I find myself involved in two wars at the moment. Through my ramped up research into my Dad's service in World War II I am following the 10th Armored Division leading up to and through the Battle of the Bulge. I have also recently been reading the recent book on the story of Hue 1968 and the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War. A number of years ago (well, many number of years ago, now) a colleague expressed surprise that I read war novels and have often been interested in war studies. "Aren't you a pacifist?" was his question.
Well, nothing is ever black and white, of course. History is often the story of conflict that led seemingly obviously to war. In reading and researching I feel that we can often get a better understanding of our world and hopefully find ways to make war less and less common.
World War II and Vietnam are both watershed moments in our American history. I grew up with World War II being recent enough to be current events. My Dad and many of my friends fathers were veterans. It was more than a watershed- it was a defining moment in many ways, positive and negative. I am also of the Vietnam era. I did not go to war, but the impact of the divisions in our nation as a result of that war are still reverberating. They form the roots of half of the reactions we are seeing today- the civil rights movement being the other half.
In any case a couple of things have stood out as I read through these two wars. This is not an in-depth understanding. These are just things that seem so obvious and still important.
First was the people involved. The soldiers and Marines, the families back home, the local people whose world was being turned into a wasteland. The deep fear and terror that often gripped them is indescribable. The courage is beyond reproach. The horrors of war far worse than any movie has ever been able to portray. Thinking specifically of the soldiers, the daily grind, at times boring and often so horrific that there was no time left to think- just react.
Deep gratitude and humbling awe is what I feel as I read about these battles.
The other thing that jumped off the pages of both wars was, inevitably, the lack of awareness at times of the leaders up the chain of command. They refused to believe, for example, that the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong were able to mount such an offensive. They ordered units into suicide missions because they simply didn't believe the enemy could do what the intelligence and ground reports were telling them was happening. Don't confuse me with the facts. General Westmoreland in 1968 was the classic. But the information that Patton's G2 units were passing back about the possibility of what became the Battle of the Bulge- were also ignored. At least Patton had the war sense to believe it.
The others believed their own propaganda. Those between Patton and Eisenhower felt they were watching a retreat and not a building up of troops. The Germans and the the North Vietnamese, by the way, also believed their propaganda. It was nothing to push the Americans out of France; the Vietnamese people only needed to see a win like Hue and they would rise up against the foreigners. No army or nation is immune to seeing the world through its own lens of belief about itself.
These are lessons we must not lose:
- The importance of the people on the ground- their insight, courage and willingness, and
- Being wary of easy answers that simply echo what we already believe.