This morning I received the following note from a childhood friend who experienced some hellacious ground combat in Vietnam.
My friend’s simple message, addressed to a number of friends including several other veterans of the Vietnam War, moved me to respond with a commentary that has lain dormant in the recesses of my heart for many years.
Mikey, this may be hard to understand, but I had exactly that same feeling when I returned from Canada. While in Canada I quickly learned that nearly all the other draft dodgers were leftists who hated America. I found their presence distasteful and began to associate only with Canadians, who were, by and large, wonderful people. By the time my exile had ended and the charges against me had been dropped, I had a much deeper appreciation for America than before, and when I got home I literally kissed the ground.
Not that I was ever anti-America in any sense. I had refused to serve in Vietnam not because of any sympathy with the Communists, but because our government had a history of betraying both our own military and our allies. Perhaps more significantly, those betrayals were to Communist regimes. First, after sacrificing hundreds of thousands to stop Hitler in Europe we handed most of Europe over to Stalin, who was Hitler’s ally at the beginning of that war and had conspired with him to divide up the continent. Stalin got from us at Potsdam and Yalta more than he had hoped to gain from his deal with Hitler. We got the Iron Curtain and the Cold War.
Then we betrayed Nationalist China to Mao. That story is complicated, but in a nutshell we demanded that Chiang Kai-Shek form a coalition government with Mao, which of course would have been suicidal for the Free Chinese who had been our allies during WWII and were exhausted from fighting Japan. When Chiang would not comply we cut off aid to the Free Chinese, and in the face of a Soviet supplied enemy his forces quickly collapsed. As a consequence, today we have a hostile China stealing our technology while sending us deadly diseases. Or from another perspective, instead of a major ally in the Far East we have a fragile dependency in the refugee island of Taiwan.
Following that debacle in China we hung our men out to dry in Korea. After MacArthur’s miracle at Inchon and his stunning advance up the peninsula, he was recalled because Truman did not want open warfare with the new and powerful Marxist enemy we had just created in China. So from that point on we fought a phony show war during which we endured two thirds of all casualties without gaining an inch of ground. (The result today is a nuclear armed mad man in North Korea.)
Then we allowed Castro to take over Cuba without raising a hand to stop him, and when Cuban patriots attempted to retake their island we betrayed them at the Bay of Pigs. That almost resulted in Armageddon when the Soviets decided to plant ICBMs some 90 miles off our coast.
It was against this backdrop, and with those prior betrayals in mind, that I concluded our adventure half way around the world in Vietnam made no sense and was not morally justifiable. To be “just” in a classical sense, a war must among other things be supported by the people of the nation and fought to win with minimal loss of life. By the time I was called up the war was already very unpopular, and between rules of engagement and “demilitarized zones” it was clear that we were not fighting to win. We were measuring victory not in terms of any strategic achievements, but in body counts reported almost daily in our newspapers. Did you ever ask yourself why we fought that entire war in South Vietnam instead of in the North? Nearly all the collateral damage was inflicted upon our allies, the civilians in the South. Did that make sense? What if we had fought the entire war against Nazi Germany in France?
As things turned out, McNamara (Defense Secretary) eventually admitted what I had assessed from the beginning, that he (representing successive U.S. administrations) held no hope that we could win that war in Southeast Asia. But then, what was he doing? What were we doing? In the end, we betrayed the people of South Vietnam just as we had betrayed our own fighting men. Knowing what would inevitably become of them, we left them hugging our embassy gate as we air-lifted the last of our own personnel onto waiting ships.
To those of you who fought and sacrificed in Vietnam I offer my fullest appreciation and respect. You nobly performed what you saw as your patriotic duty and your heroism and sacrifices are in no way diminished by your betrayal at the hands of our government. The stated goal of that war was virtuous, even if on the part of our leaders it was insincere. I salute you for your bravery, your dedication, and your enduring loyalty to the people of this nation! The fact that you were betrayed by our government only adds to my admiration for what you endured. That you were scorned by so many civilians when you returned only deepens our obligation now to appreciate and acknowledge what you sacrificed. And so on this Memorial Day, on behalf of a nation that should have been more grateful, I offer a heart-felt God Bless You and thank you for your service.
The first reply I received was from a friend of Mikey and fellow marine. Though this man felt that the greater betrayal had been on the part of the left wing agitators who opposed the war, and wondered how my thoughts would strike “the 1% who put it on the line in Vietnam,” he did concede that mine was, as he put it, the “best letter I have ever read from a draft dodger.”
Perhaps a grudging acknowledgment, but we take our compliments where we can get them as long as they serve to unite this sadly divided people. I hereby extend my salute of gratitude to the veterans of all of America’s wars. Thank you for your service!