Revolutionary Violence: The Lessons of Vietnam


WHAT CAN VIETNAM teach us about revolutionary violence? As the conflict seems to be shifting from a military to a political struggle, American commentators are assessing the effects of the twelve-year war almost exclusively in terms of its reverberations through American society. We are informed that the prisoners of war will return to a society torn by conflict and cynical about its future. We are told that the conflict has illuminated the darker side of America. We are warned above all that violence breeds hate and more violence in a never-ending cycle that can only serve to undermine progress and idealism.

But what of Vietnam, a nation that has felt the sledgehammer effects of twentieth-century warfare directly for the past three decades? As the people of Hanoi emerge from their bomb shelters, what do they feel about the end of the fighting? Do the Vietnamese have the same deeply-rooted doubts about the war and its violence that predominate here?

We know little about the Vietnamese, almost too little to be able to assess their feelings about anything. Having done its best to obliterate a people, the American government could hardly be expected to paint faces on the dead. We are told only that the Vietnamese are primitive, that there are many of them, that they are threatened by Communism.

Returning American soldiers tell a different story, one that can perhaps enable us to understand better the people who have resisted American bombs for so long and with so much success. One infantryman I know was on the 1970 drive into Cambodia. His company ran into a unit of the North Vietnamese army holed up in a Cambodian village, and the American commander called in massive air strikes. As wave after wave of fighter-bombers screamed in at tree-top level, the Americans, waiting a half-mile down the road, dove for cover. The Vietnamese, however, stood calmly in the center of the village, firing rifles at the planes until they were engulfed in flaming destruction.

And so it has been for the duration of the war. Vietnamese soldiers have trudged down the Ho Chi Minh trail, dodging American bombs, subsisting on handfuls of salt, and then gone into battle against an enemy possessing all the accoutrements of modern warfare. Hundreds of thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands have replaced them. The Vietnamese have successfully coped with total war on the home front. They have evacuated their cities. They have rebuilt bombed out railroads and dikes, by hand, over and over again.

The Vietnamese attitude toward the conflict may be induced from this evidence. They certainly do not relish being bombed or shot at, but for years they have continued to battle in the inferno in the attempt to free their country. The willingness shared by millions of Vietnamese to continue their struggle in the awful face of constant destruction indicates that they place such a high priority on their revolution that they are willing to risk annihilation to secure its success.

Last month's peace settlement represents a victory for the violent aspect of their struggle, and their journey has now been shifted to the terrain of politics. But, unlike Americans who are presently engaged in soul-searching over their government's criminal actions, the Vietnamese are not troubled by such inner qualms. They may have second thoughts about aspects of military strategy, but they are not plagued by retrospective doubts about their initial decision to embark on an inevitably violent quest.

At issue are the differing attitudes which America and Vietnam hold concerning the just-ended conflict: not the morality of violence in some abstract sense, but its relationship to the ends toward which it is directed. It is a sensitive relationship the Vietnamese understand but Americans have always found incomprehensible. Historically, our people have felt a curious ambivalence toward organized violence, for though our past is studded with conflagrations of all sorts, we still retain a commitment to orderly process. Strikes, ghetto rebellions and imperialist ventures abroad are viewed as aberrations, discordant notes in a harmony of cooperation and consensus.

THIS AMBIVALENCE is what causes the current queasiness about the Vietnam debacle. How else to explain how the American people could witness a concerted effort by their government aimed at the programmed destruction of an entire people and then call it some sort of mistake? America's reign of terror abroad has once again undermined the standard interpretations of our past, but Americans are still fitfully groping for the old explanations.

The Vietnamese do not share our ambivalence toward violence. In their three-decade struggle to construct a humane society across all Vietnam free from foreign influence, they have resorted to violence, with reluctance, certainly, but openly and willingly. They recognize the destruction their decision has visited upon their country but accept it, almost stoically, as an inevitable consequence of their desire to journey toward justice.

Violence for the Vietnamese therefore was not illogical. But neither did it have an all-consuming logic of its own: it was one of many weapons in the revolutionary arsenal, to be used when needed and cast aside when it no longer advanced them toward their objectives. The struggle proceeded simultaneously on several fronts and the various thrusts complemented each other. Political and social reforms followed liberation troops into liberated areas. Soldiers were not centurions, but bearers of a new way of life.

Even when they resorted to outright terror, the Vietnamese revolutionaries used it to further progressive ends. By assassinating selected Saigon officials who implemented the harsh edicts of the American-backed regime, liberation forces grew in stature among the South Vietnamese people and gained a steady stream of converts to the revolutionary cause.

Now that armed struggle seems to be drawing to a close, the Vietnamese do not survey the damage in their half-destroyed nation with unease. They surely mourn their dead and tend to their wounded, but all along they knew the high cost of revolution and were willing to pay the price. Violence has brought them several steps closer to victory.

For the Vietnamese, therefore, violence has not undermined progress but has hastened it. The Vietnamese commitment to social change has not stalled, but is still accelerating. There is no doubt that their struggle was assisted because they resorted to violence, and they accept that fact. They are at peace with their immediate past.

What lessons can Americans learn from these remarkable people? They can reassess their attitudes toward the role of violence in social change, recognizing that a consideration of violence that ignores the social and political context is meaningless. The actions of the American government in Southeast Asia were not criminal merely because they unleashed indiscriminate violence against a smaller nation. They were criminal because the destruction was intended to annihilate a people who were striving to achieve some measure of dignity and control over thei own lives--an objective Americans have traditionally championed. What should trouble Americans is not the realization that their government has employed some sort of violence. It is the repressive objective of that violence that demands condemnation, illuminating the chasm between our government's professed ideals and its conduct.

AMERICANS SHOULD confront their own past and realize how violence has removed obstructions to social change. Armed struggle freed America from colonial servility, liberated the slaves and mid-wifed the birth of the labor movement. Although violence was not exclusively seen as a tactic by which to achieve progres, it certainly played a progressive role in our past. (The Vietnamese understand our history: their 1945 announcement that they would no longer accept colonial status is patterned after the American Declaration of Independence.)

Even so, it is not easy for Americans to stare at revolutionary violence with equanimity, even if the state of affairs in America seems to rule it out, at home, for the foreseeable future. Espousing revolutionary violence requires a measure of dedication to ultimate progressive goals possessed by few people in our country. Humanely calculating the relationship between means and ends demands a sensitivity and an honesty that can only be forged in the heat of struggle. Most Americans are still too detached both from their history and from their needs for the future to make the terrible judgments imposed on the Vietnamese during past decades.

But even though we are not yet capable of confronting the role of revolutionary violence in our own country, we should at least be able to recognize its critical importance in Vietnam. Violence there has not undermined but has furthered social revolution. The struggle has neither devoured its children nor prompted nagging doubts and self-recriminations, but has instead moved toward its antithesis--a peaceful and humane social order. The success of armed struggle in Vietnam required a moral balancing act of an incredibly sensitive degree. Yet that success can teach America and the rest of the world a possible tactic by which they can travel their own routes to humanity.

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