Fifty-eight thousand U.S. soldiers and an estimated three million Vietnamese died in the Vietnam War. It was a moment of reckoning for the American people, but particularly for the military.
“I would be one of those who would argue that Vietnam haunts American society collectively and it certainly haunts the officer corps," said Andrew Bacevich, professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University. "The officer corps came out of Vietnam intending on avoiding another Vietnam. "
Bacevich served in Vietnam between the summers of 1970-1971. For the majority of the American involvement, however, he was a cadet at West Point. The academy stressed training, but didn't foster reflection about the conflict he was about to enter.
"I failed to think deeply enough about the circumstances that had produced the Vietnam war that I was destined to serve in," said Bacevich.
In 1970, Army First Lieutenant Andrew Bacevich (right), with Sergeant First Class James Wright, was serving in the Vietnam War. Photo courtesy of Andrew Bacevich
The U.S. is still living with the aftermath of Vietnam, Bacevich says. And it is a process that, at times, has been marked by a reluctance to confront the full lessons of the conflict.
“In the immediate aftermath there was a so called ‘Vietnam Syndrome,’ ... a reluctance to engage in any conflict absent of the most important stakes at issue. By the early 1990s, the 'Vietnam Syndrome' had begun to fade away, indeed was forgotten, and Americans without ever, really having fully come to terms with the significance of the Vietnam experience, once again bought into the proposition that the free use of American military power was something that Washington should be permitted to indulge in."
Forty years later, says Bacevich, there is still much to learn.