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War And Foreign Policy Through The Eyes Of Vietnam Veterans

During the Vietnam War, more than 58,000 Americans died, as well as more than 2 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians.
Win McNamee
Getty Images
During the Vietnam War, more than 58,000 Americans died, as well as more than 2 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians.

Sen. John Kerry was confirmed Tuesday by the Senate to become the next secretary of state. Former Sen. Chuck Hagel awaits his turn before the Senate Armed Services Committee to become secretary of defense.

Both men are decorated Vietnam War veterans, and their critics and supporters point to their experiences in Vietnam as essential to their qualifications.

Hagel volunteered to serve in Vietnam and was wounded twice. Kerry commanded a swift boat in the Mekong Delta, and on his return home, he angrily threw away his decorations to protest the war.

"I think both Hagel and Kerry, having served in combat, had to come back with at least more skepticism than they brought with them to Vietnam," says Tim O'Brien, who served as an infantryman in Vietnam.

O'Brien, author of The Things They Carried, says his combat experience made him more skeptical and changed his outlook on war and foreign policy. "Bullets can kill an enemy, but ... bullets can also manufacture an enemy and make one."

"The bullet strikes a 6-year-old kid in the head and kills him, you've got a lot of angry villagers and relatives, moms and dads. The efficacy of war itself struck me as a little questionable."

Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn and What It Is Like to Go to War, served as a Marine in Vietnam. "One of the things that I think I came back with from the war is there's one thing America can't export, and that's democracy," Marlantes tells NPR's Neal Conan.

"I think that the way that we need to have our ideas spread throughout the world is by setting a good example," he says. "Doing it by force is just almost a contradiction in the very terms of what we're trying to put forward to people."

During the decadelong war, more than 58,000 Americans died, as well as more than 2 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians.

Tom Ricks, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, is the author of a number of books on America's wars. He says that in researching his latest book, The Generals, he found hundreds of operational histories about World War II but saw a void in material about the Vietnam War.

"It really is an extraordinarily different war than the way we tend to think of American history," Ricks says. "I think it's our least understood war, even now."

Marlantes, who grew up in a small logging town in Oregon, has a distinct memory of the moment his attitude toward government transformed.

"The war had been heated up — this is like 1966 — and the people I was talking to were saying, 'Oh, well, you know, they're not telling us the truth about this war,' " Marlantes says. "And I remember saying — I remember this so clearly: 'But an American president would never lie to Americans.' And they all laughed at me. And that was like, whoa, you know? ... We did wake up from naivete."

O'Brien says there are countless lessons from his service that he carries with him today.

"I went to Vietnam with that kind of Cold War rhetoric booming in my head that if we lost this war there'd be a catastrophe, the dominos would fall and so on," he says. "And now, 40-some years later, I go off and give talks around this country wearing a Van Heusen white shirt. There's a little tag in the back of this thing that says Made in Vietnam. Catastrophe?

"To be skeptical of that catastrophic kind of language I think is one of the important things that I still carry as a kind of moral lesson with me through my life now, all these decades later."

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