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Coming to Terms With Defeat: Post-Vietnam America and the Post-Civil War South

ISSUE:  Winter 1990

In a recent editorial cartoon, a perplexed couple emerged from a movie theater. Over their heads the marquee read: “Platoon: Now Showing.” Beneath it, the man commented: “I liked it better when Rambo won the war.” This cartoon exemplifies what might be called the United States’ third Vietnam War. The first was the actual war in Indochina to preserve South Vietnam, a military intervention that lasted 25 years, cost some 58,000 American lives, and ended in frustration and failure. The second was the war at home over the morality and wisdom of that intervention, a battle that divided and disrupted the nation. The third is the battle to define what the wars in and over Vietnam meant. The fighting in this third Vietnam War appears to be escalating as new offensives are launched, not only in the growing number of histories, memoirs, and novels, but also in popular movies, prime-time television shows, and even a comic book series.

In this inevitable third Vietnam War, Americans begin to come to terms with defeat in Vietnam. Once before, one part of the nation—the South—faced a similar adjustment. A comparison of the South’s experience with defeat and America’s emerging response to its loss of the war in Vietnam may be helpful. Such a comparison need not ignore the substantial differences between the Civil and Vietnam wars. The former was a domestic conflict, fought only on American soil. The latter was an American intervention in a complex foreign conflict, part civil war, part military invasion, an intervention abroad that led to confrontation at home and divided and scarred the nation. Yet, though the wars differed, an examination of their aftermaths reveals several points on which a cautious comparison may yield insights for Americans fighting the third Vietnam War. Americans now wrestle with three problems that the South also faced: how to treat defeated veterans, how to reconcile former foes, and how to interpret defeat.


In the last years of the Vietnam War and into the 1970’s, American popular culture frequently presented Vietnam veterans as crazies or criminals, dysfunctionals who never quite succeeded in putting the war behind them. The vets rightly resented such portrayals and to counter them pointed proudly to the successful among their ranks. Recent polls have shown the successes to be far from uncommon and have suggested that fewer veterans failed to adjust to life after Vietnam than media stereotypes indicate. But if the stereotypes exaggerated, evidence still suggests that many Vietnam veterans have had difficulty in coping with their wartime experiences. The most troubled among them suffer from a debilitating condition, labeled post-traumatic stress disorder, whose victims relive the war in dreams and flashbacks. The war also haunts many for whom such clinical labels are inappropriate—even some of the “successes” counted in the polls. Studies reveal that numerous factors contribute to postwar stress—the personal background of the soldier, the intensity of combat he experienced, the type of community to which he returned, and the personal support he received from friends and family. Yet such variables would be involved in the return of veterans from all wars; of the factors offered to explain the peculiar difficulties of the Vietnam veterans’ problems, two predominate: the unique character of the Vietnam War and the welcome home or, more accurately, the lack of a welcome home, the veterans received when they returned.

Those who attribute postwar troubles to the unique character of the war dwell on its brutality, its lack of established lines, and its confusions over who was friend and who was foe. They also point to the soldiers’ youth and pattern of service. Almost seven years younger on average than his World War II predecessor, the Vietnam soldier found himself suddenly delivered, alone, into the war zone where he served a one-year tour, and then, just as abruptly and still alone, he returned to the United States. While not necessarily disputing assumptions about uniqueness, other observers argue that the veterans’ problems lay in the outcome of the war. Theologian W. Taylor Stevenson, for example, contends that the veteran suffers from a sense of defilement—a belief that he was dishonored and symbolically dirtied by breaking the taboos that protect Americans’ sense of innocence and powerfulness. Still others argue that by 1968 Americans neither supported the war nor expected to win it. Consequently at the time, veterans serving after 1967, and in retrospect all veterans, regarded their service as purposeless—”It don’t mean nothing,” in the refrain of the Vietnam soldiers in the recent movie Hamburger Hill. Surveys do show that veterans most likely to undergo postwar stress had served after 1967, when the war had become increasingly unpopular and, for many, its purpose increasingly unclear.

