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The War Over the Truth About Vietnam

In August 1980, Ronald Reagan spoke as a candidate for president before the Veterans of Foreign Wars. During his speech he attacked what had come to be called “Vietnam Syndrome,” which was understood to mean a hesitancy on the part of the people of the U.S. to again become involved in the hideous debacle of wars, such as Vietnam. He continued distorting the reality of the brutality and immorality of the war against the people of Vietnam when he said: “It is time we recognized that ours was, in truth, a noble cause.” Of course, Reagan, as vicious a warmonger as has ever lived, was simply using hyperbole to whip the electorate and general public into a frenzy so that he would be able to wage additional immoral wars in Central America and the Caribbean, and especially against the people of Nicaragua and their freely elected government. While an Orwellian dystopian at heart, Reagan was not very different from many of the presidents who would follow him and initiate indiscriminate and grossly lethal forays into other parts of the world, most notably the Middle East and Southwest Asia, either through proxies or through the direct use of U.S. military force.

Now, Reagan’s rewriting of history has come back 50 years later in the Pentagon’s attempt to whitewash the horror of what was done to the people of Vietnam in a website marking the commemoration of the Vietnam War. The website claims that it will “provide the American public with historically accurate materials,” but in reality the accuracy of those materials is as lacking as the U.S. justification for entering that war against a nation that was not a threat to the U.S., and had done nothing to provoke a war that would end by killing millions of innocent people (“Paying Respects, Pentagon Revives Vietnam, and War Over Truth,” The New York Times, October 9, 2014).

Missing from the website are the voices of protest against the war, the war’s many U.S. atrocities, the lying of political leaders and generals, and the debate over the war in the U.S. The My Lai massacre is called the “My Lai incident” at the website, and even the words spoken in front of the Senate Fulbright hearings on Vietnam by John Kerry, then a disaffected Vietnam veteran, and now secretary of state, are omitted from this whitewashed history.

I was a war resister during the Vietnam War. I risked a safe place in the Reserves to make a statement against the insanity of that war that cost me years of my life in terms of the turmoil that resulted from taking on the power of the  U.S.  government. I learned much about countering distortions of history that this government pedals. That experience benefited me greatly. I never looked back.

Five years ago I met a Vietnam veteran by chance and we sat and spoke at length about the Vietnam War. I told him that I was a Vietnam era veteran, but not about my resistance to the war. He had suffered for years with the physical complications, including cancer, that were the direct result of his exposure to Agent Orange, a defoliant used to deforest the tropical jungles of Vietnam in order to make the so-called enemy more visible to U.S. forces. He had also fought the government for many years before his symptoms and suffering were recognized and treated by the Veterans Administration. The Vietnamese victims of that same poison have never been compensated for their suffering.

I asked the veteran with whom I spoke what he thought so many decades later about those who resisted the war and the motivation for the U.S. involvement in that war. He said that he would have liked to have stood on the U.S.-Canadian border and taken shots at those who resisted the war and sought sanctuary in Canada, but through years of reading widely about the war he had come to see that the resistance to the war had merit.

The government seeks young recruits because they believe that through various kinds of propaganda and relentless military training, the universal admonition against killing can be countered. As can be seen from veteran suicides and post-traumatic stress disorder, the rules of war relating to the killing of civilians in wartime and the admonition against killing in general are not easily or entirely erased from the human mind.

Much of the propaganda that has emerged since the Vietnam War has focused on the Vietnam veteran as victim of the war, and to a degree veterans are also the victims of war and shoddy treatment by the Veterans Administration. This theme has been repeated in popular culture with films such as Platoon (1986) and The Deer Hunter (1978). Almost never are the most obvious victims of that war, the people of Vietnam and the people of Southeast Asia, portrayed as real people. Reagan, in a way, left the rest of us as heirs to his erroneous portrayal of the war by making it easier for U.S. presidents, Congress, and the military to embark on a series of endless wars following Vietnam.

What the veteran with whom I spoke had learned over the decades that followed the disaster that was the Vietnam War, the Pentagon has not learned as the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the war soon begins (The U.S. actually had thousands of so-called boots on the ground many years before the Gulf of Tonkin incident that launched the official U.S. entry into the war in 1964.). The Pentagon seeks to rewrite history in the Orwellian tradition and shove the actual history of that war into a rubbish heap much as Orwell’s character Winston does at the Ministry of Truth in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. 

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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