(By Deutsche Welle) The Vietnam War demonstrated the limits of US military power. 58,000 Americans died; millions of Vietnamese were killed. Decades later, the US is again trying to extract itself from costly wars. Spencer Kimball reports.
Cliff Riley watched Saigon fall on television.
He had volunteered for the US Army in 1966 at the age of 19, right out of high school. Guided by an uncritical national pride inherited from America’s victory over fascism in World War Two, Riley had originally believed that the US intervention in Vietnam was also a just war, this time against the threat posed by communism.
Riley wanted to be a helicopter pilot, but his depth perception was bad. So instead he became an Army wireman, helping to build communications infrastructure for the military throughout South Vietnam. When he first arrived in the region, he saw poverty and thought the US could help.
But the reality on the ground wasn’t black and white. It was confusing. Riley increasingly questioned the US mission. He saw the suffering of the Vietnamese people, their homeland ravaged by war, and wondered whether America really was doing good.
“With all the damage that we were doing, it bothered me,” Riley told DW. “We were destroying their land. ‘What are they going to have when we leave?’ That’s the thought I used to have.”
But above all, he lost his friends. Seven of Riley’s high school buddies from Clermont County, Ohio perished in the war. As he watched television images of the North Vietnamese overrunning Saigon on April 30, 1975, he was overcome by anger and grief for all that had been lost.
“I was balling, I was crying, I was sobbing my eyes out,” said Riley. “I was yelling, ‘Why? What was it all for? My friends were killed. And for what?'”