Vietnam, a story of virtually unmitigated disasters that we have inflicted on ourselves and even more on others.
-Bernard Brodie, 1973
The Vietnamese won the Vietnam War by forcing the United States to abandon its intention to militarily sustain an artificially divided Vietnam. The history is clear: It was the United States, not the Vietnamese, who scotched the unifying elections agreed on for 1956 in the Geneva negotiations following the French rout at Dien Bien Phu. Why did the US undermine these elections? As Dwight Eisenhower said in his memoir, because everyone knew Ho Chi Minh was going to win in a landslide of the order of 80% of the population of Vietnam.
So much for Democracy.
“We can lose longer than you can win,” was how Ho described the Vietnamese strategy against the Americans. Later in the 1980s, a Vietnamese diplomat put it this way to Robert McNamara: “We knew you would leave because you could leave. We lived here; we couldn’t leave.”
The Vietnam War was finally over in 1975 when the North prevailed over the US proxy formulation known as South Vietnam, which then disappeared as a “nation,” as many thousands of our betrayed Vietnamese allies fled in small boats or were subjected to unpleasant internment camps and frontier development projects deep in the hostile jungles.
In a word, the Vietnam War was a debacle for everyone involved.
Now, we learn the United States government is planning a 13-year propaganda project to clean up the image of the Vietnam War in the minds of Americans. It’s called The Vietnam War Commemoration Project. President Obama officially launched the project on Memorial Day with a speech at the Vietnam Wall in Washington. The Project was established by Section 598 of the 604-page National Defense Authorization Act For Fiscal Year 2008. It budgets $5 million a year.
“Some have called this war era a scar on our country,” Obama told the specially invited Vietnam veteran crowd at The Wall. “But here’s what I say. As any wound heals, the tissue around it becomes tougher, becomes stronger than before. And in this sense, finally, we might begin to see the true legacy of Vietnam. Because of Vietnam and our veterans, we now use American power smarter, we honor our military more, we take care of our veterans better. Because of the hard lessons of Vietnam, because of you, America is even stronger than before.”
Vietnam toughened us up, made us better human beings. I would submit the President is wrong on that score, that there are profound lessons we have failed to learn.
Phase One of the Commemoration Project goes through 2014 and “will focus on recruiting support and participation nationwide. There will inevitably be international, national, regional, state, and local events planned, but a focus will be on the hometown level, where the personal recognitions and thanks are most impactful. The target is to obtain 10,000 Commemorative Partners.” Phase Two, through 2017, will encourage these Partners to commit to two events a year. “The DoD Commemoration Office will develop and host a ‘Master Calendar’ to list all the events, reflecting tens of thousands of events across the nation, as we thank and honor our Vietnam veterans.” Phase Three, from 2017 to 2025, will focus on “sustainment” of the positive legacy established in Phases One and Two and will involve “targeted activities” as deemed necessary.
The planners of the Project decided the Vietnam War began in 1962, which makes 2012 the 50th Anniversary of the start of the war. Just that decision alone exhibits disingenuous calculation. Anyone who has read anything beyond a pop novelization of Rambo knows it’s impossible to understand US involvement in the Vietnam War unless one goes back at least to 1945 and the decision to succumb to Cold War hysteria and support the re-colonization of Vietnam by the French. When you understand how Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh soldiers fought side-by-side with US soldiers against the Japanese occupiers of Vietnam, when the Vichy French colonial garrisons were cowed by the Japanese, you begin to understand the profound betrayal at the root of the entire war.
The problem is that understanding is the last thing the Pentagon and the US Government want the American people to wrestle with. If President Obama’s launching language is any indication, the purpose of the Vietnam War Commemoration is to create a malleable and supportive populace for future military operations — especially under the new doctrine of focused killing with drones and special-ops units now being established around the world.
Everyone in Washington knows the post-World War Two behemoth United States faces an inevitable decline vis-à-vis former third world, colonial nations like China, India and Brazil. It’s also clear globalized actors like al Qaeda — originally our tool and now our enemy — are reacting against our international interventions and will not remain static, but will evolve with our changing tactics. The world is, thus, getting more and more frightening for Americans, especially those who insist on holding on to the good-old-days of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism.
It has to do with an insistence on living in a glorious western colonial past, a bubble that’s part historical fact and part illusion and that entails ignoring what the Buddhists call the fundamental impermanence of life or what the Greek Heraclitus meant when he said, “You can’t step into the same river twice.” For an imperialist, these are subversive thoughts.
