Why the Vietnam War Still Matters

Jackson Lears

According to conventional wisdom, we wasted weeks of the 2004 presidential campaign in refighting the Vietnam War. In a literal sense this lament is well justified. Without question there are more urgent matters on our agenda than who did what thirty years ago. Yet the Vietnam furor has persisted, and even flared up again. We can see it in the Sinclair Broadcasting Company’s decision to air the anti-Kerry smear Stolen Honor—first as a documentary film, then as part of a balanced” news story based on the film. Stolen Honor and the Swift Boat Veterans’ charges that spawned it are both symptoms of the same disease: the collective amnesia that threatens democratic debate in the contemporary United States.

The struggle of man against power,” the Czech novelist Milan Kundera wrote, is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” During the twentieth century, control over public perceptions of the past has become an essential strategy for the maintenance of state power. Kundera opened The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by recalling the disappearance of a Communist leader from official photographs after he had been charged with treason and hanged. Anyone who had questioned the regime’s legitimacy could simply be airbrushed out of history. Our postmodern media managers are subtler, but in reshaping the public memory of the Vietnam War they have accomplished something even more impressive. They have erased the experience of an entire generation.

Since the rise of Ronald Reagan, right-wing journalists and intellectuals have successfully sold us a fictional explanation for American defeat in Vietnam. It is a variant of the stab in the back” story concocted by German nationalists after their defeat in World War I. The American mission in Vietnam, from the post-Reagan view, was a noble cause” done in by cowardly campus radicals and their allies in the liberal media,” whose combined pressure on politicians forced the military to fight with one hand tied behind its back.” During the last 25 years, this rightist fairy tale has seeped into our popular culture — in the regularly scheduled rants of talk-radio and cable-television hosts, in films from Rambo to Forrest Gump, and in the rhetoric of politicians in both parties. By the 90s, even liberals were too cowed by this bizarre account of the Vietnam era to recall what actually happened.

Yet for a moment in July, on the last night of the Democratic Convention, it seemed as if one major party, at least, might finally be remembering the truth about the Vietnam War. In different ways, Max Cleland and John Kerry made the same larger point: despite having volunteered for the war, many veterans came to see it as a catastrophic mistake, sustained by systematic mendacity. Opposition to this war was a patriotic service. For a moment that night in July, as Cleland and Kerry recalled their commitment and disillusionment, it looked as if our politicians might finally be coming to grips with the real meanings of the American misadventure in Vietnam. 

But that hopeful assumption underestimated the tenacity of the right-wing narrative, as well as its centrality to contemporary Republican strategy. The Orwellian Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” burst on to the post-convention scene, telling big lies and sowing big doubts about Kerry’s medals. In a predictable display of phony evenhandedness,” the national media gave the Swift Boat slander equal time with Kerry’s defense, as if lies and truth deserved an even break from a responsible press. 

The Swift Boat Veterans (now appearing in Stolen Honor) embrace the stab in the back” story of defeat in Vietnam. They are enraged that Kerry told the truth about the Vietnam War, as he did in his testimony to Congress in 1971 when he reported the results of the Winter Soldier Investigation. At this investigation, he testified, over 150 honorably discharged, many highly decorated veterans acknowledged their common participation in acts that could be characterized as atrocities or even war crimes. These men courageously questioned their own conduct, and demanded to know how their government had placed them in conditions that encouraged or even required that conduct. They spoke for themselves and their comrades, those who had died as well as those who lay helpless in veterans’ hospitals, forgotten by the prating politicians who publicly claimed to exalt them. 

The young Kerry was clear about who was responsible for this disaster. He asked: 

Where are the leaders of our country? Where are they now that we, the men [whom] they sent off to war, have returned? These are the commanders who have deserted their troops. These men have left all the casualties and retreated behind a pious shield of public rectitude.

