On Vietnam and the Practice of History

This was typed on my phone in the bar of the hostel in Amsterdam. Any formatting errors on a desktop, I blame on my medium.

Enjoy. TD

Next year will mark the 45th anniversary of 1968, the year, as Mark Kurlansky notes, “that rocked the world.” Despite the oddness of it, it is possible that the entire year is worthy of remembrance and our historical attention. It was the year that Richard Milhous Nixon entered the White House, the year of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. It wathe year of the Tet Offensive, the My Lai Massacre, and the Chicago riots.

20120501-203655.jpgPolice and protestors clash in Chicago, August 1968.

Internationally, students and workers protested and rioted to show disdain for their governments and the United States. The Prague Spring welled up and was crushed by the Soviet Union. There were independence battles in Africa, and Palestinian guerrilla fighters first established themselves. 1968 became synonymous with international protest and discontent.

However, this is not a piece about the history of that year, although none of its events can truly exist independently of each other. Instead, it’s about the history of history, the historiography of 1968 and how it is uniquely important – forty-five years later – to our social, cultural, and political well being.

The nucleus of this piece was born as I wandered through the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. To call a spade a spade, the history on display here was a very thinly veneered effort at anti-American propaganda. Incidentally, when the museum was first opened in 1975, it went by the name “The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government.” The exhibits themselves have provocative titles, such as “American War Crimes and Atrocities,” and exhaustively document the horrors of Agent Orange, right up to a formaldehyde box with disfigured fetuses floating within.

No doubt, the images are horrific to look upon, and America should probably appropriately answer for such a ghastly crime. As a side note, for the best recent article on Agent Orange, see Christopher Hitchens’ The Vietnam Syndrome in Vanity Fair.

However, wandering through the rest of the museum and listening to the disapproving clucks and whispers of “my God, I can’t believe the USA did all these things,” I felt myself wanting to leap to the defense of Messrs. Kissinger and McNamara.

Why? Because outside of the gratuity of the Agent Orange exhibit, the rest d the museum was riddled with weak and lazy history, and deliberate attempts to valorise the communist forces and vilify the American coalition. (It is always worth remembering that Vietnam was not a unilateral war.)

In short, the outright distortion of history to construct a nationalist consensus is appalling, and an affront to professional history.

This objection came up a number of times over late-night barroom conversation, and I was usually met with the two sophomoric arguments that we North Americans are no less guilty of distorting our history, and that “each country owns their history,” and who am I to tell them differently?

The first argument fails to pass critical muster, by virtue of the fact that it just isn’t true. Our museums certainly focus on the positive bits of our history, but our media, schools and public programming easily provide any necessary counterpoint. The well-received documentary Canada: A People’s History even examined the use of blankets exposed to smallpox as an early form of biological warfare.

More importantly, our teachers painstakingly go through our national history, emphasising our conflicts, atrocities and misjudgements. There is no Canadian student who hasn’t critically examined the execution of Louis Riel (who, I hasten to add, was hanged. I won’t speculate on whether or not he was hung.)

Slavery in the United States, the deaths of thousands of Chinese immigrants along the track of the Canadian railways, and our shameful and nativist internment of Japanese Canadians (even worse than in the U.S.) are all subjects that get their just exposure. Even the most useless student of history has a cursory grasp of these abuses.

And that doesn’t even account for the massive body of critical literature, and the sustained assault by universities on traditional history and the legacies of colonialism. In short, the discipline f history in Canada and the United States has got its house in order, and for that reason, retains a morally relevant critical voice.

The second objection, that a nation owns its history, has marginally more cohesion.

It is true that those who experience history have the right and responsibility to see it preserved. I will even concede that there is some value in national histories and myths to build a national consciousness.

However, the unequivocal creation of a consensus is the antithesis of honest historical inquiry. There are relatively few historical theories that are in complete consensus. Disagreement and debate – the dialectic – is what is important to historical inquiry.

So yes, a nation owns its history. But it is only legitimate insofar as it embodies the critical faculties of historical inquiry. Therefore, in the case of Vietnam, the War Remnants Museum history might be legitimate, but only if there is a contrasting and widely available alternative history.

Unfortunately, the ongoing evidence from the other exhibits and museums suggests a single, unalterable historical discourse.

One of the most heartening (and ultimately disturbing) events of the Vietnam War was the actions of Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr., and his two gunners, Specialists Lawrence Colburn and Glenn Andreotta.

