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Vietnam: Biblical Reflections on National Messianism

Roger Wagner

When the State attempts to play the role of an international savior, bloodshed and deception will surely follow. The Vietnam war is a record of broken covenants and broken lives which must remain impressed on our memories.

In Washington, D.C., adjacent to the many towering white marble monuments and memorials that dot that city, there is a wall of black, polished marble. It emerges, "like a gash," some have said, from the ground and, after making an angular turn, at length returns to the ground once again. On the dark face of that wall are inscribed the names of 58,132 men and women from the American armed services who either died, or were reported, and remain, missing in action, during the Vietnam War.

This is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The dedication reads: "In honor of the men and women of the Armed Forces of the United States who served in the Vietnam War. The names of those who gave their lives and of those who remain missing are inscribed in the order that they were taken from us." Since its opening in 1985, it has been visited by hundreds of thousands of Americans -- families and friends of the dead and missing, visiting sightseers in the national capital, fellow vets. They all come to remember the war that, over its ten year duration, claimed a heavy price from America in money, material, time, and energy but most of all in lives -- the war which became, as many claim, "the only war America ever lost."

Unlike the other monuments in Washington, the Vietnam Memorial has become a type of depository of personal memorials to the war dead from their families, friends, and brothers in arms, and sometimes even from strangers -- grateful citizens of the nation they fought to defend. Every day personal notes, and other items of significance to the living and the dead are left behind in the cracks between the large black panels of the monument, or on the fringe of green lawn in front of it. These have been collected and stored in a warehouse, and have recently begun to be sifted through by writers, and edited into published collections like The Wall and Shrapnel in the Heart.

Vietnam memorials come in all forms, expressing all kinds of emotions: pride, anger, frustration, discouragement, sadness and loss.

I bring you a message from Sandy. She still loves you! She still remembers you! You'll always be her love! (Unsigned)

You were the only young man from our town to die in the Vietnam War, and not the best boy our town produced -- more like a hoodlum most of the time.
But you did not shirk your duty nor did you take the "easy" route to Canada. As a result you made the ultimate sacrifice. You might not have cared about your little home town, but in your way, you helped to keep it free. There is no monument to record your sacrifice, nor is your name read out on Memorial Day. Some of us think of you once in a while, though. Whenever I'm home from the army, I visit your gravesite.
>From us all, thanks.

I came down today to pay respects to two good friends of mine. Go down and visit them sometime. They are on panel 42E, lines 22 and 26. I think you will like them.

Finally. America has awakened and taken home those of us who live and remember you and all the others...I kept your spirit alive till America woke up, Sir. I'm done. Rest well my friend, my Lieutenant.

We did what we could but it was not enough because I found you here. You are not just a name on this wall. You are alive. You are blood on my hands. You are screams in my ears. You are eyes in my soul. I told you you'd be all right, but I lied, and please forgive me. I see your face in my son, I can't bear the thought. You told me about your wife, your kids, your mother. And then you died. Your pain is mine. I'll never forget your face. I can't.
You are still alive.

Although I only met you on a couple of occasions, you were a hero to me. In your uniform, you were the embodiment of an army hero to a seven-year-old child. Little did I know that a few months later you would be killed serving your country.
Without men like you, we couldn't enjoy the lifestyle that we do. John, you gave your life for us, 21 years old and in your prime. How can we repay you?
We all love you and will always remember your sacrifice. You are among the giants of our time.

And many of them, after more than twenty years, are still looking for meanings.
We grew up together. We served together. You died and I lived. I never could understand that. You were a much better person than me. I'll always remember you.
Life has never been the same without you.
Your buddy,

Still don't know why.
Think you guys may be better off.

In many ways these personal messages are a unique dimension in the American experience of remembering those who have made the supreme sacrifice of their lives in our military services. Yet Vietnam still falls in the shadows of the dark, looming question: Why?

In previous wars in which Americans have fought and died, Americans at least believed they knew what they were fighting and dying for -- a war "to end all wars;" a war "to make the world safe for democracy;" a war to "halt Nazi...or Fascist...or Communist aggression." But the Vietnam War did not have a name, because there was no consensus as to why it was fought.

What should we Americans, who, I trust, are loyal and grateful patriots, but who are also numbered among the people of God, and who share a dual citizenship in this land and in the Kingdom of God, learn from our memories of this war and its dead? What are we to make of the meaning of our memorials? We may share many of the same emotions as our countrymen, and some of us with equal personal intensity, but must we -- can we -- share their doubts and confusion concerning the meaning of it all? I think not.

God has given us the Scripture. It is the touchstone of Truth. In it God has revealed His ways to men, and His righteous standards for the conduct of men and nations in history. The word of God traces the outworking of God's purposes among men and nations.

In this discussion I will attempt to evaluate America's involvement in Southeast Asia, and the Vietnam War, in the light of Scripture, and seek, in raising a memorial to the dead, to challenge ourselves with a new understanding and commitment to walk in God's ways in the future, in war and in peace.

Hollywood's Recent Interest

A discussion of this particular war is timely in light of recent renewed interest in the Vietnam War, and its significance for our country and for all of us as citizens.

