Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Vietnam, the draft and me

Visiting Vietnam in person brought to mind a whole stew of complex memories about the Vietnam War.  For males of a certain age, the Vietnam War was a period of uncertainty and dread.  The draft was around the corner, lurking to grab unsuspecting hippies (and their cohorts) and send them to war.

My own history with the draft was fairly mundane.  I registered when I was 18 and then filed for conscientious objector status (CO).  This was routinely denied and then you would be re-categorized appropriately.  If you made it to 1-A, then you were called up for the dreaded physical (as re-told in "Alice's Restaurant").  I would have been classified 1-A had it not been for my student deferment.  If you filed the right form, the university would tell the Selective Service Board you were a valid student and therefore given a 2-S.  But, this was clearly discriminatory.  Most of the middle class were exempt from the horrors of war, at least for four years while the high school graduates who didn't go to college went to die.  In my sophomore year they instituted the lottery, which meant I was assigned a number based on my birthday.  I drew 138 and they didn't intend to go past 100 that year.  I was safe.

But back to Vietnam.  This war grievously wounded the US in ways that are still continuing to this day.  It split the country between left and right and I think one could make the argument that this rupture is still being manifest in modern politics  (although I also believe that what is going on is a counter-revolution to the hippies).  So, what of Vietnam?  What happened?

When you arrive in Vietnam, you see a vibrant capitalist society covered over with this socialist (communist?) veneer.  It's all a lie of course.  The collectivist farms were dissolved during the economic reforms.  Private property was allowed to return.  What's left is a one party state, like China.  Candidates for office must be members of the party and while you must vote, you can do so by proxy (!).  It's not a democracy.  Neither is China.

The population is quite young and most were born after the "American War".  And so, the U.S. is viewed as an ally against their ancient enemy, the Chinese.  You can see foreign investment left and right around Saigon (a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh City).  But there are remainders from the war all around you.

The "Reunification Palace" is what I remember from television: It was the "Presidential Palace" during the war.  And now you can rent it out for weddings.  But it's the "War Remnants Museum" that gets the attention.  This features various pieces of American (and Soviet) military hardware on the outside and an inside devoted to retelling the war experience from the victorious side.  It has been said that "History is written by the victors".  And so, the "War Remnants Museum" gives you that perspective.  I found the raw statistics to be most persuasive: more bomb tonnage than WW II is just stunning (Gen. Curtis LeMay's famous quote about "bombing them into the Stone Age" was displayed).   A decimation of the commanding ranks of the US forces (complete statistics per rank) were given.  Interestingly, they didn't address either the incredible losses by the Vietnamese or the support of the Soviet Union and China.

My overwhelm sense was and is both sadness and waste.  The waste of many lives.    The squandered resources of the US applied to a people who have never been conquered.  But this is looking at the war "in the rear view mirror".  But it appears to me that we still haven't learned lessons about when and when not to interfere.

But then you step out of the museums and into the life of the street, dodging motor-bikes and cars with abandon.   And maybe you'll buy a Banh Mi for $1.50.

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