On Memorial Day 2012, standing in front of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC, President Barack Obama gave a speech announcing the 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the Vietnam War. The entire speech is far too long to repeat here, but let me give you a few key passages:
“One of the most painful chapters in our history was Vietnam—most particularly how we treated our troops who served there. 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 the misdeeds of the 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. It was a national shame, a disgrace that should have never happened.
“And so a central part of this 50th anniversary will be to tell your story as it should have been told all along. It’s another chance to set the record straight.
“Because history will honor your service, and your names will join a story of service that stretches back two centuries.
“Finally, we might begin to see the true legacy of Vietnam. Because of Vietnam and our veterans, we now use American power smarter, we honor our military more, we take care of our veterans better. Because of the hard lessons of Vietnam, because of you, America is even stronger than before.”
These are only a few short excerpts from the president’s speech, yet even this little bit is so riddled with errors, distortions, and outright falsehoods that it is hard to know just how and where to begin.
Let me start by telling you that I am a veteran of the American War in Vietnam. I was not drafted. I volunteered for the US Marine Corps when I was 17 years old, went to Vietnam when I was 18 years old, and earned the rank of sergeant by the time I was 19 & ½ years old. I was wounded in combat, and eventually received the Good Conduct Medal and an Honorable Discharge.
I also joined the antiwar movement after I finished my time in the Marines, joining my fellow students—none of them military veterans—at Swarthmore College in various antiwar activities and becoming active in Vietnam Veterans Against the War. I know something about how soldiers and veterans were treated when we came home, so let me start there.
I returned to the United States from Vietnam in March 1968, passing through San Francisco Airport and Philadelphia Airport in full military uniform. I repeated the same trip in June 1969 when I returned from my last posting—in Japan, as it happens—before I was released from active duty. On neither occasion was I confronted by civilians out to denigrate and abuse me. No one called me “baby killer” or spit on me. When I later became active in the antiwar movement, I never once saw or heard any antiwar demonstrator blame the soldiers for the war, let alone act out verbally or physically toward soldiers or veterans.
As Vietnam War veteran Jerry Lembcke documents in his book The Spitting Image, the myth of the spat-upon veteran is exactly that: a myth. There is not a single documented contemporary account of such behavior. All of these stories begin to emerge only after 1975, only after the end of the war, when many veterans began to claim, “This happened to me back then.” But memory is, at best, unreliable, and psychology readily demonstrates that people can convince themselves of things that never actually happened to them. For the most part, veterans came home to silence, returning not to grand victory parades and tickertape as their fathers had done after World War II, but one at a time to hometowns and cities that had hardly been touched by the events that had changed these veterans’ lives forever. It was isolating and lonely and without closure. But that is not the same as being vilified and abused and blamed.
A Noble Cause
But powerful people saw in the veterans’ pain and festering unhappiness an opportunity. It was an opportunity that Republican candidate for president Ronald Reagan seized upon in a campaign speech in September 1980 when he said, “It is time we recognized that ours was, in truth, a noble cause.” In the post-Vietnam War, post-Watergate era, both trust in the US government and belief in the justice of American military might as an instrument of foreign policy were badly shaken. Morale and discipline in the armed forces, as documented by Colonel Robert J. Heinl, Jr., in “The Collapse of the Armed Forces,” were at an all-time low, and very few young Americans were eager to serve in a discredited military. When the US attempt to rescue American hostages being held in the US embassy in Tehran by Iranian revolutionaries ended in humiliating disaster, the US foreign policy elite became determined to restore the luster of American arms and the legitimacy of American military intervention.
This is the context in which Reagan gave his “noble cause” speech, and he was elected in a landslide victory by the millions of Americans who did not want to believe what they had witnessed and lived through during the Vietnam War: the world’s most powerful nation pounding into rubble an agrarian people who plowed their fields with water buffalo and wanted nothing more than to be left alone. A war of aggression foisted upon the Vietnamese by arrogant men who thought they could bend the world into whatever shape they desired.
