Last Days in Vietnam
Dernier ajout : 11 février 2015.
Tuesday, February 10, 2015
"Last Days in Vietnam" Documentary is Fatally Flawed
The recent online free screening of an Oscar contending documentary, Last Days in Vietnam, on the Vietnam War (or American War) has sparked quite a bit of debate. For instance, Nick Turse has panned it in the Nation, pointing out the consequences of the massive American bombing are still felt in Vietnam.
On Subversities, with the permission of the author of another critique, we provide here this Vietnam Studies academic’s analysis of this documentary, taken from postings originally on the Vietnam Studies Group list. Here is University of Washington historian Christoph Giebel’s critique below, with headlines added :
A Fatal Flaw
I first saw the documentary in September at a pre-screening, and my many misgivings then were only reconfirmed by seeing it now again online. The fact that the documentary is “widely praised” and nominated for highest US awards is much more of a commentary on current US culture – steeped in nationalist discourses of exceptionalism, thoroughly militarized, and narcissistic – than a reflection of its actual quality. While most of the film is taken up by a detailed telling of the evacuation, the first 25 minutes of the documentary devoted to establishing background/context are dangerously simplistic, quickly abandon all pretense at historical accuracy or balance, and extremely manipulative. These opening 25 minutes are a fatal flaw that render the entire documentary questionable at best. Apart from the compellingly told, if minor human-interest stories contained in the main portions of the film, “Last Days in Vietnam” is the worst attempt at documenting the war I have seen in a long while. In its early parts it comes across as a bad caricature of Cold War propaganda, and seemingly un-self-aware at that.
There is no indication in the credits that the film makers consulted any historians. Instead, they seem to have relied on their own general, vague sense of how the war is being discussed in conventional, establishment discourses in the US or on the perspectives of the main US protagonists that are then uncritically presented as factual background. The quote by Rory Kennedy in the linked review is bitterly ironic, as the film maker is revealed as incurious and easily swayed by the worst revisionist tropes of US politics over the war in Viet Nam.
Here’s my first stab at pointing to a few of the main issues with the documentary’s opening 25 minutes :
1) US-centrism and exceptionalism :
With one of its main themes being the “abandonment” of "South Vietnam” by the US, the unspoken, but heavily hinted at argument is that US action alone would have prevented the collapse of the RVN. The long-debunked notion that the US “cut” aid and did not provide the Paris Agreement-mandated supplies is trotted out and portrayed as central to why the ARVN was disintegrating (see, for example, the roughly 90 seconds starting at 22:18). It is entirely US (in)action that is determining the outcome of unfolding events, not Vietnamese action/agency.
2) Complex US debates reduced to liberal “abandonment” :
The documentary participates in one-sided US politics by pointing at Congress and the US anti-war movement as main culprits for this “abandonment.” See, for example, the a little over two minutes of scenes starting at 16:43 : President Ford asking Congress for $722 million, Rep. McCloskey then explaining that Congress was unwilling to appropriate that money, overlaid simultaneously with (older) images of anti-war protestors, mainly holding up “Bring the troops home” placards. The complex ways in which the US public debated and opposed the war are thus reduced to being only self-interested in “bringing the boys home” and not caring about/abandoning "the South Vietnamese.” The same manipulative overlaying of images occurs once more, starting at 23:47 : Kissinger speaks into the camera about the two reasons for Ford’s $722 million request, one, "to save as many people as we could … the human beings involved, that they were not just pawns” and second, "the honor of America, that we would not be seen at the final agony of South Viet Nam as having stabbed it in the back.” The images immediately cut to a newspaper headline of April 18 “Congress Balks At Arms Aid,” followed by a presidential aide remembering how he brought the news to Ford and the President uncharacteristically using a swear word, calling Congress “sons of bitches.” The message to take away : Ford/Kissinger deeply cared, Congressional sons-of-bitches and the anti-war protesters did not and cold-heartedly stabbed “South Viet Nam” in the back.
(I will not speak here to the adventurous notion that Congressional appropriation (not assembling, shipping, delivering, distributing), on April 17, of emergency military aid, in violation of the Paris Agreement, would have made a lick of a difference before April 30.)
