Can Vietnam Awaken Us Again? Teaching the Literature of the Vietnam War (1)

Article excerpt

We must never forget that the Vietnam War created the most powerful antiwar movement in history. Even the Modern Language Association was shaken to its roots, making it sprout such forbidden fruit as the Radical Caucus. (2) The war and the movement against it transformed American culture and consciousness so deeply that our rulers have been forced to spend decades erasing memory and refilling it with fantasies, myths, illusions, and lies. These falsifications are necessary for the sweeping militarization of American culture, essential to our current epoch of endless imperial warfare.

President George Bush the First was remarkably frank about the need to brainwash us. As he explained in his 1989 inaugural address, the problem is that we still retain our memory: "The final lesson of Vietnam is that no great nation can long afford to be sundered by a memory." What Bush meant by "Vietnam" by then was already no longer a country or even a war. Vietnam was something that had happened to us, an event that had divided, wounded, and victimized America. As the grotesque tide of one widely-adopted history textbook puts it: Vietnam: An American Ordeal? (3)

In that 1989 inaugural speech, Bush explicitly blamed "Vietnam" for all the "divisiveness" in America and the lack of trust in our government. Just two years later, gloating over what seemed America's glorious defeat of Iraq, he jubilantly boasted to a nation festooned in jingoist yellow ribbons, "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!" (4)

The "Vietnam syndrome" had entered America's cultural vocabulary in a 1980 campaign speech by Ronald Reagan, the same speech in which he redefined the Vietnam War as "a noble cause." (5)

By the late 1970s, the Vietnamese were already being transformed into fiendish torturers of heroic American POWs. By the mid 1990s, they were becoming erased from the picture altogether. Want a snapshot of the cultural progression from the late 1970s to the mid 1990s? The Academy Award for Best Picture of 1978 went to The Deer Hunter, which systematically replaced crucial images from the Vietnam War with their precise opposites, meticulously reversing the roles of victims and victimizers. The Academy Award for Best Picture of 1994 went to Forrest Gump, which projects Vietnam as merely an uninhabited jungle that for inscrutable reasons shoots at nice American boys who happen to be passing through. And from then on, one loveable American icon would be Gump, someone incapable of knowing or understanding history.

With the erasure of history came the reign of fantasy: a war fought with one hand behind our back; an invasion of the democratic nation of "South Vietnam" by the communists of "North Vietnam"; betrayal by the liberal media, pinko professors, and Jane Fonda; returning veterans spat upon by hippies; hundreds of POWs forsaken after the war to be tortured for decades; and so on.

Emerging from the quarter century of post-Vietnam War American fantasy are the students sitting in our college classrooms today. That fantasy lives inside their minds, its myths and phony images filtering and obscuring their vision of history, of America's actions in today's world, and even of themselves. This should not be looked upon as merely an impediment to education, or worse still, some infection to be cured with a dose of counter-brainwashing brainwashing.

Why? Because these students are in some senses the world's greatest experts on late 20th-century and early 21st-century American culture. They bring into the classroom invaluable experience and potential expertise on the current cultural role of "Vietnam." For them, the words "Vietnam" and "the Sixties" are powerful, complex, and disquieting signifiers. Precisely because those signifiers have become so falsified, today's students are potentially capable of experiencing something close to what millions of us experienced during the war: a direct confrontation with one's own false consciousness. …

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