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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: 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.
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 asm sanitized 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 labor and political activist and writer.