Chronicle of Higher Education
February 12, 1999

The Muffling of Public Memory in Post-Vietnam America


"Should We Have War Crimes Trials?" Last fall, I read that headline to my history students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We were studying the Vietnam War, and I told them that the title came from a 1971 New York Times book-review essay by the journalist Neil Sheehan. "Can you guess whom Sheehan had in mind as potential war criminals?" I asked. A few quiet responses emerged: "Nazis?" "The Viet Cong?" "Draft dodgers?" "Ho Chi Minh?"

No one imagined, or dared to suggest, that the headline referred to Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, William Westmoreland, Robert McNamara, and Lyndon Johnson.

For some years now, most of my students have never heard anyone propose that U.S. officials waged a criminal war in Vietnam. In 1971, however, that charge had a presence in American political culture. It was a minority opinion, but one familiar to every M.I.T. student -- quite a few of whom agreed with it, and said so loudly.

What has happened to our memory of that time and war?

Five years ago, one of my students told me, "The only image I have of the Vietnam War is a group of vets hugging and crying at the Wall in Washington." She went on to say that, when she saw such images on television every Veterans Day, she was never quite sure why the veterans were so upset. Was it because of friends who had died, or because we lost the war? Or was there something else?

Had she ever asked for a fuller explanation? "I had the feeling you weren't supposed to ask questions about Vietnam," she told me. "It's like some dark family secret that nobody wants to talk about around the children."

One of the most significant characteristics of American culture since the war has been the inhibition and silencing of memory: of the antiwar sentiment that existed during the war; of the hard questions that were asked about our conduct of it; and of the impact the United States had on Vietnam. Since the early 1980s, most of my students have come to class, for example, not having heard of the My Lai massacre. Many have not seen (or not thought about) the famous -- to an older generation -- photographs of a self-immolating Buddhist monk, of General Loan's pistol-to-the-temple assassination of a Viet Cong suspect, or of Kim Phuc, the young Vietnamese girl burned by napalm and running naked toward the camera.

Broadly distributed representations of Vietnamese suffering are uncommon today, and works that charge U.S. responsibility for it are even rarer. Most postwar public discourse that purportedly has been about "Vietnam" has really been about Americans and their struggle to recover from the war.

Several recent books attempt to explain why. Many of the authors believe that our memory of the past is as important as the past itself; that history, like a butterfly, is not sufficiently studied by pinning it to a display board, but is always in flux. Our memories, whether rooted in a verifiable reality or not, shape the present.

For many Americans, especially those under 30, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is central to American memory of the war. Since the Wall was completed, in 1982, it has attracted some 1.5 million visitors a year. Even before then, a curious phenomenon began: Visitors left all kinds of gifts at the site. The National Park Service began to save them. The collection is now vast, containing hundreds of thousands of items, which are stored in a government repository in Maryland.

In Carried to the Wall, Kristin Ann Hass, who teach es American studies and is an administrator at the University of Michigan, tries to make cultural and historical sense of the Wall and those offerings. For me, the most fascinating chapter in this slim volume suggests a connection between the practice of leaving gifts and older funereal traditions among such minority cultures in the United States as African, Italian, and Mexican. By incorporating such traditions into mainstream culture, Hass argues, the Wall has enriched the relationship between the living and the dead, the present and the past.

She finds in the gifts a "multivocal, contradictory, unsolicited public response" that has "opened up a public space for debate about what it meant to fight in, and come home from, this war." Given that, she would no doubt dispute my claim that antiwar memory has been so fully erased: She points out, for example, that some dog tags have been left at the memorial to protest U.S. policy in Central America.

The Wall and the offerings surely invite various interpretations. But so far, I think, the memorial has inspired more deference to the American dead than curiosity about the war in which they fought -- and about how American veterans and the Vietnamese people experienced it. At a 1995 exhibit of items, "Gathered at the Wall" -- presented at the Museum of Our National Heritage, in Lexington, Mass. -- I did not see a single artifact that represented, or called to mind, a Vietnamese person. Nor were there any images of the damage that Americans did to the land and people of Vietnam, though American soldiers often took photographs of just such subjects. In fact, the most prominently displayed item was a replica of the guard tower that forms the background on the P.O.W./M.I.A. flag, the product of a mythology about the existence of American captives still held in Vietnam -- a mythology that has long served right-wing agendas and has inflamed hostility toward postwar Vietnam.

