Years ago, a man drove me around Vietnam, day after day, taking me to villages where I interviewed people about their experiences during what they called the American War. They told me about how they had lost eyes or legs or siblings or parents. They told me about being shot or raped, about surviving artillery shelling, helicopter gunships, or even a massacre.
Most knew very little English beyond what they recalled Americans yelling at them: "VC! VC!" (an abbreviation of "Viet Cong," meaning Vietnamese Communists). The driver, however, spoke passable English and, from his age, I guessed the reason why. The tour company he worked for employed men who, in the 1960s and early 1970s, had thrown in their lot with the Americans, not the VC. For supporting the U.S.-backed government of South Vietnam, which collapsed in 1975, many of them paid a steep price -- either in reeducation camps or opprobrium in their home villages.
That shouldn't be a shock. Those who end up on the wrong side of such conflicts generally don't fare well and Americans are notorious for abandoning their allies.
In April 1975, for example, Stuart Herrington, then a U.S. Army officer and later the author of Silence Was a Weapon: The Vietnam War in the Villages, made a promise to hundreds of Vietnamese crowded onto U.S. Embassy grounds as Saigon, the southern capital, was about to fall. "Nobody is going to be left behind," he insisted. One Vietnamese there remembered his words: "When you are in the American Embassy, you are [on] American soil. I promise me and my soldiers will be the last ones to leave the embassy." A large helicopter, he said, was coming for them. Then, he excused himself to "take a leak," snuck into the embassy building, and onto a helicopter, abandoning those to whom he'd just given his word.
Toward the end of my trip, I asked my driver about his wartime experiences. He had served in South Vietnam's Air Force, as I recall, in a highly classified intelligence unit in a secure room on a large base. So he knew sooner than most just how dire the situation was for the doomed Republic of Vietnam. As the final offensive against it rolled toward Saigon, members of his unit started to bleed away. Each day, another co-worker was missing until the room was nearly empty.
Finally, he, too, ditched his uniform, donned civvies, and made his way to his home village. Was he worried about his reception there? He shook his head as a smile spread across his face. His sister, he said, was a "VC" official and his family (in American parlance) were "hardcore" Viet Cong. So when he showed up, it was assumed that he had been doing something important for the revolution. Had he been a family hedge in case that revolution failed or even a double agent? He didn't say, but he fared so much better than most of those who fought on the side of a nation that bombed, shelled, and massacred his countrymen.
Whether it's Ephialtes betraying his fellow Greeks at Thermopylae about 25 centuries ago or former African National Congress activists cooperating with white South African authorities during the apartheid era, there are always people willing to fight for foreigners, to become collaborators, to sell out their kin or country. But often it doesn't go well for them. They are beaten or shot, have their heads shaved, are reeducated, or go into exile. Today, TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, who fought in America's war in Vietnam, considers the fate of U.S. allies in a more recent war that may end up in much the same way. Nick Turse
Reflections on "Peace" in Afghanistan
Leaving a Misguided War and Choosing Not to Look Back
By Andrew J. Bacevich
When the conflict that the Vietnamese refer to as the American War ended in April 1975, I was a U.S. Army captain attending a course at Fort Knox, Kentucky. In those days, the student body at any of our Army's myriad schools typically included officers from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).
Since ARVN's founding two decades earlier, the United States had assigned itself the task of professionalizing that fledgling military establishment. Based on a conviction that the standards, methods, and ethos of our armed forces were universally applicable and readily exportable, the attendance of ARVN personnel at such Army schools was believed to contribute to the professionalizing of the South Vietnamese military.
Evidence that the U.S. military's own professional standards had recently taken a hit -- memories of the My Lai massacre were then still fresh -- elicited no second thoughts on our part. Association with American officers like me was sure to rub off on our South Vietnamese counterparts in ways that would make them better soldiers. So we professed to believe, even while subjecting that claim to no more scrutiny than we did the question of why most of us had spent a year or more of our lives participating in an obviously misbegotten and misguided war in Indochina.
For serving officers at that time one question in particular remained off-limits (though it had been posed incessantly for years by antiwar protestors in the streets of America): Why Vietnam? Prizing compliance as a precondition for upward mobility, military service rarely encourages critical thinking.
On the day that Saigon, the capital of the Republic of Vietnam, fell and that country ceased to exist, I approached one of my ARVN classmates, also a captain, wanting at least to acknowledge the magnitude of the disaster that had occurred. "I'm sorry about what happened to your country," I told him.
I did not know that officer well and no longer recall his name. Let's call him Captain Nguyen. In my dim recollection, he didn't even bother to reply. He simply looked at me with an expression both distressed and mournful. Our encounter lasted no more than a handful of seconds. I then went on with my life and Captain Nguyen presumably with his. Although I have no inkling of his fate, I like to think that he is now retired in Southern California after a successful career in real estate. But who knows?
All I do know is that today I recall our exchange with a profound sense of embarrassment and even shame. My pathetic effort to console Captain Nguyen had been both presumptuous and inadequate. Far worse was my failure -- inability? refusal? -- to acknowledge the context within which that catastrophe was occurring: the United States and its armed forces had, over years, inflicted horrendous harm on the people of South Vietnam.