In our schools and institutions it’s unfortunate American citizens are rarely taught to understand historical events like the Vietnam War. History is subversive, and our leaders have all become corporate panderers who want what every other pandering leader in history has ever wanted: a compliant populace waving the flag and not asking questions. Thus we have the Vietnam War Commemoration Project.
John Ford’s America
I’m a cineaste, a subversive-sounding French word for film buff. Nothing dramatizes all this quite as perfectly as two iconic John Ford movies, in which the director, a Navy reserve admiral, employs John Wayne as a key player in the patriotic task of burying Truth in American popular history. John Wayne, of course, was key to the imagery that got us into Vietnam. Wayne even co-directed and starred in the 1968 patriotic clunker The Green Berets. For those who question the relevance of classic film to American political meta-narrative, one need only mention Ronald Reagan who rose to power by confusing the two realms.
The two Ford movies are Fort Apache in 1947 and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 1962. The former is a cavalry and Indians story and the latter is a gunfighter and bad man story. Ford was an amazing director and both are excellent fiction films that reinforce Manifest Destiny and American cultural values — to the point of necessarily burying unpleasant truths and encouraging popular legends.
At the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a newspaper editor learns that dude lawyer Jimmy Stewart really didn’t shoot the bad gunman Liberty Valance, played by Lee Marvin. The shooting of Valance in a western town at night made Stewart famous and got him elected a US senator. The editor learns that gunfighter John Wayne knew Valance would kill his tenderfoot pal Stewart, so Wayne had dry-gulched Valance with a rifle from a nearby alley.
The question is, will the editor spill the beans and destroy good-guy Stewart’s senatorial career. In what is now an iconic line, the editor says: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Both the official and popular histories of the Vietnam War are rife with this kind of slippage. The emotional emphasis on anti-war activists “spitting” on soldiers and the emphasis on the heroics of individual soldiers in Vietnam are just two examples. In both cases, the larger, historical realities are buried in favor of popularly endorsed and highly publicized narratives on an individual and personal level. The fact anti-war activists were actually opposing LBJ, Robert McNamara, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and the cruel and insidious war they and the institutions they controlled were determined to escalate is lost in the cynical, patriotic focus on individual heroism.
The colonel’s debacle and a newly promoted John Wayne passing on a noble legend
Fort Apache is a perfect analogy for the Vietnam War. John Wayne is a cavalry captain in Apache country; he’s a good soldier who respects Cochise and his braves. At this point, along comes Henry Fonda as a tight-ass lieutenant colonel taking command of the garrison; he resents being sent with his teenage daughter Shirley Temple to this smelly armpit of the world — in this case, Ford’s favorite location, the incredibly austere Monument Valley in Utah.
Besides the grand-scale scenes of precise cavalry units advancing on horseback amongst the mesas and desert tabletops, there’s the usual John Ford cotillion dances with officers in formal uniforms and ladies in gowns that are simply preposterous for the frontier. And there’s the usual male camaraderie and buffoonery amongst the enlisted men centered on drinking to lighten things up. Plus a Romeo and Juliet romance between upper class Temple and the fresh West Point 2nd lieutenant son of grizzled Sergeant Major Ward Bond, a Civil War Medal Of Honor winner.
Fonda wants to reestablish military discipline at the fort and to regain the glory he once had as a general in the Civil War. (It seems rank was shuffled considerably once that conflagration was over.) He also wants to rip into the savages who caused him this ignoble assignment.
Fonda reluctantly allows Wayne to go with only a Spanish translator to talk with Cochise unarmed in his stronghold. (Cochise speaks Spanish but not English.) Wayne and Cochise get on smartly and agree that Cochise can resettle in his former lands. But Fonda has different plans. He dismisses Wayne’s agreement and orders the garrison to mount up to meet Cochise. To Wayne, it’s a loathsome betrayal.
The Apaches have the US cavalry outnumbered ten to one. But this doesn’t phase the madman Fonda. He orders the recalcitrant Wayne to guard the wagons and orders a frontal attack that takes his troops right into an Apache ambush that Wayne warned him was there.
Fonda is shot off his horse, and Wayne rides like the wind to save the wounded officer. But Fonda shoves him away and mounts Wayne’s horse to join his encircled men, now in a formation that resembles images of Custer’s Last Stand. Fonda apologizes to Bond, who makes a jovial crack about their future grandchildren. Then they’re all killed by the infuriated Apaches.