This testimony is simply inadmissible to the sanitized story of the Vietnam War that dominates contemporary politics. The Swift Boat Veterans profess outrage at the very notion that any Americans might have committed atrocities in Vietnam. By focusing on ordinary soldiers and leaving policymakers out of the picture, this stab-in-the-back perspective avoids the larger meanings of that capacious word, atrocity” — the carpet bombing, the free fire zones, the use of Napalm and Agent Orange — all the government strategies sanctioned by the highest military and civilian authority. Faith in American virtue remains intact, and the erasure of collective memory is stunning. A recent headline in the Village Voice read: Kerry Was Right: New Evidence of Vietnam Atrocities.“ As if Kerry needed new evidence” to confirm his own experience, and the experience of his contemporaries! Well, apparently he does.

In contrast to the media legitimating of the Swift Boat Veterans’ lies, consider the discrediting of the essentially accurate CBS report on Bush’s National Guard service. The truth about Bush’s service — or lack of it — disappeared beneath a fog of charges and countercharges regarding the authenticity of several letters written by Bush’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian. No matter that the colonel’s secretary confirmed the substance of the documents (while asserting that she herself had not typed them.) No matter that the former Lieutenant Governor of Texas, Ben Barnes, admitted publicly that he was ashamed” of securing preferential treatment for Bush and other wealthy, well-connected young men. The letters could not be authenticated, and that became the story. 

The problem here is not that Bush evaded the draft or even that he did so by benefiting from economic privilege. (No one should have to apologize for avoiding that vile war by any means necessary). The problem is that his behavior epitomizes the hypocrisy of the draft-dodging hawk. Like most of his administration, Bush vigorously supported the war while even more vigorously trying to evade it, and ever since his entry into presidential politics his handlers have concealed their candidate’s spotty military record while outfitting him in military costumes and posing him as a courageous Commander-in-Chief, brimming with resolve.” He has become the quintessential postmodern patriot, for whom the appearance of bravery and command is more important than the actuality. 

The acquiescence of the national media allows this pose to work. The draft-dodging hawk becomes an embodiment of heroic leadership, while his opponent is perceived” (we are told) as indecisive and weak — this man who courageously volunteered for combat, then came home and courageously criticized the insane policies he had seen on the ground in Vietnam. One does not have to be an uncritical fan of Kerry to deplore the absurdities promoted by the postmodern Right. No wonder so many of us, when we encounter the national media coverage of this campaign, feel that we have entered an Wonderland” world, as the novelist and Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien said of the Swift Boat controversy — a world where factual evidence is ignored, common-sense perceptions of reality are reversed, and history is refashioned to meet the needs of those in power. 

The consequences for contemporary politics cannot be overestimated. Refusal to come to grips with our defeat in Vietnam — to reflect on the hazards of a morally-charged hubris — lies at the core of our current misfortune. Bush’s advisers came of age in the shadow of that defeat, determined to deny its significance by reasserting imperial power on a grand scale, just as German nationalists had longed to do in the wake of World War I. That dream of national regeneration, combined with our collective amnesia, lets the Bush administration ignore the growing parallels between the failed policy in Iraq and the failed precedent in Vietnam: the millennial fantasies used to justify the war; the ignorance of local culture and custom; the reiteration of empty platitudes as chaos looms; the fetish of free elections;” the soldiers trapped in an impossible assignment — as vulnerable to local hostility as any Western army of occupation has ever been, in any country with a history of colonial domination. 

The most important parallel is the government’s inability to tell the truth about the war. The lie at the center of the right-wing Vietnam narrative — the stab-in-the back story — is also central to Bush’s campaign strategy. The belief (against all evidence) that the troops in Vietnam were somehow betrayed by the antiwar movement, rather than by the men who sent them there, remains a powerful rhetorical weapon. It allows Bush and his handlers to equate criticism of government policy with treason — or at best with a failure to support our troops.” The persistence of this twisted logic underscores the continuing relevance of the young John Kerry’s charge: that the people who have truly abandoned our troops are the policymakers who sent them on a fool’s errand under cover of false claims, and then retreated behind a pious shield of public rectitude.” They’re doing it again. That is why the Vietnam War still matters.

Jackson Lears is editor of Raritan and author, most recently, of Something for Nothing: Luck in America.
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