US learnt 'hard' lesson in Vietnam, admits journalist

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An American journalist known for his extensive analysis of the Vietnam War's impact on the American psyche talks with Thanh Nien Daily about what the conflict means today.

For journalist and author Arnold Isaacs, who covered the last years of the Vietnam War for the Baltimore Sun, questions about the war do not lend themselves to easy answers.

With two volumes of Vietnam War analysis under his belt since the end of the war - "Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia" and "Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghost and Its Legacy" - Isaacs has become a leading voice dissecting the ramifications of that war in the US.

War reporting

Since the war, Isaacs has made his way around the globe teaching in China, states across the former Soviet Union, central and Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East.

He's no stranger to conflict.

As a contributor and advisory council member at the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma, a Columbia University project covering stories of high violence and trauma, Isaacs' war experience in Vietnam has informed the way he thinks about journalism and the way he teaches it.

"Vietnam was where I learned something about how conflict affects societies and how people's actions and thinking are changed by violence... And beyond just what happens in war, reporters encounter other kinds of violence and suffering, and I'm sure my understanding and feelings about how to report those stories also reflect my experience in Vietnam."

Asked by Thanh Nien Daily via email if the US had learned a lesson from its involvement in Vietnam, Isaacs says: "[That's] a very big question, as I'm sure you know. People have written entire books trying to answer it. I won't try to give any broad or complete answer in a few sentences."

But Isaacs says that Americans could have learned that military power is not all-powerful and that American decisions and actions are not the only ones that determine events.

The outcome of the war in Vietnam "was decided not by US actions but by the strengths and weaknesses and abilities and character and strategies" of the Vietnamese, according to Isaacs.

"This has been a hard lesson for Americans to learn - hard for leaders, hard for the American people, too, because we tend not to learn enough or pay attention to other people, other ideas, other views of the world," he admits.

Tonkin ghosts linger

Isaacs believes journalism has an important role to play in any society. At a seminar in Islamabad in 2007, he said: "Journalists play a key role in informing the people of the choices available to them and encouraging them to participate in shaping the future of their country."

But asked if the press failed in this role when it published false accounts of the fabricated second Gulf of Tokin incident in 1964, which threw the US into the Vietnam War, Isaacs says it was not as simple as all that.

"It's true that news media did not know or report the full story on either Tonkin or weapons in Iraq, though I think saying that it was the faulty reporting that threw Americans into the Vietnam War is a huge exaggeration."

Isaacs says that there is no way to know for sure but tacitly confirms what critics say about almost every US invasion before and since: "[The] overwhelming probability is that [even] if the Tonkin Gulf episode had never happened, we'd have intervened in Vietnam in more or less the same way anyway."

American regrets

The lingering presence of Agent Orange, unexploded ordnance and other legacies of the American intervention continue to affect millions of Vietnamese every day. With the plight of Agent Orange victims shut down by US courts again this year, leading intellectuals in both Vietnam and the US worry that something's been left unanswered for.

Isaacs says that like human beings everywhere, Americans find it easier to criticize faults in others than to recognize their own.

"We go back and forth on that: we're in a very interesting moment right now, as we reexamine issues of torture and detention policies in the 'war on terror' and try to decide what to do about those and what we should think about ourselves," he says.

"I would say that of course, Americans have a great deal to answer for and regret about their actions in Vietnam and many other places. I also think we have been more open and honest than most countries in trying to recognize and acknowledge when we have violated human rights and our own standards and beliefs."

The 34th anniversary of Vietnam's Liberation Day looms just around the corner this Thursday, marking the liberation of South Vietnam and the reunification of the country. Decades after the war, the personal lessons Isaacs learned from his intimate and extraordinary relationship with Vietnam stay with him today.

He says the preface to his book "Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia" sums it up best: "Along with all I learned in Indochina about venality and violence and despair, I also remember countless humbling lessons, taught to me by ordinary Cambodians and Lao and Vietnamese, about bravery and endurance and dignity under terrible hardship."

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