The 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War: Revising the Past, Revisiting the Lies

"One of our victims was searched when the shooting stopped and the bleeding continued and was found to be in possession of a medal. Our interpreter told us it was for heroism at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu fourteen years previous. While we were sent to war to fight communism, he had fought his whole life for his country's right to self-determination. We traveled 12,000 miles to kill him for that." -- From I Would Rather Die Alone -- for Peace: A Soldier's Dream by Steve Banko, 2003

In his proclamation that set the stage for this commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War President Obama noted that:

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. From Ia Drang to Khe Sanh, from Hue to Saigon and countless villages in between, they pushed through jungles and rice paddies, heat and monsoon, fighting heroically to protect the ideals we hold dear as Americans.

Instead of a historical whitewash, why not take this opportunity, perhaps one of the last in this overwrought national melodrama, to indulge in some long overdue soul-searching and ask the hard questions? Why not make an honest and concerted effort to deal with, learn from, but also overcome the past? Why not confront the monstrous reality that the Vietnam War, or the American War, as it's logically known in Vietnam, was unjust, unnecessary, and immoral?

Instead of perpetuating the national myth that the "Vietnam War" was a grand and noble cause for which 58,000 patriots "sacrificed all they had and all they would ever know," why not admit, once and for all, what the late Stanley Karnow, journalist and historian, told Stanley McChrystal, then Commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan, in a brief telephone conversation when he asked Karnow if there was anything "we" (Americans) learned in Vietnam that "we" can use in Afghanistan? Karnow's reply: What we learned is we never should have been there in the first place.

Why not present an accurate accounting of history? Had the U.S. not scuttled the Geneva Accords of 1954, picked up where the French left off, bankrolled yet another client state, subverted the will of the electorate (it was none other than Ike who said Uncle Ho would have received 80 percent of the vote in a 1956 election) and delayed the inevitable unification of Vietnam, there would not have been an American War in Vietnam, millions would still be alive and healthy in body, mind and spirit, and Vietnam and Southeast Asia would be very different places today.

Why not acknowledge the suffering that the Vietnamese endured day in and day out for over a decade? This commemoration is like most American interpretations of the war: It's all about me. Neil Jamieson notes in his book Understanding Vietnam that the films and books about the war "are almost entirely limited to the experience of being an American in Vietnam. The Vietnamese, when they appear at all in these works, are shadowy cardboard figures, merely one-dimensional stage props for the inner workings of the American psyche." He continues: "To better understand ourselves, we must understand the Vietnam War. To understand the war, we must understand the Vietnamese... We remain far too ready to assume that other people are, or want to be, or should be, like us."

Most Americans don't have a clue as to sheer magnitude of killing and the widespread atrocities carried out in their name in Vietnam. If you've been to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., close your eyes and imagine, just for a moment, The Wall x 50 with the inscription of 3 million Vietnamese names on it: mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, lost generations who died at the hands of the U.S. military and its partners in crime, which joined hands to turn large swaths of Vietnam into a charnel house.

To what ends? Which ideals did the "generation that served with honor" fight heroically to protect? Vietnam has been a sovereign and united country, free of foreign domination since 1975, a worthy goal it would have paid any price to achieve. This is something that Americans who know their own history, and peoples who have sacrificed everything to be free, can understand and appreciate.

Unlike the young men and women on the other side who had the psychological and spiritual edge of knowing that theirs was a just cause and that the sacrifices they made counted for something, namely, the defense of their homeland and preventing yet another foreign invader from determining its geopolitical destiny, American sacrifices in blood and treasure were in vain. The suffering didn't end with "peace with honor" in 1973 or the fall/liberation of Saigon in 1975. It continues in both countries in the form of war legacies, the curse that keeps on giving.

Official America "repeats the past" not because it can't remember it, to quote from George Santayana's dictum, but because it doesn't conform to the precepts of missionary nationalism. Andrew Bacevich addresses this point succinctly in The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism:

Humility imposes an obligation of a different sort. It summons Americans to see themselves without blinders. The enemy of humility is sanctimony, which gives rise to the conviction that American values and beliefs are universal and that the nation itself serves providentially assigned purposes. This conviction finds expression in a determination to remake the world in what we imagine to be America's image.

The U.S. government chooses time and again, in spite of the inestimable cost in human life, suffering, and tax dollars, to embrace sanctimony over humility.

Mark A. Ashwill lives in Hanoi, Vietnam. He is the author of Vietnam Today: A Guide to a Nation at a Crossroads (with Thai Ngoc Diep).