The Pentagon's Commemorating the Vietnam War. So Should We.tags: Vietnam War, Pentagon, Columbus Day
According to the “DOD Vietnam War Commemoration Program,” the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act authorized the Department of Defense “to conduct a program to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.” DOD is spending $30,000,000 to do so. Its “activities and ceremonies” are intended to “achieve the following objectives:
To thank and honor veterans of the Vietnam War, including personnel who were held as prisoners of war (POW), or listed as missing in action (MIA), for their service and sacrifice on behalf of the United States and to thank and honor the families of these veterans.
To highlight the service of the Armed Forces during the Vietnam War and the contributions of Federal agencies and governmental and non-governmental organizations that served with, or in support of, the Armed Forces.
To pay tribute to the contributions made on the home front by the people of the United States during the Vietnam War.
To highlight the advances in technology, science, and medicine related to military research conducted during the Vietnam War.
To recognize the contributions and sacrifices made by the allies of the United States during the Vietnam War.”
Here are some objectives that these commemorations are not intended to achieve:
● To tell the truth about the war, including the fact that killing civilians was part of our national policy, even though it is a war crime.
● To explain why we fought. (These reasons are no more obvious than the reasons for George W. Bush’s Iraq War. I believe I listed all the likely possibilities in my paragraph on “why” in Lies My Teacher Told Me:
Some people still argue that the United States fought in Vietnam to secure access to its valuable natural resources. Others still claim that we fought to bring democracy to its people. Perhaps more common are analyses of our internal politics: Democratic Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, having seen how Republicans castigated Truman for "losing" China, did not want to be seen as "losing" Vietnam. Another interpretation offers the domino theory: while we know now that Vietnam's communists are antagonists of China, we didn't then, and some leaders believed that if Vietnam "fell" to the communists, so would Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Yet another view is that America felt its prestige was on the line, so it did not want a defeat in Vietnam, lest Pax Americana be threatened in Africa, South America, or elsewhere in the world. Some conspiracy theorists go even further and claim that big business fomented the war to help the economy. Other historians take a longer view, arguing that our intervention in Vietnam derives from a cultural pattern of racism and imperialism that began with the first Indian war in Virginia in 1622, continued in the nineteenth century with "Manifest Destiny," and is now winding down in the "American century" of the present. A final view might be that there was no clear cause and certainly no clear purpose, that we blundered into the war because no later administration had the courage to undo our 1946 mistake of opposing a popular independence movement. "The fundamental blunder with respect to Indochina was made after 1945," wrote Secretary of State John Foster Dulles at the time of the Geneva Convention, when "our Government allowed itself to be persuaded" by the French and British "to restore France's colonial position in Indochina."
The historical evidence for some of these explanations is much weaker than for others, but the Department of Defense is unlikely to hold seminars to tease out which seems likeliest.
● To thank and honor those veterans of the Vietnam War who engaged in the extensive anti-war actions that grew and grew during the war, including resisting going out on pointless patrols, fragging gung-ho officers, writing letters home informing families and friends of the useless and even illegal nature of the war, supporting FTA, joining VVAW and other groups upon returning to “the world,” and to thank and honor the families of these veterans for supporting them.
● To pay tribute to the efforts made on the home front by the people of the United States to try to end the Vietnam War, including voting for candidate after candidate who promised to end it, then flip-flopped (Lyndon Johnson, Edward Brooke, Richard Nixon, etc.); composing and singing songs and poems that brought out the hapless nature of the enterprise ("Alice’s Restaurant," "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag," "Give Peace a Chance," "Wichita Vortex Sutra," etc.); dedicating years of their lives to getting out accurate information about the war (Daniel Ellsberg, David Halberstam, A. J. Muste, etc.); committing civil disobedience or refusing to pay taxes to try to stop the war (too many to list); fleeing to Canada or burning draft cards or in other ways refusing induction into the armed forces (Muhammad Ali and others too numerous to list); killing themselves or bombing or invading military installations in protest (Alice Herz, Norman Morrison, the Berrigans, etc.); and participating in all sorts of other efforts.
● To highlight the useless expenditures in money, munitions, and technology related to bombing and other military actions conducted during the Vietnam War.
● To recognize the role of other countries in trying to get the United States to stop its War on Vietnam, including Canada for providing asylum, Sweden for recognizing North Vietnam and hosting the Russell Tribunal, West Germany for allowing student protests, etc
DOD’s website includes an interactive map showing 1,066 places where it will hold events that “commemorate” the Vietnam War. Here are some places that will not get onto that map:
● The University of Wisconsin’s Sterling Hall, home to the Army Math Center and bombed in 1970 in protest of the university’s connections to the Vietnam War.
● The Catonsville, Maryland, draft
board office, where in 1968 Catholic protestors of the war burned
The "Catonsville Nine" burn draft files, May 17, 1968
● Alexander Hall, the dormitory at Jackson State University in Mississippi, raked by gunfire from law enforcement after anti-war protests in 1970.
● The parking lot memorial at Kent State University in Ohio and nearby areas where the Ohio National Guard killed four and injured nine anti-war protesters.
● Central Park in Manhattan, scene of the largest antiwar protest in U.S. history in 1967 [400,000 marched; the protest in Washington the next year drew fewer].
● Grant Park in Chicago opposite the Hilton Hotel, where antiwar protestors gathered and were clubbed by police during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Kent State University Memorial to Jeffrey Miller, Shot by National Guard
This year participants in the 1964 Freedom Summer – along with other people honoring and remembering them – staged marvelous commemorative events at Tougaloo College in Mississippi and Miami University in Ohio, held panels and premiered two new documentary films across the U.S., and thus guaranteed that this crucial series of events was not forgotten or, worse, misremembered.
The Vietnam War and its opposition are harder. Millions of people participated on each side. There is a danger that because so many took part, none will organize to remember. But the armed forces are organized. They have $30,000,000. They will remember. If we are not careful, their interpretation will carry the day.
Perhaps a better model for us, although further distant in time, is the Columbus Quincentenary of 1992. It was supposed to be a grand celebration. President George H. W. Bush appointed a committee to spearhead events in each state. But the government did not hold the stage by itself. Uninvited actors forced their way onto the stage. In DC, demonstrators splashed the huge Columbus sculpture in front of Union Station with red paint, leaving the message "500 years of genocide." In Denver, the American Indian Movement put up a "counter-memorial," consisting of 100 skeletal tepees, burned and scorched, accompanied by 29 official-looking historical markers with texts by Native American leaders. Columbus statues collected red paint and "murderer" graffiti from Boston and Newport, Rhode Island, to Pittsburgh and on to California.
Since the Vietnam War went on for a long time, we shall be commemorating its 50th anniversary until at least 2025, when Saigon “fell” – or was liberated. This gives you time to commemorate the park in your town where the little antiwar protest wound up, the draft counseling office where young people learned how to say no, the church that housed an antiwar service that caused its insurance rate to triple, the rehab clinic that tried to help paraplegics and quadriplegics, the home where a Vietnam veteran took his own life because he could not seem to forge it anew. The sites of the Vietnam War and its attendant opposition movement are everywhere. Tell their stories! Put up a marker! Organize a panel! Publish an op-ed!
“If we do not speak of it,” as George Swiers, a Vietnam War veteran, put it years ago, “others will surely rewrite the script. Each of the body bags, all of the mass graves will be reopened and their contents abracadabraed into a noble cause.”1
1 Quoted in William Appleman Williams, et al., eds., America in Vietnam (New York: Norton, 1989), ix.
Copyright James W. Loewen
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