Huan Nguyen recently became America’s first Vietnamese American admiral.  His parents and five siblings were killed by the Viet Cong during the 1968 Tet Offensive.  Then age nine, he was himself shot in the arm, thigh, and head.   After his mother bled to death across two hours, he escaped into the night.  In 1975 his uncle, a South Vietnamese colonel, escaped the Communist conquest with his 16 year old nephew.  

Nguyen attended Oklahoma State University and became a naval officer through the Reserve Engineering Duty Officer program.  Among other posts, he has served in Afghanistan and Iraq.  

There are some great quotes from Nguyen in

“The honor actually belongs to the Vietnamese American community, which instilled in us a sense of patriotism, duty, honor, courage and commitment to our adopted country, the United States of America.”

“This is our America. A country built on service, kindness and generosity, opportunity–the freedom to hope and dream. These values are what inspired me to serve. And what a great honor and privilege it is to serve our Navy, to serve our country, to support and defend our Constitution.”

“I was one of those refugees, apprehensive about an uncertain future, yet feeling extremely grateful that I was here at all.  The images that I remember vividly when I arrived at Camp Asan, Guam, now Asan Beach Park, were of American sailors and Marines toiling in the hot sun, setting up tents and chow hall, distributing water and hot food, helping and caring for the people with dignity and respect.  I thought to myself how lucky I am to be in a place like America. Those sailors inspired me to later serve in the United States Navy.”

“America is the beacon of hope for all of us. There is no other place in the world where a person can go for such opportunity.”

Who could have foreseen, 51 years ago, that a nine year old Vietnamese boy, terribly wounded, his family slaughtered, would survive to become an American admiral?

Nguyen is not the first Vietnamese American to become a U.S. military flag officer.  That distinction belongs to Major General Viet Xuan Luong, who now commands the U.S. Army in Japan, effectively successor to Douglas MacArthur! He and his family were, on the day before South Vietnam fell, evacuated to a U.S. aircraft carrier.  They later settled in Arkansas.  He attended the University of Southern California and earned his army commission through ROTC. 

There are over 1.3 million Vietnamese Americans, nearly all of them refugees from South Vietnam or their descendants.  This Vietnamese diaspora is one of America’s most successful immigrant groups.  “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives,” the biblical patriarch Joseph told his brothers who had sold him into slavery.  Admiral Nguyen could speak likewise to his family’s Viet Cong killers.  

The old joke of the 1970s, as Vietnamese and other refugees streamed in, was that every country fallen to communism gained Washington, DC new ethnic restaurants. But America gained far more than cuisine from waves of refugees who fled oppression.  Many of those refugees whom America’s enemies sought to kill now literally defend America.

Admiral Nguyen’s remarkable journey from orphaned refugee to senior naval officer prompts several reflections.

First, America’s attraction for immigrants and refugees is an enormous advantage for America over its rivals.  How many refugees will eventually serve the tyrants of China, North Korea or Iran?  Only a free and welcoming society can absorb, empower and fully mobilize for the greater good millions of persons who freely come to its shores.  Even amid current controversies, one million immigrants legally enter America every year.  Among them and their children are future military leaders like Admiral Nguyen, with many others who will lift America economically, scientifically, culturally, and militarily.

Second, defeats are not always fully what they seem.  The Tet Offensive that young Nguyen barely survived was the beginning of the end for America in South Vietnam.  In 1975 America seemed like a power in decline as the Soviets surged globally.  Yet within 16 years the Soviet Union was no more, and Vietnam was only one battle in a Cold War that America ultimately won.   Without the Soviets, even communist Vietnam had to incline towards its former enemy America against its own former patron China.

Third, the Vietnam “syndrome” hobbled America for decades, with the supposed lesson that America could never again wage war successfully against determined Third World opponents.  America’s quick defeat of Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Persian Gulf War was, at least to many, the final answer to this preoccupying and arguably crippling syndrome.

Fourth, supposed “lessons” from wars evolve over time.  Was the U.S. war in Vietnam a failure?  In his 1999 book, Vietnam: The Necessary War: A Reinterpretation of America’s Most Disastrous Military Conflict, Michael Lind argued that the war had to be fought in the 1960s to evince America’s reliability as a Cold War ally.  And it had to be abandoned in the 1970s because the domestic controversies it generated threatened America’s Cold War consensus.  This argument is complex, but a war perhaps can’t be judged historically without at least several subsequent decades of context.

And finally, the Iraq War has long since replaced Vietnam in national mindset as America’s supposed great calamity, although the regime in Baghdad has survived, unlike Saigon.  America supposedly has uniquely and irrevocably soiled the entire Mideast, as it purportedly did Indochina 45 years ago.  And the only lesson is to avoid future similar conflicts at all costs.  Such “lessons” typically overstate America’s powers and influence, for good or evil, while understating intractable regional problems that long predate and outlast America’s involvement.  

A fair historical assessment of the Iraq War likely won’t be possible for many decades, just as even now final judgments about Vietnam are not yet completed.  Christian Realism warns against overly idealizing or horriblizing any political development in war or peace.  Even in the best outcomes, the follies of sinful humanity persevere.  Even in the worst outcomes, evil has limits and God is sovereign.  There is always hope, and with it, potential redemption.

The story of Admiral Nguyen incarnates the horror, tragedy and hope of political life in our fallen yet redeemed world.  He was a boy left for dead by communists who won Vietnam but lost globally.  He rose to military prominence in a post Cold War resurgent America, which he served in Afghanistan and Iraq, nebulous wars likened to Vietnam.  What is the final chapter?

The answer exists only in God’s mind.  But Admiral Nguyen’s words reflect one aspect of earthly hope permitted under Christian Realism: “America is the beacon of hope for all of us. There is no other place in the world where a person can go for such opportunity.”

May we as Americans labor, realistically, to sustain and vindicate that hope.