Returning to Vietnam

By Andrej Mrevlje |

“They took us into some harsh terrain, in nasty rotten places. And the more that we patrolled the more we got in contact with the enemy.”

“We thought we were pretty tough, but when you got so many guys killed and wounded, it’s no longer a game.”

There were no video games in ’60s. Back then, kids played games like hide and seek in their backyards.

This is how Bill Reynolds and Larry Lilley, two former GIs, described their first experience of combat against Viet-Cong soldiers in May 1967, somewhere in the Mekong Delta. It was their first bad game. Some of their buddies got killed, others were hurt. It was the first time they faced combat since they change civil cloths for uniforms, and it was too late to back out. They were already part of the family of the “Brothers in War,” as the 2014 documentary of the same name called the Charlie Company of the 9the Infantry Division. The company was made up of 160 young boys who got drafted in May 1966; who were trained for six months in Fort Riley, Kansas; and who, on January 10, 1967, were sent to one of the cruelest of wars on a transport ship that took three long weeks to reach Vietnam. Before they put on the uniform, none of these boys had travelled more than a few miles from home, but they came to Fort Riley from every corner of the country.

“It was blending that made us all better,” Lilley said in the documentary, which showed a group of innocent, lean-bodied young boys doing push ups, running, shooting, making an effort to  become one body and one nation.

And when they set boots on the green soil of Vietnam, ready to start the combat game that they had trained for over the past six months, they were shocked that nobody attacked them. Instead, the first things they encountered were the sites, sounds and smells of a totally different land and culture. It was a surreal beginning.

The documentary, Brothers in War, shows a company of young recruits maturing into a highly trained unit that joined an already massive army of 415,000 American soldiers in Vietnam. Charlie’s mission was special. The company lived on a big ship that had been converted into barracks and that had anchored in the Mekong Delta. They were transported away from their base for a few days at a time for missions on land.

“In a war like this, you do not fight to gain territory and control it, you just try to eliminate the enemy,” said Herb Lind, one of the soldiers interviewed in the documentary. For the Charlie Company, it was them or Viet-Cong. They would spend days on their ship waiting for orders, and then hurriedly ship out into enemy territory using small, fast boats or helicopters.

“We were trained as infantry to sick out the enemy and destroy him. Period,” said Willie McTear, a GI from Louisiana.

The documentary is fascinating to watch, and yet it never raises the question of why all this massive military effort and horror occurred. It shows us the evolution of the young men into robots who killed simply to survive. When, after a year in Vietnam, the decimated Charlie Company returned home, they received another shock. Their country did not like them. In 1968, America was rioting against the war. Instead of a parade to welcome heroes home, Charlie’s few survivors received boos and whistling as they returned from Vietnam. They were called murderers. One cannot help but feel pity for these survivors when they say that the only people they can talk to about their experiences are the former members of the Charlie Company.

There is another documentary that marked the 40-year anniversary of one of the most traumatic wars in American history. Last Days in Vietnam — produced by PBS — has historic value, and is equally fascinating to watch. And yet again, while reconstructing the North Vietnamese attack that pushed the last of the Americans and their Vietnamese collaborators from Saigon, nobody asked why the Americans went there in the first place.

Especially impressive was the figure of the then-American ambassador in Saigon, who could not believe the decline of American power, and was convinced that the Hanoi forces would stop when they reached the gate of the American embassy in Saigon — that the U.S. still represented an invincible force. Ambassador Graham Martin did not receive the support he was hoping to get. Washington went silent, and Graham — under the direct threat of Hanoi forces — ordered a last-minute evacuation and fled from the roof of the embassy.