3) False and manipulative framing along US propagandistic, Cold War rhetoric :
The documentary abounds with the terms “North Vietnamese” v. “South Vietnamese,” all neatly homogeneous, and with a false spatial, binary representation of the warring parties as “North Viet Nam” and “South Viet Nam,” and of a “North Vietnamese” “invasion” “into” "South Vietnam” (caption at 7:54). That the propaganda trope of two discrete countries and a “Northern" invasion is still being peddled – and widely accepted – in 2014 as an accurate historical rendition of the war is shocking. Others have already pointed to the grotesque digital map with its 1950s, McCarthyism-style red ooze gobbling up homogeneously yellow territory. It appears at 13:54, 18:52, and 33:56. On this disturbing count alone, the film loses all credibility. (It is one thing to say that the historical witnesses and the parties they represent may have subjectively felt this to be true, but the documentary portrays it as fact.)
Needless to say that the Paris Agreement knew no “North Vietnam” and “South Vietnam” (as captioned at 3:20), but instead the DRVN and RVN, both claiming to have sole, all-Vietnamese authority, and the NLF’s RSVN thrown in for good measure. The DMZ of the map was long defunct. Revolutionary forces (PAVN, PLAF, local guerrillas) controlled large areas of Viet Nam south of the 17th parallel, as specifically acknowledged by the Paris Agreement. There were many factions of southern Vietnamese, supporters of the RVN being merely one of them. No matter, the documentary collapses “South Viet Nam” with, and assigns it to, the RVN and completely elides revolutionary and nonaligned southerners. (That makes for oddly confusing images at the end of relieved, happy if not jubilant Sai Gon citizens welcoming the victors.)
4) One-sided misrepresentation of the Paris Agreement :
The film falsely reduces the Paris Agreement to "a ceasefire between North and South Vietnam,” without mentioning that (1) the warring parties were not defined by these spatial terms, that (2) the ceasefire was in situ and not at the 17th parallel, and that (3) there were political provisions calling for a peaceful settlement that were immediately renounced by the RVN after the signing. No mention is made of the much more aggressive violations of the ceasefire by the ARVN in 1973. Of course the revolutionary side violated the Paris Agreement as well, albeit initially in a reactive manner, but the documentary, in maps and words, obscures the complexity of the situation and resorts to manipulating the uninformed audience into believing that a ceasefire existed between a “North Viet Nam” and a peaceful, homogeneous “South Viet Nam”-cum-RVN that was only violated on March 10, 1975 by an “invasion.”
5) One-sided representation of war-time violence :
Dao X. Tran in the online review has said already enough on this point. Again, it is one thing to portray the legitimate fear of communist violence and civilian killings as foregrounded in the subjective perspective of the documentary’s protagonists. But this is what the film portrays alone to be the nature of warfare against the entirety of “the South Vietnamese.” No one else perpetrated violence, no one else suffered. See segment starting at 8:22.
6) Racist/orientalist reductionism of Vietnamese actions, motivations, and feelings :
One of the most appalling scenes of Last Days in Vietnam is CIA-agent Frank Snepp “explaining” what led to the “invasion” of Spring 1975. Starting at 7:20 : "The North Vietnamese viewed Nixon as a madman. They were terrified of him. They believed that Nixon, if necessary, would bring back American air power. But in August 1974, he was gone. … And overnight everything changed. Ha Noi suddenly saw the road to Sai Gon as being open.”
For the documentary, this segment functions as the crucial and only link between two points : (A) The (falsely portrayed) ceasefire “between North and South Vietnam” and Nixon’s (hollow) assurances to Thieu that "if the North Vietnamese were to substantially violate the terms of the Paris Agreement, the United States would respond with full force.” And (B) The “North Vietnamese” “invasion” of March 10, 1975 and subsequent US “abandonment” of “South Viet Nam."
The implications of Snepp’s simplistic point are two-fold : on the one hand, it reinforces the subtle message already discussed under (1) and (2) above that it was liberal hounding of Nixon, who alone as towering Uncle Sam held the line for “South Viet Nam,” that ultimately led to the RVN’s collapse. On the other hand, it plays into long-standing racist notions in the West that “the natives” are easily swayed by, and can be kept under control through, fear, “shock and awe,” and the threat of violence. Here the rational, if cunning, but ultimately well-meaning White Man, there the superstitious, emotional, child-like Little Brown “commie."
