“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” John Adams, December 1770
While having coffee downtown recently, a song from the 60’s gently passed through the coffee house speakers. It was Pete Seeger’s ‘Where Have all the Flowers Gone’ sung by Peter, Paul and Mary. As I listened, I found myself back 40 years ago when I was returning from Vietnam. It was March 1970 and I was at San Francisco International waiting for my flight to home to NYC. As I thought more about that “homecoming,” I recalled a young lady at SFO, strumming her guitar and singing near a snack bar where I was eating my first glazed donut in over a year. The lyrics were as clear today as they were that day:
“Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards every one
When will they ever learn?”
(Where have all the Flowers Gone, Pete Seeger)
As the years have gone by, other veterans of this “conflict” that I have met seldom share combat related stories. “What year were you there?” and “what unit” is usually the extent of conversation. I have met people who did everything to avoid military induction during that time. I never had any animosity against them; especially now after reading Robert McNamara’s memoirs about the Vietnam War.
Robert S. McNamara former secretary of defense for two presidents acknowledged in his memoir of the war, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, that he and his colleagues were “wrong, terribly wrong” to pursue the war as they did. He acknowledged that he failed to force the military to justify its strategy and tactics, had misunderstood Asia in general and Vietnam in particular, and perpetuated the war long after he realized it was futile. He concluded that “the achievement of a military victory by U.S. forces in Vietnam was indeed a dangerous illusion.”
Should his statement(s) be considered a ‘fact’ the United States was defeated or a bridge to closure that some desire? If so, what does one do with his “fact?” Recently, a military historian friend of mine reminded me that the United States did not lose one battle during the Vietnam War, not one. But, what of the loss of life? Here are some ‘facts:’ The human cost in terms of fatalities was huge; 3 to 4 million Vietnamese from both sides, 1.5 to 2 million Laotian and Cambodians. 58,159 U.S. soldiers killed along with 153,452 injured and 1,740 missing.
As we enter year whatever in Iraq and Afghanistan, I can only hope that some past, current or future government leader of the United States will not write in their book about these wars and come to the same conclusion that McNamara did. My son, who is currently serving in Afghanistan, would probably feel the same I do today. “When will they ever learn”?