No Lessons Learned is a well-written historical analysis of the Vietnam War. Using numerous memoirs and fiction written by veterans, Alfredo Bonadeo examines the effect the war had on American soldiers’ psyches.
Bonadeo asserts that a “cause and the combatants’ belief in it” are vital if soldiers are to emerge feeling whole. While the Viet Cong desired to unite their country and drive out foreign oppressors, Americans had only the abstract government intention of “saving the world from communism.” This, as well as fighting in a strange environment against a guerilla army, led to fear, demonization of the enemy, and a desire to survive at any cost, the author posits.
The inability to tell civilians from the enemy, magnified by the official fixation on “body count,” led to a further hardening of the soldiers’ psyches, diminishment of compassion, and willingness to kill anyone without discrimination, as evidenced by atrocities such the My Lai Massacre.
After the war, this eventually resulted in many soldiers deeply wounded in mind and spirit. Unable to re-acclimate to civilian life, these soldiers often committed domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide. Bonadeo ends drawing parallels between Vietnam and current Middle Eastern conflicts.
Bonadeo’s narrative is compelling, and he marries the quotes from both fiction and memoir seamlessly, creating what often feels like a conversation with veterans rather than an academic paper. However, the speaker is often unidentified or identified only by name, not source, making it difficult to understand the context. Simple identifiers such as, “in his memoir” or “the novel’s lead character” would help. The book also includes almost 400 end notes but no bibliography, and the skeletal index makes topical searches difficult.
Nonetheless, this is a thoughtful, well-argued offering. Bonadeo ends with a question sure to linger in readers’ minds: Why, despite the destruction such conflicts inflict on U.S. soldiers and civilians in countries where fighting occurs, does the country continue to engage in these kinds of wars?
Also available in hardcover.