Most peace advocates are unaware that our government has commenced a 13-year program of commemorating the Vietnam War at a cost of $65 million. The effort seems focused primarily on the sacrifices made by American troops in a battle for American ideals. There is nothing revealed about Vietnamese nationalism, sacrifice, casualties or ultimate success – not to mention the ongoing deprivation, Agent Orange poisonings, cluster bombs left behind as signs of inhumanity. Nor is there mention of the peace movement, the historic rallies, the unity across racial lines, the GI revolts inside the armed forces, the unconstitutional domestic spying and indictments, the McGovern campaign, or the Pentagon Papers.
Clearly the National Security State is attempting to win on the field of American memory what was lost on the battlefield. Since the struggle for memory shapes our future choices, it is important that peace activists engage in this debate wherever possible.
Below is recent speech by longtime New York progressive activist Howie Machtinger, “Commemorating the American War in Viet Nam.”
Commemorating the American War in Viet Nam
At the height of Jim Crow, on July 4, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson spoke at the 50th anniversary Blue-Gray reunion of the Battle of Gettysburg. Somehow eliding slavery and African-Americans from the Civil War, he strained to look forward, “we have found one another again as brothers and comrades, in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten – except that we will not forget the splendid valor, the manly devotion” “The theme of the reunion from its earliest conception in 1909 was national harmony and patriotism.”
On May 25, 2012, in announcing a 13-year long commemoration of the war in Viet Nam funded by Congress at $65 million, President Obama proclaimed in strikingly similar tones: “As we observe the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, we reflect with solemn reverence upon the valor of a generation that served with honor. We pay tribute to the more than 3 million servicemen and women who left their families to serve bravely, a world away from everything they knew and everyone they loved. From Ia Drang to Khe Sanh, from Hue to Saigon and countless villages in between, they pushed through jungles and rice paddies, heat and monsoon, fighting heroically to protect the ideals we hold dear as Americans. Through more than a decade of combat, over air, land, and sea, these proud Americans upheld the highest traditions of our Armed Forces.” Commemorations are acts of choosing what to remember about something presumably of significance. So 2 parts:
- Creating a memory which is inevitably a direction to remember some things rather than others; a memory with a purpose; ostensibly to honor and thereby define honor for some future purpose;
- Defining some event as significant: making a major contribution to our world, a turning point, something remarkable or surprising.
So I will try to make an argument for the significance of the war and point at what I think ought to be remembered which will diverge from hyperbolic salutations of soldierly valor to something more substantive; it will end up at cross purposes to Obama’s, I fear.
Is the sense that the war is memorable a figment of my generation’s historical moment for whom the war constituted overlapping tests of patriotism, ‘manhood’, and morality? A recent Gallup poll “found that 51% of Americans ages 18 to 29 believe that it was ‘not a mistake’ to send US forces to Vietnam. Only 43% of this group thought that US involvement was a mistake. This is the highest level of "pro-war" sentiment of any age group surveyed; by comparison, only 23% of Americans over 65 thought that the war was not a mistake, while 70% thought that it was. In the entire sample, 34% supported the war while 57% opposed it, which is actually the highest level of support for American involvement in Vietnam since 1970.”
To me this is an argument for revisiting the war, mining its significance; before proposing an alternative commemoration. So let me develop an argument at 3 levels:
- The war’s impact on the US;
- Its impact on Vietnamese;
- Its impact on the world.
At the beginning of US involvement -- already in support of the French war from 1945-54 – the US was riding high sensing an opportunity both to gain a foothold on the mainland of Asia (a long cherished goal of American power brokers) and to roll back the advance of Communism. It seemed an opportune moment for the US to assert global hegemony moving beyond its traditional control over its Latin American neighbors; as well as to demonstrate its military prowess. In school I had learned that that the US had never lost a war – let’s not quibble about the War of 1812 or complicate matters with the Civil War. The US was high on power. It took for granted that it could out-do the outmoded European powers like the French who had been driven out by the Vietnamese -- a genre of imperial arrogance which did not stoop to take much notice of the Vietnamese ‘enemy’.
So when I first encountered representatives of the Vietnamese “enemy’ in a meeting at the Montreal Expo/World’s Fair in 1967, I was blown away by their confidence in ultimate victory. It hadn’t occurred to me that the US could lose this war. Ever since the war ended, the US military has droned on about how it won every battle – which isn’t exactly true – but lost the war due to civilian interference. This is problematic for many reasons:
- Wars are generally fought for specific political purposes; they are not all-out street fights until no one is left standing. Of course, they are politically driven. Perhaps the possession of the ultimate destructos – nuclear weapons – has sharpened the contradiction between the limited aims of most wars and the available weapons arsenals. But this brings us to a bigger problem: what was the alternative strategy that would have allowed the US to triumph?
