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"The extensive website, which has been up for months, largely describes a war of valor and honor that would be unrecognizable to many of the Americans who fought in and against it," the Times reports. (Screenshot: vietnamwar50th.com)

Pentagon Accused of Whitewashing History of Vietnam War Era

Scholars, veterans, war critics say Department of Defense shouldn't be in charge of writing military history

Deirdre Fulton

More than 500 scholars, veterans, and activists have signed a petition demanding the chance to correct the Pentagon’s sanitized version of Vietnam-era history, the New York Times reported Friday. 

The Pentagon is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War by holding events around the country, providing educational materials about the war to schools, and launching a website that features an interactive historical timeline.

"All of us remember that the Pentagon got us into this war in Vietnam with its version of the truth. If you conduct a war, you shouldn’t be in charge of narrating it."
—Tom Hayden

"But the extensive website, which has been up for months, largely describes a war of valor and honor that would be unrecognizable to many of the Americans who fought in and against it," the Times reports. "Leading Vietnam historians complain that it focuses on dozens of medal-winning soldiers while giving scant mention to mistakes by generals and the years of violent protests and anguished debate at home."

For example, the site omits mention of the Fulbright hearings in the U.S. Senate, during which Secretary of State John Kerry—then a young Vietnam veteran—asked, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

Earlier this year, journalist Nick Turse cataloged some of the website's "flawed history" at TomDispatch, prompting the government to revise its description of the My Lai massacre from "My Lai Incident" to "American Division Kills Hundreds of Vietnamese Citizens at My Lai."

When history is revised, Turse wrote, there's more at stake than inaccurate facts:

The United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration website asserts that its “content will not contain misleading information or unsubstantiated claims,” but instead be “evaluated for fairness and acceptability as being in the best interest of the public.”  The site goes on to claim that it will “provide the American public with historically accurate materials and interactive experiences,” but the timeline suggests other motives at play. 

You don’t need cybernetic eye implants and immersive propaganda portals to alter history.  You don’t need a digital David Petraeus or a President Bush avatar to distract you from the truth.  You don’t need to wait decades to have disinformation beamed into your head.  You just need a constant stream of misleading information, half truths, and fictions to be promoted, pushed, and peddled until they are accepted as fact.

Anti-war activist Tom Hayden and the other 1960s-era figures who helped him gather signatures for the petition—including the civil rights leader Julian Bond; Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the top-secret Pentagon Papers; and Peter Yarrow of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary—aren't quibbling with the government's aim of honoring veterans. But they do have a problem with leaving the military in charge of telling the whole story.

"All of us remember that the Pentagon got us into this war in Vietnam with its version of the truth," Hayden said in a recent telephone interview with the Times. "If you conduct a war, you shouldn’t be in charge of narrating it."


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