“We didn’t know who we were till we got here. We thought we were something else.” R. Stone
Folks, you must have noticed it by now – I’m really, really interested in national identity and the stories we tell ourselves about our history, our legacy, and our role in the world. It’s endlessly fascinating to me – the way nations decide what aspects of their history they want to tell their kids, how they decide what stories to re-tell and which ones get left behind.
(Often, the stories that are left behind tell us a lot more about a nation than the stories that keep getting told.)
With that in mind, I picked up “American Reckoning – The Vietnam War and our National Identity” by Christian G. Appy. I’ve read a fair share about the Vietnam War by now (you might have noticed), but I always felt like there was something I missed. I read about the war from a soldiers perspective (The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien), a veteran’s perspective (Achilles in Vietnam – J. Shay), I read about military tactics (Hue 1968 – M. Bowden) and about the politics behind it (Dereliction of Duty – H.R. McMaster). But it took this book to realize that what I missed is what makes the Vietnam War so important – it’s about what it did to the national identity of the United States.
This is where I have to take a step back and re-iterate that I am not American. In some way, I think this outsider’s perspective is incredibly helpful. I had to remember, however, that my view of the United States, the one I was taught in school and through books, is not necessarily how Americans see themselves. There is always a bias in play when we talk about nations, our own or others, and we have to be aware of this fact.
Okay, so let’s dive right in.
One thing that makes this book so great – and it is a great book! – is that it draws from all kinds of sources. Appy not only looks at newspapers and political speeches – he also brings in songs, movies, and other pop culture. With this, he tells the story of how absolutely vital Vietnam is to understand America today.
In the 50s, early 60s, the US was on top of the world. They were second to none in living standards, their economy boomed, their researchers and scientists made amazing new discoveries that pushed the understanding of the world we live in. And if that’s not enough, they just conquered one of the most villainous regimes in the bloodiest conflict in the history of mankind.
They won WWII, freed Europe from incredible pain and devastation. To top it all off, they stood their ground when the Soviets blocked Berlin, and pulled off the Berlin Airlift, one of the most complicated feats of logistics ever dared. (They fed an entire city with planes for months, y’all.) Americans weren’t just admired. They were loved. And they loved being loved.
All of this gave birth to the idea of “American Exceptionalism”, the idea that ‘their nation was the greatest in the world, not only unmatched in its military and economic power, but morally, politically and culturally as well.’
(To his credit, the author clearly notes that all of the above only applied to Whites – let’s remember that this is pre-Civil Rights Movement, a fact that somehow got overlooked in this entire idea of how great America was.)
It must have been awesome to witness this. Imagine. Your country just elected its youngest President ever, a guy who looked so handsome and wholesome he still inspires fashion today. The torch had been passed to a new generation of Americans looking forward to ‘pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe’.
The United States, in a way, were the godparents of the free world, ready to step in whenever the big bad wolf of Communism appeared, confident that they would succeed. Americans simply didn’t know how to fail.
(2,000 years after Homer and we are still telling stories of overconfident empires meeting the wrath for their hubris.)
Now compare this to the US today. They turn away from international institutions, pick fights with their allies, slap tariffs on international trade, and seek cheap short-term wins over long-term interests.
And let’s be clear – this is not something new. Let’s all remember that G W Bush started two wars over the protest of his allies. Rumsfeld insulted everyone with his “old Europe” quip. Obama started a drone war which killed scores of innocent bystanders.
So, what happened? In a word – Vietnam.
In the beginning, the intervention in Vietnam was seen – and justified – as a humanitarian action. The White House and the media made it seem as if the United States were involved in nothing more than an idealistic, humanitarian campaign to help a struggling young nation.
But as the war progressed, this gulf between the facts on the ground and the public narrative grew wider and wider. We talked about this before, but this lasted until the Tet Offensive in 1968, really. Until that point, Americans trusted their government to say the truth and have the best intentions.
But shit hit the fan eventually, as we all know. And this experience has left a marking stain on American national identity, second only to the Civil War. And this is a really interesting parallel that the author draws – ‘Just as the Civil War forced Americans to confront the reality of slavery, an institution that stood in glaring contradiction to the nations avowed ideals of human freedom and equality, the Vietnam War compelled millions of citizens to question the once widely held faith that their country is the greatest force of good in the world. (…) And just as the Civil War ended slavery without resolving racism and racial injustice, the Vietnam War ended without resolving the conflicting lessons and legacies of America’s first defeat.’.
So how did the Vietnam War change the way Americans see themselves and the world?
Well, there’s several consequences, really, and they show up over and over again, to this day.
The first is a remarkable ‘evil vs good’ view on the world. It seems like Vietnam took the American’s ability to see things in other than absolutely good or absolutely bad. It started with the cause of the war – to rescue a good, struggling country from the grips of the ultimate menace, Communism.
Things tend to be black or white, and this motif shows up over and over. One could point to the biblical origins of this thought, and how an increasingly vocal religious right accelerated this thinking.
