Why Don’t Americans Know What Really Happened in Vietnam?
March 6, 2015 8:58 AM   Subscribe

For a little perspective on the 50th anniversary, consider this: we’re now as distant from the 1960s as the young Bob Dylan was from Teddy Roosevelt. For today’s typical college students, the Age of Aquarius is ancient history. Most of their parents weren’t even alive in 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson launched a massive escalation of the Vietnam War, initiating the daily bombing of the entire country, North and South, and an enormous buildup of more than half a million troops.
posted by josher71 (106 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yep
posted by leotrotsky at 9:04 AM on March 6, 2015 [5 favorites]


They’re even more astonished to discover the kind of “free-fire zone” bloodshed and mayhem the U.S. military unleashed on the South Vietnamese countryside. Nothing shocks them more, though, than the details of the My Lai massacre, in which American ground troops killed, at close range, more than 500 unarmed, unresisting, South Vietnamese civilians—most of them women, children, and old men—over a four-hour stretch on March 16, 1968. In high school, many students tell me, My Lai is not discussed.

In light of the Nisour Square Massacre, the murder of protesters in Fallujah, indiscriminate slaughter by American drones, and countless other recent war crimes, this says as much about US high schools' teaching of contemporary history as it does about Vietnam.
posted by ryanshepard at 9:12 AM on March 6, 2015 [22 favorites]


In light of the Nisour Square Massacre, the murder of protesters in Fallujah, indiscriminate slaughter by American drones, and countless other recent war crimes, this says as much about US high schools' teaching of contemporary history as it does about Vietnam.

You missed the military interventions like El Salvador, Grenada, Nicaragua, Libya, pre Desert Storm Persian Gulf attacks on Iran (including shooting down an airliner), South American War on Drugs special forces deployments and Panama.

The problem with US military history is that there is just too damn much of it!
posted by srboisvert at 9:16 AM on March 6, 2015 [21 favorites]


everytime i read (or think) about how the whole "anti-war protesters were horrible to vets when they returned" thing was made up, it makes me wonder else is being changed that we don't see. i believed that story a good part of my life.

i think of 1984 where winston "fixes" the news. indeed.
posted by sio42 at 9:17 AM on March 6, 2015 [13 favorites]


You missed the military interventions like El Salvador, Grenada, Nicaragua, Libya, pre Desert Storm Persian Gulf attacks on Iran (including shooting down an airliner), South American War on Drugs special forces deployments and Panama.

If had enumerated them all, we'd have been here all day - in any case, the 1980s are as distant to high school kids of today as the 60s, in many respects. I live in a neighborhood shaped by the Salvadoran diaspora, so believe me, I'm well aware of what happened there.
posted by ryanshepard at 9:19 AM on March 6, 2015


Draft notices are a hell of a tool for turning the tide of public opinion against needless warfare.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 9:22 AM on March 6, 2015 [9 favorites]


All Americans 'know what happened in Vietnam'. It was the same thing that happens in all US wars.

America lost its innocence.

posted by colie at 9:23 AM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


My first scan of this FPP was "Ridiculous! Of course their parents were born during the LBJ era!" and then I realized I was still thinking of college students when I was a college student. Oops.
posted by Kitteh at 9:31 AM on March 6, 2015 [10 favorites]


In light of the Nisour Square Massacre, the murder of protesters in Fallujah, indiscriminate slaughter by American drones, and countless other recent war crimes, this says as much about US high schools' teaching of contemporary history as it does about Vietnam.

Hell, it says something about US High Schools' teaching of history, PERIOD. Most of the time, your average high school US history course spends a few weeks on pre-Columbian history and colonization of the first 13 colonies, a few weeks on the Revolutionary War, a few weeks on the Louisiana Purchase and Westward Expansion, a few weeks on the Civil War, a little on Reconstruction, maybe the Gilded Age if you're lucky, then the Depression, then a bunch of weeks on World War II, and then after that you've only got two or three weeks left and it's a great smear of Civil-Rights-Space-Race-Vietnam-Reagan from a teacher trying to cram everything leftover in.

although, if you've ever read "Lies My Teacher Told Me", there's one big theory about this - a lot of the history textbooks deliberately edit the bad and unsavory stuff out so as to appeal to the most possible high schools across the country.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:35 AM on March 6, 2015 [20 favorites]


As one of the official olds, I wish to thank to for making my just that little bit more sunny with your post.

My granddaughter's 17 yo boyfriend is a bright kid with an interest in history and political science. One of the few kids I know that believes that the effects of that engagement have any more revelance or effect on current events than the Punic Wars.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:35 AM on March 6, 2015 [5 favorites]


that interactive timeline mentiond in the article is indeed atrocious.

i went to look at the My Lai thing for myself the article mentions. the interactive time line also includes as separate entries everyone who got a medal of honor, so you have My Lai tossed in among all these medal of honor recipient names.

it's disturbing how that atrocity it just glossed over as if it were just some minor incident to be accounted for amongst all the medals of honor.

why can't those medals be a separate list rather than part of the timeline? (i know the answer but had to say it anyway.)
posted by sio42 at 9:36 AM on March 6, 2015


I didn't have a single history class before college that made it past WWII.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:36 AM on March 6, 2015 [27 favorites]


Hell, it says something about US High Schools' teaching of history, PERIOD. Most of the time, your average high school US history course spends a few weeks on pre-Columbian history and colonization of the first 13 colonies, a few weeks on the Revolutionary War, a few weeks on the Louisiana Purchase and Westward Expansion, a few weeks on the Civil War, a little on Reconstruction, maybe the Gilded Age if you're lucky, then the Depression, then a bunch of weeks on World War II, and then after that you've only got two or three weeks left and it's a great smear of Civil-Rights-Space-Race-Vietnam-Reagan from a teacher trying to cram everything leftover in.

I'm not sure any of the American History I got in grade school (including the elective that was just on American military history) ever got to World War I, much less II. It's heavily weighted toward founding history and the Civil War.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:38 AM on March 6, 2015 [10 favorites]


about the timeline, FTA

That desperately inadequate description avoids the most obviously embarrassing question: How could such a thing happen? It is conveniently dropped onto a page that includes lengthy official citations of seven American servicemen who received Medals of Honor. The fact that antiwar Senator Robert Kennedy entered the presidential race on the same day as the My Lai massacre isn’t even mentioned, nor his assassination three months later, nor the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., just weeks after My Lai, an event that spurred bitter and bloody racial clashes on US military bases throughout South Vietnam and the world.

It should not go unnoticed that the same government that is spending $65 million commemorating the veterans of a once-reviled war has failed to provide sufficient medical care for them. In 2014, news surfaced that the Veterans Administration had left some 100,000 veterans waiting for medical attention and that some VA hospitals sought to cover up their egregious delays. Every day an estimated 22 veterans commit suicide, and among vets of Iraq and Afghanistan the suicide rate, according to one study, is 50% higher than that of their civilian peers.

posted by sio42 at 9:39 AM on March 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


Wikipedia has a page list of massacres in Vietnam (marked as an incomplete list) and when I came across it I was surprised to notice that a large percentage of the events currently on the list dated in the 1960s were carried out by South Korean forces. I knew that there'd been a hand-off from French colonial military to the U.S. but hadn't realized before that we'd brought in South Koreans to prosecute the war with us.
posted by XMLicious at 9:40 AM on March 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


What if we taught history backwards?
posted by mkb at 9:42 AM on March 6, 2015 [17 favorites]


As much as I usually agree with Charles Pierce, I was a little surprised when he said this about the recent torture report:
Today, with the release of the executive summary of the congressional investigation into the American torture program, we have lost forever the right to moral leadership that we claimed at Nuremberg, and at the tribunals that investigated the actions of the Japanese in the Pacific.
It seems to me that we lost our right to moral leadership in Viet Nam in many ways, not least of which was the lenient treatment given William Calley.

