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The Vietnam War and Modern Memory

A 2005 documentary film still seeking wider theatrical release demonstrates the continuing relevance of how we remember the Vietnam War. Sir! Nor Sir! by filmmaker David Zeiger chronicles the resistance within the military of soldiers who became convinced that the course of action taken by the United States in Vietnam was morally wrong. These soldiers of conscience published underground newspapers, frequented coffee shops where the military was subject to criticism and satire, questioned their superior officers, and in more extreme cases refused to obey orders, preferring time in the stockade to serving in Vietnam.

Admittedly there are many differences between the Vietnam era and the contemporary conflict in Iraq. The social milieu of the 1960s fostered a climate of protest absent from the contemporary scene. Some might also argue that Vietnam never attacked America. But, of course, neither did Saddam Hussein. Only the U. S. invasion made Iraq a battlefield in the war on terror. In addition, many of those serving in Vietnam were reluctant draftees. A return to conscription would likely return us to the days of resistance and mass protest in the street. Still one wonders how long the National Guard and their families, struggling to survive financially, will be able to bear the burden of the Iraq War. The brutality of the Iraqi conflict for both the Iraqis and American troops is evident in the allegations regarding massacre in Hadetha which raises the specter of My Lai and Vietnam.

These are memories and connections which many supporters of the Iraq War want to remain dormant. Public opinion polls indicate that the American public has lost faith in the administration’s cause for the war, and not even the celebrated killing of Abu Musab a-Zarqawi can restore the nation’s support for the war effort. Yet, democracy be damned appears to be the response of the Washington political establishment. The Bush administration continues to argue that we must stay the course in Iraq and it would be premature to discuss timetables for withdrawal. A timid Congress debates the war for a few days before endorsing the conflict. The Congressional refrain is that disengagement from the war in Iraq would constitute a failure to support the troops and those who sacrificed their lives would have died in vain. This perspective draws its lifeblood from the mythology that the Vietnam War was lost on the home front by an antiwar movement which failed the soldiers.

In this national mythology the war was lost through the treason of individuals such as Jane Fonda and hippies who spat upon the brave returning warriors. The right-wing political message is that to question the Iraq War is equivalent to the dissent of the Vietnam era which undermined our troops. Accordingly, to engage in the constitutional right of dissent becomes tantamount to treason.

But as David Zeiger reminds us in Sir! No Sir!, this reading of the Vietnam War ignores the reality of protest during the 1960s. Rather than the antiwar movement standing in opposition to soldiers, many Vietnam veterans were active in questioning the war and American foreign policy. This memory was, of course, resurrected by the presidential candidacy of John Kerry, who was decorated for his service in Vietnam. Kerry also played an important role in the formation of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War as well as the Winter Soldier testimony which documented how the Vietnam War led to atrocities committed against the Vietnamese people and contributed to the degradation of American soldiers. These are memories of the Vietnam conflict which the political right sought to suppress with the infamous Swift Boat campaign attacking Kerry’s military record.

The image of war protesters spitting upon returning soldiers is also employed to discredit critics of the Iraq War. The message is that this time we must not fail the troops. In his book The Spitting Image, professor Jerry Lembecke argues that the spat-upon returning soldier is essentially an urban myth perpetuated by American popular culture. Lembecke was unable to document any such incidents to support this conventional wisdom surrounding how returning Vietnam veterans were received. The spitting image, however, is enunciated in such influential Hollywood films as the Rambo series featuring Sylvester Stallone.

Sir! No Sir! also forces viewers to reconsider one of the political right’s favorite images of the Vietnam War: Jane Fonda as “Hanoi Jane” fraternizing with the enemy and betraying the troops. On the other hand, Fonda’s antiwar spoof of the Bob Hope U.S.O. shows, entitled Free the Army in its most benign nomenclature and featuring such Hollywood celebrities as Donald Sutherland and Peter Boyle, drew thousands of soldiers to concerts at off-base venues during the Vietnam War. This image of Jane Fonda has been virtually erased from public memory in an orchestrated effort to drive a wedge between the troops and antiwar movement. In fact, Fonda got much closer to the front lines and military during the Vietnam War than such architects of the Iraq War as Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, and even George W. Bush. Rather than discussing the contested image of Fonda, perhaps the real memory from the Vietnam era we should be focusing upon is how these men avoided service.

Thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese perished in the Vietnam War, yet today Donald Rumsfeld visits Vietnam and proposes military cooperation to counter Chinese expansionism. In the 1980s, Rumsfeld visited Iraq and embraced Saddam Hussein who was then an American ally against Iranian expansionism. Sometimes it seems the enemy in Orwellian fashion shift from Eurasia to Eastasia. George Orwell was right, the one who controls the present controls the past. The memory of the Vietnam War is manipulated to limit dissent and foster support for another questionable war—this time in Iraq. David Zeiger’s Sir! No Sir! is a useful antidote to our selective memory and deserves a wider audience.

Related Links

  • R. J. Del Vecchio: Vietnam War Myths ... Response to Ron Briley

  • John Prados: The Winter Soldier Investigation Was Never Discredited

  • Interview with Richard Moser: Was Kerry Right About Vietnam Atrocities?