The war in Vietnam "ended" in 1975, with the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese army. But because of the great conflict and confusion that arose during the war, and continued in its aftermath, not only were the veterans often ignored, or even hated, by their country, but the dead were left without a memorial expressing the appreciation and gratitude which the American people have in the past so freely demonstrated toward their fallen warriors.

The monument was at last erected in 1985, paid for by the private contributions of citizens, among them many vets and their families. The time had come to speak about the war in Southeast Asia, and about those men and women who gave their lives in the conflict. The outpouring of private messages and gifts at "The Wall" is one indication of how eager so many are to break the silence, and raise a memorial to the dead, and in so doing try to come to grips again with the conflict, confusion, and hurt of both personal and national losses.

In 1987, several films about the war in Vietnam were released. One of them -- Oliver Stone's Platoon -- won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and was hailed by the purveyors of Hollywood hype as the "true story" of the Vietnam War, which had to wait twenty years to be told. According to the media gurus, America was finally ready to face the memory of Vietnam, and begin to understand what happened, and why.

One must always approach such announcements with scepticism, since Hollywood's "truth," and the "facts" peddled by the national news media, seldom bear more than a superficial resemblance to reality. The capacity for lying and distortion in the name of leftist ideological purity is a powerful driving force behind the advocacy of New York and Hollywood.

Such scepticism did not have to wait long for confirmation, for later in that same year another film, Hanoi Hilton, produced by an outsider with a radically different point-of-view, was, after the briefest of runs in the theaters, suppressed by pressure from the artistic and media elite. What was the offense of this film? It was twofold. First, it dared to portray with realism, both the personal courage and heroism of American POW's kept imprisoned for years in the North Vietnamese military prison, sardonically dubbed the "Hanoi Hilton" by its wretched inmates, and the ideologically motivated cruelty of their captors and persecutors. Such a film violated a central canon of the American leftist doctrine universally promoted among our media spokesmen: namely, that Marxists (be they Soviet, Chinese, or North Vietnamese) are just like you and me, that they "love their children too" and are never moved to repression and cruelty by ideological commitments, but only on rare occasions by fear of outside counter-revolutionary threats.

The evidence of history has never supported this myth, and Hanoi Hilton "sinned" mightily by portraying the truth of communist inhumanity both vividly and poignantly. The resistance, self-discipline, and commitment of our soldiers to one another, as well as to their country, their cause, and (in some men) their God, is heroic. And, of course, we know that Americans are not supposed to be righteous in their causes or heroic in their behavior, so the film had to go.

But this film's other sin was even more offensive to the people who were claiming that America was ready to hear the truth, their "truth," about Vietnam. This film dared to portray the visit of a politically conscious (read, radical leftist) Hollywood actress to the Hanoi prison for the purpose of getting American POW's to admit to their "crimes against the people of North Vietnam" as a means of securing release from their captivity. The actress does not come off favorably in the film, and Hollywood could not allow anyone to treat one of its own that way -- in this case "Workout" (formerly "Hanoi") Jane Fonda.

For its sins, Hanoi Hilton was consigned to an early appearance at the video-rental stores, and even its appearance on "Showtime" was disclaimed by the following comment from TV Guide's reviewer: "This 1987 film, however, is an overly clichéd depiction of the psychological and physical horrors our POW's endured there." What the reviewer meant to say was that the Americans are portrayed as "good guys" and the communists as "bad guys," and every "thinking" person knows that can't be true (so it must be "clichéd"). Give us instead moral ambiguity and communists with hearts of gold!

An additional effect of films like Platoon was to trivialize the war in historical and ethical terms by psychologizing it -- internalizing the lessons to be learned from it. Consider the conclusion Oliver Stone, the screenwriter and director of Platoon, puts in the mouth of his protagonist as he reflects upon his Vietnam experience, with the sound of the pulsing blades of the evacuation chopper whistling in his memory:

I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy -- we fought ourselves -- and the enemy was in us. The war is over for me now, but it will always be there, the rest of my days, as I'm sure Elias will be, fighting with Barnes for what Rock called possession of my soul. There are times since when I have felt like a child born of those two fathers. But be that as it may, those of us who did make it have an obligation to build again. To teach to others what we know, and to try with what's left of our lives to find a goodness and meaning to this life.
58,132 American men and women died or are missing in a war with themselves? This conclusion is not remotely credible, and will not satisfy most who fought in Vietnam, though it is most suitable for the feeding of liberal angst. It will certainly not teach us anything about the proper criteria for judging the serious moral issues of war and peace in the future. We must look elsewhere.

Outline of a Biblical Foreign Policy

It has often been pointed out that in order for a nation, and its soldiers, to fight a war through to victory, it must have a clear sense of why the war is being fought, and a conviction of the justice of the cause. Let us consider these issues.

During the Vietnam War a poster appeared with a picture of then-President Lyndon B. Johnson standing on the lawn of the White House in front of reporters and photographers, picking up his pet dogs (which were beagles) by the ears. Superimposed upon this picture was a quotation from the Book of Proverbs (26:17): "He that meddles in a quarrel not his own is like a man that taketh a dog by the ears." While the motivation of the producer of that poster was doubtless not a desire to apply biblical truth to the questions of war and peace, he nevertheless put his finger in a memorable way on one of the critical failings in our nation's Vietnam adventure -- namely, the folly of any nation playing God by trying to become an international policeman, or a savior of the downtrodden nations of the earth.