Naturally, the domestic turmoil in the US played a role in revolutionary plans, but the idea that “the North Vietnamese … were terrified of [Nixon]” and that it was this irrational fear that kept them in check is laughable, unbelievably substance-free, and plain ugly.
The first 25 minutes of Last Days in Vietnam sink the documentary. This is too bad, because the human-interest story of the evacuation in the bulk of the film give voice to people immediately affected by the events in compelling and, at times, quite moving ways.
Assoc. Prof. of History (Southeast Asia)
and International Studies (Viet Nam)
University of Washington -Seattle
7 February 2015 Postcript from Prof. Giebel :
Alternative Introduction Suggested
If this film was meant as a snapshot of one city at a particularly perilous moment, an intro along the following introductory lines would have completely sufficed :
“Southern Viet Nam, 20 April 1975 : the ARVN was unraveling before the combined forces of Vietnamese revolutionaries, barely five weeks into a General Offensive that swept entrenched communist-led divisions into the lowland population centers of central and southern-central Viet Nam. A re-intervention of US forces was, for a complex set of domestic political reasons, out of the question. The battle at Xuan Loc to hold the final defensive line before the approaches to Sai Gon, capital of the RVN, was lost, having ground up the last organized reserve units of ARVN. The Republic of Viet Nam now rapidly collapsed, many of its troops, commanding officers, and civil servants deserting their posts, its leadership in disarray and embroiled in factional fighting, and any semblance of a functioning government quickly vanishing in the few remaining territories under its control — the vicinity of Sai Gon and scattered areas in the Mekong Delta. Total defeat was only a matter of time. With increasing urgency, indeed desperation, US personnel now faced the task of organizing an emergency evacuation of around 7,000 US citizens, their Vietnamese dependents, and perhaps several hundred thousand Vietnamese affiliated with the Republic and its armed forces, who were at risk of revolutionary reprisals. The city of Sai Gon was teeming with people bewildered by the rapidly unfolding events, some in great fear for their safety, some secretly jubilant in their revolutionary loyalty, many others exhaustedly awaiting the end of war. This documentary is about the untold stories of some remarkable Americans and Vietnamese caught up in the evacuation efforts from Sai Gon as the United States and many Republican loyalists faced their Last Days In Viet Nam.”
There. Took ten minutes to write. Could have been spoken in voice-over in three minutes as a prologue to the documentary. No gimmicky McCarthyite maps of red ooze, no gross distortions of the Paris Agreement, no utterly misleading regional/spatial terminology, no false insinuation of a ceasefire at the 17th parallel between discrete countries broken by a “Northern invasion,” no caricature of US politics, no homogenization of populations, no disrespect for the suffering of many ordinary people in southern Viet Nam.
Instead : trotting out, for 25 minutes, one Cold War propaganda zombie after the other that have, for two generations, prevented reconciliation across old divides and a more mature engagement of US society at large with the war in Viet Nam. The film makers had choices. They ruined what could have been a fine documentary.
How Rory Kennedy’s ‘Last Days in Vietnam’ Distorts History
This Oscar-nominated doc is all about well-meaning Americans – with nothing about the indiscriminate US firepower that destroyed much of the country.
Villagers displaced by a US Army operation, March 1966 (AP Photo/Huynh Thanh My)
At the beginning of Last Days in Vietnam, Rory Kennedy’s Oscar-nominated documentary about the chaotic final days of what the Vietnamese call the American War, an American man tears up, struggling to maintain his composure. “It was a terrible, terrible, terrible moral dilemma,” he says, choking on his words.
“Terrible” is a perfect word to describe the conflict : close to 4 million violent war deaths, about 2 million of them civilians – most of them in South Vietnam – millions more wounded, 11 million made refugees. But the former US Army officer, Stuart Herrington, wasn’t talking about anything of that sort. The dilemma in question had to do with whether a US-allied South Vietnamese army colonel should decide to abandon his post, his army and his country and flee with his family to the United States – surely a gut-wrenching personal choice, but microscopic in a war that saw suffering on an almost unimaginable scale.
