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My junior year in high school, we studied American History. My teacher was a fully committed liberal democrat in her politics; but when it came to teaching, I had to admit she was as fair and balanced as they came. She was deeply committed to having us learn from as many primary sources as possible. So, in addition to the textbook, we studied newspaper articles and photographs from the different eras, literature written at the time, the full immersive experience.
When it came to studying the Vietnam War, we looked at it from all angles: military, political, the reaction on the home front, the draft pros and cons, fighting conditions, use of nuclear power and other fighting strategies and their effects, as well as where and how and why we got involved in the first place. For the final lesson, she always invited a group of about ten Vietnam War veterans from the local veteran’s hospital in Palo Alto to visit the class and answer questions about their experience. Before they arrived, she cautioned us all to be tactful in our questioning. These men had been through unspeakable trauma and the wrong question could trigger highly emotional responses.
When the veterans arrived, everyone was very quiet for a while. Then one by one, students began asking questions. The men answered quietly, humbly. I don’t remember most of the questions, but everyone did their best to show respect to these men.
Then, after a short time of silence, one young man asked, “What was it like to know you were fighting a losing war?”
The reaction was instantaneous. Up until then, the men had sat almost nervelessly in their seats. Some were slouched or slumped over. Now every one of them began sitting up straighter. Their breath came more intensely and sparks appeared in their eyes. All the students looked at each other worriedly. Had this boy committed the sin of tactless questioning?
“We were never losing that war!”
The veteran who had been the most vocal spat out the words intently. We all stared as the other veterans nodded in agreement. They were all still highly riled up. We students just sat in stunned silence.
Our teacher had been sitting quietly behind her desk, just listening to the proceedings. She sat forward now.
“Let me get this straight,” she said. “We were winning the war the whole time?”
Apparently, no one had thought to ask this question before.
The spokesman veteran spoke again. “Yes. The problem was the government kept getting in our way. When we needed to go into Cambodia, suddenly we weren’t allowed into Cambodia. If we needed to chase the enemy in Laos, Laos suddenly became closed to us. But wherever we were fighting, we were winning.”
The other veterans nodded in agreement once more.
I don’t remember the name of the young man who asked the question that day. But I am grateful he asked it. I am grateful for a teacher who wanted us to learn from primary sources. All of us that day learned a truth about the Vietnam War that seldom makes it into the history books.
We were winning.Published in