The 40th Anniversary of the End of the Vietnam War: What Every American Should Know

The Greek tragic playwright Aeschylus was a combat veteran. More than 2,400 years ago he said, “The first casualty of war is truth.” As our nation approaches the 40th anniversary of the end of the VietnamWar (April 30, 2015), a major effort is underway to change how we view the war, how history records it, how future Americans will think about it. Much celebration and re-interpretation will take place. Our government, military and some veteran and civilian groups are working to recast the war in honorable and moral terms and help veterans and all Americans look at it through more positive lenses.

Let us try to heal that first casualty and view the Vietnam War through the lens of truth. Consider these ten facts and their related myths about the Vietnam War.

  1. More than 58,000 Americans were killed in the Vietnam War, including 8 servicewomen. Since the end of the war, more than twice and perhaps three times that number of its veterans have committed suicide.

  2. Approximately 2.5 million people served in-country during the war. Baby boomers are living longer, healthier lives. But less than 1 million Vietnam veterans are still alive, very many dying early of suicide, “accidents,” overdoses, and stress, Agent Orange and substance abuse-related diseases.

  3. While we rightly grieve all these fallen Americans as well as our 300,000 wounded, we must also, but do not generally, account for the 3 million Vietnamese killed, 1 million military and 2 million civilians, and more than 4 million wounded.

  4. Though some politicians called for using nuclear weapons in Viet Nam, the U.S. resisted that strategy. Instead, we dropped more than 8 billion pounds of bombs on Viet Nam, leaving a country only the size of California with 23 million bomb craters. This bombing accounts for more tonnage than was dropped in all of WWII combined. The bombing of Viet Nam was equivalent to 600 Hiroshima size weapons. The Christmas bombing of Hanoi alone, over eleven days in 1972, dropped 20,000 tons of bombs and was the largest-ever B-52 bombing campaign.

  5. Both Vietnamese and Americans continue to suffer from Agent Orange disabilities, diseases, deformities and early deaths. Agent Orange passes down the generations and never leaves the DNA. Approximately 35,000 severely disabled children are born in Vietnam annually as a result. The number of American children and grandchildren suffering Agent Orange defects is significant but unknown; I have worked with many. Our government has yet to accept and admit responsibility for this damage to the Vietnamese people and our veterans or pay the promised reparations.

  6. American bombing destroyed 20% of Viet Nam’s forests and jungles, 8% of its cultivated land, and 60% of its mangrove forests. We bombed over 4,000 villages, almost 3,000 high schools and universities, 350 hospitals and 1,500 maternity centers.

  7. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is at epidemic levels for American veterans. There are now about 1 million diagnosed lifetime PTSD cases from that war, about 40 % of those who served. More will come as veterans continue to seek disability benefits throughout the life cycle. In contrast, according to my extensive research there over the last 14 years, there is no chronic breakdown and shattering that we know of as PTSD among Vietnamese veterans.

  8. The American myth says that Vietnam was the only war we ever lost. Some vets say, “We won every battle but lost the war.” Or, “We didn’t lose. We left.” However, Vietnam is far from the only war or country we “left” and no matter how it is spun we did not win. Some vets believe that that loss is the sole cause of their PSTD. Other vets carry what one who served at Khe Sanh and on the DMZ calls “the awful truth that I knew at the time that the enemy I faced deserved to win.”

  9. Some people argue that Vietnam was the first guerilla war Americans fought, making our tactics and strategies more difficult to achieve. In fact, Americans have been fighting guerilla wars and using guerilla tactics learned from Native Americans since the French and Indian Wars, before the United States was even a country.

  10. Some people argue that American violence was justified because the Vietnamese were “cruel,” “less than human,” “did not care about life.” But the Vietnamese felt helpless against our napalm, white phosphorus, Agent Orange, and other monsters of modern technological warfare. They declare that the difference between Americans and other invaders like the Chinese, Japanese and French, was that “you were especially brutal.” They admit that they used booby traps, committed atrocities, and did terrible things to try to terrify us in return.

Some American vets fear going back: they might smell “that smell” again or be held accountable for misdeeds during warfare. In contrast, the Vietnamese are exceptionally welcoming, kind, friendly, compassionate and forgiving. They say to our vets, “We are brothers and sisters who survived the same hell,” and “You were honorable warriors. Only politicians, not the GIs, are responsible.”

We must consider these facts and many others of similar ilk about the Vietnam War as we mark thisanniversary of the war’s end and evaluate its meaning, legacy and long-term effects. Our veterans want to come home, heal, and be honored and considered noble in the American warrior tradition. They served in our name, for the reasons and under the conditions our country created.

We must not view war only through our own eyes, but through all eyes. We must see what we, and not just others, do in the name of our country, our ideals and way of life. Only difficult and brutal honesty about warfare will enable us to restore truth to its telling and give humanity a chance of evolving toward a more peaceful and cooperative future.