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Memories and emotions about 'the American war' that continue to haunt

On most days of the week you will find Carl Steckler, a teaching support specialist in the physics department at Cornell University, dutifully attending to the details of his post in Clark Hall. But on Nov. 11, Veterans Day, Steckler was in his U.S. Marines utility uniform, delivering a presentation on his Vietnam War experience at the Tompkins County Public Library.

Steckler's presentation was part of "Teaching Vietnam: War and Culture," a variety of activities including a teachers' workshop, public talks, films and an exhibit that runs through the end of the month. Sponsored in part by the Southeast Asia Program's (SEAP) Outreach Office and the Tompkins County Public Library, the events were aimed at understanding a war that continues to exert a powerful influence on the American people and the Vietnamese people, who call it the American War.

For 13 months, Steckler served in a relatively unknown Marine operation called the Combined Action Program, deploying small units of Marines to villages in South Vietnam. With the permission of village leaders they lived near or within hamlets providing protection from hostile North Vietnamese forces, medical care and other modes of "pacification."

"The Army and the Marines fought two separate wars in Vietnam," said Steckler. "The army focused on conventional warfare, with large units fighting set-piece battles. The Marines preferred small-unit pacification over large unit battles."

Steckler was stationed in an old French fort south of Da Nang that overlooked three villages and a river. The Viet Cong controlled much of the area on the opposite side of the river and launched occasional mortar strikes. At night the Marines conducted search and destroy patrols, engaging in frequent firefights and ambushes. The Marines also helped to build a school, providing materials and manpower and regular medical attention to local villagers. Steckler believes the Combined Action Program was successful but ill-regarded by U.S. Army Gen. Westmoreland, who disbanded it.

Today, that same model is being used in a limited capacity by Marine forces in Iraq.

Steckler's talk, held in the public library's Borg Warner Room, contrasted with an earlier discussion led by Thuy Tranviet, a Cornell language instructor, that followed a screening of "Lament of Warrior's Wife," a film exploring how North and South Vietnamese women have attempted to deal with the loss of more than 300,000 Vietnamese sons and husbands who remain missing in action. Tranviet, who is from South Vietnam, sought political asylum in the United States with her family after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

"The film was very emotional for me, but I felt the discussion was effective," said Tranviet. "The audience was truly interested in understanding the sorrow of war from a Vietnamese perspective. As a Cornell outreach effort, I felt the program went very well, but I would have liked to see more people from campus in attendance."

On the night of Nov. 10, Cornell professors Fredrik Logevall (history) and Keith Taylor (Asian studies) held a public talk before about 30 people.

Logevall and Taylor team-teach a course on Vietnam that offers an unusual learning opportunity for Cornell students: not only are both men experts on American political and Southeast Asian history, respectively, they also hold very different views on whether the war was necessary. But both agree it is vital to fully understand the history of the Indochina conflict in all its geopolitical and moral complexity.

Logevall argued that the war was unnecessary, saying that while "history does not repeat itself, it sometimes does rhyme," and later drew analogies between American involvement in Vietnam then and Iraq today.

Referring to materials gleaned from archival materials, including White House tapes from the Nixon era, Logevall described how even in the early 1960s senior officials and military advisers "were not confident that even with the introduction of major ground forces and bombing" the United States could defeat a well-trained, well-supplied guerrilla army on terrain ill-suited to conventional warfare. In a comparison to Iraq, Logevall pointed out President Lyndon Johnson's efforts to obfuscate the true dangers involved in escalation and to exaggerate the threat to America by Communist expansion in Southeast Asia.

"It is happening again," he said, referring to the rhetoric of the Bush administration that "corners are being turned, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, that the way to honor the troops is to stay the course." The last argument, Logevall said, "is the same argument made by Johnson and his advisers" in the 1960s.

"My discussion is not intended to slight the sacrifice of those who served so courageously," he added. "But I do not believe the war was worth the loss of one single American life."

Taylor, a veteran of the Vietnam War who lived in the country for a time after the Americans pulled out, took issue to Logevall's argument, saying that the view of the Vietnam War as unnecessary and unwinnable "is not one I sympathize with."

"It is the recycling into American consciousness of what initially was the wartime propaganda view of Hanoi," he said. "The random violence of war is horrible. The only thing that can justify it is if the goal is worthwhile. We lost because we decided it was not worthy of our support … we decided that betraying an ally [the South Vietnamese] was preferable to destroying our own domestic peace."

War Taylor said, "stifles both rational and moral judgment, and it shrivels up our faith in democracy with cynicism, alienation and conspiracy theories, if not despair."

Taylor's re-evaluation of the war followed two decades of teaching about Vietnam as a country and was a way of coming to terms with his own experiences there. He said when he decided to teach about the Vietnam War 10 years ago, it "was a physically nauseating experience for me to talk about."

Taylor outlined the many possible story lines follow in assessing the war's merit or unworthiness. Among the views Taylor rejected was "the easy slander of South Vietnam, as if they could not fight and were not good allies" and the prevailing view that Johnson's handling of the war was somehow the only option available, as well as the disregard for the achievements of the Second Republic of Vietnam, which was abandoned when America pulled out in the 1970s.

Both speakers covered historic and political highlights of the war's history long forgotten, denied or buried in rhetoric. A post-lecture discussion with more than 25 audience members ended only because the library was closing, an indication that it very much matters to the public today how we remember a war that ended 30 years ago.

"I am glad for the opportunity and only wish more people would have come out for the talk," said Jaime Barrera, a Cornell graduate student in applied mathematics who attended several of the Vietnam talks on Thursday and Friday. "In my ideal society, everybody would participate in talks like this instead of staying home and watching television."

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