Distal Muse

Vietnam and the New Republican Zealots

by Mark W. Tiedemann

The Vietnam War with America came to an end almost 30 years ago.  In that time we have undergone massive cultural change.  Shock over the war and what it told us about our politics, about our morals, about our place in the world, and about those who lead us wore off slowly--if at all.

But like most traumas, eventually numbness set in.  We started to forget.  Now we’re in the throes of rewriting history.  Unlike the feted veterans of WWII, who came home to parades and national adoration and who really had little chance to unburden themselves of the psychic garbage they brought back with them, the Vietnam veterans were little more than embarrassments.  But they were loud embarrassments, constantly haranguing us about the atrocities, the immorality of the war, the costs, and the dangers of yielding to unquestioned nationalism.

After a while, despite the need for such messages and the urgency of learning better, we got tired of hearing about it.  The veterans themselves fell silent as the necessities of life In The World imposed on them.

We have forgotten that when John Kerrey testified before congress about atrocities and tossed his medals at the White House, times were, in fact, different, and that his actions were ethical and in their own way heroic.

What we have been wanting since, it seems, is for someone to tell us that Vietnam wasn’t like that after all.  That in fact it was, like all American military adventures, justified and ultimately for the greater good.  We want to forget that we as a nation were suckered by treaty obligations to post-WWII France and their insistence that what they were engaged in was a war against a communist insurrection that was not, in the end, populist.  We want to forget that a national vote in Vietnam was canceled by the United States when it became clear to the State Department, the Pentagon, and the Security Council that Ho Chi Minh would be resoundingly elected--popularly elected--which would depose the Catholic government of Ngo Dinh Diem, a man who is later murdered in a coup led by even stronger anticommunist elements who then proceed to oppress the predominantly Buddhist south even more thoroughly.  We want to forget that the “police action” was conducted under extraordinary powers granted to President Johnson based on what we believed then and now know to be fraudulent circumstances--the Gulf of Tonkin event never happened.

What we would rather believe is that Americans fought and died in a just war.

As far as I can tell, America has fought exactly three Just Wars.  The Revolution, the Civil War, and WWII.  One could argue for Korea s a legitimate treaty obligation and reaction to naked aggression, particularly after China entered.  WWI we were drawn in by the machinations of Britain and business concerns.  The Spanish-American War was a feeding frenzy for imperialists, who were unapologetic, but who were also wrong about cause and consequence.  The Mexican-American War was a land grab.  The War of 1812 was pretty much our fault and we damn near lost everything back to Britain.  It must be remembered that for Britain, the War of 1812 was a side issue.  They were busy subduing Napoleon.  As badly as we were bruised under the circumstances, if Britain has actually wanted to take the colonies back it would perhaps not have been a foregone conclusion, but the odds would have been on their side.

Vietnam was a political creature, an ugliness born out of an ugly time, an enterprise designed--if it had been designed at all--to bleed the communists.  We knew Russia was supporting Vietnam (not China, which proved finally that communism was not and never had been a monolith, as China and Vietnam, comrades in ideology notwithstanding, are traditional and bitter enemies) and it cost Moscow dearly to do so.  For 10 years we made them spend treasure in Southeast Asia.  Vietnam was not a war so much as a battle, one that may or may not have contributed ultimately to the downfall of the Soviet Union, but one which certainly wounded world communism.  If that end seems sufficient justification for you to think well of the Vietnam War, so be it.  But that is not quite what we were told at the time it would be, nor is it what certain parties now are trying to say it was.

The problem with Vietnam was that it turned us to self-loathing.  It crippled our own sense of mission and or rightness.  It damaged us in our principles.  It cost us far more than it ultimately cost Vietnam, because Vietnam is able to claim victory, and victory was never on the menu for us, just or otherwise.  It was a holding action for us.  For them it was a war of national liberation.  You be the judge of how winnable it could have been under those circumstances.  Or if winning would ever have been desirable.

We beat them in combat, but lost the war.  Mainly because we never really knew what it was about.  Hard to win something to can’t identify.  If, as I say, it was just a battle, then it might be possible to accept the loss in light of the later victory--against the Soviet Union.  That is, if you like to think that way.

The worst thing about Vietnam was what we in the United States did to the veterans.  Not all of us, but those who were in the antiwar movement, the peace movement, the counter culture.  Those folks treated the returning veterans badly.  The rest of us--later--ignored them as best we could.  They were the focus of so much divisiveness, so much anxiety, so much inconclusivity.  The country as a whole did poorly by them.  These were soldiers sent to do a job they had no choice about.  It is fair to argue over the morality of a draft, but hardly fair to blame those subjected to it for having no control over their use.

The result of this is that now we are trying to rework Vietnam into something else, at a time when our government is once more embarking on military adventurism.  I will not here comment on the right or wrong of our current program, only in what is being done to make it--and those who have brought us into it--palatable.

Because of the terrible way the Vietnam veterans were treated, there is legitimacy to the counter-movement that acts under the banner of Support Our Troops.  The soldiers are there in case we need to defend ourselves.  Dangerous, often dirty, morally questionable work that sometimes needs doing.  I’m speaking as a pragmatist now.  It’s a hard job and those who are sent to do it must trust that they are not being misused.  If they are, it is incumbent upon us, for whom they risk their lives, to treat them fairly.  Because of Vietnam, though, we see a callous political use of the issue that is very difficult to fight.

But “Support Our Troops” is becoming, if it has not already become, code for “Do not question what your leaders do.”  When doubting the reasons for going to Iraq, we more and more hear the rebuttal that by so doing we are failing our troops.  Support Our Troops is used more and more to legitimize the military choices of our politicians.  It has become a matter of patriotism.  If you argue against war, you are not supporting the troops.  You loyalty is questionable.  Your reliability suspect.  Support Our Troops has become the same kind of opportunistic jingoism as wrapping one’s self in the flag.  It deflects criticism.  It mutes dissent.  We remember Vietnam and the shabby treatment the veterans received, and we do not wish to do that again.  Consequently, we have handed a new rhetorical weapon to those who would avoid criticism for their actions as politicians.

The Swift boat Veterans For Truth have impugned John Kerry’s war record by suggesting that he has not supported the troops--then or now.  Because he testified about atrocities--among other things, which of course we forget--he is shown as disrespecting The Troops.  It is suggested that his testimony is treasonous.  But also that it is false.

False because what he claims happened never happened.

It doesn’t matter that the President has come out to say that he believes Kerry has not misrepresented his record--the damage is done.  Those who wish to believe the allegations will do so anyway.  There is a book out, there are people still spreading the word that Kerry has lied.  It no longer matters whether he did or not, the smear is accomplished.  We can only wait to see if it worked.

But I am concerned about a greater problem, one that we saw eat away at the insides of the Soviet Union for seventy-odd years, and which we may rightly say contributed to its downfall.  That is the political rewriting of history to serve current conveniences.

Someone is rewriting the Vietnam War.  Someone wants it to be a just war.  Understandable, perhaps, but such a reworking would be a disservice to the soldiers who lived through it.  It would disenfranchise their experiences.  It would start all over the cancer that ate at us back then.  We will have to fight it all over again.

Seems to me once was enough.

But it is a hall mark of the new zealotry of the Republican Party that all things American must be Right, must be True, must be Honorable.  If presented with a fact that contradicts that outlook, we will deny it, we will smear the messenger, we will forget that we can make mistakes.

Which would be the biggest mistake of all.

copyright © 2004 by Mark W. Tiedemann