But today, whenever the Viet Nam war comes up, the consensus is that we lost the war because of "the press" and "the politicians", not because it was unwinnable from the start, and our government knew it.
posted by TedW at 9:47 AM on March 6, 2015 [10 favorites]


I didn't have a single history class before college that made it past WWII.

Neither did I (class of 93).

I've always assumed it was because our parent's generation (which included most of our teachers) was alive and, directly or indirectly, affected by the war and the schools didn't want anything to do with such a polarizing subject.
posted by The Hamms Bear at 9:49 AM on March 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


> "All Americans 'know what happened in Vietnam'. It was the same thing that happens in all US wars. America lost its innocence."

You can only breathlessly claim it's your first time for a limited period. Your 359th partner is going to suspect you're not actually a virgin.
posted by kyrademon at 9:54 AM on March 6, 2015 [9 favorites]


TedW: "It seems to me that we lost our right to moral leadership in Viet Nam in many ways, not least of which was the lenient treatment given William Calley."

Also, people forget that those infamous "tiger cages" photographed by Tom Harkin were in South Vietnam, not North.
posted by mhum at 9:56 AM on March 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure my American History class got past the New Deal. In one of my English classes, however, I had a teacher whose interests lay in the 1960s. She worked in readings about My Lai and we read part of the The Things They Carried. My class really enjoyed it. The poetry was much more immediate than what is typical in the high school canon and we felt like we were learning 'secret' history because it was all new to us.
posted by tofu_crouton at 9:56 AM on March 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


We're now as distant from the Punic Wars as young Hannibal was from the building of Stonehenge!
posted by achrise at 9:59 AM on March 6, 2015 [23 favorites]


Through a fluke from moving three times in high school I never took any US History beyond the Civil War. However I ended up with a history nerd son so I learned much in recent years.

In fact, my son and I just watched all 6 hours of Vietnam in HD last weekend. He's a history major, so by watched I mean he narrated all 6 hours about what they weren't telling us. 6 hours on the war and no mention that the Gulf of Tonkin incident was sort of fake, and no mention of My Lai at all. Also no discussion of the history of French colonialism, or that fact that 80% of South Vietnam would have been just fine being unified under one country, and didn't really care if it was North or South. My son also tell me that Ho Chi Min approached the US after WWII about our support for unification, but we didn't want to piss off our French allies. All of which is to say it's a hell of a lot more complicated than commies invaded, so we had to respond.
posted by COD at 10:01 AM on March 6, 2015 [15 favorites]


I was class of 91 and I was taught that the US unequivocally won the war. If not for extensive reading outside of school I wouldn't have known that was not the case.
posted by nevercalm at 10:03 AM on March 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


Last year, US Special Operations forces conducted secret military missions in 133 countries and are on pace to beat that mark in 2015

Wow.

More details.
posted by twirlip at 10:05 AM on March 6, 2015 [6 favorites]


> Your 359th partner is going to suspect you're not actually a virgin.

Innocence (and ignorance, and virginity) are renewed from scratch every generation.
posted by jfuller at 10:08 AM on March 6, 2015 [3 favorites]


Also, people forget that those infamous "tiger cages" photographed by Tom Harkin were in South Vietnam, not North.

The Tiger Cages of Viet Nam
posted by TedW at 10:09 AM on March 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


I was in school during the war, and you can bet your ass we were never taught a single thing about it, even though a lot of us knew guys only a little older than ourselves who were over there.

But, there was definitely a crowd of conservative teachers who daily made off-the-cuff derisive comments about the student protests, and spouted a ton of "America, love it or leave it" spiel at us.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:10 AM on March 6, 2015 [4 favorites]


What if we taught history backwards?

The books would be really hard to read.
posted by leotrotsky at 10:10 AM on March 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


The news was always on during dinner when was I was 3-4 and what I remember specifically is a cameraman getting killed and the camera getting a great pan of the sky as he went down. Made an impression. I think it was NBC. I'm not sure having me watch things like that while waiting for dinner did me much good.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 10:11 AM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Why are we talking about History classes? Americans learn their history from movies and TV. I was too young to be aware of the Viet Nam war while it was happening, but I remember the 1980s when we went back and "the soldiers won the war but were screwed by the politicians, media, and un-Americans in our midst" in Rambo and a dozen similar movies.

Sarah Palin is already talking the same way about Iraq+Afghanistan (check out her CPAC speech). I hope you all enjoy 2020-2025, which is when I figure we'll do a similar scripted rewrite of those wars.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:11 AM on March 6, 2015 [5 favorites]


Obligatory John Prine
posted by TedW at 10:15 AM on March 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


We got up to nearly the present day in my high school AP US History class, but everything was very AP exam-focused. We sort of rushed past a lot in favor of just cramming as much as possible in, with more detail on stuff that our teacher was particularly knowledgeable about. It was a great foundation for more in depth college history courses though. When it comes to Vietnam, my teacher was a Vietnam vet himself, and he was pretty grim about the war. I got the impression he was holding himself back from saying anything too definitive about his war experience for fear of biasing us or something.

In my US history survey course in college, we watched the documentary Hearts and Minds. There was a long scene showing the funerals of Vietnamese civilians and the mourning, followed by General Westmoreland saying the Vietnamese just don't place the same value on life. In an auditorium filled with hundreds of students, you could hear students gasping in outrage, a wave of "what"s and "what the fuck"s rippling through the seats, and just a palpable fury building. Apparently in years past, students had actually stood up in their seats and said "fuck you" out loud after watching that.
posted by yasaman at 10:19 AM on March 6, 2015 [6 favorites]


I was class of 2000 and we never got past WWII in US History classes. We had a blessed, fabulous teacher (who also taught AP Euro) who recognized this and taught a semester of Contemporary US history as an elective. if it wasn't for him, I'd have walked into my college history classes not knowing a blessed thing that happened post-1950, beyond knowing when Kennedy was assassinated and a vague idea that Vietnam happened, and my mom's classmates all got drafted.

Still, that was an elective, so only the most motivated (and, frankly, nerdiest) of us bothered to take it. I can't help but think it sure as hell would have been valuable for everyone.
posted by ThatSomething at 10:20 AM on March 6, 2015


There's not going to be a reasonable American high school curriculum on Vietnam until Baby Boomers are no longer making decisions about curriculum and textbooks. There is no more politicized issue for Boomers, and seriously 50% of the political debates in the US are still "Boomers arguing about Vietnam, through many and various proxy issues." (I was pretty glad Obama was too young to have served in Vietnam and so we didn't have to hear about whether he did or didn't serve or dodge service as it relates to his fitness for the presidency 40 years later. I don't want to belittle McCain's status as a veteran or a POW, but BOY was there an excessive quantity of reporting in that campaign on his Vietnam years, and whether he was a hero for surviving or a whack-job from the torture, as compared to his years in actual government doing actual government things potentially relevant to the presidency.)

It just isn't possible to look back on it with any kind of even-handedness or analytic distance, because it matters too much to too many people still.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:21 AM on March 6, 2015 [11 favorites]


...General Westmoreland saying the Vietnamese just don't place the same value on life.

