October 11, 2014

Fifty Years After

An article published today in the New York Times takes a look at the controversy surrounding the effort by the Pentagon to stage a 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the Vietnam War. Which raises an interesting question. How do you commemorate a war that was a mistake, a war whose soldiers were branded as drug-addled losers and baby-killers, a war that was detested by a significant percentage of the population, a war that began with a lie and ended in defeat and chaotic retreat? Somehow, a pat on the back and a "thank you for your service" doesn't seem to cut it.

For that matter, whose war will we commemorate? Is it about the men and women who fought in it, the politicians and generals who got us into it and kept us in it, or the men and women who tried to get us out of it? That debate remains robust, judging by the comments that accompanied the article in the Times.

Most of the attention has focused on the web site, in particular an Interactive Timeline that purports to show the key events of the war. The gist of the objections is that the web site is just another attempt by the Pentagon to write a history of the Vietnam War that glosses over unpleasant events such as the massacre at My Lai and underplays what many people see as critical elements of the story, most especially the scope and impact of protests against the war.

There is some meat in the web site, especially the part called Primary Documents, a work in progress that includes many valuable source documents, including extracts from the Pentagon Papers and key diplomatic reports. Anyone seriously interested in learning the history of the Vietnam War should start there. Personally, I found the Interactive Timeline to be a failed effort, at least in this iteration. It's hard to say this without sounding disrespectful, but the decision to include the citations for every Congressional Medal of Honor winner in the timeline seriously disrupts the flow. Better there should be a separate area that lists all the CMH winners, with links to each citation from the related battle or action in the Interactive Timeline. Equally baffling is the lack of links from the Interactive Timeline to the Primary Documents area.

All that is beside the point. The Vietnam War has always been about more than the war and those who fought it. It was also about the changing times during which the war was waged and the changing attitudes of the American people towards their government. A social revolution became a political revolution as opponents of the war took to the streets to protest our involvement in Indochina. No history of the Vietnam War is complete without that chapter, and therein lies the difficulty with a Pentagon-sponsored history. Even fifty years later, it is clearly hard for the military to give anything more than lip service to a movement that at the time was seen by them as giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

For me, the reasoning behind the program --"to thank and honor veterans of the Vietnam War ... for their service and sacrifice on behalf of the United States and to thank and honor the families of these veterans" -- rings hollow. I'm sorry, but the brutal reality is that the hardest part of being in the Vietnam War was coming home. There was no grateful nation, there were no parades, no flag-waving greeters at the airports. Instead, we Vietnam veterans returned to a decades-long shunning by our peers and by many who served before us. We were the perpetrators of  horrors witnessed night after night, year after year, in the Living Room War. It was there we suffered our greatest defeat.

I had a chat recently with a Korean War vet. I said to him that they were the truly forgotten vets, which he agreed with completely. But all the while I was thinking that there's worse things than being forgotten. If we must somehow commemorate the Vietnam War, then let us do so by facing unflinchingly the hard facts about how we got into the mess, and how we got out of it, and what lessons we learned and have already forgotten. Nothing less will properly do justice to the millions caught up in the war, no matter what side they were on.

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