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Commemorate This!

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Photo by makhhai | CC BY 2.0

Photo by makhhai | CC BY 2.0

The VA in Maine recently partnered with the Pentagon to hold a “fiftieth anniversary observance of the Vietnam War.” I’d caught a brief notice about the event in the county weekly. Vietnam veterans would be recognized for their “valor and sacrifice,” and those in attendance would “receive a commemorative pin in recognition of their service.” Among the fifty states, Maine is 39th in size and 41st in population, or slightly larger than South Carolina, and slightly less populous than Hawaii. A disproportionately high number of Mainers served in the military.   The Veterans Administration here has its largest campus at Togus near the state capital of Augusta, and the parking lot that morning was crammed with the dusty pickups and SUVs of Nam vets who’d driven in for this gathering from every backwater of our rural state.

This is my health provider, so over the past few decades I’d been to Togus more times than I care to count. But until that morning, I’d never been aware of the two hundred seat theater behind a paneled wall in the corridor I pass through every time I come there. All those posters you’d see on the walls about events I had no interest in, this was the venue where they held them I figured. I walked in a half hour early and loitered in the aisle hoping to get a few guys to tell me bits of their stories, anyone wearing something – usually a ball cap – that says Vietnam. It’s a delicate business. I ask, hey who’d you serve with, and usually get back a few mumbled monosyllables in reply. My typical reflex to this brushoff is the unkind thought that perhaps their experiences in-country weren’t hairy enough to back up the tough war vet exterior they’re now projecting; but the formality of being an object of attention breeds caution in this population, and maybe they just want to get to their seats.

Anyway I was playing reporter on the fly with a short window, but I am convinced that the general outline of the story one guy told me could stand for lots of others in the room. Most veterans – certainly prior to their service – come from the non-college educated working class. I passed for gentry in this crowd. The vet I talked with grew up in an old mill town where his forebears had migrated from Quebec Province a few generations back. He was a senior in high school in the waning sixties when he got his draft notice. After graduation he enlisted in the Air Force, and was trained as a combat engineer. By 1969 he was laying steel mats for landing strips all over Vietnam. He didn’t want to be there, he said. He was in a bad state of mind. His girlfriend had broken up with him just before he went in the service. He was 22, and on a base in the Delta he supervised a Vietnamese man he described as a peasant, about 70. He was amazed at how a man that age could perform such heavy labor. On one occasion he was invited to visit the man’s thatched home. It contained “a couple of plates, a couple of knives and forks, everything he needed.”   That lesson wasn’t lost on him, he said. Still he “felt sorry” for the old papasan because “he had never known peace.” I asked him if the war was worth it, and he said no.

That’s not the message we would hear in this assembly. As a topic the war can’t be completely ignored by its apologists at the Pentagon who manage the Vietnam commemorative franchise. But discussion can be limited, ideally dispensed with, by reinforcing a false historical judgment that panders to the sensibilities of select audiences of veterans, like, I’m assuming, those drawn to this event. Not that most read it or needed to be reminded, but, just in case, the official thinking on how Vietnam should be remembered was laid out explicitly in the printed program we’d been handed on entering the theater. If we lost the war – just saying – it’s not because “the U.S. was defeated in battle;” our defeat was “political,” not military. Unfairly veterans were blamed for the loss, and when coming home, “treated poorly.”

When the audience finally settled in the formal program began. The half dozen men in suits who’d been milling around the front of the hall now spoke in turn from the podium. The invocation came from a chaplain, said to be a former combat medic, who thanked the lord that we’d all been able “to serve America in a time of conflict.” He then adlibbed a gushing aside in praise of the ranking dignitary who’d come to address us, Maine’s very own Tea Party governor, Paul LePage, whose face had been on high beam since the moment he’d arrived. Next the director of the Togus VA delivered rapid fire four or five different ways to thank us for our service, punctuated by as many god-bless-yous, then moved solemnly from the podium and intoned, “If you are able, stand, so we are able to thank you.” Applause all around.

Next the lights were dimed, and we were treated to a four minute film flaunting the Vietnam War’s most anachronistic theme, MIAs, the fallen soldiers left behind whose remains are missing. Entitled, Not Forgotten, the film tells the story of a woman whose marine husband was among the MIAs. In a brief opening scene a young Asian boy, his ball cap on backwards, floats on a dugout in a watery setting. He snags a wedding ring strung on a set of dog tags and shows them to his father, who wears a conical hat (hint: we’re in Vietnam). “They’re from your grandfather’s war, they belonged to an American marine,” he tells the boy with the self-assurance of a crime scene investigator. The action shifts to the interior of a comfortable home somewhere in the heartland, where, through one lace curtained window a POW/MIA flag is seen flapping proudly against the dwelling’s exterior siding. A bereavement team, one black man, one white, has come to return these sacred objects, which allows the widow “to find the closure she’s been seeking for more than forty years.”