So goes the rest of this much-hailed documentary that focuses on harried, haphazard, sometimes even mildly heroic efforts by Americans to slip South Vietnamese friends out of the country on planes, ships and finally helicopters as North Vietnamese forces push ever closer to the South’s capital, Saigon. The film keeps a tight focus on this particular aspect of the end of that grim war, while rehashing tired canards and distorting history in ways large and small. In so doing, it offers a classic American yarn about the good intentions of well-meaning Americans whose chief desire, in a land that their country had helped to decimate, is to save Vietnamese lives under difficult conditions – and the terrible intentions of barbaric communist hordes bent on a bloodbath. (Never, mind you, are viewers made aware of a single reason Vietnamese might have a gripe about successive US-backed South Vietnamese regimes that imprisoned, abused, tortured and killed their own people.)
For example, Last Days in Vietnam contends that once the US military pulled its last ground troops out of South Vietnam, after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, North Vietnam simply bided its time, waiting until Watergate paralyzed Washington before setting upon the South, which is portrayed as a sitting duck. There’s even a map with a spreading, blood-red stain to indicate communist advances, akin to the creeping communism commonly depicted in Cold War–era graphics. There’s no indication that in fact both sides began violating the accords almost immediately, fighting tooth and nail for territory, and that neither ever showed any real interest in a political settlement.
At such a late date, this warped history serves only the interests of the cynical US architects of those accords and the failed policies that followed, chief among them Henry Kissinger, President Gerald Ford’s secretary of state and national security adviser at the time of Saigon’s collapse. Kissinger anchors a cast of talking heads that also includes former CIA analyst Frank Snepp ; Richard Armitage, a Special Forces adviser who went on to serve in George W. Bush’s State Department ; and lesser-known functionaries like Herrington, as well as a tiny set of South Vietnamese, half of them former military men.
Kissinger – architect of the secret, murderous bombing of neighboring Cambodia and top adviser to a president who resigned rather than face impeachment – is given carte blanche to craft his own self-serving version of history and to champion another former boss, President Ford, as a humanitarian. “He had two major concerns. The first was to save as many people as we could. He cared for the human beings involved,” Kissinger says. This is the Gerald Ford, mind you, who as a congressman pressed Lyndon Johnson’s administration to increase US bombing ; the Gerald Ford who cheered President Nixon’s escalation of the war ; the Gerald Ford who attempted to use the massacre of more than 500 Vietnamese civilians by US troops at My Lai for partisan gain ; the Gerald Ford who waited until April 1975, when South Vietnam was nearly defeated, to ask for $722 million in emergency support for Saigon, to do what billions and billions over a decade had failed to do – a hollow gesture that he knew stood no chance of passage in Congress.
In the same vein, low-level functionaries are allowed to spout off, unchallenged, presenting painfully decontextualized rewrites of history. “The South Vietnamese population had ample reason to fear the Vietnamese communists. The communists’ conduct throughout the course of the war had been violent and unforgiving,” says Herrington at one point. Drivel like this runs throughout Last Days in Vietnam. Not that America’s enemies weren’t violent or that they didn’t kill civilians, but who were the “South Vietnamese population,” and who killed them most often, and who most deserves the label “violent and unforgiving” ?
As I watched this collage of tired talking heads and uninspired footage from the era, my mind kept wandering back to Ho Thi Van and countless other Vietnamese I’ve interviewed over the years. As a young teen, she huddled in a bomb shelter during intense artillery shelling of her hamlet, escaping out a rear exit just as US Marines shouted for the “mama-sans” and “baby-sans” (women and children) to come out the front. She got as far as the nearby river before she heard gunfire. Returning the next day, she encountered a scene that was seared into her brain. “I saw dead people piled up in the hamlet. I saw my mom’s body and my younger siblings,” Ho Thi Van told me decades later. She lost eight family members in that 1968 massacre. In all, according to the local survivors, thirty-seven people – including twenty-one children – were killed by the Marines.
Her family nearly wiped out, Ho Thi Van joined the guerrillas and fought the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies until she was grievously wounded, losing an eye in battle in 1973. Offered the chance to be sent to North Vietnam for treatment of her remaining, badly injured eye, she refused, even after being told she could lose it. “I didn’t want to go because my mom and my siblings were killed here. If I had to die, I’d rather die here with them,” was how she explained her decision to me. After recovering, she soldiered on until April 30, 1975. To her, that date didn’t mark the “fall” of Saigon ; it was liberation, a dream passed down over the generations, from parents who had opposed the French colonialists and their South Vietnamese collaborators in a war bankrolled and then taken over by the United States.
