From the Left



Why I appreciate the 'Vietnam syndrome'

By Clarence Page, Tribune Content Agency on

I served my two years in the Army and returned home as many did, looking for some silver lining in a war that, as Burns' documentary shows, did not have to happen. The best I could come up with was to hope that, at least, we Americans had learned enough from our tragedies in Southeast Asia that we won't make that kind of mistake again. No, we have learned how to make new ones.

That was illustrated by our ill-fated quest to find "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq.

"If we are forced to fight, we must have the means and the determination to prevail or we will not have what it takes to secure the peace," declared President Ronald Reagan, denouncing the "Vietnam syndrome." "And while we are at it, let us tell those who fought in that war that we will never again ask young men to fight and possibly die in a war our government is afraid to let them win."

That's a wonderful thought. Yet here were are again, trying to find ways to prop up Iraq, fight the so-called Islamic State in Syria and somehow withdraw from Afghanistan, even as we try to figure out what "winning" is supposed to look like in that region.

History is written for the living. Years later, I feel blessed not only to have survived the Vietnam call-up but also to have learned from it. At a young, impressionable age, I learned what it is like to serve in the military, an experience that is becoming increasingly rare for Americans in the post-draft era. I was able to know real heroes, sung and unsung, who had sacrificed in a cause much larger than my individual self.

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The Vietnam War left us with more than 58,000 dead Americans, more than 3 million dead Vietnamese and a new cynicism about our leaders. The "Vietnam syndrome" has its virtues. It should not make us afraid to fight for what we know is right, but it should make us extra careful about questioning what we think we know -- before we are confronted tragically by the awful truth.


(E-mail Clarence Page at



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