On the morning of March 16, 1968 soldiers under the command of Captain Ernest Medina and Lieutenant William Calley descended upon “Pinksville,” expecting to meet enemy resistance.

Instead they systematically massacred the seniors, women, and children – all that remained in the village of My Son.

The rest doesn’t even need to be explained; it was achingly documented in a series of photos by Army photographer Ronald Haeberle. The photos are a gruesome testimony to the brutality and atrocity of My Lai.

20120501-220421.jpgNote the “placement” of the baby in the middle of the picture.

However, one of the lesser known sides of the story is that Thompson and his crew evacuated 11 Vietnamese, and Andreotta personally extracted an infant from a ditch full of bodies. Indeed, Thompson instructed his gunners to turn their fire on their comrades if they interfered with his airlift, and had two headed exchanges with superior officers.

This inspiring tidbit of history is particularly important because it was conspicuously absent from all the museums I visited, with the notable exception of the actual memorial grounds at My Son. This notable absence serves to bolster the dichotomous and universal “us vs. them” mentality of the Vietnamese museums.

However, this was far from the only example. The infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” one used by French colonial forces, was later used by the North Vietnamese to hold captured American airmen. One of these airmen was former Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

Now a museum, it is meant to be a snapshot in time that superimposes the horrific abuses by the French against the gentility of North Vietnamese jailers. Photos abound of Americans eating Christmas dinner, opening gifts from family, and playing basketball. The silence on any abuses by the North Vietnamese is palpable.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but there are binders with mug shots of every American held there. John McCain claims that his facial deformities are the result of torture while in the Hanoi Hilton.

There is no mug shot on display for John McCain.

This means that not only is the history selective – ignoring Americans who turned on their fellow servicemen – but also blatantly disingenuous.

This facade does breakdown satisfyingly, though. Christopher Hitchens once wrote that “a good liar must have a good memory,” the alternative usually ends with one hoist upon their own petard.

In the War Remnants, there are two nearly identical photographs, with tellingly, and significantly, important captions.

The first shows an American tank dragging a body through the streets, with a caption explaining that this was a popular form of torture. The second, a helicopter hovering over the trees with a body down below. The caption explains that it’s a loyal comrade being callously tossed to his doom. Elsewhere in the museum the fraternal twins of these pictures are, respectively, explained as disposal of corpses, and retrieval of the dead from the battlefield.

One wonders how many museum-goers picked up upon this duplicity.

If these efforts have been exposed as a hopeless nationalist fraud (and I think they have), then what is the implication?

The first is that one fervently hopes that there is a body of critical scholarship within Vietnam that insists upon accountability for all parties. Or, as a second-best alternative, that there is critical literature from elsewhere that is readily available.

The second is that, in no way, is this meant to downplay the suffering of the Vietnamese. It is meant to segue into the implications this has for Canada and the United States, and make my case that history can be, and has been, corrupted for nationalist objectives.

Dr. Hunter S. Thompson once wrote that “history is hard to know because of all the hired bullshit.” To plagiarise, that’s true, but he misses the point. History is a competitive and self-purifying discipline, in which the only real taint comes from the meddling fingers of government.

Thankfully, in most Western countries, the government line is treated with open suspicion, if not hostility by journalists and the academy. And so, this brings us full circle back to 1968 and the importance of dissent and disputation to a healthy democracy.

Indeed, if our histories have only one line, one controlled by the government, we have not only lost our collective and individual pasts, but also our future.

If we cannot have an engaged and conscious and critical discussion of our past it becomes impossible to tackle the future through this same process of conflict. It is the dialectic, whether historical or when confronting future problems that is the engine of progress.

It is, therefore, no coincidence that the nations which control history, speech, art, and literature are limping, stunted and weakened into the arms of modernity.

If we conclude (and we must) that history has an impact on the future, then our inquiry must be done through the frame of disputation and investigation, and not dictated from the places of power: legislatures and pulpits. History is – and must remain – the property of those who lived it, those who study it, and those who love it. And this must always be maintained in a critical context, for the love of history is the love of argument and debate.

For certainly, in the study of history there are answers, such as they are, and this doesn’t resign us to any sort of relativism where all answers are equal. I simply state, firmly and with some conviction, that the best historical line, or the best means of our intellectual progress is almost certainly not the one espoused by any government.


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