The Pentagon Book Club
Several years ago, during a trip through the Mekong Delta, I talked with Nguyen Van Tu, a well-weathered farmer residing in a simple wood-and-thatch home with an earthen floor, likely very similar to the one he lived in during the war. Probably the only major difference was the absence of a nearby bomb shelter. During the war, such bunkers were as ubiquitous as the bombs and artillery shells from which they provided uncertain protection. Year after year, families were forced to live a semi-subterranean existence. But they still had to eat, and that meant farming and foraging out in the open. One afternoon in 1971, Nguyen heard artillery being fired from a nearby base and shouted for his family to bolt to their bunker. They made it. He didn't. A 105-millimeter US artillery shell slammed into the ground near him and ripped off most of his right leg. It was, in fact, one of numerous tragedies he endured as a result of the American War. His brother, a simple farmer, was shot dead by America's South Vietnamese allies in the early years of the conflict. His father was killed just after the war. While tending his garden, he accidentally detonated a US M-79 round—a 40-millimeter shell fired from a single-shot grenade launcher—buried in the soil.
In 2008 I published a story about Nguyen, and thanks to readers' generosity he received a new prosthetic leg to replace the rudimentary wooden model he'd walked with for years. But Nguyen hadn't asked for a new leg; it wasn't what he wanted out of the interview. What he wanted was a story in the US press about the true suffering of the Vietnamese people that would spur the government to "take responsibility" for what it had done during the war. Nguyen was skeptical that an American would tell this story. "Do you really want to publicize this thing?" he asked. "Do you really dare tell everyone about all the losses and sufferings of the Vietnamese people here?"
Nguyen's skepticism was well founded, even if he knew nothing of the Crusaders or their revisionist histories. There's a moment in Petraeus's dissertation when he pauses to take stock of the "impact of America's longest war" and its fallout. He devotes not a word to Vietnamese civilians. There's no mention of women with shrapnel still lurking beneath their skin, or the men with faces melted years ago by incendiary weapons, or the inconsolable people still grieving for mothers, fathers, siblings and children gunned down decades ago. Instead, Petraeus wrote, without apparent irony, that "the psychic scars of the war may be deepest among the Army and Marine Corps leadership."
Drawing too many conclusions from a years-old dissertation is a risky proposition, but Petraeus's writings then and his efforts since raise serious questions about just who he believes has suffered most because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, what role he has played in that misery and the lessons he has drawn from the carnage. Given the Crusaders' cheery (and bizarre) conclusions that Petraeus turned the bloody US war in Iraq into a victory and that his "surge" there offers a template for similar success in Afghanistan, one also worries what dubious lessons the next generation of Crusaders will draw from him and his "better wars."