It may be, as Marita Sturken suggests in Tangled Memories, that the Wall has functioned primarily as a kind of collective "screen memory" -- blocking out the most troubling realities of the war. Sturken, who teaches communications at the University of Southern California, believes that American memories -- shaped by the Wall and by such Hollywood movies as Coming Home -- offer cathartic redemption to veterans and their families, while contributing to the restoration of a dangerous and militant nationalism founded on a portrayal of American veterans as the Vietnam War's primary victims.

I generally agree with the claim that public memory of the Vietnam War has promoted definitions of patriotism that denigrate democratic dissent. However, I am less persuaded that veterans have found much to identify with in our culture's representation of their lives. Last summer, I gave a brief talk at a writing workshop about how Vietnam veterans have become the central icons in our memory of the war. Afterward, a veteran came up to disagree. He had never once felt like a key figure in American culture, he told me, much less an icon. He had not even admitted in public that he was a veteran until two years previously. He made me think about the fact that, for all our apparent attention to Vietnam veterans, we have understood their experiences no better than we have comprehended those of the Vietnamese, whom we have virtually erased from public memory.

Part of the reason is that veterans have been offered a kind of cheap, belated homecoming parade in place of serious public scrutiny of the war they fought. Moreover, the American government has never admitted its mistreatment of returning veterans -- its failure to provide sufficient job training, educational benefits, or medical and psychological care (or to support compensation for exposure to Agent Orange). Instead, Presidents Reagan and Bush encouraged the idea that the antiwar movement had betrayed patriotic American soldiers in Vietnam and ridiculed them on their return. In doing so, those Presidents implied that any objection to their own military interventions was akin to spitting in the face of American soldiers.

That speaks to the way historical memory has been crafted to suit current agendas. It also brings us to the most controversial of the books under review, Jerry Lembcke's The Spitting Image. Lembcke, a sociologist at the College of the Holy Cross, challenges the widespread belief that returning veterans were spat on by antiwar protesters. That story has gained such currency in contemporary culture that many of my students, who may not know anything else about the antiwar movement, have heard it.

Lembcke takes a hard line, arguing that the story is an unfounded myth. "No evidence has surfaced that anyone ever spat upon a Vietnam veteran," he writes. He dismisses the oral testimonies of veterans who insist it happened to them as vague, formulaic, and contrary to reason. Is it really possible, he asks, that so many "hippie girls" spat on uniformed veterans in airports? Where are the photos, the corroborative eyewitnesses, the news accounts that might support the claim?

Lembcke's debunking of the spitting stories is quite persuasive. But he has much broader aims. Not only was there no spitting, he argues, but there was no hostility or tension at all between veterans and protesters. In fact, he characterizes their relationship as "empathetic and mutually supporting."

It is certainly true that a remarkable number of veterans opposed the war, and that the antiwar movement did forge alliances with veterans. It is also true that American culture has given too little in-depth attention to antiwar veterans. But Lembcke insists on a strict either/or argument: Veterans and peaceniks were either enemies or comrades. "Antiwar activists could not have been spitting on veterans while at the same time befriending them in off-base coffeehouses," he writes.

Lembcke can't seem to imagine that some activists may have been hostile to veterans; others suspicious, indifferent, fearful, guilty, welcoming, or any combination of the above. Or that an activist might have been cool toward some veterans (those perceived as pro-war, for example) and warm toward others. Lembcke believes that solidarity was virtually the only historical reality.

My own view is that the spitting stories are largely mythic, but that the myth itself reflects the deep anger and animosity that many veterans harbored toward the antiwar movement. Their anger often reflected a sense of class injustice that gave their more privileged peers greater freedom to avoid the war. Across the gulf of class and experience, it was hard not to believe (as was sometimes the case) that all antiwar critics judged veterans as immoral participants in an immoral war. Not all veterans believed that was the case, but many did (and still do), regardless of the fact that the antiwar movement generally focused its condemnations on American policy makers, and regardless of some veterans' own deep, if conflicted, doubts about the war. Many of those same veterans felt at least as defiled by right-wing flag wavers as by antiwar protesters. I base my conclusions on extensive interviews I have conducted with Vietnam veterans since the early 1980s.

