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Walls For the Dead

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Photo by mitchell haindfield | CC BY 2.0

Walls (here we mean monolithic structures that are not part of buildings) seem to hold a special fascination for many people. Some walls feed a tribal passion, a strong us-versus-them mentality. The apartheid wall produced by the Israeli government, as well as the wall envisioned by the Trump administration for the southern U.S. border, are of that type. However, there are other kinds of walls, such as those that memorialize the dead. For instance, in Washington, D.C., there is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. This wall (actually two walls that meet at a ninety degree angle) is roughly 494 feet long and is inscribed with the names of 58,318 servicemen and women killed or missing in that war.

Just by way of comparison, one might ask how long would be a similar memorial to the approximately three million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians killed in the same war. It would have to be about 51 times larger, extending over 25,000 feet. That is about 4.7 miles long.

Of course, nations do not commemorate the dead of their adversaries, for to do so would call into question the value of their own citizens’ sacrifices. And sacrifice – indeed patriotic sacrifice – is certainly how most Americans would describe the deaths of those whose names appear on this wall. As one veteran who visits the site often put it, “We lost all those wonderful kids. It’s very moving to see all names at once, all the sacrifice, the enormity of it.”

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall is immensely popular – for the relatives and friends of the dead it memorializes are still well represented among the living. More than three million visitors a year (about the same number as Vietnamese dead!) visit the wall in Washington. To this we can add the fact that, for the last thirteen years, there has been a portable replica of the wall traveling about the country.

The fact that this replica will soon show up in a town not far from where I live has led me to consider the various ways the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, be it stationary or mobile, can be contextualized.

Patriotic Sacrifice?

The problem with the assertion that all of those 58,318 dead servicemen and women performed some sort of patriotic sacrifice is that it is it is, at least in good part, ahistorical. In other words, the claim doesn’t fit the facts very well, though it does fit the prevailing official storyline.

(1) The official story is that the Vietnam War was all about containing the spread of communism in southeast Asia. Communist North Vietnam supposedly wanted to conquer “democratic” South Vietnam in order to spread its Communist ideology, and if successful, this conquest would trigger a “domino” effectthat would result in most of Southeast Asia becoming Communist. To save millions of people from this fate, the United States sent all “those wonderful kids” to war.

(2) A contrasting account, one that has much more of a factual foundation, is that North Vietnam and South Vietnam were really one country and the latter existed only as an artificial creation of French imperialism (France controlled Vietnam from the 1880s through to 1954). The main motivation of the North Vietnamese in fighting the United States was to achieve national unification. That made their leader, Ho Chi Minh, first and foremost a Vietnamese patriot. His Communist ideology was a secondary factor in the eyes of most of his fellow Vietnamese (the small Catholic minority in the south being an exception). By the way, Ho had only become a Communist after World War I because the Soviet Union was the only powerful nation willing to help him in his struggle against French colonial occupation.

Finally, the OSS/CIA came up with a national intelligence estimate as early as 1945 that predicted the difficulties of fighting in Vietnam, and also remarked on the popularity of Ho Chi Minh as a founding father figure in all parts of the country. This estimate was rejected by the political leadership in Washington. Why so? After World War II the worldview in Washington was dominated by a strident anti-Communist outlook that blinded American leaders to all “Third World” nationalist impulses. Whether it was in Ho’s Vietnam, Nasser’s Egypt, or Castro’s Cuba, among many others, the alleged drive of Communism for world domination was assumed to be lurking somewhere behind the scenes.

There are other motivations that came into play in Washington by the mid-1960s. The Democratic Party was in control of the White House, and there was fear that if Democrats did not take a stand in South Vietnam, the Republicans would relentlessly accuse them of weakness, and “losing Vietnam,” as earlier Democrats had allegedly “lost China” to communism.

All of this led ultimately to the purposeful exaggeration of the August 1964 naval incident in the Gulf of Tonkin. During this episode a U.S. destroyer fired warning shots at nearby North Vietnamese gunboats. This incident was misleadingly described by President Lyndon Johnson to Congress as an attack by the gunboats on a U.S. ship, and it led to Congress passing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution allowing the president to deploy conventional forces in “defense” of South Vietnam.

We can now ask ourselves which of these two storylines supports the claim of patriotic sacrifice? Obviously it is the first one. If the Vietnam War was all about halting the spread of a totalitarian ideology and preventing the destruction of a democratic system of government held dear by the U.S., then friends and relatives of those inscribed on the Memorial wall, as well as those who survived the war, can feel a certain pride and carry on the belief that all the sacrifices were not in vain.

Victimization?

However, as suggested above, that emotionally satisfying explanation is not the historically most accurate one. The evidence more strongly suggests that those U.S. servicemen and women were sent to their deaths because ideologically and politically driven American leaders refused to see what was happening in Vietnam as a national effort at reunification – an effort which, if accurately portrayed to the American people, may have caused a widespread reluctance to go to war. National leaders were so blinded by their anti-Communism that they (not for the last time) refused to accept accurate intelligence reports that contradicted their own tragic groupthink.

Under these circumstances all those patriotic dead soldiers become victims – victims of a powerful ideological conviction. But it is not the ideology coming out of Hanoi that killed them. It was the ideology coming out of Washington that transformed patriotic sacrifice into victimization. And, as victims, the American dead stand on the same plane with the roughly three million Vietnamese who perished in the same conflict. They were all victims of ideology.

Patriotic Stories

All cultures have their patriotic stories – stories about founders, heroes, how the nation is special, and so forth. The first and foremost criterion for such stories is not that they be historically accurate, but rather that they be celebratory in a patriotic and public fashion.

Belief in such stories is part of the glue that holds societies together, and so they are learned and reinforced in multiple ways from childhood on. Soon the sanctity of the idols and causes presented in the stories become the stuff of faith and, unless a culture is on the verge of collapse, extremely difficult to widely call into question. As part of this context, all soldiers serve in good causes, and those who die do likewise. That is why, here in the United States, people now go around saying “thank you for your service” – it is like a mantra – to soldiers and veterans, even though they have no idea what the service is or was really all about.

And what about the few people who somehow become “social mistakes”? That is, those who no longer believe in the emotionally reassuring stories? Well, some of us write blogs and then go fishing, others try to push their points within the political and media arenas, and many may ultimately give in to alienation and a sort of socio-political melancholy. Whichever way it goes, it is the fate of such people to always be outnumbered, not only by the patriots, but also by the dead.

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Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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