We oozed into Vietnam, starting with President Harry Truman's decision to subsidize the French in their futile effort to retrieve their Asian colony. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy deepened our involvement, reiterating the "domino theory," the dubious notion that the collapse of Vietnam would spark a global wave of communist triumphs. As he escalated the commitment, Lyndon Johnson cautioned, in his typically gaudy rhetoric, that defeat would compel us to retreat to the beaches of Waikiki; his aides, whether or not they believed it, dutifully echoed the party line. Only afterward did Robert S. McNamara, the former Defense Secretary and a pivotal architect of the war, confess that "we were wrong, terribly wrong"—cold comfort for the families of the 60,000 names on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. Senator Max W. Cleland of Georgia, a paraplegic veteran, said McNamara's book should have been titled Sorry 'Bout That.
Against that dreary background of official hubris, myopia and duplicity, it seems odd that former Senator Bob Kerrey is hitting newspaper headlines and television screens because of the revelation that his team of Navy SEALs killed innocent women and children while on a mission in the Mekong Delta. I reckon that thousands of grunts went through the same experience. But if what they did was appalling, it was comprehensible. In a way, they were victims of the machine that vaulted them into a hot, humid, shadowy, alien environment in which friend and foe were a blur, and all a potential threat. Kerrey and his men, like their comrades in other detachments, were chronically and justifiably scared.
They had been trained for a conventional struggle in which success is measured by gaining territory. In Vietnam, by contrast, there were no front lines to advance; the war was pervasive. An apparently benign peasant could be a guerrilla, a pretty prostitute a clandestine agent, the kid who delivered the laundry a secret informer. Flooded rice fields concealed spikes, booby traps permeated jungles, and barracks were vulnerable to terrorist attacks. No wonder the grunts were paranoid and their commanders frustrated. So strategy was reduced to a basic formula: kill as many of the enemy as possible in hopes of breaking their morale. We deployed our vast arsenal, and butchered at least a million of them. We gauged progress by piles of twisted corpses—the grim "body count." Yet the Vietnamese continued to fight. After the war, Colonel Harry G. Summers Jr. crowed to a communist officer, "We won every battle." Replied his analog: "That may be true, but it's irrelevant."
We trickled into Vietnam with no knowledge of the country or its culture. Worse, we were oblivious to its people. Lean, sinewy figures in rubber sandals, black cotton pajamas and conic basket hats, we dismissed them as "primitive." But they were a highly sophisticated folk whose civilization dated back millenniums. Over those centuries they recurrently resisted foreign invaders, particularly their predatory Chinese neighbors. That tumultuous history ingrained in them an intensely nationalistic spirit illustrated by their willingness to give their lives for their cause.
Perplexed by the phenomenon, General William C. Westmoreland, the commander of the U.S. forces from 1965 to 1968, maintained that "life is unimportant to Asians." His fatuous, racist observation ignored the reality that our adversaries were engaged in a sacred crusade, while we were caught in a quagmire that swallowed up our blood and treasure. He ought to have remembered the warning that Ho Chi Minh, the communist leader, voiced to a French diplomat on the eve of his war with France in 1946. "You can kill 10 of my men for every one I kill of yours, but in the end I will win and you will lose." I heard roughly the same remark from General Vo Nguyen Giap, the eloquent North Vietnamese commander, when I asked him during an interview in Hanoi in 1990 how long he would have gone on fighting against the U.S. He thundered, "Another 20, maybe 100 years, as long as it took to win, regardless of cost."
We faced an enemy that, like bamboo, could be bent but not broken. As a result, the war was essentially unwinnable. For Kerrey and his buddies, who grievously suffered, and are still haunted by the ordeal, the epitaph for Vietnam and similar ventures is succinct: "Never Again."