Ho Thi Van wasn’t North Vietnamese. She lived in the South. To her, to her hamlet, to millions of her fellow Vietnamese, the United States – Stuart Herrington’s military – was the violent and unforgiving force of that war. Indeed, it was profligate US firepower, not North Vietnamese troops, that turned so much of the South Vietnamese countryside red with blood (not to mention the destruction of huge swaths of its lush green vegetation with toxic defoliants like Agent Orange). Nothing in Last Days in Vietnam offers as much as a clue about any of this. In fact, if not for the stock footage of 1970s Saigon streets, you wouldn’t know women were involved in the war at all. Not one woman is interviewed in a film that repeatedly refers to Vietnamese wives, girlfriends and “mistresses” of US personnel.
Americans interested in learning about the real American War – beyond a decontextualized micro-history of its last blunder-filled and outrageous moments – won’t find much of use in Last Days in Vietnam. Still, the film is a must-see for future quislings, proxies and allies tempted to sign on to American projects abroad ; for men and women who might be attracted by billions of dollars, high-tech weaponry and seemingly sincere promises – like Richard Nixon’s January 1973 pledge to re-enter the war with the “full force” of American power, a vow that helped induce the South Vietnamese government to sign the 1973 peace agreement.
Toward the close of the movie, Stuart Herrington – the author of several books, including Silence Was a Weapon : The Vietnam War in the Villages, about an earlier stint as an adviser in Vietnam—appears again. He’s made one final promise to hundreds of Vietnamese still crowded on the US Embassy grounds on the final day of the evacuation – perhaps the last American promise offered to the men and women who threw in their lot with the wealthy, well-armed foreigners. “Nobody is going to be left behind,” he told them. One of the Vietnamese who was there remembered his words : “When you are in the American Embassy, you are [on] American soil. I promise [that] me and my soldiers will be the last ones to leave the embassy.”
With 420 Vietnamese still waiting but with orders from Washington that the airlift was over, save for the last Americans, Herrington assures them that a big helicopter is coming for them and then excuses himself to go “take a leak.” Scurrying off into the shadows, he sneaks into the embassy building and onto a helicopter, abandoning those to whom he’d just given his word. Consider it not just a fitting end for the American War, but a warning to America’s current and future allies. It’s the most honest thing to come out of Last Days in Vietnam.
Here’s a postscript that doesn’t appear in the film : those frantic final moments at the embassy weren’t actually the “last days in Vietnam.” The entire country, knitted back together after the Americans flew off, has been around every day since. As it happens, those weren’t even the last days for Americans in Vietnam. Take a walk in Saigon or Hanoi or Hoi An today, and you can be sure of that. They weren’t even the last days of the American War. Every year since 1975, Vietnamese have been killed or injured thanks to the leftover US ordnance that still litters the landscape. This never-ending horror could, of course, be remedied if enough Americans cared about saving Vietnamese lives, as the stars of this documentary claim they did. After all, what kind of people seed a foreign land with hundreds of thousands of tons of explosives and then allow succeeding generations to lose eyes and limbs and lives ? Only a “violent and unforgiving” people could do such a thing. Someone should make a movie about that.
Why Don’t Americans Know What Really Happened in Vietnam ?
Instead of confronting the truth, we scrubbed the record clean – and we’re still paying for it in Afghanistan and Iraq today.
A napalm strike erupts in a fireball near US troops in South Vietnam, 1966 during the Vietnam War. (AP Photo)
The 1960s – that extraordinary decade – is celebrating its 50th birthday one year at a time. Happy birthday, 1965 ! How, though, do you commemorate the Vietnam War, the era’s signature catastrophe ? After all, our government prosecuted its brutal and indiscriminate war under false pretexts, long after most citizens objected, and failed to achieve any of its stated objectives. More than 58,000 Americans were killed along with more than 4 million Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians.
So what exactly do we write on the jubilee party invitation ? You probably know the answer. We’ve been rehearsing it for decades. You leave out every troubling memory of the war and simply say : “Let’s honor all our military veterans for their service and sacrifice.”
For a little perspective on the 50th anniversary, consider this : we’re now as distant from the 1960s as the young Bob Dylan was from Teddy Roosevelt. For today’s typical college students, the Age of Aquarius is ancient history. Most of their parents weren’t even alive in 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson launched a massive escalation of the Vietnam War, initiating the daily bombing of the entire country, North and South, and an enormous buildup of more than half a million troops.