Now Washington is in Vietnam again. Last Monday, President Obama landed in Hanoi and announced that the U.S. is now ready to lift the 40-year-long embargo on arm sales to the communist regime in Vietnam. My first reaction was that the American president was making a huge mistake. Then, when I heard that human rights groups attacked Obama for selling arms to Vietnam before obtaining more human rights guarantees, I thought that the world had completely lost it. Can one really trade human rights for weapons? This insanity almost made me forget Obama’s mistake of deciding to sell weapons to one country (Vietnam) in order to block the expansion of another (China).

But the situation is obviously more complex than the insanity of everyday politics. We know that, out of fear of China, Vietnam prefers to work with the Americans who burned their country with Agent Orange and massacred entire Vietnamese villages. In 2000, when I first visited Vietnam, I joined a group of American veterans who were allowed to travel up and down Vietnam. We walked down the Ho Chi Minh Trail and saw the tunnels (which would later be opened to attract tourists). We visited Hue, Da Nang and the site of the My Lai massacre. It was my impression that the Vietnamese wanted to turn their pain and wounds into a business. How bad a situation does a country have to be in to do that? But the most impressive thing was that our group — full of specialists in Asian studies — was approached by local officials who tried to convince us that the Chinese had stolen Vietnamese mythology, gods included. When it comes to nationalism, Vietnam is not second to China, and yet our hosts were asking my American group to spread the message that Vietnam wanted the U.S. back. It was bizarre to hear all this while visiting areas that were still open, gaping wounds created by half a million American soldiers with bombs and napalm. Fifty years later, America has returned to Vietnam. Words are flying high again, and Steve Coll of the New Yorker warns that this may not bode well.

But looking at geopolitics may offer some explanation of what is instinctively leading politicians and generals into conflict. As the Economist puts it, “Jonathan Schell, an American journalist who covered the Vietnam War, wrote that what had led America to enter and expand it was not over-optimism about its chances of victory, but ‘overly pessimistic assessments of the consequences of losing.’ These entailed not just the tumbling of other Asian ‘dominos’ to the communist menace, but a catastrophic loss of American prestige and credibility.”

If Shell was right, then America entered the Vietnam War with poor judgment. The long and furious war in Vietnam did not defend American prestige. By the end of the war, Washington needed China’s help to step out of Vietnam. It was for this reason that Ambassador Graham waited in vain for stronger support from Washington. It was a new bond between Beijing and Washington that was on trial during last days in Saigon. America brought China back into the loop, as the Economist reports:  

Forty years on, the circle seems to be full.

The American administration itself seems to be adopting a harder line towards China. It has always denied that its “pivot” or “rebalancing” towards Asia was aimed at China’s containment. But it was certainly intended to reassure its friends and allies in the region that it was not simply going to stage a strategic withdrawal to make way for a rising China. And it is becoming more open in its rivalry.

China, for its part, constantly suspects America of trying to contain it; and it argues that the alliances that tie America to Asia, notably its defence treaty with Japan, are cold-war relics that should be dismantled. None of the allies wants that; and none wants to be forced to choose between its security ties with America and its links with China. But, if the pessimists are right, they may one day find they have to. America, having fought in Vietnam to stop China building a sphere of influence that excluded it, was driven by the war into opening to China and has since facilitated China’s rise—and that rise has been so successful that China now threatens to build a sphere of influence that excludes America.

Fifty years later, America is finally right in sensing that it might get pushed out of Asia by the ever-stronger China, with its expansionist ideals. This is no longer a question of prestige or credibility. It’s about resources and the economy. It is about much more serious issues — not ideology. But one hopes that this time America won’t just use brute force. With Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton around the corner, the chances of this are not the best. They both behave like hawks. And Obama is already setting the stage. Arming Vietnam out of a sense of guilt or out of hope that Vietnam can somehow act as a buffer zone against the expansionist China is a nearsighted move. It will just lead to a larger arms race on a continent that already buys 46 percent of all weapons produced on this planet.  

Also published on Medium.

☆ Support this work via Venmo

Yonder is a weekly newsletter from Andrej Mrevlje that connects global events in the news, delivered every week. Learn more »