by W.D. Ehrhart
I recently received the following e-mail: “First off, Mr. Ehrhart, thank you for your service. My main question is this: what wisdom do you think you have gained from experiencing the Vietnam War? Do you think that younger generations could learn something from you and your experience?”
“Thank you for taking the time to write,” I replied. “What wisdom have I gained from experiencing the Vietnam War? What could younger generations learn from me? I hope I don’t sound too cynical, but what I learned was to question everything I’m told by those in authority. Donald Trump lied to the American people multiple times a day for four years, and is still doing it with his “stolen election” bullcrap, but he didn’t invent lying.
“The Vietnam War was created out of lies. The Vietnamese were supposed to hold unification elections in 1956, but the Eisenhower Administration went along with Ngo Dinh Diem in refusing to hold those elections; the excuse was that you couldn’t have democratic elections with a communist—Ho Chi Minh—in control of half the country, but the real reason was that Ho Chi Minh would have won a free and fair election easily.
“Lyndon Johnson jammed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution through Congress in the summer of 1964—the legal authorization for everything that happened afterwards—with only two dissenting votes by claiming that North Vietnamese torpedo boats had attacked two U.S. destroyers in international waters without provocation. Johnson knew at the time that the U.S. ships were in North Vietnamese territorial waters operating in support of South Vietnamese commando raids on North Vietnamese facilities, and that the second attack never even happened, but the Johnson Administration lied to the American people and even to Congress.
“Consider this: after 9/11, the U.S. first invaded Afghanistan, and then Iraq. But the men who attacked the U.S. on 9/11 were 15 Saudi Arabians, one Egyptian, one Lebanese, and two men from the UAE. Neither Afghanistan nor Iraq had anything to do with 9/11. So why did we invade those two countries?
“I could go on at great length. But suffice it to say that our government leaders still continue to lie to us. For 20 years, we were told that the U.S. was making progress in Afghanistan when government documents unearthed by the Washington Post make it clear that U.S. officials knew from the very start that we had no chance of ever “winning” in Afghanistan, yet year after year they continued what they knew was a losing effort through the Bush, Obama, and Trump Administrations. Biden’s decision to withdraw is the first good decision this country has made about Afghanistan since 1978.
“I would say to young people: do not be fooled by the patriotic displays at the beginning of NFL football games and NASCAR races, by the Military Appreciation Nights at NHL hockey games, the apparent reverence for all things and all members of the military. I call it “Crocodile Patriotism.” Your government does not care about the military men and women who die doing the government’s bidding. Lyndon Johnson knew—and said in a recorded conversation in 1964—that we could not win the Vietnam War…and then he proceeded to send millions of young Americans to Vietnam, thousands of them coming home dead. Fewer Americans have died in Afghanistan, but every one of them died while their government knew we would never win there.
“You need to understand that those a nation sends into war are those the government and their fellow citizens have deemed expendable. ‘We can get along without you. If you die, we’ll be fine. We don’t need you.’ And all the flag-waving hot-air patriotic blather is simply to disguise this truth. The war in Afghanistan cost the American people $3 trillion. But that money didn’t just disappear. It ended up in the pockets of corrupt Afghan politicians and war lords, and it ended up in the bank accounts of American arms manufacturers. It was and is a transfer of wealth from ordinary Americans to the Merchants of Death and their accomplices, to those who already have more wealth than they know what to do with.
“You thanked me for my service. Why? Who did I serve? I went halfway around the world to kill, maim, and make miserable people who had never done me or my country any harm, nor ever would or could. Do you really want to thank me for that? What was I fighting for? American freedoms and our way of life? But we lost the Vietnam War, and yet you can still worship at the church of your choice, marry whoever you want, and speak your mind. So what were we really fighting for in Vietnam?
“Here is what I would say to young people: you want to serve your country? Learn to be critical of what you see and read and hear. Seek out alternative sources of information like Salon, Counterpunch, TomDispatch, The Atlantic, The Nation. The New Hampshire Gazette for goodness sake. Even BBC radio and television news, which is far better than any mainstream U.S. network news source.
“Get involved in the politics that impact your life: can you even name your U.S. senators, your U.S. representative, your state senators and representatives, the members of your local government? Become informed. Learn what is being done in your name and with your tax dollars at the local, state, and federal levels. Yes, this takes time and effort, but corruption and deceit and dishonesty and injustice thrive on the ignorance of the people.
“You want to serve your country? Get engaged. Become teachers, general practitioner doctors, EMTs, firefighters, nurses. Heck, be the best damned check-out clerk in the grocery store. Be polite to people. Be tolerant. Treat others the way you’d like to be treated. Try always to do the next right thing. That’s how you can serve your country.”
W. D. Ehrhart is an ex-Marine sergeant who holds a PhD in American Studies from the University of Wales at Swansea, and taught for many years at the Haverford School for Boys.
3 thoughts on “You Want To Serve Your Country?”
Jack Cheevers says that the election scheduled for 1956 by the 1954 Geneva Accords could never have taken place. That may well be true. Nonetheless, for the USA, it was a relief to abandon the intent. That meant that those who wished to interpret it thusly could see that these high-flown agreements contained elements that the high parties could abandon if they did not suit them.
When JFK’s much-cherished 1962 Geneva Accords were finalised, making Laos a neutral country, with the withdrawal of ALL foreign troops, the N Vietnamese could sign up to them without any intention of conforming. That, after all, was how the West behaved. And that meant that the Accords were doomed to fail and that the USA was doomed to lose.
Mr. Ehrhart is correct that under the Geneva Accords of 1954, an election was supposed to take place in 1956 to determine if Vietnamese wanted to unite the northern and southern halves of their country. He neglects to mention that Ngo Dinh Diem’s government was not a party to the Geneva agreement and therefore was not bound by it. Mr. Ehrhart also asserts that Ho would have easily won a “free and fair election” in 1956. That was President Eisenhower’s view at the time, too. Diem’s position was that a free and fair election was impossible; Ho would not have allowed Diem to campaign in the north, nor would he have allowed his tightly controlled people to vote for Diem. It’s unlikely that Diem would have allowed southerners to vote for Ho either. The absence of an election in 1965 is often cited as an example of South Vietnamese and American perfidy; in fact, the idea that a free and fair election could have been carried out in 1956 Vietnam was absurd on its face.
W.D. Ehrhart, as usual, your essay of December 17th is right on . . . or as we used to say,
“you’re fuckin’-A right”. I agree with every word, as a fellow USMC vet who got sucked into the senseless quicksand of America’s war in Viet Nam in 1966. Students and folks at every forum should read your piece and take it to heart.