Sadly, the history of America's international involvements in the 20th Century has been largely one of misguided messianism. It has led to major involvements in the affairs of foreign nations, and on four occasions -- WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam -- to the tragic loss of life and national strength which comes from the commitment of our military forces in quarrels which were essentially not our own. America "won" in the first three wars, so the questions regarding the legitimacy of our foreign policy (which were raised by some at the time) did not continue to haunt our national conscience. But Vietnam was a different story -- we lost that war. The question therefore has been: "Why did America become involved in Vietnam?" "Was the the loss of life worth it?"

Unfortunately, most of the voices raised to answer these important questions have come from places on our national political spectrum that give negative answers to these questions on the basis of faulty presuppositions -- at least as those presuppositions are evaluated biblically. I speak of the pacifist and leftist answers to the question of our involvement in Vietnam. The pacifist argues that there is never a reason for going to war, and therefore any resort to violence, even in the defense of one's country, is morally unacceptable. The leftist has such sympathies with the 20th Century enemies of our Republic, that he cannot bring himself to see justice in any American military effort directed against a marxist or socialist regime. On the contrary, while charging America with "genocide" and "crimes against humanity," they will justify any military action on the part of a leftist state as right, virtually by definition.[1]

It is, however, possible, and necessary to examine these questions afresh from the standpoint of the Word of God and the historical situation which confronted us before and during the Vietnam War, and to a large degree still confronts us today.

It is very hard for any nation, especially one as allegedly well-intentioned as the United States, to resist the messianic temptation, especially when we see the genuine political and social needs of the nations of the world.

But it is very important to remember that the Biblical fruits of covenant-keeping faithfulness to God cannot be exported without first exporting the source of those blessings -- the preaching of the gospel of Christ and His life-transforming (and culture-transforming) work. This is the essential difference between 18-19th Century colonialism and the imperialist efforts of the super powers in the 20th Century. The former usually sent missionaries first, where the latter have sent the army.

Nor can we properly apply the Biblical maxim of "love your neighbor" directly to the state. The state, as a "minister" of God for the sustaining of righteousness and justice (cf. Rom. 13:1ff) is strictly limited in the scope of its legitimate use of coercion (the "power of the sword"). To give to one, it must first take from another, and God in His wisdom has restricted the circumstances under which the state can coerce its citizens into helping another nation.

The United States in its national infancy received some sage advice from George Washington, its foremost soldier and first President. His advice was to make it a matter of national foreign policy to avoid political entanglements with foreign, and especially European, powers. Consider these words from Washington's "Farewell Address":

The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. -- Here let us stop. --

Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation. -- Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. -- Hence therefore it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships, or enmities...

Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation [i.e., our geographical insulation from European conflict -- RW]? -- Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? -- Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humour or caprice? --

'Tis our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; -- so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it -- for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements, (I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy). -- I repeat it therefore let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. -- But in my opinion it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.[2]

Two things stand out in Washington's remarks: First, his profound concern that the new nation not entangle itself with European political affairs by entering into alliances with foreign states. He points out that America has very little interest in the political relations among European nations, and would only be drawn into "quarrels not their own" if they began to "bind" their new independence to the interests and caprices of foreign sovereigns by means of political alliances. According to Washington, America would do much better to mind its own business internationally, and simply seek to take its place as a free and independent state in the family of nations. As long as America could trade freely with other parts of the world, it should be content to remain apart from the political affairs of other nations.

Second, Washington is aware of the necessity for honoring one's commitments, on both a personal, national, and international level. For this reason he does not advocate the repudiation of any alliances or agreements that may have already been made with foreign nations by the United States. Keeping faith with other nations was very important to Washington. Nevertheless, he counsels that it would be "unnecessary and...unwise to extend" such attachments.

Here we have the outline of a covenantal foreign policy which is built upon the Biblical principles of truth and faithfulness in covenant-making (i.e., treaties, alliances, etc. between nations), and the recognition of the importance of covenant-keeping, even when it becomes disadvantageous for a man or nation to do so (Ps. 15:4). At the same time, Washington's view reflects the Biblical warnings (even prohibitions) against making yourself a surety for another (Prov. 11:15; 17:18; etc.), e.g., by guaranteeing loans or even another nation's security or independence.

As a Christian, Washington had a healthy respect for the creaturely limitations of individual men, and for the no less significant limitations of national states (which are themselves the creatures of men, rather than expressions of a divine or semi-divine order). According to the Bible, God alone is King and Governor of the affairs of men and nations, and it behoves any nation -- including Washington's beloved United States -- to put on humility and clear-sightedness in viewing their place in the world. No single nation, no matter how godly and blessed, is God's ordained instrument for the salvation and protection of the nations of the earth. All authority over those nations has been vested by God in His Son, Jesus Christ (Matt. 28:18). By means of the preaching of His Word, and the discipling of the nations according to His royal Law, He will bring salvation and covenant blessings to all the peoples of the earth (Mt. 28:19f; Ps. 2; Isa. 11:1-9; etc.).