Despite the partial validity of these arguments, whether combat in Vietnam was unique remains very much an open question. Certainly the one-year rotation, a policy adopted in no other conflict save Korea, created many difficulties, but other aspects of the Vietnam War may not have differed as radically from those in previous conflicts as some accounts assume. The destruction of villages and murder of civilians may not have been as frequent or as cold-blooded as movies like Platoon and memoirs like A Rumor of War make them seem, and clearly similar atrocities have occurred in earlier wars. In World War II and Korea, according to one historian, civilian casualties probably equalled or exceeded those in Vietnam; and, as James Reston, Jr.’s Sherman’s March and Vietnam serves to remind, even when Americans fought other Americans they did not always spare civilians or towns. Nor were other aspects of the Vietnam War totally different from the Civil War. The Confederate soldiers, no older than their Vietnam War counterparts, also faced horrifying brutality and suffering in an age of mass casualties but rudimentary medicine that could do little to heal them or ease their pain. Their war, a fight to overthrow their own government and to preserve slavery, could have led to a sense of defilement as readily as did the Vietnam War. Significant anti-war agitation occurred in the South toward the end of the war, and the Confederate soldiers, like the Vietnam vets, endured the conflicting emotions of a frustrated and defeated army. Yet little evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder appears in the postwar letters, diaries, and reminiscences of Confederate veterans. Though scarred by defeat, they seem to have suffered far less difficulty adjusting after the war than the Vietnam veterans have. The nature of combat in the two wars may help explain that difference, but of greater importance may be the way veterans of the two wars perceived their return from battle.

The treatment of returning Vietnam soldiers has itself become an issue central to the third Vietnam war. Popular lore tells of returning soldiers who were harassed by anti-war civilians, but these accounts should not be accepted until systematic investigation confirms them. Clearly, however, veterans believe themselves to have been the victims of civilian hostility. Many talk of trying to hide their service; others who did not or could not because of injury, recount sad tales of harassment by angry or scornful fellow citizens. “Did you kill any babies?” they say people asked them. They tell of a passerby looking at their empty sleeve and hissing, “Serves you right” or of anti-war protestors spitting on them. The image of being spit on by civilians—whether fact or myth—aptly symbolizes what the veterans feel—a sense of defilement, a sense that society condemned their actions and rejected them as unclean.

Confederate soldiers, too, worried about whether defeat dishonored them, but few recounted tales of scorn. They talked instead of how Southerners warmly embraced them. A one-armed veteran likely met not a hostile comment but a bevy of adoring females. Towns throughout the South staged picnics and celebrations to welcome their soldiers. More important, in the 10 to 15 years after the Confederate surrender, Southerners built Confederate cemeteries, erected funereal monuments, and held yearly memorial celebrations in honor of the dead and the veterans. These celebrations and memorials, though avoiding the issues and passions of the war, publicly, ritualistically testified to the honor of the Confederate soldier; they signaled to the soldier that his society did not consider him defiled by war or defeat.

Exactly this sort of ritual of acceptance and honor was denied Vietnam veterans when first they came home or even once the war ended. The one-year tour and the soldiers’ return as individuals and not in units made organizing a triumphant parade unlikely, if not impossible. More important, some Americans were appalled by the war and others frustrated by defeat; both groups shunned the Vietnam War’s soldiers and avoided discussion of the conflict. For a time, Americans almost succumbed to a sort of collective amnesia. This initial failure to accept the returning Vietnam warriors, so very much in contrast to the South’s reception of its armies after Appomattox, contributed significantly to the vets’ adjustment problems.

War, as Vietnam veteran William Broyles, Jr. , and others point out, sets up conflicting emotions within soldiers: it both horrifies and fascinates. It demands that soldiers kill and destroy, actions that they have been taught to consider wrong in other situations, and at the same time generates tremendous excitement since it is, in Broyles’ analogy, the greatest of all games. Taught the standards and values of the game in basic training, what Robert Jay Lifton calls a rite of passage into another world, few Vietnam soldiers questioned the morality of killing the enemy or resorting to extreme violence. The ethics of war justified and the need to survive demanded them. But what was logical and moral in “Indian country,” to use the significant slang of the soldiers, the veterans feared might not be seen as such “back in the world.” To ease their fears, soldiers may well need another rite of passage—a ritual welcome home, be it a grand parade, memorial day, or monument unveiling—to facilitate their return to the “world.” Such a public, symbolic act helps the soldiers resubmit themselves to normal social values. And it allows society to welcome them back, allows it both to acknowledge its role in and acceptance of their temporary violation of moral dictates and to admit the nobility of the soldiers’ sacrifice and the legitimacy of what has so fascinated them. Veterans of any war need such acceptance, but those who fought in a controversial, defeated cause, which brings with it feelings of failure and purposelessness, need it even more. The returning Confederates received such ritualistic welcome; the returning Vietnam vets at first did not—a difference that helps explain why so many more Vietnam than Confederate veterans had a difficult time putting the war behind them. In the absence of a ritualistic acceptance, the psychological tensions and moral anxieties some veterans felt remained unresolved and unratified by society. As a result, some veterans felt defiled, in theologian Stevenson’s term, or spat upon, in the image of popular accounts. But their feeling of uncleanness resulted less from the specific evils of Vietnam, less from some special brutality or violation of American innocence and powerfulness, than from the absence of the usual postwar ritual of restoration and cleansing.

The welcome came later, and the veterans’ enthusiastic, emotional response showed their need for ritual acceptance. In the late 1970’s, two movies, Corning Home and The Deer Hunter, despite differing views of the war, won popular and critical acclaim, marking new, intense interest in Vietnam veterans and their war. Early treatments still stressed the vet’s problems, and in some ways barkened back to the older anti-war spirit, but soon his image began to be rehabilitated. An early favorable presentation appeared on television as a new American frontier hero, a not-quite-so-innocent American Adam on that not-quite-so-innocent last American frontier, Hawaii. There, “Thomas Magnum, P.I.,” battled for truth and justice, between swims, volleyball, love affairs, and, in his early seasons, flashbacks to Vietnam. “Magnum” never really confronted the issues of the war but rather celebrated a noble, model veteran who took pride in having fought in Vietnam and cherished—indeed, with sidekicks T.C. and Rick, still enjoyed—the camaraderie of battle. The brief flashbacks not only advanced the plot but offered viewers a sense of the experience of combat in Vietnam and of its after effects. A few years later veteran Oliver Stone’s Platoon put a vivid, bloody vision of this experience on the big screen. On one level, Stone’s movie re-created the brutality and morality of “Indian country,” of the war in Vietnam, in order to ask the civilians “back in the world” to understand what the vets had endured and done. The tremendous acclaim for Platoon seemed at last to signal society’s acceptance of that behavior and to spur an emotional catharsis.

As this interest in Vietnam grew, Americans finally offered the veterans the ritualistic reassurance so long denied them. By 1986, 143 monuments to the Vietnam veterans had been planned or constructed in 45 states at a cost of $20 million in privately raised funds. In 1982 the nation dedicated the most important of these monuments, the Vietnam Memorial, located on the Mall, not far from the Lincoln Memorial, in the nation’s capital. It resulted from private fund-raising efforts led by veterans who sought to separate the government’s war from the warrior, who sought reconciliation and acceptance, and who therefore strove to keep the project free from politics or ideology. In avoiding wartime issues and passions, their efforts resembled early Confederate memorial activities, and so, too, did the memorial’s design. Conceived by a Yale University student, Maya Ying Lin, the monument was not, in her words, “meant to be cheerful or happy, but to bring out in people the realization of loss and a cathartic healing process.” A grand review, the welcome home parade denied the veterans, marked its dedication, and soon thereafter this monument of mourning and purification drew four million visitors a year, making it the biggest attraction in Washington save for the Air and Space Museum.

