I was a bit late in getting to the cemetery in my hometown to place an American flag on the grave of a friend who was killed in the Vietnam War. I had obligations this year on Memorial Day and the rainy and cold days since then prevented me from doing what I do each year and that is, remember a young man who never got the chance to experience the lives that our generation has been able to lead. It was sad looking at the grave and thinking about what he had missed. And I think it bothered me even more to have the feeling that he really died for nothing.
Vietnam, like the rest of the conflicts our military forces have been engaged in since World War II, was no threat to the United States. It was one of those political wars that have become so much a part of American strategy in our own times. Like the post WWII falsehood perpetrated by our government that the U.S. was lagging behind the Soviet Union in the development of strategic weaponry, Vietnam was sold on the basis of the “Domino Theory.” The fact that China had gone communist just a decade earlier, made politicians worry that if Vietnam fell to the Reds, it would continue the fall of other democracies across southeast Asia. You could lose elections if that happened on your watch. So we followed the French in trying to prop up an unpopular regime to thwart that end.
Almost half a million U.S. soldiers were pumped into Vietnam over a ten year period. They fought valiantly. Almost 60,000 of them never came back. One of them was my friend. But despite his contribution, there was no light at the end of that tunnel. In the end, the failed military effort was summed up in an image of the 1975 final evacuation by helicopter of the American embassy in Saigon.
Now we have troops engaged in combat in places that the Average American citizen could not locate on a map. Many are on multiple deployments. We are told that their mission is to bring democracy to people who have a great desire to be free. Out troops, we are assured, are defending the American homeland. It has a familiar ring to it. My generation heard the same message half a century ago. As I stood at the gravesite in the quiet of this morning, I couldn’t help but think — what a waste. My friend really didn’t die for any high-minded ideology. His bravery was wasted on a false assumption. The sacrifice made by all those soldiers did not make this country safer, nor did it prevent what ultimately happened — Vietnam became a communist dictatorship. Today we can go to WalMart and buy shirts and sneakers made in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. My friend’s death had nothing to do with that.