The Shift in U.S. Foreign Policy:
Non-Interventionism to Internationalism

Only by keeping these forementioned truths clearly in mind will any nation be able to realistically assess the focus of its civil (i.e., political and military) power, and confine its interests to its proper sphere of national concern. Its first obligation must be to its own citizens, and not to the world. Washington therefore urged resistance to the temptation of a proud kind of international political messianism. Succumbing to this temptation turned out nearly 200 years later to be one of the most significant features of the serious failure of our policy in dealing with Vietnam.

This foreign policy, based on a strictly limited view of America's political responsibilities and interests in the world, was followed to a large degree during the early years of our history. The policy was reiterated and expanded in its expressed application in the early 19th Century by the Monroe Doctrine, in which America reaffirmed its commitment not to meddle in the affairs of Europe, and, at the same time, declared that it would take any further efforts at intrusion by European powers in the Western hemisphere as an unfriendly act of aggression against the United States itself.

The theological perspective has changed since the days of Washington. The faith of our fathers in God and His Word, and their correlative appreciation for the limitations of human power and responsibility (personally and nationally) has been eclipsed. For that reason, the political consensus on American foreign policy has also shifted. We are often told that the world in the 20th century is politically a different place -- which is true -- but more significant is the change in the world of ideas and values that has taken place, especially during the last 100 years.

The end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Centuries saw the emergence of an "internationalist" political and economic point of view. Against the background of the growth (after Marx) of international state socialism, on the one hand, and of international government-protected big business and banking concerns on the other, there arose in America a powerful and influential internationalist establishment which had close ties to Europe in general, and England in particular.

This internationalist point-of-view exerted a formative influence on American foreign policy, beginning with U.S. involvement in WWI, and continuing right through the Vietnam era to the present day. The result was a consistent and deliberate rejection of the warnings of Washington (and others), and an increasing entanglement of American interests with those of Europe. The cost through four internationalist-inspired wars, as Washington had predicted, has been monumental, especially in terms of human life.

Following Franklin D. Roosevelt's interventionist lead, every subsequent American President contributed to our entanglement in Indo-China. We, at one point, directly sponsored Ho Chi Minh's overthrow of the Vietnamese ruler through the Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the CIA) and subsequently poured in nearly half a billion dollars in economic and military "aid" to enable the French in their attempt to regain ground from Ho Chi Minh.[3]

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, was double-minded about American involvement in Southeast Asia. On the one hand, he consistently resisted requests for American military intervention: even in connection with the French defeat by Ho Chi Minh's Vietminh forces at Dien Bien Phu in May of 1954. Eisenhower was advised by both diplomatic and military sources not to commit U.S. forces to what would be (in the later words of Charles De Gaulle) "a bottomless military and political quagmire." These advisors argued that America had no strategic interests in the area sufficient to warrant the commitment of American forces to the conflict. Even in the face of a potential communist takeover of the area, Eisenhower pursued a policy based on the assumption that America's own interests were not at stake in the region, and that he could not (in his own words) "conceive of a greater tragedy for America than to get heavily involved."

Here is a classic example of the wisdom of resisting the messianic temptation to claim a national interest in the political fate of every nation on earth -- even in a world that has shrunk strategically, as ours has, in the post-WWII age of nuclear warfare. Eisenhower was following a policy designed to best preserve the integrity and national interests of the United States, and to save the lives of tens of thousands of its young men and women in uniform.

No one in America looked happily upon the possible communist takeover of the former French colonies in Southeast Asia, but many were realistic enough at the time to realize that nothing could be done to kill the monster the U.S. had helped to create without incurring an overwhelming cost to America and its citizens. Unfortunately, as subsequent events showed, later U.S. administrations could not resist the messianic temptation. When the military commitment was finally made, and the costs in lives, material, money, and (most of all) moral integrity, were incurred, still the ultimate outcome was essentially the same as it would have been in the late 50's and early 60's -- a Southeast Asia under the domination of the communist North Vietnamese.

On the other hand, Eisenhower was given to a certain amount of sabre rattling aimed at the Soviets and their client states like North Vietnam. His administration continued to cultivate public interest and concern about developments in Southeast Asia. Eisenhower was the first to put forth the "falling dominoes" theory to explain the long-term consequences of communist expansionism in the area. The fall of South Vietnam, it was argued, would lead to the eventual fall of the other independent states of Southeast Asia.

As a result of this fear, Eisenhower's administration encouraged resistance to Ho Chi Minh's efforts to dominate the region. America did not sign the Geneva Accords in 1954, and neither did they compel the premier of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, to abide by them. The Accords called for a unification of the North and South by free elections under the supervision of an International Control Commission within two years of the signing of the Accords. It was feared that Ho might indeed win such elections, and for that reason, Diem resisted. As a result of this failure, a new war started up in South Vietnam in 1957, with the Vietcong emerging in armed opposition to Diem's government in the South. The Vietcong force was, of course, in reality an arm that the North Vietnamese used to press their interests in the South. But their existence also lent credence, especially in the United States and the West, to the communist claim that Vietnam was in the throes of a civil war -- what Khrushchev called a "war of national liberation" -- rather than a conventional war of aggression against South Vietnam by a neighboring communist/expansionist state. This confusion would later affect both American military strategy in prosecuting the war once troops were committed, and public opinion regarding the war in the United States.

