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Heeding the Call

Truth in Vietnam, Torture in Brazil

by MICHAEL UHL

The message of John Grant’s article, “The Vietnam War and the Struggle for Truth”, should be heard as an alarm bell by all who were blind-sided and unsettled upon learning of the Defense Department initiative announced by the President this past Memorial Day to “commemorate” the Vietnam Era by rewriting its history.

The projected duration of the Pentagon’s mandate for this exercise stretches from 2012 to 2025.  Let’s leave aside for the moment that this actuarial calculation has the macabre feel of a death watch in the countdown of who, in the fading ranks, will one day wear the laurel as the “Last Vietnam War Veteran.”  What should trouble especially those whose histories and identities are embedded in their opposition and resistance to that war, is what the Pentagon is tasking itself to accomplish during these unpropitious thirteen years: first, to create, and then, to sustain, a positive legacy for the Vietnam War.

That sow’s ear can never be transformed into a silk purse.  This is a draconian and despicable undertaking, whatever its eventual reach, and a topic I shall return to often as this revisionist plot unfurls, if only to defend my own identity and memories as but one actor among the waves of soldiers and veterans who rose up to oppose our filthy war, even as it was still being fought.

It’s hard to imagine that the unpopularity, and eventual rejection, of the Vietnam War by the American public could ever be excised fully from the historical record.  But the specific history of the organized opposition to the war is more vulnerable, since it becomes, in the absence of repetition in popular media, more and more abstract and remote to younger generations as it recedes into the past.

The GI Resistance and antiwar Vietnam veterans’ movements of the Sixties and Seventies, so unique in the annals of warfare, become prime targets for erasure in this new and approved version of the war the Pentagon hopes to fashion. Even if it were only these unprecedented chapters of the whole anti-Vietnam war saga that the DOD project succeeded in obliterating by 2025, what an immeasurable loss of inspiration this would represent for later generations who must continue to organize and struggle against the plague of American militarism for the ungodly and unforeseeable future.

The first blow to the memory of our antiwar GI and veteran struggles in this revisionist farce was delivered by President Obama himself in his Memorial Day launch of the neutered sounding “Vietnam War Commemoration Project.”  Obama’s myth-driven speech is a testament to his abysmal ignorance of this period of our history; or he was simply pandering to a selected audience of true-believer vets

gathered at the Wall, who have succumbed to the pernicious view that the war they could never have defended in youth had become, with the salve of passing years, a noble cause.

By reinforcing the one-dimensional image of returning Vietnam vets universally ill-treated by an ungrateful nation, Obama exploits the repressed feelings of anger, guilt and shame that unbalanced so many of us.  We suffered the burden of fighting in a war widely opposed at home, not least among our better informed generational peers.  But the deeper wounds resistant to time’s cure for thousands of us were rooted in the horrifying awareness of daily acts of violence that we aimed in Vietnam relentlessly, not only at an armed foe, but at a whole people.

Obama glibly conjures, and bathes in glory, the ambiguous battles of Khe Sanh and Hue, but ignores My Lai.  In doing so he prepares the ground for sanitizing the judgment once commonplace throughout the world — to include vast numbers in the U.S. — that atrocities in Vietnam, while mostly on a lesser scale, were not in any sense exceptional.  “My Lai,” as my generation of Winter Soldiers always emphasized in our public testimonies, “was just the tip of the iceberg.”

Obama now implies that this brush tars too broadly and prefers the consoling fiction that Vietnam veterans as a whole “were blamed for the misdeeds of a few.” But I am too wedded to my own truths about the evils of that war to ever be consoled, and Obama’s lies on this particular occasion infuriate me. I went to Vietnam. I lived the war. It horrified me. I came home and actively opposed it. Like tens of thousands of other Vietnam veterans, I witnessed or participated in atrocities.  I saw the routine use of torture.  These were not the “misdeeds of a few;” they were the essence of that war.

*****

As I wish to make clear, this active dialog, leading to a major push-back against the Pentagon re-write of our history, must emerge rapidly and engage many voices, if, ultimately, it is to blunt the impact of this revisionist assault.  I also want to make a tangential observation here concerning a parallel I see between the campaign in contemporary Brazil to defend the historical truths surrounding that country’s decades of military dictatorship, and the militant and popular resistance to it, and the similar campaign we must now undertake.

The similarity lies in the shared moment that requires a defense of resistance to illegitimate authority, and of the peoples’ right to historical memory itself. But there’s also a major difference. In Brazil, the defense of truth is being led by that country’s president, while in the U.S. we have a president who is bent on obstructing it. I have included below a short article that I translated from a Brazilian newspaper to demonstrate how an enlightened leader deals with a barbaric practice long outlawed by modern societies, but still glaringly visible throughout the world, and an acknowledged fixture as well of American wars since Vietnam, the widespread use of torture.  Although Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was herself once subjected to such brutality, she now chooses to treat torture not as the “misdeeds of a few” but as a policy of State.

In a restrained voice, choking back her emotions, President Dilma Rousseff told the assembled media during the closing session of Rio+20 — an international conference on the environment — that she never wanted to know the identities of her torturers.

Commenting about the recent publication of depositions she gave under torture in the Seventies during her imprisonment by Brazil’s military dictatorship, Dilma noted that many of her torturers didn’t use their real names, but she nonetheless has suspicious as to their identities.

Dilma chose to emphasize, however, that the critical question isn’t the torturer, but the torture, because the torturer was always an agent of policy. “The problem is the conditions under which torture is established and performed. This everyone knows,” she said..

“With the passage of time, the best thing that happened for me, personally, was to not become fixated on these identities, and not harbor toward these agents feelings of hatred, bitterness or revenge … but not forgiveness either.  To want vengeance, or to feel hatred or bitterness, is to remain dependent on those whom we wish to revenge ourselves upon.  This is not a healthy state of mind for anyone,” said Dilma, struggling to avoid tears.

That’s why the [Brazilian] Truth Commission was created, Dilma reminded her audience in conclusion, to turn that page of this country’s history, and not permit that it ever happen again.

Michael Uhl is the author of  Vietnam Awakening.

This essay originally appeared on In the Mind Field.