Vietnam: The Redemptive Potential of Our Forever War

April 1, 2000

As we reflect on the 25th anniversay of the end of the tragic U.S. war against the Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian peoples, it is time to accept responsibility for the horrific harms we caused the Southeast Asian peoples and ourselves. The U.S. obsession with Cold War ideology blinded us to authentic struggles of common peoples to be free of external oppression.

This war, as with virtually all wars, was born in and sustained by incredible lies. The U.S. initially was complicit in obstruction of the mandated unifying Vietnamese elections scheduled for 1956 according to the 1954 Geneva Agreement which was signed after defeat of the French by the Vietnamese. Before conclusion of the Agreement the U.S. had already covertly introduced paramilitary sabotage teams into Vietnam and began dispatching hundreds, eventually thousands, of military advisers, activities clearly in violation of the Agreement. The pretext for overtly invading Vietnam (the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin "incident") was fabricated and the subsequent brutal air and ground war was politically reported by exaggerating enemy dead while undercounting civilian murders. As part of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords President Nixon promised Vietnam more than $4 billion for postwar reconstruction which the U.S. quickly refused to acknowledge. Again, the first casualty in this war was the truth.

Ironically, we as a nation behaved in a manner far more demonic than the worst that we alleged of our purported enemies. The catastrophic results of our blinding arrogance is nearly incalculable. U.S. air power dropped more than 6.5 million tons of bombs on these nations, more than three times the tonnage dropped in all World War II theaters. At least ten thousand hamlets were destroyed in the south, as well as countless civilian areas in the north. Ancient societies in northeastern Laos were totally destroyed by aerial bombings alone. Four hundred thousand tons of "improved" napalm and nearly 20 million gallons of chemical warfare killed and poisoned countless civilians in villages and farming areas. In the process we poisoned our own military forces. Veterans in the United States continue to experience a myriad of unanticipated illnesses and deaths as well as increased rates of birth defects among their offspring.

And then there was the lethal ground war.

Human casualties were almost unimaginable. Mostly civilians, somewhere between four to six million were killed, with countless wounded, maimed, and displaced. Somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 are still missing from that war, including about 2,000 Americans. Though more than 58,000 U.S. troops were directly killed in the war (and several thousand from Australia, S. Korea, Thailand and the Philippines), many others after returning home have prematurely died from suicide, alcoholism, drug addiction, chronic wounds, and other unexplained causes.

An opportunity to genuinely begin a national healing was missed when U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen explicitly refused to apologize on his recent historic visit to Vietnam. Chronic patterns of U.S. violence and arrogance are historically rooted in racism and ethnocentrism that earlier manifested in rationalizing genocides against Indigenous Americans and ancient African cultures, enabling "free" development of the "American civilization." During the 20th Century, termed by some historians "the American Century," U.S. policy justified hundreds of overt and thousands of covert actions interfering with the sovereignty of over one hundred nations by self-righteously asserting the "need" to secure (unjustly) the disproportionately consumptive American Way Of Life (AWOL).

If we continue to believe that Vietnam was a noble cause, then efforts to conceal our humiliating loss will continue to manifest in belligerent activities and their accompanying lies. We pretend to have overcome the "Vietnam Syndrome" with a combination of high tech weapons and proxy forces that assure few or no U.S. casualties. Our "forever war," however, clearly revealed a dark psyche which continues to show in lawless, imperial behavior. The darkness that resides deeply in our cultural soul needs to be pierced, then healed. Genuine apologies create a psychological and emotional basis for reparations and reconciliation. If we are able to genuinely acknowledge the harms we have caused, asking forgiveness while offering appropriate reparations that evidence a profound transformation in our hearts, then space opens for genuine peace. In so doing our "forever war" can be an experience that transforms our dark psyche to a global spirit committed to justice, which is the foundation for enduring peace, as we come to comprehend that all life is sacred and interconnected.

Some of us Vietnam veterans have chosen, out of necessity, to pursue our own healing in this manner. We anxiously await an authentic healing and transformation of our national heart and soul.


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