In yet another parallel with the current conflicts the US is involved in, I hear the same sentiments expressed about people in the middle east. This was really driven home recently when a co-worker was gushing over how wonderful "American Sniper" was and how it showed what savages people in that part of the world were. "They just don't care about human life the way we do." I commented that Chris Kyle had some questionable behavior such as claiming to have shot 30 people during hurricane Katrina, to which I got the reply "Well, they probably deserved it." Tell me again who doesn't value human life?
posted by TedW at 10:27 AM on March 6, 2015 [16 favorites]


I recently had a young mentee of mine at Large Unidentified Internet Behemoth ask me, "What was communism? Was it bad? Why were we so afraid of it?"

Following that up with a lesson on women fighting to be in the office elicited: "Holy Shit, women weren't allowed to wear pants? Men were encouraged to discipline them physically at home? Why aren't we taught any of this?"

Good question, kiddo.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 10:34 AM on March 6, 2015 [14 favorites]


Nevercalm,

I was class of 91 and I was taught that the US unequivocally won the war. If not for extensive reading outside of school I wouldn't have known that was not the case.

Really? Wow! i am also class of '91, and in American History, even AP, we never made it to the Vietnam War. It was definitely part of the political discussion much more than now, though. President Reagan's invasion of Grenada was for the purpose of building the confidence of a (perhaps imagined) demoralized military. And then after the first Gulf War and the Democratic adoption of a centrist foreign policy under Clinton, in my memory Vietnam basically disappeared from the political discourse.

And in the political zeitgeist of the '80's I never heard anyone claim that we won the war! I heard the Right generally claim that the war was winnable if we had only "demonstrated more backbone and done what was necessary to win," but not even they claimed that we won anything, to my memory.

It's been interesting to me to see how that happens, and how events that seem current at a time develop perspective adn melding into history.
posted by JKevinKing at 10:36 AM on March 6, 2015


Why aren't we taught any of this?

Here's part of the answer
posted by TedW at 10:44 AM on March 6, 2015 [3 favorites]


Eyebrows McGee,

I see what you are saying, but in my opinion I do think that Vietnam ceased to be more than part of a personal story for politicians after the first Gulf War. Before then and after Vietnam, every time politicians suggested military intervention, including the Gulf War, opponents would cite with some force the Vietnam experience ass a counter argument. After the American overwhelming victory, that argument never had much influence again. That privilege is now given to the Irag War. It's very sad that every generation seems to have its idiotic war.
posted by JKevinKing at 10:46 AM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


I recently had a young mentee of mine at Large Unidentified Internet Behemoth ask me, "What was communism? Was it bad? Why were we so afraid of it?"

I once got into a bit of an online debate with a young guy who was trying to argue that the United States should be re-upping our weapons arsenal, and he actually used Mutually Assured Destruction to justify it. "It worked really well in the Cold War as a deterrent, didn't it?" he argued. I spoke at some length about the psychological effect MAD had on the actual people living then, and said something about how he probably didn't understand what it was like to be living here during the Cold War because he was too young. "I do too remember the Cold War!" he retorted. "My first memory is seeing the Berlin Wall coming down on TV when I was six!"

yes, i felt old

But my favorite such story came from an English professor I know, who was in the middle of giving his class a lecture on Common Sense by Thomas Paine. About midway through the lecture, one student raised her hand and asked, "I'm confused - was there a war going on when he wrote this?...."

And after some questioning, he worked out that this student:

* Did not know the Revolutionary War happened
* Did not know who George Washington was
* Did not know that the United States began as a series of thirteen colonies on the East Coast
* Did not know that those colonies originally belonged to England

So after giving her a five-minute briefing on American History, he returned to his English class.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:47 AM on March 6, 2015 [8 favorites]


Some time after I was in high school (class of 1993) and before when he retired a few years ago, my father, a high school history teacher, started teaching his US History class at the Civil War. All reports were that it made all the difference in increasing actual interest to not go over the stuff they'd already heard before.

Vietnam was particularly interesting because my father, though not someone you would classify as "liberal" certainly had Opinions on the matter that were different than the "America rah rah" that kids were used to.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:53 AM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


I spoke at some length about the psychological effect MAD had on the actual people living then, and said something about how he probably didn't understand what it was like to be living here during the Cold War because he was too young. "I do too remember the Cold War!" he retorted. "My first memory is seeing the Berlin Wall coming down on TV when I was six!"

I too remember the Cold War. As part of our nuclear deterrent it was my job (along with others of course) to load nuclear weapons onto B-1B bombers. We would get teased at times about how much time we spent playing cards and I always replied "You don't want us busy because if we're doing our job for real we're all going to die and life on Earth as we know is going to end in about 30 minutes." Darkly humorous at the time, a touch chilling in retrospect. I also know a lot about Vietnam based on my own interest in military history and first hand accounts of the war from friends and relatives (both of my mother's brothers and one cousin were in 'Nam).
posted by MikeMc at 10:58 AM on March 6, 2015 [9 favorites]


I'm technically a Vietnam Era vet but I'm always careful to note that I did not serve in Vietnam or in combat. In fact, the war was virtually over by the time I enlisted in 1974. I did/do know lots of guys who did serve over there and can think of a couple (one of whom was fairly close) who did not come back. I also participated in some anti-war activities to the extent that a young teenager could in those days. (Whitman, multitudes, etc...)

I agree with Eyebrows McGee, a lot of folks from that time still have a keen interest and p.o.v. in Vietnam (as well as other important dynamics from the time such as the Civil Rights Movement.) Naturally, these still color my thoughts on events even today.

So, instead of rambling on about my opinion about Vietnam in particular, I'll limit myself to a conclusion I arrived at many years ago: The United States still hasn't come to a consensus about whether or not it wants to be anti-colonialist or the greatest colonizer of all. It's partly a player in the Great Game, partly idealist, partly insolationist and parochialist, and partly Cold Warriorist. Not likely that any consensus will be coming soon either.

For those who want to read (what I think) is a good backgrounder on some of the origins of our post-WWII behavior, I recommend: "Roosevelt, Churchill, and Indochina: 1942-45" which can be read through JSTOR. It's free but one does have to register.
posted by CincyBlues at 11:10 AM on March 6, 2015 [10 favorites]


One of the great American military reforms to come out of Vietnam was the idea that wars need a clear purpose and an objective both definitive and winnable. The early 80s Weinberger Doctrine was an element of this thinking. American military colleges post-Vietnam started going back to basics in terms of learning and thinking about strategy, reading the classics like Thucydides and Clausewitz. Clausewitz in particular teaches that war is a subset of politics, and as such is inseparable from it.

The amusing tragedy to come out of all this is that of course the leaders like Johnson and Nixon understood much of this from the start (which is why ground troops were never sent to North Vietnam, and nukes were never used: there were larger political realities that did not permit it), and American military leaders came to know this (even if they later forgot/had their hand forced by political events). But the public never really understood, and still doesn't to this day. That's why elements of the right can still unironically argue that we won the war, except for the part where we lost it, as if there was some magical dimension of pure war, unsullied by unpleasant political considerations like "world opinion", "popular opinion in a democracy", and "global strategy, in particular with regards to that somewhat important country known as the USSR". The idea that one can simply tally up the battlefield victories and that settles things, and that anything that forces a defeat outside of bullets and bombs doesn't count, is a very simplistic view of how the world works, but remains in the public consciousness as the way war "really is" to this day.
posted by Palindromedary at 11:23 AM on March 6, 2015 [3 favorites]


To the extent that the MSM pays any attention to events from the past at all it's to indulge the "anniversary-itis" that we all have become afflicted with/addicted to in the age of instant information. Such that next month there will be a few inevitable surfacey pieces about the fall of Saigon -- accompanied by footage of helicopters airlifting CIA personnel from the roof of the American embassy -- with absolutely zero in the way of historical context. EmpressCallipygos noted that a student in a friend's class did not know certain jawdroppingly basic foundational details of American history, but in a time when everything is forcibly decontextualized from everything else, how should she be expected to?
posted by blucevalo at 11:24 AM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


My son also tell me that Ho Chi Minh approached the US after WWII about our support for unification, but we didn't want to piss off our French allies.