The “national shame, the disgrace,” was the war itself, not the way returning veterans were treated. But this was a reality that few Americans including many veterans of the war, could bring themselves to come to terms with. Haven’t Americans always been on the side of right and justice? Doesn’t the United States only fight wars as a last resort and only when forced to do so by aggressor nations led by evil leaders? How could a nation built upon “Give me liberty or give me death,” “all men are created equal,” and “of the people, by the people, for the people” have ended up waging a shameful, disgraceful war against a people who had done us no harm nor ever would or could?
So when Reagan declared that “ours was, in truth, a noble cause,” millions and millions of Americans eagerly embraced this vision of the American War in Vietnam. This was reinforced over the next decade by the dedication of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington and hundreds of other similar memorials erected in state capitals, cities large and small, and local communities all over the US along with “Welcome Home” parades belatedly honoring Vietnam veterans; by Hollywood movies such as The Deer Hunter, Missing in Action, Born on the 4th of July, and Rambo; the vilification of the antiwar movement as a bunch of dope-smoking hippie traitors; and the transformation of the American soldier from the instrument of a failed, unrealizable, even criminal foreign policy into an unappreciated and much-abused victim.
The first of the Welcome Home parades took place in New York City on May 7th, 1985. I watched part of it on television, and later wrote this poem titled “Parade”:
Ten years after the last rooftop
chopper out of Saigon.
Ten, fifteen, twenty years
too late for kids not twenty
years old and dead in ricefields;
brain-dead, soul-dead, half-dead
in wheelchairs. Even the unmarked
forever Absent Without Leave.
You’d think that any self-respecting
vet would give the middle finger
to the folks who thought of it
ten years and more too late—
yet there they were: the sad
survivors, balding, overweight
and full of beer, weeping, grateful
for their hour come round at last.
I saw one man in camouflaged utilities;
a boy, his son, dressed like dad;
both proudly marching.
How many wounded generations,
touched with fire, have offered up
their children to the gods of fire?
Even now, new flames are burning,
and the gods of fire call for more,
and the new recruits keep coming.
What fire will burn that small
boy marching with his father?
What parade will heal
his father’s wounds?
I found it all pathetic and sad, but apparently many of my fellow veterans were more than happy to accept these accolades, however belated and cynical.
For while this transformation of the veteran from unwitting perpetrator to American hero was taking place, US policymakers were slowly but surely reasserting US military intervention as a legitimate and necessary instrument of foreign policy. Reagan’s intervention in Lebanon ended in disaster when hundreds of American Marines died in a suicide bombing, but Reagan was smart enough to cut his losses, and quickly displaced that setback with his successful invasion of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada, claiming falsely that the Cubans were building an airfield for Russian bombers and that the lives of American medical school students were in jeopardy. This ridiculously lopsided affair was hailed in the halls of power and touted to the American people as a great victory, even though our “enemy” had a military force with the size and firepower of the Providence, Rhode Island, police department, and our military was so unprepared that soldiers had to use tourist maps of the island and call the Pentagon on a pay telephone to ask for naval support.
By the time George H. W. Bush invaded Panama in 1989, few Americans questioned what Bush and Washington had named “Operation Just Cause.” And when Bush committed over 500,000 US military personnel to put the Emir of Kuwait back on his gold-plated toilet, most Americans didn’t bother to ask why the US ambassador to Iraq had said to Saddam Hussein in August 1990 that the US had “no opinion in your Arab-Arab disputes.” Or if Saddam’s claims were true that the Kuwaitis were slant drilling and stealing Iraqi oil. Or why the US had supported and protected Saddam all through the 1980s if he was such a tyrant. Operation Desert Storm might more accurately be called Operation Desert Stomp, so lopsided was this brief little war, but it was celebrated with a massive victory parade in Washington, DC, and demonstrated for all the world to see that US military might was once again a force to be reckoned with. As Bush triumphantly declared, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” Sadly enough, as the 2nd Gulf War, our endless war in Afghanistan, and our interventions in Somalia, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere make clear, Bush seems to have been right.
