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The Vietnam War Memorial in Vietnam Would Be 20 to 50 Times Larger Than Ours

Imagine if we could bridge the empathy gap that separates us from the Vietnamese and our war with them and against them.

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The horrific reality that Caputo wrote of more than 35 years ago is now fully fleshed out in Turse’s new study.  The obsession with body count—starting with General William Westmoreland, the commanding general in Vietnam—led to, in Turse’s words, “the indiscriminate killing of South Vietnamese noncombatants—the endless slaughter that wiped out civilians day after day, month after month, year after year.”  The enormity of the crime was “neither accidental nor unforeseeable,” but rather “the inevitable outcome of deliberate policies, dictated at the highest levels of the military,” Turse concludes.

The evidence he amasses – of “murder, torture, rape, abuse, forced displacement, home burnings, specious arrests, imprisonment without due process”—is irrefutable.  Indeed, much of the evidence he relies upon was gathered secretly by the U.S. military at the time, only to be suppressed, consigned to archives, and forgotten.  It’s hardly surprising that senior U.S. military officials sought to suppress evidence of atrocities on a mass-scale, since they themselves were both complicit and culpable.

A line that has always stayed with me from Caputo’s memoir came from one of his NCOs, a Sergeant Colby, who in 1965 told then-Lieutenant Caputo that, “Before you leave here, sir, you’re going to learn that one of the most brutal things in the world is your average nineteen-year-old American boy.”  Turse’s study plumbs the depths of such brutality, to include a racist subculture (dehumanizing the Vietnamese as “gooks” and “slopes”) within the U.S. military that facilitated it.  Draft an American teenager, teach him to kill, send him to an utterly foreign land in which he can’t distinguish friend from foe, give him power over life and death against a dehumanized enemy, and reward him for generating a high body count in which “If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC,” and you have an ineluctable recipe for murderous violence.

Contrast the brutal honesty of Sergeant Colby with the patent dishonesty of an American political scene that to this day fosters a very different interpretation of the Vietnam War.  For many Americans, the true victims of the war are not the millions of Vietnamese who died, or the millions who continue to suffer to this day.  No—the true victims are the American veterans who were allegedly spat upon by unwashed anti-war protesters, or a U.S. military that was allegedly betrayed by back-stabbers at the home front, denying the troops the victory they had so justly earned.  In this narrative, even the infamous slaughter at My Lai becomes the exception that proves the rule, the rule being that with few exceptions the American military fought honorably and cleanly.

For these Americans, the war remains a combination of the Rambo myth mixed with the “noble cause” rhetoric of Ronald Reagan—history as Hollywood fairy tale—a concerted rewriting of the historical record and a rewiring of American culture consistent with feel-good militarism and confectionary war.

To confront the truth, we must abandon the confection.  The truth is that, rather than confronting our nation’s inner heart of darkness during and after Vietnam, the military and our government collectively whitewashed the past.

America’s true “Vietnam Syndrome” was not an allergy to using military power after Vietnam but an allergy to facing the destruction our nation caused there.  And that allergy has only exacerbated our national predilection for military adventurism, warrior glorification, and endless war.

It’s time our nation found the courage to face those twenty (or fifty) walls of Vietnamese dead.  It’s time we faced them with the same sorrow and same regret we reserve for our own wall of dead.  Only after we do so can our nation stop glorifying war.  Only after we do so can our nation fully heal.

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