The Vietnam War

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What was the American experience in the Vietnam War?

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There is no one single American experience in the Vietnam War.  The experience of Americans depended on whether they were in combat in the war, whether they were in Vietnam voluntarily, when they were in Vietnam, or even (if we take the idea of “in the Vietnam War” more broadly) whether they were even in Vietnam.

For soldiers in Vietnam, the experience could differ greatly.  An American who was there as a volunteer in the earlier days of the war would likely not have had such a negative experience.  That is not to say that war is ever pleasant, but this soldier would have been likely to be much less unhappy than a soldier who was drafted late in the war when American public opinion had turned against the war.  Such a soldier would have felt much more futility and anger about being in Vietnam.

Back in the United States, experiences would have varied widely.  The experience of a protestor who was trying to evade the draft would have been very much different than the experience of a World War II veteran who supported the war.  For all Americans, it would have seemed at times that the war was pulling the country apart.  Beyond that, however, there would have been Americans whose experiences were almost completely different.

Thus, it is impossible to talk about any one “American experience in the Vietnam War.”

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What are the lessons learned from American experience in Vietnam?

Different Americans feel that they have learned different lessons from this war.  This is because different Americans have different attitudes about why the war was lost.

One thing that just about everyone agrees on is that the US needs to send troops into situations only when those situations have clear ways to know when we have won so we can leave.  This was a major problem in Vietnam and it seemed that we had learned that during the first Gulf War.  However, we seem to have ignored that lesson in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Just about everyone also believes that we learned that we need to support our soldiers regardless of what we think of the war in which they are fighting.  Soldiers returning from Vietnam were treated badly.  This lesson has clearly been learned and applied.

More controversially, some think that we learned that wars can be undermined by public dissent.  This is why some said that people who criticized the invasion of Iraq, for example, were giving aid and comfort to the enemy.  They feel that we lost Vietnam because our public was not patriotic enough and did not support the war firmly enough.

Others feel that we learned that we should not try to impose our ways on other people.  They feel that Vietnam showed that we could not make others like our system of government.  Therefore, we should only get into wars that are not aimed at “nation-building.”  Again, we seem to have forgotten that lesson in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Thus, there are multiple possible lessons that you can say we learned from this war. 

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