This rehabilitation of American military legitimacy was, as I said, dependent upon rehabilitating the image of military service and the American serviceman (and now woman, too). By the late 1960s and early 1970s, as detailed by Heinl and in such powerful documentaries as Sir! No, Sir!, the junior ranks of the US military were in something close to full revolt against the Vietnam War and those who were ordering them to fight and die in a war that could no longer be explained as anything other than hopelessly wrongheaded and perhaps even criminally insane. What Americans saw on television in the late 1960s and early 1970s was not returning veterans being spat upon and denigrated, but thousands of veterans in the streets protesting the war they had fought, challenging the falsehoods foisted upon them and the American people, even hurling their medals onto the steps of the US Congress.
The draft, by this time, had been thoroughly discredited as grossly unfair, and within the military leadership itself, a large portion of the blame for the breakdown of the military was attributed to the draft and the number of young men who were in the military and sent to Vietnam against their will.
The solution to this problem—the lesson learned, if you will— by the military and the foreign policy establishment was to get rid of the draft and replace it with an all-volunteer army. It took a decade and a half to build a new, more loyal and unquestioning military, but in conjunction with other efforts such as the rehabilitation of the Vietnam veteran as noble hero and the recasting of the Vietnam War as noble cause, the effort succeeded. The US now has a relatively small military made up of a high percentage of careerists whose loyalty is to their armed service, whose ethos is defined by their unit identity and sense of comradeship, and who have minimal contact with the civilian society on whose behalf they are supposedly serving. Moreover, a high percentage of these soldiers are drawn from the lower economic strata, those groups with the least voice and the least clout in the American political system.
Captains of Industry
I teach high school at an elite private boys school that costs $22,000 just for a year of kindergarten; by the time the boys get to high school, their parents are paying $35,000 a year—and this is for a day school and does not include the cost of school lunch. While some of our boys do receive scholarship aid, the majority of their families range from financially well off to fabulously wealthy, and even our scholarship kids, by virtue of graduating from my school, have gained a distinct advantage in life.
I teach the children of the powerful and the influential, people with clout: captains of industry, political leaders, prominent citizens. And in my fourteen years at this school, not one of my students—now numbering in the hundreds after so many years—has chosen to forego college and enlist in the US military instead. Except for a very few who attend one of the service academies each year and will eventually serve as officers, not one student I have taught here will ever serve a day in uniform, let alone be required to serve against his will or because he has no better options available to him.
Why should the parents of the boys I teach care what the US government is doing in the world in our names and with our tax dollars? They and their children will never have to pay the blood price, which is now borne by less than one percent of the American people—mostly people the parents of my students will never meet or know or care about. Indeed, not a few of these parents and alumni benefit financially, directly or indirectly, from the system as it now operates. Where do you think their wealth comes from?
Toward the end of the American War in Vietnam, policymakers discovered that most Americans didn’t really care about the death and destruction of others so long as it was not American kids who were doing the dying. The lesson was learned too late to apply it on a large scale in Vietnam, but the Reagan administration applied the principle to its wars in Central America, spending millions of dollars a day to crush popular revolutions in El Salvador and Nicaragua with only a tiny handful of American lives lost in the process.
And now we have the modern miracle of drone warfare and Hellfire missiles, enabling us to kill anywhere in the world without having to put US soldiers’ lives in jeopardy or do anything more than, quite literally, lift a finger. Thanks to the lessons of the Vietnam War, the US government has learned how to wage war with minimal domestic political opposition. Is this what Obama meant when he boasted that “the true legacy of Vietnam” is that “we now use American power smarter”?
Obama also bragged that “we honor our military more and take care of our veterans better.” What does this mean? Every NASCAR auto race begins with a color guard and military flyover. Every baseball game and basketball game and even high school lacrosse match begins with the Star-Spangled Banner. At every Philadelphia Flyers ice hockey game, a serviceman or woman is ceremoniously given a Flyers team jersey with his or her name on it, and everyone in the arena stands and applauds. What are soldiers and veterans supposed to do with a Flyers jersey or a military flyover? Eat it? Put it in the bank? Pay the mortgage with it? As the saying goes, “Talk’s cheap.”
