March 18, 2002
By Robert M. Freeman
War hero movies are suddenly all the rage. That is understandable.
We have soldiers dying in Afghanistan and we want to think
the best of them.
"We Were Soldiers" is a movie about the first battle between
American and North Vietnamese soldiers in the Vietnam War.
It is based on a book by the movie's hero, Lt. Col. Harold
Moore. In late 1965, Moore led a ferocious three day firefight
in Vietnam's Ia Drang valley where almost 200 American soldiers
It is a decent movie, made better by the true story of personal
courage on which it is based. But it wants to do more than
any movie can reasonably be expected to do: impute nobility
to the larger War by eulogizing a few of its early participants.
Let's state up front: there were thousands of heroic acts
performed in Vietnam. But those acts, no matter how heroic,
do not amount to justification for the War. And they can never
carry the still larger burden of producing national reconciliation
about the War.
The reason is that the spotlight on the individual soldier,
no matter how inspiring, is the wrong level of focus. Soldiers
at the battlefield level are not responsible for the larger
conduct of the War.
To judge the larger War, we need to look at the role of the
government and our overall society in justifying and prosecuting
it. And the standard we should hold in judging the Vietnam
War is the same one we hold for any conduct, official or personal,
public or private. It is this: if it has to be lied about,
This is a brutally simple standard. Its appeal - and its
power - derives not just from its simplicity but from its
immediate grasp by every moral person. Every child understands
this standard and every loving parent recalls it for his children
when they stray from it.
If you have to lie about something, it is wrong.
By this standard, the Vietnam War was wrong, terribly wrong.
The singular hallmark of official conduct throughout the War
was the amount of lying that went on to justify it. Not just
periodic lying. Not just localized lying. Not just lying about
nits. And not just lying by one political side or the other.
Multiple presidents lied to us for years about Vietnam because
they didn't want to be "the first American president to lose
Our "intelligence" agencies lied to us repeatedly about the
threat from a nation of pre-Industrial Age farmers on the
other side of the world who, after centuries of domination,
simply wanted to be left alone by western imperial powers.
The State Department lied, not just to the American people
but to the entire world, about our prolonged, illegal bombing
of Laos and Cambodia.
The Pentagon Papers showed us that the military was saturated
with lies, from field-level body counts to strategic reviews
of progress to fundamental assessments of the War's ultimate
Congress lied for years about how the War could be financed
without raising taxes and without cutting Great Society programs.
The result was the economic debacle of the 1970s.
And the American people lied to themselves about the War.
As long as the boys fighting it were blacks and Latinos and
members of the underclass, everything was fine. The Defense
contracts were fat and everybody was eating high on the hog.
As in the fable, it was the children, the college students,
who first told us that the Emperor had no clothes. And for
a while, our first impulse was to shoot the messenger - literally.
Finally, however, the gap between what we wanted to believe
and what we could no longer deny simply grew too large.
By the late 1960s, the fabric of lies that had sustained
the War started to unravel. The Tet offensive in early 1968
demolished the upbeat fiction that we were winning the War.
Stories of massacres like My Lai began to leak out. Idiocies
like, "We had to destroy the village in order to save it,"
crept into the public lexicon.
Live news footage showed the horrors of saturation bombing,
defoliation, and napalm. Supposedly serious voices spoke supposedly
seriously about, "bombing them back into the stone age." News
anchors began intoning a nightly body count of American lives
lost. And with the student deferment abolished, middle class
suburban white boys began coming home in body bags.
If there was a salvation, a last redemption of morality for
a nation that had badly lost its way, it was that our repugnance
at what we realized we had become made it impossible to continue
the War any longer. At least we still had shame.
Compare, for example, our collective appraisal of World War
II with how we feel about Vietnam. World War II was an honorable
war, a necessary war, unquestionably confronting a global
Evil. It did not have to be lied about to justify its prosecution,
to sustain the commitment of the people and the country to
fight it and win.
Not incidentally, there is an unmistakable, peaceful finality
about World War II that Vietnam, now some thirty years on,
still does not begin to possess.
In fact, it is precisely our lying about the Vietnam War,
both then and now, and our knowledge of those lies, without
ever having repudiated them, that continues to make the War
seem dishonorable - no matter how many celluloid paeans are
erected to the heroism of its individual soldiers.
The dishonor, of course, belongs not to the soldiers but
rather to the War itself. It belongs to the institutions that
lied to justify it and to the people whose silence and acquiescence
made them complicit in the lies.
It belongs to those who put our soldiers - our children -
in the perverse situation not of having to do honorable things
honorably, but of having to try to do dishonorable things
honorably. For, despite the loftiest motives we might conflate
for its beginnings, that is unquestionably what the War ultimately
Finally, it belongs to those who continue to try to rehabilitate
the War, to justify and rationalize that which simply cannot
be made good. For, remember: if we had to lie about it, it
was wrong. And wrong does not get made right by the louder
or repeated repetition of original lies. Or, by the contrivance
of newer, more personable ones.
There should be no illusions about how hard it will be, but
the unsung soldiers of the Vietnam War will never be truly
atoned for and we will never, as a nation, have peace about
the War until we somehow acknowledge Vietnam as the massive
national mistake it actually was.
Robert Freeman writes about history and economics from his
home near San Francisco. He can be reached at email@example.com