U.S. Shakes Off Torment of Vietnam


The war was won and, as the feelings of common soldiers came rushing to the surface, there was one common thread.

“I think this war has healed the wounds of the Vietnam War,” said Maj. Baxter Ennis. “Our country really came together spiritually.”

For Spec. 4 Brannon Lamar of North Augusta, S.C., it was summed up in a single event: “When we took all those POWs and didn’t mistreat them or gun them down, I wanted to cry,” he said. “I was so proud to be a U.S. soldier. Maybe we are the good guys this time.”


And Emmet Robinson, a burly sergeant in the 82nd Airborne Division, called his men together to make sure even the youngest of them did not miss the point: “Twenty years ago, I went into a situation like this for the first time,” he barked.

“Twenty years ago, I came home a loser. . . . You’ve done something you have a right to be proud of.”

Indeed so. After a lightning victory over Iraq that exceeded all expectations, America’s fighting men and women are coming home as heroes to a country that--because of them--is no longer tormented by the humiliating memory of Vietnam.

Their victory has charged America with a surge of patriotism that has made military commanders popular heroes, brought predictions of surging military enlistments, and purged the country of the “Vietnam syndrome” that made Americans reluctant to commit military force for 25 years.

“By God, we’ve kicked this Vietnam syndrome,” President Bush declared to state legislators Friday at a Washington conference of the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Burying the ghost of Vietnam could mean Americans may now be inclined toward a more assertive foreign policy--a prospect that some view with hope and others with apprehension.

“We’ve been living with the Vietnam syndrome for so long, and this war brings back the imagery of World War II,” said Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa). “There’s been an underestimation of our strength for a long time.”

Robert W. Hess, who was an Army sergeant in World War II and is now commander of the Garden Grove, Calif., VFW post, agreed. “Once people see how well things like this can turn out, I think people will be willing to do more of them,” he said.

On the other hand, some worried that the Vietnam syndrome could be replaced with a “Kuwait syndrome,” in which the country might become too cocky about its military capacities and too quick to resort to force.

“Our irrational fears that the military can’t do the job may be replaced with the equally unrealistic belief that they’re invincible and should be used for any and all problems,” said Alan Brinkley, a professor of history at City University of New York. “There’s a healthy aspect to the end of this Vietnam syndrome, and there’s a dangerous one.”

There were some reassuring voices on this point, though, including some from foreign leaders, who might be expected to fear a more interventionist America. “If the superpower is managed by democracy’s rules, there is no danger,” said Turkish President Turgut Ozal.

Yet there is more to the end of the Vietnam syndrome than a new willingness to dispatch troops to the Third World.

For many of the troops in the field today, it means rendering proper respect for the sacrifices of soldiers.

In the Gulf, “the military did its job,” Capt. Clint Esarey of the 82nd Airborne said Friday. “Now it’s up to the American public to do its job and welcome these guys back home.”

For others, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin L. Powell, the syndrome has meant that force should never be used unless the nation was willing to commit all its energies and powers at once.

The Reagan Administration sought to shake off the Vietnam syndrome as it invaded Grenada in 1983 and bombed Libya in 1986. But its decision-making was marked by a debilitating intramural fight that pitted a reluctant Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger against a more assertive Secretary of State George P. Shultz.

The malaise colored the debate about whether the United States should go to war in the Gulf to begin with. It was a key reason that many of the predictions about the war were so wide of the mark, some say.

“People thought we’d get bogged down, that there would be thousands of body bags coming back, that the Arab allies would turn against us and we’d lose even if we won,” said Tony Coelho, a former Democratic congressman from California. “But the experts were remembering the last war, and they were all wrong.”

Indeed, Coelho observed that the Vietnam syndrome is part of a skepticism about America’s abilities that stems not only from the Southeast Asian experience, but from a series of frustrations in military and foreign affairs.

They include the military’s troubles in building reliable high-tech weapons, the technical failures of the space effort, the logistics snarls during the invasions of Panama and Grenada--and even America’s embarrassing performance in its economic competition with Japan and Germany.

“We’ve been in such a downer for so long,” said Coelho, now an investment banker in New York. “It’s looked like we couldn’t get anything done in the world.”

But amid predictions of a new age of foreign policy, some note that the circumstances of the Gulf War have been highly unusual and assert that Americans may still be hesitant to use military force in many circumstances.

“In this war we had a tremendous world consensus that will be difficult to put together again,” said Paul Maslin, a Democratic consultant and principal in the polling firm of Hickman, Maslin Research. “The enemy may not be so clearly defined, and the situation may be more cloudy.”

“Each of these situations is really (unique),” said Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Los Angeles). “I don’t think we’re going to get too cocky. I don’t frankly think Vietnam is uppermost in the minds of the people in Congress any more when they even think about these questions.”

Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger cautioned in a newspaper column this week that the Gulf War should not suggest to Americans that the country should intervene in regional conflicts around the world.

“I think there will remain a lot of caution,” asserted Stanley Karnow, author of “Vietnam: A History.” “Remember that even (Desert Storm commander Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf) warned that there was a lot of risk in a ground war. We’re not returning to the days when President (John F.) Kennedy could warn in his inaugural that we would defend any friend, oppose any foe.”

Even so, it doesn’t diminish the pride that most Americans--and perhaps especially the troops--feel over the role they have played in the Gulf.

“I’m feeling great,” said Sgt. Margaret Taylor of Charleston, S.C. “We stood up to a tyrant.”

And Sgt. Robinson, the former Vietnam paratrooper now in the Gulf with the 82nd Airborne, said he’s happy to have had a chance to improve his score. “I’m 50-50 now. Won one and lost one.”

Chen reported from Saudi Arabia and Richter from Washington.