Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Vietnam, A False Half Century Remembrance

Oh, how I hate the political season. Oh, how I really hate the present election of 2012. We are plumbing new depths of idiocy, foolishness, and outright lies. We are even reinventing history to suite the needs of a politician’s reelection bid. History is not what it used to be.

How to untangle the web spun by candidate Obama? How to deal rightly with one of the most contentious conflicts in US history? How to get that history right again? How to do this without getting once again rhetorically stuck in the impenetrable jungles of Southeast Asia? God, what a mess.

The long tangled tale of Vietnam, and how the elites of the US got hopelessly ensnared there really begins at World War Two. The rapid fall of France in WWII and the guerrilla struggle by the Vietnamese against the Japanese occupation set the stage for all that followed. Granted, even before this proximate cause, there were the even deeper events of World War One that tolled the end of colonialism.

France’s attempt to reclaim its Southeast Asian possessions after WWII was always going to be a dicy proposition. With the emergence of Hồ Chí Minh and the nationalist uprising, France’s attempt to reassert its prerogatives became Quixotic. HarryTruman, the US President recognized this and attempted to steer France away from reconquest. Unfortunately, post-war France was having none of it. With bigger fish to fry; the Marshal Plan, Setting up NATO, Containing the Soviet Union, Dealing with the “loss” of China, etc. Truman let La Belle France reoccupy Vietnam in exchange for French compliance with US goals in Europe. The linking of French efforts in the Far East with US interests only became stronger after the Korean War. By the end of France’s long twilight struggle with the Vietminh, the US was footing almost all of the bill.

It was all to no avail tough as France colonial forces ran up against one of the greatest military tacticians of the late 20th Century: Võ Nguyên Giáp. At Điện Biên Phủ, France suffered a military and psychological defeat that ended the grand illusion of French Indochina. Enter Eisenhower, and the next fateful decision.

With Ike, the US came out of the shadows and became a direct belligerent against Ho and his Vietminh. In a combination of bad faith, direct interference, bold planning, and more than a little dumb luck, the US was able to set up an anti-Communist regime in the southern rump of Vietnam. This cold war “success” was both ephemeral and ultimately Pyrrhic.

Little did Ike know that the regime of Ngô Đình Diệm was a disaster waiting to happen; a ticking time bomb. The very Catholic, and rather strange Diệm, was a Mandarin through and through. His bachelor ways, and aloof style grated on the Buddhist masses. His over-reliance on his bizarre and operatically corrupt family became a slow-motion train wreck for US interests. The whole sorry business started unraveling just as JFK settled in the Oval Office.

JFK’s handling of Vietnam made the situation much worse. Ever the Cold Warrior, John F Kennedy used the Southeast Asian rump nation of South Vietnam a testing ground for his new idea of Special Warfare. Enter the Green Berets, and clandestine warfare; an attempt to beat the Communists at their own guerrilla warfare game. It was not a rousing success.

JFK could never overcome the central issue that the Diệm regime was corrupt, dysfunctional mess. Ngô Đình Diệm managed to bring to the fore all the downsides of monarchal rule with none of the benefits. It all ended badly with the US green-lighting of the assassination of Ngô Đình Diệm and others in his clan. That was all Jack Kennedy, all the time.

But even as JFK did add fuel to the fire that finally became a conflagration in 1968 to 1969; he did inherit that fire from Ike. Ike’s policy “success” baited a bear trap that two Democratic presidents stepped right into. It took Richard Nixon, an anti-Communist’s anti-Communist to extract the US from the steel jaws of Vietnam. It also took an anti-war movement hammering away at Nixon almost every day to effect that  withdrawal.

A correct accounting of the US-Vietnam conflict, the long war, would be from 1945 to 1975; a huge swath of time. It is our thirty years war. And just like the war fought in Germany from 1618 to 1648 Vietnam was a brutal, nasty, overlong affair. And just like the German War the people who suffered most were the civilians.

It does a disservice to all those who had to endure that conflict. It does a disservice to the maimed and the dead. It does a disservice to victims of that war. It does a disservice to the Veterans. It does a disservice to the displaced, to refugees, to those uprooted and dispersed to foreign lands. It does a disservice to those who remained in Vietnam; who had to contend with the refuse of war, the unexploded bombs, the mines, and more subtle, more silent maimers and killers like Agent Orange. It does a disservice to ignore that history, to pretend it did not count because a hack politician needs to reach out to a section of the voting public. It is an unfortunate state of affairs.

Still, such a state of affairs is typical politics in 2012. Such tawdriness is a matter of course for our political duopoly. I can not be too harsh on Barack Obama because I am quite sure the Republican, Mitt Romney, will make an equally cynical play for the votes of Veterans. Both candidates can and will play fast and loose with the history of Vietnam because we, the citizens of the United States, don’t do history-- we do myth.

And because we only do myth, because our knowledge of Vietnam is formed by Rambo, or Full Metal Jacket, or Platoon, or some combination of those movies and others, our collective “memory” of Vietnam is plastic. Because we only do myth, not history, politicians can fudge even the most basic parts of history. Who cares? It is after all just a number, a good round number, a half century. Who cares if it’s totally bogus, we have an election to win.
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