A Simple Way to Compare and Understand Eastern and Western Culture

I was eating at some outdoor food stalls the other day – you know, the kind I can never get enough of – and we saw it, right outside the food stalls, a dad holding his son’s hand as the young boy peed into the rain gutter. Honestly, I don’t see this nearly as much as I used to see it in Vietnam. It reminded us of something from our first couple of years living in Vietnam. A true way to view culture. It’s awesome. Here it is.

It comes from Mr. Uy. He was a very kind man who helped acclimate the foreign teachers at the Maritime University in Haiphong, Vietnam. This was back in 1994 and 1995. Things certainly were different back then.

The issue of peeing and culture first got my attention when we were on our way to Hanoi via school van, and about mid-way through, the van stopped, and all the guys got out to pee on the side of the road. Mr. Uy asked me if I wanted to join. I think I declined.

Anyways, another time, during one of our conversations with Mr. Uy, he said something very astute. He talked about the time he had spend in Europe – Bulgaria and a few other countries, I believe. One of the first things that caught him off guard was how Europeans kissed in public – something that a Vietnamese couple never would do. A Vietnamese husband and wife won’t even hold hands in public. It’s just not polite.

And so he came up with this axiom – quite profound, actually – which summed up east vs. west culture in just a couple of astute observations. It went something like this:

In the west, they kiss on the street and pee in the bushes.

In the east, they pee on the street and kiss in the bushes.

Wow. This is a wonderful starting point in trying to understand the differences of the east vs. west culture. If you can understand and accept these, you can understand and accept a lot about both cultures.

Thank you to the peeing youngster who brought this one back!

 

Mixing real historical figures into a work of fiction. Vietnam 1945.

My untitled third novel that I’m currently working on is set during two different time periods in Vietnam. The first is 2000 and the second is 1945.

Nineteen-forty-five is the crucial year in modern day Vietnam. It’s the year that the Japanese completely overthrew the remnants of the French Empire in Indochina. It’s the year that the Vietnamese freedom fighters – Viet Minh – were trained by the Americans in July. It’s the year that they declared their independence on September 2, 1945, in vain looking for a western nation (namely America) to support their desire to move beyond both Japanese imperialism and French colonialism. Alas, the nascent Truman administration felt it prudent to back French claims and support de Gaulle as he reasserted French presence in the world after the war.  It’s the year that set the course for the French-Indochina War which would last from 1946-1954, resulting in a split Vietnam which would lead to the Vietnam War of the 1960s. It’s a fascinating year with larger than life characters who exert themselves on the scene: Roosevelt, Truman, Churchill, Chiang, de Gaulle, Ho Chi Minh.

Okay, enough with the history lesson.

I found myself writing about the fascinating interaction between the O.S.S. and the Viet Minh in July 1945. Of course, my story is fictional and it has a crucial bearing on the story that I am writing along side it set in 2000. But, when it comes to 1945, I couldn’t resist putting Ho Chi Minh into my writing. But I realize I must do so with caution.

Ho Chi Minh is revered in Vietnam as ‘Uncle Ho’ who never married and spent his life in one single pursuit – freedom for his nation and people. I’ll let the historians argue about the veracity of that statement. However, regardless of your view, there is a lot to admire about Ho Chi Minh. He spoke, they say, upwards of 11 languages or dialects. He was good at English and wrote letters and spoke freely to the OSS officers who visited him that summer. He had general goodwill and admiration for Americans and he hoped that Truman would back his legitimate claim on Vietnam. He even wrote several unanswered letters to Truman trying to get across his point.

Was he a communist? Yes.

Was he a pragmatist? Yes.

Did he put dogma ahead of practicality? I think not.

He was a patriot who loved his country much like George Washington loved his country.  In fact, Ho Chi Minh even used this comparison to George in some of his rhetoric questioning America’s relentless support for the French who ruthlessly raped Vietnamese resources for 80 years.

So, I had fun today thinking how I could bring this real-life character into my story. Of course, his role is minor, but I wanted it to be memorable. Hopefully I’ll achieve this. I’m not going to give any specifics at this point, but I will say this:

Uncle Ho is making an appearance in my third novel.

Should be fun!

