Two aspects of the battle of Huế and its aftermath reflect on the character of Americans in ways that deserve attention beyond the history of Vietnam.
One is the American can-do attitude. In most circumstances, that way of looking at life is a virtue. It both explains and is a result of our historic push to the west in the early days of our country and our pioneering spirit. But it carries with it an unexpressed superiority complex. We Americans see ourselves as better than those of other cultures. And we see no need to study or understand other nations—to say nothing of learning their languages—because they will never live up to our standards.
Our can-do attitude served us badly in Vietnam. We made no attempt to grasp the subtleties of Vietnamese thinking. We never understood the North Vietnamese dedication to independence from all foreign interference and their willingness to fight to the last man if that’s what it took. We had no such commitment and measured the progress of the war on the basis of body counts—the number dead on both sides—never realizing that the North Vietnamese as a people were willing to die rather than be the victims of what they saw as foreign domination.
The other American behavioral characteristic is our willingness to withdraw from a war and leave behind defenseless those who have fought by our side. We did that in Vietnam. When Saigon fell in 1975, we simply pulled out and abandoned thousands upon thousands of South Vietnamese who had stood beside us in the fight against the North Vietnamese. To me, that was personal. Some 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers had worked hand-in-glove with my organization. We deserted those men. They were all either killed or captured by the North Vietnamese.
We did the same thing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even today, those who worked as our interpreters in those country are refused admission to the U.S., even though those we warred against will eventually capture and kill those we left behind. That, too, reflects our can-do attitude and superiority complex.
So Bowden’s Huế 1968 has real lessons for us to learn. My fervent hope is that we will learn them. But President Trump’s assertion that we’ll pull all U.S. troops out of Syria means that we’ll abandon our faithful allies, the Kurds.
We have learned nothing from our past mistakes.