The American War in Vietnam: Lessons, Legacies, and Implications for Future Conflicts

By Lawrence E.Grinter; Peter M.Dunn | Go to book overview

8

Noel C. Eggleston


On Lessons: A Critique of the Summers Thesis

The lessons of history are never simple. Whoever thinks he sees one should probably keep on with his reading.

—John K. Fairbank

Postwar analysis of a conflict like Vietnam is welcome and, in any case, inevitable. History that is speculative, or what may also be termed counterfactual, is interesting but perhaps a more questionable exercise. While it does not always “drive historians wild, ” as Colonel Harry Summers states, it should concern us especially when it is presented as an objective proposition free of the prejudices of past studies. 1 It is safe in the sense that the author, though he can be attacked, cannot be proven “wrong”; no one can know what might have happened if leaders had formulated policy or strategy in a different manner. Yet it can lead toward a refusal to accept negative results and a failure to recognize lessons that might have been learned.

We seem to have reached a period in America today in which society has been able to leave behind some of the bitterness and antagonism of the past as people have come to grips with the Vietnam War. On the whole this healing process is undoubtedly healthy for America—we can witness a near full emergence from the closet of the Vietnam veteran and a willingness even to honor those who fought in an unpopular war; the beginnings of a commitment to deal with the problems that remain for the veteran; an interest in exploring the Vietnam War through academic courses; and a foreign policy less characterized by knee-jerk reactions to the past war but still possessing a caution born of careful consideration concerning the mistakes made.

Yet the new spirit also carries worrisome overtones. The young generation of camouflage-clad students nurtured on the likes of Rambo and Chuck Norris know little of the real Vietnam War. They are joined by others from the Vietnam era

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