Essay: A Historical Overview of Vietnam from WWII through the Vietnam War

From time to time, I like to post complete essays of mine which touch upon topics near and dear to my heart. If you know me, you won’t be surprised that this one is about Vietnam. I try to give a broad overview of the historical context which led to the Vietnam War of the 1960s. To do so, one has to start at the broader context of French Indochina and World War II. Then I try to analyze useful historical approaches to this topic. I’d appreciate your feedback.

The legacy of the Vietnam War continues to resonate loudly today especially in the shadows of the war in Iraq. The war of 1963-1975, which so vividly helped to define a generation, had its roots in the post World War II power vacuum caused by the defeat of the Japanese and the collapse of the French colonial infrastructure.  This enabled the United States to take a foothold in Indochina which would have broad consequences in the following decades.  In this short paper, I will give an overview of US involvement in Indochina during the two decades prior to the Vietnam War.  I will then discuss the type of historical theory or approach which may be most useful when researching this topic.

In the early months of 1945, the Allied forces saw the European Theatre coming to a close, but a peaceful ending to the war in the Pacific remained anything but certain.  The death of US president Franklin Roosevelt in April 1945 cast a cloud of doubt over the future status of the European colonial territories of Southeast Asia.   Roosevelt was a harsh critic of European colonialism and had no desire to see the French, in particular, reclaim Indochina after the war (Abouzahr 50). Even the communist led Vietnamese independence group, the Viet Minh, lamented Roosevelt’s death as a blow to the anti-colonial cause (“World News”).  Yet even with Roosevelt’s passing, America was determined to use all forces and tools at their disposal to fight against the Japanese who had imposed their suzerainty over most of the region.

After some initial contacts between the Viet Minh and the Allied forces in southern China, the US sent some officers from the newly formed Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh headquarters in Tan Trao one hundred miles north of Hanoi (Marr 286).  The OSS officers spent several weeks training Viet Minh forces (Marr 364).  Six days after the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki, Japan, the Viet Minh received word of Japanese surrender and celebrated with the Americans remaining in camp (Marr 368).    A week later as Ho Chi Minh and his cadres trekked to Hanoi for the first time to fill the void in the political vacuum left because of the Japanese surrender, he was accompanied by some of those OSS officers who even dined with the enigmatic Vietnamese leader in Hanoi (Marr 488).  On September 2, 1945 as Ho Chi Minh delivered Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence, American officers stood with the swelling crowd which nearly seemed like an American endorsement of the ceremony (Marr 538).  However, relations between the Vietnamese and Americans would never seem so close again.  In fact, official US policy at the time was to ignore Ho Chi Minh’s Declaration of Independence in favor of supporting the French claim on Indochina (Latham 29).

At the closure of World War II, the Truman administration had very little regard for the small colonial countries of Southeast Asia and did not at all question France’s sovereignty over Indochina (Previdi 146).   Truman was completely in support of France’s desire to reclaim their Indochinese possessions, and he even had US war ships carry French troops back into southern Vietnam within weeks of Ho Chi Minh’s Declaration of Independence (Marr 545).

By the end of 1946, Ho Chi Minh realized that coming to peaceful terms with the French over the make-up of Vietnam was impossible, and on December 19, 1946 from a cave on the outskirts of Hanoi, he broadcast the call for a war of resistance against the French.  This war became known as the French-Indochina War.   The US strongly needed France’s support of the Marshall plan in Europe to rebuild the war torn countries and stop the tide of encroaching communism (Abouzahr 49).  While the Marshall plan did not directly support France’s war efforts in Indochina, the billions of dollars they did receive enabled them to free up resources that otherwise would not have been available in their war effort (Abouzahr 50).

The US, however, was not totally content with France’s aims in Indochina.  The US wanted the French to grant Vietnam enough autonomy that would shift public opinion away from Ho Chi Minh (Abouzahr 50).   Some US officials wanted France to be given an ultimatum to either grant Vietnam their sovereignty or risk losing US aid (Abouzahr 51).   The French countered with their ‘Bao Dai solution’ which granted Vietnam independence with former emperor Bao Dai as head of state.  However, in reality, France still called the shots and Bao Dai had little power in his own country (Abouzahr 52).  But this tactic did seem to set up a significant situation which would be played out over the next few years.  Bao Dai’s government was a legitimate alternative to Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam which still operated in exile from the hills of northern Vietnam.  These two governments were locked in a power play which would come to its head at the Geneva Conventions of 1954.  The ‘Bao Dai’ tactic also seemed to placate the Americans who, by the early nineteen fifties, were bankrolling nearly eighty percent of France’s war effort in Indochina (Umetsu 398).

