Southeast Asia fascinates me because it is so different from what I as an American am used to, so different from our way of thinking and being. And all that ideological dogma I was fed as a child and teenager about falling dominoes and the ruthless march of global monolithic communism — the Maoists and the Stalinists united — has turned out to be, pretty much, BULL CRAP.
My mother-in-law reminded me that her nephew (and my wife’s first cousin)Lewis Walling Jr. was one of the first Americans to die in Vietnam, in 1962, and what a promising young man he was. Indeed so, if one follows the link on his name. Many Americans remain sensitive on the subject of Vietnam, she said, and aren’t particularly interested in how the country is doing after we left, since our side lost.
Is it inappropriate to vacation in what was just 40 to 50 years ago a place of terrible sacrifice, essentially a graveyard for nearly 58,000 Americans, a source of bitter division within the United States, and enormous psychic pain for the veterans who returned and their families, not to mention for millions of Vietnamese?
In retrospect, I have mixed feelings about Vietnam. I know “our boys” were treated terribly when they returned home after serving their country. One might ask students of history why the Vietnam War did not turn out like the Korean War? The latter, though technically a draw, has worked out pretty wonderfully for the South Koreans in terms of their standard of living, democratic freedoms and contribution to the world economy. I take it as a given that modern-day, successful South Korea was the original vision that the naive but well-intentioned architects of the Vietnam War had for South Vietnam.
It is perhaps understandable that those architects over the decade of the 1950s developed a pretty hard-core case of hubris as they watched post-war Germany, Japan, and South Korea emerge as economic and political miracles. The allies had essentially transformed these former enemies and remade them in our own image. In the heady fifties and early sixties, why wouldn’t it seem possible to remake Vietnam like we did Germany, Japan and South Korea?
That was not to be.
In the long history of Vietnam, the South Vietnamese government lasted only from 1946 to 1975 — 29 years. The unified Republic of Vietnam has already endured for 37 years.
The Vietnamese today lack the democratic freedoms and economic riches that South Korea has and that they might have had if the American vision had been successful. Vietnam today is one of the world’s poorest countries. As it has moved away from rigid communist dogma with “free market reforms,” it is achieving one of the world’s fastest economic growth rates.
Irony of Ironies, America today is one of Vietnam’s strongest trading partners, and Vietnam hopes for stronger economic relations with the US so it is less economically dependent on China, which it fears from centuries of imperialism.
I do not believe the sacrifice of Lewis Walling and other Americans who died or served in Vietnam was in vain. They died so that others may live — America since Vietnam has become far more cautious, far less arrogant, in putting large numbers of American forces in harm’s way. Some 57,000 Americans died in Vietnam in about 12 years; “just” 4,409 Americans died in Iraq in nine years; and less than 2,000 Americans have died in Afghanistan since 2001. America has become far wiser in laying out clear, limited, attainable goals for its troops.
It remains to be seen what the long-term outcome of American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan will be. Whatever it is, the men and women who served or died there have not served or died in vain either. The value of service to one’s country is not diminished if the mission is not completely successful. Indeed, if the mission was not difficult and success was guaranteed in advance, the value of the service and sacrifice would be diminished.