News & Politics

Why the Viet Nam Anti-War Movement's Work Is Not Yet Done

The Viet Nam War may have ended over four decades ago, but the issues stemming from it are very much with us.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/ Lissandra Melo

Most US citizens these days don’t consider Viet Nam at all. Of those who do, many believe that all is well. And in some ways it is. Viet Nam has normal diplomatic relations with the US, belongs to the World Trade Organization, accepts investment by US based multi-national corporations and is allied with US foreign policy on some geopolitical issues including concerns over China’s intentions regarding “disputed” territory in the South China Sea.

On the right and the left, some believe war related issues don’t matter much because Viet Nam has gone off the “capitalist cliff” or isn’t conforming sufficiently to some other Western template. (The New York Times recently featured a front-page story along these lines.)
 
I disagree. I think Viet Nam war issues are still very much with us. And if the Obama administration has its way, for all the wrong reasons, they are going to be with us for a long time to come.
 
Because I have an eye out for these things, I notice news coverage that touches on the Viet Nam war. For example, earlier this year, Jimmy Lee Dykes, made news because he killed a school bus driver, then kidnapped a five-year old boy on the bus and held him hostage in his survivalist bunker. He was identified as ”a decorated Viet Nam war veteran.”
 
It is not unusual to see Viet Nam vets associated with these kinds of stories. Even more common are stories about vets of any and all wars struggling with issues of unemployment, homelessness and difficulties with navigating the Veterans Administration bureaucracy.
 
Last month there were numerous stories about a Viet Nam war anniversary. Which one? Forty years ago, on March 29, 1973 the last US troops left Viet Nam. Many US media outlets featured interviews with some of those veterans.
 
Missing from the news coverage of the 40th anniversary of the troop return was the basis for them leaving Viet Nam in the first place. The date certain for their homecoming was set by the Paris Peace Accords which were officially signed on January 27, 1973.
 
There was not one single story in the US media about that 40th anniversary.
 
In Viet Nam however, honoring the Paris Peace Accords was a big deal. I know because I was one of several anti-war activists from around the world invited to participate in events commemorating the agreement.
 
An official ceremony in Hanoi was carried live on national TV and the occasion was marked in numerous other ways throughout the country. All acknowledged the contribution made by U.S. civilians and soldiers who resisted the war. Anti-war activists at the event were given VIP treatment.
 
Vietnamese leaders want young people to understand the war and its place in Viet Nam’s past, present and future. They are well aware that 80 percent of the population was born after the war ended.
 
Many young Americans were also born since the Viet Nam war ended. A significant number are the children of parents who supported the anti-war movement. Others have parents who fought in Viet Nam, Cambodia or Laos.
 
Barack Obama and the rest of the “establishment” want to sanitize what the US military was ordered to do in Southeast Asia and obliterate the role of the anti-war movement in bringing the whole ugly mess to an end.
 
Why they do so might seem obvious. Predator drones as a symbol of “automated warfare” notwithstanding, the US war machine still needs plenty of humans. In addition to the wars already underway, many others are on the drawing board. Anything that might somehow make military service less attractive is best washed away. That certainly includes the truth about Viet Nam.
 
Beyond that, every Presidential administration needs to win popular support for permanent war as essential to preserving the “American way of life.” You have to be pretty old to have lived during a time when the US was not making war on one or more countries.
 
Since 1941, but for a few short breaks, the United States has been making war one place or another: Korea, Viet Nam, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Grenada, Kuwait, Iraq, Bosnia, Irag again, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Africa and Iran. That doesn’t even include the current phase of the war against Cuba that started in 1959 and continues to this day.
 
Whether Democrats or Republicans were in “power” has made no difference whatsoever. It is a bipartisan condition. US war has become so much a part of daily reality that we hardly notice. Most Americans think it completely normal and why not? That is exactly what it has become.
 
Obfuscating new “normal” is partly the job of the media. It’s no surprise therefore that coverage of the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq did not set it in the context of our continuous military interventions in other nations over the last 75 years.
 
Virtually all media stories treated the Iraq war as a self-contained event. The reality that the machinery of perpetual war is now utterly and completely integral to our economy, politics and culture was thereby concealed.
 
If we are to disrupt the cycle of endless war however, it is vital that we look at the forest and the trees of our present global death machine. A good place to start goes back to when the now mature forest was first planted.
 
Slavery.
 
The truth is that the United States is exceptional—although not in the “we are the chosen people of God who can do no wrong” way that many prefer to believe.
 
Never before in human history did a spanking new nation birth its economy and its government on a foundation of capitalist slavery. That is truly unique. The consequences of that “birth defect” are very much with us today. One of them is that we are loathe to recognize how much the consequences are with us today.
 
The fact of slavery required a moral justification for slavery. You can see several such rationalizations offered in the movie Django Unchained. And they are still going on. At the Conservative Political Action Convention (CPAC) in March young activists proclaimed that slave owners had been doing their slaves a favor all along.
 
When slavery ended, it was replaced by the Jim Crow segregation that had long been in place in the North. That then required the moral defense of the Jim Crow system. Today, because of institutionalized racism African Americans are still dramatically worse off than whites. This also requires a complex system of blaming-the- victim mental gymnastics.
 
Historian Edward Braithwaite has called this “social processing”. Centuries of rationalizing slavery (and genocide) form patterns and paths that are part of the cultural DNA of our citizenry. Avoidance, denial, and hypocrisy are essential ingredients.
 