My understanding is that Vietnam was divided into North Vietnam and South Vietnam under the Geneva Accords in 1954, so it wold be unlikey that Ho Chi Minh would have approached the U.S. prior to that to seek support for reunification of a country that had not yet been divided. Also, I believe the the U.S. withdrew from direct participation in the conference because it was opposed to the partition of Vietnam, but the French remained a party to the negotiation and eventually agreed to a partition, though they expected it to be a temporary one, lasting until an election by an independent Vietnamese state (which the French had agreed to after the battle of Dien Bien Phu) could be held.

Are you sure you understood your son correctly?
posted by layceepee at 11:30 AM on March 6, 2015


The problem with US military history is that there is just too damn much of it!

I may need to steal that for a T-shirt.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:34 AM on March 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


I was in school at the end of the Vietnam war. The teachers didn't need to tell us about it. It was on TV every night, on the front page every day, and every adult I knew, including my parents, discussed it constantly.
posted by freakazoid at 11:38 AM on March 6, 2015


I spoke at some length about the psychological effect MAD had on the actual people living then...

That was my childhood. I remember watching The Day After on TV, even though Mom said we shouldn't. I have no doubt that the atmosphere of those times contributed to my lifelong problems with anxiety.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:39 AM on March 6, 2015 [5 favorites]


I also know a lot about Vietnam based on my own interest in military history and first hand accounts of the war from friends and relatives (both of my mother's brothers and one cousin were in 'Nam).

In a weird way, I owe my existence (or at least my age) to the Vietnam War - I was a draft-dodge baby. Dad was working with a military contractor from '67 on, and was able to defer for a couple years that way - but then they dropped that exemption and Dad was put in the draft pool. He actually had his number called and was awaiting his appointment for a physical before Mom's impending pregnancy with me got him out of it. Dad actually told me about the "I was about to go to war and then you came along" part when I was about eight, but it was presented as being a staggering coincidence until I was grown up and my parents confessed to "actually, we sort of did that on purpose..."

It's not the mind-fuck you'd think it would be, to be honest.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:41 AM on March 6, 2015 [5 favorites]


Why Don’t Americans Know What Really Happened in Vietnam?

for many of the reasons already stated, but I'll go one deeper. Because it is necessary. Because to keep the Vietnam tragedy-debacle-atrocity alive in the public consciousness would be to force a re-imagining of the entirety of that monster we think of as the military-industrial complex.

I've got a chunk of video somewhere that I shot during the first Gulf War (1991). One of these days I'll get around to digitizing it. It's an interview with a Vietnam vet, and a very smart, angry guy. Paraphrasing now:

"So 1991's what, more than fifteen years since America finally bailed from Vietnam for good. And we haven't had a full-on war since. What we do have is a MASSIVE slag heap of rusting weaponry and related infrastructure and ABSOLUTELY no justification for replenishing it. Unless we take some desperate Iraqi windbag and turn him into the biggest threat since Adolph Hitler. Which is exactly what's happened. From nothing to the biggest desert war since Montgomery-v-Rommell in World War 2 in a matter of months. Problem solved. America needs BIG war. Without BIG war, America would probably have to change its name."

So in summary: Americans don't know what really happened in Vietnam because it would be bad for business.
posted by philip-random at 11:47 AM on March 6, 2015 [6 favorites]


I remember watching The Day After on TV, even though Mom said we shouldn't. I have no doubt that the atmosphere of those times contributed to my lifelong problems with anxiety.

I watched The Day After, but then also made an anti-nukes film with my friends my last year of high school. We all watched that and also watched Threads and When The Bough Breaks and all those super-happy-cheerful anti-nuke films that were legion during the Cold War. And about that time, I started having recurring nightmares about The Bomb finally dropping - every couple months, some super massive vivid thing that would wake me up in a total panic, heart pounding, too afraid to go back to sleep. Those dreams didn't stop until the late 90's.

I had to actually walk out of the theater the first time I saw Terminator 2, during that scene where Sarah Connor dreams about Skynet bombing L.A. - because it was my nightmare suddenly outside of my head and projected on a 50-foot screen in THX sound, and I was completely freaked right the fuck out. It was the only panic attack I've ever had. Even for a couple years after, if I was at a friends' house and we were watching it that was usually the point when I'd go get a soda in the kitchen or something.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:47 AM on March 6, 2015 [8 favorites]


So in summary: Americans don't know what really happened in Vietnam because it would be bad for business.

Also related, from the FPP article:

As two-tour Afghan War veteran Rory Fanning has pointed out, “We use the term hero in part because it makes us feel good and in part because it shuts soldiers up… Thank yous to heroes discourage dissent, which is one reason military bureaucrats feed off the term.”

Also, don't disagree:

...of course the leaders like Johnson and Nixon understood much of this from the start

Although I'd submit that the then-very-recent examples of failed French counterinsurgency efforts -- in both Algeria and Vietnam -- lay at the feet of US leadership as they waded deeper into involvement in Vietnam, making it even more tragicomic.

Then, in the runup to the invasion of Afghanistan, there were the twin wreckages of British and Soviet attempts to do the same, both free for the examination. But if you're selling a war to people who aren't being taught those historical examples, it's a pretty easy sell. As a non-USian, I can say that the same problem existed in my country as it became entangled there.

"Well, this might not be a good idea. During the Soviet military buildup in Afgh-"
"What? Are you on the terrorists' side? Hurf durf."

Obligatory John Prine

Some more here.

Also, some obligatory Phil Ochs.

The United States still hasn't come to a consensus about whether or not it wants to be anti-colonialist or the greatest colonizer of all.

More Phil Ochs on that question.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 11:52 AM on March 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


so it wold be unlikey that Ho Chi Minh would have approached the U.S. prior to that to seek support for reunification of a country

I don't know about the period post-WWII, but Ho Chi Minh tried to engage the international community after WWI to redress French colonial abuses.
posted by audi alteram partem at 11:57 AM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


My son also tell me that Ho Chi Minh approached the US after WWII about our support for unification, but we didn't want to piss off our French allies.

Wikipedia seems to support that reading:
In September 1945, Chinese forces entered Tonkin and a small British task force landed at Saigon. The Chinese accepted the Vietnamese government under Ho Chi Minh, created by resistance forces of the Viet Minh, then in power in Hanoi. The British refused to do likewise in Saigon, and deferred to the French there from the outset, against the ostensible support of the Viet Minh by American OSS representatives. On V-J Day, September 2, Ho Chi Minh had proclaimed in Hanoi the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). The DRV ruled as the only civil government in all of Vietnam for a period of about 20 days. On 23 September 1945, with the knowledge of the British Commander in Saigon, French forces overthrew the local DRV government, and declared French authority restored in Cochinchina. Guerrilla warfare began around Saigon immediately

In 1946, Ho Chi Minh sent a telegram to President Truman requesting support.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 12:03 PM on March 6, 2015 [3 favorites]


These anniversaries generally cause me to angrily remember the 13 kids I grew up with who didn't make it.

