One-word description of Vietnamese: intrepid

The ongoing debate about troop commitments to Afghanistan, along with the recent publication of two books comparing that conflict with the Vietnam War, has rekindled certain arguments. As a golf writer, I’d ordinarily, and quite rightly, be deemed utterly unqualified to evaluate military strategy. And I’d ordinarily be uninterested in doing so.

Thus, no opinion on the war in Afghanistan, a place I’ve never been, will be forthcoming here. But having lived in Ho Chi Minh City for even the half-year that I have, I feel moved to comment on the Rasputin-like contention that the war here would have been won if only we’d sent more troops and stayed longer; that the conflict turned on public opinion surreptitiously manipulated (as usual) by the media; that the failure was one of gumption, or lack thereof, rather than policy.

Wrong. The weird thing is that military strategy seems largely superfluous in understanding the outcome, although it’s also obvious that local conditions made the effort somewhere between problematic and impossible from the American standpoint. It’s evident, 35 years hence that Vietnamese national character is defined as much by their refusal to be occupied by a foreign power –Chinese, French, and American – as by anything else.

Recently I participated in a “bridge run” to celebrate the opening of a new suspension bridge spanning the Saigon River. A project that seems to embody Vietnamese ethos, good and bad, the structure is a stunning piece of modern engineering of a piece with the economic dynamism of the country’s recent past. The only problem is that at present it doesn’t connect with anything but a scruffy network of dirt roads on the far side. As one friend put it – though not specifically in reference to the bridge – the Vietnamese seem in a hurry to get somewhere, but they’re not sure where.

The mentality may be alternately amusing and exasperating for outsiders, but the Vietnamese seem completely unfazed – by almost everything. Near the end of the bridge run, I happened to notice the inscription on the tee shirt of one expert woman participating. (This sounds better than saying that I was staring at her shirt.) It said, simply, “Intrepid Vietnamese:”

“Fearless and persistent in the pursuit of something,” as the dictionary has it, and the appellation seems beyond dispute.

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