Things Not Learned from Vietnam

In this particularly strange and dangerous time, we should revisit the history of the Vietnam War. It is surprising how much we have not yet learned.

I finished watching all 18 hours of Ken Burn’s and Lynn Novick’s film on the Vietnam War.   If you have not seen it, you can still stream it from or buy it at the PBS website.

It is truly impressive, informative and alarming.

Born on the heels of the Korean conflict, I was too young to have been exposed to the full horror of that war.

The Cold War, however, was in full chill, and U.S. engagement to combat the threat of Communism in Vietnam was escalating.

As a young child, before JFK waded into Vietnam, I remember wondering at people digging bomb shelters in their backyards.  By age six, I knew about nuclear annihilation.

When Kennedy was assassinated, our kickball game against the wall of Harrison Elementary halted and we stood in stunned silence, trembling and weeping for fear of unknown threats happening beyond the boundaries of our playground.

As Vietnam unfolded under LBJ and then Nixon, the black and white basement TV screen nightly carried grainy images and horrifying reports of escalating violence, showing dead bodies, body counts, constant bombing.

One seventh grade football practice, a teammate, Charlie, was summoned away by news of his older brother, who, while serving in Vietnam, had been maimed and blinded by a land mine.

After high school, as anti-war sentiment raged, we registered for the draft and submitted to the last lottery before American withdrawal.

These memories have been resurrected and now placed in the historical narrative of the Burns/Novick documentary.   Certain lessons are now clear.

Arrogance.  American leadership at the time arrogantly believed the war in Vietnam could be won with overwhelming air power and young men and women with superior weaponry.  This hubris led to a horrific waste of lives and materiel.

Ignorance.  Blinded by this arrogance, U.S. leadership (and voters) failed to understand Vietnamese history and culture; supported authoritarian and unpopular South Vietnamese regimes; and, chronically underestimated North Vietnamese motivation and capability.

The late Sam Wilson–a former Army counter-intelligence expert and President Emeritus of Hampden-Sydney College–one of the many veteran voices included in the documentary, summarized this fateful intersection of arrogance and ignorance:

“It is very, very difficult to dispel ignorance if you retain arrogance.”

Making Enemies.  Because of arrogance and ignorance, the Vietnam strategy had the effect to firming the North’s anti-American resolve, losing support in the rural areas of the South and enabling Viet Cong recruitment.  America thus strengthened its enemies and alienated its allies.

Divisiveness.  At the same time, Vietnam drove deepening division in our own country, giving rise to consequent hatred and extremism.  The country was so divided and angry Americans even shot fellow-Americans (as at, for example, at Kent State).

Corrupt Leadership.  Add to all the above stunning examples of corruption, especially of Richard Nixon, who lied about the contraction and expansion of the war and propagandized a “silent majority” (his “base”) who blindly accepted his lip service to freedom, American exceptionalism and Communist threat.

Illegal Campaign Activity; Illegitimate Presidency.  Before Nixon’s first election, and to improve his prospects of winning, he made illegal contact with North Vietnamese peace negotiators and told them to back away from the peace table — this, to advantage his presidential campaign and secure his election victory.  In sum, the U.S. elected a President based on misinformation and illegal political activity, someone willing to perpetuate war and sacrifice American lives for his own political gain.

I wish we could say such arrogance, ignorance, falsehood, propagandizing, hate-mongering and division could never happen again in America.  That we have learned the lessons of history.  Sadly, we cannot.

Our current and ongoing dysfunction arises from a noisome combination of historical ignorance, national wounds still unhealed, politicians willing to exploit division and fear, failure of educational processes and the rising gullibility of a fearsome conservative “base” unwilling to accept factual evidence or engage in critical thinking.

We can and must resist this downward national spiral, by educating ourselves and others, speaking up, getting involved, maintaining resistance and voting for change.


For historical learning, the Burns and Novick documentary is a must watch.  Reading of books also helps.  Would someone please tell the President?

“You gotta knock the hell out of them — Boom! Boom! Boom!”

It’s amazing how blowing things up in the middle of nowhere can cover your faults and boost your reputation.

“If you look at what’s happened over the last eight weeks and compare that really to what’s happened over the past eight years, you’ll see there’s a tremendous difference, tremendous difference,” Trump told reporters after the military unleashed [the 22,000 pound “Mother of All Bombs”] on a largely unpopulated region of the Afghan wilderness. “This was another very, very successful mission.”

Washington Post, April 14, 2017


It was a hot summer night in a Western, sagebrush-covered desert. Another weekend gathering of “the guys,” high school boys, drinking beer away from the attention of parents and police.

This was the Pre-Game-Boy Era, when testosterone-infected young men competed with cars, guns, beer—and things that go “BOOM!”

On this particular night, around a blazing fire built in a remote clearing that had for years been the regular “drinking spot,” testosterone needles jumped when one of the guys showed up with his dad’s new Oldsmobile and a stick of dynamite.



One genius among the young, beery group suggested connecting the dynamite to a jackrabbit—the desert was full of them—and went to his pickup for a roll of duct tape. The rest of the guys eagerly went looking for a jackrabbit.

Black-tailed Jackrabbit Sniffing

After surrounding and grabbing a stringy male, the boys strapped the red stick to its back, like a rocket pack, and lit the fuse. The poor panic-stricken animal jetted away into the dry sagebrush darkness, trailing the sparks of the burning fuse.

The group howled in delight and the kid with dad’s new car felt proud of his accomplishment—manly and more accepted by his peers for this extraordinary, albeit impetuous and inhumane, show of manhood.

Burning fuse on black background

Everyone leaned forward, in anticipation of the blast. But then–“HOLY S#%T!”–the jackrabbit suddenly veered back, out of the sagebrush, toward the group.  Everyone screamed and ran for cover.

The rabbit found cover too, moments before the blast—under dad’s new Oldsmobile.