Ukraine’s military forces haven’t had to show their mettle for outside commentators to seek a Vietnam War analogy. In fact, the war didn’t have to begin at all. Even as Putin’s army massed on the borders in what some had seen as a mere demonstration of strength, the scenario was making good copy. According to predictions, Russia would win a quick victory, install a puppet government, and then endure years of resistance from foreign-trained fighters. It hasn’t turned out that way. In the course of preventing the first two outcomes, Ukraine’s forces – still conventional, not guerrilla – have astounded the world.
So what’s the point of bringing up Vietnam? Are the lessons in any way helpful? Kind of yes, kind of no. Just as Russia has been forced to scale back its objectives, so outside commentators have decided that, instead of lining up the whole of the Vietnam War analogy, only certain parts make sense. Thus, the military aid that continues to arrive via neighboring countries is Europe’s ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’; the shame that Russian civilians will feel after learning what their forces have done might recall how Americans were shocked by news coverage of their war; Russia’s inevitable withdrawal will result in a decline in prestige similar to America’s after the Fall of Saigon. And so on.
With the Vietnam War analogy a bit of a square peg in a round hole, turning to the opinions of actual Vietnam vets is both appropriate and timely. Already there are plenty of signs of activity. Many have expressed public solidarity with the Ukrainians, and at least one has gone further still and joined the ranks of foreign fighters. For these people, picking sides in another foreign war doesn’t feel ironic, rather it takes on the qualities of redemption. Simply put, helping the Ukrainians appears more justified – and arguably closer to success – than America’s commitment to South Vietnam. Most emphatic has been John Kerry’s comment on the Russian invasion during a speech to students at Fulbright University Vietnam: “It’s grotesque, it’s disgusting.”
Given Kerry’s anti-war credentials, it’s tempting to assume that his spirited condemnation enabled prowar and anti-war veterans to find common ground. But that is to underestimate the differences of opinion that continue to split this community. For sceptics, the necessity remains to avoid foreign conflicts, an opinion that proceeds with heavy doses of self-criticism. Among this contingent, the most candid so far has been Bob Mulholland, long-time friend of Joe Biden. On April 5, Mulholland was interviewed by LBC UK’s talk show host Andrew Pierce in an attempt to provide Londoners with some clarification on Biden’s position. He didn’t mince his words. President Zelensky’s requests for military assistance were exasperating, Ukraine’s wish to join NATO was mistaken, and Europe’s desire for providing military assistance from the US was tiresome. Faced with this, Pierce offered a modest rebuttal:
AP: Well, look, you know, Russia is part of the United Nations Security Council and so is the United States. You may have heard the Russian ambassador today, lying through his teeth about who’s responsible for the atrocities [in Bucha], trying to blame Ukraine for committing atrocities against its own people. That’s why America has to be engaged.
BM: As all countries have done over the decades. Look, I’ll guarantee Ukrainian soldiers are committing war crimes too. And if that’s ever discovered, the West will ignore it. Any soldier that’s been involved in these wars more than a week knows, ultimately what happens, you get angry and you start doing things which are against the rules. And it’s happened in all wars, it’s certainly happened in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq. Two-hundred thousand civilians were killed in Iraq by an American invasion that was illegal, so I’m one of those people that has long become not as surprised, ‘Oh my God, there’s war crimes.’ We need to end this war. That’s the way to end the war crimes.
Language such as Mulholland’s shows just how easily dovishness can metastasise into a giant shoulder-shrug. Of course, there are precedents for this. Anyone familiar with the fiery debates of the 1930s knows well that anti-war sentiments can serve as a Trojan horse for isolationism. It would appear, therefore, that Vietnam vets aren’t so much interested in stopping conversations as starting, shaping, and continuing them on favourable terms. This is nothing to discourage. For many if not most, that war and its aftermath left a bitter taste in the mouth. By integrating their histories and politics with present-day realities, Vietnam vets hope to nudge public opinion in directions that will be better for the United States and for the world. These intentions are entirely laudable and a quality of good citizenship, though the line that separates isolationism from moral abrogation will continue to be discussed.
[AP Photo/Alexei Alexandrov]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
The author is a former member of the Graduate School of Global Studies, Doshisha University. He has published full-length scholarly articles in outlets such as Common Knowledge, Comparative American Studies, Journal of American Studies, and Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique.