Vietnam Syndrome

Ho Chi Minh City.

While traveling around Vietnam, you come across different kinds of western tourists. One staple of such a species is the American ex-military person. They usually display a proprietary disposition toward Vietnam which is inexplicable and shows itself in what they say and how they say it. In cultural studies, one would probably say the attitude is indicative of a not-so-subtle Orientalism mixed with a disturbing cocktail of ignorance-innocence plus a patronizing tone painfully visible to a lesser person, such as myself, from the Third World.

One such ex-military person was encountered in a café in Sapa, a northern Vietnamese small town, with beautiful mountainous surroundings and lots of great trekking opportunities, going through spectacular scenes of terrace farming of rice and other farmed goods.

The gentleman did look the military type, and engaged us in small talk. He mentioned that he planned to go to Dien Bien Phu by motorbike. I interjected, “That’s where the French got their ass-whooping!” He didn’t bat an eye, explaining the topography of the place and going on to say that at the time of the French military campaigns in 1953-1954, the military personnel on the ground had repeatedly told their military leaders that their positions there were untenable, yet the political leaders back home had insisted on holding their positions at Dien Bien Phu.

He went on to conclude: “That’s a great example of what micromanaging a war gets you!” He gave a knowing smile and a nod, and sipped on his espresso.

Yes, some military types, especially those up above, believe that ‘micromanaging’ wars is not good business. The word, as I understand its usage, has specific connotations, usually implying that whatever the political goals of the military mission, and no matter in what unrealistic fashion those goals were conjured up, the military mission should be provided for; no questions asked. Once military invasions get going, ‘meddlesome politicians’ — but more to the point, and by extension, the people whose taxes pay for those invasions — should just shut up and stay out of the war business.

The word ‘micromanaging’ usually comes within a package with a larger framework, which is: indefinitely-running military campaigns eventually and at some point, as inevitably as sunrise, will succeed in achieving the political objectives sought.

The mentality behind such phrases as ‘micromanaging the war’, ‘tying military’s hand’, and assorted other terms of delusional inclination, must by duty ignore one crucial factor: the human spirit and its yearning for freedom, and the fact that invaded peoples are humans.

But, what did all the bombings (more than six million tons of bombs), all the atrocities (more than three million Vietnamese deaths; millions of acres of farmlands razed, bulldozed and salted; millions of tons of agent orange sprayed); in short, what did all the rape and all the destruction of the Vietnamese society get the Americans?

Vietnam may be considered ‘poor’ in the eyes of fanatics who deal only in World Bank or Asian Development Bank type of statistics. But, no matter how many millions of sorties worth of misery and hate were visited upon this lush, beautiful and fertile land by successive administrations in the US — with the Democrats and Republicans competing for first prize in extreme sadism — people here have come out the winner, have stayed proud, upstanding, with their dignity intact and, most important of all, help each other willingly and they easily smile. In other words, their spiritual well being is healthy indeed, thank you very much!

The Vietnamese thoroughly defeated first the French colonial and then the American neo-colonial killing machines. And now they are where they intended to be before all that barbarity was unleashed upon them. They are being one nation among others with their sovereignty recognized and respected, and left in peace to pursue a somewhat happy life as best and as competently as they can.

Of course, in so far as incompetence and lack of imagination in administering societal affairs is a species-wide problem of an endemic nature, the Vietnamese too have their share of it. But no more and no less, and their share is not even a hundredth as bad as the Americans’.

The spirit exhibited while getting on with one’s daily life can tell a great deal about a society. In the way the people act towards each other on the streets, in the markets, at places of business and as they carry out their daily routines, the Vietnamese are one of the most cooperative people I have ever met. Despite the poor infrastructure, people’s cooperation with each other makes for a life that is far more hassle-free and relaxed than a lot of societies I have seen.

Here is one simple example I experienced as a traveler. On a tour taking us through two days of visiting different aspects of life on the Mekong Delta, we had to be transferred from one very primitive small boat to another at different points in the journey. At one point, on our way to a coconut candy ‘factory’ (a small thatch-shaded work area on the banks of the Mekong, with maybe twenty workers), the motorboat broke down right in the middle of the waterway. In less than ten minutes, another boat from a competing company, doing the same route, was there to help out, taking us all onboard and delivering us to our intended destination.

Had this breakdown occurred in the U.S., most likely we would have been stranded for at least a few hours while another boat (or a tugboat) was dispatched to help us; definitely, no competing company would pick us up. In China, we would have probably had to wait while the captain himself fixed the boat, which could have taken well, a very long time.

