On Still Not Getting the Vietnam War

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Rocky Bleier in Vietnam, 2018

W.J. Astore

I recently read an article on Rocky Bleier’s return to Vietnam, the subject of a documentary on ESPN.

Rocky Bleier played on the Pittsburgh Steelers football team in the 1970s, when the Steelers were at their finest.  Before that, he was drafted into the Army and was wounded in combat in Vietnam.  Doctors thought he’d never play football again, but Bleier proved them wrong, helping the Steelers to win four Super Bowls.

Bleier’s return to Vietnam was emotional and revealing, but in a way that is one-sided, privileging the American experience of that war.  Franco Harris, another famous football player, puts it succinctly: “It’s a tragedy, I wish the war [Vietnam] had never happened.”  But was America’s war in Vietnam simply a tragedy?  Or was it more of a crime?  What was America after in Vietnam?  And at what cost to the peoples of Southeast Asia?

As Bleier puts it, “All of a sudden I had an overwhelming feeling of loss and sadness.  Why did we fight this war? Why did we lose 58,000 soldiers and in all honesty for what? Maybe for first time I can understand on a slight basis the impact that our soldiers go through and maybe just a little what post-traumatic stress might be and how the body reacts to all the emotions.”

Those are important words.  But what about the millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians killed in that war?  What about their war burdens?  What about the suffering that is still ongoing in Southeast Asia today due to chemical defoliants, unexploded ordnance, land mines, and the like?

In this article on Rocky Bleier, the Vietnamese people make an appearance, but nothing is said of their suffering.  Instead, they are presented as entirely pro-American:

“Everyone we met [in Vietnam] was pro American. There is a whole generation that the war is for the history books and not an experience they were a part of. The viewpoint has changed,” Bleier said.

The “viewpoint” that’s changed isn’t specified, but I assume Bleier is saying the Vietnamese used to be anti-American (I wonder why?), but are now pro-American in spite of the enormous devastation America inflicted on Vietnam.

Again, it’s good to see a prominent American sports figure talk about the tragedy of Vietnam and the pointlessness of that war.  But, as with many other documentaries about Vietnam, including the Ken Burns series in 2017, it’s always all about us, and the tragedy is almost exclusively presented as an American one.

That bias may be predictable, but it’s no less pernicious for being so.

Update: Here’s the short version of the ESPN documentary.  It features one Vietnamese soldier who fought for the Americans; he is allowed a statement about the general waste and horror of war.  No other Vietnamese are shown, and no other opinions are solicited.

14 thoughts on “On Still Not Getting the Vietnam War

  1. The Vietnam War remains “a tragedy” for the US because of those 58,000+ names on that wall in D.C. Ronald Reagan refused to pony up for. You can’t call it a crime because they died “to preserve our way of life.” Or something.
    It’s wasn’t a tragedy for the Vietnamese/Laotians/Cambodians because (1) they’re the wrong color, and (2) they have the wrong God. Besides, Vietnam is a big-time US trading partner now. “It’s all good!”
    As for Ken Burns on anything … as my Aunt Myra used to say, “Don’t get me started.” Worse than Oliver Stone.

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  2. A Follow-up, with apologies for the spelling error (“It’s wasn’t” instead of “It wasn’t.”) in the preceding comment.

    It’s a tragedy now, but wasn’t considered so while it was going on by the general populace. To be against that particular war was considered to be every bit as anti-American and unpatriotic as being against our invasions and subsequent garrisoning of the Middle East and Afghanistan is today (is Afghanistan still considered part of “Asia Minor” or is it also the Middle East these days? It’s hard to keep up).
    As far as most folks were concerned, the only criminal act was what happened at My Lai and since that was handled in the only way possible (Calley obviously was, as Nixon would have said, “a loose cannon”) … the rest was good, clean warfare. Or would have been, if the Commies had played the game. But they didn’t.

    And Henry Kissinger is still alive, which proves there is no justice.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for highlighting this ‘poor us’ syndrome. I’m fighting it whenever I can, such as at a public ‘happening’ in my hometown in 2013 : https://en.mocak.pl/artist/531/projection-war-veterans, by a famous artist who actually resides in the US. He was projecting complaints by Polish Afghanistan veterans on the old tower on our otherwise splendid 🙂 main square, accompanied by assorted bomb explosion sounds. I watched it three times, to be absolutely sure sure it was all about the suffering or our veterans – probably true, but as it is a volunteer army they had a choice as opposed to the real victims and in fact usually volunteered for these distant wars of agression because of the better pay…
    Then I went over to the artist and gave him a furious piece of my mind, about pretending to be socially-minded and oh so decent, while in fact totally ignoring the suffering of the real victims of that war and profiteering from their suffering for his own career. Didn’t know that one of the bystanders was the director of our contemporary art museum, who until this day when she meets me through common friends, regally ignores me :-).
    We unfortunately have a long history of being victims, but infuriatingly fail to turn that experience into empathy for present victims of our own agression…

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  4. Suffering OF our veterans, not ‘or’. Sorry about that. And apparently it happened in 2010 not 2013, but by then I already had seven years of Afghanistan experience anyway.

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  5. Rocky Bleier’s return to Vietnam had all the choreography of the Left Wing types who went to visit Stalin’s Soviet Union in the 1930’s. We are all happy healthy Soviet Workers, with plenty to eat, thanks to Comrade Stalin.