Cut to Wayne back behind the wagons, awaiting the advancing savages. A lone rider comes up and, as Wayne goes out unarmed to meet him, the rider angrily slams the garrison colors into the dirt at Wayne’s feet. Cochise has let his paleface amigo live for another day.
Then there’s a break and its some years later. Wayne is now a colonel, and he’s engaged with some reporters in his office. There’s a dignified, formal portrait of the Fonda character on the wall. The reporters all want to hear about the glory of Fonda’s now famous fatal charge. Wayne plays along and passes on the legend of the great man. Then he goes outside and leads his troops on a stirring march out of the compound. The end.
The fact the arrogance and incompetence of the Fonda character and his blatant betrayal of a negotiated agreement he had sent an officer out to obtain at significant risk had caused the loss of much of his garrison is simply swept under the rug. Truth is secondary to institutional integrity. Wayne has now realized on which side his bread is buttered and that his career is not about negotiating with savages. Geronimo was pointedly introduced earlier in the meeting with Cochise. To protect the women folk and advancing civilization on the frontier, Wayne now has the guerrilla Geronimo to clean up.
As well-wrought film art, one can see Fort Apache in two ways — as glorifying Manifest Destiny and the extermination of Native Americans or as explaining the process of how truth is the first casualty of war and, if we let it happen, a permanent casualty of permanent war.
The Truth Will Set Us Free
A friend of mine just gave me three boxes of books on the Vietnam War to add to my collection; and I’m always looking for more in thrift shops and used book stores. Chris Hedges says we’re becoming an illiterate culture attuned to spectacle. That may be true, but I’m not going to be one of Orwell’s proles in such an equation. The point is, we in the antiwar movement — especially those of us who are Vietnam veterans and still read — have a responsibility to make sure the national record is complete. Bernard Brodie was right in 1973 in his mature, analytic book War and Politics when he said Vietnam was “a story of virtually unmitigated disasters that we have inflicted on ourselves and even more on others.” Nothing has changed in the past 39 years, and a well-funded Pentagon propaganda campaign won’t affect that truth.
I’ll be the first to concede honor and bravery exist even in a lousy, unnecessary and cruel war like the one in Vietnam. But we cannot allow the rah-rah garbage that appears to be lined up for the well-funded Vietnam War Commemoration Project to prevail without a fight — even if that fight is asymmetrical and has to be fought in guerrilla mode with rhetorical jujitsu and even strains of Dada absurdity if necessary. The fact is, there are two sides to the Vietnam War, and the one that says the war was not necessary needs to be heard loud and clear and needs to be respected. Plus, it needs to be made clear to Americans that the Vietnamese endured vastly more pain and suffering than any of us did.
The poet W.D. Ehrhart was a young Marine infantryman in the war. He was wounded there. He returned to Vietnam in 1985 and wrote about his trip, about the good things and about meeting Mrs. Na who lost five sons to The American War. As he is led into her modest peasant home, she looks at him. “I have suffered so much misery,” she tells him, “and you did this to me.”
Ehrhart wants to flee the little house and vomit in the road. The incident reminds him of a poem he had written earlier called “Making the Children Behave.”
Do they think of me now
in those strange Asian villages
where nothing ever seemed
and my few grim friends
moving through them
When they tell stories to their children
of the evil
that awaits misbehavior
is it me they conjure?
It takes great humanity and courage to get to a place like Ehrhart has reached. John Ford would not have understood the need to recognize the truths Ehrhart and other vets have tried to tell Americans, though many Americans like Platoon director Oliver Stone certainly do. The Pentagon and the US government do not want to encourage such difficult truths when they need young soldiers for future wars that may, like Vietnam and Iraq, turn out to be tragic debacles.
In another poem, Ehrhart poignantly addresses the human problem of sending young men to fight delusional and unnecessary wars. It’s called “Guerrilla War.”
It’s practically impossible
to tell civilians
from the Vietcong.
Nobody wears uniforms.
They all talk
the same language,
(and you couldn’t understand them
even if they didn’t).
They tape grenades
inside their clothes,
and carry satchel charges
in their market baskets.
Even their women fight,
and young boys,
It’s practically impossible
to tell civilians
from the Vietcong.
you quit trying.
For a related essay on Vietnam veterans and these issues, go to In The Mind Field colleague Michael Uhl’s essay: “The Chosen: On Being a Veteran in America”