One of them sat next to me in chorus for several months practicing a motet by Heinrich Schutz:
Die mit Tranen saen, werden mit Freuden ernten
They who sow with tears shall reap with joy.

Sie gehen hin und weinen und tragen edlen Samen,
They go forth and weep and bear noble seed,

Und kommen mit Freuden und bringen ihre Garben.
And return with joy, and bring their sheaves.
No such luck for Bruce. No joy in those wasted lives. No children to remember, just a plaque in a shaded entrance.

Thanks America, for them, for how you treat your hundreds of thousands of homeless veterans, for the millions of lives extinguished "protecting American interests". No joy each year, each year that we reap unending anger.
posted by Twang at 12:06 PM on March 6, 2015 [7 favorites]


I was in school at the end of the Vietnam war. The teachers didn't need to tell us about it. It was on TV every night, on the front page every day,

Me too, and I never heard a word about hippies spitting on returning war vets. Fellow freaks I knew wouldn't have dreamed of crossing a real soldier, for fear of a major ass-kicking.

everytime i read (or think) about how the whole "anti-war protesters were horrible to vets when they returned"

Where did that come from, anyway? The Right-wing noise machine? We were in awe of anyone who returned from Vietnam, and all the vets I knew back then were 'cool.'
posted by Rash at 12:06 PM on March 6, 2015


For what it's worth, my history classes in high school (class of '08 here) got considerably later than WWII. I want to say my World History course ended sometime in the 1990s with the 'Asian Tigers' and the Gulf War, and I believe my US history course ended in the 1980s or so--it's hard to remember, because most of my memories of the course are from the fall that year. But then I had really good history education and took AP courses; I have a lot of friends who were not remotely that lucky. (My sister, a few years after me, was getting Lies My Teacher Told Me assigned as summer reading before her own AP US history course.)

All of which is good, because yeah, my parents were born in 1966. My grandfather was a career military officer who spent the Vietnam war flying bomber planes and once expressed to me that he had quite enjoyed his Vietnam experience and had found it "really relaxing." (My mother, later on, uncharitably suggested that this was probably because my father, who is fifth of six children, had just been born and my grandfather was enjoying the parenting break.) This is, shall we say, not particularly useful for getting a sense for the broader cultural and historical impact of the Vietnam War on the USA.
posted by sciatrix at 12:10 PM on March 6, 2015


For today’s typical college students, the Age of Aquarius is ancient history. Most of their parents weren’t even alive in 1965

Wait what? My father was literally in the Navy in Viet Nam, and my ex-girlfriend's father was almost drafted, and plenty of my friends' parents were alive during the war. They're all in college. Is this an outlier?
posted by gucci mane at 12:14 PM on March 6, 2015


Where did that come from, anyway? The Right-wing noise machine?

Actually, yeah, or at least the version that we had of it in the second half of the 1970s.
posted by gimonca at 12:14 PM on March 6, 2015


(Compare also, Dolchstosslegende. Mythology around returning U.S. vets shows similarities.)
posted by gimonca at 12:16 PM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Wait what? My father was literally in the Navy in Viet Nam, and my ex-girlfriend's father was almost drafted, and plenty of my friends' parents were alive during the war. They're all in college. Is this an outlier?

Depends how old your parents were when you were born. There are a lot of people about my age (graduated college a couple of years ago) who were born when their parents were in their 30s or a bit later, and who are therefore the children of Boomers. On the other hand, my parents were 24 when I was born, and they really weren't alive in 1965. They were pretty consistently some of the younger parents in my classes growing up, but not so young as to draw a ton of commentary.
posted by sciatrix at 12:16 PM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


I imagine we'll be seeing Why Don’t Americans Know What Really Happened in Iraq and Afghanistan? on Metafilter someday in the not too distant future.
posted by The Hamms Bear at 12:21 PM on March 6, 2015 [3 favorites]


"This is probably the right button to push . . . "

Vietnam: A Television History
Produced by WGBH and originally broadcast in 1983 on PBS as a 13-part series:

Part 1: Roots of a War (1945–1953)
Part 2: The First Vietnam War*
Part 3: America's Mandarin (1954–1963)
Part 4: LBJ Goes to War (1964–1965)
Part 5: America Takes Charge (1965–1967)
Part 6: America's Enemy (1954–1967)
Part 7: Tet (1968)
Part 8: Vietnamizing the War (1968–1973)
Part 9: Cambodia and Laos
Part 10: Peace is at Hand (1968–1973)
Part 11: Homefront USA
Part 12: The End of the Tunnel (1973–1975)
Part 13: Legacies**

* No longer available. Covered how the French lost to Ho Chi Minh's Vietminh (1946–54).
** No longer available. Covered the aftermath and lasting legacy of the war through 1983.

Edited 1997 version
The full series as broadcast in 1983 is apparently unavailable. PBS rebroadcast the series on American Experience -- which didn't exist in 1983 -- in 1997. However, they omitted two hours of content, including the entirety of Parts 2 and 13. Despite cries of politicaly censorship and other criticisms, this shorter version is what was made available for sale on DVD.

Still, this is a good place to start an education about the war. The facts and events I lived and knew about were put into context and the facts and events I didn't know -- or got wrong or was deliberately misinformed about -- were illuminated.

It probably could not have been made any earlier nor much later that it was.
 
posted by Herodios at 12:26 PM on March 6, 2015 [12 favorites]


Appy's essay generates quite a bit of heat, but sheds little light. In general I agree with his laments about the selective or non-existent awareness of history of Americans. In general, most folks under 30 years old are functionally blank in this respect. We older older old farts have our well-edited versions to get us through the night. Now and then I read some of my journals, a thing that keeps me humble. Not only was I a bad journaler, but I was fairly naïve, and my ignorance was so dense and encompassing that I didn't realize how little I knew about anything.

By coincidence, I recently had a conversation with a fellow Vietnam veteran, where I remarked that we VN vets are where veterans of the Spanish American War were when we went to "our war." It's telling, that I knew as much about what we did in the Philippines in 1898 -1911 as kids nowadays know about what we did from 1963 - 1971. Or why. I wasn't taught history in school in any meaningful way.

I am among the veterans who'd rather you not carry on thanking me for my service. This works like the happy face sticker: have a nice day. I'd just as soon as not have you believe you have something to thank me about unless you actually do. I don't believe Maya Lin created The Vietnam Memorial--The Wall--as a paean to the military industrial complex. It's a shame that it's been used so badly by so many. For me, and for most of the veterans I know, The Wall is about the dead guys. When I go there, I touch their names, and I don't give out a hurrah for LBJ while I'm at it. Well, I don't really "go there" in that sense. I've been there twice and I don't believe I have the sand to make another trip.

I have complicated memories about my time in the service. My Lai wasn't part of my experience, and I don't regret any of the details of my actions. I cannot say the same about the forces that led to my combat experiences. To call them shameful would too faint for the outrages those international political interactions produced. I was still 17 when I joined the army, in 1963, and I serve until 1971. I was a product of my schooling: grammar, junior, and high school.

Later on I began to gain a wider perspective. I will never again let any government decide for me who my enemies are. But I'm like most of us here, basically just another Bozo on the bus. I do have my opinions, but I'm happy to just vote for one ballot proposition at a time.

