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Learning From History

Posted on Sep 29, 2014

By Richard Reeves


It is something of a cliche to quote George Santayana one more time, saying, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." But for folks of my age, ignorant repetition has been a constant in our lives. And, of course, it is happening again right now.

When I first was in Vietnam, the most important thing I saw was just outside Tan Son Nhut airport. Turning on the road into Saigon, my taxi was stopped by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Vietnamese on bicycles, dressed alike, waiting patiently for a traffic sign to change.

They all looked the same to my naive American eyes. I thought: Who believed that we could ever understand these people in their place, much less lead or defeat them in war? They had been here for thousands of years and would be for thousands more. We were passing through, wreaking havoc.

Years later, in Afghanistan and the tribal lands of Pakistan, during what is now called the "Soviet War," I saw the same thing—people who had been in those harsh mountains forever and would be forever more. Not only could we not tell them apart, they could not tell us apart, either. The mujahedeen fighting there could not tell Americans from Russians. They called us both red-faced monkeys. Soon enough, we would be gone.

In those places, hundreds of thousands of locals sided with us for the time being—for money, of course. It was not much different from now—repeating the past—in Iraq and environs. The people killing each other there now, Sunnis and Shias, some Christians and Jews, have been killing each other for centuries, and we are not about to stop them, now or ever. It is folly to try, but we are driven by the optimism of ignorance. We westerners, the British, the French, the Italians and now us, have been trying for quite a long time, drawing lines on colonial maps and telling people they are now Iraqis or Lebanese or Libyans.

It is coincidence, but a fortunate one, that a film and a book have just come out that focus on our last days in South Vietnam, the days when we left behind the locals who worked for us to the mercy of their brutal conquerors from the North.

The film is "Last Days in Vietnam," produced and directed by Rory Kennedy. It is an impressive documentary, good enough to be moving into multiplexes and mainline theaters, no small accomplishment. At its heart, the film is about chaos, stupidity and betrayal as the last Americans and some of their Vietnamese workers and wives fled Saigon in 1975 in helicopters and boats. Perhaps the most telling moment comes when 420 Vietnamese are abandoned on the roof of the U.S. Embassy because of a misunderstanding by President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger about the time difference between Washington and Saigon. (That same mistake happened during the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, when the best and the brightest of President John Kennedy’s men forgot that Cuba and Guatemala are in different time zones and American air cover arrived an hour late.)

The other account of the last days of Saigon is a long chapter in Rick Perlstein’s new book, "The Invisible Bridge," a social history of the country’s move from the disgrace of Richard Nixon to the triumph of imagination of Ronald Reagan. That is the same President Reagan who reacted to the truck bomb killing of 241 U.S. Marines in Beirut by withdrawing all American forces.

Reagan’s cut-and-run was ahistorical, and he disguised it with his usual belligerent rhetoric. President Barack Obama has tried desperately to avoid beating the drums of war. But largely because of the horror of beheadings of our citizens in a media-suffocated world, he is being sucked into the vortex of ignorance.

As events and emotion take over policy, we will have to repeat another Santayana quote: "Only the dead have seen the end of war."



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