Though it has changed a lot and has gone some way down the road of capitalist restoration (currently a member of the World Trade Organization), Vietnam seems to have healed its wounds mostly and is modestly and warmly proud of being a friendly country to the people who come to visit it, including former colonialists and invaders; maybe especially friendly to them. This, in stark contrast to the eye-scans and finger-printing and an array of technologies of paranoia greeting foreign visitors to the U.S., as if they were entering a gigantic prison colony.

So, Vietnam is pretty much back on track, being a peace-loving nation doing its best to live a dignified life with the modest resources that it has.

In the US, meanwhile, life has changed mostly for the worse. There used to be a time when imperialism could at least bring a few goodies back home for some of ‘its own’ proles. However, thirty-some years after the defeat of the American forces in Vietnam, more than 45 million U.S. citizens have no access to healthcare; more than 12 million families go hungry; and almost18 percent of children under 18 live in poverty. Adjusted against the real buying power of the dollar in 2006, the minimum wages for workers back in 1968 were $9.27 an hour, the highest level of minimum wage ever since. The minimum wages stand at $5.85 an hour now, and, by legislative action taken in January of 2007, will be ‘raised’ to $7.25 by 2009. So, the real wages in the U.S. have been dropping since 1968. With the transfer of an increasing amount of the U.S. manufacturing base to production sites in countries with far lower wage standards, the latest economic ‘recoveries’ are merely recoveries for the profit margins of the most powerful corporations, with no employment gains for the workers during such ‘recovery’ phases.

Some sixty percent of the U.S. corporations that use up most of the infrastructure to make their profits pay no taxes as often as they can, which means that most of the infrastructure is in dire need of rebuilding. And to keep the class divide as a permanent (and increasingly larger) fixture of the American way of life, the public education in the U.S. is in such a situation of inequality that Jonathan Kozol describes it as an apartheid educational system.

Further, the civil rights of the U.S. citizens is no longer a guarantee; in fact, they are guaranteed not to exist, since such was codified into law with the Military Commissions Act of 2006, signed by President George W. Bush back in October 2006. Under the new legal structures, citizens may be (and are) held in captivity with no recourse to legal means to dispute their captivity. US and other citizens may also legally be tortured by the agents of the US government. And the U.S. imperialist wars of aggression-by-choice continue unabated.

So, in terms of real-life conditions, the American people have gained nothing and have actually lost a lot of material ground. In terms of their relationship with the rest of the humanity, the American leaders are far from getting over the mentality that led them to invade Vietnam, and subsequently to the dreaded ‘Vietnam Syndrome’.

Quite the contrary, the upper echelons of the imperialist planners still believe and act as if God gave them a special license to invade any country and subject millions upon millions of people to extreme ‘re-education’ campaigns backed by 1000-pound bunker busters; they still talk of shoving democracy down people’s throats ‘for their own good’; still talk of, and act on, destroying entire villages, towns and nations ‘to save them’; still talk of the harm of ‘micromanaging’ a war, and are still stuck in the delusion that military might will bring all and sundry under their total and unconditional control.

The only things that the rulers in the U.S. have learned deal with military tactics, weapons systems, increasingly sadistic degrees of punishment to be brought upon any who refuse to surrender. As well they have learned about more nuances of political manipulations for the sake of the ‘domestic considerations’ and ‘world opinion’; i.e., the media management of their rape-and-pillage campaigns.

They have not, however, learned the most crucial, humanizing and humbling truths about invading other people’s societies to loot their goods. [In the case of Vietnam, of course, there were no physical or natural goods to loot, but there was that far more important spirit of the resistance that had to be broken; which was not.]

Imperialism is manifestly and thoroughly a sick creature. Much like a mad murderer who cannot help craving the mental exhilaration of the first kill, the U.S. imperialist planners cannot help repeating their attacks on other nations under the pretence of protecting the ‘American way of life’.

Vietnamese society has many challenges and many problems partly as a result of the history of French colonialism and the fight against it, as well as the resistance to the invasion of the U.S. armed forces. Which means that a lot of the economic problems facing Vietnam arise from imposed poverty-by-bombing. Yet, the Vietnamese society goes about its daily business peacefully, and one frequently sees joyous life in the streets.

The American ruling class, however, is perpetually stuck in a murderous gear. A crucial question therefore faces the American people: What will it take for the U.S. public to bring their leaders under some real and institutionalized form of control? A people’s spiritual well being does not automatically survive intact. Especially not while people’s representatives ceaselessly kill others by the millions and plunder others nations routinely just so that more gluttony can spread among an increasingly miniscule and incestuous ruling class in the belly of the beast.

REZA FIYOUZAT can be contacted at:




Reza Fiyouzat may be contacted at: