Vietnam, Swift Boat Captains, Historical Memory, and the "Always Inflammatory" Chris BrayMichael Benson and Chris Bray have both been sidetracked into rehashing past debates and current political lunacy about Vietnam. Indeed we have seen a lot of Vietnam in 2003 and 2004. From Iraq, to Bush in the Guard, to Kerry on his swift boat we keep circling like vultures around the same historical problem.
Neither Chris nor I remember Vietnam. Indeed it would seem Vietnam has been dead a long time. But its memory, or its “lessons” seem to continue to grip our understanding of the present. Indeed our current obsession with Vietnam is an excellent example of how our understanding of the past continues to form our understanding of the present. And how else could it be? Perhaps, then, it’s worth my thinking a little bit about what Vietnam might have meant.
It’s interesting that Vietnam gets remembered as America’s “only defeat.” The war was officially declared a victory. The larger struggle that Vietnam was a part of, the Cold War, ended with a decided victory for the forces of “capitalism.” While actual numbers are difficult to estimate, it’s pretty clear American soldiers managed to maintain a favorable “kill ratio” of enemy forces. In fact many historians now view Tet as a desperate and failed offensive that severely depleted North Vietnam’s dwindling army. While in the end the U.S. ceded the South to the North, in purely traditional strategic terms the war went well.
Compare that with the War of 1812. Generally during war when one’s capital is burned, as D.C. was during that conflict, it is a bad sign. America’s fighting force was inadequate to win victory in 1812, and America’s most significant victory came after the peace treaty had already been signed. The treaty itself more or less returned things to their pre-war state (a major diplomatic victory when the war had been a nearly unmitigated failure). The War of 1812, while officially a victory, was in reality something of a mixed bag.
Vietnam yielded protests and mass internal distaste for the conflict. And so did the War of 1812. During the Hartford Convention Federalists in New England considered secession from the union, though ultimately their demands fell flat because of the signing of a peace treaty. While elite Federalists debating in New England may not conjure the same image as Hippies fighting a running battle with the police in Berkeley, the point was similar.
Yet the War of 1812 was remembered as a success (O say, can you see...). Vietnam was not. And herein lies the distinct difference. For those now and then who were anti-war and for those now and then who were pro-war the war was a defeat. The defeat, I think rests less on the overall strategy or the specifics of war and more on the memories of internal conflict at the time.
Defeats, particularly noble and humiliating defeats, can serve as powerful rallying cries. The Alamo for Texans, the Civil War for Southerners, World War I for the Nazis—defeats unite communities.
For pro-war Americans Vietnam was a defeat of the American will to fight. It demonstrates how a militarily winnable war can be undermined by those members of society who will not go along. Dissent and defeat come from within. The media, and the left are often portrayed as working in cahoots to systematically undermine America’s will to fight. And the lesson of the war is to not let them do that again.
For anti-war American Vietnam was a defeat of the American conscience. In their view the war was a war against impoverished civilians. It is symbolized by the images of crude huts being burned with napalm. And despite years of protest the war marched on until 1973, during which time America continued to senselessly murder. Paranoid conservatives and conformists stained the history of America. And the lesson of the war is to not let them do that again.
These thoughts are a little unsystematic. They have concluded with my impressions of the present. Still we somehow seem to eerily come back to Vietnam, and I think the memory of defeat goes some way in explaining that.
1: The Star Spangled Banner was written during the War of 1812.