Morris: Vietnam and the Rules of War

May 31, 2021

by Leo Morris

I was leaving the gym last Wednesday when Tony told me they would be closed on Friday and Monday.

“Why?” I asked. “What’s going on?”

“Oh, you know, just adding another day off and making it an extra-long holiday weekend.”

“What holiday?”

Oh, that one. Of all the ones to let sneak up on me, it had to be the one specifically designed to make us remember, to ensure that we never forget those who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to the country. That holiday.

To my credit, I did think about it later in the day.

I remembered Steve, the first classmate I’d learned about dying in Vietnam. I was in basic training at Fort Knox, Ky., at the time, a 19-year-old kid with a year and a half of college and not a single clue about the real world.

But I did not lament the life he would never have – the bride he would never walk down the aisle, the kids he would never drive to school, the retirement party he would never attend.

Selfishly, I worried about myself, what I had signed up for and where I might be going when training was over. Until that day, war had been an abstract idea, something in the history books or the stories my father had told me. It wasn’t something that might snatch me up and throw me away.

And maybe that was OK.

They say Memorial Day is as much for the living as for the dead, and there is a good reason for that to be so.

The truth of war is that old men send young men to die. If all we do is salute the bravery and honor the commitment of the fallen, we make it too easy for the old men to be frivolous with those young men. If we do not also focus on the grief of those left behind, the holes left in their hearts, we are inviting future foolish people to wage future foolish wars and keep throwing away young lives.

That is the lesson of Vietnam for me, the reason I could never get over that war.

It wasn’t just that more than 50,000 American soldiers died; every soldier knows that is a risk. It wasn’t just that it might have been the wrong war at the wrong time for the wrong reason; that’s been the history of the world.

It was that the people running the war thought it was something they could fool around with, a geopolitical chess game for which the moves could be micromanaged from thousands of miles away. Then when the ultimate goal – propping up a friendly regime without being committed to defeating the enemy – proved grotesquely unachievable, they just walked away.

Oops. Sorry, just kidding. Didn’t really mean it.

All those lives. Wasted.

So now I think there should be three rules for war. It should never be engaged unless:

  1. It is the only option left, all other avenues having been explored.
  2. There is a clearly stated goal with a recognizable way to define victory.
  3. Leaders are committed to winning as quickly as possible.

Considering our recent history in Iraq and Afghanistan, I don’t think we’re following those rules. Considering the “war on terror,” with no end in sight and no way to define victory, I wonder if we ever will.

I’ve thought about visiting the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington but never have. Now, there is a replica on permanent display in Fort Wayne, and I think about visiting it, to run my hand over Steve’s name.

But I wonder if I will. I really want to but really don’t as well. You know?  

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at


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