The Vietnam War still looms very large in the United States military’s collective understanding of history. So large that, about 15 years after the war’s end and a couple of years after the triumph of Desert Storm, Vietnam occupied a large part of the classroom portion of the US Air Force’s basic training curriculum. I know, because in 1993 I was an enlisted airman undergoing basic at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.
When I attended basic in 1993, the military more or less divided history into two eras: Before Vietnam and After Vietnam. Before Vietnam, the military teaches lessons from the Civil War forward through both world wars and touches lightly on the Korean War. All of those wars come with the feelings one would expect from learning about victories: Americans in arms stood astride the world, fought evil, and kept the world free. Our Army and Marines serve as tripwires protecting innocent people and posing a deterrent to all threats, our Navy keeps the seas safe for global trade and communication, and our Air Force commands the heights from space on down. It’s a stirring picture for a young airman, and I had graduated college with a history degree prior to joining up.
The After Vietnam classwork taught different lessons. America intervened for questionable reasons, was unsure of her strategy, and lost. I never got the sense from the the official military curriculum that fighting in Vietnam served much of a larger strategic purpose. We learned about some of the landmarks, Tet and Operation Linebacker, but not about what the war won, because we lost.
Vietnam did serve a stategic purpose, of course. It was a local civil war with a global spin. The war there was, from the American leadership’s point of view at the time, about halting the spread of international Communism. Communism was an existential threat to our way of life. The Cold War had dominated U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II. Vietnam was one theater in the Cold War, the one we happened to lose while winning the overall war. But that story is hardly ever told anymore, and many veterans who came home from that defeat found themselves scorned by a large slice of society and bearing the stigma of, in John Kerry’s words, having behaved in a fashion reminiscent of Jenjis Khan on behalf of a mistake. Vietnam Syndrome was not so much born in the 1960s and 1970s hippie communes as it was born in the voice of an aristocratic Bostonian who trashed all of the Vietnam War’s nobler purposes and proposed that a generation of “new soldiers” should fight against American interventions at home. Kerry has spent most of the years since then marrying rich and comparing every possible conflict to the one that scarred him and upon which he built his career.