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:

http://blogs.e-rockford.com/applesauce/2011/01/03/why-do-republicans-remain-hawkish-about-the-afghan-war-when-americans-generally-are-not/

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.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam_Veterans_Against_the_War

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.

http://www.vvaw.org/veteran/article/?id=1656

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.

http://libcom.org/history/vietnam-gi-resistance

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.

http://www.isreview.org/issues/22/feat-franklin.shtml

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.

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2011/07/31/public-good-vs-splintered-society-pt-3/

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.

http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/9723-reversing-the-vietnam-war-verdict

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?”

http://www.amazon.com/Spitting-Image-Memory-Legacy-Vietnam/dp/0814751474

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.

http://www.amazon.com/Turning-History-Vietnam-Veterans-Against/dp/0814736351

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.”

http://www.amazon.com/New-Winter-Soldiers-Veteran-Perspectives/dp/0813522420

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.

http://www.amazon.com/Protest-Survive-Underground-Newspapers-Vietnam/dp/0275978613

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.

http://www.amazon.com/Soldiers-Revolt-Resistance-During-Vietnam/dp/1931859272

Iraq War: righteous cause?

I was thinking about righteousness as it relates to righteous causes.  Righteousness often plays out in politics in terms of patriotrism, and patriotistm often plays out in terms of war. 

As an example, the peace protests that were against the invasion of Iraq were the largest and fastest growing of any anti-war movement in American history, and the most widespread and most well organized in world history.  It had become well organized before the war even started which is very unusual.  It took years for the Vietnam war protests to even begin to gather popular support. 

The anti-war movement gained much support even internationally.  Many political and religious leaders (including heads of states and even the Vatican) around the world have officially opposed the war and occupation of Iraq.  Around 90% of non-Americans in the world are against unilateral action by the US without UN sanction.  Around 3 million people were caculated to be in Rome protesting the war which Guinness Book of Records claims is the largest ever anti-war rally.  In a 3 month period in 2003, it was calculated that 36 million people worldwide participated in 3,000 protests.

In America, since 2005, opponents of the war have outnumbered supporters.  But even before the war started the vast majority (around 70%) of Americans opposed going to war without allowing the UN inspections to finish.  Also, at least 64 US city councils have passed anti-war resolutions (which includes major cities of middle America such as Chicago and Detroit) and some major US religious organizations have passed anti-war resolutions (such as the National Council of Churches and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops).

What did the government do in response?  Initially, the government’s righteous rhetoric just became more loud.  The Bush administration ignored the opposition and went to war anyways.  Bush saw that his base supported it, and ignored the fact that for instance most blacks and hispanics didn’t.  Bush also ignored the UN and ignored popular opinion in the world at large.  Bush hoped the dissent would disappear if he just ignored it long enough, but it only kept growing.  And the Democrats in Washington were afraid to represent many of of those in their own base who were in opposition to Bush’s patriotic call to arms.  So, no one in power supported this large and ever growing larger anti-war movement.  Furthermore, many US news sources (Fox News in particular) tried their best to ignore and downplay the anti-war protests (even though they’ve given plenty of attention to much smaller protest movements that support the Republican party).

The Iraq war was justified for two reasons (a claim of connections to 9/11 terrorists and a claim of weapons of mass destruction) both of which turned out to be either lies or unforgivable ignorance.  We’ve torn a country a part out of a sense of vengeance at having a couple of buildings knocked down.  Millions of innocent Iraqi civilians have been killed, injured, and orphaned so as to free them from Saddam who was supposed to be somehow connected the 9/11 attacks that killed less than 3,000.  But it doesn’t matter because Iraqis are elsewhere.  Iraqis hold no great power in the world, and if it weren’t for oil no one would care about them.

Anyways, it was the American government who in the first place helped Saddam and Bin Laden gain power.  Where is America’s righteousness when morality only applies when the situation is convenient?  It’s not just Iraqis who have suffered because of the US invasion and occupation.  From this site, here are the recent statistcs for deaths in Iraq:

Iraqi troops killed [13] 30,000 Iraqi troops seriously injured [14] 90,000 Iraqi civilians killed [15] 697,523 Iraqi civilians seriously injured [16] 1,255,541 U.S. troops killed [17] 4,343 U.S. troops seriously injured [18] 31,156 Other coalition troops killed [19] 318 Other coalition troops seriously injured [20] 10,821 Contractors killed [21] 933 Contractors seriously injured [22] 10,569 Journalists killed [23] 163 Journalists seriously injured [24] unknown Total killed in Iraq: 733,280 Total injured in Iraq: 1,398,087

Although, a Reuters article argues that the contractor deaths are being undercounted and that this is important as the military is increasingly relying on contractors.

In a Wahington Post article, it was pointed out that certain improvements in the military have had unforeseen consequences.  Better armor and better medical care have saved many lives, but this means that there has been a massive increase of soldiers surviving horrific injuries.  This has led to many more veterans coming home with severe physical disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  A related issue is that 52% of injured soldiers have traumatic brain injuries (TBI).  Beyond the more publicized injuries, there is an even greater subtle menace.  The US troops have used massive amounts of depleted uranium in the Iraq war.  This depleted uranium is in many populated areas which leads to deaths and birth defects for Iraqis, but it also means many US veterans will end up dying from cancer later on.

Furthermore, there are some more results that I find even more depressing.  There are extremely high numbers of soldiers and veterans committing suicide, and many veterans end up unemployed or even homeless.  Among the homeless, one out of every 3 is a veteran even though veterans are only around 10% of the US population.  Most of these veterans are from Vietnam, but homeless younger veterans are increasing in numbers and no one knows how many there are.  All of this relates to high rates of crime (with the highest rates being violence and sexual assault), alcoholism, and drug addiction.  Interestingly, I was reading about how the military has made a practice of giving prescription drugs to soldiers in the field to help them deal with the stress and trauma.  Vietnam veterans used to self-medicate, but now the military keeps our soldiers drugged up so that they’ll be more properly (or at least temporarily) numbed to the horrors of war.

The Iraq war has been a very damaging war.  Despite the majority being critical of the war, it often seems like there is very little outrage (or very little heard in the media) about the tragic results.  It’s largely because the government has been very controlling of the information it releases and very controlling of the media.  The media has allowed itself to be controlled (such as embedded journalists), has allowed itself to be used for purposes of propaganda (partly by self-censoring).  We don’t see the visceral images of death and destruction which were seen during the Vietnam war and which changed public opinion at that time.  Without pictures, it doesn’t entirely feel real.  Abstract data doesn’t incite the moral indignation of the public.

The War on Terror continues, the anti-war movement has lost its momentum, and the American public have become resigned.  The Iraq War is just about to overtake the American Revolutionary War as the third longest war and the War in Afghanistan is getting closer to being the longest war in US history.  Right now Obama is trying to decide what to do next with a war he inherited, a war that is impossible to win.

So, this is where political faux righteousness leads.  My point for bringing all of that up is to show how the anti-war movement is an example of how a genuinely righteous populist movement can be suppressed.  And it’s just one of endless examples.