Reconsidering lessons of Vietnam

Brothers in Arms, by William Broyles Jr. New York: Knopf. 284 pp. $17.95. Like most of us who fought in Vietnam, William Broyles Jr. has probably not had a day since that the war has not been, at least for a few minutes, in his thinking. In this book, the former Editor-in-Chief of Newsweek has produced one of the best descriptions to date of the lessons we should commit to memory as a people, and of the policies we should adopt as a nation.

The book is a crystal-clear narrative of both his experience in combat in 1969 and his trip back to Vietnam in l984 to revisit the scenes of his tour of duty. It's good reading, but the lessons he interposes are even better. A reader, particularly a veteran, can only hope that this is being read by those now in power, who seem to believe that the Vietnam experience was some kind of aberration to be ignored.

Some of his recollections are particularly painful. When he went for his draft physical in Newark, N.J., he remembers, there were ``150 of us -- four whites, the rest blacks. The white men carried X-rays and other evidence of medical `problems' and were gone in half an hour.'' The draft policies allowed those with money and education to escape and let others die in their places.

Broyles writes of the air war against Hanoi, which is still kept alive in the memory of the North Vietnamese; it was their ``finest hour.'' The result of the massive bombardment was almost exactly the same as it was in the London blitz, i.e., a stiffening of the fighting will of the people. American policymakers utterly ignored what the British experience proved. We made enemies -- intransigent, intractable enemies -- where a different policy might have permitted negotiation.

On his return trip, Broyles found lasting evidence of the war: the grim determination of a people who suffered the explosive, mindless violence of bombing, strafing, and napalm. He describes a condition of suffering, deprivation, and incredible human endurance, which few Americans can even imagine. And because we cannot imagine such endurance, we are lured back to the conclusion that, through armed might, we can control other nations.

His most difficult question is why, having defeated in a way the most powerful nation on earth, the Vietnamese go on expending huge amounts of their manpower and meager resources on an additional war. They seem to have an uncanny ability to forget or excuse the incalculable loss of life.

This is a book without heroes -- neither the Americans nor the Vietnamese are given credit for being right. But Broyles left his second visit to Vietnam with at least ``a sympathy for my old enemies.'' And he sees that the North Vietnamese leaders have no lasting rancor against Americans. In fact they have a sort of respect for the Americans they fought.

Frankly, this is ``must'' reading whether you're interested in this particular war or not. In the revising of history now going on, it is troublesome that influential columnists like George Will can affect a fashionable sangfroid and be grateful that the Vietnam era is being forgotten. And it's dangerous when this attitude seems to prevail in the White House, so that the facts of the past 20 years are only recalled by presidential advisers when they support a case for more intervention. In contrast, this book recalls with quiet truth what actually happened. Persons of draft age, and their parents, should read it thoughtfully.

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