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Vietnam: A State of Mind

or why Hanoi Jane won't go away

Who me?
A couple weeks ago, President Obama lifted the US arms ban on Vietnam, bringing to an end a chapter in our history many of us tried to forget.  It is still a "communist country," although it has adopted an economic model similar to China and is open for trade.  Vietnam is part of the Trans Pacific Partnership and a key part of our overall strategy to counter China economically and to some degree militarily in the Pacific Rim.  Quite a reversal from our time there 40 years ago, when we were forced to pull out of the country with our tails between our legs.

The Fall of Saigon remains vivid in some persons' minds, given the memes and screeds that continue to pop up on facebook, like this one penned by CMSgt Ronald Sampson castigating Jane Fonda.  It dates back to 1999, beginning as a chain e-mail, but has been updated a few times over the years to further reflect the writer's indignation.   There is also a pic being widely used to honor Vietnam vets that actually comes from the movie Tropic Thunder.  I think it was initially meant as a joke but it seems many persons don't recognize Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr. (albeit in blackface) and Jack Black.  Then there are the constant reminders of all the homeless Vietnam vets and those who have been getting shoddy treatment at the VA and those who are just plain angry that persons like "Hanoi Jane" can get a presidential award, given the "traitorous" thing she did in standing up for the Vietnamese.

One figures the resurrection of Ronald's meme is in response to Obama dropping the arms ban.  It got less attention than his historic visit to Hiroshima, similarly condemned in memes, but there are those watchful eyes out there that monitor his every move and feel compelled to respond.  I think most of these people just exploit the Vietnam imagery.  For all we know this mysterious chief master sergeant may be made up too.  But, the meme sounds more compelling coming from someone who was presumably there to see "Hanoi Jane" in the flesh.

Ever since Vietnam we have been going through a catharsis that we still haven't quite brought to a conclusion.  We engaged in nasty wars in Central America and the Caribbean, got involved in civil wars in Central Asia, and ultimately went to war in Iraq to try to rid us of our demons from Vietnam.  Each time, we pretty much repeated the same mistakes on the ground, but the propaganda arm got better and the soldiers became packaged as genuine American heroes protecting our freedom.  If bad decisions were made, they were made in Washington.  Don't blame it on our boys and girls on the battlefield.  They are just there because they have been called to duty.

You cannot say a bad thing about our armed forces without being severely reprimanded, which is why I usually don't respond to these memes on facebook.  Patriotism has become a flag which we drape ourselves in, rather than confront hard issues.  This helps explain why Congress has yet to pass a comprehensive VA reform bill or numerous other efforts to help those vets who are genuinely struggling to get by.  Congress would rather squander its money on stealth fighter jets and war games in Europe than address the domestic issues that many vets face on a daily basis.

President Obama has chosen to address our past demons in a different way by reaching out to the countries that have been and some that are still considered to be our mortal enemies.  Most of us have gotten past Vietnam.  It is far away and poses no imminent threat to the US or Israel.  But, sadly Cuba and Iran still remain in the crosshairs of vengeful patriots who aren't ready to normalize relations with these two countries.

Happier bipartisan days
A large part of Vietnam's rehabilitation stems from its willingness to let the US track down POWs and MIA thought to be still in the country.  John Kerry and John McCain, both Vietnam War vets, co-sponsored the resolution after their famous visit to Hanoi in 1993.  This brought to an end the trade embargo and opened the door to normalization that has been ongoing for the last 20+ years.

The US never apologized for its actions, which resulted in anywhere from 1.5 to 3.5 million deaths on the ground.  It's not just the war between 1965-75 but the war that preceded it as well, as we were active supporters of the French effort in Indochina dating back to 1954.  We were determined to maintain a firewall in Vietnam against the spread of communism.  Unfortunately for everyone involved, we failed.

It is this failure that haunts us.  The US truly believes it is the vanguard of Democracy in the "Free World," and has taken on the responsibility to defend it regardless of whether the circumstances are favorable or not.  Unlike the other proxy wars we engaged in during the Cold War, we got directly involved in Vietnam over what we perceived to be an attack on our naval forces in the Gulf of Tonkin in August, 1964.  This led to a rapid acceleration in deployments the following year, reinstatement of the draft and a draining of our budget that threatened the long term sustainability of the Civil Rights Act and other hard-earned social programs that had been initiated during the Kennedy-Johnson administration.  Ultimately, the Vietnam War became Johnson's undoing, and paved the way for Richard Nixon to win the White House in 1968, the great Cold Warrior himself.

The war became hugely unpopular.  Protests and rallies were being held throughout the country.  Jane Fonda, along with Donald Sutherland and Fred Gardner, had created a Free the Army tour, a vaudeville act that went up and down the West Coast trying to establish dialogue through comedy with soldiers about their upcoming deployments to Vietnam.  She was also active in groups like Vietnam Veterans Against the War, before embarking on a Pacific Rim tour with FTA during the summer of 1972.  When she reported back the atrocities that were being committed by the US in Vietnam, she earned almost universal condemnation.  She has since apologized for that chapter in her life, especially for the photos that earned her the nasty title.

In the overall scope of things, Jane Fonda's anti-war crusade had virtually no impact, but the press had found a convenient foil and one that has been dredged up time and again to show the ungrateful nature of the Hollywood liberal elite toward our armed forces.  All liberals for that matter, as clearly we don't know the costs of war.  It doesn't matter that many returning vets, notably Ron Kovic, were just as much against the war as Jane, it's a convenient image to exploit, which is why the Hanoi Jane meme still makes the rounds 17 years after it first appeared.


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