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US Values, Moral Accommodation and Remembering Vietnam

A Popular Culture Essay

In light of all this talk about values and meaning focused on the Vietnam War, in anticipation of the upcoming Ken Burns’ PBS documentary series on that war, the normal assumptions should be suspended and a serious set of questions should be raised and set loose over America like a hovering cloud of critical thought:

What was the Vietnam War really about? Why was it necessary? Did it accomplish anything at all except death, destruction and disunity in America? Is it possible to fairly account for the suffering and courage of US soldiers (like McCain) caught up in such a morally questionable war without glorifying the war itself? Is it possible for Americans to discuss the war without relinquishing the moral questions? How do such moral questions undermine the traditional line about exceptionalism and patriotism found in John McCain’s op-ed? Is it time to revise that line of thinking for a better future?

I hate to be cynical, but after 40 years of post-Vietnam experience in the antiwar movement I find it hard to conceive of the US government and mainstream media outlets like PBS assuming a position that declares the brutal war against Vietnam "immoral" or "criminal." At best, it will be treated as a tragic, but honorable, mistake, a painful and controversial period in US history that left a difficult legacy all Americans still live with.

There are many voices that say the war could have been won. (I’d put them in with Sylvester Stallone and the Rambo view of Vietnam.) As even Robert McNamara understood in the mid-1960s, the effort was doomed from the start. Ward Just got it right when he wrote: “The Vietnamese would have fought us for a thousand years.” There’s no doubt some voices will say we actually won the war, since Vietnam is now an Asian capitalist miracle. But, then, there’s the voices that will point out how Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh guerrillas were US allies during World War Two and actually loved Americans and wanted to emulate us. In 1945, they literally quoted our Declaration of Independence in their declaration, hoping the US would support their independence against the French who wanted to re-colonize the place after being broken and humiliated by the Japanese.

But it was no deal. Roosevelt might have done it differently. But he was gone. Cold War hysteria ruled in the Truman White House. Vietnam was doomed to suffer 30 years of death and destruction from the most powerful nation in the world. It’s true, the Vietnamese were not softies; they could dish out violence in their own fashion just as well as we could. They suffered much, much more than we did, and they did it more gracefully.

story | by Dr. Radut