President Barack Obama chose the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC as the site for a Memorial Day speech in which he sought to rehabilitate the Vietnam War.
The speech was timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first time US forces were deployed in a major combat operation inside the country in 1962, and served to kick off what is projected as a 13-year-long commemoration of that war. The commemoration, mandated by the US Congress, is being orchestrated by the Defense Department.
The appearance dovetailed with the Obama campaign’s efforts to identify the Democratic president with the armed forces and militarism in order to outflank his Republican rival from the right. It served a deeper purpose, however. Exorcising the ghosts of Vietnam has been a burning objective of America’s ruling class for nearly four decades.
At the heart of Obama’s speech was the hoary and reactionary myth that the approximately 1.5 million troops who saw combat in Vietnam were treated as pariahs and excoriated as war criminals and “baby killers” by the broad sections of the population that opposed the war.
“You were often blamed for a war you didn’t start, when you should have been commended for serving your country with valor,” Obama told the crowd, which included a number of Vietnam veterans, assembled in front of the wall bearing the names of nearly 60,000 US troops killed in the war.
“You came home and sometimes were denigrated, when you should have been celebrated. It was a national shame, a disgrace that should have never happened. And that’s why here today we resolve that it will not happen again,” the president continued.
The “national shame” and “disgrace” that earned the United States the hatred of hundreds of millions of people around the world was the war itself, a genocidal enterprise that took the lives of some 4 million Vietnamese.
In a flight of rhetorical fancy, Obama insisted that America must “celebrate” key battles of Vietnam on a par with the Normandy invasion or the battle for Iwo Jima during World War II. Among the specific episodes he cited was “Rolling Thunder,” the 1965 to 1968 bombing campaign against North Vietnam that dropped 864,000 tons of high explosives on the impoverished former colonial country. It killed, according to the CIA’s undoubtedly conservative estimates, 90,000 Vietnamese, 72,000 of whom were civilians. This savage bombardment, which destroyed schools, hospitals and villages, was one of the many war crimes perpetrated by US imperialism in over a decade of war.
Obama’s narrative ignored the reality that large numbers of US troops in Vietnam opposed the war. Among those who returned, not a small number joined the massive demonstrations demanding the withdrawal of US troops. Deep-going dissension among the troops in Vietnam led to widespread incidents of “fragging” [grenade attacks] on overly zealous commanding officers and other acts of overt rebellion that hastened the war’s end, as Washington feared losing control of its own army.
The lie that the mistreatment of veterans was the fault of a misguided public, or more pointedly of the antiwar movement, serves to cover up the reality that the government itself was to blame. Having subjected troops sent into combat to horrific conditions, it received the hundreds of thousands who returned suffering physical and mental wounds with callous indifference and inadequate support.
Obama insisted that “because of the hard lessons of Vietnam” we “take care of our veterans better.” However, the principal lesson learned by the US ruling establishment was that a conscript army posed unacceptable dangers of popular democratic and antiwar sentiments seeping into America’s war machine. It therefore moved to an “all volunteer” military. Volunteer or conscript, however, both then and now, troops have been treated as cannon fodder and disposable commodities.
Among the indices of the supposedly “better” conditions for US military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is an unemployment rate last year of 12.1 percent, with the jobless rate of those recently returned at nearly 30 percent. Some 75,000 veterans are homeless on any given night, while 1.5 million live in poverty. An estimated 300,000 veterans of America’s two most recent wars are returning home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injuries. On average, 18 veterans a day are taking their own lives.
Obama said the 50th anniversary commemorations he was inaugurating with his speech would give Washington “another chance to set the record straight” on Vietnam. “This is one more way we keep perfecting our Union—setting the record straight.”
On the contrary, Obama’s aim is to facilitate the falsification of history so as to whitewash the crimes of American imperialism.
The official campaign will not provide some new insight into the past or a more truthful account of the Vietnam War and its horrors. It will instead seek to exploit sympathy for veterans to exonerate the criminals in the White House, the CIA and the Pentagon responsible for slaughtering millions. For nearly 40 years, the US ruling class has sought to bury and sanitize a history that ties it to the worst war crimes since the fall of the Nazis.
It is also an attempt to shatter the deep-seated hostility to wars of aggression that was the key domestic legacy of US imperialism’s debacle in Vietnam. This has been an objective of US presidents from Richard Nixon on: to erase the memory of a US imperialist defeat under conditions of mass opposition and social struggles at home. It was George H.W. Bush who, at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, triumphantly proclaimed, “By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!"
The two wars launched in the aftermath of 9/11, however, proved such triumphalism to be unjustified. Hostility to both wars grew steadily, and today polls show popular opposition to the war in Afghanistan at 66 percent, just above the record high of 65 percent against the Vietnam War in 1971.
Toward the end of his remarks, Obama declared that “honoring Vietnam veterans” means “never forgetting the lessons of that war.”
What are those lessons? According to Obama, they are the need for “a clear mission,” a “sound strategy,” giving the military “the equipment they need to get the job done,” and the resolve that when sending troops to fight, “We will have their backs.”
These are the conclusion of a Democratic president who was swept into office largely on a wave of hostility to the wars begun by his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush. They suggest that had the US military been equipped with the proper mission, strategy and equipment—nuclear weapons?—it could have prevailed in Vietnam. There is the clear implication that the US defeat resulted from a “stab in the back” by an unworthy population and defeatist politicians—an echo of the infamous theory promoted by the Nazis after Germany’s defeat in World War I.
For decades, the Democratic Party has beat a cowardly retreat in the face of Republican accusations that its anti-war wing was responsible for the defeat in Vietnam. Obama, it appears, is determined to adopt the Republican indictment as his own.
Obama’s Memorial Day speech makes it clear once again that his administration is an instrument of Wall Street and the US military and intelligence apparatus. The deeply reactionary and dishonest speech must be taken as a warning. If America’s ruling establishment is determined to rehabilitate the Vietnam War it is because it wants to prepare public opinion for even bloodier wars and more horrific crimes.