What has evolved is a template for how to do it. One consistent theme is that our intentions are always noble and mighty. “Their” motives are always crass and evil. Oh and we always fight “clean.” They always fight dirty.
 
So it is that our leaders not only have yet to acknowledge our decades long 20th century brutality in Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos. Rather, the powers that be are actively working to perpetuate exactly the opposite story.
 
President Obama is leading the way. Last year on May 28 in a speech aimed at Viet Nam war veterans he said, “You were often blamed for a war you didn’t start, when you should have been commended for serving your country with valor. You were sometimes blamed for misdeeds of a few, when the honorable service of the many should have been praised. You came home and sometimes were denigrated, when you should have been celebrated.”
 
The president called the treatment of returning Viet Nam veterans a national shame and a disgrace that should never have happened and accused the Vietnamese of brutality. He also issued a proclamation calling for “a 13-year program to honor and give thanks to a generation of proud Americans who saw our country through one of the most challenging missions we have ever faced.”
 
Really? Is Obama unaware or deliberately ignoring the devastating atrocities against the Vietnamese population ordered by those at the highest levels of the Pentagon and the CIA? Like every American, he would benefit greatly from reading the true history of the war in the recently published book by Nick Turse, Kill Anything that Moves.
 
Of course, the Vietnamese know all too well the ugly reality the book reveals, including the loss of 3 million civilians deliberately killed by the US. The Vietnamese population also still suffers continuing birth defects from the millions of tons of Agent Orange dumped throughout the country as well as death and injury from unexploded US ordnance. Among our most touching experiences in Viet Nam were visits to schools attended by children born with disabilities from Agent Orange or disabled by encounters with unexploded ordnance. Laos and Cambodia face the same problems.
 
Tragically for us and the world, too many Americans have just asmsanitized a view of the atrocities committed against Asians in Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia as they do of the brutalities of slavery or the modern day prison industrial complex.
 
As with his Nobel Peace Prize winning colleague Henry Kissinger, Barack Obama is committed to keeping it that way. He is counting on the mainstream media for help. He does not expect them to report on either the brutality and torture we inflicted as a matter of national policy or the contribution made by those who opposed the war to bringing it to an end.
 
Given these lies and distortions it becomes almost inevitable that we make the same mistakes again and again in trying to force other nations to bend to our will and “way of life.” One bad war begets the next.
 
What makes it all the worse is that we fail to connect the viciousness we visit on other countries with the brutality that defines our own culture. Does anyone seriously think we can control gun violence at home when we commit massive violence every day in countries all over the world? Or that “PTSD” homicides, suicides and domestic violence are not “blowback” from foreign aggression?
 
Should we be surprised that we elevate a distorted view of the second amendment, which was used for purposes of slave control, among other things, to a preeminent position in the U.S. constitution? Or that we are routinely urged to live in a constant state of fear despite having the most massive “defense” spending in the history of the world, police with military grade firepower and the largest number of “criminals” locked up of any nation on the planet?
 
There is, fortunately, another side to this story. The history and traditions of our nation also include an abolitionist movement. Whites died in the struggle to end Jim Crow segregation in the South. A broad cross section of the population vigorously opposed the U.S. wars against Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia. Some died in that struggle as well. And the anti-war movement did make a difference in bringing the war to an end more quickly than would otherwise have been the case.
 
These struggles are anything but finished. Regarding Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia in particular, Obama and Hagel have made clear they intend that their version of history will prevail. We will pay a heavy price if they succeed. So apparently we will have to have this argument all over again.
 
Fortunately, we have powerful resources on our side now just as we did during the fight against the war. Embers of War by Fredrik Logevall just won the Pulitzer Prize for History. His book details US efforts to prevent independence for the Vietnam as early as 1919. Fred Branfman recently wrote an excellent piece here on AlterNet setting the record straight on the many war crimes instigated and advanced by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in Viet Nam Laos and Cambodia.
 
The voices of ordinary citizens are eloquent and essential too. David Ledesma recently put it beautifully in a letter to the editor of the Mercury News in San Jose, California:
 
My brother's name, Joseph Ledesma, is on the Sons of San José Memorial Wall. My family and I would like the public to know that Joey was not a hero for dying in Vietnam. He was a victim of that war, as was our family.
He IS a hero for the son he was to my parents, the big brother he was to his siblings, and the dedicated and loyal friend he was to many. He was the leader of our neighborhood and lettered in three sports at Buchser High School in Santa Clara. He didn't die because he fought defending our freedom. He died because he was lied to. Our family was lied to. All of America was lied to about the pretext to go to a full-scale war in Vietnam. Decades later, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara admitted that the Gulf of Tonkin incident (the pretext) was fabricated. Our family is grateful that the anti- war movement helped to put pressure on Washington and reveal the truth about the senseless killing that was tearing our families and country apart.
 
Then as now, the peacemakers are the true heroes. The sooner we more widely understand what was done in Viet Nam in our name, the sooner we will make real headway at dealing with injustice and violence here at home and stop waging immoral and stupid wars abroad.

Frank Joyce is a lifelong Detroit based writer and activist.  He is co-editor with Karin Aguilar-San Juan of The People Make The Peace—Lessons From The Vietnam Antiwar Movement

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