In the post-Vietnam decades, our culture has buried so much of the history once considered essential to any debate about that most controversial of all American wars that little of substance remains. Still, oddly enough, most of the 180 students who take my Vietnam War class each year arrive deeply curious. They seem to sense that the subject is like a dark family secret that might finally be exposed. All that most of them know is that the Sixties, the war years, were a “time of turmoil.” As for Vietnam, they have few cultural markers or landmarks, which shouldn’t be surprising. Even Hollywood – that powerful shaper of historical memory – stopped making Vietnam movies long ago. Some of my students have stumbled across old films like Apocalypse Now and Platoon, but it’s rare for even one of them to have seen either of the most searing documentaries made during that war, In the Year of the Pig and Hearts and Minds. Such relics of profound antiwar fervor simply disappeared from popular memory along with the antiwar movement itself.
On the other hand, there is an advantage to the fact that students make it to that first class without strong convictions about the war. It means they can be surprised, even shocked, when they learn about the war’s wrenching realities and that’s when real education can begin. For example, many students are stunned to discover that the US government, forever proclaiming its desire to spread democracy, actually blocked Vietnam’s internationally sanctioned reunification election in 1956 because of the near certainty that Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh would be the overwhelming winner.
They’re even more astonished to discover the kind of “free-fire zone” bloodshed and mayhem the U.S. military unleashed on the South Vietnamese countryside. Nothing shocks them more, though, than the details of the My Lai massacre, in which American ground troops killed, at close range, more than 500 unarmed, unresisting, South Vietnamese civilians – most of them women, children, and old men – over a four-hour stretch on March 16, 1968. In high school, many students tell me, My Lai is not discussed.
An American Tragedy
Don’t think that young students are the only products of a whitewashed history of the Vietnam War. Many older Americans have also been affected by decades of distortion and revision designed to sanitize an impossibly soiled record. The first step in the cleansing process was to scrub out as much memory as possible and it began even before the US-backed regime in South Vietnam collapsed in 1975. A week before the fall of Saigon, President Gerald Ford was already encouraging citizens to put aside a war that was “finished as far as America is concerned.” A kind of willful amnesia was needed, he suggested, to “regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam.”
At that moment, forgetting made all the sense in the world since it seemed unimaginable, even to the president, that Americans would ever find a positive way to remember the war – and little wonder. Except for a few unapologetic former policymakers like Walt Rostow and Henry Kissinger, virtually everyone, whatever their politics, believed that it had been an unmitigated disaster. In 1971, for example, a remarkable 58% of the public told pollsters that they thought the conflict was “immoral,” a word that most Americans had never applied to their country’s wars.
How quickly times change. Jump ahead a decade and Americans had already found an appealing formula for commemorating the war. It turned out to be surprisingly simple : focus on us, not them, and agree that the war was primarily an American tragedy. Stop worrying about the damage Americans had inflicted on Vietnam and focus on what we had done to ourselves. Soon enough, President Ronald Reagan and his followers were claiming that the war had been disastrous mainly because it had weakened an American sense of pride and patriotism, while inhibiting the nation’s desire to project power globally. Under Reagan, “Vietnam” became a rallying cry for both a revived nationalism and militarism.
Though liberals and moderates didn’t buy Reagan’s view that Vietnam had been a “noble” and winnable war, they did generally support a growing belief that would, in the end, successfully supplant lingering antiwar perspectives and focus instead on a process of national “healing.” At the heart of that new creed was the idea that our own veterans were the greatest victims of the war and that their wounds were largely a consequence of their shabby treatment by antiwar protesters upon returning from the battle zone to an unwelcoming home front. Indeed, it became an article of faith that the most shameful aspect of the Vietnam War was the nation’s failure to embrace and honor its returning soldiers.
Of course, there was a truth to the vet-as-victim belief. Vietnam veterans had, in fact, been horribly ill-treated. Their chief abuser, however, was their own government, which first lied to them about the causes and nature of the war, then sent them off to fight for an unpopular, dictatorial regime in a land where they were widely regarded as foreign invaders. Finally, on their return, it failed to provide them with either adequate support or benefits.