V-shaped, constructed of black marble panels, sunk slightly into the ground so that visitors faced the some 58,000 names of the men and women who died in Vietnam, names etched in the seemingly endless order in which they died, the monument evokes, almost commands, mourning. “Nothing I had heard or written had prepared me for the moment,” columnist James J. Kilpatrick wrote of his visit to the memorial. “I could not speak. I wept. . . . This memorial has a pile driver’s impact. No politics. No recriminations. Nothing of vainglory or glory either.” Or, as one of the judges who selected the design put it in imagery also used to describe Confederate Memorial Day, it “Looks back to death and forward to life.” The tourists who flocked to it searched for names they knew, made rubbings of names of friends and relatives, left flags, flowers, medals, or some personal token of love and respect. More than any single thing, the memorial on the mall and its ceremony of dedication offered the ritualistic acceptance so long denied the Vietnam veterans.

Americans, then, have begun to recover from their collective amnesia. Hostility toward veterans has cooled, and the nation has at last formally offered welcome and cleansing. This memorial activity by stressing mourning resembles the South’s treatment of its veterans. The South’s adjustment to defeat, however, rested not only in its memorialization of its soldiers, but in its interpretation of the war and its reconciliation with the North. The three developments proved interrelated because as reunion proceeded, the North joined in the homage to the veterans, and a shared, heroic interpretation of the war developed, thereby helping ensure that the veterans’ sacrifice had purpose and meaning. The continued celebration of the Vietnam veterans may well also depend on whether and how the nation achieves reconciliation and reinterprets the war.


The reconciliation of the foes in the war over Vietnam, the “hawks” and “doves” in the lingo of the sixties, has not kept pace with acceptance of the veterans. Some combatants have tried to bridge their differences, but as Myra MacPherson detailed in Long Time Passing, hostilities between soldiers of the war and protestors against it continue. James Fallows has perceptively argued that preexisting class differences between the mostly poor and disadvantaged who volunteered or were drafted and the comparatively rich and well-connected who avoided the draft help explain these persisting resentments. But estrangement results not just from class conflict, as a comparison with what happened after the Civil War suggests. The reconciliation of North and South occurred slowly and only as the passions of the war dissipated and veterans on both sides deemphasized the issues of the war, slavery and secession, and focused instead on their common wartime experience, the camaraderie and excitement of battle. Vietnam veterans, though, share such memories with the Vietnamese, as revealed in William Broyles’ Brothers in Arms, a Marine veteran’s account of his return to Vietnam. In passages that resemble reflections by Civil War veterans, Broyles describes visits to former battlefields and with former foes and concludes that confrontation in battle created bonds with his one-time enemy. For the foes in the war over Vietnam, the warriors and anti-warriors, no such shared experience exists on which to build reconciliation. Indeed, as Fallows and others have pointed out, the two groups have starkly different memories of the war: one of the army and combat, the other of college and protest. These differences make a second feature of the post-Civil War reconciliation of Blue and Gray, a willingness by each side to celebrate the other’s heroism and motives, even more important in the reconciliation of the two sides in the war over Vietnam. That willingness, though, may ultimately depend on how Americans interpret the war in Vietnam, just as it did on how the North and South came to view the Civil War.

The South, after a brief period of examination and debate, developed an interpretation of defeat that facilitated acceptance of the veterans and reconciliation with the North, but hindered any learning of lessons or gaining of wisdom. Southerners rejected any notion that defeat constituted a judgment upon their cause; instead, they concluded that they had fought the war over valid constitutional principles and therefore had acted morally and legally. God had allowed their defeat not because He judged their cause evil, but because He planned to use them for some greater purpose. Certainly defeat had not resulted from any failing of the South or, more specifically, any shortcomings of Confederate soldiers. This interpretation helped Confederate veterans cope with defeat by telling them that, even though they lost, they had acted nobly and heroically and by reassuring them that their sacrifice had been part of a divine plan. It also meant that by the time of national reconciliation during the Spanish-American War most Southerners accepted national myths of divine mission and powerfulness, just as most Northerners did. The North had always assumed that God directed its cause and that it had acted heroically and nobly in saving the Union and freeing the slaves. Robert Penn Warren labeled this moral self-satisfaction the North’s “Treasury of Virtue,” a treasury that provided moral capital to underwrite the corruption and materialism of the subsequent Gilded Age. By the early 20th century, Northerners not only believed that they had acted rightly but had also come to share the Southerners’ assessment of Confederate soldiers. With both sides celebrating their role and seeing themselves as part of God’s plan for the nation, the Civil War had been rendered a battle in which everyone had been right and everyone had fought heroically—a war, in other words, that on some level everyone had won. Hence neither side perceived the conflict’s tragic dimensions but instead interpreted the war as a vindication leading to a reaffirmation of God’s mission for the United States in the world.

No such simple, creative consensus about Vietnam has come to dominate public thinking as the third Vietnam War for the historical hearts and minds of the American public escalates. The divisions of the war years persist: both the proponents and opponents of the war continue to consider their side to have been right and to refight the war pretty much along old lines. Thus Stone’s Platoon, though “new” in its vivid and sympathetic recreation of the experience of combat in Vietnam (which may explain its popularity), still takes a traditional anti-war approach by dividing American attitudes toward the war between good and evil and by portraying the United States role as one of almost unrelieved brutality, violence, frustration, and failure. Two recent histories of the war, Loren Baritz’s Backfire and Gabriel Kolko’s Anatomy of a War, each in its own way echoes anti-war arguments of the sixties, the former in its condemnation of America’s bureaucratic, technological society and the latter in its romanticization of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese.

Many doves, of course, do not perceive any need to rethink the war or their role in it because, they believe, they rightly opposed American involvement and won the battle at home over Vietnam. Some even seem to suffer from their own “Treasury of Virtue”; they know they were right about the war all along, that therefore they have built up a treasury of moral capital for a new gilded age of BMW’s and Rolexes. Events in Indochina since 1973 and new evidence about the North Vietnamese war effort, however, indicate that some doves do need to reconsider their simplistic conception of a peace-loving peasantry attacked by a brutal imperialistic America or to revise their belief that only American intransigence prolonged the war. The anti-warriors might even question whether the shrillness of some protestors dangerously escalated the war at home or consider whether an absence of will among the anti-warriors actually helped prolong the war. James Fallows and Myra MacPherson have argued that if the anti-war movement had been willing to pay a heavier price, if its partisans had gone noisily to prison rather than quietly avoiding the draft and marching noisily on the Pentagon, the war might have ended sooner.

Although their “Treasury of Virtue” has made it easy for the doves to avoid hard questions about their role in the Vietnam wars, defeat logically should have forced the hawks to rethink their position. But they have proved even less ready to do so than have most doves. For a time hawks ignored the war or argued that its uniqueness precluded drawing any lessons from it. Beginning in the late 1970’s, though, and with greater visibility in the 1980’s, a few scholars, politicians, and polemicists took the offensive in the third Vietnam War. In 1978 Guenter Lewy published America in Vietnam, one of the first, and still one of the best, of such interpretations. It scathingly attacks the way the United States fought the war between 1965 and 1968 but still defends the legality and morality of the war and contends that the United States could have won. Public figures prove less critical and cautious than Lewy in championing this view of the war. Journalist Norman Podhoretz flails the anti-war movement and proclaims America’s role in Vietnam an “act of imprudent idealism whose moral soundness” has been vindicated. In 1980 Ronald Reagan complained that Americans dishonor “the memory of 50,000 young Americans who died” in Vietnam “when we give way to feelings of guilt as if we were doing something shameful. Well, it’s time,” he argued, that “we recognize that ours was, in truth, a noble cause” Similarly, H. Ross Perot and other conservative critics of the Vietnam Memorial condemned Maya Lin’s design for dishonoring the cause and its defenders, demanded a more heroic statue to the soldiers, and succeeded in securing an addition to the wall, a group of three representative soldiers placed to one side and to the front of the V-shaped memorial.


For those who continue to believe the Vietnam War could have and should have been won, explaining defeat becomes crucial. No real consensus, though, has emerged on why the United States lost; the confusion that characterized the war still haunts its historiography. But most postwar critics of American policy have stressed two interrelated themes. The first, with antecedents in the debates of the 1960’s, blames defeat on the policy of phased escalation: awesome force did not succeed because it was applied piecemeal rather than in one decisive blow. Lyndon Johnson and his civilian advisors, according to this argument, hesitated to approve bombing targets and to commit sufficient troops, thereby tying the military’s hands and allowing the other side to match American force. The second attributes defeat to a failure of public will to win. Leslie H. Gelb, in one of the best analyses of the decision to escalate the war, perhaps unintentionally gives aid and comfort to the proponents of this view when he stresses that the leaders of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations never really expected victory or dedicated enough resources to achieve it. Military analysts Harry G. Summers, Jr. and Bruce Palmer, Jr. catalogue many American errors but still blame defeat in large measure on a loss of will among the politicians and public. Summers claims that President Johnson never fully developed the national consensus essential to the war effort. Palmer, too, criticizes the civilian leaders for failing to sustain public support and identifies two crucial points at which it was lost: in the wake of the Tet Offensive and during Watergate. Many critics join Palmer in arguing that during the Tet Offensive, a massive enemy attack in early 1968, the Americans and their South Vietnam allies won a decisive victory that irresponsible reporters and panicky politicians transformed into a defeat. Others, too, agree that Watergate kept President Nixon from fulfilling his promise of additional aid and air support for South Vietnam after the American withdrawal, thereby leaving South Vietnam unable to repel the North’s final offensive. In his No More Vietnams Nixon himself flatly asserts that in “a spasm of. . .irresponsibility,” Congress in 1973 threw away everything that had been “achieved in twelve years of fighting.”

Together, both explanations, the failure of phased escalation and of will, support an even more simplistic interpretation of defeat. Politicians declare that American soldiers should never again be sent to fight a war that their nation is not willing to win. The movie Rambo presents a cartoon-like but nonetheless prototypical American hero, with glistening and glorious biceps, skilled with both the bow and modern weapons, who could have won the war by himself—if only he had not been betrayed by the wimps of the bureaucracy. Though they differ in many ways, Rambo, the politicians’ pleas, and even Palmer’s and Nixon’s books share a common theme: the failure of will at home, to some extent the creation of craven journalists, disloyal protestors, and timid politicians, robbed the soldiers of victory. Such explanations resemble the “stab-in-the-back thesis” used in Germany in the 1920’s and 1930’s to explain defeat in World War I. The American version, however, emphasizes popular failure rather than a conspiracy by a few dastardly individuals.