By spring 1954, the long French-Indochina War continued to rage.  France’s will to fight was wavering as French public opinion soured toward the war (Umetsu 400).  The US wanted the French to continue fighting until a military solution was accomplished so that the states of Indochina could become independent and foment indigenous support against the communist cause (Umetsu 401).  As the western powers moved toward an international conference in Geneva to settle the issue of Indochina, Ho Chi Minh’s forces moved against the large French army which had dug itself into the remote valley of Dien Bien Phu in northwestern Vietnam.  Against overwhelming odds, Ho Chi Minh’s forces methodically dissected the valley bringing complete French surrender on May 7, the day before the opening of the Indochina phase of the Geneva Convention (Umetsu 411).  The Vietnamese had their signature victory and the communist forces could no longer be brushed aside.  The Vietnamese came to the bargaining table from a position of strength which eventually shifted US policy and led to the division of Vietnam at the 17th parallel.  The north would be controlled by Ho Chi Minh’s communist government and the south by the French supported and soon to be American backed Republic of Vietnam led by Ngo Dinh Diem.  Elections to re-unify the country were scheduled to take place in 1956.

The reunification elections never took place.  The US believed that the popular anti-colonial figure Ho Chi Minh would easily win the election (Latham 29).  The US decided to invest heavily in ‘nation-building’ in South Vietnam in order to build a strong economy and a legitimate government (Latham 29).  The US spent $1.65 billion dollars in South Vietnam between 1955-1961 yet did little except alienate the South Vietnamese public (Latham 29).  In the north, Ho Chi Minh’s government used land reform as a means of collectivizing the land which resulted in an unpopular land policy which bullied former landowners and allowed no resistance to their policy (Duncansan 51).  However, South Vietnam’s land policy was little better if not worse.   The Saigon government did little to rectify large discrepancies in wealth by allowing families to own up to 100 hectares which was nearly 30 times the maximum allowed under other US-advised land reform programs in Asia (Latham 29).  This meant that poor families with no land remained at the whim of the land owners who often rented land at exorbitant rates.  This is perhaps one reason that the Vietnam communist’s infiltration into the south was so successful later on because peasants had nothing to lose and possibly a lot to gain by supporting the communist cause.

To further exacerbate the widening gap between US policy and the average peasants, the US backed South Vietnamese government set up the Strategic Hamlet Program by relocating peasants in places which Diem called ‘prosperity and density centers’ (Latham 34).  It was really a disastrous move in social engineering.   Many peasants were forced to leave their homes often at gunpoint (Latham 35).  As I have spent many years in Vietnam, I understand clearly the Vietnamaese concept of “que” or “homeland”.  It is the sacred place of their ancestors which gives them their connection to the past.  There is little else which could incite such anger and hatred in a Vietnamese heart than to drive them forcefully from their home.  US planners thought that these strategic villages, complete with a security force and government provided provisions, would help replace traditional family loyalties with loyalties to the state (Latham 34-35).   This was clearly a grave miscalculation. The US nation building plan was a disaster which led a repressive environment (Latham 36).    By 1963, Diem’s government was such a failure that the US supported a coup d’état to overthrow Diem weeks before John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 (Karnow 293-294).   Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Johnson believed that Vietnam’s social engineering would not be possible without US troops on the ground (Latham 37).  Thus, without a complete change in US policy, war with the north seemed inevitable.

I would now like to look briefly at the historical methodology used in some of the literature on this topic.  The first temptation a historian would have when analyzing this era would most likely be to give it a political treatment.  The massive volume of larger than life figures from FDR to Johnson, from Truman to JFK, from Ho Chi Minh to Ngo Dinh Diem, from Charles DeGualle to Vo Nguyen Giap, give the researcher quite a range of characters in which to build a fascinating narrative.  David Marr did it brilliantly in Vietnam 1945 when he captured the post World War II struggles of the fledgling nation of Vietnam (Marr). Stanley Karnow also gave this era a thorough political overview in Vietnam: A History as he weaved stories of US & French policy against the backdrop of the Vietnamese struggle for independence (Karnow).   William Duiker defied some of the conventional wisdom of historical study by putting together the most exhaustive, and authoritative biography of Ho Chi Minh.  Ho Chi Minh is such a striking and overwhelming figure that the biography works on many levels.  His life touched upon so many facets of the entire Indochinese story from the USA to France, from the Soviet Union to China and Vietnam that this biography is thorough and important in scope (Duiker).

