Lessons of Vietnam linger for US

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Thirty years ago, Paul Galanti and Fred Branfman held opposite views of the Vietnam War. They still do.

Mr. Galanti, a former Navy pilot shot down and held in North Vietnamese prisons for nearly seven years, can barely bring himself to utter the names "Jane Fonda" and "John Kerry." "Actresses and naval officers [who] aided and abetted the enemy with impunity," he calls them.

Mr. Branfman, the investigative writer who detailed the bombing of civilians in Southeast Asia, still thinks there ought to be Nuremberg-type trials of US leaders.

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Three decades after the last US troops left what was then South Vietnam, the 10-year conflict that included Laos and Cambodia remains at once a lesson, a caution, and for some, a specter.

The war - the way it was conducted and its aftermath - shaped a generation of military officers. It influenced public attitudes toward military service and the use of force to achieve foreign policy goals. And, as the most recent presidential election showed, it continues to singe US politics.

Anybody younger than about 45 today had no direct connection to the Vietnam War - either as combatants, potential draftees, or protesters. Forty percent of Americans weren't even born yet when the last helicopter lifted off the roof of the US embassy in what was then Saigon.

Still, many Americans in their 30s or 40s (or even younger) still feel the war's effects as children of one of the more than 58,000 US soldiers killed in Vietnam or of the thousands more vets diagnosed with ailments related to the toxic defoliant Agent Orange or with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"There's little question that the average American considers the Vietnam War to have been a mistake," writes Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll. "In fact, a majority of the public began to think the war was a mistake in the summer of 1968 as the war was still raging, and have continued to think so across 12 separate polls conducted since that point. Most recently, in November 2000, 68 percent said that it was a mistake, while 24 percent said that it was not."

Lessons of caution

The war also brought a new sense of caution to American military planners - an awareness that in difficult terrain US forces could be stymied by a militarily inferior but determined foe. To some extent, those lessons color American attitudes toward the use of military force to this day.

While the war in Iraq has not seen nearly the level of protests that Vietnam did, public support remains tenuous. Asked if "it was worth going to war in Iraq," the latest Gallup poll finds 45 percent saying "yes" and 53 percent answering "no." Put another way, 46 percent of those polled say sending US troops to Iraq was "a mistake."

What does this bode for President Bush? He's now running at his lowest approval rate (45 percent) yet, according to Gallup. But that's still higher than the low points of most postwar presidents, and significantly higher than Harry Truman's low point during the Korean War (23 percent) or Lyndon Johnson's low point during Vietnam (35 percent).

Still, this public uneasiness about Iraq - where insurgents have stepped up attacks in recent days - is not reflected in any official disinclination to make use of the US military abroad. "The US has become increasingly uninhibited about the use of force," says John Pike, a national security analyst with GlobalSecurity.org. "Ever since we stopped worrying about the Fulda Gap [the point along the East-West German border where thousands of Warsaw Pact tanks supposedly would race through when World War III started], we have become quite creative in finding problems that have military solutions."

"Our legions have been on the march almost continuously since 1989, with no end in sight," says Mr. Pike, referring to such places as Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Liberia, Iraq, and Kosovo.

Projecting such post-cold-war US military actions into the future - particularly on the scale of Vietnam or Iraq - is another matter. Absent North Korea invading South Korea, or a terrorist attack in the US on the scale of Sept. 11, "US public opinion will not accept an Indochina-size war under any circumstances I can think of," says Fred Branfman. "This is the enduring legacy of Vietnam in the 21st century as I see it," he says.

A new strategic landscape

As the lone military superpower, the US today does appear freer to do what it wants to. When the US pulled out of Vietnam it faced other major military threats - mainly Warsaw Pact conventional forces in central Europe and a huge arsenal of nuclear-tipped Soviet missiles. Today, old Warsaw Pact members are joining NATO and the EU, and Russian missiles are off their hair trigger.

Yet constraints remain.

There's no military draft, for example, to fill recruiting gaps - which have become considerable since the US went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. There's also a real-time media and electronic communication regime that's more universally accessible to a skeptical public and soldiers in the field.

It was a year before a lone soldier blew the whistle on the massacre of more than 300 Vietnamese civilians by US Army soldiers at My Lai in 1968 and many more months before it became public. Today, thousands of soldiers in Iraq - equipped with digital cameras, cell phones, and laptop computers - have become effective if sometimes inadvertent journalists, letting the world know with a couple of key strokes not only the gritty details of day-to-day combat but also about such controversial episodes as the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses.

Today's US military, though smaller than during the Vietnam War or cold war years that followed, in many ways is more powerful because of its high-tech weaponry. But that can be a constraint as well, says defense and foreign policy analyst Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., because a smaller military can be in fewer places at the same time.

"To provide a military presence, do peacekeeping or peacemaking, or to fight unsophisticated guerrilla opponents, you don't need sophisticated weapons as much as you need lots of boots on the ground - one of the problems in Iraq," says Dr. Eland.

Another key difference from 30 years ago, says LeRoy Woodson, editor of MilitaryWeek.com, is the nexus between the global economy and the geopolitics of nascent nationalist countries like China or countries like Israel selling advanced weapons technology to other countries.

The result, he says, is a "cultural clash between the industrialized nations with declining birthrates and developing nations that are producing more children than their infrastructures can sustain." In other words, not only is economic globalization shifting the world's balance of military power in the post-Vietnam era, it is becoming the impetus to cross-border population shifts. Or as Mr. Woodson puts it, "The 747 may eventually replace the AK-47 as the object of choice to deal with revolution and injustice."

On April 30, 1975, US involvement in what Vietnamese called "the American War" ended symbolically when that last helicopter departed what now is called Ho Chi Minh City, panicked Vietnamese dangling from the skids. In an historical coincidence, it was exactly 30 years before that (April 30, 1945), that Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker, ending World War II in Europe.

Such linking of wars and generations can be highly personal for many Americans.

Among the 58,245 names of those inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington are some whose fathers had been killed in World War Two. Today, the children of Vietnam veterans are serving in Iraq. Last weekend, US Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Aaron Kent of Portland, Ore., a medical corpsman serving with the 2nd Marine Division, was killed when his Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb near Fallujah. His father, Gary Kent, had been a soldier in Vietnam.

Timeline: US involvement in Vietnam

Saturday marks the 30th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. Following is a chronology of some key events in US involvement in the conflict between communist leader Ho Chi Minh and the Republic of Vietnam South Vietnam.

1962 - United States has 12,000 military advisers in South Vietnam. "Strategic hamlet" program forces peasants to regroup in 16,000 fortified villages.

1964 - North Vietnamese patrol boats allegedly attack US destroyer Maddox in Gulf of Tonkin. US starts bombing North Vietnam. Congress passes Gulf of Tonkin Resolution allowing president to take steps "to prevent further aggression."

1965 - Marines land at Danang on March 8, the first US combat troops officially in Vietnam.

1967 - The number of US troops in Vietnam rises to 500,000. Antiwar rallies staged in US cities.

1968 - The Tet Offensive. North Vietnamese and Viet Cong attack US positions across South. Siege of Khe Sanh. My Lai massacre in March. US presence peaks at 549,000 troops. Preliminary peace talks open in Paris. Lyndon Johnson withdraws from presidential race, halts bombing of North.

1969 - President Richard Nixon begins withdrawing US ground troops. Covert bombing of Cambodia starts.

1970 - Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho begin secret talks in Paris. In June, US Senate repeals Tonkin Gulf Resolution.

1973 - Kissinger and Le Duc Tho sign cease-fire in Paris.

1975 - Southern cities fall one by one until Saigon on April 30.

- Reuters

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