Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it — which is how what Gore Vidal calls the United States of Amnesia ended up invading and occupying Iraq, less than 30 years after the debacle in Vietnam. The earlier conflict, in a distant, humid land, and the recent one, in a distant, arid land, were both costly, ghastly blunders. The principal difference is that the Vietnam War was waged with conscripts, whereas the war in Iraq was fought by volunteers. Financed by deficits, not taxes, the Iraq War had little effect on the day-to-day lives of most Americans. However, during the 1960s, when millions of young Americans lived in daily anxiety over being called up and sent off to battle, the Pentagon's use of the draft concentrated minds and inspired opposition.
On October 16, 1967, while more than 500,000 Americans were waging war in Vietnam, more than 3,000 other Americans converged on the Oakland Induction Center to protest that war. Five days later, a peace rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington drew 100,000. As anti-war actions and hawkish reactions proliferated through the United States, especially on college campuses (Berkeley, Kent State, Wisconsin, Columbia), the country seemed closer to a civil war than at any other time since 1865.
A few months before the Selective Service System selected me to receive an all-expense-paid trip (one-way at least) to Southeast Asia, I participated in the Oakland demonstration. I had moved to the West Coast to attend graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, and when I appeared before the Oakland draft board after challenging my designation as I-A (immediately available for full military service), the first question posed was: "Why the hell did you travel 3,000 miles to attend a Commie school like Berkeley?" After that moment of urbane colloquy, the conversation deteriorated. Impatient with a nuisance like me, the draft board, hoping they could dismiss me as 4-F (unfit for military service), ordered me to take a second physical exam. It was administered in the same Oakland Induction Center that was ground zero for massive protests and police riots. At the conclusion of the exam, a beaming major shook my hand. "Congratulations, son," he said. "I recommend that you enlist in the Navy. The food is better there."
The cuisine was worse in prison and even worse in the jungles of Vietnam. I respected war resisters who trusted their fate to jail or Canada, and I felt compassion for those who, out of a misguided sense of duty or an ignorance of options, served in a long and costly blunder that accomplished nothing except the deaths of 58,000 Americans and perhaps as many as 3 million Vietnamese, soldiers and civilians. Tens of thousands of American troops returned home broken in body or spirit or both. I applied for a 1-O (conscientious objector) classification, and, because my claim was based on philosophical principles rather than a belief in the Supreme Being (then the only sanctioned legal basis), the case dragged on for years. Just as the war and the draft were ending, in 1973, I was granted CO status.
Though I have been elsewhere in the Middle East, I have never been to Iraq. But I can imagine a point in the not-too-distant future when Americans — veterans and others — will return as tourists, cruising the Euphrates. I never did make it to Indochina — until this summer, when, at my own expense, I floated down the Mekong River through Cambodia and into Vietnam. There is much in the lush, verdant countryside of Southeast Asia to lure a tourist — imperial ruins, Buddhist temples, rice paddies, floating markets, silk weaving, fish farms. The region abounds in mango, papaya, rambutan, sapodilla, mangosteen, and other tropical fruits, and it is paradise for aficionados of stir fry and dumplings. Adventurous carnivores can savor ragout laced with rats and snakes. The natives, most of whom were born after the cessation of hostilities with the United States, are friendly, especially toward foreigners with dollars in their pockets. But the vestiges of atrocity haunt both Cambodia and Vietnam.
In 1970, President Richard Nixon launched a secret, unauthorized attack within Cambodia against supply routes used by North Vietnamese forces. Though a strategic success, this ferocious bombardment and invasion — euphemistically termed an "incursion" — resulted in as many as 1 million civilian casualties. It destabilized the Cambodian government of Lon Nol and allowed Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge to sweep into power in 1975. Fanatically dedicated to national autonomy, the Khmer Rouge emptied the capital, Phnom Penh, of all but a few thousand government functionaries and forced everyone else into the countryside to toil the soil. "Rice fields are books," Pol Pot declared. In today's Cambodia, rice is ubiquitous, but books are hard to find. From 1975-79, starvation, disease, and murder claimed the lives of 2 million Cambodians out of a total population of 7 million — the worst case of genocide since Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen ceased operations in 1945. And it was committed by Cambodians against their own people. The Khmer Rouge singled out intellectuals, artists, doctors, lawyers, engineers — anyone with an education — for extermination. They were brought to dozens of "killing fields" scattered throughout the country, where, because bullets were more valuable than human lives, they were stabbed, beaten, or poisoned to death.
