Vietnam War Myths: Memory, Narrative, Rhetoric & Lies

I continually wonder how we can move forward as a society when we are so disconnected from our own past.

Ideological myths are strange. It doesn’t matter if the known facts contradict them. They can be refuted endlessly, but they continue as if nothing has changed. Their very power seems built not on passively being misinformed, but actively being in denial.

Military vets march against the Vietnam War, Washington D.C. (1967)

Vietnam veterans lead a march against the Vietnam War, Washington D.C. (1967)
White House Collection / National Archives

The Vietnam War is a great example of this.

Anti-war protesters came from both political parties, came from both urban and rural areas, came from both those with and without college education, came from radicals and average Americans, came from both veterans/soldiers and the general population. It wasn’t just a small group of malcontent hippies.

Some of the most radical protesters were the veterans and soldiers who knew about war firsthand because they and their friends had made personal sacrifices. I’ve even heard of Vietnam veterans who fought off the riot police when peaceful protesters were attacked, and that was the only incident during that era when the police retreated from protesters. There was even mass resistance among active duty military.

Anit-Vietnam War protester spits on soldier in G.I. Joe cartoon. (Cartoon: G.I. Joe)There are at least thousands of myths and they involve political issues across the board. The facts outnumber the myths, but it is easier to repeat a myth than to debunk a myth. Most people are too lazy and uninspired, too tired and overworked to spend the time trying to dissect complex issues that don’t fit into the tidy boxes of political myths.

Instead offering complex analysis, I’ll just offer the evidence about the Vietnam War for anyone who cares about reality over myth:

Nor were Republicans especially hawkish about U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. In a Gallup poll conducted in June of 1967, a majority of Republican respondents said Vietnam was a mistake, while only one-third of Democrats agreed with them.

Even as American forces were leaving Southeast Asia and communist forces were overrunning Vietnam and neighboring Cambodia, most Republican respondents in a 1975 Gallup poll opposed any further U.S. military aid to the friendly governments in those countries.

Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) is a tax-exempt non-profit organization and corporation, originally created to oppose the Vietnam War. VVAW describes itself as a national veterans’ organization that campaigns for peace, justice, and the rights of all United States military veterans. It publishes a twice-yearly newsletter The Veteran, previously published more frequently as 1st Casualty (1971–1972) and then as Winter Soldier (1973–1975). VVAW considers itself as anti-war, although not in the pacifistic sense. Membership varied greatly, from almost 25,000 veterans during the height of the war to fewer than a couple thousand in subsequent decades. While the member veterans were a small fraction of the millions that served between 1965–75, the VVAW is widely considered to be among the most influential anti-war organizations of that era.

In April of 1971 the war was raging in Indochina. The vast majority of American were sick and tired of it and wanted the war to end. Thousands and thousands were actively demonstrating their opposition to the war as the US government was losing more and more support for its Vietnam policies.

Soldiers in Vietnam were refusing to go on combat missions. At home, veterans formed a national organization, Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). It was in April of 1971 that VVAW held its first national demonstration to protest the war in Vietnam. The demonstration was named “Operation Dewey Canyon III” (Dewey Canyon I and II were secret operations into Laos that were never reported to the American people). It was held in Washington DC from April 18th to April 23rd, and was the most powerful antiwar demonstration held up to that time; it sparked off a series of major demonstrations that made it clear that the American people wanted the US out of Indochina.

The U.S. government would be happy to see the history of the Vietnam War buried and forgotten. Not least because it saw the world’s greatest superpower defeated by a peasant army, but mainly because of what defeated the war effort – the collective resistance of the enlisted men and women in the U.S. armed forces, who mutinied, sabotaged, shirked, fragged and smoked their way to a full withdrawal and an end to the conflict.

Military morale was considered high before the war began. In fact, the pre-Vietnam Army was considered the best the United States had ever put into the field. Consequently, the military high command was taken quite by surprise by the rapid disintegration of the very foundations of their power.

No, it was not Vietnam but the United States that ended up divided by America’s war. And the division cut even deeper than the armed forces, biting down into the core of the secret government itself. When members of the intelligence establishment joined the antiwar movement, they had the potential to inflict even greater damage than mutinous soldiers and sailors. The perfidy of the Central Intelligence Agency in Vietnam was revealed by one of its highest-level agents in South Vietnam, Ralph McGehee, author of Deadly Deceits: My Twenty-Five Years in the CIA. Philip Agee decided in 1971 to publish what eventually became Inside the Company: CIA Diary because of “the continuation of the Vietnam war and the Vietnamization programme,” writing, “Now more than ever exposure of CIA methods could help American people understand how we got into Vietnam and how our other Vietnams are germinating wherever the CIA is at work.” In that same year, two of the authors of the Pentagon’s own supersecret history of the war, Anthony Russo and Daniel Ellsberg, exposed it to the American people and the world.

