PARIS -- America goes first class when it picks its enemies. From the North Vietnamese to Iran's ayatollahs, the United States has chosen to confront the top of the line in treachery and zealotry.
But we often stumble when it comes to picking our allies. Somehow we wind up with the South Vietnamese, or snuggle up to Amin Gemayel's crumbling army in Lebanon. Despite all our sacrifices, these indigenous forces are not willing or able to win their own wars. They go down to defeat and destruction as Americans watch, with horror or clucking tongues, depending on their own ideological baggage.
This troubling vision remains with me a month after viewing Stanley Kubrick's antimovie, "Full Metal Jacket." I do not mean that it is an antiwar movie; it is not. "Full Metal Jacket" is Kubrick's effort to create the opposite of a movie by exploding the narrative line of film.
Kubrick shows the South Vietnamese as whores, pimps and deserters. That is, he transmits directly to us without correction or embroidery the vision of many of the American soldiers who fought there, and who quickly came to the conclusion that they were there "fighting the wrong gooks," as one of Kubrick's characters says into the camera.
I have friends with long experience with U.S. forces in Vietnam who reacted violently to "Platoon" and what they saw as its distortions of that experience. They do not have the same problems with "Full Metal Jacket." They like it or they don't like it, but they don't argue with its premises for the most part, and they seem to accept Kubrick's vision of the South Vietnamese (who are totally absent in Oliver Stone's film) with equanimity. We had the wrong gooks on our side. We do better at picking enemies than friends.
Even packaged in Kubrick's cold brilliance, this is a facile analysis that mocks the tragedy we visited on ourselves and on those we sought to help in Vietnam, until we decided that they were beyond our help. Shortly afterward, the place called South Vietnam disappeared from the map.
With Stone and Kubrick, most Americans seem to have gratefully forgotten about the South Vietnamese. The people in whose name America sacrificed lives and treasure have slid into a black hole of memory, just as the point approaches when memory begins to harden into history.
Can they scramble back out and claim a part of the historical legacy that is becoming the final battleground of the American experience in Vietnam? That question was put dramatically this week by a group of South Vietnamese refugees who organized a two-day seminar in Paris. Funded largely by conservative American groups, the conference featured some of the key American figures of decade-old policy battles that they immediately resumed with new vigor.
On the American side, there were as many theories about when and why the United States lost the war as there were speakers. By choosing the wrong strategy, or the wrong moment to cut off aid, or the wrong year to depose President Ngo Dinh Diem, we lost the war. The propensity of the policy makers and the generals to turn Vietnam into a giant hobby horse for their own theories and emotions did not end on April 30, 1975.
William Colby, Robert Komer and other American participants argued with each other while the Vietnamese listened to begin the conference. Later, Henry Kissinger addressed the conference, gently and gracefully responding in non sequiturs to his Vietnamese hosts, who clearly believe he sold them out but who have not yet decided if they will ever forgive him.
Running through much of the American commentary, at times sotto voce and at others aloud, was that dangerous Kubrickian notion that America threw away what would have been a victory because it was determined that the South Vietnamese were not worth fighting for.
That is not only unchivalrous, but dangerous politics. Americans need to remember that their nation went to Vietnam for its own reasons, some good ones, more of them dreadful mistakes. From 1966 to 1972, the weight of American involvement turned the South Vietnamese into bit players in their own war, whose virtue or lack of it had little to do with our final decisions. Without a military plan to win or even terminate that phase of the war, the United States simply left one day.
The legacy is not one merely of America choosing the wrong friend to fight for. The record also suggests the dangers involved for any nation that chooses as its protector an America that would disregard the true meanings of Vietnam.