ON THE FRONTLINE: Towards an Honest Commemoration of the American War in Vietnam

ON THE FRONTLINE: Towards an Honest Commemoration of the American War in Vietnam

Veterans For Peace Full Disclosure Campaign

On May 25, 2012, in announcing a 13-year long commemoration of the war in Viet Nam, President Obama proclaimed: “As we observe the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, we reflect with solemn reverence upon the valor of a generation that served with honor. We pay tribute to the more than 3 million servicemen and women who left their families to serve bravely … Through more than a decade of combat, over air, land, and sea, these proud Americans upheld the highest traditions of our Armed Forces.” (see official website of the commemoration here).

Veterans For Peace – a group formed (mostly by veterans of the American war in Vietnam) in 1985 in response to the global nuclear arms race and US military interventions in Central America – fears that any commemoration will not deal honestly with the realities of that terrible war.  In response, VFP has launched the Full Disclosure campaign – Toward an Honest Commemoration of the American War in Vietnam.

Our rulers rely on the presumption that most people prefer a past they can celebrate rather than interrogate for an honest reckoning.  If there are unavoidable blots on the historical record, they exist as obstacles overcome or transcended. Reframing the American war in Vietnam in celebratory terms has so far proved difficult.  Despite the efforts of “revisionist” scholars to retroactively justify the war, it remains a bad memory for most Americans.  The problem for our imperial-minded rulers has been at least twofold: to remove the sting of American defeat (euphemistically termed the Vietnam syndrome) and to erase the stain of its immoral conduct from American consciousness.   Invasions of Grenada and Panama, two Gulf wars, a long war in Afghanistan all have been, in part, efforts to banish this supposedly crippling syndrome.  This has not worked out so well for the purveyors of military intervention, though military power remains the default go-to for the assertion of US global power.

What has proven more successful for Vietnam War apologists is the sanctification of our military and the linked disparagement of antiwar movements as anti-soldier.  During the war in Vietnam opposition was depicted as unpatriotic and elitist–privileged longhairs, who shamelessly avoided their patriotic duty.  This slur ignored the consistently greater opposition expressed in poll after poll by working class respondents; and, as significantly the unprecedented resistance to the war by active-duty GIs and veterans.  After the war, the myth that war opponents spat on returning soldiers was so successfully propagated that it has become a cultural cliché.  There are in fact no contemporary (during the war) accounts of such incidents.

The goal has been to remove the actions of the military from ordinary scrutiny and from any real world context.  Don’t ask why the US has gone to war or investigate its impact on civilians or the effect on the state of affairs that war has so violently disrupted. The purpose of war is to defend one’s buddy without giving a care to the worthiness of the cause: Is the Middle East more stable; has terrorism been routed or encouraged?  Do those directly impacted perceive the US as liberators or occupiers?  These core questions are too rarely raised in popular political discourse.

There are many in power who happily prefer war to diplomacy.  But even for those who have been sobered by the failure of multiple wars in Asia, the military remains sacrosanct.  The mobilization of fear orchestrated by political leaders and the media after 9/11 has yielded a society which understands the military — and the increasingly militarized police — as the last bastion against the terrorists, the barbarians, the scary ‘other’.   Our inability as a society to come to real terms with the war in Vietnam has cost us, leading us to foolish imperial fantasy and to summoning up of more and more demons to be confronted.

The first, and what should be obvious, point is that Vietnam posed no threat to Americans.  Vietnamese never threatened Americans and Ho Chi Minh even (vainly) solicited American support after both World War I and World War II.  The struggle in Vietnam was not a creature of either Soviet or Chinese expansion, but a complicated anti-colonial/nationalist struggle that was native-born and native-directed.   As revealed in The Pentagon Papers, since World War II the US consistently supported and bankrolled the French colonialists, installed a puppet leader and scuttled the Geneva Peace Talks of 1954 before launching a massive intervention which reached a total of over ½ a million US troops by 1968.

