FYI.

This story is over 5 years old.

From the Fall of Saigon to Fighting the Islamic State, People Find the Bright Side to War

Whether Vietnam 40 years ago or the Middle East today, the desire to focus on a compelling moral cause after long wars can warp history.
Photo by Frances Starner/AP

An American president announces an honorable end to our longest war. US troops in the country head for home, and media outlets begin shutting down their war zone bureaus. The country in which the war took place, once a synonym for slaughter, is far less common on American TVs and in the public consciousness. Attention shifts to scandals and debates on the home front.

So it was in the United States in 1973 and 1974, years when most Americans mistakenly believed that the Vietnam War was over.

Advertisement

And, of course, it's a story repeated 40 years later. Not long ago, Americans had reason to hope that our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were finally over, or soon would be. In December 2011, in front of troops at North Carolina's Fort Bragg, President Barack Obama proclaimed an end to the war in Iraq. "We're leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq," he said. "This is an extraordinary achievement."

In a similar fashion, last December the president announced that in Afghanistan, "the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion."

If only. Warfare, strife, and suffering continue in both countries — and are spreading across ever more of the Middle East. American troops are still dying in Afghanistan. In Iraq, the US military is back, bombing and advising as they did four decades ago in Asia, this time while fighting the Islamic State.

The Vietnam War, long as it was, did finally come to a decisive conclusion on April 30, 1975, when a Communist tank crashed through the gates of Independence Palace in the southern capital of Saigon. Earlier that year, the war had screamed back into US headlines as 14 North Vietnamese divisions were racing toward Saigon, virtually unopposed. Tens of thousands of South Vietnamese troops were stripping off their military uniforms, abandoning their American equipment, and fleeing — shades of the Iraqi army in 2014. With the massive US military presence gone, what had once been a brutal stalemate was now a rout, and evidence that nation-building by the US military in South Vietnam had failed, as it later would in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Advertisement

Related: US weapons and ex-POWs start to turn up in Vietnam

The fall of Saigon was a bitter end to a failed war. But almost immediately, people found ways to reimagine it as a tragic humanitarian rescue mission. The best silver-lining story of the fall of Saigon ever told may be Rory Kennedy's 2014 Academy Award-nominated documentary Last Days in Vietnam. The riveting film focuses on a handful of Americans and Vietnamese who, in defiance of orders, heroically helped expedite and expand a belated and inadequate evacuation of South Vietnamese who had hitched their lives to the American cause.

The film's subjects felt obligated to carry out their ad hoc rescue missions because the US ambassador in Saigon, Graham Martin, refused to believe that defeat was inevitable. Only when North Vietnamese tanks reached the outskirts of Saigon did he order the start of the grandiloquently titled Operation Frequent Wind — the helicopter evacuation of the city.

The drama and danger are amped up by the film's insistence that all Vietnamese linked to the Americans were in mortal peril. Several of the witnesses invoke the specter of a Communist "bloodbath," which had been a staple of pro-war rhetoric since the 1960s. President Richard Nixon once warned that the Communists would massacre civilians "by the millions" if the US pulled out.

For most Vietnamese — in the South as well as the North — the end of the war was not a time of fear and flight, but of relief.

Advertisement

The Communist victors were certainly not merciful. They imprisoned hundreds of thousands of people in "re-education camps" and subjected them to brutal treatment. But no program of systematic execution of large numbers of people who had collaborated with the Americans ever happened.

In fact, for most Vietnamese — in the South as well as the North — the end was not a time of fear and flight, but of relief. The much-reviled American-backed government in Saigon had been overthrown and the country reunited after three decades of turmoil and war. The South was hardly united in accepting the Communist victory as an unambiguous liberation, but there did remain broad revulsion over the wreckage the US had brought.

Throughout the South and particularly in the countryside, most people viewed the Americans not as saviors but as destroyers. The US military dropped 4 million tons of bombs on South Vietnam, the land it claimed to be saving, making it by far the most bombed country in history. Much of that bombing was indiscriminate.

Related: Watch the VICE News documentary 'The Islamic State'

Few dispute the need to now counter the Islamic State. But the time may come, if it hasn't already, when many people will forget that our leaders originally sent us to war in Iraq falsely claiming that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction he intended to use against us; that he had a "sinister nexus" with the al Qaeda terrorists who attacked America on 9/11; that the war would essentially pay for itself; that it would be over in "weeks rather than months"; that the Iraqis would greet us as liberators; or that we would build an Iraqi democracy that would be a model for the entire region.

Instead, nearly 4,500 Americans were killed along with perhaps 500,000 Iraqis, and millions of Iraqis were displaced from their homes into internal exile or forced from the country altogether. The picture is no less grim in Afghanistan. The Islamic State emerged, and the Taliban remain.

What silver linings can possibly emerge from our endless wars? If history is any guide, we'll think of something.

Christian Appy is professor of history at the University of Massachusetts and the author of American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity. Follow him on Twitter: @ChristianGAppy

A longer version of this story appeared on TomDispatch.com.