I spent time after the war at Anti-War rallies. I don't believe it to be common knowledge that the anti-war movement was only one faction of the larger Peace Coalition, which was itself an umbrella for various civil rights topics. If you are unaware of this more general turmoil, you may find it an interesting google romp. I cut cheese and wrapped fruit at the food co-op, for example, and realized that women were not urging their sisters to burn their bras so that they could get their half of the loaf of bread--they wanted to own their own goddam bakery without having to ask permission from a man. For a while, I really did think we were going to have a revolution. I was aware of Black Panthers, SLA, Weathermen, and other efforts that had no formal name. Some of them were truly subversive, but most of them were simply reformative. They just wanted some sanity in which to eat peaches and raise kids.

But, as I had been ignorant of American history, I was ignorant of the arc that revolutions inevitably take, so maybe it's just as well that the revolution never really got off the ground.

Appy's course at university may actually give some flavor to the times that rises above the simple shaming rhetoric. His essay doesn't.

By the way: Hooray John Prine, and Phil Ochs, my heros.
posted by mule98J at 12:28 PM on March 6, 2015 [25 favorites]


Sheer luck would have it, we could not graduate from my high school without a mandatory 1/2 credit course in South East Asian history, Ancient in Sem 1 and Modern in Sem 2. Continuing that random luck was the fact that only Modern SouthEast Asian History fit my schedule my senior (and only) year there.

Thank you for a very balanced lesson, Mr Furth. It was the Spring of 1983, so it was still fresh and yet you were able to set an exam question which asked for 5 pros and 5 cons of communism.
posted by infini at 12:29 PM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


JKevinKing: “I see what you are saying, but in my opinion I do think that Vietnam ceased to be more than part of a personal story for politicians after the first Gulf War. Before then and after Vietnam, every time politicians suggested military intervention, including the Gulf War, opponents would cite with some force the Vietnam experience ass a counter argument. After the American overwhelming victory, that argument never had much influence again.”
The Hamms Bear: “I imagine we'll be seeing Why Don’t Americans Know What Really Happened in Iraq and Afghanistan? on Metafilter someday in the not too distant future.”
I've only just started it, but I can already wholeheartedly recommend Why We Lost by Daniel Bolger. In the introduction, he puts Gulf War I in it's proper context vis-a-vis Vietnam and as prelude to Gulf War II.
posted by ob1quixote at 12:40 PM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


My parents are both on the older end ('47 and '52) but having parents born in the 50's seems like the norm for my group of friends.

I feel like there's a lack of knowledge of the war because it lasted a long time, and the timeline before our involvement isn't usually taught. For the most part when people think of Viet Nam (and this is anecdotal) they are thinking of the time period around the Tet Offensive, which was throughout 1968. Platoon, which was suppose to take place in 1967, and Full Metal Jacket, which I think was suppose to be '67-'68, are two movies I think people identify as quintessentially their visions of what the war was. Hamburger Hill was 1969. The Deer Hunter was '67. Apocalypse Now was '69. Correct me if I'm wrong but maybe it's due to pop culture movies about Viet Nam only having plots in such a narrow time period of a 15-year war that people don't know too much about it, and maybe schools only really focus on the events from those years. I know quite a bit about the war from research I did myself that is a result of my father being a veteran, but the Tet Offensive caused a major media issue when it happened despite the fact that we "won", and while college-aged kids may not be able to specifically name that event, they can easily identify movies that portray that time period ('67-'69). And even if you find someone who can name the Tet Offensive, can they also name other major events, such as Operation Rolling Thunder, which lasted ~2.5-3 years?
posted by gucci mane at 12:41 PM on March 6, 2015


For today’s typical college students, the Age of Aquarius is ancient history.

For the typical college student during Vietnam War, the Age of Aquarius was either a) "age of what?" or b) a pop song sung by a Vegas-pop-soul group whose other big hit was "Up Up Up and Away in my Beautiful Balloon".

People writing about the 1960s who lead with "hippie beads" and "age of aquariums" make me suspicious.
 
posted by Herodios at 12:42 PM on March 6, 2015


this all makes me feel very old. I was at one of the earliest teach in at Rutgers and knew by then what bull shit Nam was about, having served in first few months of Korean War in 1950

Now here this: we did not lose our innocence invite nam...We never had it...we brought the whit mans superiority and Christian believes here, destroyed indigenous peoples in central south and nort America, stole their land and then rewrote history to babble about freedo, democracy etc...and slaver?

And now we have military scattered work wide to protect? Our interests and commercial enterprises.

Our founding fathers were slave owners. And fro Jefferson on up, under the guise of manifest destiny we grabbed lands fro Mexico, Hawaii,Cuba,and then spread work wide.
posted by Postroad at 12:42 PM on March 6, 2015 [9 favorites]


Sorry for typos..using iPad in bed with broken ankle from bad accident...
posted by Postroad at 12:45 PM on March 6, 2015


Posty, I'm old. By Metafilter standards, you're Methuselah.

We love you anyway, and hope your ankle gets better soon.

How do you type with your ankle anyway?
posted by Herodios at 12:49 PM on March 6, 2015 [6 favorites]


Why Don’t Americans Know What Really Happened in Vietnam?

americans my age know - they watched it on tv every evening - they know what happened at my lai, too - the pictures were in life magazine, in full bloody color - i did a school report on it when i was 12 or 13, right when the magazine came out

the establishment - heh, what a quaint word that is now - has made very certain that we will never know things like that unless we're the kind of quasi-traitorous pigs who want to know and dig deeper

mule98J is right - the anti-war movement was just a small part of what we called the counter-culture; something that was dedicated to changing this country's politics, society, economics and culture - it succeeded more than people think it did - it did change the culture, it did change some of our society, however it pretty much failed at the politics and economics - it is not by any means a thing of the past - (in fact, you, metafilterite, are part of it)

i never heard of soldiers being spat upon - i did hear of non-conformists and resisters being oppressed by the society at large - in fact, i experienced it

were women forbidden to wear pants? yes

were men encouraged to physically discipline women at home? - only in some social circles and not real openly - it was a real source of middle class pride at the time that "we" didn't do that - not that it was true, of course, but there was a real social stigma towards men who did and were found out - (although they rarely were prosecuted - as there was a real social stigma towards talking about it, too)

and above us all, the bomb - i'm still amazed that i lived to see 2015, because i sure as hell didn't think i would back then
posted by pyramid termite at 12:58 PM on March 6, 2015 [9 favorites]


Since the attacks of 9/11, ritualized support for troops and veterans, more symbolic than substantive, has grown ever more common, replete with yellow ribbons, airport greetings, welcome home ceremonies, memorial highways, honor flights, benefit concerts, and ballgame flyovers. Through it all, politicians, celebrities, and athletes constantly remind us that we’ve never done enough to demonstrate our support.

I've always been unhappy about the uncritical rah-rah of the American military, but this is the first time it's read to me like something out of Orwell. Not sure if it's me or this piece, but my eyes have been opened.
posted by stoneandstar at 12:59 PM on March 6, 2015


So in summary: Americans don't know what really happened in Vietnam because it would be bad for business.

Actually many of us do know what happened. It was an inescapable topic at dinner after '75. The airlift brought thousands of Vietnamese to the DC area and other places and I don't think there was one person in my school who was unmoved when they started reading their non-fiction essays aloud. They had material and experience to condense.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 1:10 PM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


I didn't have a single history class before college that made it past WWII.

we had an outstanding high school history teacher, and one thing he did was accelerate other material to ensure that he had time for a good unit on Vietnam. This was in 1982 or so - not that far from the war - but it already seemed to be slipping from memory
posted by thelonius at 1:13 PM on March 6, 2015


Depends on the teacher, of course -- my middle-school American History teacher taught us a lot about Vietnam, and why we were there, and that was in 1968.
posted by Rash at 1:34 PM on March 6, 2015


A shout out to all our outstanding history teachers, in our histories.
posted by infini at 1:36 PM on March 6, 2015 [10 favorites]


A shout out to all our outstanding history teachers, in our histories.