Moreover, American proponents of a “stab-in-the-back thesis,” unlike their German counterparts who used theirs to nurse bitterness over the loss of World War I, employ it to explain away American defeat. In that regard, the emerging defense of America’s role in Vietnam resembles the South’s interpretation of defeat in the Civil War. The South, too, insisted upon the morality, nobility, and heroism of its cause and so celebrated its efforts in the war that Southerners came to perceive their defeat almost as military victory. The same thing appears to be happening to Americans’ views of Vietnam. Building from key points developed in the failure of will argument, political scientist Timothy J. Lomperis, who served in Vietnam, maintains that in some ways the United States did win in Vietnam. He even entitled his book The War Everyone Lostand Won, a title that one can easily imagine for an early 20th-century address before a Blue-Gray reunion. The complex argument in the text acknowledges that the United States lost the war to preserve South Vietnam, but also contends that its destruction of the Viet Cong during the 1968 Tet Offensive and its subsequent effort over the next five years left the South sufficiently strong to defend itself. The United States had, in effect, defeated the attempt through a people’s war to overthrow the government of South Vietnam and thereby denied legitimacy to the Communist government established after the North’s conquest of the South in 1975. Everyone won; everyone lost. Former President Nixon went even further in turning defeat into victory. “When we signed the Paris peace agreements in 1973, we had won the war. We then proceeded to lose the peace.” In 1985 President Reagan expressed virtually the same sentiment as he blamed the fall of South Vietnam on Congress’ refusal to supply aid to South Vietnam. “Well,” he said, “the truth of the matter is that we did have victory. We continue to talk about losing that war. We didn’t lose that war. We won virtually every engagement.”

Interpreting American involvement in Vietnam as a justified, moral, and noble crusade, one all but won militarily only to be lost because of timidity and a failure of will at home, constitutes a major, new offensive in the third Vietnam War—a frontal assault on the doves who condemn the American war effort as both hopeless and wrong. Many leaders of the charge come from the ranks of the right, and it clearly supports conservative political and foreign policy objectives. Yet this interpretation has an appeal beyond its utility to conservatives. Proclaiming the nobility of the war, blaming defeat on a failure of will, and assuming the nearness of victory support efforts to rehabilitate the reputation of the veterans. Moreover, as the South’s experience suggests, defeated Americans may well find such explanations not just appealing but believable.

Deciding exactly what the American public believes about any issue is difficult, especially so in this case because polls often seem contradictory. One taken in 1985 showed that almost three quarters of the American people considered the United States involvement in Vietnam to have been wrong, though this total may include many who believed in the morality and wisdom of the war but opposed the way it was fought. This same poll, however, suggests that the hawks may be succeeding in convincing Americans of the war’s nobility. The proposition that Vietnam was a noble crusade received its highest levels of support among 18- to 22-year-olds, the group with no personal memory of the war. Americans also seem quite receptive to the failure of will explanation for defeat. In 1980 47 percent of Americans strongly agreed and another 26 percent somewhat agreed with the statement: “The trouble in Vietnam was that our troops were asked to fight a war which our political leaders in Washington would not let them win.” That the majority of Americans accepted the validity of this statement and that Vietnam veterans and, again, the young with no memory of the war concurred most readily of all, suggests attitudes exist on which the proponents of a positive view of the war may build.

Despite its growing popularity, though, this interpretation makes coming to terms with defeat difficult. It portrays irresolute leaders and domestic opponents of the war as villains who cost the nation victory. Already, surveys show tremendous resentment toward those who refused to serve and reveal far less support for those who protested than for those who fought. But just as veterans want and need public acceptance of their actions during the war in Vietnam, protestors want and need public approval for their role in the war at home over Vietnam. To withhold it or, worse, to blame defeat on the anti-warriors can only hinder reconciliation of the former foes in the war over Vietnam; reconciliation must rest on mutual respect and acceptance of each side’s position in the conflict—as the South’s post-Civil War reunion with the North suggests. Similarly, the South’s experience after the Civil War indicates that an interpretation of defeat that simply reaffirms the righteousness of the cause and the heroism of the armies, without wrestling with the implications of failure, leads only to a trivialization of the memory of the war and to a failure to derive any special insight from it.

