They were soldiers once and young. Now they have gray in their hair and are returning to Vietnam to help that country -- and themselves.
In the 40 years since the Paris Peace Accords, millions of words have been written about the lessons of Vietnam – the traumatic American military intervention that escalated year by year, cost hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides, and deeply divided the American people.
Shortly after the fall of Saigon, the American diplomat and historian George Kennan saw the lessons of Vietnam as “few and plain: not to be hypnotized by the word ‘communism’ and not to mess into other people’s civil wars where there is no substantial American strategic interest at stake.” Other thinkers have noted the perils of superpower hubris and the inherent problems democracies have with protracted, inconclusive conflicts.
In 1987, David Petraeus, an Army major at the time, did his doctoral dissertation on the lessons of Vietnam, noting, among other things, that “when it comes to intervention, time and patience are not American virtues in abundant supply.” Two decades after his dissertation, as time and patience were running out in Iraq and Afghanistan, it fell to then-General Petraeus to hasten the conclusion of those conflicts.
Historians are now analyzing those wars for their own lessons, which will probably echo Vietnam’s (possibly with the word “terrorism” substituted for the word “communism”) and contain the same caution about determining the importance of American strategic interests before committing combat troops.
Amid all the treatises about postwar geopolitics, popular opinion, and national credibility, the humans caught up in the wars are usually relegated to footnotes. The young men and women who leave home to fight for a nation’s strategic interests are expected to keep the war “over there” when they come home.