Lessons of Vietnam: Honor the people who serve

July 5, 2012

Years ago I feared that many of us learned the wrong lessons from Vietnam, or if we learned the right ones, we weren’t applying what we’d learned.  This was a bit more important in the earlier days of our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.  So I wrote about one of the lessons we needed to improve on:  Honoring the people who serve, regardless our view on the entire engagement.

Someday, perhaps when I’m wiser, I’ll get back to that series on the lessons of Vietnam.

A lot of water flowed under the bridge since then.  A lot of blood flowed, too.

We did better with our two latest engagements, as a nation, in honoring soldiers.  For just one example, DFW Airport set up a special lounge for soldiers returning stateside, and dozens of organizations set up programs to get people out to welcome the soldiers from Iraq with an indoor parade of sorts — Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, groups of retired veterans and other citizens, school social studies classes, and many more.

That still leaves us with the scab of our treatment of veterans from Vietnam.  It’s been good to see cities and organizations make serious efforts to remember them specifically, as well as veterans of Korea-“The-Forgotten-War,” with soldiers and veterans of the modern conflicts.  There is more we need to do, I’m sure.

I ran into this short video from Moments.org.  I don’t know about the rest of that organization’s ministries, but this video got it right:

So, Wes, McClain, Kevin, Ben, Brenda, Steve, Pat, Al, Ken, Ray, David, Jeff and Jon, and all the rest of you who served, especially in or during Vietnam, consider this as one for you.

Tip of the old scrub brush to cmblake6, who probably won’t ever get another one here.  Happily surprised to find something right over there.

More, Resources:


Dan Valentine: Memorial Day, Part I

May 31, 2010

By Dan Valentine

Memorial Day.

War is about death. Plain and simple. It’s been said before. In the past. Many times. It will be said again. In the future. Many times.

After 9/11 I wrote a lot of anti-war songs. There wasn’t a market for them then. There isn’t much of a market for them now.

THREE FRIENDS
(c) 2010 Daniel Valentine

THREE FRIENDS on an airplane,
Passing over streets and squares in their hometown …
THREE FRIENDS on an airplane,
Two looking what’s below them just before touching down …

One says, “Look, there’s the shopping mall.”
One points out the new town hall.
One says not a word at all.

Three fam’lies together,
Bonded by a war and intertwining lives …
Three fam’lies together,
Hearts in a near-crazed frenzy till their dear one arrives …

One thanks God for a son’s safe trip.
One’s with child with babe on hip.
One fights tears and bites a lip.

On the jet’s PA
A flight attendant says,
“Please return your tray …
Put all electronic devices away.
We’ll be landing soon.
Hope you have a nice day.”

THREE FRIENDS now deplaning,
Two of whom are cheered, embraced, and kissed heartfelt.
THREE FRIENDS now deplaning,
One in a flag-draped coffin on a conveyor belt …

One’s come home on a two-week leave.
One has got a pinned-up sleeve.
One was killed on Christmas Eve.

THREE FRIENDS on an airplane …

LONELY ROOM
(c) 2010 Daniel Valentine

There’s a LONELY ROOM on the second floor
Where a mother cries when she shuts the door,
Where she dries her eyes and then weeps some more,
Hurting, her heart broke in two.

There’s an empty bed where the mother read
To a little boy, where his prayers were said,
Where she tucked him in and then kissed his head,
Lovingly like mothers do.

There’s a closet where gremlins used to hide.
By a window, there is a tree outside
With a bright yellow ribbon around it tied
With a perfect bow, tho’ the boy he died.

And three Marines,
Standing tall–
One a chaplain–
Grand and all,
Brought the tragic news.

In the LONELY ROOM is an empty chair
Where the boy would chat on his cell and share
Secrets with his girl and at times just stare,
Dreaming of all he would do.

There are bedside books and a glove and ball;
Fam’ly photos, framed; posters on the wall:
One of George and Ringo and John and Paul
And one of Spider Man 2.

All is in its place, all is like it was
When he left to do what a soldier does.
Only now it is lonely and sad because
Wednesday last his mom heard the doorbell buzz.

And three Marines,
Taut and tall–
One a chaplain–
Caught her fall
When she heard the news.

[Memorial Day, Part II, here]

Graves at DFW National Cemetery, photo by Ed Darrell - IMGP4180

Graves at DFW National Cemetery, May 30, 2010 - photo by Ed Darrell (you may use with attribution)


Robert McNamara, Eagle Scout

July 8, 2009

A few weeks ago I finally got a copy of “Fog of War,” at Half-Price Books.  I’ve watched it three times so far.

