Selective Memories

The good old days are the memories of things that never were. We remember what we want to and disregard the rest. Every Memorial Day, in our zeal to honor those who have served, we have a national picnic feast of selective memory about war.

Our government is engaged in selectively remembering the Vietnam War. The Department of Defense is spending $65 million in a project to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the war. It is all about “honoring” the troops. As President Obama stated,

“As we observe the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, we reflect with solemn reverence upon the valor of a generation that served with honor. We pay tribute to the more than 3 million servicemen and women who left their families to serve bravely, a world away from everything they knew and everyone they loved … fighting heroically to protect the ideals we hold dear as Americans. Through more than a decade of combat, over air, land, and sea, these proud Americans upheld the highest traditions of our Armed Forces.”

It seems strange to commemorate a war that we lost. The My Lai Massacre, the burning of villages, Agent Orange, the invasions of Cambodia and Laos, or the legacy of unexploded ordinance (which is still killing people) hardly reflect “fighting heroically to protect the ideals we hold dear as Americans.” Instead of perpetuating the national myth that the Vietnam War was a grand and noble cause, we should admit we never should have been there in the first place.

One of the many inconvenient facts about the war is that in 1946 Ho Chi Minh asked the U.S. to help evict the French colonial occupiers. President Truman sided with the French. That was the beginning of our disastrous involvement. Our history in Vietnam has been summed up by Robert Freeman,

“Three million people were killed in a war against a country that had never attacked the U.S., had never tried to attack it, had no desire to attack it, had no capacity to attack it, and which had come to the U.S. asking for help in securing its own national self-determination.” (Did the U.S. Learn Any Lessons From Vietnam? Common Dreams, Robert Freeman, February 01, 2015 )

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in his memoir entitled “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam” wrote,

“We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who participated in the decisions on Vietnam acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation. We made our decisions in light of those values. Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.”

An honest remembrance of what actually happened in Vietnam is essential. We must acknowledge the millions of Vietnamese civilians killed, maimed, poisoned, and traumatized for no good reason. Our leaders made terrible mistakes about that local civil war. They lied to the American public. They covered up atrocities. Our soldiers were thrown into a “war of choice” and largely abandoned to cope with the postwar consequences.

Many veterans do not have the luxury of selective memory. The guilt continues long after the war is over. The nightmares don’t go away. The PTSD, alcoholism, drug addiction, and high suicide rates prove that the memories are still painful. These problems prove that what happened was not noble. It was not about defending freedom or liberty. It was only war with all its fear, pain, chaos, ugliness, senselessness, death and destruction.

Our selective memory prevents us from learning from our mistakes. General Colin Powell learned the lessons from Vietnam. He lists eight questions that all have to be answered affirmatively before military action is justified or necessary. Called the Powell Doctrine it asks:

  1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
  2. Do we have a clear, attainable objective?
  3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
  4. Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
  5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
  6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
  7. Is the action supported by the American people?
  8. Do we have genuine broad international support?

But as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan clearly show, the U.S. leadership did not learn anything from Vietnam or the Powell Doctrine. We did not learn that there are limits to our imperial military power. We certainly didn’t learn how to live at peace with other nations.

Unfortunately the military did learn to control the media presentation of its wars. Embedded reporters, shock and awe reporting, and no pictures of bodies retuning home result in an ignorant and submissive public. The government, the weapons makers, and the media did learn how to swap terrorism for communism as the reason for endless war.

On Memorial Day we honor those who died serving in the military. It is good to remember the sacrifice of those who went to war. We should mourn the loss of life, the wounds, and the destroyed lives war produces. But that sorrow should motivate us to prevent rather than glorify war. We should learn from history and not rewrite it to justify war.