Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Vietnam, Again

Still thinking about the American attitudes during the Vietnam war, after reading Vietpundit's offer to express about it, and seeing follow-ups and feedbacks from other Americans with Vietnamese roots, like Bleeding Ear.

And, maybe, still wishing I had a better answer to give them. America just performed poorly, on any number of levels, in that time and place. One modern history book I often refer to titles its chapter on the 1960s and '70s "America's Suicide Attempt." How about it? What should have been a time of proper balancing -- bringing long-due fairness and equality and equal opportunity to women, minorities, blighted cities, and the land and water itself -- became a perfect storm of loathing in the minds of many people, and instead of seeing what they were for, and working to create it, they fixated on what they were against, a set of effigies that merged into a leviathan image of The Man: militaryindustrialracistmalechauvinistpigwhiteAmeriKKKa.

Read it in Hunter S. Thompson's famous passage recalling the spirit of rebellion in the 1960s: "There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil." Where was it going? What did it propose to do? What were the consequences? Everything is muddy except the image of Old and Evil.

When the '60s protest generation felt its wave crest and then recede, many took refuge in academe. From the universities they carried on their abrasive critique of everything conventional in America. The planners and soldiers in the Vietnam war were torn apart, in dissertation after disseration, for their reliance on delusional images.

They noticed something: America's military men in Vietnam confounded that war with the old 19th century Indian wars. This site is an academic paper that explores that language:

American soldiers in Vietnam routinely called enemy territory "Indian Country." In her study of the Vietnam War, Fire in the Lake, Frances Fitzgerald argues that the term "Indian Country" was more than just a joke or a figure of speech: "It put the Vietnam War into a definite mythological and historical perspective: the Americans were once again embarked upon a heroic ... conquest of an inferior race." General Maxwell Taylor, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the mid-1960s, defended the policy of "pacification" in Vietnam by using the analogy of Indians and the frontier: "It is very hard to plant the corn outside the stockade when the Indians are still around. We have to get the Indians farther away in many provinces to make good progress."

It's foolish to fight one war under the delusion that you're fighting another. It's self-destructive -- as deadly, from a military standpoint, as using Napoleonic open-field formations against dug-in Confederates with rifles on Marye's Heights; as deadly as sending Polish horse-mounted lancers out to fight Panzer tanks. It denies the reality of the people you are fighting among -- your allies as well as your enemies. They are dehumanized, and they suffer.

But what I don't see so often studied is the way the antiwar movement took the Vietnamese-as-American Indians image into its own heart, reversing the virtues in it, and used it in its own struggle. The paper I cited above does address this:

By 1971, the Indian analogy began to be used against our Vietnam policies rather than in support of them. John Kerry, testifying before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971, quotes a fellow Vietnam veteran, a Native American: An American Indian friend of mine who lives in the Indian Nation of Alcatraz put it to me very succinctly. He told me how as a boy on an Indian reservation he had watched television and he used to cheer the cowboys when they came in and shot the Indians. Then suddenly he stopped in Vietnam one day and said, 'My God, I am doing to these people the very same thing that was done to my people.' And that's what we are trying to say, that we think this thing has to end.

In the early 1960s, American popular culture was saturated with cowboys and Indians, Davey Crockett and Daniel Boone. During the Vietnam years this all fell into bad odor; simplistic, racist caricatures. Westerns of the later Vietnam period, like "Little Big Man" and TV's "F Troop," lampooned or exploded the mythology. The Vietnam connection was explicit in many cases. "Arthur Kopit claimed that his play Indians (1968), a meditation on Buffalo Bill and Indian-killing, was really about Vietnam."

Indians became the ultimate "other" in American history: they were seen as everything we were not. They loved their mother, the earth, while we raped it (never mind that they killed the buffalo as vigorously as the white man did, once they got their hands on the technology to do it). They were benevolent and communal (never mind their bloody tribal wars and enslavement of captives). They were deliberately non-technological while we were fools for it (as if they chose to see their children die of fevers modern medicine could cure).

To the disaffected mass in America, all that was loathsome about the United States could be separated from its opposite, and the opposite projected onto the Indians, most of whom were safely trapped in history.

The other "others" of the times included the Vietnamese. As Kerry's testimony points out, the connection quickly was made, and not just by Indian soldiers. Noam Chomsky and Ward Churchill, among others, made it part of their stock in trade.

One of the best books on the war, Michael Herr's Dispatches (1978), a non-fiction account of a journalist's tour of duty with the troops, places Vietnam at the end of a succession of American betrayals and victimizations of the American Indian, starting with the European settlers on the East Coast and President Andrew Jackson's forced removal of the Five Civilized Tribes from the southeast to Oklahoma. Where did our involvement in Vietnam begin?

... you couldn't use standard methods to date the doom; might as well say that Vietnam was where the Trail of Tears was headed all along.

This is interesting psychology, but it is historical nonsense. Making an iconic image of the heroic communist Vietnamese peasant fighting for freedom against the militaryindustrialracistmalechauvinistpigwhiteAmeriKKKa may validate someone's wrath and rage. But it disrespects the complexity of the case. And it does no honor whatsoever to the Vietnamese. They didn't ask to be anyone's images or icons.

Hard left intellectuals have had to jettison much of their own literary history because it embodies politically incorrect thoughts that horrify their modern minds. They cling to the few works that criticize the conventions of the day. One is Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," with its corrupt European colonialists and "pure" African souls.

Chinua Achebe, the father of modern African literature, wants none of it. "I am an African. What interests me is what I learn in Conrad about myself. To use me as a symbol may be bright or clever, but if it reduces my humanity by the smallest fraction I don't like it. ... [Y]ou cannot compromise my humanity in order that you explore your own ambiguity. I cannot accept that. My humanity is not to be debated, nor is it to be used simply to illustrate European problems."

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