DVD box for Fog of War, Errol Morriss Academy Award-winning documentary

DVD box for Fog of War, Errol Morris's Academy Award-winning documentary

For a talking head documentary, it’s compelling, and interesting.  It may be just that I lived through the time, and hearing former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara explain now what was going on at various points . . . “Fog of War” is like a director’s cut DVD of the Vietnam War with Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg and Wilder all explaining every facet of what the director was doing.

Errol Morris’s interviews over the past few days are good, too.  Morris is the director of the movie.  He reminds us that he was making the movie before, and then in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center.  Wrong decisions about war were being repeated.

I was looking to find excerpts that might work in world history or U.S. history classes.  I’m not sure there is one, now.  It should be a powerful film for an AP U.S. history class, but probably assigned viewing rather than in-class.

For his part, Robert McNamara was never anything less than brilliant, even when wrong.  We often forget that he rose to his role as Secretary of Defense because of his being right when others were so wrong — at Ford Motor, McNamara was the one who saw the Edsel as a dismal failure and the wrong path, years before the ultimate failure of the marque, the man who saved Lincoln, the man who pushed the small car revolution in the Ford Falcon, the man who pushed safety packages with seatbelts before they were popular, or required. Even at Defense he was more capable that his predecessors, more careful, and more often right.  (Read that Miami Herald piece from Joseph Califano — it reveals the brilliance of Lyndon Johnson, too.)

McNamara’s descriptions of errors in the highest places are also brilliant in their insight.

With the possible exception of Eisenhower’s never-used apology and fault-accepting letter for the failure of D-Day, the Normandy invasion — never used because the invasion worked — have we seen a more forthright mea culpa and warning from any of our warriors about their own mistakes, and how to avoid them?

What drove McNamara to do that?

Learned something else yesterday:  Robert McNamara was an Eagle Scout.

Is that why it seems like he, almost alone among the architects of that horrible conflict, confessed to error in Vietnam? He was a man who could do almost anything, had done much, but at the most important time could not do whatever it was that was required to achieve a just peace, nor even an end to war. We don’t know yet what the right thing to do might have been.

There is much more to know from that chapter, from and about McNamara, than we have learned yet.  Perhaps McNamara’s passing will spur others to find copies of the movie, and study the Eleven Lessons Robert McNamara learned from Vietnam too late; perhaps others can now apply the lessons in time.

Robert McNamara talks about Vietnam to the press - National Archives photo

Robert McNamara talks about Vietnam to the press - National Archives photo

See the Washington Post’s gallery of photos of the life of Robert McNamara.

Tip of the old scrub brush to the discussions at Scouts-L.


Popular idea: Honor the soldiers, sailors and airmen

May 17, 2008

Interesting. The hottest post on this blog today is the one I wrote about honoring Armed Forces Day — last year! The post for Armed Forces Day this year is up there, too.

One of the lessons of Vietnam is that we need to honor our soldiers who go to defend the nation, even when the wars may be of dubious origin. The dubious origins of war cannot be blamed on the soldiers, sailors and airmen who go to do their duty, and they are the ones who can redeem the nation from a disastrous foreign policy, if anyone can.

Love the serviceman, hate the war. Honor the soldier, work on the politicians to change the policy. It’s a workable arrangement that honors good people for doing noble service.

Remember: Memorial Day honors those who died in service to the country; Veterans Day honors the veterans who came back, having served. Armed Forces Day honors those who serve today.

Fly your flag today.


Stanton Sharp history teaching symposium at SMU, February 9

January 8, 2008

Tired of odd speakers trying to tell you about how boys learn differently from girls because of the size of the Crockus in their brain?

How about serious material to beef up your teaching: Vietnam, the Russian Revolution, Mexicans in U.S. history, Native Americans in the 20th century, use of the internet in history classes — three sessions, each with three classes to choose from.

Poster for session on Russian Revolution, Stanton Sharp Symposium at SMU, 2008

The history department at Southern Methodist University in Dallas offers solid education in serious history issues for teachers in colleges and secondary schools. The Stanton Sharp Teaching Symposium on Saturday, February 9 offers great material in nine different areas. Several of these topics seem to be pulled from the Texas Education Agency’s list of subjects that students need to do better on, for the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS).

Invitation below the fold. The $15 fee includes lunch; you may earn up to 7 hours of Continuing Education Units (CEU) credits.

(I plan to be there, and if you’re really interested in the Crockus and its scholars, I happen to have a photo of the elusive Crosley Shelvador on my cell phone — he appeared to have used one of those spray-on tanning solutions, but is otherwise real, as the photos show.)