- Invade the North: US power was proving itself incapable of controlling the South of Viet Nam with an allied South Vietnamese government and army; how could the US succeed against an independent nation unified against foreign aggression? Some analysts claim that mining Haiphong harbor (North Viet Nam’s major seaport) in May, 1972 forced the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam (or North Viet Nam) to accept US peace terms, and therefore should have been tried earlier. Of course, the result of the peace talk was the defeat of the US allies, the South Vietnamese within two years. Mining earlier in the war might have provoked have hostilities with other nations docking there, including the Soviet Union or China – though it didn’t in 1972 -- without necessarily having a strategic impact on the war. The Vietnamese had proved resourceful in getting what they needed to fight.
- Use nuclear weapons (which Nixon seriously considered): Such an escalation would be universally understood as an international war crime and possibly provoke a world war with the Soviet and/or Chinese.
- Putting all these conjectures aside, let us recall how unrestrained the war actually was –
- At its peak the US had 540,000 troops in a country (plus another 100-200,000 supporting from outside Viet Nam) slightly larger than Florida.
- The bombing: “the United States Air Force dropped in Indochina, from 1964 to August 15, 1973, a total of 6,162,000 tons of bombs and other ordnance… This tonnage far exceeded that expended in World War II and in the Korean War. The U.S. Air Force consumed 2,150,000 tons of munitions in World War II – 1,613,000 tons in the European Theater and 537,000 tons in the Pacific Theater – and 454,000 tons in the Korean War.” Thus Vietnam War bombing represented roughly three times as much (by weight) as both the European and Pacific theaters World War II bombing combined and about thirteen times the total tonnage in the Korean War.
- The chemical war: From 1961 until 1971, the US military dropped more than nineteen million gallons of toxic chemicals — defoliants or herbicides — on approximately 4.8 million Vietnamese in southern Viet Nam in Operation Ranch Hand. The chemicals were identified by the colors painted on their 55-gallon-drum shipping containers. The best known and the most sprayed was Agent Orange, a herbicide known by the late 1960s to contain often dangerous levels of a “finger-print” (i.e. specifically identifiable) dioxin, 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, which the World Health Organization has cited as among the most dangerous persistent-organic-pollutant (POP) toxins.
In the end, the US withdrew. Military defeat was a huge blow to imperial pride and self-confidence. It caused a prolonged crisis of confidence in the military – which, as you may know, was the subject of General David Petraeus’s 1987 dissertation at Princeton. A big part of the crisis was manifested in the demoralization and alienation of US soldiers. Along with alienation came resistance. Col. Robert D. Heinl wrote in 1971 that “by every conceivable indicator our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units having refused combat, murdering their officers and non-commissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited when not near-mutinous.” There were over 300 underground newspapers circulated among GIs, including the Oleo Strut in Fort Hood near Killeen, Texas. There were over half a million incidents of desertion (503,926).
While it is crucial to memorialize this resistance – which there is no indication that Obama’s commemoration will mention, much less honor – we must also note the impact on soldier’s mental health, including what veteran John Grant has termed “moral damage”. To date, estimates of veteran suicides range from a low of 9,000-150,000; the latter almost triple the number of US deaths during the actual conflict. One U.S. veteran of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan attempts suicide every 80 minutes, according to a new study and from 2005 to 2010; approximately one current service member attempted suicide every 36 hours.
The civilian antiwar movement is better known. This movement has been portrayed as exclusively white and middle class, but Black and Latino activists -- from SNCC to Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King, from the Brown Berets, and the Chicano Moratorium to Corky Gonzalez and Ruben Salazar -- took courageous and effective stands against the war. And according to most surveys working class respondents were more antiwar than the middle class; while of course the rank-and-file military was disproportionately working class.
Taking inspiration from the civil rights movement, an unprecedented opposition of remarkable proportions developed not just on the campuses, but in the streets and around family dinner tables. It may be hard to imagine given the success of our government in the 21st century in marginalizing not just antiwar opposition, but even removing the actual wars themselves from public view. Part of this, of course, is due to the absence of the draft, the privatization and robot-ization of the military, but also the self-conscious policy of our political leaders. Instead of rallying people to war (a la World War II or before the second Iraq war), Bush urged us to “go shopping”; war has been normalized, as one winds down another gets rolling.
