Connections to a Bygone War

September 13, 2010 Topic: State of the MilitaryTerrorism Region: Vietnam Blog Brand: Paul Pillar Tags: Domino TheoryCold WarIraq War

Connections to a Bygone War

One man personified the the historical continuity between the Vietnam War and 9/11. What lessons can we learn about Afghanistan from his experience?


On Saturday, the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I was in the small town of Alexandria in western Minnesota to attend a ceremony dedicating a Department of Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic in honor of Max J. Beilke, who grew up in the area. Max Beilke was drafted during the Korean War and stayed in the army as a career. Twenty years later, in 1972 and 1973, I worked closely with Max during the last several months of the U.S. war in Vietnam. The venue was a replacement depot at Tan Son Nhut airbase outside Saigon. He was then a master sergeant and the noncommissioned officer in charge of the processing of personnel transiting our compound. I was an army lieutenant and Max's immediate superior, but in reality his partner.

Our principal job was to receive soldiers coming from units in different parts of South Vietnam who had obtained their orders to return to the United States, supervise the procedures necessary to get them ready to leave (such as a drug test to separate the heroin users from everyone else), schedule their transportation, and send them home. Our mission acquired a definite termination date once the peace agreement with North Vietnam was signed in January 1973, providing for a withdrawal over the subsequent 60 days of the remaining U.S. forces. Given the nature of our job, we had to process everyone else out before we could pack our own bags and leave. Max and I therefore were both on the final flight of the withdrawal in March. As we were boarding our aircraft, a North Vietnamese colonel was at planeside with a small gift to give to the last U.S. serviceman to leave. Max, as the senior enlisted man on the flight, received the honor. And so he officially became the last U.S. combat soldier to depart Vietnam.


Max retired from the army the following year and began a second career as a civilian working on behalf of military veterans. He became deputy chief of retirement affairs at Department of the Army headquarters, making a particular contribution in pushing for expanded medical benefits for military retirees. As part of his job he spent much time in the offices on the west side of the Pentagon occupied by the portion of the army staff dealing with personnel issues. He was in one of those offices on September 11, 2001. The last U.S. combat soldier to leave Vietnam became the oldest person in the Pentagon to be killed in the attack that day.

As a human link between the Vietnam War and the international terrorism that provides one of the main national security concerns of today, Max personified an historical continuity that is far too often overlooked.  The passage of time from one generation to the next seems sufficient to wipe from our national memory experiences that are highly relevant to, and have lessons to teach about, current national security challenges.  The notion that serious terrorist threats and a "war" against them all began in September 2001 is one example of such collective amnesia.  Another is the neoconservatives' thinking in pushing for a war in Iraq, which resembled in major respects the thinking behind America's plunge into Vietnam.  A domino theory about how war in a single country would have consequences spreading through an entire region and even beyond was a major tenet of each set of thoughts.  With the Vietnam War the dominoes were to be the negative ones of successive nations falling under communism.  With the Iraq War it would be positive dominoes of Middle Eastern peoples falling to the attractions of democracy and free enterprise.  The first domino chain never materialized, and so far the second one hasn't either.

Max and I were working on the end of a war, not the beginning of one, but that is another subject where memories are short and historical lessons get disregarded.  A major part of the reasoning in the Johnson administration for pushing ever deeper into the Vietnam quagmire even after the prospects for success there seemed dim was that for the United States to abandon what had already become a major commitment would deal a severe blow to U.S. prestige and credibility, with untold damage to U.S. interests elsewhere.  That dire scenario did not materialize either.  And yet we hear today, with endeavors such as the war in Afghanistan, arguments that strikingly resemble what was heard during the Vietnam War--about how for the United States to back out of an existing expedition that already had become large would cripple U.S. credibility and encourage U.S. enemies.

With a few years perspective after the Vietnam War, things didn't even look so bad with Vietnam itself, notwithstanding the peace agreement breaking down and communist forces overrunning the south in 1975.  The Vietnamese regime, while still controlled by the communists, has performed a China-like embrace of a market economy and recognized many interests it holds in common with the United States. Today, the relationship between the United States and Vietnam is expanding and generally cordial. 

Those old enough to have lived and argued through the Vietnam era still disagree over whether the Nixon administration's four-year-long drawdown and Vietnamization of the war were worth the additional costs this policy entailed.  But the U.S. expeditionary force, which peaked at 543,000 troops shortly after Nixon took office, had become so large that any orderly withdrawal would have taken a long time anyway.  Moreover, to conclude the withdrawal with a negotiated peace agreement got American prisoners of war back, which a unilateral pullout would not have.  (Some of the biggest challenges that Max and I had in our jobs stemmed from the need to keep the departure of the remaining U.S. troops in South Vietnam synchronized, per the peace agreement, with the release of POWs from the North.)  And Nixon's policy did, with that last plane that Max and I were on, get U.S. troops out of Vietnam.

The main themes of the ceremony in Minnesota were the honoring not only of Max Beilke but also of all military veterans, and the obligation of the country to meet the needs of veterans--needs which linger long after the uniform is removed. The principal speaker was Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, who invoked Lincoln's words about caring for those who have borne the battle. This seems to be one area where the United States has performed better than it has at times in the not so distant past.  Secretary Shinseki commented positively on the willingness of Congress in recent years to provide increased resources to his department, and he pointed to the new medical clinic in Alexandria as an example of the nation living up to its commitment to veterans.  One can see more informal sides of this good-news story elsewhere.  Go to a baseball game at Nationals Park and listen to the ovation when the announcer recognizes military service members who are there as guests of the team.

But the historical link that Max personified contains an irony that probably few of those people applauding at the ball park would appreciate.  Veterans returning from the Vietnam War were, in general, not appreciated and respected.  They were associated in American minds with a painful national experience that most Americans just wanted to forget.  The irony is that the highly traumatic terrorist attack in which Max died changed the national mood in the direction of greater militancy and patriotism, which, despite the later misdirection and frustrations of the Iraq War, is reflected in the support that we see now but that veterans of Max's generation--the Vietnam generation--did not enjoy.

My personal experiences and relationships have made me naturally attuned to such comparisons and ironies.  Relevant parts of our nation's history are not so distant or opaque, however, that the national amnesia should be as severe as it too often seems to be.  We should be diligently trolling that history for insights about high policy and national security today.  That includes lessons not only about caring for those who have borne the battle but also about whether particular battles are worth bearing.