Marye’s Heights during the battle of Fredericksburg: It is well that war is so terrible, lest we grow too fond of it.
Thirty Five years have passed. The images still remain. The damage to our national image still lingers. And the harm that was done by our prosecution of that war may never go away, not for those who experienced it. Some who fought it still seek to justify – as they must, because how else can they justify their sacrifices, or the death and destruction they caused?
Should not we as a nation be willing to look back and not limit ourselves in what we learn?
Those images – helicopters on roofs, people pushing against embassy gates desperate to be evacuated, helicopters pushed over board or ditched in the sea. . . .
Have we really learned any lessons? I wonder . . . . .
And I hope that we never experience anything like that again, as I also hope that we find a way not to be engaged in ongoing warfare, even as I acknowledge that there are times and places where we must intervene with force, even deadly force, to preserve our own humanity.
A monk I greatly admired who was on Mount Athos in Greece during WW II once wrote of his thoughts in the early 1940s – he prayed that the less evil side might win. I have written about this before. To his words I add these – I pray that when we do engage, we not be in the position of being the more evil side, and that the harm that is done be the least necessary to prevent greater evil from prevailing.