In any case, the movement against the war is well worth commemoration, as well as study to recognize strengths, acknowledge weaknesses, and to build on. Let me focus on its considerable achievements:
- An active, committed extra-parliamentary opposition in the streets was created in the face of serious attempts at marginalization as unpatriotic, disloyal, unmanly, and naïve about, if not pro-Communist.
- The movement made the morality of the war an issue for Americans; moving beyond the cost-benefit analysis favored by the punditocracy; the war was wrong not just too costly. As Martin Luther King put it, the “US was on the wrong side of the world revolution,” in which “the barefoot and shirtless people” were standing up.
- To some extent, the movement succeeded in humanizing the Vietnamese enemy not merely as victims, but as capable opponents who demonstrated bravery, resilience, and intelligence.
- The movement also affected ‘ordinary’ politics, not only by running peace candidates, running peace campaigns, but also by posing the incompatibility of empire abroad and democracy at home. To protect and expand the empire, the US government found it necessary to lie and manipulate to its own people – as moist dramatically evidenced by the Pentagon Papers among numerous examples.
- In tandem with the civil rights, Black liberation, and women’s movements, the anti-war movement fostered an intellectual revolution which undermined Euro-centrism and traditional hierarchies while honoring the previously marginalized. History could be made by ordinary people; by people of color, by women; by the ignored and excluded. Our grasp of history, culture, and human capacity was qualitatively expanded.
There’s much more to say, but even as it is important to talk about the effect on Americans, it’s worth remembering that the Viet Nam war took place in Viet Nam, not in the US – though it would be hard to tell that from the American postwar reaction – academic, political, or cultural. The narrative is of American rather than Vietnamese trauma. For instance, in how many movies, even antiwar ones, does a Vietnamese get to speak meaningfully? [Think Platoon, Coming Home, Apocalypse Now.]
So let’s re-focus on Viet Nam. Accurate estimates are hard to come by, but a likely 3 million Vietnamese were killed, including 2 million civilians, hundreds of thousands seriously injured and disabled, millions of internally displaced, cropland and forests destroyed: incredible destruction – physical, environmental and institutional. The term ecocide was coined to try to capture the devastation of the Vietnamese landscape. Nick Turse in his 2013 book, Kill Anything That Moves is the latest to document the war on the civilian population, which he calls “the real American war in Vietnam”, a produce of US strategy; estimates range from 200,000 (by US authorities) to more than 2 million Vietnamese civilians killed. US troops were unable to distinguish civilian Vietnamese from fighters. All Vietnamese, as a matter of course, were referred to as “gooks”. So-called ‘free-fire zones’ were ubiquitous. Napalm and fragmentation bombs had little military value, but caused widespread suffering for civilians. So the civilian/military distinction which had been eroding throughout 20th century warfare further disintegrated.
As Turse argues, the massacre in My Lai was “an operation, not an aberration”. (Let’s not forget that the massacre was exposed through the herculean efforts of veteran Ron Ridenhour) When Turse tries to pin down the location of another massacre on Feb. 8, 1968 near Hoi An, he is directed from one massacre site to another, in frustration. US government records on inquiries into atrocities or of court-martials have gone “inexplicably missing”. Will a search for these records be part of the commemoration? Still Turse is able to document the involvement of every major army unit in Viet Nam in atrocities, validating the claims of many veterans, Vietnamese victims, and the antiwar movement.
Yet the Vietnamese somehow endured – validating their view that their political superiority (especially historically honed and tempered Vietnamese nationalism) could overcome US firepower and technical superiority. The core of contradiction of US strategy was exposed: To win, the US had to establish a legitimate South Vietnamese government; after all, the US did not want to stay in Viet Nam forever. But as the war effort floundered, the more the US took over the reins of war, the more the South Vietnamese government revealed itself as illegitimate and puppet-like. The American claim that it was bringing democracy was thus exposed as self-contradictory and doomed to failure.
Still the Vietnamese victors faced daunting postwar problems:
- A devastated landscape and population;
- Unexploded ordinance; injury, illness and birth defects almost certainly resulting from chemical warfare;
- A divided nation, including supporters of the losing Republic of South Viet Nam;
- The dual problems of reunification and economic development;
- The hostility of China and Cambodia (Kampuchea), egged on by the US, which led to two wars;
- The continuing hostility, including an economic and diplomatic embargo, of the US.
In many ways the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were tougher on the Vietnamese than the war.
And Viet Nam has had its own issues in remembering the war, in particular the government’s preference for hero-ization and the downplaying of the suffering caused by the war. [For an alternative Vietnamese view, see, for instance, Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War].