And for those of us who didn't have outstanding history teachers, here's a toast to the bad ones having retired by now.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:39 PM on March 6, 2015 [4 favorites]


it's disturbing how [My Lai is] just glossed over as if it were just some minor incident

My Lai, as awful as it was, was a relatively unremarkable moment in the Vietnam War (which is, of course, a bit of misnomer since the war also spilled over into Cambodia and Laos) that saw plenty of atrocities. The death toll from that incident was in the hundreds. The death toll from the entire war was in the millions. Unfortunately, My Lai wasn't an aberration.

The only difference is that by some accident of history it happened to break through the typical jingoism and censorship of the US media into US public consciousness.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 2:06 PM on March 6, 2015 [3 favorites]


It's important for people outside the US to realize that we don't really have schools here (at the high school and college level); in effect what we have are sports academies that offer classes on the side. This is why we are such an ignorant country.
posted by MattMangels at 2:07 PM on March 6, 2015 [6 favorites]


...(edited for brevity)...
I never heard a word about hippies spitting on returning war vets. Fellow freaks I knew wouldn't have dreamed of crossing a real soldier, for fear of a major ass-kicking. everytime i read (or think) about how the whole "anti-war protesters were horrible to vets when they returned" We were in awe of anyone who returned from Vietnam, and all the vets I knew back then were 'cool.'


Absolutely this. I was a hippie in Chicago, so, no bucolic acid experiences in redwoods, no desert trips with shamans and lizards, etc. Even in the 60's, everything here was politics, grudges, anger, violence, on and on. Believe me, if there was even one incident of "Hey, let's go up to O'Hare and spit on some returning vets!", I would've heard about it. Seems as likely as "Hey, let's punch and kick and stab each other for fun and to make things better!"(Fight Club being in the distant future, of course). Every university job I had after that time, I worked with Nam vets; they wished they had been me, I was glad I wasn't them, and no rancor at all. Anecdotes aren't data, but, still ...
posted by Chitownfats at 2:31 PM on March 6, 2015 [3 favorites]


I had seen on tv soldiers being spat on
Those not wanting to be drafted fled to Canada. Canadians thought they would lose out in job market to those guys but later embraced them as mostly guys standing up for something the believed in
mostly minorities and those without college education went, and so many middle class kids in college escaped the draft but after a time as moe middle class kids...whies..got drafted the voters began to reject the war. odd thing: southern. Shies served with blacks and though basically conservative embraced fellow soldiers. Go to Rollin Thunder in DCMemrial Day and note the many mixed couples on their cycles.

You really will not understand our history if you focus on one war. Bribe bro reading
American Holocaust
An Indigenous Peoples's Historory of T U.S.
the Half Has. never Been Told

Why? Our history goes back to the gene ideal slaughter onindians...Nam Ever hear of In Country? That a shrtedened form of IndianCountry...places where the enemy,ie,Indians are to be slaughtered.
posted by Postroad at 3:21 PM on March 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


Once you neuter the Press, you can war how you like whenever you like. THAT'S the main lesson of Vietnam. The second lesson is that a determined foe will eventually always overwhelm an invader that lacks similar motivation.
posted by Renoroc at 3:28 PM on March 6, 2015


Noisy Pink Bubbles' link to the Wikipedia entry on Operation Ranch Hand was a revelation to me... when I was a kid and heard news stories about vets having health problems due to exposure to Agent Orange, and read about what a defoliant was, I was a bit puzzled by why that would be used during a war. I didn't get any farther than the explanation that clearing out foliage removed cover and camouflage from enemy combatants.

I think I actually knew the bit about how during the Napoleonic invasion of Russia the Cossack troops burned the fields as the Russian forces retreated, but I didn't put two and two together to realize that in Vietnam we were trying to cause food shortages via defoliants in addition to any purpose involving obtaining easier targets.
posted by XMLicious at 3:35 PM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


The whole vet's getting spit on is almost entirely a myth and has been brought before by Rumple and even earlier by dhartung and then Rumple (again!) and the first place that search found was Horace Rumpole. (Aside: I can't remember which one of those is the one that got stuck in my head, hence the wide cast credit.)
posted by zenon at 3:37 PM on March 6, 2015 [5 favorites]


I have to note that it's a character in First Blood that provides the apocryphal version of this story:
It wasn't my war. You asked me, I didn't ask you. And I did what I had to do to win. But somebody wouldn't let us win. Then I come back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport. Protesting me. Spitting. Calling me baby killer. ... Who are they to protest me? Huh?
To get the full effect try using your best Sly Stallon voice, because you might remember the movie better by the character's name: Rambo.

Which is why I get so mad when movie make such a hash of history. It wasn't the English who burned down a church full of American colonialists as depicted in The Patriot, it was Nazi's burning down a French church. And for the record, most historical accounts have the separatist rebel American forces with the greater list of atrocities. Hell, the term "lynching" is the honorific for Col. Charles Lynch of Virginia penchant for extra-legal executions of Tory (British/royal) sympathizers. And don't even get me started on U-571, the US wasn't even IN the war when HMS Bulldog captured an Emiga machine.
posted by zenon at 3:54 PM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


I was surprised to see a flag covered coffin on the front page of my newspaper today (yes, I'm old). Well, the coffin contained remains from Korea. It's been remarked upon that it has been verboten to show our soldiers coming home dead from Afghanistan or Iraq.

Well, we saw the Viet/America war every night on TV. Soldiers telling us how much it hurt. Half-dead bodies being loaded onto Hueys. Body bags, coffins, explosions filmed from the safety of the B-52s carpet-bombing South Vietnam (they tried to hush up Kissinger's Cambodian cruelty).

The Authorities did not want us to see our boys fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. They haven't shown us the wars we paid for in cash, suffering and lives for decades. That is one reason young people in America don't know much about Vietnam: the gatekeepers have made sure that we don't know anything about the wars America fights. Sure, they make movies about snipers and soldiers and suicide bombers, but it's just a movie.

Except it's not, and it wasn't.
posted by kozad at 4:12 PM on March 6, 2015 [5 favorites]


They’re even more astonished to discover the kind of “free-fire zone” bloodshed and mayhem the U.S. military unleashed on the South Vietnamese countryside. … In high school, many students tell me, My Lai is not discussed.
This was well covered in my classes in the mid-90s but I'm pretty sure that’s definitely on the way out because the main reason we had any mention, much less detailed discussion, was that the particular teacher in question had come of age in that era and wasn't inclined to whitewash it: he even had a framed picture of some of his friends being beaten by riot police at a campus rally. As that generation ages out, I'd be surprised if much of the material survived the increasing pressure to hit what's on the standardized tests.
posted by adamsc at 4:54 PM on March 6, 2015


... just another Bozo on the bus

Love the Firesign Theater reference, mule. Listen to this, young'uns!
posted by CincyBlues at 5:52 PM on March 6, 2015 [3 favorites]


This discussion really drives home to me just how complicated my feelings about my country are. As a federal employee I've raised my right hand and sworn to protect and defend the Constitution. I stand with everyone else and say the pledge at the monthly meetings at the fire house. I even have those moments of awe when I contemplate some hideous piece of technology like a fleet ballistic missle submarine. My father and several uncles are veterans. But I just can't bring myself to cheer on the Middle East wars, or put a ribbon on my car, or use the word "hero" trivally. The whole production scares the hell out of me, and I don't understand why so many people embrace it uncritically. I often have a hard time with the argument that many of my friends have made (some veterans, some not) that the politicians are responsible for the moral and ethical failings of our nation's foreign policy, not the people who volunteered to be the instruments of that policy. It sounds like some of y'all have been struggling with at least a few of the same thoughts since Viet Nam. If anything, the propaganda machine has gotten much, much better. That's kind of terrifying.
posted by wintermind at 8:29 PM on March 6, 2015 [4 favorites]


The Authorities did not want us to see our boys fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan.