I call those empty displays “crocodile patriotism,” meaningless posturing designed to make us all feel good about ourselves, less guilty about letting others bear the entire blood price of our government’s military adventurism. Meanwhile, our servicemen and women and our veterans are committing suicide at the rate of 22 per day, according to the Veterans Administration, which also admits to a current backlog of 161,000 unadjudicated claims along with an additional 287,000 claims being appealed by veterans who believe their cases were not fairly settled.
Moreover, private organizations such as the Wounded Warrior Project and Vet2Vet routinely ask for donations from the American public in order to provide care and services to our veterans. If, as Obama claimed, “because of Vietnam and our [Vietnam] veterans . . . we [now] “take care of our veterans better,” why do these private organizations need to exist? Isn’t this what my tax dollars are supposed to be doing by way of the Veterans Administration? The US government has enough money to own over 9,000 Abrams main battle tanks costing $4.3 million each. Enough money to own 10 aircraft carrier battle groups with a whole new and larger class of carriers costing three times as much now under construction, 79 submarines, 363 drone aircraft, but private organizations have to beg for money from the US public because the government doesn’t have enough money to adequately care for the veterans our president insists we honor and care for?
To my amazement and dismay, few of my fellow citizens seem to be asking themselves these questions. I think it is because they have been gulled into accepting and internalizing a version of history that is largely fiction. Indeed, if one goes to the Vietnam War Commemoration website itself, prepared and sponsored by the US Department of Defense, one will find that the timeline for the Vietnam War begins only with Ho Chi Minh’s declaration of Vietnamese independence on September 2nd, 1945. There is nothing about the 80 years of brutal and exploitative French colonial rule. Nothing about Ho’s attempt to meet with Woodrow Wilson in 1919. Nothing about US support of and collaboration with Ho during the latter stages of the Pacific War against Japan. Nor about Ho’s letters to President Harry Truman in 1945 and 1946. Nor about the French naval bombardment of Hai Phong in November 1946.
A search of the Department of Defense website for references to Martin Luther King, Jr., and his landmark 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” turns up nothing. A search for Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers turns up nothing. The most powerful antiwar movement in the history of our nation is all but invisible in the government’s official commemoration of the Vietnam War, as if it had never even existed.
The entire website is riddled with such oversights as well as distortions, misrepresentations, and falsehoods. The mass murders at My Lai show up on the timeline, but it is not called a massacre; it also reports that only one man—Lt. William Calley—was convicted of murder, saying that he was sentenced to life in prison, but neglecting to add that he served just three years under house arrest before being pardoned by President Richard Nixon. Meanwhile, the timeline includes the name of every American who received the Medal of Honor. Each Medal of Honor winner gets a multi-page entry describing in detail his heroism while the entry on My Lai receives three short sentences and Ho’s declaration of independence is covered in two sentences.
The whole point, of course, is to whitewash what actually happened in Vietnam—what the US did to the Vietnamese—and focus only on the nobility and heroism and sacrifice of America’s Vietnam War veterans, who, as Obama says in his speech, “did your job. You served with honor. You made us proud.” The official flag of the Commemoration says, “Service, Valor, Sacrifice,” and “A Grateful Nation Thanks and Honors You.”
You Made Us Proud?
During my thirteen months in Vietnam, I regularly witnessed and participated in the destruction of civilian homes, the most brutal interrogations of civilians, and the routine killing of men, women, and children along with their crops and livestock. The people we were supposedly defending in fact hated us because we destroyed their forests with chemical defoliants, burned their fields with napalm, flattened their villages with 500-pound bombs, and called them gooks, chinks, slopes, dinks, and zipperheads, turning their sons into shoeshine boys and their daughters into whores. Is this what the president meant when he said, “You made us proud”?