Viet Nam today follows what it calls “market socialism”, really a form of state capitalism, following Thomas Friedman more than Karl Marx or Ho Chi Minh. The hope of many throughout the world that national liberation would lead to new forms of humane socialism has dimmed. At the same time, fifty years later, it is important to recall that children are still being born with horrendous birth defects; forests are still in need of restoration; families are still traumatized by the death, destruction, and dislocation of war. No village was left unmarked.
The Vietnamese resistance inspired people all over the world. It was a powerful blow against Euro/American supremacy and imperial arrogance. In 1974, on the twentieth anniversary of the Vietnamese victory, French writer, Jean Pouget, commented: “The fall of Dien Bien Phu marked the end of the colonial period and the beginning of the era of Third-World independence. Today, every revolt, rebellion, or uprising in Asia, Africa, or America invokes General Giap’s victory. Dien Bien Phu has become decolonization’s 14th of July.” The war in Viet Nam demonstrated the limits of military power when opposed by a determined, organized opponent. The success of the Vietnamese resistance to the US built on the victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and was trumpeted by activists and revolutionaries throughout the world, including Frantz Fanon in Algeria and Malcolm X in the US. It was the epitome of the revolt of those MLK called “the barefoot and shirtless people”.
The success of the Vietnamese revolutionaries was integral to the process begun at the 1955 Bandung Conference in connecting newly independent nations in what became known as the Non-Aligned Movement. One of the war’s surprising consequences was the emergence of mainland China from international isolation as Nixon and Kissinger sought to play the Chinese off against both the Soviets and the Vietnamese.
The end of the Cold War seemed to eclipse the significance of the Vietnamese struggle, relegating it to an historic sidebar, out of tune with the major trend of history. The rise of China and its attempts to gain hegemony in East and Southeast Asia has led to something of a defensive alliance between the US and Viet Nam. But the failures of US-led neo-liberalism manifested in, among other things, the world economic crisis which erupted in 2008 has muted Western capitalist triumphalism and reinvigorated North/South conflicts. Just this month, arose a new challenge to the economic dominance of the West in the possible development of an alternative to the World Bank and the IMF by the so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) formation. The relationship between the West and the East and the North and the South is still very much in play.
So that is my sense of what might be worth commemorating. The US government’s purpose seems to be different: to finally put the Viet Nam ‘syndrome’ to rest by reinvigorating the military and endorsing US global ambitions – now battered after two frustrating land wars in Asia. The short-circuited adoration of General Petraeus – who made his inflated reputation by trying to update Viet Nam-era counter-insurgency (a mix of social work and bribery combined with unleashed military power) – for the supposed success of the “surge” in Iraq seems pathetic in light of Iran’s strategic victory in Iraq and who knows what result in Afghanistan.
The fantasy of techno-war -- nurtured in “the electronic battlefield’s’ 20,000 sensors along the Ho Chi Minh trail, the computerization of intelligence embodied in the murderous Phoenix program, and even the first primitive drones, then deflated by defeat in Viet Nam – is being revived in new generations of smart drones, a developing triple canopy of surveillance devices to be orbiting the earth, along with cyber-warfare. There are US military bases in over a hundred countries throughout the world. The dreams of empire are alive and deadly, but under threat. The National Intelligence Council predicts that the economies of Asia will surpass the economies of Europe and North America by 2030.
President Obama avows that the US “doesn’t play for second place”. Our task is not so easily reducible to sound bites. How to convince people that the Empire has no clothes; that we need a human not a techno fix. In fact, our goal is to actually accelerate this fall from a place of domination to one that is more humane, while cushioning the inevitable blow to our society and others by (re)building strong communities and values of solidarity and connecting our efforts with that of others throughout the world. The war should remind us of what Martin Luther King called “an inescapable network of mutuality” in which the fates of Vietnamese and Americans, among others, are inextricably linked. The disregard of the environment embodied in the technological onslaught on Viet Nam (and led to the concept of “ecocide”) is echoed and amplified by human-induced climate change. The choice is clear: We recognize our common humanity or indulge rituals of power that end in mutual destruction.
Unending war is not only a tremendous strain on our economy; it promotes a dangerous delusion of power, as if techno-bullying is a way forward. It is on us, all of us, to not merely to speak truth to power, but to grasp the power of truth. We need a counter-commemoration of the American war in Viet Nam in which human cost and human capacity to resist oppression are honored and elaborated. Imperial America is stuck in a past that never existed; our mandate is to find a way forward, beginning with an honest accounting of the US’s wrongful war in Viet Nam. Our commemoration needs to be a warning: No More Viet Nams; No More Imperial War!