THESE DAYS, when Americans sit bound as hostages in Iran, there is much recollection of Vietnam. Some speak of a sense of "Vietnam guilt," citing it as a force that inhibits our acting decisively in the Middle East. Others urge that we ponder "the lessons of Vietnam" before committing ourselves to an irreversible course. And, the wander slightly afield, there is wide conjecture, and hope, that the Kremlin's invasion -- "incursion?" -- of Afghanistan may prove to be "Russia's Vietnam." Like most catch-phrases, these may be fuzzy in content but the memory of Vietnam itself is sharp, and not solely because it was the most recent conflict in which we were engaged. (We are now at the seventh anniversary of the truce we signed with Hanoi.)
In my opinion, the effects of Vietnam are going to be felt for a long time to come, perhaps as long as thee are nations, for it is my view that the war in Indochina was a special one, different from all others. In my opinion, our military performance there brought the institution of patriotism to trial, presenting it in a complex and controversial light to which most of us had never been exposed. I would even suggest that, in varying degrees, our performance had the same effect on nationals elsewhere.
With each foray that American administrations sponsored on that distant battelfield, citizens in many countries became increasingly conscious of the nature of national sovereignty. Each carpet-bombing run, each search-and-destroy mission, it appears to me, disseminated the message that nations were essentially mechanisms for the practice of large-scale violence. Each day the war continued, its broad outline took on the intelligibility of a diagram. Given a strong power, the diagram said, that wants something of a weak one (military bases, oil, or whatever), what happens if the two reach no paper accord? Answer: Big Boy weights in with his superior equipment and divisions and helps himself to his prize. Naturally, he avoids tangling with military peers -- why turn a sure thing into a gamble?
As we now know, this scenario never came to pass, but it was its mentality, on display for more than a decade, that formed tht popular impression of the Vietnam war. Daily, thanks to the advent of television, individuals in homes throughout the world could literally bear witness to the sight of a superpower beating up on an agricultural countyry, and what they saw, I submit, exposed the workings of national soveriegnties as no other war has ever done.
This may seem a narrow, jaundiced picture to those who look upon nations as comprising something better than a merciless pecking order. Think of the heroes who have died for their country, they may protest; think of the poets who have sung its glories.
All I can reply is that the heroes and the poets, as well as lesser mortals, were individuals, not governments, and that if the Vietnam was demonstrated anything, it was that individuals and governments were quite distinct propositions. This as true for small countries as it is for superpowers, but the point, I think, takes on more meaning when applied to the superpowers.
If it is used in relation to Hanoi, to stick to the example at hand, one finds, looking back, that, apart from surrendering, America's foe could not have done other than what it did. Under military attack by a might foreigner, its inhabitants and their leaders fought for their lives -- a joint, desperate goal that allowed no significant gap to divide people and government. But it was the opposite that held for America. In no danger, it had no clear-cut cause with which to fire its population. As a result, the longer the war went on, the wider the gap grew between Washington and its constituency; indeed, in retrospect, the wonder of it all is not that the United States failed of conquest but that it fared as well as it did.
Individual Americans had no recourse but to make of the war what they would, the government's policy, if that is the word, apparently consisting of an unwillingness to win, lose or draw. A thousand opinions arose, each at variance with the other, all splintering the ranks of both the hawks and the doves.
An extremist wing of hawks, for example, would have employed nuclear weapons to attain victory. Few Americans gave voice to the idea, but, nevertheless, I believe, it was one that lurked darkly in many people's mind; in fact, I would say that the possibility of nuclear hostilities not only hovered over the Vietnam war but that it now necessarily frames all wars, of whatever size, investing them with stakes of unseemly dimension. As for the dove, their camp numbered those who would impeach presidents or refuse to pay taxes or, for soue, have Amierca call it quits unilaterally in Indochina.
Most Americans, though, casting about for leadership, turned to their government in a spirit of conditioned trust. For their trouble, they made the dismaying discovery that their government, its course ever vague, could be more form than substance in time of war. Abandoned to themselves in this fashion, these legions of faithful, in seeking answers, could only ask themselves questions, quietly, discreetly, reluctantly:
How may one be patriotic without guidance from one's government?
What is patriotism, anyway?
Is this war worth my sons's life?
Is it possible that my government has made an error?
If it has, would it confess to it?
Would other countries?
Could a war like this one happen again?
Devout citizens do not easily come by such questions, but once the questions are raised, I believe, answers will be forthcoming. What they will be and how they will eventually manifest themselves are mysteries at this point, but it is my belief that their effect, when it is felt, will make it harder than ever for governments, including dictatorships, to lead their citizens into war. It is not a matter of everyone turning war register. Most people, I think, are prepared to answer a call to arms but they are no longer disposed to forfeit the aspirations within themselves that make their patriotism worth anything.
It took the war in Vietnam to interest us in our sense of patriotism, and the reason for that, in my opinion, is that this time, in contrast to its prosecution of other wars, the government overreached itself, baldly, bullyingly. It pulled rank on its citizenry, ordering it into battle for inchoate, willful reason. There were bound to be reactions -- not that they ever assumed ideological shape. Rather, their underlying character was, as I have mentioned, of a surprised, inquisitive sort.
If there is anything good to be said for the war, it is that it succeeded in arousing in many Americans, both hawks and doves, a long dormant awareness of their individuality. Bitter but cleansing, that was the sole fruit of out defeat. In a period when we were at arms, millions of Americans, doves and hawks alike, dared to criticize their government's conduct of the war, and for that, it seems to me, congratulations will always remain in order. Indochina may now lie under repressive rule, as numerous dispatches have it, but that, to my way of thinking, does not detract from the widespread protest in which Americans engaged during the war. I doubt that wartime protesters, regardless of outlook, had in mind to guarantee the dawn of democracy in Southeast Asia. Their objectives, steeped in immedicay, were either to advance the attainment of victory or to prevent the squandering of lives, American and Asian. The protesters steered no governmental course; they were acting as individuals, and praise be.
Without the need for this assertion of personal conviction, it seems to me, vast numbers of Americans might never have become curious about the origins of their patriotism. It takes a certain irreverence to do that, for it entails questioning the conception of patriotism that was imposed on us as children, when we stood in school auditoriums pledging allegiance to the flag and singing "The Star Spangled Banner." The war, I believe, altered that conception, provoking Americans -- and other nationals -- to perceive that patriotism need not be a rote affair, that there could be another type, a patriotism without flags, so to speak. It differed in kind from that of governments, its aspirations not rooted in weapons and dreams of conquest. They were, rather, of an interior nature, leaving individuals to figure out how they related to their government, or perhaps their neighborhod. The aspirations called on us to recognize patriotism as a part of our makeup, as a source of our sense of identity, as bestowing upon us a place to love and defend. As the war in Vietnam showed, however, national sovereignities have grown less lovable, their stock in trade a readiness to issue marching orders and to wave flags.
Perhaps nations will have to be supplanted as objects of patriotism -- they are not verities; there was a time, centuries ago, when they were unknown. But if nations are here to stay, then their managers will do well to remember that each of their subjects carries a private vision of his country's value; the more this is discounted, the more scrutiny will the managers attract. It is not enough to die for one's country; one must also want to live in it.