Besides the tendency to focus on political history, Marxist theory would be especially helpful when looking at divided Vietnam after the 1954 convention.  Northern Vietnam collectivized society in such a way that it ripped the social fabric in two.  Dennis Duncanson describes this vividly in the article “The Legacy of Ho Chi Minh” in which he describes the gap of economic ideas which Marx and Lenin left to Stalin to define.  Stalin’s ideas eventually led its way to China’s Mao and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh (50).  This economic restructuring affected every facet of Vietnamese life from the 1950s to the 1990s.  It is in this breadth of scope that Marxist theory would be successful in dissecting the communist state apparatus which controlled Vietnam.  Latham does a similar thing defining the societal changes that took place in the south in “Redirecting the Revolution?” He looks at how US policy was implemented on the local level, disrupting the lives of peasants and sending them into the arms of the communists (Latham). On this micro-level, Marxist theory would be helpful in understanding the totality of Vietnamese societal change.

One temptation that I have when looking at this topic is to read into the scenarios and play the ‘what if’ game.  What if FDR didn’t die?  What if Truman decided not to back the French and supported Vietnamese independence in 1945?  What if the French chose a Buddhist instead of Catholic to lead the south?  What if elections in 1956 were allowed to go forward?  There are so many seemingly connected parts to the puzzle that it makes one wonder how the Vietnam War ever really did come about.  As tempting as this game may be, it is most likely not useful to try to find an overriding theme or purpose by trying to directly connect the dots between 1945 Indochina and 1963 South Vietnam.  As Abouzahr reminds us, “Given the complexity of the issue such as the Indochinese Wars, it seems unlikely that a clear pattern of cause and effect can exist” (49).  This is perhaps the clear reminder to all to approach Vietnam with a heavy dose of historicism.  We must describe as accurately as possible what led to the Vietnam War, but we must be careful not to make too much out of the missed chances of diplomacy.

Works Cited

 Abouzahr, Sami. “The Tangled Web.” History Today 54.10 (Oct. 2004): 49-55.

Duiker, William J.  Ho Chi Minh: A Life.  New York: Hyperion, 2001.

Duncanson, Dennis. “The Legacy of Ho Chi Minh.” Asian Affairs 23.1 (Feb 1992): 49-65.

Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: Viking Penguin, 1991.

Latham, Michael E. “Redirecting the Revolution? The USA and the Failure of nation-

building in South Vietnam.”  Third World Quarterly 27.1 (Feb 2006): 27-41.

Marr, David G. Vietnam 1945: The Quest for Power.  University of California Press.

Berkeley: 1995.

Previdi, Robert. “Vietnam 1945 to 1975: Communism on Display.” Parameters: US Army

War College 33.3 (Sep. 2003): 146.

Umetsu, Hiroyuki. “Australia’s Response to the Indochina Crisis of 1954 amidst the Anglo-

American Confrontation.” Australian Journal of Politics & History 52.3 (Sep. 2006): 398-416.

“World News.” Bao Chi Viet Nam Doc Lap 14 April 1945.

Culture: Not Always Black and White

I was reminded earlier today about how culture and cultural differences can be tricky waters to navigate. We all come with certain assumptions about the world which have been instilled deep within us by our culture, our parents, our religion, and our environment. But when cultures clash, life can get messy.  Each culture’s values are oriented in different ways. Asian culture traditionally has value orientations which are completely opposite from western culture regarding time, right & wrong, crisis management, relationships, etc… Today I want to give a brief, real-life example that I experienced when living in Vietnam concerning the issue of looking at life with a black or white, right or wrong mindset.

One day as I was talking with my friend, I asked her,”What are you doing this weekend?”

“I’m taking an English test.”

“Oh, really. I didn’t know you had a test this weekend. What’s it about?”

“It’s an English certificate test.”

“But you already have that, don’t you?”

“Well, actually, it’s not my test. It’s my cousin’s test.”

“What?”

“Yeah, my cousin doesn’t speak English very well so she asked me to take her test for her.”

“Wait. You are taking a test for your cousin?”

