Tuesday, May 05, 2015

What We're Reading: Vietnam Redux

American Reckoning:
The Vietnam War and Our National Identity
by Christian G. Appy

The first thing readers should know about American Reckoning is that this book is not about any reckoning that has occurred but rather about one we seem as a nation unwilling to make. We define “reckoning” not so much as a consideration of events but a settling of accounts, of drawing the difficult conclusions and lessons from an agreed upon set of facts that, usually, we have come to understand (rightly) only belatedly. Appy tells us that his purpose is to “explore ways the war changed our national self-perception….My main argument is that the Vietnam War shattered the central tenet of American identity---the broad faith that the United States is a unique force for good in the world, superior not only in its military and economic power, but in the quality of its government and institutions, the character and morality of its people, and its way of life."  A common term for this belief is “American exceptionalism.” But as he explores the shadow of Vietnam cast over each U.S. military engagement since the fall of Saigon, he relates a history that is less a reckoning than it is a study of the ways American leaders, and we as a nation, have sought to reassert the myth, to deny the lessons, to un-break what has been shattered by reinterpreting the history of America’s engagement in Vietnam.

In one of the most famous photos of the war, South Vietnamese Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan,
chief of national police, fires his pistol into the head of a suspected Viet Cong, 1968.
It is the persistence, perhaps a recrudescence, of American exceptionalism that is Appy’s target here, the idea that we have forgotten or refashioned the lessons of the war in response to the national psychic wound inflicted by Vietnam. But one wonders about the nature of the impact in the first place. Perhaps Appy has overstated how comprehensive the “shattering” of the Vietnam experience was for our national identity. He writes that by 1971, 58 percent of Americans had concluded that the war in Vietnam was not only a mistake but immoral. I don’t know how that question was asked, but my recollection is that most Americans never much considered that America was waging war for an unjust cause or in an immoral manner. A lot of people no doubt felt that it was immoral to continue to send young Americans to be killed in the jungles of Vietnam for what seemed like measures to save face for the policy makers and commanders who put them there, and there is certainly no doubt that trust in their government took a major hit. Most Americans may have felt their government lied to them by hiding that we were losing the war and covering up strategic blunders and mistakes. But the massacre at My Lai was widely considered something exceptional, and the infamous and iconic photos that chronicled prisoner abuse and violence against civilians (photos that Appy says are disappearing from school history books) depicted, we told ourselves, actions of our troublesome and less scrupulous South Vietnamese allies. They did not represent American behavior. The widespread civilian cost, if we thought about it at all, was just the pity of war.

The testimony about atrocities and abuses by Vietnam Veterans Against the War was accepted or dismissed depending on which side of the divide you were on. It seems only recently that we have come as a nation to understand the true nature of the military conduct of the war and the command policies that made abuses the norm rather than an the exception while simply devastating the landscape and decimating the population of Vietnam. (See Nick Turse’s Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, previously reviewed here.)

Another of the famous photos of the war, Kim Phuc (center left)
burned and running down a road nude near Trang Bang after
a South Vietnames Air Force napalm attack,
June 8, 1972. Photograph by Nick Ut.
Nations--which are composed of diverse populations who hold differing points of view expressed in complex political ideology and relationships--are not the same as individuals who have personal psychologies and identities. Positing a “national identity” and tracing its subtleties and changes is a way of aggregating and summarizing all this complexity. It simplifies things. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the broad outlines that have been drawn are untrue.

Readers might also be a little exasperated with Appy’s analysis of post-Vietnam military decisions. He produces the evidence for the Vietnam experience being something quite conscious in the minds of political and military planners, but sometimes we sense that this is an incomplete explanation for the motivations of decision makers in any given case. This review is all in service of the argument Appy is making, and the broad strokes that result from his tendentiousness are perhaps to be expected. Once again, the reader will have to decide if the general picture rings true or not.

In this Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by Horst Faas, a farmer
holds the body of his dead child as a transport of South Vietnamese
soldiers passes by, March 19, 1964.
Appy is at his best when he traces the strands that are part of the political and cultural reconstruction of Vietnam in American memory. Vietnam veterans, he argues, were used by those who had a political agenda. The belated honoring of the service of Vietnam veterans, promoted by some as a way of reconciling the national divisions over Vietnam was, Appy argues, used in the end by others as a means of avoiding any reckoning. “By the 1980s, mainstream culture and politics promoted the idea that the deepest shame related to the Vietnam War was not the war itself, but America’s failure to embrace military veterans.” He examines how POW and MIA issues were, in spite of a limited substantive foundation, fashioned into symbolic and partisan political issues.

Appy has a knack for finding the crudest and most incriminating quotes by American Presidents about Vietnam. Readers will find some of these remarks startling. He gives us a keen analysis of popular movies and video culture that dealt with Vietnam in the post-Vietnam era. We created a myth of Vietnam as a war where our soldiers were not allowed by their leaders to win; where, as George H. Bush claimed, they were asked to fight with one hand tied behind their backs. Vietnam wasn't some defeat due to a fault in American character, circumstance, or fate. Some of the most interesting analysis here is about the creation of the myth of Vietnam as a “quagmire,” a reconstruction of what happened that has become so pervasive that we still use it without reflection or demur.  Appy questions here too the notion that the war in Vietnam was supported by blue collar working class Americans, the class who, along with the poor, filled the ranks of the front line soldiers in Vietnam.

A family of South Vietnamese civilians who were among the few survivors
of two days of heavy fighting, huddle together in the aftermath of an attack
by government troops to retake the post at Dong Xoai, June 1965.
Photograph by Horst Faas.

In reading American Reckoning, the nature of the reckoning we have been unable to make, and why, gradually sinks in, as Appy traces our national effort of fashioning Vietnam into an American tragedy. Our preoccupation with Vietnam has been self-involved, our concern has been with the wounds to our own self-image and our national image and how to recover from them. What is missing is Vietnam itself. Most Americans still have no notion of how many Vietnamese lives were lost in the war or the scale of physical and ecological destruction of that country. One survey that asked a sampling of Americans how many Vietnamese died in the war found that most guessed around 100,000. While the numbers vary, depending on who is counting, the geographical areas included, and how long a period of the war is covered---figures cannot be known with any precision--the number is probably closer to 2 million or more. The enormity of what was done to Vietnam in order to "save it" in service of our geo-strategic goals is what this nation must face if there is ever to be any "reckoning."

American exceptionalism, although it may have a more messianic quality than other national versions, is probably not something especially unique. All countries build a self-image that makes a claim for their own unique particular worth and virtue among other nations. "Exceptionalism," whatever its faults, also embodies idealism, a sense of a nation’s aspirations, of standards it expects to live up to. That is not something bad. What is important is being able to take the measure, in general, and in the instance, of what we hope to be and what we are.

In what has become one of the signature photographs of the war, as fellow troopers aid
wounded buddies, a paratrooper of A Company, 101st Airborne guides a medical evacuation
helicopter through the jungle foliage, April 1968. Photograph by Art Greenspoon.

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