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We’ll Win this Time. If Only ( . . . )

Jerry Lembcke

Myths about the home-front betrayal of troops fighting abroad die a hard death. The cover story of Newsweek magazine's November 16 edition divined the American experience in Vietnam for lessons applicable to the present conflict in Afghanistan. Under the headline "How we (could have) won in Vietnam," writers Evan Thomas and John Barry give credence to claims that the U.S. military in Vietnam was "stabbed in the back by its civilian leaders." If President Lyndon Johnson had moved more aggressively in 1965 to "take the war to enemy," and Congress had not cut off funding to South Vietnam in the later years, the outcome might have been different-aver Thomas and Barry. The middle path sought by President Obama in Afghanistan, they add, risks repeating those mistakes.

A week after Newsweek invoked the relevance of Vietnam for today's military strategists, Nicholas Kulish recalled in a piece for The New York Times that U.S. soldiers returning from Vietnam "faced epithets from protesters." Kulish doesn't specify the epithets but we know from other accounts that "baby killer" is said to be among them, and that the radicals hurling those hurtful words sometimes spat on the veterans-or so the stories go. Headlined "No Parade for Hans," Kulish couches his reprise of post-Vietnam America as a cautionary tale for Germans who he says are responding with indifference to their soldiers back from the middle east but the message for American readers even thinking about opposing a surge in Afghanistan is clear: don't. Criticism of the war on terror is tantamount to betrayal of the troops.

The backstory to the Newsweek and Times articles is the lost U.S. war in Vietnam, and the reluctance of many Americans to accept the fact that a small developing nation of out-gunned Asians defeated the best funded and most technologically advanced military force on earth. The loss of the war was a blow to the nation's sense of superiority and military pride; the attribution of that loss to back-stabbing on the home front a face-saving alibi that worked to say: "They didn't defeat us. We defeated ourselves. And we can win wars like Vietnam in the future if we just stay loyal to the mission, give the military planners what they want to fight the war they want to fight, and support the troops."

The alibi turned the war inward making it a story of America at war with itself. The story of Americans against Americans occluded the actual war in Vietnam and erased the Vietnamese people, leaving as the only lessons to be learned those about the war at home. Thus, Thomas and Barry in their Newsweek piece can acknowledge the preponderance of historical research concluding that the real war, the one against the Vietnamese, could not have been won, and yet by directing our attention away from the jungles, deltas, and cities of Vietnam to the halls of Congress in Washington, put forth a hypothetical war that could have been won.

Kulish, meanwhile, invokes the fictive image of protesters assailing GIs and veterans, thereby displacing from public memory what actually happened: thousands of soldiers turned against the war and joined the movement to end it. Curiously, given the origins of the Dolchstosslegende, or stab-in-the-back legend in the period following Germany's defeat in World War I, Kulish returns the American variation of the theme back to its birthplace for our consideration. The twofold effect of that removal is to separate American readers from an engagement with the myth in their own political culture, and to inoculate Germans against the role of legend in their interwar history.

The belief that the United States could have won the war in Vietnam if (. . .) is mythical, not so much because of the empirical evidence weighing against it, as the notions of invincibility and righteousness it sustains. The unsettledness left by six years of combat in Iraq and the prospect of months more fighting in Afghanistan with no prospect of honorable victory are echoing forty-year-old questions about the vulnerability of deployed soldiers and the legitimacy of super-power military presence in the developing world.

A global political climate with that kind of risk and uncertainty invites the contortions of history given us by Newsweek and the Times. At the same time, the appearance of articles like these that would fill our gaps in knowledge with emotions and imagination testify to the seductiveness of the age-old wartime betrayal narrative, keeping alive the hope that this time things could turn out differently. If only ( . . . ).


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Jerry Lembcke

Jerry Lembcke

Jerry Lembcke is Associate Professor of Sociology at the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. He is the author of "The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam" (2000), "CNN's Tailwind Tale: Inside Vietnam's Last Great Myth" (2003)  and more recently "Hanoi Jane: War, Sex, and Fantasies of Betrayal" (2010). He can be reached at jlembcke@holycross.edu

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