Jayne: ‘Vietnam War’ lays out hubris of American leadership

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Editor

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Greg Jayne, Opinion page editor

It is exhausting, emotionally exhausting. And we haven’t even reached the My Lai Massacre yet.

During 8 1/2 hours spread over five nights last week, Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” began telling the story of the United States’ involvement in an Asian country many Americans hadn’t heard of. We know it now, of course, the wounds from the Vietnam War having infected the American psyche for more than a half-century. But the thought that a small nation half a world away could forever alter the most powerful country on earth remains unfathomable decades later.

And it is exhausting. The tales of soldiers and civilians on both sides of the conflict are riveting; the pointlessness of the exercise is maddening; the machinations of American leaders, driven by hubris and blinded by arrogance, are infuriating.

Not far removed from the triumph of World War II and convinced of its standing as the world’s moral authority, the United States became mired in a conflict designed to stop the spread of communism. The lesson, then as now: Don’t make the bogeyman out to be a bigger threat than he really is. As one veteran says, “Sometimes I think if we didn’t think we were the good guys, we might get in fewer wars.”

As a historical document and as an exhumation of the conflict, “The Vietnam War” — which resumes tonight on PBS — should be required watching for all Americans.

The lessons are too important to ignore, and yet the question is how well we have learned them; the parallels to our slogs through Iraq and Afghanistan are painfully obvious. Leaders insist we can win an unwinnable war; generals insist that more troops are needed; mistakes are covered up in an attempt to pacify egos. At one point in the early days of the war, a secret government study concluded that victory was impossible — and yet Americans kept fighting and dying for 10 more years.

Along the way, the public grew divided — between the ethos of “America, love it or leave it” and the thought that sometimes this country makes mistakes.

Pointing out our shortcomings is not an unpatriotic act; it is a noble desire to recognize flaws and improve upon them, understanding that only when our blemishes are laid bare can we apply the proper salve. Extremism in the name of blind devotion is, indeed, a vice.

Learn lessons of the past

There is a moment in “The Godfather: Part II” where Michael Corleone witnesses a Cuban revolutionary detonating a grenade to kill himself and a police captain, rather than be taken into custody. “It occurred to me,” he says, “the soldiers are paid to fight, the rebels aren’t.”

The lesson? “They can win.”

Such was the lesson of Vietnam. Such are the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan. Vice president Dick Cheney said of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, “My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators,” and yet we’re still waiting for the party.

In Vietnam, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, U.S. soldiers have fallen victim to the miscalculations of officials who failed to comprehend the ramifications of their actions, and this nation is weaker for it.

All of which is pertinent as the drumbeat of war echoes in the distance. President Trump has responded to provocations from Kim Jong Un with adolescent name-calling and by threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea.

Yes, Kim Jong Un is a despotic, unfit leader who must be dealt with on the international stage, and his nation’s possession of nuclear weapons increases the urgency. To be sure, no previous diplomatic approach has succeeded in stifling his ambitions.

But any eagerness to demonstrate that American might makes right should be tempered by the lessons of the past. This country’s leaders ignored clear warnings of catastrophe in Vietnam and still pushed ahead, blinded by their own pretensions, and the United States has been paying the bill on that for more than 50 years.

It has been emotionally exhausting.