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Review: American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity

02/24/2015 02:02 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2015

Chris Appy's American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity is a book-length essay on the Vietnam War and how it changed the way Americans think of ourselves and our foreign policy. This is required reading for anyone interested in foreign policy and America's place in the world, showing how events influence attitudes, which turn to influence events.

Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam

Appy's book is valuable to its readers in showing how Vietnam became the template for every American war since, from novelties like the invasion of Grenada to the seemingly never-ending conflicts post-9/11. But before all that, there was Vietnam, and, larger lessons aside, Appy's book is a fascinating, insightful, infuriating and thought-provoking study of that conflict, from its earliest days when America bankrolled the French defeat, to the final, frantic evacuation of Saigon. This is a history, yes, but one where events are presented not in rescitation but toward building a larger argument. Drawing from movies, songs, and novels, as well as official documents, example after example shows how America was lied to and manipulated.

We begin with Tom Dooley, a Navy physician who had one of the best-selling books of 1956, Deliver Us from Evil. Presented as fact, the book was wholly a lie, painting a picture of Vietnam as a struggling Catholic nation under attack by Communists, with only America as a possible Saviour. Despite Dooley selling millions of copies in its day, few have ever heard of it since. It did however establish a forward-leaning pattern of lies to engage and enrage the American public in support of pointless wars.

The Dooley line runs through the faux Gulf of Tonkin Incident to fake stories from Gulf War 1.0 of Iraqi troops throwing infants from their incubators to Gulf War 2.0's non-existent WMDs to Gulf War 3.0's "Save the Yazidi's" rationale for America re-entering a war already lost twice. "Saving" things was a common sub-theme, just as Vietnam was to be saved from Communism. It was no surprise that one of the last American acts of the Vietnam War was "Operation Babylift," where thousands of children were flown to the U.S. to "save" them.

Vietnam as a Template

Vietnam set the template in other ways as well.

-- The 1960's infamous domino theory was raised from the grave not only in the 1980's to frighten Americans into tacit support for America's wars in Central America, but then again in regards to the 1991 model of Saddam, never mind the near-constant invocations of tumbling playing pieces as al Qaeda and/or ISIS seeks world domination.

-- Conflicts that could not stand on their own post-WWII would be wrapped in the flag of American Exceptionalism, buttressed by the belief the United States is a force for good/freedom/democracy/self-determination against a communist/dictator/terrorist evil. Indigenous struggles, where the U.S. sides with a non-democratic government (Vietnam, the Contras), can never be seen any other way, truth be damned to hell. Wars for resources become struggles for freedom, or perhaps self-preservation, as we fight them over there so we don't have to fight them over here.

-- A sidestory to such memes is the invocation of "Munich." If we don't stop _____ (Putin?) now, he'll just go on to demand more. Better to stand and fight than commit the cardinal sin of appeasement. That "appeasement" and "diplomacy" are often confused is no matter. We are not dealing in subtleties here.

-- Killing becomes mechanical, clean, nearly sterile (remember the war porn images of missiles blasting through windows in Gulf War 1.0?) Our atrocities -- My Lai in Vietnam is the best known, but there were many more -- are the work of a few bad apples ("This is not who we are as Americans.") Meanwhile, the other side's atrocities are evil genius, fanaticism or campaigns of horror.

No More Vietnams

Appy accurately charts the changes to the American psyche brought on by the war. Never before had such a broad range of Americans come to doubt their government. The faith most citizens had in their leaders coming out of WWII was so near complete that the realization that they had been lied to about Vietnam represents the most significant change in the relationship between a people and their leaders America, perhaps much of history, has ever seen.

The aftermath -- No More Vietnams -- is well-covered in Appy's work. The No More Vietnam mantra is usually presented as avoiding quagmires, focusing on quick, sharp wins. Instead, Appy shows politicians have manipulated No More Vietnams into meaning greater secrecy (think Central America in the 1980's), more over-the-top justifications ("You don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud") and an emphasis on keeping American deaths inside the acceptable limits of the day to tamp down any public anti-war sentiment.

Throw in increasingly clever manipulation of the media ("Pat Tillman was a hero," "Malaki/Karzai is a democratic leader with wide support") and indeed there will be no more Vietnams per se, even as conflicts that bear all the hallmarks continue unabated. Americans may have developed an intolerance for Vietnam-like wars, but failed to become intolerant of war.

Post-9/11

For readers of the 9/11 era, explaining the changes America underwent because of Vietnam seems near-impossible, though American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity succeeds as well as anything else I have read.

Before Vietnam, we accepted it all. That was the way of it. You could call it patriotism, or you could call it naivety, or even faith. We hadn't yet realized our leaders would lie to us about things as important as war. There had been no Watergate, no fake WMDs. American Exceptionalism was not a right-wing trope twirled inside the confection of "Morning in America." Our education was very expensive in the form of that blood and treasure commentators love to refer to.

You finish with the feeling that Appy wishes the lesson of Vietnam would be for the American people to rise up and shout "we won't be fooled again," but close the book sharing with Appy the thought that we have, and will. "There remains," concludes Appy, "a profound disconnect between the ideals and priorities of the public and the reality of a permanent war machine that no one in power seems able or willing to challenge or constrain... the institutions that sustain empire destroy democracy."

How did we reach such a state? Better read this book to find, in Appy's words, what our record is, and who we now are.