In December 2009 the airliner I was on touched down in Hanoi, Vietnam. That was my first time to Vietnam. As the plane approached the field, I thought about how this very territory had once been a battleground with dogfights taking place between North Vietnamese planes and U.S. planes high overhead, and U.S. bombers dropping their payloads, incessantly trying to convince the Vietnamese that they – the Vietnamese—could not win a war with the USA.
Vietnam is, today, a very different place than in the 1960s and 1970s. It has a growing economy, tourism, and an ever-increasing educated population. Yet, while many people in the USA know of Vietnam as, at best, a moment in history, the war that the U.S. brought to the Vietnamese is very much part of the continued reality of the people of Vietnam.
This May there are commemorations in many parts of the U.S. of both the 1965 U.S. escalation of involvement and the May 1975 final end to the war. There are many families who lost loved ones to the war. Some 58,000 U.S. servicemen and women were killed in the war, and many more were injured physically and/or psychologically. Some have never fully recovered.
The Vietnamese lost somewhere between 2 million and 5 million people to the war, of which approximately 1 million were combatants. While not minimizing the loss of U.S. lives, the loss of Vietnamese lives was nothing short of catastrophic as a percentage of their overall population.
Additionally, Vietnam, Cambodia/Kampuchea, and Laos suffered the on-going effects of Agent Orange, the toxin poured from U.S. airplanes on the jungles to destroy the foliage. The illnesses and birth defects from Agent Orange haunt those three countries, and they also haunt the U.S., where many veterans brought this demonic substance back, having been contaminated when it was used against the “enemy.”
What remains striking is that the U.S.A. has failed to apologize for the war, let alone truly own up to its genocidal consequences. For years, we have not even wanted to have a serious conversation about the war. The U.S. government reneged on its promises to the Vietnamese after the withdrawal, and though there has been a near demagogic obsession with finding prisoners of war and MIAs, so little has actually been done to address the on-going needs of the U.S. veterans who returned home after putting their lives on the line. The hypocrisy is both amazing and frightening.
In failing to have a real national discussion about Vietnam, we fail to address not only why the U.S.A. got involved in the first place, but the brutality with which the U.S. fought a war against a people who sought independence.
While we must understand what led to the U.S. intervention in Vietnam in order to not repeat that course—as we have in several subsequent wars—more importantly we must face a very uncomfortable fact: the USA must be held accountable to and by the people of Southeast Asia for an extent of devastation that should never have been visited upon humanity.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the host of The Global African on Telesur-English. He is a racial justice, labor and global justice activist and writer. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and at www.billfletcherjr.com.