Sunday, September 06, 2015

This is our record: Who are we now?

When I finished American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity by Christian G. Appy, I rushed to the internet with a question: how old is this author? I felt as if Appy had chronicled most of my successive bouts of outrage over U.S. imperial adventurism during my political lifetime. He could have called this book something like Atrocities of Empire: Dien Bien Phu to Abu Ghraib and Beyond.

Actually it turns out Professor Appy (UMass) isn't quite old enough to have the Viet Minh's ouster of the French from Indochina as part of his childhood mental furniture as I do. But he's written an extremely comprehensive narrative of how the Vietnam war shaped and still shapes our country's behavior on distant shores. I hope younger people pick it up; this is necessary history.

Appy begins with the question that haunted this country for a couple of decades until the Vietnamese finally made it moot: "Why are we in Vietnam?" He connects the behavior of our ruling elites to the heady confidence they enjoyed after 1945.

In the years after World War II the faith in American exceptionalism reached its peak. ... No other nation emerged from the bloodbath in better shape. ... in the global context of sixty million dead, America had been spared the scale of suffering so common elsewhere, fueling the conviction that God or destiny had reserved a special role for the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth ....

... The fervent faith in American exceptionalism was the nation's most agreed upon religion in the 1950s. It was the central tenet of what was commonly called American national identity. The heart of American exceptionalism was the assumption that the United States was a unique force for good in the world.

Appy's history might have been a little more grounded if he'd explored what tarnish, if any, the unpopular stalemated Korean War (1950-53) had left on this faith. But he argues that buoyed by this bumptious idolatry, both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations picked up what the French had lost by propping up corrupt, dictatorial puppets in South Vietnam in the interests of "anti-Communism." Meanwhile most Vietnamese still sought and would fight for national independence.

By the time that President Lyndon Johnson crushed opponent Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election by insinuating that the Republican was a warmonger, U.S. elites knew they were in deep doodoo in Vietnam -- and large-scale escalation had not yet even started. Internal memos admit that 70 percent of the war's aim, even in 1965, was to avoid humiliating defeat. These men (most all men in those days) felt they would lose their manhood if they pulled back.

Perhaps the most shocking moment in Robert Dallek's biography of Johnson comes when a group of reporters pressed LBJ to explain why he continued to wage war in spite of so many difficulties and so much opposition. The president "unzipped his fly, drew out his substantial organ, and declared, 'This is why!'"

And so the full catalogue of atrocities -- napalm, defoliation, Agent Orange, cluster bombs, saturation bombing, some 58,000 dead U.S. soldiers and some 3,000,000 dead Vietnamese -- ground on. Appy draws his readers into the unfolding horror.

In his second section, "America at War" he provides a wide-ranging account of the multi-faceted, evolving U.S. citizen movement against the war. He is less thorough about the international revulsion the U.S. brought down on itself, but this is understandable given his focus on our "national identity."

The book's third section brings us up to the present asking "What Have We Become?" We had launched ourselves into Vietnam with such "good intentions." How could we have become so hated? He documents the rapid creation of

a major new American story, one that became a commonplace in the post-Vietnam era -- a story of American victimhood. The common denominator was this: an innocent America and its people had become the victims of outrageous, inexplicable foreign assaults. These attacks, whether from "rogue" nations, terrorist groups, or religious extremists, were broadly viewed as barbaric hate crimes with no clear motive or American provocation.

He goes on to write about U.S. reactions of victimhood to such incidents as the Iranian Revolution and hostage taking, the truck bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For any who have managed to forget or never knew, Appy tells the stories understandably. All of these events killed and/or injured many and shocked the inattentive, but none presented genuine threats to underlying national security -- yet all were enmeshed in the post-Vietnam narrative of American victimization.

It's hard to tell whether this country is even vaguely ready to grow up and face the reality that the ambitious bellicosity of our elites is what endangers us, not spooky foreigners. Appy is very good at capturing data from contemporary opinion polling which shows a continuing, strong, post-Vietnam disinclination among many of us to rush to war, most recently demonstrated when Obama suggested intervening more visibly in Syria in 2013. We can be whipped up by nationalist enthusiasms, but these remain quite short-lived and shallow.

Appy finds some hope in the contortions our rulers have had to adopt to keep us willing to fight.

Since the height of the Vietnam War many Americans have challenged the idea that their nation has the right or capacity to assert global dominance. ... Yet there remains a profound disconnect between the ideals and priorities of the public and the reality of a permanent war machine that no one in power seems able or willing to challenge or constrain. That machine has been under construction for seventy-five years and has taken on a virtual life of its own, committed to its own survival and growth, unaccountable to the public, and protected by many layers of secrecy. It defends itself against anyone who seeks to curb its power. ... The persistence of warmongering in the corridors of power has systematically eroded the foundations of democratic will and governance. The institutions that sustain empire destroy democracy.

But the public is not blameless. As long as we continue to be seduced by the myth of American exceptionalism, we will too easily acquiesce to the misuse of power, all too readily trust that our force is used only with the best of intentions for the greatest good. ...

He's done his bit; are we all doing ours?

1 comment:

Rain Trueax said...

All Americans didn't see it that way during those years. I am old enough to remember the talk in the aftermath of WWII. Yes, I was small, but my parents did talk politics, and we were all on the Stevenson team. Those were the years we were told the Soviet Union wanted to nuke us and we had in each school those ridiculous bomb 'shelters'. Maybe the reason 'we' weren't exceptionalism fans is my family had to work too hard on the farm and at jobs to keep us above water. I do know politics were a big deal with my father and grandfather arguing over the value of unions or how much good communism would do (my dad's position was none for people like us). I feel lucky to have grown up with those who voted and always stayed informed and talked about it-- agree or disagree. When Vietnam came along nobody in my family supported it, but the draft made sure some of my family had to go.

I don't know what part of the country American exceptionalism reigned but it wasn't the Oregon working class-- maybe it was in intellectual elites back then or the rich-- I didn't know people like that. I did, to my disgust now, cast my first vote for a President (then you had to be 21) for Johnson because of those ads regarding Goldwater's reckless attitude toward wars. Of course, Johnson and later Nixon promised to get us out of Vietnam... yeah, right. I was glad when Johnson resigned, but I wasn't one of those out demonstrating on the streets. Those were my baby making years. They also were likely when I lost my faith that leaders would ever do what they promised-- on either side. Wonder what it would have been like if Stevenson had won or McGovern, yeah I voted for him too.

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