Lembcke, however, gives no credence to the possibility that veterans themselves played a role in creating the myth of antiwar spitters, or that the myth teaches us anything meaningful about the class and wartime experiences of veterans. For him, the myth is almost entirely a product of Hollywood and right-wing politicians.

Lembcke also rejects the claim that post-traumatic stress disorder was a pervasive problem for veterans. The disorder, he argues, was invented by a culture determined to silence antiwar expressions of veterans by suggesting that all such expressions indicated a need for therapy. This provocative idea, like so much else in The Spitting Image, takes a partial truth and strains it beyond all proportion.

In Echoes of Combat, the journalist Fred Turner argues that veterans indeed suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. For him, in fact, the disorder is a metaphor for all of postwar American culture. The traumas endured by U.S. combat veterans have become a "public symbol for the entire American experience of the war," he maintains. The veterans' sense of disillusionment is emblematic of a broader loss of faith in national virtue, power, and purpose. In a sense, Turner is suggesting that our entire culture has exhibited at least a mild case of post-traumatic stress disorder, troubled by intrusive memories of the war and doing everything possible to block them out. One difficulty with that argument is that, while many veterans have had persistent nightmares about their wartime experiences, the larger culture has been quite adept at replacing the nightmares with pleasing fantasies.

Drawing on film, pulp fiction, oral history, psychiatric case studies and theories, activities sponsored by the men's movement, and more, Turner makes clear just how much our post-Vietnam culture has sought to reconstruct new, and largely empty, conceptions of heroism, masculinity, and patriotism. The overriding desire to "get over" the Vietnam War has, he says, "smothered in the emotional honey of recovery the complicated origins and the grisly nature of the war." To his credit, Turner incorporates into his text important reminders of the reality of our buried history.

Because he is so alert to the "amoral rhetoric of recovery," I'm puzzled by Turner's conclusion. He suggests that some forgetfulness is not only inevitable, but necessary. "We must somehow strike a balance between our need to recall and our need to ease the emotional impact of what happened," he writes. That prescription might be useful to those most paralyzed by war-related trauma, but the political and moral health of the United States demands a fuller accounting of the war's devastation, especially its impact on those participants least understood in our culture -- the Vietnamese. If that kind of remembering stirs painful emotions, so be it.

Keith Beattie's book, The Scar That Binds, is an academic monograph that offers a thesis similar to Turner's. A lecturer at Massey University, in New Zealand, Beattie argues that the image of "wounding" dominated American interpretations of the political, economic, social, and psychological impacts of the war. The Scar That Binds is a meditation on the ways that metaphors of wounding have served to obscure the real pain and divisiveness of the war and to replace them with a phony rhetoric of healing and unity. All this has resulted in "Vietnamnesia," a willful forgetting of the war. For all of Beattie's critical insights along the way, unfortunately, it is hard not to be suffocated by the very rhetoric that he seeks to subvert. We may be persuaded that the vocabulary of healing is mostly fatuous; however, we need a larger historical analysis than the book offers to understand the divisions and pain that refuse to heal. We need to learn about alternative metaphors of life after the war.

Beattie offers a little fresh air -- a brief section on books and films that "talk back" to the dominant discourse -- with brief references to little-known but important films like Haile Gerima's Ashes and Embers (1982), Tran Vu and Nguyen Huu Luyen's Brothers and Relations (1986), and Trinh T. Minh-ha's Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989). But there are still too few dissenting voices in the book.

Arnold R. Isaacs' Vietnam Shadows is the most comprehensive of the books under review. A journalist who covered the last years of the Vietnam War for The Sun, in Baltimore, Isaacs writes more about actual people and events in post-Vietnam America than about cultural representations of the war's legacy. While he is clearly an opponent of American policy in Vietnam, his sympathies lie more with veterans than with civilian antiwar activists. He begins his chapter on the "Vietnam Generation" -- unfairly, I think -- by quoting a former protester who said, "What disturbs me about the war is, even though we were right, we really didn't mean it." Isaacs also believes that too much attention has been given to atrocities committed by American infantrymen in Vietnam. Although I disagree on that issue, I think he is right to point out that American bombs and artillery killed far more Vietnamese civilians than were killed by grunts.

