Featured on the wall of my piano room is a photograph, taken by the artist-photographer Ann Gonzalez, of the jungle combat boots I wore for many years in Vietnam. At the bottom are the words, “Do what you have to do, whatever it takes.” That’s the motto of my novel Last of the Annamese, set during the fall of Saigon. And it is the theme of the book—how those of us in Vietnam knew we had to be prepared to give our all for our country.
The photo of the empty boots suggests, almost subliminally, that their owner did just that and that now all that is left of him is his boots.
Men and women who put their lives on the line for the country are a manifestation of the can-do attitude writ large. We do what we have to do, whatever it takes. And we know that our sacrifice is worthwhile and honorable.
The tragic irony is that those who fought in Vietnam were undercut by the downside of the American can-do attitude, the assumption by our commanders that we superior Americans would easily defeat that “raggedy-ass little fourth-rate country,” as Lyndon Johnson called North Vietnam. We were too blinded by our arrogance to understand how to fight the North Vietnamese. And we lost the war. Some 58,000 of us died.
So we Americans need to rethink our way of seeing the world. Let us make the most of the good side of out can-do attitude and learn the humility to grant equality to others who are not like us. Let us do what we have to do, whatever it takes.