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Lying About Vietnam
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 were killed.

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, it's wrong.

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 a war."

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 winnability.

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 became.

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

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