Discussing the war in Vietnam will never be an easy subject.
Unlike World War I that started with the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Ferdinand, and World War II that started with Germany’s invasion of Poland, the events that led to our war in Vietnam remain a source of controversy. Unraveling these events into a cohesive storyline will likely never happen.
Adding to this problem is a general indifference to history – including our own – and a preference for trite explanations and sound bites that conform to the country’s predominantly patriotic narrative.
Events like July 4 give us an opportunity to put all this aside and to recall what we do know.
First, our founding fathers were extraordinary humans whose thoughts, words, and actions have transcended the ages. We may veer off course, but we have the bedrock of the Declaration of Independence, and its Preamble, to set us right again.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Second, in the heat of fighting communism, much like today’s “war on terror,” the Preamble is considered restricted to Americans only, and not “all men,” as it reads.
Should we take the Declaration of Independence literally, and choose to honor the men who signed it, we are compelled to think of the enemy as equal to our own. It’s not an easy notion to accept, but we must if we are to remain true to the idea of America.
In the course of paying tribute to the Americans whose names are engraved on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, we should give consideration to the Vietnamese – combatant and civilian – who lost their unalienable rights during the course of the war.
As chaotic as the war was for our military, it was apocalyptic for the Vietnamese. Fought by the US with conventional and non-conventional weapons, the war was waged from land, air, and sea, against city, town, village, and hamlet.
With so many losses spread across the divided North and South, it became impossible for the Vietnamese to accurately track their dead. Estimates would have to suffice. For some, this blunts the pain that comes with knowing the truth about our war in Vietnam. For others, it underscores its madness.
The number of Americans killed is precise: 58,318. The number of Vietnamese killed a range: from 1,500,000 to 3,500,000. Comparing Vietnamese deaths to American deaths, the ratio is from 26:1 to 60:1. In other words, for every American killed, the Vietnamese lost 26 to 60 lives. Each our spiritual equivalent, each endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights that would be lost, forever.
For another perspective on the proportionality of losses in Vietnam – ours and the Vietnamese – see the images below that track those killed from 1957 to 1975. The US wall is on the left, the Vietnamese wall is on the right. The Vietnamese estimate of 2,000,000 is a relatively conservative one.
In the end, we are all one.
You can view a video version of this simulation at the bottom of this page.
Video: A Simulation of the Vietnam Memorial of One.