When John F. Kennedy took office as President in 1961, he did not try to return to the Geneva Accords as a basis for a settlement in the area, but rather by November committed the first 7,000 American troops to South Vietnam for "base security." Kennedy was looking for a gesture that would recoup the losses of his failings with regard to Cuba (e.g., the Bay of Pigs invasion), and the continued belligerence of Khrushchev (expressed in speeches at Vienna in 1961, and in the Cuban missile crisis). Without any plan for dealing directly and effectively with the communist threat from the North, the President committed himself to a confused policy of military aid and nation building in an effort to visit upon the people of South Vietnam the wonderful domestic political and social blessings of his own version of Camelot.

In the face of this policy, the North Vietnamese by contrast remained resolute and clear-sighted in the pursuance of their goal: "it was the determination of Ho, his colleagues and successors, to dominate the entire country, including Laos and Cambodia, which was, from 1945 onwards, the principal dynamic of the struggle and the ultimate course of all the bloodshed."[4]

Eventually, Kennedy decided that he was not getting anywhere with Diem, and secretly authorized a coup which deposed and then murdered Diem and his family in November, 1963. The CIA paid $42,000 in bribes to the military leaders who made up the new ruling junta. Three weeks later, Kennedy himself was assassinated, and Lyndon Johnson became president. After the downfall of Diem, each succeeding regime in South Vietnam faced a growing credibility problem which undermined efforts to justify continued U.S. involvement in the war to the American public.

Johnson continued to direct Kennedy's compromise policy in an irresolute fashion until August, 1964, when North Vietnamese gunboats attacked U.S. warships in the Gulf on Tonkin. As a result of this direct aggression, President Johnson asked for, and received, overwhelming support (535-2 in both houses) for a congressional resolution which authorized the President "to take vigorous measures to protect U.S. forces."[5]

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution notwithstanding, Johnson (like Wilson and Roosevelt before him) campaigned for re-election in 1964, on a non-escalation platform, and having overwhelmingly defeated Senator Goldwater, he proceeded to order the bombing of North Vietnam and commit more U.S. ground forces to the war effort in South Vietnam. But Johnson and his advisors were not willing to take the war to its source, North Vietnam, in order to neutralize the external threat to the security and peace of the South. They continued the double-minded plan of using American troops for counter-insurgency maneuvers against the Vietcong and nation building.

The Covenantal Norms of a Biblical Foreign Policy

God tells us in His Word that He has ordered all of human life in terms of covenants. A "covenant" is a bond of commitment and fidelity which establishes and defines mutual responsibilities and privileges among men upon the earth. These covenants are the stuff of which social relationships and institutions are made in the order God has established for men. Thus, from the standpoint of the Bible, covenant-making and covenant-keeping are extremely important features of human life and action. As this is the case in times of peace, it is also critical when nations go to war.

From the historical survey we have just made it is obvious that U.S. foreign policy was not strong in making clear-cut and decisive covenantal commitments in its treaties or promises of support to the people of Southeast Asia, or to the governments of South Vietnam. On several occasions they were guilty of repudiating pledges made, to the detriment of those who had put their trust in us. From the standpoint of George Washington's warnings regarding foreign political entanglements, it appears that the United States not only failed to heed his recommendation that such treaty- (covenant-) ties not be made with remote foreign governments, but also that our leaders, having made such commitments in Southeast Asia, failed to honestly fulfill the obligations enjoined upon us by a proper national integrity and fidelity.

But there was another victim of America's ill-advised covenant-making, and of our growing propensity for covenant-breaking, and that victim was much closer to home -- it was our own military. Against the background of such a confused and confusing foreign policy, America nevertheless "committed the flag" in battle, and in so doing made our own troops the victims of a poorly-thought-out policy which became, in turn, a military strategy impossible to fulfill. In so doing we (in effect) made a covenant of death with our armed forces, and sent them into a war zone where thousands were destined to die.

In order to understand this problem more clearly, we must take a moment to grasp the unique relationship which has existed from the beginning of our nation between our armed forces and the government and people of the United States. This unique relationship is reflected in the constitutional provisions that place the U.S. military under civilian command, jointly expressed in the President and the Congress. Unlike many European nations, whose armies are extensions of the executive power of the king or emperor, our military forces, according to the provisions of the Constitution, while placed under the direction of the President as Commander-in-Chief, are not to be committed to battle unless the President seeks and receives a declaration of war from the Congress in their role as representatives of the American people.

Harry G. Summers, Jr. has well expressed the implications of this constitutional provision:

These safeguards would ensure civilian control of the military, and, in so doing, guarantee that the United States would not go to war without the initial support of the American people...The constitutional requirement for a congressional declaration of war served a dual purpose. It insured public support at the outset, and through the legal sanctions against dealing with the enemy, it created impediments to public dissent.[6]
Since WWII however, power over making war has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of the executive branch (at least until the recent backlash within Congress which led to the War Powers Act of 1973, which served to return a large measure of control in this area to the Congress, albeit a Congress which shows more and more signs of being hampered ideologically in dealing with issues of foreign policy and national security by the leftward drift of its membership). Neither the Korean War nor the Vietnam War were prosecuted under the terms of a congressional declaration of war. Summers argues convincingly that the reluctance in seeking a declaration of war in the case of Vietnam was a deliberate choice on the part of President Johnson, who was fearful that such a declaration, in drawing attention to the war, and the conduct of the war, might compromise the President's domestic efforts at building the Great Society at home in the United States.[7]