War Surgery in Afghanistan and Iraq: A Series of Cases, 2003–2007 is a book that the Army tried to censor to prevent photographs of severely wounded servicemen getting out.
posted by XMLicious at 9:01 PM on March 6, 2015


Why Don’t Americans Know What Really Happened in Vietnam?

Americans have institutionalized forgetting.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:54 PM on March 6, 2015


I don't think it matters much what history they try to teach in school because one big, loud, action-packed movie will stick with a person way, way longer than any amount of school lessons. Most people in this era are familiar with World War II, the Holocaust, the Great Depression and other history only as they've learned it via the movies.

Twenty years ago when my granddaughter was in middle school I examined her social studies books and wasn't terribly surprised to find no mention at all of the Depression. A teacher friend of mine suggested that it wasn't in the school books because it "made the USA look bad" - so they just left it out. I don't know whether that was it or not, but the books just passed it up and went from WWI to WWII.

But here's something that's even more disturbing, to me, anyway: This is from last October or November but it recently showed up in my Facebook mess and it was the first time I'd seen it. Texas Tech students who couldn't answer the simplest questions about American history, like who won the Civil War or what country we fought for our independence. Here's the video -

I lived the Cold War (I'm old). In about 1961 or so they installed Civil Defense sirens all over town, fitted out any large building with a basement - including all schools - with food and blankets and survival equipment, sent around flyers giving instructions for improving your family's odds of survival when the big one hit. People who had lots of money dug bomb shelters in the backyard, everyone loaded their cars with fresh water and supplies (which was ridiculous, of course, since the roads would be so jammed no one could ever get out of town). By the time I graduated in 1963 and my male classmates were signed up for and then drafted - to graduate high school and be forced not only into the military, but to serve in the horrid jungles of Vietnam.

There will be hindsight, argument and bickering forever over all that happened in that time, but the one thing I will stand on is that in my world there was plenty of anti-war protesting but not one foul word against an actual person who was fighting that war. No one mattered to us as much as our soldiers, sailors and fly-boys - they were all minor gods. We wore MIA bracelets and the man whose name was on my bracelet might as well have been my brother.

Just as it is now, we knew no more than what we were told by the mainstream media - we didn't even have the internet or any other source for comparison except for a different broadcast station - there wasn't even cable TV!

I did lose classmates in that war and I honestly don't know of any guys who were over there who came back whole throughout. I didn't know any women personally who served, but certainly the same was true for them. Bottom line is that War Is Hell; or, as my poster said, "War Is Not Healthy For Children And Other Living Things." Yeah.

The worst thing of all, though, is that by not teaching the whys and hows and whens and wheres about all these time periods in history that have changed our people and our world so drastically - by not teaching these things we can't learn from them. So we'll do the same things over and over and over again - especially if college students are so poorly educated in history that they know so little and yet they're satisfied that it's enough.

Old person grumble ensues ...
posted by aryma at 10:06 PM on March 6, 2015 [7 favorites]


Some gave all. All gave some.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 10:15 PM on March 6, 2015


What if we taught history backwards?
I think this is a fascinating question. What if we taught a sequence of events - neglecting any hypothesis about the initiating causality? Then, when the facts are on the table - marry-up the preceding time block and some associations. Educators, thoughts?
posted by j_curiouser at 11:23 PM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Tonkin Gulf
In the 80s in high school, I did a report on this as an initiator for US action.

In the 90s in college, I did a paper on how it was a fiction - military theatre - to provide a justification for US action.

So much dissembling to the people...johnson, kennedy, reagan, bush, cheney, obama...once an addict...
posted by j_curiouser at 11:30 PM on March 6, 2015


Oddly, most of the Vietnam movies I've seen didn't rock my boat. But Rambo hit home. Somehow a message seeped out of its simple-minded plot that spoke to something I had not been able to describe. Other vets have expressed a similar liking for that dumb movie. I think it was because I had not really seen what my inside looked like from the outside, and for the first time I made sense to myself. The subsequent Rambo flicks were a waste, and I'm sure Sly is going to some level of hell for making them.

Maybe I just needed an image to pin on how it felt to have worn the uniform of an army that lost a war. I was pretty sure it wasn't my fault.
posted by mule98J at 11:43 PM on March 6, 2015 [3 favorites]


Word. I thought my most likely adult interest would be mere survival, a la Threads.
cold war kid bowing out, cheers
posted by j_curiouser at 11:44 PM on March 6, 2015


Reading aryma's comment has me horrified. As in stunned. At the thought that there will be (and are) generations who have NO FUCKING CLUE about the story of the world in which we live - does it imply that each generation will have its own narrative and thus perspective and viewpoint? How terrifying to imagine that there will be those at the helm of those red buttons and joysticks who have no knowledge of their own heritage and past and will blunder blindly forward wondering "why do they hate us?" "why do they point and laugh?"

What future for foreign policy and diplomacy and global relations if all you've ever known is the green screen of a computer controlled remote attack device or unit which leaves something called collateral damage whose sapience you cannot see in teh grey blob splattered against the screen's 3D wireframe projection?

Human being.
posted by infini at 7:00 AM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


Texas Tech students who couldn't answer the simplest questions about American history, like who won the Civil War or what country we fought for our independence. Here's the video - yt

The girl who said America won the Civil War was correct.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:25 AM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


Twenty years ago when my granddaughter was in middle school I examined her social studies books and wasn't terribly surprised to find no mention at all of the Depression. A teacher friend of mine suggested that it wasn't in the school books because it "made the USA look bad" - so they just left it out. I don't know whether that was it or not, but the books just passed it up and went from WWI to WWII.

That very likely was true - either the pessimism or the New Deal programs make the Depression a depressing (sorry) subject for many school boards in some corners of the country, so they prefer to ignore that. History textbooks have been notoriously silent on any kind of progressive-tinged thing, so they don't teach about the biggest government welfare/public works movement in history, nor do they teach about the labor movement. The Civil Rights movement was too big to ignore, but it's gone in a cough and a spit; the women's rights movement doesn't even get that much, and Suffrage is barely mentioned.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:32 PM on March 7, 2015


Pretty rich when you consider that the Depression in Germany is one of the biggest things that made Hitler's rise to power possible in the first place.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:45 PM on March 7, 2015


But this is AMERICAN history, who cares what happened in Germany?

/hamburger
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:14 AM on March 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


My father's story of returning home from Vietnam in the early 70s is that he went to a car rental place where he had been before and they'd always been friendly with him. He was still in his uniform since he hadn't made it all the way home yet to get a different set of clothes, and the employees were cold towards him. Nothing dramatic, just not the friendly vibe he had always experienced before.

Now there's a lot of reasons why that might happen rather than deliberately being jerks to veterans - many of them more likely than that talking point, like a sudden reminder of a grim war that they hadn't been thinking of until he walked in, or not knowing how to talk to him knowing what kind of shit he might have been through over there, etc. But I wonder if stories like that were the grain of truth that the bigger lie was built around.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 11:38 AM on March 8, 2015


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