“Commemorating” Vietnam, 50 years later

How will we go about commemorating the 50th anniversary of a war from which we have not yet recovered.  I was thinking about the Vietnam War, but it has been 150 years since the American Civil War and there is abundant evidence that we have not entirely recovered from that.

trust in governmentDoes a nation ever recover from a war about which the citizens are deeply divided?  Maybe not.  Maybe a war is a self-inflicted wound.  We can stop the bleeding, but we can’t recover the integrity we enjoyed before the wound.  There will be scars.  The scars will reduce our flexibility.  We’re going to need that flexibility and it is gone, along with the trust Americans used to feel toward their national government.

On Memorial Day 2012,” says today’s New York Times in an article by Sheryl Gay Stolberg,     “President Obama issued a proclamation establishing a 13-year program, lasting until 2025, “in recognition of a chapter in our nation’s history that must never be forgotten.”  We really don’t need to spend $15 million for that—it will not be forgotten.  On the contrary, it will be remembered.  But it will be remembered differently by different people and that is our problem today.

It isn’t just the hatreds.  Jane Fonda will be remembered forever by some part of our population as “Hanoi Jane.”  Allowing pictures like to be taken was foolish and insensitive.  She has apologized for her bad judgment many times.  But she and Tom Vietnam 4Hayden, whom she would marry the next year, had gone to North Vietnam to check on the truth of the Pentagon claim that they had not bombed civilians.  They saw “destroyed villages” and said so by every available medium.  What they wanted to say was that the American people were being lied to about the conduct of the war.  Many Americans felt either that the war was, in fact, justified by the nature of the threat it posed, or that showing that your own country was lying was an unpatriotic thing to do.

And there it is.  What is the patriotic thing to do?  I can think of three approaches.  I don’t want to go so far as to endorse any of them, but whatever we wind up doing ought to be seen against the background of what else we could have done.  Nothing is going to be good.  Is there a way to make it less bad?

Denial:                        The first option is to pretend it didn’t happen.  We can’t deny it, of course; not with such a powerful Vietnam Memorial in Washington D. C; not with organizations of Vietnam Veterans still prominent?  And what would it mean if we did? Would it mean that we really don’t know what happened to the 58,000 or the roughly triple that number wounded?  There is no denying the battlefield heroism of many young Americans.  Why would we want to deny it?

vietnam 6On the other hand, the war itself—apart from the experiences of the people who fought the war—was a dubious policy adventure so say the least.  It looked like a disastrous mistake to me at the time and my sense of it has not improved in the last fifty years.  So let’s say, for the purpose of this contrast, that the war was a disaster; an atrocity.   How do we condemn the war as a whole, while recognizing the heroism of so many individual soldiers and while mourning the loss of so many young men?   What’s the patriotic thing to do?

We could see condemning the war as patriotic. “Living our values doesn’t make us weaker, it makes us safer and it makes us stronger. And that is why I can stand here tonight and say without exception or equivocation that the United States of America does not torture,” Obama said.[1]  He equated patriotism with “living our values” and just as he used that stance to condemn torture, we could use it to condemn our involvement in Vietnam.

We could see denying the war as patriotic.  We did, of course, send American advisors to help the beleaguered South Vietnamese, who were being invaded by their neighbors to the north.  After that we sent troops to support the fledgling democracy in South Vietnam.  In the end, the South Vietnamese were not able to defend themselves, but we tried our best to help them.  (The echoes of our exit from Iraq and Afghanistan are eerie.)  I see that stance as “denying” that we really did what history shows we did in Vietnam and it also identifies “defending democracy” as what our participation was about.  We could call that patriotic.

Justification:   The war in Vietnam was just one more link in America’s successful “containment strategy.”  The theory was that if communism could not expand, it would implode.  We stopped communist expansion in Europe, across the Middle East, andvietnam 7 (Korea and Vietnam) in Asia and today the major communist nations are trading partners and fellow members of the Security Council of the United Nations.  There were domestic protests, of course, which evaluated the war in Vietnam as a conflict without context.  They saw the costs of jungle warfare, but they did not understand the benefits of containment.  Vietnam was not a success for the United States, but the strategy as a whole worked well and we are the beneficiaries of it today.

The Free Market of Ideas:      As we come to the 50th anniversary of significant involvement in Vietnam, we find that there are still deeply held differences among us.  We are a strong enough country to admit that it was a dark time.  There were atrocities committed by U. S. troops; the bombing of the North was barbaric; our allies were venal and corrupt.  At the same time, we protected the South for a long time from the bloodletting perpetrated by the Viet Cong; we fought bravely for years in a war that was not a war of national expansion; there were uncounted acts of bravery and heroic sacrifice by our armed services.

There are two views, we would say. Our democracy is robust enough to allow free play to both of them and to retain the love of our country that has sustained us so far.  There is no need for us to fear the open debate of the meaning of our past.  To allow such debate and to contain it within a free society is one of our highest achievements.

I have presented those three approaches as possible, warning that the best we can hope is to minimize the damage.  Against that background, let’s briefly consider what the Pentagon is going to do.  We have a website up already  that signals the directions we might take.  Major General Claude M. Kicklighter is overseeing the presentation.  He says the mission is “to “help the nation take advantage of a rare opportunity to turn back to a page in history and to right a wrong, by expressing its honor and respect to Vietnam veterans and their families.”

You see where this is going, don’t you?  We are going to “right a wrong.”  We don’t know just what wrong that is, but in order to accomplish it, we are going to express honor and respect to Vietnam veterans.   If we take that means as a guide, we conclude that the lies by the Johnson administration that led to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution will not be among the wrongs to be righted.  Nor will the My Lai massacre, which is being called “an incident.”  Nor will the angry congressional testimony of a young Vietnam vet named John Kerrybe part of the display.

Vietnam 1Tom Hayden’s view displays his skepticism.  “All of us remember that the Pentagon got us into this war in Vietnam with its version of the truth.  If you conduct a war, you shouldn’t be in charge of narrating it.”  I share his skepticism.  I remember vividly an article by Noam Chomsky. In 1975.  The last chopper had just left the last rooftop in Saigon and he said the war to determine what this all meant was just beginning.

The US government was unable to subdue the forces of revolutionary nationalism in Indochina, but the American people are a less resilient enemy. If the apologists for state violence succeed in reversing their ideological defeats of the past years, the stage will be set for a renewal of armed intervention in the case of “local subversion or rebellion” that threatens to extricate some region from the US-dominated global system.[2]

I don’t remember ever hearing anyone call Noam Chomsky a patriot, but that assessment sounds pretty patriotic to me.





[1] His predecessor, George W. Bush, also said that America does not torture, but what he meant was that the practices, such as waterboarding, that everyone else called “torture,” really weren’t torture.  While the President was maintaining this position, the Vice President, Dick Cheney, was trying to exempt the CIA from a ban on torture that was being considered by Congress.
[2] The New York Review of Books, June 12, 1975

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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