Beyond that, Summers points out that the "temper of the times" was against such declarations. The generation of the late 50's and early 60's was becoming impatient with the (covenantal) "formalities" of life--like marriage certificates and declarations of war. Such were seen as mere pieces of paper void of any real substance. As some thought "marrying" without a certificate might lessen the trauma of the breakup of such a relationship, so perhaps fighting a war without a formal declaration might lessen the painful trauma of conducting such a war. This was of course a civilian folly which only a few hours in the combat zone would explode as the dreamer faced the immediate and brutal realities of war. And as time went on, television brought the civilian population at home in the U.S. face to face with these same horrors, and segments of the public turned increasingly against the national commitment made in sending troops, because what they were now seeing on T.V. -- the violent trauma of war -- was not what they bargained for at all.

We would have expected that the professional military would have known better, but apparently they did not. Even such figures as Generals Marshall, MacArthur, and Bradley expressed themselves in testimony before the Congress at the time of the Korean War as uncertain as to the precise value of seeking a declaration of war before sending troops to the battlefield.

A declaration of war is a kind of covenant. In the case of the United States, it is a covenant between the military, the government, and the people. It does have very significant value. In the words of Summers,

[A declaration of war] legitimizes [a] relationship in the eyes of society and announces it to the world. It focuses attention, provides certain responsibilities, and creates impediments to dissolution. While neither a marriage certificate nor a declaration of war are guarantees for staying the course, these legal forms are of immense value to society.

....Further, a declaration of war makes the prosecution of the war a shared responsibility of both the government and the American people...without [it] the Army is caught on the horns of a dilemma. It was ordered into battle by the Commander-in-Chief, the duly elected President of the United States. It was sustained in battle by appropriations by the Congress, the elected representatives of the American people. The legality of the commitment was not challenged by the Supreme Court of the United States. Yet because there was no formal declaration of war, many vocal and influential members of the American public questioned (and continue to question) the legality and propriety of its actions.;..Failure to declare war in Vietnam drove a wedge between the Army and large segments of the American public.[8]

This covenantal bond between the American people and its armed forces, represented and certified by a declaration of war, is the true strength of American military efforts since the War for Independence. It is such because it is the legal and moral declaration of the cause for which the war is being fought, and it enlists the whole support of the nation behind the effort. What emerges from the process of satisfying the constitutional checks-and-balances in securing a declaration of war is a clear and unified purpose, which can then be translated into military strategy and tactics which will realize the political, moral, and legal objectives set forth in the declaration. This is covenantal war-making, and America's failure to understand it, and then follow its constitutional course, led to failure: politically, militarily, but most of all, morally. The victims who paid the price for our confusion and covenantal failure were the millions who died in Southeast Asia,[9] and our own military personnel, whose names are now listed on The Wall in Washington, and their families.

When people face the bitter realities of the maiming and death caused in war, when they experience the personal loss and grief war brings, they need to be able to fall back upon the moral foundations represented by knowing that the cause for which they fought was clearly understood and just. A covenant makes us understand and define the cause, and commit ourselves -- "our lives our fortunes and our sacred honor" -- to that cause until victory is won. But one of the great tragedies of Vietnam is that when the question, "Why?" is asked in connection with that war, the answer is lacking. As a nation we did not say. Perhaps we did not know.

One of the very important side effects of committing the nation to war by covenantal declaration is the restrictions it lawfully places on giving "aid and comfort to the enemy" (treason) and upon some forms of dissent. The U.S. Constitution guarantees a large measure of freedom, including freedom of speech and the press, to the American public. But during the Vietnam War, efforts were made under the guise of those "freedoms" to denounce the efforts of our own military -- sometimes even charging them with "genocide" and other so-called "war crimes" -- and to support and advance the cause of an enemy.

It is hard to imagine any American citizen during WWII waving the Nazi swastika while burning the American flag, much less receiving applause from other citizens, and favorable commentary from the news media. But during the demonstrations against the American war effort in Vietnam, the flag of the Vietcong was often seen proudly waving while "Old Glory" was torn and burned. Is this freedom of speech or treason?

We have all heard of "Tokyo Rose" and others who sought to undermine the morale of our fighting men, and encourage them to turn against their leaders, and come over to the enemy side. But could we ever imagine (if it were not true) the activities of groups like Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which counseled insubordination within the ranks of the military? Or the outrageous treason of "Hanoi Jane" Fonda, who traveled to North Vietnam to meet with communist authorities, to be photographed feigning operation of the guns in an enemy anti-aircraft emplacement. Then -- does faithlessness know no limits!? --she confronted our own military men, held as P.O.W.'s, calling upon them to admit their "crimes" and plead for amnesty from their captors and torturers?

Finally, a declaration of war, with its legal prohibitions against giving aid and comfort to the enemy would also have helped minimize the devastating impact of the Soviet and North Vietnamese program of disinformation upon the American public.

