Rarely have accomplishments turned out so totally at variance with intended objectives. The war did not save South Vietnam, it did not deter future aggression, it did not enhance the credibility of United States commitments elsewhere in the world, it did not prevent recriminations at home …
The American defeat there grew out of assumptions derived quite logically from th[e] strategy [of “flexible response”]: that the defense of Southeast Asia was crucial to the maintenance of world order; that force could be applied in Vietnam with precision and discrimination; that the means existed to evaluate performance accurately; and that success would enhance American power, prestige, and credibility in the world. These assumptions in turn reflected a curiously myopic preoccupation with process—a disproportionate fascination with means at the expense of ends—so that a strategy designed to produce a precise correspondence between intentions and accomplishments in fact produced just the opposite.1
But there is an even profounder understanding of history … [that] recognizes that injustice flows from the same source from which justice comes … This indictment may be regarded not only as a shrewd expression of the moral ambiguity of all government, as both an instrument of, and a peril to justice; it is, more profoundly considered, a recognition of the basic paradox of history. It recognizes that the creative and destructive possibilities of human history are inextricably intermingled. The very power which organizes human society and establishes justice, also generates injustice by its preponderance of power.2
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War is extraordinary.
The immersive, 18-hour documentary captures the complexities, consequences, and emotions of the war, while placing today’s societal divisions in historical context. It mercilessly lays bare the unconscionable lies of U.S. statesmen and generals, and their betrayal of the country’s citizens, values, and decency.
You should watch it.
Karl Marlantes,3 who served as a Marine in the war and is featured in the film, has written that “Vietnam changed the way we looked at politics. We became inured to our leaders lying in the war.” As a result, “We have switched from naïveté to cynicism … [which] threatens democracy, because it destroys the power of the people to even want to make change.”
This is an ineluctable conclusion from The Vietnam War. That the sheer audacity of the lies and the abuse of authority drove a stake into the heart of the country, creating a wound from which it has not recovered … and may yet not.
Lying at the highest levels of government has become normalized. Consider the mendacious presidential candidates that were on the ballot in 2016:
- Both of them shared an affinity for corruption and their own interests. One had used public office for private gain, while the other saw in her example an auspicious business plan.
- Both treated service members and their sacrifices cavalierly, while the victor mocked POWs and ridiculed a family of the fallen—a coward who boasted of dodging VD in the canyons of Manhattan while his countrymen fought VC in the jungles of Vietnam.
Surely this speaks to a rot in the body politic.
C.S. Lewis once wrote:
Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature … Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.4
This, it seems to me, is what has happened on a national level. The compounding of lies and unethical behavior over half a century.
To watch The Vietnam War is to be reminded that the power to wage war is an awesome responsibility—one that requires sobriety of mind, clarity of purpose, and the capacity to tie means to ends. It requires the ability to divorce one’s ego from the conduct and outcome of policy.
It is manifest that the White House today is more devoid of these qualities today than at any time in the last 50 years. The risks of folly, hubris, and miscalculation should terrify you.
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1 John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy During the Cold War (Oxford University Press: 2005), pgs. 235-6.
2 Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man — Vol. II: Human Destiny (Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1964), pg. 21.
3 I highly recommend his novel Matterhorn.
4 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Touchstone: 1996), pg. 87.