Dreadful Certainty Then and Now

Read or watch everything! This is the only way to keep your finger on the pulse of the culture. As for truth, good luck. I did not have any idea what the Vietnam War was to an individual human being until I talked to a Marine who was there during Tet in 1968. This was in 1973 ― eight years after we entered the war, and just after we left our ally to sink or swim. My understanding was broad brush, geopolitics, strategy, operations. The human dimension was missing. I was a well-insulated university hedgehog. Radical left and blissfully “uncontaminated” by dissenting opinions, including the eyewitnesses who were in Vietnam on all of the sides.

I started reading about Vietnam in an uncle’s veteran affairs magazine in autumn 1964. Through this narrow visor, the enemy was clear. The insurgents in South Vietnam were brutally killing government officials. They were enemies of the supposed democracy we were supporting. But even I, a twelve-year-old boy, knew that Diem had been removed in a very ugly manner under odd circumstances right before Kennedy was killed. The book which sharply clarified the war for me was Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves, which investigated the consequences of the “Free Fire Zones” we employed in South Vietnam. The book is a powerful indictment of a policy which caused immense destruction, and heavy loss of life to the noncombatants of our ally, South Vietnam ― painfully ironic. I read the book three years ago (it was first published in 2013), forty-nine years after the Marines landed in South Vietnam. This was after many years of reading books, seeing films, seeing documentaries, talking to people who were there, seeing plays, and looking at hundreds of photographs. Turse’s book trumped all because he explained how the basic ground tactics we used, which relied on our tremendous firepower, killed the very people we intended to protect. This was fundamental ― our tactics killed too many civilians. The book astonished me, and it changed completely my understanding of the military operations in South Vietnam. The havoc we wrought was reminiscent of the brutal anti-partisan operations executed by the Germans in the Balkans and Eastern Europe in WWII. The ordinary soldier had little control of this vast machinery of destruction. He did not control massed batteries of artillery, the fighters that dropped high explosive and napalm, or the giant B-52's. The policy was decided at the highest level.

The truth is the most elusive thing on earth ― next to love. I am certain before I am dead I will be surprised again and again to find the structure in my mind which attempts to model what the war was, will be completely inadequate. Death only brings the process to an end, incomplete, like all things we try to understand about life on this earth.

What troubles me is the dreadful certainty that infects the minds of this age. The polarization in this nation which forbids the sides in political or moral disputes from talking to each other. The Soviets had terrible certainty, and millions died. The Nazis had terrible certainty, and millions died. My generation thought we had conquered the adamantine mindset that propelled people to cross off those with whom we were not in sympathy. We saw this ended in places like Auschwitz. And then, in the social and political inferno of the terrible 1960's, we forgot this mental discipline to see with the broadest vision, to investigate dispassionately all claims, and to beware of the monster, politics, which blinds.

The sides created in that war are still bitterly opposed. All have erected formidable intellectual scaffolding to support their understanding of the world. None concede that this understanding is transient subject to constant correction. We live in a world dominated by mental inflexibility. This is calcification. We are still fighting an ancient war using ancient weapons. None of the disputants bear in mind what happened to the French in 1940 when their inflexible military system was conquered in mere weeks by the new methods of the Germans. I suspect that we are on the cusp of a mental blitzkrieg which will sweep away these ancient mental fabrications which block innovation and flexibility. My generation strove mightily and birthed stasis. Our unwisdom has infected a nation. This will be on our heads. Perhaps, before we pass from the stage, we can bring this stasis to an end?