There is the book The Spitting Image by Jerry Lembcke which analyzes how a legend formed around the claim that many Vietnam vets were spit upon by protesters (Damn hippies!) when they came home. In that book, he attributes the origins of this legend to movies such as Rambo: First Blood where there is a scene of Rambo raging about the injustices he met upon his return:

Colonel Trautman: It’s over Johnny. It’s over!

Rambo: Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don’t turn it off! It wasn’t my war! You asked me I didn’t ask you! And I did what I had to do to win, for somebody who wouldn’t let us win! Then I come back to the world, and I see all those maggots at the airport, protestin’ me, spittin’, callin’ me a baby killer and all kinds of vile crap! Who are they to protest me?! Huh?! Who are they?! Unless they been me and been there and know what the hell they yellin’ about!

Of course, this ignores that the anti-war protesters directed their anger and criticism at the political leaders and not the soldiers. It also ignores the fact that a fair number of Vietnam vets became anti-war protesters. But facts never get in the way of a good story.

Obviously, the Vietnam War was traumatizing to the American psyche similar to the Civil War. Both wars created a generation of physically and psychologically battered veterans many of whom felt victimized and resentful. And out of that trauma was born a sense of isolation and a sense of the individual being against the world. Rambo describes this in his words directly following the above speech about “all those maggots”:

Colonel Trautman: It was a bad time for everyone Rambo. It’s all in the past now.

Rambo: For you! For me civilian life is nothin’! In the field without a code of honor. You watch my back I watch yours. Back here there’s nothin’! Col. Trautman: You’re the last of an elite group. Don’t end it like this. Rambo: Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge of million dollar equipment. Back here I can’t even hold a job PARKING CARS!!!! UUHHHH!!!!! (Throws M-60 at wall and then slight emotional pause. He drops to the ground in a crouched position out of breath and very upset) Wha…I can’t…oh, I jus–omigod. Where is everybody? Oh God…I…I had a friend, who was Danforth. Wha–I had all these guys man. Back there I had all these fucking guys. Who were my friends. Cause back here there’s nothin’. Remember Danforth? He wore this black head band and I took one of those magic markers and I said to Feron, ‘Hey mail us to Las Vegas cause we were always talkin’ about Vegas, and this fucking car. This uh red ’58 Chevy convertible, he was talkin’ about this car, he said we were gonna cruise till the tires fall off. (upset pause) We were in this bar in Saigon. And this kid comes up, this kid carryin’ a shoe shine box, and eh he says uh ‘shine please, shine.’ I said no, eh an’ uh, he kept askin’ yeah and Joey said ‘yeah,’ and I went to get a couple beers and the ki–the box was wired, and he opened up the box, fuckin’ blew his body all over the place. And he’s layin’ there and he’s fuckin’ screamin’, there’s pieces of him all over me, jus like–! (frustrated he grabs at his bullet chain strapped around his chest and yanks it off) like this. And I’m tryin’ to pull em off you know? And ehe.. MY FRIEND IT’S ALL OVER ME! IT’S GOT BLOOD AND EVERYTHING! And I’m tryin’ to hold him together I put him together his fucking insides keep coming out, AND NOBODY WOULD HELP!! Nobody help me. He sayin’ plea I wanna go home I wanna go home. He keeps callin’ my name, I wanna go home Johnny, I wanna drive my Chevy. I said well (upset and breaking down) WHY I can’t find your fucking legs. I can’t find you legs. (softly now) I can’t get it out of my head. I fuc..I dream of seven years. Everyday I have this. And sometimes I wake up and I dunno where I am. I don’t talk to anybody. Sometimes a day–a week. (Almost inaudible) I can’t put it out of my mind…fucking…I can’t…….(totally sobbing now)

For the Rambo at the heart of our culture, the past is never past. The violence is continually relived.

Rambo, of course, was overly simplistic melodramatic violence porn. Maybe for that reason it had such an impact on the American psyche. Rambo expressed something that Americans felt, something that Americans wanted to believe. It gave all of the conflicts and doubts an emodied form. It put it all into the context of a story. And stories have a way of informing our perceived reality, our shared sense of identity.

Historian Howard Zinn included this paragraph on the opposition to the Vietnam War by American soldiers in his People’s History of the United States:

The capacity for independent judgment among ordinary Americans is probably best shown by the swift development of antiwar feeling among American GIs — volunteers and draftees who came mostly from lower-income groups. There had been, earlier in American history, instances of soldiers’ disaffection from the war: isolated mutinies in the Revolutionary War, refusal of reenlistment in the midst of hostilities in the Mexican war, desertion and conscientious objection in World War I and World War II. But Vietnam produced opposition by soldiers and veterans on a scale, and with a fervor, never seen before.

