Are you watching the PBS/Ken Burns and Lynn Novick Film, “The Vietnam War?” For those of us in the Baby Boomer Generation, it’s our war. I have watched the first three episodes. During the second episode I began to feel depressed, mainly because of all the mistakes and missed opportunities to avoid war, and I could barely get through the third episode, which brought out how brutal the war was.
It is easy to see the mistakes now and also to recognize that this country continues to make the same mistakes.
There was the belief we were in a global death struggle with a monolithic and powerful enemy—Communism, and so we believed we had to take a stand there. But we didn’t know the land, the culture or how to fight a war there. And we didn’t understand that the Vietnamese were nationalists first and communists second.
There were also our government’s lies about the build up, the bombing, the goals, the prospects for victory.
And we never had a viable partner governing South Vietnam, who would fight corruption and find ways to win over the “hearts and minds” of the population. We couldn’t do that on our own.
It’s not that the North held the moral high ground. The North was a regime that at times was brutal and repressive, and they were willing to sacrifice a huge number of their young men and women in waging the war.
I visited Viet Nam in 2007 and 2008, the first time with Judy, our friend Leta Myers and my Swedish colleague Stig Berg. Stig had begun a partnership between Jönköping University and the Medical and Technical College #2 located in Da Nang (now Da Nang University of Medical Technology and Pharmacy) . The partnership was part of a larger EU effort to form partnerships between universities in Europe and in developing countries like Vietnam. There were regular exchanges of faculty and students between the two universities and there were plans for a joint research program, which is why Stig invited me to visit. It was quickly obvious that Stig had built relationships with faculty and students in Da Nang characterized by mutual respect and genuine affection for one another. His colleagues from Jönköping University who also visited at various times—Bo Malmberg, Susanne Johannesson and others, also formed strong friendships with faculty and students.
I was struck by the optimism and energy I found at the college and in the wider community. The students in particular were bright, energetic and eager to learn. Life was not easy there and there were few of the comforts we are used to. The students’ dorms were remarkable—8 to 10 students crammed into a single room filled with bunk beds. No air-conditioning. Bathrooms down the hall somewhere. Yet the students were cheerful and upbeat, and were excited about the path they saw for their lives.
I doubt that Vietnam could have turned out any better if we had somehow won the war and it certainly would have been better if there had been a peaceful resolution of the conflict in 1962 or 1963, even if that led to a Communist regime. There had certainly been a period after the war of retaliation and imprisonment of supporters of the regime in the South. And the current government does not tolerate criticism or allow a political opposition. But the various governments in the South showed similar authoritarian tendencies. And the fear that we had that Southeast Asia would become dominated by communism—that the dominoes would fall—never materialized. Instead, Vietnam fought a war with China and overthrew the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, and now they are our allies in trying to contain China’s expansionist dreams.
One of the gifts of aging is learning from experience. There are lessons from the Vietnam War that as a country we have yet to learn.
The photo is of Stig, Judy, Leta and one of our hosts in Da Nang.