- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 14, 2004

History records the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 when Saigon fell to Hanoi, but Americans know better — it has not ended yet. Those believing that war finished 29 years ago slept through the 2004 presidential election campaign. Why can’t the American people let go of that “stupid, endless, senseless, war” (in the words of a fighter pilot ace, Brig. Gen. Robin Olds)? Because it was a defeat, and a loss can’t be dismissed easily.

The Vietnam War misfortune was a severe American trauma — no mature American alive in 1975 can forget the frantic scenes of the helicopters evacuating Americans from the roof of the American Embassy. That war is also sourly remembered because it was fought ineptly, because of the lies emanating from the White House, Pentagon and U.S. Headquarters in Saigon; because of the inequitable draft system, and partly because it was fought by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson largely for domestic — and not international — political reasons.

U.S. war colleges, distraught at the failure began in the 1970s to read again military classics like Karl Von Clausewitz’s “On War” and Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” to garner the wisdom these ancients transmitted in the hopes of not repeating Vietnam.

Probably no war in American history violated as many classical aphorisms, particularly those of the Chinese master Sun Tzu, who said: “War is a matter of vital importance to the State; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin … . If not in the interests of the state, do not act. If you cannot succeed, do not use troops. If you are not in danger, do not fight. A sovereign cannot raise an army because he is enraged, . . a state that has perished cannot be restored, nor can the dead be brought back to life. “Therefore, the enlightened ruler is prudent … [thus] the state is kept secure … .”

This country lost 58,000 people in Vietnam in defeat — that is why publishers continue to produce books, and here are three recent additions.

Late Thoughts on an Old War: The Legacy of Vietnam by Philip D. Beidler (The University of Georgia Press, $29.95, 213 pages) is an outstanding, personal — but much larger than that — account of a platoon leader who today often can smell the sweetly rancid smell of the dead. Mr. Beidler teaches English at the university level in Alabama, and it shows. “Late Thoughts” is an outstandingly lucid description of the war as it was, not as public affairs specialists and politicians described it. Mr. Beidler writes as vividly as Paul Fussell in his books on World War II.

The author tells us: “I find with an ever deepening conviction, that individually and collectively Americans can’t let go of the Vietnamese war, of what happened to us and the Vietnamese there.”

Mr. Beidler saw enough death and destruction “to rack up a good bit of the human damage — along with attendant anger and regret — that so often strews veterans’ lives. Alcoholic drinking, divorce, terrifying obsessive episodes, black depressions, chronic problems with authority, blinding impatience with everything from supermarket lines to administrative chickenshit, life long enmities with people who have tried to crowd me … . an intolerance for loud noise, inexplicable rages, a child like fear of the dark… .”

His canvas is broad — beginning with a chapter called “The language of the Nam” in which he runs two dozen pages of slang, acronyms, expletives and jargon in incredibly articulate fashion — the mark of a highly superior and sophisticated writer.

Mr. Beidler writes: “Meanwhile, in our fear and our rage — the self-torturing agony of a war with no mission, impossible a good deal of the time to tell friend from foe, a million different ways to get killed, anywhere, anytime by a skilled, intrepid, almost insanely brave, suicidally committed, and incredibly deadly enemy-we spent a lot of time working up hard words for each other… . Gooks we called them: a lousy name for Asians from another lousy Asian [Korean] war. In the largest sense, is an object lesson in naming the enemy as old as warfare itself: the bigger the language disconnect, the better.”

His chapter “Solatium” deals with payments the U.S. government made to Vietnamese civilians for the death of a family member. Its cynicism is biting. Beidler’s frank comments on race echo throughout American history-when the majority whites evade service, the country turns to blacks, who were very often in Vietnam at the most pointed end of the spear.

It’s all here — the films, the music, the senseless killings of innocents — and it is painful. Everybody making decisions for war must read “Late Thoughts on an Old War.”

Much more uplifting is Two Souls Indivisible: The Friendship That Saved Two POWs in Vietnam by James S. Hirsch (Houghton Mifflin, $25, 274 pages, llus.) Mr. Hirsch is a skilled journalist writing about two aviator prisoners of war, one white, the other black, who were tossed in the same filthy, rancid, rat-ridden cell in the obvious hope by the North Vietnamese, that their racial difference would produce hate and destruction.

The enemy erred, and both believe their survival was based on the nearly symbiotic relationship they formed. The white was a Navy junior officer, jet aircraft flight navigator Porter Halyburton, and the black was Air Force field grade officer, jet fighter pilot Fred Cherry. The latter had numerous serious injuries that grounded him for life when he was repatriated, and it was Halyburton who helped nurse him to survival.

The gift was repaid over the years the men were together. Cherry earned his wings in 1952, one of the first black aviators to do so in the racial integration era. Cherry’s career was marked by prejudice which he overcame because of his outstanding skill as a fighter pilot. This is a heartwarming book. One admonition: Hirsch informs us in “1964 the Kennedy administration, seeking to thwart the

Communist insurgency in Indochina … . called for air raids into North Vietnam … . inching America into a full-scale but undeclared war.”

I am sure the author knows Kennedy died in November 1963 — everybody alive on Nov. 22,1963 knows where he or she was that dark day. One expects better from editors at a major house like Houghton Mifflin.

John Darrell Sherwood’s Afterburner: Naval Aviators and the Vietnam War (New York University Press, $32.95, 353 pages, illus.) is an exceptionally well written, well documented, fast moving account of the aircrews on Yankee Station that helped keep the United States in the war.

Understand, dear reader, airpower was the reason the United States could endure the Vietnam War for 12 years. Short of employing airplanes to destroy North Vietnam, apparently a political impossibility, aircraft carrier airplanes (and their Air Force counterparts) could ensure the war would not be lost militarily by damaging the adversary’s logistics and guaranteeing by air to ground attacks that outposts like An Loc, Kham Duc and Khe Sanh did not become an American Dien Bien Phu. This is an exciting book and deserves to be read widely.

Alan L. Gropman is The Distinguished Professor of National Security Policy at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University, and a Vietnam War veteran. His views are his alone.

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