The bones of Pol Pot's victims are still visible, scattered across the largest of the killing fields, just outside Phnom Penh. In 1979, the Vietnamese army forced the Khmer Rouge to retreat to an enclave at the Thai border, and surviving Cambodians struggled to retrieve their lives. Houses that lay vacant because of the evacuations became the property of resourceful squatters, even if the original owners showed up later. Some sought revenge against the old regime, but, because the slaughter was so widespread and the Khmer Rouge might yet return, a general amnesty was offered (Pol Pot himself died in 1998 under house arrest by a faction of his own movement while hundreds of other murderers avoided punishment). Too young to remember the genocide, most Cambodians I met focus on the future and deny any bitterness.
However, though the crimes of the Khmer Rouge are not taught in Cambodian schools, the country does memorialize the Pol Pot reign of terror by preserving at least one of the killing fields as an open-air museum of atrocity. A primitive marker identifies a tree against which children were bludgeoned, and another stands above a pit that serves as the mass grave for 450 victims. Piles of parched skulls gaze at visitors, pleading for remembrance. A few miles away stands S21, a former high school converted into a detention center where thousands of Cambodians were interrogated and tortured. The Khmer Rouge meticulously documented their savagery, and, in addition to their implements of abuse, a photographic record of their victims is on display at S21. Despite — or because of — their crudeness, the Killing Fields and S21 together are at least as disturbing as more polished curations of cruelty that I have visited: Yad Vashem in Jerusalem; Wounded Knee, South Dakota; Lima's Museo de la Inquisición y del Congreso; the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. If Angkor Wat, the majestic Hindu temple complex that was constructed in a forest outside Siem Reap early in the 12th century, is an enduring monument to human invention and ambition, the Killing Fields and S21, located just 250 miles south, are a reminder of the barbarism to which our species reverted in the final decades of the 20th century.
Why Are We in Vietnam? asked Norman Mailer in the title of a novel published in 1967, weeks before Walter Cronkite, aka "the most trusted man in America," returned from the Asian combat zone to tell his television audience that "it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate." It in fact ended in defeat for the United States, when, on April 30, 1975, the last helicopter retrieved a few of the thousands of desperate refugees from atop the U.S. embassy in Saigon. Entering through the muddy Mekong from Cambodia, I was in Vietnam 45 years later because of the outsized role that a distant land less than half the size of Texas has played in my nation's affairs for most of my life.
American forces were in Vietnam in 1967 because of the spurious domino theory, the Cold War fear that if one country in Southeast Asia fell to the Communists, all the others would automatically follow. We were intruding into a civil war, supporting the tyrannical group based in Saigon against the one based in Hanoi. Geopolitics is not dominoes, and the fact that Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and China have fought with one another for centuries ought to have led policy makers to conclude that the game was roulette, not dominoes. After chasing out the Americans and, before them, the French, Vietnam went to war against both China and Cambodia. Today, it is nominally Communist, but collective farms have been privatized, and the country's cities are bustling with capitalist enterprise. Yankee imperialists are back, with Burger King, KFC, Pizza Hut, Carl's Jr., and even a place called Texas BBQ. In addition to the huge traditional Ben Thanh Market, posh boutiques proffer pricey European and American merchandise. Vietnam's largest city (about 7.5 million) has been renamed Ho Chi Minh City to honor the man who fought the Japanese occupation with the help of the United States and later led the struggle to evict the French and then the Americans from his country. But most Vietnamese I met still refer to the city by its older, simpler, two-syllable name, confident that, like Leningrad, which reverted to St. Petersburg after the Communists lost control of Russia, Ho Chi Minh City will once again be named Saigon. Nevertheless, despite its embrace of the free market, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, a one-party state, is neither a democracy nor a champion of human rights. Several dissidents defended as "prisoners of conscience" by Amnesty International sit in prison in Vietnam.