One feels deep sympathy for such a victim, of course, even as the actress who portrays her is scripted to add her own wedding ring to the dog tag chain, then stare wistfully toward a distant past that fades into a final flashback. We are transported back to where the missing husband as a young marine faces the camera under the canopy of an ersatz jungle, and tenderly cradles the same dog dag chain in his hands. Then, kissing the ring, he turns abruptly and hurries off to his unhappy fate. Why this actor was not directed to actually look like a combat marine of the war or its time is this clip’s most absurd and glaring flaw. Dressed in jungle fatigues strung with web gear, the actor sports a millennial goatee and has a full and wavy head of hair. But forget the film’s wink-if-you-get-it clumsy symbolism, the hocus pocus forensics of the Asian man in the conical hat, the locations that look like glades of central Florida ferns far from the bamboo boarded rice paddies of South East Asia, the hirsute, whiskered marine whose image would surely disturb any jarhead purist who ever spouted semper fi, the film is a minor propaganda gem, and Governor LePage wants to tell the Pentagon exactly where it should be distributed.

“I want to show that film to every grade school student in the state,” LePage boomed as he stepped to the microphone. And I immediately shuddered thinking how this web of manipulation might ensnare my own rebel nine year old granddaughter trapped in her third grade classroom. I’ve put aside a history box to give her when she shows the first signs of maturity, so she’ll have a shot at sorting out the complexities of her grandfather’s war. As for her classmates, who can predict how a given individual will process indoctrination into the myth of the nation’s righteous trail of blood. Obviously the commemorators could give a shit about what these kids know or think about Vietnam; it’s all about the next war, that’s the one a patriotic scoundrel like LePage is always cheering for.

Half the voters in Maine love LePage, the man who was Trump’s Trump several dismal years before the 2016 presidential election. In that short span of years, politics in Maine has been transformed, and, if anyone was paying attention, foreshadowed the blue collar uprising in other regions where the Democrats had been traditionally strong, then handed the White House to a man who causes me to scratch my head each morning and imagine that I now inhabit some Alternative Reality. In Maine, LePage is in his second term, and there can be no doubt that, overwhelmingly, the veterans at Togus this morning are his strong supporters. You can read it in LePage’s body language. He’s so happy to be here he’s beside himself. I’d never witnessed LePage before in person, but this is not the bombastic persona he shares with the public on the nightly newscasts, when you might hear him shade an issue that infects the whole nation, like the epidemic rise in opiate addiction, in racial overtones. The drug pushers, you know, are “men of color” who come up from Massachusetts, rape and impregnate our white girls; he has proof, but it’s a secret.

A bit sheepishly, LePage – seemingly against type the only well-tailored male among the suits in the room – confesses that he did not serve because he was in college. “It was difficult to be on campus with people everywhere protesting the war,” he grimaces. That might have been his first clue. Not for LePage. He sidesteps the true object of campus unrest, and tells his veteran audience that the protesting students “were condemning you for defending your families while you were fighting to protect their freedoms.” Maybe LePage wasn’t in the foxhole next to you, but he had your back on campus by getting “into a few fist fights,” because he found the protesters so “embarrassing” he had to pound a few of them.

This had all the earmarks of the apocryphal and wishful memory of a congenital bully. LePage blows hard and missteps often, but for an instant he now stood shamefaced. Maybe it actually struck him that he’d just equated his brawling on campus with our wartime service in Vietnam. He’d muddied the waters. By giving prominence to the campus protest, he had strayed from the monolithic commemorative theme that there was nothing wrong with the Vietnam War. He quickly dialed back to the consoling message around which this spectacle had been organized, one, presumably, that those gathered had by now become accustomed to hearing. LePage found his exit line. Tch tching loud enough to be heard in the next building, he looked us over and delivered: “What a shame it was the way the American people treated you.”

In compensation for being burdened with this shameful indignity we were invited to come forward and receive a commemorative pin, a metal trinket stamped with the fierce visage of an eagle and inscribed in lettering few aging eyes could read without specs, “a grateful nation thanks and honors you.” To this was added a square of supermarket cake, iced with the words, ‘Welcome Home.’ I was determined to engage with more members of this audience, but the hall drained quickly. I went looking first in the cafeteria where an empty table with a single place setting memorializes American MIAs, the way a disembodied Elijah is honored at a Seder with an empty chair. No Nam hats, no other telltale regalia in sight. I walked along several corridors leading to medical services, entered the main waiting room. Their event was over. No VA related reason to linger? They were gone.

If I’d gotten the chance, I would have asked anyone of these veterans to tell me in his own words why he’d come today. I was curious if, outside the box of mind-deadening and infantilizing rhetoric in which we had been confined, I’d find an individual who had reflected beyond the woes of our alleged mistreatment on, say, what we had inflicted on the Vietnamese?   Surely this shallow recognition ritual hadn’t anesthetized the memories and sealed the tongues of every one of them? Would any of them think as I did that our betrayal came, not from how we were treated on coming home – a narrative that smacks of urban myth – but from being sent to Vietnam in the first place?

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Michael Uhl is the author of  Vietnam Awakening

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