“Yes, she needs to get her English certificate so she can get the job she applied for, but her English isn’t good enough, so I’m going to take it for her.”

My first reaction was this: This is wrong. How can this be allowed? You can’t take a test for someone else. That’s lying. That’s cheating. How could you agree to do this?

The typical western mind categorizes events into two parts: right and wrong. It tends to view life through a dichotomistic lens that clearly delineates what one should or should not do.  On the other hand, a traditional Asian mindset is much more holistic in its approach, taking into account the nuances of a given situation.  It’s not necessarily about right or wrong, but about doing the greater good, understanding one’s obligations and doing what is necessary to fulfill and help others as much as possible. (And about keeping the peace!)

In my mind, what this person was planning on doing was wrong. But in her mind, it was plainly and clearly the right thing to do. Why? Her thinking would be along these lines: my cousin is family; she needs a job; I have the means of helping her get a job; by my doing this, it will not only help her, it will help her family and my family; no discussion is needed; it is the only logical thing that can be done.

When you are in a cultural situation in which you don’t understand, try to stand back from the crowd and look at it more objectively from the other person’s point of view. You don’t have to agree with them, but a simple acknowledgment of other ways of looking at issues is the first step in having true cross-cultural understanding.

What is History: An Essay, Part I

History is an educated guess on a wing and a prayer.  Mere shadows of the past come to life in history but can shadows be trusted?  Our views of history can be revised, mis-understood or completely wrong.  History can be pigeon-holed and molded to fit an ideology, point of view, or interpretation.  History can drive a nation forward in a singular goal or it can be stripped of all semblance of reality by censors trying to hold back the unfettered truth.  History nearly seems unattainable because of the minefield of bias and ulterior motives it must constantly escape.  Using sound methodology and shrewd judgment, modern historians valiantly attempt to piece together the past in a reliable way only to realize again that history is not static. History remains a half written sheet of paper constantly in the state of revision teetering on a ledge waiting for the latest research, interpretation or trend to whisk it in a new direction.

The elusiveness of history can be the result of many factors.  Often time facts become distorted by individuals wanting to espouse something other than historical preservation.  This makes the truth difficult to pin down.  For example, Robert Williams explains how a photograph taken of a dead civil war soldier at the battle of Gettysburg may not be as it appears. Historians have argued that the soldier died elsewhere and was dragged to this dramatic setting between the famous outcroppings of rocks called ‘Devil’s Den’ on the Gettysburg battlefield (68).   In a possible attempt to make a more interesting picture, the photographer puts in doubt the soldier’s role in the battle, and it possibly compromises the veracity of certain aspects of the battle.  Others have written history riddled with speculation which may help strengthen our understanding of an event’s background but may not bring us closer to understanding the truth (Williams 126).  Others still have written purely fictitious accounts of events which have no basis in reality.  It can be a dizzying prospect for an amateur to wade through the historical claims espoused by various individuals.

Ideological fervor can also lead to a history that supports one point of view or overarching objective at the risk of compromising the truth.  The movement of historical interpretation called metahistory sought to define history in terms of one “all-encompassing meaning” (Williams 20).  In the 20th century, this led to much ideologically driven fervor using history to support one point of view which furthered a particular goal or political agenda such as the anti-Semitic rhetoric of the Third Reich or the Marxist view of class struggle (Williams 23).   When history is driven by ideology, it typically judges harshly the opposing point of view while lauding its own.  This can make the truth of history difficult to discover.  Trinh Cong Son was a famous revolutionary song writer of the Vietnamese communists.  He wrote anti-war songs that were popular in both North and South Vietnam.  However, he eventually was arrested and sent to a reeducation camp because he incorrectly spoke of the war with America as a “civil war” (Lamb 109). North Vietnam communist ideology viewed the Vietnam War as the Vietnamese struggle to be free against the American imperialists.  It was a continuation of the colonial struggle to expel the foreigner – something the Vietnamese did many times in their history when attacked by the Chinese, the Mongols, the French and now the Americans.   They would not accept a history of war that described as Vietnamese brother against brother.  That is why when Saigon fell to the communists on that fateful April day in 1975, Colonel Bui Tin, speaking to the south Vietnamese general he assumed power from said, “Between Vietnamese, there are no victors and no vanquished. Only the Americans have been beaten” (Karnow 684).  All Vietnamese who sided with the Americans were merely puppets in the view of the Viet Cong.  History driven by ideology can have a short selective memory which can distort facts and make the truth more elusive.

