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August 31, 2015

Vietnam in the Battlefield of Memory

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In the 1960s and 1970s,there was the Cold War

There was the Vietnam War

And there were the wars we fought at home.

The older I get the more I find myself seeing multiple sides of the same issue. I am not sure whether that arises from age, education or what.

For instance, I recently ran across a long magazine article in THE NATION titled “Vietnam in the Battlefield of Memory,” written by Jon Wiener who is a professor of history in the University of California system.

The article basically talks about how, originally, the Department of Defense set out to have the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War honor, for the most part,—through events signifying the war’s history as well as educational materials on the conflict—the sacrifice and valor of Vietnam veterans.

A group of individuals who participated in the anti-war events of the 60s and early 70s protested the DOD’s approach to remembering the war and insisted that the memorial should include a “full and fair reflection of the issues that divided our county.” Or what I like to call the war at home. The activists’ approach to remembering Vietnam would include information on the protests and activities of the anti-war movement and less veneration of the war itself.

I do not, in this blog, wish to get tangled up in a rehash of whether the war was right or wrong. Whether the conflict was good or bad often depends on one’s point of view. A lot of my friends and fellow veterans, some who have been ardent supporters of our film, BRAVO! COMMON MEN, UNCOMMON VALOR, feel that the war was an honorable endeavor and that the results were, among a number of factors, caused by a lack of intestinal fortitude in those individuals here at home who were protesting against the war, as well as the politicians who eventually agreed with the need to vacate Vietnam.

Conversely, a lot of my friends, a few who are veterans, were involved in the anti-war movement and feel that our efforts in Southeast Asia were a disaster. I would add that many of those folks have also been great supporters of BRAVO!.

Jon Wiener’s article points out that after meeting with the anti-war individuals, the Pentagon agreed to scale back its activities on behalf of the 50th anniversary. I suppose this came about as a result of the DOD not wanting to be forced into appearing to agree with the anti-war folks and spending a lot of time and money rehashing all the internal anti-war trauma of the 1960s.

Anti-war demonstration, 1968.

Anti-war demonstration, 1968.

Some anti-war activists, after all these years, still think the war was a mistake, killed millions of Southeast Asians, not to mention all of the Americans killed and wounded. Not only was the war a serious mistake, they believe, but we lost.

What’s more interesting to me is that even after fifty years, we are still fighting the war at home. We are almost allies with the Vietnamese, do massive amounts of business with Communist China, and are engaged with Socialist Russia. We are at some level of peace with these former enemies, yet at home we are still battling the Vietnam War.

Is this unusual? Are we still fighting World War I, World War II, Korea?

I don’t think we are still fighting those conflicts in our aggregate American memory, but as I think about it, we may still be battling over the outcome of the Civil War.

My great-great grandfather and my great-grandfather and a lot of other distant relatives of mine marched up out of Texas and Mississippi and Arkansas and fought for the Confederacy. I recall sitting around the house listening to my sister and mother wrangle about the reasons for the war, the underlying ethical notions, the outcome.

Since we were descended from a Reb clan, I often heard excuses for stuff that maybe we shouldn’t have made excuses for, like slavery and certain aspects states’ rights and the bitter southern reaction to the reconstruction era of 1865-1877.

A lot of the arguments I heard in the 1950s are still in play in 2015 and I think the possibility that we are still battling the Civil War, or our collective memory of it, means that some of those issues I heard around the dinner table are still unresolved.

And that leads me to wonder if one of the reasons we are still fighting the Vietnam conflict is because the underlying issues—or at least what we think they were or what we remember—aren’t really a battle over something deeper, something political and philosophical.

Part of my conundrum is that I can see both sides of the different arguments and I can even agree with some of the tenets put forth on both sides. And not just in terms of our involvement in Southeast Asia, but our involvement in the Middle East and farther away in time, the Civil War.

Back to the Vietnam War; if you are a person who believes that the Vietnam War was a part of the larger scheme of things called the Cold War, then it’s quite possible you tend to think that the Vietnam War was an integral part of the ultimate destabilization of the Soviet Union and in that regards a victory.

If you are a person who fought in Vietnam, you probably think, for the most part, that what you did was an honorable sacrifice for your country.

And if you are anti-war, you probably still think that the war was a horrible mistake that killed millions and was not a victory.

These criteria are not mutually exclusive, of course, because you might be a Vietnam vet who feels his service was honorable and a great sacrifice, personally, while still feeling the war was a huge mistake.

Confederate dead at Fredericksburg, Virginia, 1962. Civil War.

Confederate dead at Fredericksburg, Virginia, 1962. Civil War.

And that leads me to think about how these arguments, philosophically and politically, tend to forget that these things happen to people and whether the war was right or wrong, the fact remains that men and women and children on both sides died, were wounded, were maimed, found themselves unable to view life as they had before the experience. And I think that’s what matters most to me.

Yet the war at home lives on and probably will until everybody who was old enough to have an opinion about it has passed on. But then again, maybe it will refuse to die, like the Civil War, and a hundred years from now we will still be fighting the Vietnam War in the battlefields of memory.

If you would like to read Wiener’s entire piece in THE NATION, you can find it at http://www.thenation.com/article/vietnam-battlefield-memory/. For Vietnam veterans, a caveat, this article may get your hackles up.

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