    Of course the Vietnamese Bleier meets are going to be Pro-American, with Chinese labor costs going up and President Agent Orange’s instability concerning China, we need a cheap place to make athletic wear. As China has proved, you can be a billionaire in a Communist Country, seems like an oxymoron.

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  6. Written on the occasion of President George W. Bush finally making the trip to Vietnam on November 17, 2006, decades after a better American woman, Jane Fonda, made the trip in his place. Three-and-a-half years into his own Vietnam-style debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan — disasters that he would bequeath to his successor two years later — Dubya the Dimwit proved to the world that what he didn’t learn about America in Vietnam he wouldn’t learn about America in the Middle East, either.

    Hanoi Haiku

    In Hanoi at last
    Red-carpet in return for
    Our carpet-bombing

    The words no one heard,
    Due so many years after:
    “We apologize”

    Deputy Dubya
    Sheriff Cheney’s Barney Fife
    Lost in Mayberry

    Gullible Goofy
    The boy who cried Wolfowitz
    Far too many times

    Emerald City
    Naked ruler’s brand new clothes
    Viewed through glasses green

    Mission Accomplished!
    A cakewalk in its last throes
    Now a glacier race

    Four Years an “instant”
    Nothing happens right away
    What did you expect?

    Broken-egg omelets
    George Orwell’s Catastrophic
    Gradualism

    Shop till the troops drop
    Buy a plane ticket or two
    Your part in the “war”

    Rob the future now
    They will never break our will
    Those grandkids of ours

    Lecture the victors
    About their First and Second
    Indochina Wars

    Where did we get him?
    How come we can’t do better?
    We look so stupid

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2006

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  7. Kicking the Memory Syndrome

    Kicking the Memory Syndrome
    “Once and for all” every year
    Soon we’ll be kicking it daily
    As we advance to the rear.

    Kicking and sticking and licking
    Vigorous, vicious, and vain
    Virtual “war” on a flatscreen
    Digital aliens slain

    Back to life soon after “dying”
    Spock and Kirk replay their parts
    Black holes and alternate timelines
    Rebooted, Star Trek then “starts”

    Episode twelve, season twenty
    Plot lines unravel and rot
    “Final,” at least for the present.
    Next year, who knows? Maybe not.

    Fighting on some far horizon,
    Always our armies will “win”
    “Victory” product consumption:
    Cigarettes, mansions, and gin

    Fed on Orwellian jargon
    Straight from Nineteen Eighty Four
    Duckspeaking Crimestop and Blackwhite
    Doublethink peace equals “war”

    Let us look into the future
    Yesterday doesn’t exist
    History starts with tomorrow
    That’s why our ‘war” will persist.

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2017

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  8. Another excellent column! After living through that era, I believed (mistakenly) that we baby-boomers had learned an enduring lesson and wouldn’t countenance aggressive US militarism, at least for a couple of generations. But I obviously overestimated the depth of the anti-war sentiment of that time — it was pretty much a case of ‘anti-war for ME, but war for THEM’. And when Reagan promised lower taxes, anti-war sentiment dropped back to its historical levels of 5-10%…

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    1. Eddie S, I think it was a case of “our work here is done” and a belief that “the powers that be” had seen the Light and would change their ways. After all, the People won, the military-industrial-Congressional complex lost. What were the odds of that happening?
      About the same as the odds of it ever happening again, apparently.
      But in the process of making History, we ignored the lessons of History, including this one: the forces that drive and steer a nation into war never rest, and you must be forever vigilant. We were proud of our accomplishment – and justifiably so – but no cause, however righteous, can survive complacency.
      The “leaders” of the movement returned to the more personal, specific causes they’d worked for before the war – or simply dropped out of sight – leaving it to the next generation to carry the torch. But instead of handing the torch off, they set it on the ground for someone else to pick up and it burned out. There was no war, no draft, no more need of demonstrations. No point in brandishing a torch when nothing needs burning.
      The bad dream of Vietnam was over, we could pretend none of it ever happened, and settle into the good times and good life to come. But as my Dad used to warn me, “Everything has its price, Willie. Sooner or later, someone, somewhere, is going to have to pay.”
      We’ve been paying ever since.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Damned torrential rains and now a typhoon have kept me penned up indoors for over a week now. Which leads to stuff like this morning’s …

    Lard of the Fries

    War Time Imaginary
    Powers extraordinary
    Teenage twerps think they’re scary
    Small scrotums less-than-hairy
    Each a ferocious fairy
    Donald J. Trump

    Obama and Clinton gave us
    Orange Clown who would enslave us
    With rusty knives they’d shave us
    Before they microwave us
    Now what on earth can save us?
    Last chance to jump?

    Trump needs a daily stroking
    Circle-jerk chicken-choking
    Democrats, he keeps poking
    Hatreds he’s fond of stoking
    What the hell is he smoking?
    Nothing makes sense.

    Campaigns as Yankee Doodle
    Promises endless boodle
    Governs as something feudal
    Democrats play the poodle
    No doubt gone off his noodle
    Then there’s Mike Pence

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2019

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I think that it is so wonderful we that chose to use depleted uranium artillery shells that turn to dust upon impact; forever poisoning the ground where food is grown in our ill-conceived limited wars.

    That way we not only kill and maim the present civilian population; but doom unborn generations too.

    Ashamed
    Jerry King

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