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Book Review: Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy (by Arnold R. Issacs) : VN

Originally published on Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy, by Arnold R. Issacs, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, $25.95.

The Vietnam War had an impact on an entire generation of American and Asian peoples, leaving a terrible scar and burden on those men and women who were in some way connected to the conflict and forever altering their lives. This costly and bloody conflict initiated an anti-war movement and profoundly influenced American attitudes toward the war and its participants. Arnold Isaacs' Vietnam Shadows examines the effects of the Vietnam War–both on U.S foreign policy and on the people who fought–from psychological, sociological and historical perspectives.

Issacs shows how the Vietnam War has changed Americans' attitudes toward involvement in potentially escalating low-intensity conflicts, incidents of terrorism or counterinsurgency warfare. What was called the "Vietnam syndrome" by former President George Bush has made foreign policy-makers overly cautious about committing U.S. troops to areas of conflict. Isaacs contends that since the fall of Saigon, the U.S. military has engaged in conflicts only when the enemy had no chance of victory and the public was overwhelmingly confident that a quagmire like Vietnam would not be repeated. Much maligned for their former policies in Southeast Asia, the American military and policy-makers have learned their lesson about becoming involved in hot spots around the globe.

Perhaps even more dramatically, the Vietnam War affected the American public, causing deep rifts between people of different generations and beliefs. A young generation of Americans, rebelling against a war fought by the military with one hand tied behind its back, suffered from confused loyalties. Issacs stresses that many of the veterans felt victimized, having been recruited from working-class families who did not have political contacts or special connections that enabled them to avoid the draft. The relatively small number of career professionals and college graduates who served in Vietnam, compared with the number of soldiers from blue-collar backgrounds, fostered class resentment and created a schism both on the battlegrounds of Vietnam and at home.

When the war finally ended and the United States began to mend its wounds, the belief that POWs and MIAs could still be alive even after the fall of Saigon grew. Issacs believes that the idea of U.S. soldiers being held behind enemy lines was per-petuated by movies–such as Rambo and Uncommon Valor–and by a proliferation of books on the subject. In the movies the United States always wins, but in reality things were different. Many families hoped to recover missing soldiers, but their attempts proved futile.

The anti-war movement intensified, and the government was blamed for shoddy, ineffective pursuit of the matter. Distrust for the government grew as rumors and false documents appeared in the press, while official statements continued to deny that any prisoners were still being held. The POW/MIA myth espoused by veterans has caused much pain for families with relatives missing, and many public officials have begun to encourage dialogue with the Vietnamese government in order to end specu-lation about the issue.

At the same time, soldiers who returned from Vietnam have faced other challenges, such as posttraumatic stress disorder and debilitating physical problems caused by exposure to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange. The Veterans Administration has now recognized that Vietnam veterans suffer from unique medical conditions resulting from the war.

The public's attitude toward the men and women who served in Vietnam has also changed, recognizing the special problems that this disenchanted population faces in our society. Public support for veterans and the construction of national monuments have helped to heal the wounds of some who fought in the conflict, but these gestures of appreciation have perhaps come a little too late for many.

Teaching about the Vietnam War and the tumultuous '60s has become an important part of the curriculums of universities and military classrooms. Controversy still surrounds the subject matter–and probably will for some time–and issues are still often addressed from anti-war or pro-war positions. Arnold Issacs' Vietnam Shadows will complement other titles about the war's effects on its participants–such as Fred Turner's Echoes of Combat and Robert J. Lifton's Home from the War–in both the classroom and academic and public libraries with Vietnam War collections.

Gerald Costa

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