My “uncle” would not go to Vietnam. Some of his friends fled to Canada. Others loped off part of their trigger fingers. He settled on a less permanent escape. The night before his Army evaluation he chugged coffee and pounded bars of butter. When he showed up the next morning, the tester gasped at his blood pressure readings. Normal blood pressure is 120/80, but he racked up 100/150. He was a miracle to be alive, let alone fight in a war half across the globe.
Vietnam was the ignominious chapter when the American Empire got its dark streak. Man fought machine and man, unfortunately, won. If JFK’s assassination was when America lost its innocence at home, Vietnam was when America lost its innocence abroad. (see: The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964). Now, it wasn’t the first time the U.S. started a war under false pretenses (American Indian Wars, Mexican War, Spanish-American War) or the last (Iraq), but it was the first time America picked a fight and lost. And 58,159 of America’s finest paid the ultimate sacrifice. 58,159 sons, brothers, and fathers died because President Johnson couldn’t admit he was wrong.
American artists painted some of the country’s most vivid artwork against this murky canvas of imperialism and government deceit. Filmmakers and musicians fearlessly plunged into America’s throbbing wound and plucked out some of the rawest artwork the nation has ever seen it. Vietnam inspired the greatest war soundtrack (“American Woman" by The Guess Who, "Blowin' in the Wind" by Bob Dylan, "Born in the U.S.A." by Bruce Springsteen, alluding to The Siege of Khe Sanh, "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Gimme Shelter" by The Rolling Stones, "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?" by Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Revolution" by The Beatles, "Volunteers" by Jefferson Airplane, and "War Pigs" by Black Sabbath). Jaded disillusionment imbued some of the finest masterpieces for print (“The Things They Carried”) and the screen (“Full Metal Jacket”, “The Deer Hunter”, “Platoon”, “Born On The Fourth Of July”).
Vietnam cast a tall shadow over American psyche ever since. We have whispered whether each subsequent war would be the next Vietnam. America held her breath when she invaded the tiny island-nation of Grenada in 1983. Maybe it’s for this reason we never gave our Vietnam War heroes-turned-politicians a fair shake. Serviceman John Kerry was a true American war hero. He earned two Purple Hearts for his valor in saving the lives of his crew. But when he returned home he was America’s most hardened war critic. He tossed his medals onto the White House lawn in disgust. He was the first Vietnam solider to testify against the war. There was nary a dry eye in Congress in 1974 when Kerry asked, “How can you ask a man to be the last to die for a mistake?”
Thirty years later though, Democratic Presidential nominee John Kerry was painted as the effete, flip-flopping elitist who lied about his war record in the Swift Boats imbroglio. Never mind that President Bush spent the war defending South Texas from the impending Vietnam air menace (when he showed up at all). No, it was John Kerry who was vilified as the most glaring reminder of our most chronicled defeat. Four years later, pundits openly discussed how John McCain’s Vietnam selfless imprisonment rendered him mentally unsound for Presidency.
It’s tragic that America looked the other way so quickly. Our Vietnam heroes have offered some of the sagest advice for the War on Terror. John McCain was one of the earliest and adamant proponents of the Surge, which—in tandem with the Anbar Awakening—pulled Iraq back from the precipice. We need John Kerry, now on the other side of the Congressional tables, asking: How can you ask a man to be the last to die for Hamid Karzai?
The War On Terror
I accidentally did my part for the War on Terror propaganda effort. And it’s all thanks to this YouTube video.
The video was four years old, but I figured timeless for Labor Day 2009. I posted it on Facebook, Twitter, and went to sleep. When I woke up, the clip was viral. The Huffington Post snatched it up first, then CNN, then the world. MSNBC hailed the clip as the “feel-good moment” of Fall 2009.
I never did get to meet the brave serviceman or his adorable pup Gracie, but I was pleased to see he landed on a couple talk-shows for the video. The best part? All proceeds from the 2 million Youtube views (and counting) are donated to the Alexandria, VA, shelter where little Gracie was adopted—totaling $602 so far.
We all remember where we were that September morning when the second plane hit, confirming this was no mistake. This was an act of war. 19 Islamic fanatics hijacked turned our airplanes into killing machines, our landmarks into tombs. W recovered from his infamous 6 minute “My Pet Goat” space-out and became our Cheerleader-In-Chief.
“We are all Americans” headlined Le Monde the next day. We got goose bumps when Bush held that rally on top of the rubble of the World Trade Center. American flags adorned every corner. Mayor Rudy Giuliani (Time’s 2001 Person Of The Year) appeared on Letterman and told us we could laugh again.
But then Bush told us to be patriotic. Go to Wal-Mart. We teamed up with Northern Alliance and toppled the Taliban, pushed al Qaeda into the Pakistan hinterlands. And Bush took his eye off Afghanistan and got tunnel vision for Iraq. Bush, Cheney, and Rummy blurred the lines. They told us Iraq was behind 9/11. They told us Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. And we bought it. Hook, line, and sinker. It wasn’t hard. Bush told us Saddam Hussein tried to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger. And Colin Powell, yes, even Colin Powell, flashed that vial of anthrax at the UN. Washington lunchrooms renamed French fries “freedom fries”.
Bush made the world pick sides: “You’re either with us or against us.” And the world didn’t pick Saddam, but the world didn’t exactly pick Bush either. The War on Terror polarized into us vs. them, black vs. white absolutes. But what followed was a slippery slope decent into the seedy underworld of secret CIA prisons and the grayish nether reaches of legality and morality. Water-boarding, suspending habeas corpus, Abu Ghraib, torture—the lasting buzz words of the War on Terror smacked more of the Medieval Ages than the world’s lone Superpower in the early 21st century.
The mission was never accomplished, and we never found Iraq’s connection to 9/11 or the WMDs. Americans still don’t know the details, and more troublesome, they just don’t care. 1/3 of FOX News viewers polled believe we really did find WMDs in Iraq (compared to 5% of NPR listeners). Ironic because everything Iraq was supposed to be—an Islamic threat to regional stability, bent on nuclear power—Iran is. The CIA learned Saddam Hussein made up his weapon of mass destruction bluster because he was so scared of Iran. But Second Term President Bush was chastened. His political capital spent. W listened to Condoleezza, fired Rummy, and the centrifuges in Nawaz kept on spinning…