On July 18th, Donald Trump enraged fellow Republicans by stating that Arizona Senator John McCain is “not a war hero.” Trump referenced McCain’s imprisonment by the North Vietnamese stating, “I like people that weren’t captured.”
Americans like to think of all their armed servicemen as heroic, and this is especially true of McCain, a POW who was imprisoned and tortured by enemy forces. McCain and others like him fought and risked their lives for something they believed in, which conventional wisdom says defines heroism. It is time we reconsider conventional wisdom. As much as I hate to say it: Donald Trump is right. Not because McCain was captured, but because participation in the Vietnam War was in no way heroic.
The war was not a defensive one for America, as neither the North Vietnamese nor the Vietcong posed a military threat to the United States. Furthermore, it was a war that was only made possible by the draft. Conscription is slave labor, plain and simple. Such enslavement is only made worse by evidence that the American government deliberately lied to escalate its involvement in Southeast Asia. It also violated the personal privacy of antiwar dissenters and conducted large-scale, covert criminal operations to stifle opponents.
Opposition to the Vietnam War created what at the time was the largest anti-war movement in American history. Much of this was sparked by growing photographic evidence of an enormous civilian death toll. The war killed as many as 3.1 million Vietnamese, most of whom were civilians. This is not to mention the thousands of Americans, and hundreds of thousands of Laotians and Cambodians who died, or were maimed, imprisoned or subjected to torture due to US involvement. Much of the human suffering is still with us today. I have personally met American servicemen, unable to have a night’s sleep without revisiting horrifying memories of the killings they witnessed or participated in. This is not to mention the birth defects and increased incidents of deadly disease caused to both Americans and Vietnamese by the use of Agent Orange.
US involvement in Vietnam is now overwhelmingly regarded as a mistake–a dark episode in American history. It is also remembered as the colossal failure that all future failed military interventions, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, would be compared to. If anything positive came out of the war, it’s that it rekindled America’s distrust of government and sparked a decade of opposition to American military intervention abroad. Simply put, state intervention in foreign lands is a bloody, violent business that breeds resentment and hatred abroad, as well as an endless trail of death, destruction and ruined human lives.
Too many Americans, including Donald Trump, as well as most of the “more serious” presidential contenders have failed to learn Vietnam’s biggest lesson: Trade and voluntary interaction are far better means of interacting with the rest of the world than the unwelcome intervention of American armed forces. We can only hope that the chaos caused by America’s current wars of aggression drives home that point.