Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Doomed to Repeat It

What with one thing and another, I never got around to writing a blog post yesterday.  (I did, however, manage to finish reading Connie Willis's Lincoln's Dreams, which had been my priority for the day anyhow.)  It turned out to be just as well, though, because I picked up some more information this morning that came in handy.

President Obama gave a Memorial Day speech that added another dollop to my contempt for him.  Speaking at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, he addressed Vietnam War veterans (or maybe just the veterans in his head):
"You were often blamed for a war you didn't start, when you should have been commended for serving your country with valor," Obama told a crowd gathered at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, which lists names of those who died in the conflict.
"You came home and sometimes were denigrated, when you should have been celebrated. It was a national shame, a disgrace that should have never happened. And that's why here today we resolve that it will not happen again," he said to applause.
The president noted that many Vietnam War veterans have gone to airports to personally greet soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom joined the military in response to the September 11, 2001, attacks that triggered the now-unpopular wars.
According to the same Reuters story, he also "promised as commander-in-chief not to send U.S. troops back into harm's way without a clear mission and strategy."  What was our "mission and strategy" in Libya again?  What was our mission and strategy in Iraq?  In Afghanistan?  The US had a clear mission and strategy in Vietnam, as far as that goes: to stop the spread of World Communism by aiding a loyal ally in South Vietnam.  It was as transparently fake as our missions and strategies since then, of course, but we had one, and you work with the mission and strategy you have.  Considering that Obama continues to lie about what the US military is doing and why, I don't suppose he's breaking his perfect record this time.

But what jumped out at me from his remarks was the claim that returning Vietnam veterans "sometimes were denigrated", seconded by the article's writer, who said that many "of those who survived brutal fights in the Southeast Asian jungle faced derision when they got home in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of public opposition to that Cold War battle."  I didn't want to jump to any conclusions, but it sounded like Obama was repeating the false claim that the antiwar movement demonized Vietnam veterans, which in its purest form says that hippies spat on them.  There is no evidence that anything of the kind ever happened. The antiwar movement worked with soldiers and veterans, denigrating and deriding the politicians who had sent them to Southeast Asia to kill and die.  The group Vietnam Veterans Against the War soon emerged, and if anyone denigrated or attacked Vietnam veterans, it was the political establishment.  Nixon's vice president Spiro Agnew fag-baited veterans who participated in demonstrations against the war, for example, and ultimately there emerged an official discourse of Vietnam veterans as unstable and dangerous.  It didn't help that the US economy was having trouble, and returning veterans had trouble finding or keeping jobs.  As VVAW member John Zutz wrote, "There is no place in the American memory for the factually accurate image of vets throwing their medals back at Congress."  Or at NATO.  And nobody who's anybody suggests that it was shameful and disgraceful to send American forces to destroy a country that hadn't attacked us in the first place.

Part of the elite contempt for Vietnam-era veterans was shown by the initial media and Beltway reaction to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall: they hated it, and there was even some attempt by the right to gin up some racist hysteria because the designer was (American-born!) Chinese.  Only when it became clear that the public liked it did the elites suddenly remember that they'd really recognized its greatness all along.  But if you want to talk about neglect of American veterans, consider Korean War veterans, who didn't get a memorial in Washington until 1995, although 36,000 died there (along with a million or more Koreans).  As with Vietnam, the willed amnesia came largely from the fact that the Korean War ended in a truce, not the glorious unconditional victory that Americans are promised by birthright.  (I mean, isn't it in the Constitution?  We always win?)  Returning Vietnam vets found that people -- not dirty hippies, but their school classmates -- just didn't want to hear about their experiences; it seems to have been even better for Korean War veterans.  I must have known some as a child in the 1950s, but I don't remember hearing anything about that war: it was World War II that was all over the place, as American interference in Vietnam gradually increased.

Still, I didn't want to accuse Obama of saying something he didn't mean, so it's a good thing I put off writing this post until today, when VastLeft linked to this takedown of The Audacity of Hope, which quotes Obama committing the lie to print on page 29: "the burning of flags and spitting on vets."  So he evidently believes it.  (An apologist could argue that in context, Obama was just describing the beliefs "white ethnic voters" to explain why they voted for Reagan, but his use of the trope this weekend shows that he believes it -- or else he was just pandering.)

The Reuters story kicks off with another piece of Obama propaganda, referring to his "own efforts to wind down the Iraq and Afghanistan wars started by his predecessor, George W. Bush."  Korea and Vietnam may be ancient history, but Obama has only been in office for three and a half years.  It shouldn't be necessary to go to the archives to remember that Obama campaigned on his intention to escalate the war in Afghanistan (a promise he actually kept), or that Bush-Cheney had already begun winding down the war in Iraq with a negotiated Status Of Forces Agreement that Obama tried to ignore.  But he wasn't able to persuade the Iraqi government to cooperate, partly because of revelations by Wikileaks of US crimes which made the Iraqis unwilling to grant US troops legal immunity; so he had to wind down the US war (while still keeping thousands of regular forces and mercenaries in place).

Vast Left summed it up well, writing of Americans who served in Vietnam:
The horrors we subjected them to, and the ones we sent them to visit upon so many others, are not—or by gum should not be—something to celebrate.

Pity, learn from, heal from, yes. But to use the language of disgrace to describe some Americans' reticence to celebrate Vietnam troops as conquering heroes is a vulgar display of pandering for the head of a nation that remains ready, willing, and able to repeat the sins of that war as long as our empire has bullets, bombs, and Selective Service and military volunteers.