Read the rest of this entry »


Let Xerox help you thank a soldier

November 20, 2007

One of the lessons of Vietnam was that we need to honor and thank our soldiers especially when they get sent to execute bad foreign policy. So, regardless your views on current conflicts, you could perform a service, with the help of Xerox, by sending a card, from here.

No cost. Try it.

Card drawn by a kid, for Let's Say Thanks at Xerox

Tip of the old scrub brush to Brother Dwight.


Quote of the moment: Lessons of Vietnam, according to David Petraeus

September 12, 2007

I lift this completely from Chris Bray’s post at Cliopatria:

Wise Words

“The Vietnam experience left the military leadership feeling that they should advise against involvement in counterinsurgencies unless specific, perhaps unlikely, circumstances obtain — i.e. domestic public support, the promise of a quick campaign, and freedom to employ whatever force is necessary to achieve rapid victory. In light of such criteria, committing U.S. units to counterinsurgencies appears to be a very problematic proposition, difficult to conclude before domestic support erodes and costly enough to threaten the well-being of all America’s military forces (and hence the country’s national security), not just those involved in the actual counterinsurgency.”

David Howell Petraeus, The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam: A study of military influence and the use of force in the post-Vietnam era. PhD Dissertation, Princeton University, 1987. Page 305.

Dr. Petraeus is better known as Gen. Petraeus these days. Your assignment: Compare and contrast his statement from his dissertation with his testimony to Congress over the past two days. (Note the link above takes you to his actual dissertaion, in .pdf form.)


June 5, 1968: The day Bobby died

June 6, 2007

Jim Booth at Scholars and Rogues wrote about what the death of Bobby Kennedy meant to a 16-year old kid out to save the world from darkest North Carolina.

This is just the 39th anniversary of RFK’s death. Next year, 2008, will be the 40th, and will again feature an election in which the war-crippled lame duck president must be succeeded, and the early fields in both parties do not excite the incumbent party’s masses much.

But 1968 was a uniquely terrible year — we hope it was unique. One serious question is just how depressing will it be to hear the “40-years out” stories on the Pueblo crisis, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death, the riots, RFK’s death, the convention riots, the money-and-morale-and-morality sapping war (Vietnam, not Iraq — we hope), etc., etc.

And so Mr. Booth’s close is a potent challenge: To rededicate ourselves to the hopes we felt in the first half of 1968, to see the implementation of those hopes now, two generations later — despite the cynicism that wells up whenever we see anyone touted as a great hope of needed change in the country’s direction, or whenever great hopes are dashed to pieces, as they have been in Iraq.

And every June 5th I stop for a few moments and remember how I believed in what America could be once – try to get some of that belief back – and, to use an old Boomer chestnut, “keep on keeping on.”

And I ask Bobby to forgive me – and my generation – for failing to pick up his torch….


Olio/Olla podrida/Mulligan stew/Stone soup

March 26, 2007

Here are some of the posts I’ve been thinking about over the past couple of days:

Iraq and VietnamWritings by Hudson has been reading about LBJ and Vietnam.  Santayana’s ghost appreciates the exercise.

Camels in the Outback, camels in the dogfood:  Would you believe a million camels are feral in the Australian Outback?  And now, with a drought, it’s a problem.  The Coffee House alerts us.

What if everybody in your organization came to you for help? The Drawing Room tells us why you’d be wise to work for such a thing.

U.S. soldiers protest the warNo, not the current war — African American soldiers protest the Filipino conflict.  Forgotten soldiers, forgotten war — you’d do well to reacquaint yourself with this chapter of U.S. history at Vox ex Machina.

Leaks about the incident that got us into the warNo, not yet the Iraq war (see how you jump to conclusions?).  POTUS reflects on LBJ and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and the leaks and lack of intelligence that may have gotten us into a quagmire.

Earthquakes in Tornado Alley:  Tennessee Guy points to an article that wonders about the New Madrid Fault, and whether it is tensing up for “the Big One” to shake West Tennessee (and the rest of the Midwest), or it is going to sleep for a millennium.

Science and racismA collection of Darwin’s writings that touch on race and slavery, for your bookmark file.

Cool school librariesWe’re not talking about air conditioning.


Applying the lessons of Vietnam #2: Honor veterans

February 26, 2007

Lessons from Vietnam as applied to Afghanistan and Iraq:

#2. Honor veterans when they return; honor the soldiers while they serve. One of the great errors of Vietnam was the failure to hold parades for returning soldiers. Regardless one’s views of the war, or its justness, or its execution, the soldiers who served deserved thanks, kudos, and a warm welcome back. They also deserved top-notch medical care for their injuries, physical and mental — Bob Dole, John McCain, Daniel Inouye, John Kennedy and others stand as monuments to what returned veterans can do for the nation when welcomed back and given appropriate medical care.