Perhaps the most monumental of all treasons in connection with Vietnam has remained largely invisible to most Americans right down to the present. It arises from the evidence which exists for the complicity of American business and industry, as well as government, in providing the very armaments which cut our young men down. Consider just one report giving evidence that it was American technology and subsidies which promoted the production of the military hardware which was delivered from the Soviet Union to the North Vietnamese, which was, in turn, moved south to be used against our own fighting forces. In May 1972, Nixon blockaded the Haiphong Harbor in North Vietnam to stop the importation of further weapons. The Defense Department released a series of photographs detailing the Soviet influx of supplies into North Vietnam:

One photo shows the Soviet cargo ship Michurin steaming towards Haiphong, with Soviet ZIL 130 cargo trucks and ZIL 555 dump trucks on deck. Others show Soviet T-34 and T-54 tanks, Soviet MIG 17s, and Soviet 122 mm field guns.

All these instruments of aggression, as it happens, originated in the United States and other Western nations. The cargo ship Michurin graphically exposed by the Department of Defense photo is powered by a diesel engine designed and built in the United States and features a hull constructed in the United Kingdom...84 of the 96 ships identified making such runs were powered by Western engines.

In like fashion, the GAZ trucks used on the Ho Chi Minh trail came from a Ford-built Gorki plant, the ZIL trucks from yet another American-built factory. The T-54 and T-34 tanks have modified Christie suspensions (Christie was an American designer). The MIG 17 is powered by a British Rolls Royce engine. The 122mm field gun and other Soviet weapons use a propellant technology provided the communists by American chemical firms.[10]

The words of one of Bob Dylan's 60's protest songs, as it turned out, were not far from the mark:
Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks
You that never done nothin'
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it's your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly

...Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy your forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul...

"Masters of War" (1963)

Indeed, as one writer has put it, the Soviet Union (and their surrogates like North Vietnam) is "the best enemy money can buy." V.I. Lenin once allegedly boasted that the capitalists would sell the Bolsheviks the rope with which to hang themselves. But through Lend Lease and other kinds of loans and subsidies granted by the U.S. government and private banks, it appears more accurate to say we are giving the rope away![11]

Veteran Mythology

This part of our discussion focuses on the sacrifices of those men and women who gave their lives in the Vietnam War, and so it is fitting that we bring this discourse back around to them. We have tried to look at the "big picture" in Vietnam, and its history. Perhaps the question we should now ask is: Should the fighting men and women who represented us there bear the odium that has arisen from the confusion and distortion surrounding our policy in Southeast Asia, and our conduct of the war there? When America has its so-called "crisis of conscience," and faces its "legacy of self-doubt," should they be the ones expected to bear our guilt and our doubts? May it never be!

The common soldiers, sailors, and airmen are not the ones who make the policies or plan the strategies. For good or ill, they are instruments of policy, agents of strategy: "Theirs is not to reason why, theirs is but to do and die." They are the ones (as the singer Donovan said) "who give their bodies as the weapons of the war," and are called upon by us to get the job done. They are the ones that pay the price -- with their wounds or their lives. Sadly, in the case of Vietnam, they have been made to pay with their honor as well.

The 58,156 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial represent many personal tragedies. But an even greater national tragedy is seen in the fact that the whole generation of Vietnam-era veterans has fallen under a cloud of shame and dishonor, and recent efforts to "clear the air" have done little to rectify this injustice.

The popular portrait of the Vietnam warrior -- portraits conveyed in films like Platoon and Full-Metal Jacket, and, with a slightly different twist, in the Rambo films -- is that of a socially maladjusted, sometimes psychopathic, killer. He may be efficient and ruthless in his work (like Lts. Barnes and Elias in Platoon), but one will look at these movies in vain for an example of martial skill and moral character. Almost to the man they are rude and crude, and unprincipled. They evidence no thoughts of others, only of self. One will rarely see Hollywood portray examples of devotion to duty, country, or God. One will not find men or women characterized by self-sacrificing love and loyalty portrayed in the continuing mythology of Vietnam.

This mythology feeds in part upon the charges -- unsubstantiated by the overwhelming preponderance of evidence -- that Vietnam was an especially cruel war, and that American conduct in it was essentially "criminal."[12] Many want to believe the worst, and do. But by continuing to force this portrait upon the American public in the name of a "realistic" look at Vietnam, the honorable memories of the 2. 7 million Americans, living and dead, who served in Vietnam, are slandered and abased.

One ought not to idealize the warrior just because he is a warrior. Armies and navies, like national populations, are made up of all kinds of people. But neither is it right to consign a whole generation of service men and women to a stereotype which suits the comfortable ideological perspective of the mythmaker. The facts are there, for those who care to read them, and they demonstrate the honor and devotion to duty of thousands of those who fought and died in Vietnam.

There are, no doubt, reasons for this national disillusionment with Vietnam. The leaders of several of our administrations wanted America to fight this war while business at home continued as usual. For that reason -- in defiance of God's law against bearing false witness -- attempts were made to conceal or disguise the true nature of the issues being contested by force of arms in Southeast Asia, the parties at war, and the bitter daily realities of the conflict. America was asked to fight in "cold blood," but as Clauzwitz explained 150 years ago, no civilized nation can long fight a war that way. War requires not only physical and military strength, but also moral strength -- born of clear-sightedness and resolve. Our people were not given the benefit of either a realistic assessment of the "whys" and "hows" of the war -- because our leaders did not themselves know, or were unwilling to tell -- nor were they called upon to express their resolution to support their military in light of the fearful costs involved.

