What the Vietnam War Tells Us about America

My sense is that we Americans have learned nothing from our defeat in Vietnam. Many of us, as I noted earlier, don’t accept that we lost the war. Others seem to have forgotten our failure to win. And many Americans now living don’t remember or never knew about the war. These days when I’m doing presentations about Vietnam, young people, not even born when Saigon fell in 1975, ask me questions like, “Whose side were we on?”

So maybe it’s worth taking the time to outline what we could have learned and didn’t.

I’ve described here our national ignorance about Vietnam and its people, its culture, and its history as we got ourselves more and more involved in combat in South Vietnam. We made little effort to understand the enemy because it was so obvious that he was inferior. In other words, our clear superiority precluded any need to know more. That attitude led to our defeat.

And that mindset reflects America’s current self-image. We are a can-do people. We get things done. We denigrate other cultures that emphasize goals other than achievement. We have little patience with societies that stress learning or beauty or piety.

We are the only nation I know of that considers learning a language other than our own as very difficult and probably not worth the effort. People in other countries accept as ordinary the need to know other languages and don’t find learning them onerous. We Americans see other languages as quaint and, frankly, inferior to American English. Not quite consciously, we expect people from other countries to learn our language.

In sum, I believe that we Americans suffer, without being aware of it, from a superiority complex. If it’s not American, it’s not up to our standard.

And thus we were in Vietnam. That country was backwards and primitive, compared to us, clearly not capable of defeating us militarily. We made little attempt to learn Vietnamese or to understand our enemy and how he fought. We never grasped his determination to win even if it cost colossal casualties. We never understood his dependence on guerrilla tactics that forced us to fight on his terms. In the end, we lost patience and withdrew. And lost the war.

Our performance in Iraq and Afghanistan suggests to me that our attitude in those wars was the same. And our losses there taught us nothing.

My sense is that unless we as Americans learn humility and acquire the ability to see other cultures as equal to ours and make the effort to learn about them and their approach to combat, we will go on losing. And we’ll be as puzzled as to why, just as we were in Vietnam.

One thought on “What the Vietnam War Tells Us about America”

  1. Humility has never been a coveted quality of politicians. But I would say we saw some of it on display with President Obama’s foreign policy. Sadly, it is nonexistent in America’s top leadership at the moment.


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