Vietnam was just a repeat of the error, however — Korean War veterans also got no homecoming parades. The Korean conflict is in fact known to some as “the forgotten war.” So we have more than 50 years of bad habits to break in figuring out how to honor our soldiers and veterans. We as a nation have not gotten it right for a very long time.

Honoring the veterans does at least two beneficial things: It helps the veterans readjust to life, if only a little, knowing that people at home appreciate them as individuals, and that people appreciate the sacrifices they made to serve the nation even when those sacrifices are so great as to be beyond comprehension. Read the rest of this entry »


Eleanor McGovern

February 2, 2007

The past few weeks have been studded with the deaths of people important to my life, or important in history. The string is a long, unnecessary reminder that there are a lot of people holding history in their memories whom more historians need to get out and interview, even (and perhaps especially) high school-age historians.

Eleanor and George McGovern

Eleanor McGovern died in Mitchell, South Dakota, last week. I wonder how many of the town’s high school history teachers ever thought to invite the woman to speak?

McGovern was the probably the first spouse of a presidential candidate to campaign alone, without the candidate along. The respectful, rather long obituary in the Los Angeles Times made that a focus point of its tribute (free subscription will eventually be required). That was the place I first got the news of her death, while I participated in a Liberty Fund seminar in Pasadena, California, last week.

I was recruited to politics by a McGovernite in early 1972, in Utah. Over the next few months we saw Eleanor McGovern look cool, calm, intelligent and charming in her husband’s losing campaign. She may not always have been so cool as we saw — the Times piece mentions she was nearly ill before the first-ever Sunday interview program solo appearance by a candidate’s wife.

That she was both pretty and smart probably scared the opposition more than anything she ever said. Read the rest of this entry »


Applying the lessons of Vietnam in Afghanistan and Iraq, part 1

January 12, 2007

In pedagogy, the indicator that a lesson has been learned manifests in changes in actions, not in a high score on a paper test.

Did the United States really learn the lessons of Vietnam?  Can we even say, with assurance, what those lessons are?

Lesson 1:  Support of a corrupt government often leads to disaster.  One  of the continuing problems of U.S. policy in Vietnam was that the South Vietnam governments were usually corrupt.  Citizens knew that.  A people rarely loves a corrupt government, unless the corruption inures to the benefit of the people — a degree of graft may be tolerated, for example, if the garbage is picked up on time and the streets are cleared after snow storms.  People quickly lose patience with corruption that does not benefit them, however, and South Vietnam’s government simply could not get basic services to work well.

One might have hoped the U.S. learned the lesson, especially when Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, recommended to President Ronald Reagan that the U.S. not pledge military support for Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos, because of the corruption in the Marcos government.  As a result, the Philippines today has a democratic government, not one that works with great efficiency (which may be a hallmark of true democracy), but a government that the people understand is elected by them.  Similarly, governments of Eastern Bloc nations under communism frequently were corrupt.  The swift changes that occurred after Poland’s defection from communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, led to massive change.  Where the new governments are not corrupt (Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany) or even just less corrupt, popular support is stronger and national recovery is a genuine hope, if not reality.

Of course, the U.S. was burned by this policy in Iran.  When Jimmy Carter’s administration refused to back the increasingly corrupt and unpopular government of the Shah of Iran, revolutionaries found other reasons to lash out at the U.S.  A wise person may contemplate that at least the U.S. has not been involved in a continuing war in Iran since the 1980s.

But the lesson stands.  One would think that the U.S. would make great effort to assure non-corrupt government in Iraq and Afghanistan, and make the strongest possible effort to make clean government manifest to the local population and the world at large. One might be unsure that is happening today.

In Vietnam, communist forces were trained along the model that Mao Zedong had used in China against the Japanese, and then against the Nationalist army:  Train in military methods, and emphasize the political aspects of the war, too.  Mao’s army had songs they were required to memorize that emphasized high moral conduct of the soldier, with verses that encouraged full payment to anyone from whom anything was taken, such as food or shelter.  Such actions would encourage civilians to support the army, Mao correctly hypothesized.  Ho Chi Minh’s forces did not practice the rules perfectly, but, for example, they were successful often in pointing out that the destruction of cropland was not their doing, but was instead the result of U.S. war efforts.  Vietnamese citizens may not have strongly supported Ho’s forces, but neither did they support the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam.  When the reason for the fighting is unclear, fighting often cannot be successful.  Corruption in a government makes reasons to support that government suspect, fogging the reasons to fight for it.

Cleaning up corruption in Iraq’s government should be a very high priority of U.S. policy. 

[This is the first of a series of posts on the Lessons of Vietnam.]


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