Perhaps you, like me, have wondered why mere exposure to the realities of war, which have never changed, and to the personal losses that result, which again are a constant part of the aftermath of war, seemed so totally to undo our leadership and our national will. It would be easy to blame it on T.V. which for the first time brought the war into our living rooms in living, and dying, color. But it is more likely that the cause was the timing of our exposure considered against the background of the general erosion of our national sense of righteousness and justice, and of our resolve to commit ourselves to their pursuit regardless of the cost. Jesus' words again prove true: it is wise to "count the cost" before beginning the war, so that when you come to realize the magnitude of that cost later, you will not quit the field in shame.


God's people are to learn from their memorials -- about themselves, nationally and personally, about their enemies, about God, and about His purposes in history. We have looked at some aspects of America's Vietnam experience in the light of God's Word. We have seen the biblical principle reaffirmed in history -- "God is not mocked, as a man sows so also shall he reap" (Gal. 6:7). Jesus Christ is the King of the nations of the earth. His Law is given as life for the nations who will obey Him. That obedience includes an understanding of the limitations God has placed on the state (the civil and military authority), and upon its role in the international affairs of men. Christ alone is the Messiah, the God-appointed Savior of the world, and any nation, including the United States, which, to any degree, attempts to usurp the unique glory and prerogative of King Jesus, no matter how well-intentioned it may be, stands in grave danger of reaping the whirlwind of God's judgment. As in days of old, so also in the last part of the 20th Century, death and destruction will surely come upon any men or nations who transgress the Law of the Righteous Sovereign, Jesus Christ (Ps. 2:10-12).

Our first President, George Washington, warned our nation to beware its potential for national pride, and endeavor to limit its foreign policy in such a way as not to succumb to the messianic temptation to save the world. Under the later influence of humanist internationalists, that wise counsel was forsaken, and the history of the 20th Century is the history of the price we have had to pay for our proud folly. Even if the international threat of an aggressive Marxism in the form of Soviet expansionism were a grave one, the answer to that threat is not, for our own part, to try to do God's work for Him in the name of humanistic democracy and freedom. We must humble ourselves as citizens, and as a nation-state, and stop "leaning on our own understanding." "In all our ways," including foreign policy, we must "acknowledge Him," by paying special attention to His Word, "and He will direct our paths" (Prov. 3:5-6).

Our sinful failure as a covenant-making nation is especially conspicuous in our treatment of the peoples of Southeast Asia, on the one hand, and our own military, on the other. The unwillingness of our leaders, whom we have chosen to set over us through several administrations, to be circumspect in their making of treaties and alliances, and their marked unfaithfulness in the keeping of them, has brought upon untold thousands, even millions, a horrible legacy of death and enslavement. For these failures we ought to heartily repent, and commit ourselves to put on faithfulness and obedience to God in our future dealings with the nations of the earth.

Our national willingness to bear false witness to our own people -- by not informing and challenging the American people with the true nature of the war: ideologically, militarily, and personally -- has brought upon us as a nation the mockery and reproach of being unable to complete the battle once begun, because we failed to count the cost in advance. Because this failure resulted in strategic defeat in Vietnam, there is a very real sense in which those thousands of Americans who lost lives, limbs, and/or freedom, did so in vain. The tragedy of this reality is only exceeded by its sinfulness and shame.

We cannot change the past. But we can and must take steps today, under God, to change the future. We may begin by honoring what is honorable in our effort in Vietnam. We can do this in a special way by respecting the noble sacrifices of both those who have died and those who have been wounded and disabled. We can go further by renewing our commitment to bring home those who may yet be alive and remain imprisoned in Southeast Asia. But more than that, we can show our faithfulness to God and to our country by carefully and prayerfully thinking through the issues of foreign policy, of war and peace, in the light of God's Word in Scripture; so that, when the need arises again in the future, which it no doubt will, we will be ethically ready and able to frame clear national policy through our leaders, and develop military goals and a strategy through which will not bring shameful defeat, but through which righteousness and truth may emerge the victor, so help us God!


Cf. Podhoretz, Norman, Why We Were in Vietnam, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), pp.184-185.6(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), pp.184-185
Cited from Commanger, H.S., Documents of American History, Vol.I (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1988), p. 169ff.W W.7n History, Vol. I (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1988), p. 169ff.
Johnson, Paul, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties, (New York: Harper and Row Publ., 1983), p. 631.
Johnson, p. 633.
ibid. p. 634.
Summers, Harry, G., On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, (New York: Dell, 1984), p. 37
ibid. p. 34,35.
ibid. pp.41, 46
cf. Johnson, pp.653-657.
M. Stanton Evans quoted in Abrams, L. Call It Conspiracy, (Seattle: Double A Pubications, 1985) pp.159, 160.
cf. Anthony Sutton, National Suicide: Military Aid to the Soviet Union (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1973) and Joseph Finder, Red Carpet, (Fort Worth, TX: American Bureau of Economic Research, 1983) passim.
Podhoretz, pp. 182-195.

Roger Wagner is pastor of Bayview Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Chula Vista, CA and a Doctor of Ministry candidate at Westminster Seminary, Escondido. The foregoing essay is an excerpt from Rev. Wagner's Memorial Day sermon 1987.
Copyright © by Covenant Community Church of Orange County 1990
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