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Vietnam’s lessons for Obama’s new team

Last Thursday, I took a flight to Hanoi. An American tourist in Vietnam, I know, is a remarkably unremarkable thing, but for those of a certain age, the past poses questions for the present.

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Last Thursday, I took a flight to Hanoi. An American tourist in Vietnam, I know, is a remarkably unremarkable thing, but for those of a certain age, the past poses questions for the present.

That same day in Washington, confirmation hearings began for Senator John Kerry to become President Barack Obama’s Secretary of State. And a few days from now, former Senator Chuck Hagel comes up for his confirmation as Secretary of Defence.

Before they become the two top members of the United States’ foreign policy team, Mr Kerry and Mr Hagel face the scrutiny of a third senator, Mr John McCain, a key figure in the nomination process and a respected foreign policy sage.

The three men have a war in common. Back in 1969, Mr Kerry was commanding a riverboat in South Vietnam. Mr Hagel had just served in the same infantry squad as his younger brother, Tom.

Mr McCain was two years into his five-and-a-half year stint as a prisoner of war in Hanoi.

That same year I was 10, growing up in the safety and comfort of a small American town. Only occasionally did I hear the word Vietnam, generally in the context of someone we knew, a cousin we loved or friends of my older siblings, getting sent there.

Possibly never to return, it went without saying.

But I lived far from that scary-sounding world and secure in the knowledge that I was too young for some foreboding thing called the draft.

A DIVIDED NATION

Those who went, either voluntarily or involuntarily, saw the terrible reality of what happened.

The rest of America saw the war from the narrower perspective of our own lives — Walter Cronkite war dispatches, nightly lists of war dead read on television news and arguments over the dining room table.

Americans were bitterly divided. Anti-war protests were everywhere. Veterans came home without much of a welcome.

My father, a machinist for a defence contractor, told us about co-workers who supported the war because of the boom it brought in business.

When the end of the war finally came, there was little to make sense of what had happened, to assess whether it had been worth it, and few seemed to state the obvious — that the war had been a huge mistake, that countless millions suffered and died needlessly, and that in the end, America had lost.

We were wrong, but our leaders never said so, and never apologised for their mistakes. We just went on with our lives, hoping to put this bewildering chapter behind us.

The Vietnam War continued to haunt American politics.

Denialism crept into the national psyche by the 1980s, with Ronald Reagan’s feel-good patriotism and Rambo movies fuelling fantasies of military score settling.

Mr Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 was met with open scorn by many who deemed him a draft dodger. By the time of the George W Bush presidency starting in 2001, the lessons we should have learned from Vietnam seemed lost.

We were back to our militaristic, swaggering ways, our leaders selling us with lies, deceptions, and paranoia on a new generation of quagmires and a return to interventionism.

MAKING NEW MISTAKES

Fast forward to 2013. On the streets of Hanoi, I see a city of kind and wonderful people, a rich cultural heritage, and problems common to most urban centres — traffic gridlock, air pollution, poverty and economic insecurity. I see street vendors working from early in the morning to late at night.

I see Western store names like Gucci, Apple, and KFC, and high-end hotels and restaurants. And through the blur of economic activity, it is hard to see what Uncle Ho won, and what Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon lost.

In a young country where the majority did not live the history, there are no visible signs of the war, no open hostilities. All the literature refers to it as “the American war”, not “the Vietnam war”.

The only war we read about today is the sneaker war between Asian and US footwear manufacturers.

Back in the US, the memory of Vietnam continues to linger, but not necessarily in form.

As we see from Senators Kerry, Hagel, and McCain, all of whom voted in 2002 to support the invasion of Iraq, US politicians are still willing to make new mistakes with other people’s children, to put unilateral military action before diplomacy, sanctions and coalitions.

The Cold War mentality that led to the Vietnam War has been debunked, but the unwavering belief in American military and economic dominance remains a key underpinning for many.

Even as Mr Obama’s winding down of US involvement in Afghanistan starts to resemble Mr Nixon’s ill-fated policy of Vietnamisation, new foreign policy crises are everywhere: The Iranian nuclear showdown, the Assad regime in Syria, and security crisis in Mali. Let us hope that the new US foreign policymakers learn from the lessons of the past.

Tom Benner is a freelance journalist who covers public policy, culture and business. Before relocating to Singapore last fall, he served as bureau chief in the Massachusetts State House and as a long-time editorial writer for daily newspapers in the US.

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