The Human Experience of the Vietnam War

The Vietnam War created a surreal environment where normal rules of civility did not apply.  Soldiers had to live with the immediacy of death. This psychological game of trying to cope with war’s grim reality distanced them forever from their former civilian life.  Tim O’Brien in his semi-autobiographical Vietnam War novel The Things They Carried describes a war in which the soldiers would do anything to cope with army life if it meant that they could distance themselves from the atrocities around them.  Euphemisms for death like someone being ‘lit up’ or ‘greased’ were tossed around casually (19).   Death became so much the norm that it seemed like their deaths were ‘scripted’ (19).  They were there to fulfill their roles and one of the more prominent roles of war is death.  They trudged along in the game resigned to their fate whatever that may have been.

The role of fate in the minds of the soldiers on both sides of the conflict played a large role in how they acted and thought.  Truong Nhu Tang in his book A Viet Cong Memoir describes the terror of hunkering down under the relentless B52 bombing raids.   He describes it as an ‘Apocalypse’ where soldiers would scream uncontrollably and lose control of their bodily functions and where guerrillas would suffer nervous breakdowns (123).   However, he describes how eventually the shock of the B52 bombing raids would wear off.  The soldiers began to look at them in irrelevant terms, and they would have a fatalistic attitude that there was nothing to be done except prepare yourself for death (Truong 123).  In this way, survivors were able to view their life in a more serene and philosophical manner (Truong 124).

As the B52 raids played havoc on the psyche of the Viet Cong, the mental state of the American soldier in Vietnam was likewise shredded by what many saw as an illogical struggle against an unseen enemy in a strange and foreign environment.  The Vietnam War had no ‘fronts’.  There was not a Maginot line or 38th parallel.  The enemy could come from any direction, at any time, in nearly any form.  It was more like an endless front.  Bombs and booby-traps were everywhere.   It was impossible to distinguish a common peasant farmer from a Viet Cong insurgent.  This deeply contributed to the fatalistic attitude that a soldier’s life was not in his own hands. O’Brien called these faceless enemies the ‘enemy ghosts’.  Vietnam became a game of hide and seek with boogeyman enemies – only partially seen – slipping in and out under the moonlight – spooking hardened soldiers into ghost believers (192-193).  Even in the daytime, a soldier would tire from the constant snipers.  Or it may be that a soldier could be plodding along a well-known path in a flooded field only to be swallowed up completely by a massive B52 bomb crater which was undetectable under the water (Truong 123).  It was these types of events that made many soldiers feel that everything was out of their control.  Or perhaps more precisely, maybe there was not anything to control in the first place.  Even soldiers who worked in offices in Saigon were never out of danger.  They were susceptible at any moment of any day to a bomb or rocket attack (Karnow 33).

Soldiers coped the best they could.  They laughed at the horror to help lessen its sting.  In one absurd tale, a soldier sings “Lemon Tree” as he pulls the remains of their comrade Curt Lemon out of the tree where an explosion ripped him to shreds (O’Brien 79).  O’Brien writes the story of Norman Bowker and how he almost got the Silver Star for nearly saving his buddy but ultimately watched him slip to his death in a muddy field on the banks of a flooded river.  It is revealed later, however, that it was actually the author who held the leg of the one who slipped away and not Norman Bowker (154).  This clever storytelling technique illustrates the mental games of war.  A horrific incident beyond description seems more palatable when placed at the feet of another.  It was survival instinct which distances oneself from that which makes no sense or which is too painful for a sane person to deal with.

War creates an instinct to survive not only for the soldiers in the trenches or the soldiers humping through the jungle but also for the political figures on a more macro-governmental level.  Politics and war provide a canvass in which survival often becomes the eminent theme even beyond winning or losing. Leaders will manipulate, intimidate, and inspire in order for a nation and its’ soldiers to follow their lead.  Before World War II, Hitler invoked a personalized national pride and insisted that his soldiers swear a personal allegiance to him (Keegan 367).  The American soldiers who went to war in Vietnam certainly displayed a national pride and a willingness to defeat Communism, but when they arrived,  they only saw a political situation that offered the soldiers little hope or honor.  The political players on the American side of the Vietnam War displayed paranoia, deceit, and shrewd political games in order to either keep themselves in power or to sway public opinion in one way or another.