His wide-ranging book has many wonderful reportorial details. On the commercialization of memory of the war in the United States, for example, he cites a New York Times Magazine fashion layout from 1993 on "Indo-chic clothes." Photographed in Hanoi, it included a simple black dress for $1,610 -- equivalent to the annual income of five Vietnamese schoolteachers. And his pages on postwar Vietnamese experience begin to move us out of the Americo-centrism of the other volumes.

Isaacs also offers an analysis of the impact of the "Vietnam syndrome" on foreign policy. The fear that any intervention abroad might replicate the disaster of Vietnam clearly did not prevent the widespread exercise of U.S. power. But Isaacs shows how the lessons that Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton drew from Vietnam have decisively shaped the justifications for and the conduct and media management of all subsequent interventions. While policy makers have sought to minimize U.S. casualties, their major concern about foreign (especially civilian) casualties has been to keep images of such deaths from appearing on television.

These books, read together, convey a powerful sense of just how self-absorbed our response to Vietnam has been. In recent years, so much homage has been paid to the service of Vietnam veterans, with so little desire to know the worst of the policies that they served. So much postwar concern has been expressed about the recovery of American power and pride, with so little attention given to the wreckage that such imperial arrogance produced in Vietnam.

What we really need to recover is a greater understanding of alternative, dissenting memories of the war, and a greater curiosity about Vietnam and the Vietnamese.

By focusing so exclusively on American subjects -- and narrow ones at that -- most of the books here unwittingly contribute to the cultural narcissism they criticize. That is a shame, because there is a growing body of new work about the Vietnamese experience of the war. Lady Borton's 1995 memoir, After Sorrow: An American Among the Vietnamese, is full of fascinating stories about the lives of ordinary Vietnamese over the past half-century. Borton, a Quaker activist, is fluent in Vietnamese and has divided her time between Vietnam and Ohio since she first went to Quang Ngai, in 1969, with the American Friends Service Committee.

Karen Turner, a historian at the College of the Holy Cross, has written another important new book. Even the Women Must Fight: Memories of War From North Vietnam draws on interviews with some of the nearly 200,000 Vietnamese women who served in the military in various capacities.

Alongside those two books, I recommend two anthologies of fiction and poetry that include both Vietnamese and American voices: Writing Between the Lines, edited by the poets and Vietnam veterans Kevin Bowen and Bruce Weigl, and The Other Side of Heaven, edited by Wayne Karlin, a novelist and Vietnam veteran; Le Minh Khue, a novelist and veteran of the North Vietnamese People's Army of Vietnam; and Truong Vu, a scholar and veteran of the South Vietnamese armed forces. In the first anthology, we find this stanza from the Vietnamese-American poet and translator Nguyen Ba Chung:

Let's gather what remains of our memories
It's all that we have at the close of our life
Warring days and nights make us wonder
Should the bundle we gather be empty or full?
Christian G. Appy, an associate professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the author of Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (University of North Carolina Press, 1993).

Books Cited in This Essay

After Sorrow: An American Among the Vietnamese, by Lady Borton (Kodansha International, 1995).

Carried to the Wall: American Memory and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, by Kristin Ann Hass (University of California Press, 1998).

Echoes of Combat: The Vietnam War in American Memory, by Fred Turner (Anchor Books, 1996).

Even the Women Must Fight: Memories of War From North Vietnam, by Karen Gottschang Turner with Phan Thanh Hao (John Wiley & Sons, 1998).

The Other Side of Heaven: Postwar Fiction by Vietnamese and American Writers, edited by Wayne Karlin, Le Minh Khue, and Truong Vu (Curbstone Press, 1995).

The Scar That Binds: American Culture and the Vietnam War, by Keith Beattie (New York University Press, 1998).

The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, by Jerry Lembcke (New York University Press, 1998)

Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering, by Marita Sturken (University of California Press, 1997).

Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy, by Arnold R. Isaacs (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

Writing Between the Lines: An Anthology on War and Its Social Consequences, edited by Kevin Bowen and Bruce Weigl (University of Massachusetts Press, 1997).