But this way of thinking also means that there is very little space to make compromises. There is no way to compromise with absolute evil, after all. And the other thus becomes demonized.
One example where this played out – and plays out to this day – is resistance to the government. We all know that the Vietnam War inspired one of the biggest protest movements in the 1960s – in fact, the protests became inseparable from the conflict itself.
The way we see these protesters – as hippies, ineffective and idealistic at best and back-stabbing at the worst – itself is a result of the Vietnam War lens. Only few people know about the Kent State Massacre, where unarmed College Kids were shot by the National Guard.
Instead, the protesters became the villain, the rabble-rousers. Whoever questioned authority became the ‘other’, and uncritical obedience to authority became the American Way.
Another case in point for this is the enshrinement of American patriotism. It seems to me that America has a unique obsession with heroes, and at the same time a very weird definition of heroism.
Think about it. In most cases, heroes are people who have acted selflessly for a grand and noble cause, who have suffered, or pushed society forwards, often at the cost of great personal suffering.
But in America, pretty much everyone who wears a uniform – who performs some sort of public service – gets to climb that mantle of heroism. Soldiers, pilots, firefighters, police officers, first responders – how they perform individually isn’t important, it’s enough to have served.
(I feel compelled to point out that of course public service is selfless and awe-inspiring, but even those in those jobs who do nothing of note can bask in the glow of hero-status, which is normally only given to individuals of note.)
This is part of a bigger picture that reflects the rightward shift of American political culture after Vietnam. Before Vietnam, you had the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr, even LBJ’s ‘Great Society’ Program.
After Vietnam, you have Reagan’s cut of social security programs, tax breaks for rich individuals, and social welfare reform. This is not a coincidence.
Americans came to distrust the government, so they had a desire to cut it back, to get it out of their life as much as possible. Suddenly, there was a distinction between ‘the government’ (which was bad and too big and at fault) and The States (which is pure and constitutional). It’s a weird distinction that I don’t think exists anywhere else in the world. For me, the government is the State, and vice versa.
And this feeds into something else – the victimization of America. It goes something like this an innocent America and its people had become the victims of outrageous, inexplicable foreign assaults.
Because you see, all the US wanted to do in Vietnam was to help. To help the country to help itself, to be free, but the ungrateful Vietnamese just didn’t step up, and instead embroiled the US in a quagmire.
(Let’s be absolutely clear here – the US intervened in an internal political conflict, propped up a puppet government that was despised by its people, conducted a bombing campaign that killed hundreds of thousands, and de-stabilized the entire region. They were not the victim, put the perpetrator of violence.)
But that’s not the story they tell themselves. In their eyes, they were the victims, betrayed and mistreated. And virtually every US war to follow as justified as a righteous response to a real or imagined first strike by Non-Americans – the standard story features an unprovoked attack followed by glorious victory.
And this was also applied retroactively – to the entry of the US in WWI after the attack on the Lusitania (1915), or the attacks on Pearl Harbor (1941). And of course, this was the narrative behind 9/11 and even the invasion of Iraq – the bad dictator who deceives the international community about WMDs and therefore needs to be chased off. The US, so the story goes, doesn’t want to go to war, but they have to.
It’s all about the stories we tell ourselves.
And it’s not just about war – if you listen to any speech of the orange Voldemort about trade, it’s the same thing. The treacherous foreigners who betray America, and America who finally strikes back.
This narrative, as it should go without saying, fuels a rise of chest-pounding nationalism and xenophobic hostility towards the world, especially the non-White, non-Christian parts of it.
And it gives rise to another narrative – the character of the victim-hero. It is so obvious that I cannot believe I didn’t see it until Appy pointed it out.
There’s an entire generation of actors who played characters that are obsessed with rescuing American manhood. The characters they play have been betrayed (often by their own government!), mistreated by society. They view themselves as scorned and rejected. They are, quite simply put, victims.
It’s a weird version of masculinity that is fragile and defensive – making it all the more volatile and scary. They give rise to the idea that victimized survivors are somehow especially heroic, that the victim can take revenge on those who wronged him.
This is basically the plot of every action movie ever. Think about Rambo, or the Fast and the Furious Movies, or pretty much any superhero movie ever.
You often have a beaten-down hero character, who needs to rise and revenge something. It’s the story of America.
It is, of course, also toxic masculinity at its finest. It gives rise to the idea that victims can do whatever they want to revenge themselves – that they have a right, even a duty to fight back against those who scorned them.
Then think about the thousands of women who get killed each year because they declined to go out with guys.
Toxic masculinity kills.
One of the most surprising things about this book is how relevant it is to understanding the United States today.
Vietnam is often seen as a tragedy, as something long past, as a dark family secret not to be mentioned. This book shows how important the events were for the American Psyche, and how much unresolved conflict this war created. The war casts a long shadow that still reaches into the present day, and for this reason alone, America needs to face what it did, and why it did it. However, this seems less likely than ever.
And next week – oh la la, Maria reads a French book.