According to the Washington Peace Center:

During the Vietnam War, the military ranks carried out mass resistance on bases and ships in Southeast Asia, the Pacific, U.S., and Europe. Military resistance was instrumental in ending the war by making the ranks politically unreliable. This history is well documented in Soldiers in Revolt by David Cortright and the recent film Sir! No Sir!

One of the key reports on GI resistance was written by Col. Robert D. Heinl Jr. and published in the Armed Forces Journal of June 7, 1971. He began:

The morale, discipline and battle worthiness of the U.S. Armed Forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at anytime in this century and possibly in the history of the United States.

By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non-commissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near mutinous. Elsewhere than Vietnam, the situation is nearly as serious.

Intolerably clobbered and buffeted from without and within by social turbulence, pandemic drug addiction, race war, sedition, civilian scapegoatise, draftee recalcitrance and malevolence, barracks theft and common crime, unsupported in their travail by the general government, in Congress as well as the executive branch, distrusted, disliked, and often reviled by the public, the uniformed services today are places of agony for the loyal, silent professions who doggedly hang on and try to keep the ship afloat.

According to the 2003 book by Christian Appy, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides, Gen. Creighton Abrams — the U.S. military commander in Vietnam — made this comment in 1971 after an investigation: “Is this a god-damned army or a mental hospital? Officers are afraid to lead their men into battle, and the men won’t follow. Jesus Christ! What happened?”

One of the most resilient images of the Vietnam era is that of the anti-war protester — often a woman — spitting on the uniformed veteran just off the plane. The lingering potency of this icon was evident during the Gulf War, when war supporters invoked it to discredit their opposition.

In this startling book, Jerry Lembcke demonstrates that not a single incident of this sort has been convincingly documented. Rather, the anti-war Left saw in veterans a natural ally, and the relationship between anti-war forces and most veterans was defined by mutual support. Indeed one soldier wrote angrily to Vice President Spiro Agnew that the only Americans who seemed concerned about the soldier’s welfare were the anti-war activists.

While the veterans were sometimes made to feel uncomfortable about their service, this sense of unease was, Lembcke argues, more often rooted in the political practices of the Right. Tracing a range of conflicts in the twentieth century, the book illustrates how regimes engaged in unpopular conflicts often vilify their domestic opponents for “stabbing the boys in the back.”

Concluding with an account of the powerful role played by Hollywood in cementing the myth of the betrayed veteran through such films as Coming HomeTaxi Driver, and Rambo, Jerry Lembcke’s book stands as one of the most important, original, and controversial works of cultural history in recent years.

The anti-Vietnam War movement in the United States is perhaps best remembered for its young, counterculture student protesters. However, the Vietnam War was the first conflict in American history in which a substantial number of military personnel actively protested the war while it was in progress.

In The Turning, Andrew Hunt reclaims the history of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), an organization that transformed the antiwar movement by placing Vietnam veterans in the forefront of the nationwide struggle to end the war. Misunderstood by both authorities and radicals alike, VVAW members were mostly young men who had served in Vietnam and returned profoundly disillusioned with the rationale for the war and with American conduct in Southeast Asia. Angry, impassioned, and uncompromisingly militant, the VVAW that Hunt chronicles in this first history of the organization posed a formidable threat to America’s Vietnam policy and further contributed to the sense that the nation was under siege from within.

Based on extensive interviews and in-depth primary research, including recently declassified government files, The Turning is a vivid history of the men who risked censures, stigma, even imprisonment for a cause they believed to be “an extended tour of duty.”

Richard Moser uses interviews and personal stories of Vietnam veterans to offer a fundamentally new interpretation of the Vietnam War and the antiwar movement. Although the Vietnam War was the most important conflict of recent American history, its decisive battle was not fought in the jungles of Vietnam, or even in the streets of the United States, but rather in the hearts and minds of American soldiers. To a degree unprecedented in American history, soldiers and veterans acted to oppose the very war they waged. Tens of thousands of soldiers and veterans engaged in desperate conflicts with their superiors and opposed the war through peaceful protest, creating a mass movement of dissident organizations and underground newspapers. Moser shows how the antiwar soldiers lived out the long tradition of the citizen-soldier first created in the American Revolution and Civil War. Unlike those great upheavals of the past, the Vietnam War offered no way to fulfill the citizen-soldier’s struggle for freedom and justice. Rather than abandoning such ideals, however, tens of thousands abandoned the war effort and instead fulfilled their heroic expectations in the movements for peace and justice. According to Moser, this transformation of warriors into peacemakers is the most important recent development of our military culture.