But the new version of the American War in Vietnam does not contain any of these facts. It contains very few facts at all. Consider again the Department of Defense’s 50th Anniversary Commemoration. Fiftieth anniversary of what? Apparently, the official version of the war does not begin until 1965 when the Marines first landed at Danang. Not when French soldiers returned to Vietnam aboard US-flagged ships in 1945. Not when the US began to pay the cost of the French War in 1950. Not when the US plucked Ngo Dinh Diem from a Maryknoll seminary in New Jersey and installed him as head of a “nation” the US created, hailing him as “the Winston Churchill of Asia.” Not when John Kennedy sent “advisors” and air squadrons to Vietnam. Not when the US backed a coup against Diem, nor when the US Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution after being deliberately lied to about what had happened in the Gulf of Tonkin and why.
But this is very much in keeping with Obama’s insistence that “history will honor [Vietnam veterans’] service, and your names will join a story of service that stretches back two centuries.” For the story Obama refers to is mythology, not actual history. It does not include 283 years of almost continuous warfare against the native peoples who were living in North America when Europeans first arrived and who needed to be removed and ultimately exterminated in order to make room for John Winthrop’s City Upon a Hill and the Manifest Destiny of white Anglo-Americans. It does not mention that those gallant Texans at the Alamo were fighting for the freedom to keep their Black slaves. It does not mention that President James Polk deliberately provoked a war with Mexico in order to steal half of Mexico’s land. It does not mention that wealthy American sugar planter Sanford Dole used the US Marines to depose Queen Liliuokalani and steal Hawaii from the Hawaiians. It does not mention that Theodore Roosevelt and his powerful friends provoked a war with Spain in order to embark on the creation of an American overseas empire, then betrayed both the Cubans and the Filipinos. It does not mention that for much of the 20th century, the US government used the Marines in Central America and the Caribbean to create a favorable business climate and collect debts for Big Business, Wall Street, and American bankers. The words of Marine Major General Smedley Butler, two-time Medal of Honor winner, are worth repeating here:
“I spent 33 years and 4 months in the Marine Corps. And during that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism. Thus I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers 1909-12. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras “right” for American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.”
You won’t find any mention of Butler in most US high school history textbooks. Nor that US financiers stood to lose vast fortunes if Germany had won the First World War. Nor that the Pacific War in World War Two was mostly a matter of multiple empires competing for the same geographical territory. Nor that by the mid-1950s the US had the Soviet Union ringed with nuclear missiles, all of them pointed at Moscow.
There is a great deal that seldom gets mentioned about American history. My students are continually amazed by what they have never heard before in their lives. Most Americans have never heard the history of their country, a history that includes much to be proud of, but equally as much to be ashamed of. The great American poet Walt Whitman once said, “The real war will never get in the books.” He was referring to the American Civil War, but it pertains equally to just about any and every American war. And as James Loewen makes clear in his book Lies My Teacher Told Me, real American history will never get in the books, either. At least not in the books that most Americans read and accept as fact.
Thus, most Americans, if they think about the Vietnam War at all these many years later, are content to accept the fallacy that it was a noble cause fought by valorous young men who sacrificed for the greater cause of freedom against an evil communist enemy hellbent on conquest, and who were unfairly abused and unappreciated by unpatriotic cowards when they returned home. Meanwhile, the wrong people learned that by removing most Americans from any responsibility for or consequences of US foreign policy, by placing the entire blood burden of US foreign policy on the shoulders of a small segment of the American population—and that segment with the least voice in public affairs—the American military industrial complex that President Dwight Eisenhower warned against, but did nothing to stop or change, can do whatever it wants to do in the world without fear of domestic political consequences.
Meanwhile, the one lesson that no one in power in Washington seems to have learned is that no amount of military might can achieve goals that are unrealistic and incompatible with the beliefs, desires, and cultures of those at the other end of the rifle barrels and Hellfire missiles, and thus unachievable. If the Vietnam War did not drive home that lesson, certainly subsequent US forays into Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Libya, and now Syria should have made that lesson clear. But there really is such a phenomenon as “the arrogance of power,” and we are watching it in action on a daily basis.
W. D. Ehrhart
W. D. Ehrhart holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Wales at Swansea, UK, and teaches English and history at the Haverford School in suburban Philadelphia. He is author or editor of 21 books of poetry and nonfiction prose.