There was a terrible cost for this unnecessary war for both Vietnamese and Americans.  Accurate estimates are hard to come by, but a likely 3 million Vietnamese were killed, including 2 million civilians, hundreds of thousands seriously injured and disabled, 10 million South Vietnamese internally displaced, cropland and forests destroyed.  From 1961 until 1971, the US military dropped more than nineteen million gallons of toxic chemicals — defoliants or herbicides — on approximately 4.8 million Vietnamese in southern Viet Nam in Operation Ranch Hand.  More American bombs were dropped on Vietnam than in World War II and Korea combined. There were 21 million bomb craters in South Vietnam at war’s end.

Nick Turse in his 2013 book, Kill Anything That Moves is the latest to document the war on the civilian population. US troops were unable to distinguish civilian Vietnamese from fighters.  All Vietnamese, as a matter of course, were referred to as “gooks”.  So-called ‘free-fire zones’ – where any Vietnamese was a legitimate target — were ubiquitous. So the civilian/military distinction – that civilians were not legitimate targets in war –- which had been eroding throughout 20th century warfare virtually disintegrated.

On the American side, there were 58,303 Americans KIA or otherwise; 300,000 wounded (1/2 required hospitalization with 75,000 severely disabled); and a divided society.

In the face of this terrible war, arose widespread opposition: Taking inspiration from the civil rights movement, a movement of remarkable proportions developed not just on the campuses, but in the streets and around family dinner tables.  It may be hard to imagine, given the success of our government in the 21st century in marginalizing not just antiwar opposition, but even removing the actual wars themselves from public view.

Less well known is the unprecedented opposition to the war by both active duty soldiers and veterans.  Col. Robert D. Heinl wrote in 1971 that “by every conceivable indicator our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units having refused combat, murdering their officers and non-commissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited when not near-mutinous.”  There were over 300 underground newspapers circulated among soldiers and over half a million incidents of desertion.  Soldiers publicly turned in their medals and held Winter Soldier meetings to document war crimes.

While it is crucial to memorialize this resistance – which there is no indication that the Pentagon commemoration will mention – we must also note the impact on soldier’s mental health, including what veteran John Grant has termed “moral damage”.  To date, estimates of veteran suicides range from a low of 9,000-150,000; the latter almost triple the number of US deaths during the actual conflict.

Can something honest and useful to the world and to Americans be gleaned from the Vietnam experience?  Not patriotic froth or the fantasy that the US could have triumphed in Vietnam.

We need to remind people that US power was confronting real human beings who were fully capable of outmaneuvering the best of American strategists and whose suffering needs to be remembered and honored.  People around the world are not clay to be molded by American experts.  Learning from the experience of Vietnam allows for the possibility that Americans might learn to live with, not against, the rest of the world.

As Christopher Appy says in his important new book, American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and our National identity, “the institutions that sustain empire, destroy democracy.”  The US now maintains 750 military bases in over ¾ of the nations on earth.  There are more than 3000 government and private organizations working on counter-terrorism, homeland security, and intelligence – without accountability.  Unending war is not only a tremendous strain on our economy and a threat to civic and personal life; it promotes a dangerous delusion of power, as if techno-bullying is a way forward.

Most importantly, the war should further remind us of what Martin Luther King called “an inescapable network of mutuality” in which the fates of Vietnamese and Americans, among others, are inextricably linked.  The choice is clear: We recognize our common humanity or indulge in rituals of power that end in mutual destruction.

To properly commemorate the American war in Viet Nam we ought to honor both the human cost of that conflict and the human capacity to resist oppression It is on us, to not merely speak truth to power, but to grasp the power of truth.  Imperial America is stuck in a past that never existed; our mandate is to find a way forward, a good initial step will be an honest accounting of the US’s wrongful war in Viet Nam.


The Full Disclosure campaign is a Veterans For Peace effort to speak truth to power and keep alive the antiwar perspective on the American war in Viet Nam — which is now approaching a series of 50th anniversary events. It represents a clear alternative to the Pentagon’s current efforts to sanitize and mythologize the Vietnam war and to thereby legitimize further unnecessary and destructive wars.