To experience a hint of what Vietnam was like as a combat zone, I traveled to Xeo Quyt, a dense, swampy cajuput forest that served as a secret base of operations from which Viet Cong embarked on commando raids throughout the Mekong Delta. The minimal wooden structures have been preserved, and perhaps enhanced, as a lesson in the fortitude of those who fought to undermine South Vietnam and reunite it with the North. I crawled into tunnels and bunkers so cramped that the guerrillas who hid in them for weeks must have been neither tall nor claustrophobic. Foreign tourists now stalk the trails, but local youth groups are also regular visitors, marveling at the grim oddities of their nation's recent past.
But more Vietnamese seem intent on scooting through the nonstop swirl of motorbikes that spill through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. On one of those streets, Vo Van Tan, lies what was the final stop in my search for traces of wartime Indochina. It is a museum designed to tell the story of the Vietnam War, or — as it makes more sense for an Asian to call it — the American War. In Vietnamese, the long, violent conflict is known more formally as Kháng chien chong My (The Resistance War Against America). The successive names that the building on Vo Van Tan has been given are a perfect reflection of the post-war evolution of the Vietnam-United States relationship. Initially called The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government, it later became the Museum of American War Crimes. Then it became the War Crimes Museum. Today it is known as the War Remnants Museum. The change in name was not enough to appease a proud American tourist who told his wife to go on in without him. "I don't need this crap," I overheard him insisting.
In the courtyard just beyond the gate is a sculpture garden consisting of captured or abandoned American military hardware — including an F-5A fighter, an M48 Patton tank, a UH-1 Huey helicopter, and an A-37 Dragonfly attack bomber. Nearby are samples of the 7 million tons of bombs that were dropped on Vietnam. Immediately inside the museum, panels — in Vietnamese, Japanese, and English — outline the causes, chronology, and casualties of the war. Much of the exhibition space on the building's three floors is given over to photographs, mostly by Western photojournalists, documenting the brutality of the American invaders and their South Vietnamese allies. Caught on camera are torture, the murder of unarmed civilians, and other war crimes. Among the most recognizable images is AP photographer Nick Ut's Pulitzer-winning shot of a severely burned nine-year-old girl running naked from her village following a napalm attack. Exhibits also illustrate how the war did not entirely end, how napalm, phosphorus, Agent Orange, and land mines — souvenirs left behind by thoughtful Americans — are continuing today to maim and kill the people of Vietnam. Particularly disturbing are photos of hideous birth defects caused by carpeting the fertile landscape with toxic defoliants. Perhaps some day the fearsome prison at Abu Ghraib will be transformed into a similar museum of American War Crimes.
Nowhere in the War Remnants Museum will you find any remnant of the war crimes committed by the North Vietnamese Army and their guerrilla allies in the South, the Viet Cong. That indignant American I walked past at the entrance was, therefore, right to suspect that the museum is an instrument of propaganda designed to portray the United States and its South Vietnamese clients as heinous aggressors against a peace-loving people. Following its victory, the Hanoi government threw more than a million Vietnamese into prison and reeducation camps. Hundreds of thousands were executed, and more than a million were desperate enough to flee in rickety boats. So an honest War Remnants Museum would also acknowledge that atrocities were widespread and committed by both sides. Nevertheless, spreading blame is not the same as granting absolution. To dismiss our country's mistakes and misdeeds as merely "crap" is to encourage a repetition of the folly.
While campaigning for the presidency in 1980, Ronald Reagan deplored what he called "the Vietnam syndrome," a collective failure of nerve caused by the United States' disastrous experience in Southeast Asia. "There is a lesson for all of us in Vietnam," he told the convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "If we are forced to fight, we must have the means and the determination to prevail or we will not have what it takes to secure the peace." But a more obvious lesson is that if we are not forced to fight — as we were not in Indochina (or Iraq) — we should not fight. As I made my way out of the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, I lingered over a poignant exhibit of drawings. Done by children throughout the world, they constituted a collective dirge over the horrors of war and an eloquent plea for peace. In his 1995 memoir In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, Robert McNamara admitted that the war that he, as secretary of defense under Lyndon Johnson, had administered was "wrong, terribly wrong." Cambodia and Vietnam have something to teach in their refusal to cry over spilt blood. After Iraq as well, can we learn not to spill any more?