The Viet Nam War and the United States of Amnesia
By Frank Joyce
Special to the Michigan Citizen
Forty years ago, on Jan. 27, 1973, the United States officially stopped carrying out direct military attacks against Viet Nam. That phase of the war ended with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords. Henry Kissinger and Viet Nam’s Le Duc Tho subsequently won the Nobel Peace prize for negotiating the agreement.
In Viet Nam the anniversary was a very big deal. I know because I was part of a delegation of Americans and other anti-war activists from around the world invited to participate in events commemorating the Paris Peace Accords. An official ceremony in Hanoi was carried live on national television. Deep gratitude was expressed to the U.S. civilians and soldiers who resisted the war.
The Vietnamese government wants young people to better understand the war and its place in Viet Nam’s past, present and future. They think it’s especially important because 80 percent of the population has been born since the war ended.
Many young Americans were also born since the Viet Nam war ended. But the number of stories in U.S. media about the Paris Peace Accords anniversary was zero. That’s not really surprising because we really are the United States of Amnesia. It all goes back to slavery.
The United States is exceptional. Never before did a spanking new nation birth its economy and its government on capitalist slavery and genocidal policies toward the indigenous people. 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 rationalization for slavery. When that ended, the fact of Jim Crow segregation required the moral justification of the Jim Crow system. And so it goes. Such moral excuses require a lot of mental gymnastics.
Given what we are beginning to learn about neuroscience, we can understand that rationalizing slavery (and genocide) form neural paths that become part of the collective DNA of our citizenry. Avoidance, denial and hypocrisy are essential components of the process. Those thought habits get passed from generation to generation.
Given that the United States has yet to come to terms with slavery we have avoided many, many other issues as well. It’s what we do. So we also have yet to process our decades-long 20th century brutality in Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos. Instead we just moved on to apply similar thinking and actions to Grenada, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Africa and Iran.
It becomes almost inevitable that we make the same mistakes over and over again in trying to force other nations to bend to our will and “way of life.” It also means that we fail to connect the viciousness we visit on other countries with the brutality that characterizes our own culture.
Does anyone seriously think we can control gun violence at home when we commit massive gun violence every day in countries all over the world? Or that “PTSD” homicides, suicides and domestic violence are not “blowback” (chickens come home to roost) from foreign aggression? Of course, we elevate a distorted view of the Second Amendment, which was originally passed for purposes of slave control, to a preeminent position in the U.S. Constitution.
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. African Americans and whites died in opposing U.S. wars against Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia. And the anti-war movement did make a difference in bringing that war to an end more quickly than would otherwise have been the case.
In observing the end of the U.S. war, the Vietnamese made very clear that they see both sides of the picture. They know the reality so brilliantly described in the recently published book by Nick Turse, “Kill Everything That Moves.” Those atrocities were a daily reality to the Vietnamese (and the Laotians and Cambodians).
As Chris Hedges says in his recent review: “Case after case in his book makes it painfully clear that soldiers and Marines deliberately maimed, abused, beat, tortured, raped, wounded or killed hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilians, including children, with impunity. Troops engaged in routine acts of sadistic violence usually associated with demented Nazi concentration camp guards.
“The few incidents of wanton killing in Vietnam — and this is also true for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — that did become public, such as My Lai, were dismissed as an aberration, the result of a few soldiers or Marines gone bad. But, as Turse makes clear, such massacres were and are, in our current imperial adventures, commonplace. The slaughters ‘were the inevitable outcome of deliberate policies, dictated at the highest levels of the military,’ he writes. They were carried out because the dominant tactic of the war, as conceived by our politicians and generals, was centered on the concept of ‘overkill.’ And when troops on the ground could not kill fast enough, the gunships, helicopters, fighter jets and bombers came to their assistance. The U.S. Air Force contributed to the demented quest for ‘overkill’— eradicating so many of the enemy that recuperation was theoretically impossible — by dropping the equivalent of 640 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs on Vietnam, most actually falling on the south where our purported Vietnamese allies resided. And planes didn’t just drop bombs. They unloaded more than 70 million tons of herbicidal agents, 3 million white phosphorus rockets —white phosphorous will burn its way entirely through a body — and an estimated 400,000 tons of jellied incendiary napalm.”
Yes, the Vietnamese know that reality and its ongoing consequences including continuing birth defects from Agent Orange and unexploded U.S. bombs that still kill and maim. But they also know and celebrate the contributions of the anti-war movement that helped shorten the war.
Here in the U.S., the government and mainstream media see neither. The sooner we truly appreciate what we did in Viet Nam, the sooner we will make real headway at dealing with injustice and violence here at home.