Historian Ken Burns’ new CNN series on the Viet Nam war opens many old wounds as we review its horrible history. We talk about the 62,000 Americans who died in that horrible war, but we never mention the one million Vietnamese who died in that war, and the utter devastation that we released on that part of the world through our bombings and chemical warfare. Agent Orange was an environmental catastrophe. Many of our own veterans were casualties of this. Viet Nam is still enduring the effects of Agent Orange as is evidenced by the cancer rates and birth defects, even among our veterans. And then there was the napalm.
America entered the Viet Nam war to defend the fruits of French imperialism. Also, because our government lied to us, claiming the war to be a superpower contest between the godless communists and the free world. But in truth Viet Nam was more of a tribal war between factions of the Vietnamese people. The corpses were Vietnamese and not Chinese or Russian. And finally we were there to project American power and influence abroad.
While we should always show respect for our military personnel and veterans, those who are willing to serve and even die for their country. But we should never respect or defend our nation’s pointless and often catastrophic militarism that has wreaked havoc around the world. We must always remember that it is the politicians and not the soldiers who decide which wars that we need to fight.
One sad legacy from Viet Nam is that our country has proven time and time again that it has no memory. We have been fighting for 16 years in Afghanistan for no apparent purpose. We have spilled our precious blood and wasted our treasure in an endless tribal conflict wherein we have no legitimate role to play. We cannot even articulate what “victory” would look like and we have no exit strategy.
George W. Bush started a post 9-11 war with the wrong country. Attacking Iraq after 9-11 was like bombing China in response to Pearl Harbor.
He lied to us saying that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. He lied to us by saying that we would pay for the war by taking Iraqi oil. The Bush family wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left our nation broke and divided. He destroyed the Iraqi government and infrastructure and left chaos and disorder in its place. He disbanded the Iraqi army which then became the core of ISIS. How much better both America and the Middle East would be if only we had stayed out of this futile and destructive conflict.
Our militaristic propaganda says that our military is there to protect our freedoms. I find such an assertion to be utterly ridiculous. All too often our country goes to war not for freedom, but to intervene in tribal disputes that need to be settled by the natives, and to impose our values, form of government, and economic system on the rest of the world. We fight to make the world “safe” by making it look more like us.
Ronald Reagan conducted a terrorist “war” against the duly elected government of Nicaragua. But the origins of the mess in Nicaragua goes back to the Eisenhower administration when we sent in troops to protect the United Fruit Company from the local efforts to unionize the workers. In those days it was easy to denounce anyone who stood for unionization, land reform, or economic security for the starving masses as communists. We must never believe that our own commercial interests trump the rights of indigenous people for political rights and economic participation.
We must never believe our own propaganda. We have no right to talk of freedom when unarmed people of color are being routinely tyrannized, brutalized, and even murdered by police officers for no reason. This is what the Colin Kaepernick protest was all about.
We must never equate patriotism with flag waving or outward patriotic displays when many of our own are denied security and full economic participation. We must never say, “America, right or wrong.” We must never assert our moral supremacy, when prisoners in Iraq were subjected to torture and abuse. That part of the Bush wars will always be a stain on our national character.
During the Third Reich, the nice people made the best Nazis. These nice people were not diabolically evil, but like sheep the allowed and even supported the diabolical evil that surrounded them. America must never become a nation of sheep that believes its own propaganda and confused true patriotism with flag waving support.
We must learn to face our nation’s history with honesty and self-reflection. We must begin to learn from our past and seek to build a better future.