During my weekly trivia game with my co-workers on Sunday, a question prompted me to re-read a very compelling narrative of the Fall of Saigon in 1975. As usual I ended up more convinced than ever that understanding the Vietnam War is absolutely crucial to understanding the neoconservative foreign policy, the post-Cold War era, and the political mindset of Baby Boomers who were young during the war and now hold positions of great influence in the political, military, and business worlds. It is unfortunate that so few people who were not alive during Vietnam really understand what happened – since schools teach history chronologically, the spring term inevitably ends before getting through much of the 20th Century – beyond a vague sense that it wasn't good. We lost.
I'm convinced that Vietnam has cast a very long shadow over the American psyche since 1975. The past 30+ years of politics, particularly in foreign policy, has been largely an effort to erase the humiliation and feelings of inferiority that the withdrawal/defeat/whatever left on a generation whose parents has World War II as a cultural touchstone. Dad and Uncle Joe had D-Day and Iwo Jima; the young people of the 1970s had Khe Sahn, the My Lai Massacre, and Americans scrambling onto helicopters to flee Southeast Asia with their heads hanging. "Peace with Honor" was a feeble effort to dress up a defeat as something noble, but there's no getting around the fact that there was very little reason to be proud of the outcome (not to mention the simultaneous disaster in Cambodia).
Liberals took away the lesson that getting involved in unwinnable wars – ones that consist of bombing the living shit out of a country and then wondering why its people do not embrace America – in faraway countries is a bad idea. Conservatives took away the lesson that we lost because liberal pussies (like Nixon, Kissinger, Ford, and Westmoreland) gave up. But those are merely two different paths away from the same point: we lost, it sucked, and it ended in embarrassment. That must have been very hard to process for people raised on stories about the Battle of the Bulge and V-E Day celebrations. The ingredients for a perfect crisis of masculinity all converged in 1975.
Throughout the 1980s we engaged in a number of pitiful attempts to boost national morale with new, more successful "wars". However, the idea of trying to turn these ephemeral sideshows – like a U.S. invasion of a soccer field-sized island in the Caribbean called Grenada – into a great national Victory reeks of desperation and merely underscores the depth of the scars left behind by Vietnam. Gulf War I was supposed to be the Real War that a new generation could call its own, but it's hard to get too excited when the other side isn't really fighting back. Then there was the debacle in Somalia – another defeat. Then some confusing mess that no one understood in Bosnia. And then a ten-year quagmire with no objectives and no definable victory in Iraq. Golly, they sure did try to have a successful war to hang their hats on, but war without diplomacy is essentially just a fireworks show from a political perspective. Having failed to grasp what made World War II significant or why we could not win Vietnam, our national response has been to create a foreign policy and military apparatus that isn't good at much of anything except being expensive and reducing countries to rubble with absolutely overwhelming air power and technological superiority.
Don't get me wrong, I realize that the brunt of the suffering on account of the Vietnam war was borne by, you know, the Vietnamese. But I find the lasting impact on our political leaders from that generation fascinating. One of the trademarks of Vietnam was the unshakeable belief that American military might and technology simply could not lose to a sandal-wearing, poorly trained, half starving army equipped with hand-me-down Chinese knockoffs of Soviet equipment. And so the frustration grows each time we go off to fight another conflict and end up shocked and amazed that despite all of our space age hardware we cannot produce the desired outcome. I have a feeling that I'm in for a lot of "I'm a Boomer and this doesn't describe me at all" comments, but that misses the point. American foreign policy as engineered and executed by our elected officials and military establishment since Vietnam have clearly shown the psychological burden of being the generation that lost what was supposed to be its great war. To this day our leaders and a substantial portion of the electorate are still trying in vain to prove that we're big boys and we can do it, yet every second-rate conflict we get involved in now feels hollow. Too bad we still place such a huge cultural emphasis on raising people – especially boys – on a steady diet of WWII porn; without that we might actually produce a generation that could define its success in terms other than bloodshed and American hegemony.