South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky put on a show execution of a Chinese businessman accused of corruption which ultimately provided him with a scapegoat in order to protect himself from his unsavory dealings (Karnow 456).  Ky’s predecessor Khanh did all he could to protect his own authority but did virtually nothing to create a competent administration which would enable the South Vietnamese government to wage war (Karnow 358).  The successive infighting amongst the South Vietnamese government led to massive dissatisfaction among the South’s population.  Coup after coup left the South Vietnamese government in a state of disarray and left America holding the political baggage forcing them to put a positive spin on things for the American people.  The government used the media as a propaganda wing to promote their view of what was happening. For example, the U.S. press gave vivid accounts of the North Vietnamese unprovoked attack on an American vessel even though it never happened (Karnow 386). This made-up event helped speed up the escalation of the war. The media seems to have taken its’ cue from a government which rewarded positive war reports even if they didn’t resemble the truth (Karnow 271).

U.S. President Lyndon Johnson who escalated the war in hopes of stopping Communism from spreading threw in the towel himself deciding not to run for re-election after the devastating “Tet” offensive of Jan 31, 1968.  The coordinated Viet Cong offensive caught the Americans off-guard and drastically turned public opinion against the war leading to the many vocal and intense protests that typified the late 1960s (Karnow 558).  All of this disinformation and backbiting created a cloud of confusion over the whole Vietnam War.  The political in-fighting certainly played a crucial role in the disillusionment of the Vietnam soldier.

The Vietnam soldiers that went home were damaged both physically and mentally.   By 1971, it is estimated that one-third or more of American troops were using drugs (Karnow 31).   There were many cases of soldiers not only disobeying orders but even murdering their superiors with grenades (Karnow 31).   Nearly one-sixth of all Vietnam veterans experienced some form of post-traumatic order (Karnow 33).  It is no wonder that eighty-two percent of veterans believed they were sent into a war which they couldn’t win because the government tied their hands (Karnow 480).  In an environment like this, what purpose could a soldier possibly find?  Nothing but survival.

O’Brien describes war as not being a moral, virtuous, or instructive venture.   He writes, “You can tell a war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil” (65-66).  This perhaps describes better than anything else the human experience of the Vietnam War.  The war penetrated deeply into the inner chasms of their heart only to find there was nothing there to comfort them.

Vietnamese New Year & Tet ’68

Happy Vietnamese New Year Everyone!

I enjoyed many Tet holidays in Vietnam visiting neighbors, being stuffed with delicacies by eager grandmothers who wouldn’t be satisfied until I would hold my stomach in agony and beg her not to put more on my plate. (She should anyways.)  Tet is a wonderful time for family and friends to commune and feast while the trials and troubles a a year’s hard work are long forgotten.  It’s a three day non-stop filling of the celebration of Vietnamese life.  It’s a time to remember the past, enjoy the present, and drink for the future.

But for a different generation of Americans, the word “TET” means but one thing – a horrible reminder of the pain of war from 1968.

The Tet Offensive in 1968 changed the Vietnam War, but it didn’t do so in the way you might expect.  Leading up to the Viet Cong attacks on the first day of their New Year, the American people had been led to believe from their government that great progress was being made in freeing South Vietnam from the Communist instigators who had been reeking havoc in the delta and central regions of the country for nearly a decade.  But the Tet Offensive proved once and for all that the reassuring words from Washington via the press corp were hollow at best and possibly down right deceitful.

On the first night of Tet 1968,  the Viet Cong pulled off nearly fifty coordinated and simultaneous attacks which caught the Americans and the South Vietnamese armies off guard.  From the former Imperial city of Hue, to the central highlands where American missionaries were killed, to the fortified city of Saigon itself, these attacks reverberated loudly throughout the country, the world, and especially the American media which drilled home this point to the American people – we were not winning the Vietnam War.

It mattered little that American firepower pushed back every single one of these advances.  That’s right.  America won them all, but the Viet Cong delivered a devastating punch and a massive dose of reality to the American people.   From that point on, cynicism crept in and led to one of the most turmoil filled years in American history, from President LBJ deciding not run for president again, to the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, to the urban riots, the Tet offensive set the stage for them all.

This shows me that above all else, we need government that is checked by an independent news media, driven by principles and not ideological conviction – something today that is certainly hard to find.