The tendency toward trivialization also emerges in a second recent offensive in the third Vietnam War, one that does not frontally assault older, anti-war positions but rather outflanks them by focusing on the Vietnam combat experience. “Magnum,” Platoon, and similar portrayals of the war in popular culture attempt to explain what the war was like to those who never fought there, a healthy, necessary corrective to the early tendency to ignore the war and its warriors. But very easily explanation becomes glorification. The movie Hamburger Hill, for example, answers its own refrain—”It don’t mean nothing”—by celebrating the camaraderie, courage and sacrifice of the warriors which, the film implies, gave meaning and purpose to the war. Therein lies the danger of the new emphasis on the experience of combat: it makes the soldiers’ heroism sufficient justification for the cause. The South and the North did much the same thing following the Civil War, which made sectional reconciliation possible since it ignored the divisive issues and celebrated common experiences, but it ultimately trivialized the meaning of the war. In the case of Vietnam, the emphasis on the camaraderie and excitement of combat does not foster reconciliation but rather further divides the warriors and anti-warriors. In Hamburger Hill, the anti-warriors almost become the enemy, and the movie comes close to saying they had no right even to comment on the war. The emphasis on the Vietnam combat experience may thus further polarize the nation. It also ignores and thereby trivializes the war’s issues and its meaning—or worse, renders Vietnam only another setting for popular culture adventure stories, perhaps the ultimate trivialization.

Neither of the two offensives, the reinterpretation of the war nor the glorification of combat, appears likely to yield a victory in the third Vietnam War, to lead Americans successfully to come to terms with defeat. Nor, for that matter, do the continued attacks of the doves, who, secure in their virtue, still slug it out along old fronts. Few on either side seem to have found a way out of the difficulties inherent in the third Vietnam War. Just as the first came to be considered a “no-win situation,” so may the attempt to come to terms with the meaning of Vietnam. An interpretation of the war that depicts the veterans’ service as a purely noble, heroic undertaking renders the protestors’ actions disloyal, thereby making reconciliation difficult. But the reverse is also true: making the anti-warriors into the force of light encourages casting the warriors as the force of darkness. And declaring both sides right or focusing only on the experience of combat trivializes the hard moral choices of the 1960’s and may well prevent the nation from gaining insights from defeat.

The way out of the quagmire of the third Vietnam War, the strategy that will allow the United States to “win,” necessitates that both opponents and proponents of the war be willing to take new positions. They must seek and accept new information; in studying contemporary history, those who lived through it too easily assume they know what happened and too readily reject evidence that challenges old beliefs. They must also develop a new appreciation for complexity and an openness to the views of the other side. In short, they must fight the third Vietnam War with a subtlety, with a consciousness of political and moral ambiguity rarely displayed in the first two Vietnam wars and uncharacteristic of politics and popular culture. A “new Vietnam scholarship,” as journalist Fox Butterfield put it, has already challenged “some of the most cherished beliefs of both the right and the left” and presented “a war that was more complex, more morally ambiguous, than either the doves or the hawks had maintained.” But it has certainly not won the field from either the hawks or the doves. Nor has it begun to uncover all the facts or even ask all the pertinent questions. Much remains to be learned about the war itself, particularly about whether or not combat in Vietnam was unique, and more needs to be understood about the veterans’ postwar adjustment.

Even as scholars begin to develop these and other points, Americans need some framework for understanding the war’s meaning. Unless further evidence suggests another, Americans can probably do no better than to view the Vietnam War as Robert Penn Warren suggested they interpret the Civil War—as a tragedy. As with the Civil War, American participation in the Vietnam War can not be blamed on any one group or person but on the policies and assumptions accepted by most Americans at the time. And no one group came out of the wars in and over Vietnam with a “Treasury of Virtue”; the fight besmirched both warrior and anti-warrior alike. Neither should be held up as model “heroes,” but both can claim heroism in the midst of tragedy, a shared experience that might serve as a basis for reconciliation. Historians and the public alike can find inspiration for the task of reinterpreting the war as tragedy in the Vietnam Memorial on the mall. The wall evokes mourning but also demands reflection. For as the nation looks at those haunting black marble panels, looking through the names of those who died at its behest, it sees ultimately its own reflection. The memory of the Vietnam War should serve the same function, should force the nation not to bask in that reflection, but to consider and reconsider it—to analyze, not glorify, the war.


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