Several weeks ago, during a phone call with an uncle on my father’s side, he opened up about his service in Vietnam, in particular, his return to the United States after his tour was over. He painfully recalled being confronted by mothers wanting to know why he returned, and their sons did not. He continued by describing the hostile environment soldiers returning from Vietnam faced due to the unpopularity of the war. Years would pass before Vietnam veterans finally received the attention and understanding they deserved regarding their experiences in Southeast Asia. The war is far in the past, but I know my uncle carries with him dark memories of what he saw and had to do in order to survive his tour. In 1988, the television show China Beach (1988-1991) premiered and became a hit with viewers. One of the producers, William Broyles, had served in Vietnam and served as a technical consultant. Viewers might not have been aware that before the show made its debut, Broyles had made a return trip to Vietnam to understand how and why the American mission failed and the effects of the war upon the Vietnamese people. This book is the story of his return trip and what he learned from the people he was once required to kill as a soldier.
Readers may wonder why any soldier would return to the place where they once faced death. But as Broyles explains in the book, there were things he needed to understand that could explain his experiences. The war is considered a failure from a mission objective point of view. But the question still remains, what exactly was the mission in Vietnam? On April 30, 1975, after American troops were withdrawn, Saigon quickly fell to the North Vietnamese Army (“NVA”). Without the support of the United States, South Vietnam faced the reality that unification would take place but not exactly in the way that anti-communists had hoped. Broyles is under no illusions and bluntly states:
“We had our own myths, of course, chief among them that we were helping the people of Vietnam as we bombed their villages, their crops, and their country into a bloody, soggy mess. And in our own history we have customarily gone to war as the protectors of virtue and morality, battling the evil empires of the Huns, the Nazis, the Communists. Our cause was just, therefore we were just. But in Vietnam we came to terms with history.”
Early in the book, Broyles points out that he was not a supporter of the war but did honor his draft notice, reporting to duty for eventual service in Vietnam. He proved to be an adaptive commander and during the book, he shows how his men helped him become a better squad leader. However, it is also clear from his words, that Vietnam would be a loss if America continued the war with a disjointed approach. Upon his return to Vietnam, he finally had the chance to speak with former enemies who embraced him openly and without hostility. The Vietnamese had the uncanny ability to accept that the war was a different time and that life goes on. I cannot say the same would apply universally to other nations once at war with the United States. Broyles learns critical information about the North Vietnamese effort and the weaknesses they found and exploited on the American side. What they reveal will shock readers and cause them to wonder why American commanders did not understand these concepts. Broyles provides a clue:
“The men who got us into these wars are my generation, but they didn’t serve in Vietnam. They avoided it, dodged it, found reasons not to serve, just as their children don’t serve in their wars today. Anyone who fought in Vietnam could have told them how this story turns out, but they never asked.”
The wealth of information provided by the former NVA commanders is unreal. While America had superior weapons, we lacked key fundamental principles that the Vietnamese understood and exploited. And after reading what they tell Broyles, the American failures throughout the war are easier to understand. The author also discusses the role of Ho Chih Minh (1890-1969) and how the United States lost an opportunity to develop a critical ally. And the drafting of the Vietnamese constitution might result in readers recoiling in disbelief. Readers familiar with the name Archimedes Patti (1913-1998) will quickly understand the missed opportunity with the North Vietnamese government in the wake of World War II.
No story about Vietnam is complete without an understanding of the devastation caused to the Vietnamese people and their land. Broyles does not shy away from the topic and is fully aware of how much they suffered during the conflict. Further, he highlights the tragic results of the misunderstanding by American forces of the Vietnamese way of life. Frankly, it seemed as if no one had taken the time to understand how the Vietnamese viewed themselves. Due to either arrogance or reluctance, young men like Broyles and my uncle were sent to war in a conflict that claimed 58,000 American lives and resulted in over 1 million Vietnamese deaths. But if we are to prevent another Vietnam, Broyles’ account of his return to the country will be invaluable. Soldiers go when they are called sometimes without knowing why they are sent. But they understand they have a job to do even if it is not popular. For the veterans of the Vietnam War, acknowledgment and acceptance have taken a long time to come to fruition. There was once a time when veterans of the war would not tell people they had served. The reason is best explained by Broyles as he brings his story to a close:
“We had been willing to give our lives for our country, no less than our fathers had been at Normandy and Iwo Jima. This war, however, was different. We lost. And the country that sent us did not take us back into its arms. It either hated the war or simply wanted to forget it.”