Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Khe Sanh

A little-noted passage in President Obama’s Inaugural Address perhaps served to close an important chapter in our nation’s history.

Citing American battlefield victories to highlight the bravery and define the sacrifices made on our behalf by previous generations, the President said, “For us, they fought and died in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh.”

The first three battles are well known to Americans, but the inclusion of Khe Sanh may well have been the first time that a Vietnam-era battle was included with the others – certainly in such a high-profile setting.

Forty-one years ago today the Marines at Khe Sanh stood their ground and won a savage 10-week battle there. Like Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the Chosin Reservoir, every Marine knows the story of Khe Sanh. It is another example of why the Marines are the Marines.

Khe Sanh was a base, with a dirt airstrip, in the northernmost reaches of South Vietnam. In January 1968, a few days before the Tet Offensive, the Marines at Khe Sanh were surrounded and attacked by tens of thousands of communist troops. The base was subject to an artillery barrage that hit the ammo dump and made the airfield – which the Marines relied on for resupply – completely unusable.

Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese advanced towards the perimeter of Khe Sanh, crawling through tunnels and trenches covered by jungle, drawing the noose tighter around the base. Finally, after two months, with the Marines still holding on and a relief force making slow progress, the communist troops retreated into the jungle under a blistering air and artillery bombardment. On April 8, the Marines and the relief force linked up near Khe Sanh.

President Obama’s inclusion of Khe Sanh with these other hallowed examples reflects his generational outlook that perhaps now is a good time to bring down the curtain on the proxy fights left over from the 1960s – battles that have overshadowed the last 30 years of American politics, and still echo in today’s debates about Iraq and Afghanistan. Looming over it all, the question: “Where did you stand on Vietnam?”

To his credit, the President moves beyond the political to a higher level of basic truth – that the bravery and sacrifices made in Vietnam are part of an American tradition that began at Concord, was confirmed at Gettysburg and reaffirmed at Normandy.

President Obama‘s careful, thoughtful style reflects a deep understanding of the power of words. He deliberately included Khe Sanh in the Inaugural to deliver the same message he sent by visiting Baghdad yesterday: The politics and noise that come with our democracy should never obscure the noble character of those who serve to protect it. And further, that the Marines at Khe Sanh, and everyone who served in Vietnam, should take their rightful, historic place alongside those who came before – and after.

Posted by David Preston

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