Drawing from more than 120 newspapers, published between 1968 and 1970, this study explores the emergence of an anti-militarist subculture within the U.S. armed services. These activists took the position that individual GIs could best challenge their subordination by working in concert with like-minded servicemen through GI movement organizations whose behaviors and activities were then publicized in these underground newspapers. In examining this movement, Lewes focuses on their treatment of power and authority within the armed forces and how this mirrored the wider and more inclusive relations of power and authority in the United States. He argues that this opposition among servicemen was the primary motivation for the United States to withdraw from Vietnam.

This first book length study of GI-published underground newspapers sheds light on the utility of alternative media for movements of social change, and provides information on how these movements are shaped by the environments in which they emerge. Lewes asserts that one cannot understand GI opposition as an extension of the civilian antiwar movement. Instead, it was the product of an embedded environment, whose inhabitants had been drafted or had enlisted to avoid the draft. They came from cities and small towns whose populations were often polarized between those who wholeheartedly supported the war and those who became progressively more critical of the need for Americans to be involved in Vietnam.

8 thoughts on “Vietnam War Myths: Memory, Narrative, Rhetoric & Lies

  1. This is an interesting side of the history of the Vietnam War that isn’t told very often. I recall the stories I’d hear from my parents growing up about veterans being spat on and disrespected but never did I hear about veterans who actively protested this unjust war.

    • I’m actually not all well informed about this topic. I’ve never been one to seek out knowledge about wars. My interest is moe from the social/cultural angle.

      As such, I can’t feel too critical abot most Americans being unaware and misinformed about the Vietnam anti-war movement. There doesn’t seem to be much point in blaming average people.

      I blame the manstream media for not reporting fully, fairly, and accurately. I blame this same MSM for not challenging the poiticians and their political rhetoric, especially as it relates to a decades old propaganda campaign to deceive the public in order to manufacture consent for the endless wars we start and become involved in. I could blame politicians as well, but my cynicism doesn’t allow me to expect much from the political elite.

      Considering we supposedly live in a democracy, maybe I should hold the general public more accountable, myself included. We vote these politicians into power. And we choose to watch the media that is offered us. We can’t deny our own civic responsibility to inform ourselves.

      I’m not sure what could change all of this. We Americans have grown contented or else just pacified. It’s the old Roman bread-and-circus combined with a state of the art propaganda model. People don’t seem to realize that propaganda is seen by the elite as more necessary in a democracy than in a toalitarian state. When a population isn’t as directly and oppressively controlled by state violence, control of public perception ad opinion becomes even more important.

      As democratic citizens, we really need to up our game… assuming we want to keep our dmocracy. But even armed with knowledge, it’s hard to feel empowered. I sympathize with those who don’t see the point in knowing about issues that they don’t know how to change, and I have no good answer to assuage such doubts. I’d like to believe truth maters and that truth wins out in the end.

      Your parents sound like my parents. I’ve heard similar stories from my parents.

      It’s hard to know what is real. Psychological research has proven how easy it is for people to invent memories and to incorporate stories they hear as their own memories. Psychological research also has shown that when statements are repeated enough they begin to be treated as if they were facts by many people. Beliefs have a way of taking on a life of their own.

      Anecdotal evidence is highly uneliable, to say the least. That said, I would be surprised if someone at some point didn’t spit on a soldier. People do all kinds of things. But I doubt that this happened very often. Stating all anti-war protesters hated soldiers is like claiming all soldiers are baby killers. Besides, one of the most popular protests songs at the time had a line about bringing our boys home which implies the complete opposite of hatred.

      I hope that a new generation of Americans raised on alternaive media will be better prepared to see through the fog of propaganda. That is my hope. May it not be a naive hope.

      • You put it perfectly. And that is an excellent point you made about this not necessarily being a partisan issue because it certainly isn’t. Both parties follow whatever is politically convinient for them at that point in time and do accordingly.

  2. I should clarify a point.

    This isn’t a partisan issue. Obama gave a speech where he repeated some of this od misinformation. It might be particularly popular on the right at the moment with the uber-hawkishness of the GOP this past decade, but few politicians are ever going to speak honestly about any war.

    There is a simlar issue that shows how seemingly clear partisan issues shift over time.

    Right now, Democrats are pushing for gun control. But back in the day, the conservative hero Ronald Reagan became a strong advocate of gun control. The reason for this was because Black Panther members were carrying guns for self-protection as it was legal to do. Reagan, in appealing to his racist base, argued we couldn’t just let anyone walk around with a gun.

    There is nothing inherently conservatve or Republican about gun rights or support for the Vietnam War. These issues are dependent on the social context which is always changing.

  3. By the way, a few months ago I was having a conversation with my parents. They had somehow come across this kind of info about the Vietnam War. They were always the type of conservatives in the past who blamed weak politicians and hippies for the failure of the war. But now they openly admitted that many soldiers were also against the war. When this kind of info is even trickling up into the awareness of old conservatives, we are truly on the brink of massive change.

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