Yesterday, 29 March, was National Viet Nam Veterans’ Day. I had no idea such a thing existed. You may wonder, as I did, why it’s on 29 March.
29 March 1973 is the day that the last American combat troops were pulled out of Viet Nam. The last prisoners of war held in North Viet Nam arrived on American soil on that same day. It’s also the date President Nixon chose for the first Vietnam Veterans Day in 1974 (more about Nixon presently).
I suppose that, for those of us who are veterans of the Viet Nam War, 29 March is our equivalent of World War Two’s VE Day or VJ Day, except VVN Day doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue quite as easily as the other two acronyms.
More important than the sound of it is the meaning of it. The first V is supposed to stand for Victory, but there was no victory in Viet Nam for the United States. There wasn’t even a stalemate, as in Korea. (In case you’re wondering, 27 July is National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day.)
What were we doing in Viet Nam anyway, from 8 March 1965 to 29 March 1973 (the period of our direct, large-unit combat involvement)? I don’t mean what were we doing. From my year as an infantryman in Viet Nam I can attest rather well to that. No, I mean, what were we doing there? What larger purpose did we serve? What did eight years and over 58,000 American deaths (and many more Vietnamese, Lao and Khmer deaths) purchase for America, or for the noble cause of democracy?
Well, the war propped up a notoriously corrupt South Vietnamese government. Then, sixteen months before the Marines landed at Da Nang in 1965, we – the American government, in the form of the CIA – colluded with military officers in South Vietnam to overthrow and murder the president of that country, Ngô Đình Diệm, and his younger brother, Ngô Đình Nhu.
What else? We dropped more explosives on South-East Asia than was done to Europe during all of World War Two. We indiscriminately sprayed an awful herbicide on thousands of acres of Viet Nam, Laos, and Cambodia, denuding forests, polluting streams and rivers, and engendering all manner of illnesses in locals and Americans alike.
The war, the protests against the war, and the disarray of the Democratic Party, ensured the election of Richard M. Nixon in 1968. I do not count this as a positive thing, and not just because of Nixon’s paranoid delusions and illegal activities. America has survived all that. Cambodia, on the other hand, is still suffering and trying to recover from Nixon’s decision to send B-52’s and American ground troops into that country in 1970, a decision that threw Cambodia into chaos and laid the groundwork for the Khmer Rouge to take over in 1975. The Khmer Rouge’s legacy, and by extension Richard Nixon’s legacy, and by further extension America’s legacy, is one of mass dislocations (the entire population of Phnom Penh was forced into the countryside), millions murdered, a beautiful and peaceful people brutalized and ground down by their fellow countrymen. Some legacy, that.
We did not make the world safe for democracy. No dominos fell. No, we went, we destroyed, and we left. Based upon that, I think a better name for this day (which is, after all, not a holiday like Armistice Day or Memorial Day) is We Got the Hell Out Day.
Doesn’t that seem more accurate? I think so. We saw no parades yesterday, no fly-overs, no paeans to the men and women who served and who died. Oh, the Secretaries of Defense and Veteran Affairs went to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, D.C., and laid a wreath in honor of Vietnam veterans and Vietnam Veterans Memorial Day. There was a nice ribbon across the wreath that read “A Grateful Nation Remembers.” (Does the nation remember? Is the nation grateful? If so, for what exactly is it grateful?) After the wreath was placed in front of the wall, the Secretaries put Vietnam Veteran Lapel Pins (officially released by the government in July 2015) on the lapels of a few gathered veterans. Haven’t heard about the lapel pins either? Neither had I.
It’s probably just as well there were no parades or fly-overs. If one more person thanks me for my service in Viet Nam, I will either throw up or scream. Maybe both. “Thank you for your service” is a bumper sticker platitude uttered by people who mean well – I honestly believe they do – but who, luckily for them, have no real idea what combat veterans endured in Viet Nam, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, and even less of an idea as to why we were there and why it didn’t work.
I’d like to suggest a substitute phrase for those who feel compelled to say something upon meeting someone who has been in a war. Here it is: “I’m so sorry you endured such traumatic experiences.” If you’re feeling motivated to say more, you could add, “I cannot possibly understand what that was like for you, but if you ever want to talk about it, I will listen.”
It won’t fit on a bumper sticker (like the vacuous “Support the Troops”), but it’s much more real and honest. Think about that on the next National We Got the Hell Out Day.