Thursday, December 20, 2007

Vietnam: What we know now that we didn't know then

Who Owns the Vietnam War?

Above all, antiwar activists and critics of American policy in the media denied their own moral responsibility for what happened in Vietnam and Indochina once the policy they themselves had vociferously advocated—namely, withdrawal and disengagement—was carried out. When, four years after the fall of Saigon, Joan Baez, Richard John Neuhaus, and other former antiwar activists tried to draw attention to the plight of Vietnam’s boat people and the brutal tyranny that had been established in that country, their former comrades, led by celebrities like Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda, denounced them as “stooges” and CIA agents. “Even if the [North] Vietnamese had chosen the course of mass executions and plunder,” one of these former comrades stated in a letter, “it would have been our own strategies of terror and brutality that drove them to it.”

This collapse of ethical and intellectual integrity would have consequences far beyond Vietnam. In the decades to come, the Vietnam myth would justify the Left’s instinctual opposition to America’s efforts to contain Communist aggression in Latin America in the 1980’s, its characterization of the 1991 Gulf war as a campaign of “blood for oil,” and its denunciations of our interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11. The need to prop up the same myth in the face of a contradictory reality would fuel the “paranoid style” of leftist conspiracy-mongering in films like Oliver Stone’s JFK, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911, and most recently and blatantly Loose Change, which argues that the Twin Towers were brought down by agents of the Bush administration. And, as President Bush discovered last August, it remains potent enough to trigger the most irrational and rhetorically violent responses when anyone dares challenge its proprietary construction of what the Vietnam war was in fact all about, and what are its lessons.

Historical analogies are never entirely accurate. They may not even be useful. But it remains true that our present and future actions are always based, to some extent, on our evaluation of past experience. Generals are often accused of fighting the last war. This is something that, when it comes to Vietnam, liberals and leftists have been doing for more than three decades, by refusing to confront (in words Peter Marin once flung in the face of American authorities) “their own culpability” and “their own capacity for error and excess.” Whatever the differences or similarities between Vietnam and Iraq, or between Vietnam and our global war with Islamic radicalism, the real analogy between then and now may lie in this tenacious refusal of self-examination by the liberal Left—especially when the facts utterly contravene its reflexive indictment of the motives, purposes, and actions of the American government.

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