And corporate America was also to blame. Employers were reluctant to hire or train them, in many cases scared off by crude 1970s media stereotypes about wacko, drug-addled, and violent vets. Nor did traditional veterans’ organizations like the American Legion or the Veterans of Foreign Wars provide a warm welcome to those coming home from a deeply contested and unpopular war filled with disillusioned soldiers.
The Antiwar Movement Dispatched to the Trash Bin of History
In the 1980s, however, the Americans most saddled with blame for abusing Vietnam veterans were the antiwar activists of the previous era. Forget that, in its later years, the antiwar movement was often led by and filled with antiwar vets. According to a pervasive postwar myth, veterans returning home from Vietnam were commonly accused of being “baby killers” and spat upon by protesters. The spat-upon story – wildly exaggerated, if not entirely invented – helped reinforce the rightward turn in American politics in the post-Vietnam era. It was a way of teaching Americans to “honor” victimized veterans, while dishonoring the millions of Americans who had fervently worked to bring them safely home from war. In this way, the most extraordinary antiwar movement in memory was discredited and dispatched to the trash bin of history.
In the process, something new happened. Americans began to treat those who served the country as heroic by definition, no matter what they had actually done. This phenomenon first appeared in another context entirely. In early 1981, when American diplomats and other personnel were finally released from 444 days of captivity in Iran, the former hostages were given a hero’s welcome for the ages. There was a White House party, ticker-tape parades, the bestowal of season tickets to professional sporting events, you name it. This proved to be where a new definition of “heroism” first took root. Americans had once believed that true heroes took great risks on behalf of noble ideals. Now, they conferred such status on an entire group of people who had simply survived a horrible ordeal.
To do so next with Vietnam veterans, and indeed with every soldier or veteran who followed in their footsteps, seemed like a no-brainer. It was such an easy formula to apply in a new, far more cynical age. You no longer had to believe that the missions American “heroes” fought were noble and just ; you could simply agree that anyone who “served America” in whatever capacity automatically deserved acclaim.
By the time the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was opened on Washington’s Mall in 1982, a consensus had grown up around the idea that, whatever you thought about the Vietnam War, all Americans should honor the vets who fought in it, no matter what any of them had done. Memorial planners helped persuade the public that it was possible to “separate the warrior from the war.” As the black granite wall of the Memorial itself so vividly demonstrated, you could honor veterans without commenting on the war in which they had fought. In the years to come, that lesson would be repeated so often that it became a bedrock part of the culture. A classic example was an ad run in 1985 on the tenth anniversary of the war’s end by defense contractor United Technologies :
“Let others use this occasion to explain why we were there, what we accomplished, what went wrong, and who was right. We seek here only to draw attention to those who served… They fought not for territorial gain, or national glory, or personal wealth. They fought only because they were called to serve… whatever acrimony lingers in our consciousness… let us not forget the Vietnam veteran.”
Since the attacks of 9/11, ritualized support for troops and veterans, more symbolic than substantive, has grown ever more common, replete with yellow ribbons, airport greetings, welcome home ceremonies, memorial highways, honor flights, benefit concerts, and ballgame flyovers. Through it all, politicians, celebrities, and athletes constantly remind us that we’ve never done enough to demonstrate our support.
Perhaps some veterans do find meaning and sustenance in our endless thank-yous, but others find them hollow and demeaning. The noble vet is as reductive a stereotype as the crazy vet, and repeated empty gestures of gratitude foreclose the possibility of real dialogue and debate. “Thank you for your service” requires nothing of us, while “Please tell me about your service” might, though we could then be in for a disturbing few hours. As two-tour Afghan War veteran Rory Fanning has pointed out, “We use the term hero in part because it makes us feel good and in part because it shuts soldiers up… Thank yous to heroes discourage dissent, which is one reason military bureaucrats feed off the term.”
13 Years’ Worth of Commemorating the Warriors
Although a majority of Americans came to reject the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq in proportions roughly as high as in the Vietnam era, the present knee-jerk association between military service and “our freedom” inhibits thinking about Washington’s highly militarized policies in the world. And in 2012, with congressional approval and funding, the Pentagon began institutionalizing that Vietnam “thank you” as a multi-year, multi-million-dollar “50th Anniversary Commemoration of the Vietnam War.” It’s a thank-you celebration that is slated to last 13 years until 2025, although the emphasis is on the period from Memorial Day 2015 to Veterans Day 2017.
