The following is a writing sample produced by Benjamin Mermel
There exists perhaps no greater failure of US foreign policy during the Cold War than our crushing defeat in Vietnam. For many years, it pervaded the Weltanschauung of many Americans, and significantly altered the domestic perception that the United States was in some way immune to losses on a scale that occurred during the twenty-year conflict on the Indochinese Peninsula. 53,318 servicemen and women perished in the jungles of Vietnam, 47,434 of them in combat. We remember their sacrifice in countless ways, notably at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., but the tragic reality is that a large portion of those deaths were entirely preventable, and our government was directly responsible. It is worth noting that many draftees were socioeconomically disadvantaged, and so were not well enough connected to get deferments, meaning that no child of any high ranking decision maker or official was ever forced to serve in Vietnam. By comparison, our direct adversary in that “proxy” war, the Soviet Union, sustained just ~16 losses, a number directly attributable to the fact that Russian aid to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or North Vietnam, consisted only of material, educational, and logistical support. Soviet troops did not engage with belligerents directly, and served in an almost universally advisory capacity. Had we done the same, we may have even won. Conversely, starting in the year 1965, beginning with the landing of 3,500 US Marines at Da Nang, American troops directly assisted the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) in assaulting the North, frequently taking up arms and mounting offensives independently of their hosts. Initially, policymakers in Washington were adamant that American involvement would not consist of an invasion and occupation, with President Johnson famously quoted as saying in a speech at Akron University: “We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” However, as the war dragged on, and the losses piled up, several possible solutions were discussed, among them the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons and direct involvement. While the White House rebuffed any plans to escalate the situation with nuclear weapons, the decision was made to ramp up involvement. In order to facilitate a large scale offensive, the Selective Service System instituted the first of seven draft lotteries, calling up all adult men ages eighteen to twenty five. These newly minted soldiers received on average a twenty week training course, donned uniforms, were handed a rifle, and sent 8,000 miles from home to roll back the tide of Communism. President Johnson would insist as the years dragged on that circumstances changed, and that direct American involvement was a necessity. Unfortunately, the environment that combat was taking place in was both hostile and alien to US troops, particularly so to college age kids, many of whom had never left their state, let alone been to Asia. There was and is no practical way to accustom teenagers and young adults, who had never seen combat, let alone jungle warfare, to the challenge of fighting a war halfway around the world.This becomes especially and painfully clear when there are no facilities that replicate the environment of the area of combat. The United States may be expansive and home to many biomes and regions suited for harsh environment training, such as the taigas of Alaska or the deserts of Arizona, but it does not possess a single jungle. Even if it did, our military makes ample use of these areas to acclimatize specialized troops to fight in extreme conditions, but this training frequently occurs as a step in a very long and practiced career in the military, a prerequisite not shared by the vast majority of soldiers in Vietnam, who had been very recently plucked from the safe comfort of life at home. This problem, and more broadly the problem of direct involvement in satellite wars should have been obvious to American planners, as it was to Soviet planners and Chinese planners, and to a more detached degree, British and French planners. This was a lesson that had been learned by the French not ten years earlier, when they endeavored to retain control of what was at the time French Indochina with direct force. Those efforts failed spectacularly, and the 1954 Geneva Conference saw the peninsula partitioned into four constituent states. Similarly, after the Malaysia Emergency, Britain learned the high cost of attempting to occupy a jungle nation, and so wisely refused to publicly or materially ally with the United States when asked. Domestically, John Kenneth Galbraith, US Ambassador to India, cautioned the American government that there was a: “danger we shall replace the French as a colonial force in the area and bleed as the French did.” History tells us that these warnings ring true as defeat after defeat was inflicted. However, none of the facts or warnings made any impact upon policymakers in Washington, and so as a result close to 60,000 soldiers and families paid the price. It was only after fifteen years that the government caved to plummeting public opinion, and began a policy of Vietnamization, or the transference of primary responsibility for combat to the ARVN. The instant that we decided that American men and women were going to personally get involved was the instant that the Vietnam War ceased to be a proxy conflict, and the instant that we lost. Hubris brought us low, and we forgot the human cost of war. We forgot that there is no logical equation, no rational calculation, that solves for human arrogance. We inscribed the names of those that were lost on a wall in Washington, in the hopes that we as a nation remember, and in doing so learn and grow from our mistakes. Our government now has a solemn duty, forever, to ensure that we do not repeat them. War is sometimes necessary, and just, but war must be a crime of necessity, and not of avarice or conceit.