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The Battle Over What Vietnam Means: Individual Honor or Unpleasant History?

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The historian Howard Zinn published an essay in 1970 on the Vietnam War that still very much resonates today. He goes right to the molten core of the problem that induced America to invade Vietnam and, in cases like Burkett, still justifies the incredible brutality focused on the Vietnamese.

"We see every rebellion everywhere," Zinn wrote in 1970, "as the result of some devilish plot concocted in Moscow or Peking, when what is really happening is that people everywhere want to eat and to be free."

At this late stage in the game, the struggle over what the Vietnam War means may transcend the polarized debate between Burkett's individual Honor on one side and Turse's more institutional Shame on the other. It seems to me the real ore to be mined remains in the History of the affair and how that history reflects on current and future US foreign policy. The hurdle is that serious, responsible history is something leaders everywhere tend to want to shove aside or forget, since history can be very inconvenient to things political leaders want to do.

President Obama's speech at the wall last Memorial Day officially kicked off the 50-year Commemoration of the war. This would seem to fulfill Burkett's call for an apology, although in his speech Obama never actually employed the word. He did say this:

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"[O]ne of the most painful chapters in our history was Vietnam -- most particularly, how we treated our troops who served there. You were often blamed for a war you didn't start, when you should have been commended for serving your country with valor. ... 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."

It was very much a politician's speech, an effort to have things both ways. So Obama also said this:

"Let's resolve that in our democracy we can debate and disagree -- even in a time of war. But let us never use patriotism as a political sword. Patriots can support a war; patriots can oppose a war."

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If a national politician really gave a damn, he or she might ask those on the other side of the Vietnam struggle -- those "patriots" who oppose the war -- "What do you want?" The answer would not be an apology but for the nation to confront its real history. That is: What "America" really needs to do is to recognize what it did to the Vietnamese people who only wanted "to eat and to be free" on their own terms and in their own manner.

Instead of a presidential speech, the call would be for a robust and constructive White House-endorsed national dialogue that would incorporate Vietnam veterans and the Vietnamese. Individual bravery would certainly be recognized. But the point would not be to emotionally focus on our pain and honor -- or even our shame. The point would be to courageously and honestly engage with the history of what really happened -- as Slavoj Zizek put it in the epigram at the top of this essay, not "the story we tell ourselves" but "what we do."

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I'm a 68-year-old American who served in Vietnam as a naive 19-year-old kid. From that moment on, I've been studying and re-thinking what US counter-insurgency war means. I live outside of Philadelphia, where I'm a writer, photographer and (more...)
 

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