31 March 2019

The Living Lessons of Vietnam


Three recent books about the Vietnam War shed fresh light on well-trodden ground, suggesting that America’s debacle a half-century ago still has much to teach us. But US foreign-policy doyens have shown an inability to heed the right lessons.

WINCHESTER, UK – “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?” John Kerry, a decorated US Navy veteran, asked the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in April 1971. “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” It was a good question, and some of those involved in today’s wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere may be wondering the same thing.

Kerry, of course, went on to become a US senator himself, as well as a Democratic candidate for the US presidency in 2004, and served as Secretary of State during President Barack Obama’s second term. In the latter role, he endeavored obsessively, but ultimately in vain, to resolve the Middle East’s intractable conflicts and multiplying nightmares.

It is odd, then, to find that Kerry receives scarce mention in these three excellent books about the American saga in Vietnam. He makes a brief appearance both in journalist Max Hastings’s Vietnam and historian Lien-Hang T. Nguyen’s Hanoi’s War, but none at all in journalist Max Boot’s The Road Not Taken.

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