… we are quick to seek pity, as if the Vietnamese had invaded our country, but seem to have little capacity to feel pity for the lives we took.
Historians call it “revisionism” when events are redefined to fit a particular narrative.*
In psychology, the term “rationalization” is used in a similar context to explain away bad behavior; some call it excuse-making.
Both words underscore a human need to maintain a feeling of contentment with who we are, what we have done, and how we think. We generally don’t question our beliefs, because doing so works against our state of well-being. Questioning stokes doubt and provokes unrest, or what psychologists call dissonance.
Unfortunately, for some this blog is a source of dissonance. It questions many of the assertions about the Vietnam War that have been repeated so often, and with such conviction, that we have come to accept them as absolute truths.
While many acknowledge the tragedy that was the Vietnam War, more react with denial, and at times anger, at the suggestion that America did wrong. Rather than recognizing the estimated 2 to 3 million men, women, and children killed during our time in Vietnam as our human equals, we remain fixated on the 58,200 American lives that are memorialized in Washington.
Adding indifference to rationalization and historical revisionism, we have conveniently forgotten the Vietnamese, as if to say only American lives matter.
More cynical than historical revisionism is rhetorical revisionism. Chief among these is the term “collateral damage” our euphemism for “mass murder.” The death of innocent civilians is unapologetically written off as “collateral damage.” What a grotesque denial of life. “Mass murder” is unappealing and makes one feel uncomfortable, so we revise, rationalize, and dumb it down into something considerably less offensive and less understood: “collateral damage.”
Imagine saying the same about the 3,000 who died on 9/11: “Well, you know, we live in a world of terrorist, so ‘collateral damage’ is an expected outcome – learn to accept it.”
Uttering these words would be appalling to Americans, yet we toss this term around like loose change when referring to the casualties of foreigners.
Ironically, we are quick to seek pity, as if the Vietnamese had invaded our country, but seem to have little capacity to feel pity for the lives we took.
We weep for comrades lost, express a need for honoring our Vets (particularly since they were treated poorly upon returning from Vietnam), and hear how those who fought are still dealing with the demons of war that followed them home.
There’s nothing wrong with any of this until one turns the question around and asks about the losses of the Vietnamese. It’s then that the conversation is met with silence as if to suggest it was all a myth. This is the ultimate act of revisionism and rationalization, especially as it runs contrary to our beliefs and the principles upon which our great nation was founded – equality for all.
It’s for this reason that we created A Vietnam Memorial of One. Its goal is to put aside the revisionism and rationalizations about the Vietnam war and instead to focus on that which is most basic – human life – theirs and ours, as one.
If we are sincere in showing respect for American lives, we should show respect for all lives. If we don’t, history will not only repeat itself but will come back to haunt us in the most terrible way.
Here are more examples of historical revisionism regarding the Vietnam War. There are many more but these are some of the most significant:
• It has long been argued that the US needed to invade Vietnam to stem the spread of Communism. But a closer look at history tells us this is not correct. Even the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara (see video below) who served during the Vietnam War, admitted years later that we had mistaken a civil war for communist aggression.
• Not until the Pentagon Papers were leaked did we learn the North Vietnamese leader, Ho Chi Minh, had made many appeals for independence and support from the US. In fact, he sent a total of 11 telegrams and letters to President Truman between 1945 and 1946. All were ignored then, much as they are ignored as historical fact today; they don’t fit the comforting narrative that suggests Ho was the aggressor.
• The party that Ho helped establish in 1945 – the Viet Minh – worked with the OSS Deer Team (today’s CIA) in support of the US during WWII and fought the Japanese forces that occupied Vietnam. Yet, despite their heroic efforts and support for the United States, the will of the Vietnamese was ignored as the US lent support to France’s oppressive occupation of Vietnam following WWII.
• The Tonkin Gulf incidents of August 2 and August 4, 1964, were the events that led to a resolution of the same name. There was, however, a lot of controversy surrounding these events although this was not publicly disclosed at the time. In 2005, the NSA issued a memo stating that there was no incident on 4 August 1964, when the US accused North Vietnamese Navy boats of attempting to torpedo the USS Maddox.
I recently read a chronology on Vietnam (on Facebook) written by a retired Colonel, who stated: “North Vietnamese Defense Minister Vo Nguyen Giap told Robert McNamara that the attack occurred.” However, what the good Colonel left out of his historical assessment was mention of the August 4 incident, which Giap told McNamara during the same meeting “never happened.” This example reinforces the thrust of my argument – we believe that which best fits our feel-good narrative and discard the rest, as the retired Colonel did in this instance.
* Historical revisionism was widely employed in the Soviet Union as history books throughout the USSR were re-written to underscore the greatness of Marxism-Leninism. Events and the backgrounds of many were altered to fit the Soviet scenario. As illustrated in the picture below, some who fell out of favor with the regime were literally removed from its pages.