You won’t be surprised to learn that the Pentagon’s number-one objective is “to thank and honor veterans of the Vietnam War” in “partnership” with more than 10,000 corporations and local groups which are “to sponsor hometown events to honor Vietnam veterans, their families, and those who were prisoners of war and missing in action.” Additional goals include : “to pay tribute to the contributions made on the home front” (presumably not by peace activists) and “to highlight the advances in technology, science, and medicine related to military research conducted during the Vietnam War.” (It’s a little hard to imagine quite what that refers to though an even more effective Agent Orange defoliant or improved cluster bombs come to mind.)
Since the Pentagon realizes that, however hard you try, you can’t entirely “separate the warrior from the war,” it is also seeking “to provide the American public with historically accurate materials and interactive experiences that will help Americans better understand and appreciate the service of our Vietnam veterans and the history of US involvement in the Vietnam War.” However, it turns out that “accuracy” and “appreciation” can both be served only if you carefully scrub that history clean of untoward incidents and exclude all the under-appreciators, including the thousands of American soldiers who became so disgusted with the war that they turned on their officers, avoided or refused combat missions, deserted in record numbers, and created the most vibrant antiwar GI and veterans movement in our history.
The most ambitious of the “educational resources” provided on the Vietnam War Commemoration website is an “interactive timeline.” As other historians have demonstrated, this historical cavalcade has proven to be a masterwork of disproportion, distortion, and omission. For example, it offers just three short sentences on the “killings” at My Lai (the word “massacre” does not appear) and says that the officer who led Charlie Company into the village, Lt. William Calley, was “sentenced to life in prison” without adding that he was paroled by President Richard Nixon after just three-and-a-half years under house arrest.
That desperately inadequate description avoids the most obviously embarrassing question : How could such a thing happen ? It is conveniently dropped onto a page that includes lengthy official citations of seven American servicemen who received Medals of Honor. The fact that antiwar Senator Robert Kennedy entered the presidential race on the same day as the My Lai massacre isn’t even mentioned, nor his assassination three months later, nor the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., just weeks after My Lai, an event that spurred bitter and bloody racial clashes on US military bases throughout South Vietnam and the world.
It should not go unnoticed that the same government that is spending $65 million commemorating the veterans of a once-reviled war has failed to provide sufficient medical care for them. In 2014, news surfaced that the Veterans Administration had left some 100,000 veterans waiting for medical attention and that some VA hospitals sought to cover up their egregious delays. Every day an estimated 22 veterans commit suicide, and among vets of Iraq and Afghanistan the suicide rate, according to one study, is 50% higher than that of their civilian peers.
The Pentagon’s anniversary commemoration has triggered some heated push-back from groups like Veterans for Peace and the Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee (co-founded by Tom Hayden). Both are planning alternative commemorations designed to include antiwar perspectives once so common but now glaringly absent from popular memory. From such efforts might come the first full public critical reappraisal of the war to challenge four decades of cosmetic makeover.
Unfortunately, in our twenty-first-century American world of permanent war, rehashing Vietnam may strike many as irrelevant or redundant. If so, it’s likely that neither the Pentagon’s commemoration nor the antiwar counter-commemorations will get much notice. Perhaps the most damaging legacy of the post-Vietnam era lies in the way Americans have learned to live in a perpetual “wartime” without war being part of daily consciousness. While public support for Washington’s war policies is feeble at best, few share the Vietnam era faith that they can challenge a war-making machine that seems to have a life of its own.
Last year, US Special Operations forces conducted secret military missions in 133 countries and are on pace to beat that mark in 2015, yet these far-flung commitments go largely unnoticed by the major media and most citizens. We rely on 1% of Americans “to protect our freedoms” in roughly 70% of the world’s countries and at home, and all that is asked of us is that we offer an occasional “thank you for your service” to people we don’t know and whose wars we need not spend precious time thinking about.
From the Vietnam War, the Pentagon and its apologists learned fundamental lessons about how to burnish, bend, and bury the truth. The results have been devastating. The fashioning of a bogus American tragedy from a real Vietnamese one has paved the way for so many more such tragedies, from Afghanistan to Iraq, Pakistan to Yemen, and – if history is any guide – an unknown one still emerging, no doubt from another of those 133 countries.