The Vietnam War fascinates me. It classified a generation as either patriots who went (or tried to go) or protesters who stayed (or went out of cowardice). More than that, it delineated the soldiers' lives into pre-war and post-war. These young men, most younger than me, were a thousand miles from home, fighting a war, trying to deal with the reality that their lives could end at any moment. And for what? They hoped they were fighting for a good cause. But back home, like Colonel Jessup says, civilians couldn't handle the truth of Vietnam. So they protested. These young men, some probably as (physically) young as 19 years old when they came back, were called baby killers and war criminals, maybe even terrorists. All the while thinking, "I didn't really want to go. I got drafted. A man goes when he's called."
But I had never thought about the impact of the war on the Vietnamese. While our returning soldiers play tragic heroes shafted by the hand life dealt them, the Vietnamese play the role of the unseen housemaid, cleaning up our messes without recognition or apology. As Paul Theroux writes in To the Ends of the Earth:
From the train, I could turn my eyes to the mountains and almost forget the country's name, but the truth was closer and cruel: the Vietnamese had been damaged and then abandoned, almost as if, dressed in our clothes, they had been mistaken for us and shot at; as if, just when they had come to believe that we were identified with them, we had bolted. It was not that simple, but it was nearer to describing that sad history than the urgent opinions of anguished Americans who, stropping Occam's Razor, classified the war as a string of atrocities, a series of purely political errors, or a piece of interrupted heroism. The tragedy was that we had come, and, from the beginning, had not planned to stay: Danang was to be proof of that.
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In a sense . . . all that remained of the American stake in the war [is] degenerate sentiment, boozy fears, and simplifications.
I don't have strong opinions about the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, and I'm not trying to say that we should make foreign policy based solely on the impact of that policy on others. But I think the contrast is telling. While the Vietnamese try to rebuild their literally war-torn country, we Americans drive in our air-conditioned cars down our only occasionally potholed streets, trying not to think about it.