November 23, 2014

I’ve been thinking a lot about women and war lately — partly because I’m teaching a course on the subject in the spring, but also because these photos caught my eye as I searched online for pictures of women in Afghanistan:

Images of war-torn Afghanistan and stories about violence and discrimination against women make it difficult to believe that the Afghanistan in these photographs ever actually existed. Earlier this week, Shukria Barakzai, a member of Afghanistan’s parliament and a women’s rights activist, survived an assassination attempt after a suicide bomber detonated explosives near her vehicle. Barakzai, who has been an MP for 10 years, has repeatedly received death threats. She is an outspoken critic of the Taliban, and she once operated a secret girls school during the Taliban’s reign. The assassination attempt on Barakzai made international headlines because of her political status, but the threat of violence in various forms is part of Afghan women’s daily lives.

It may come as a surprise to some readers that throughout much of the 20th century, Afghan leaders enacted numerous laws advancing women’s freedom. In 1919, Amir Amanullah Khan authorized women’s suffrage — a year before American women received the right to vote — and abolished dress codes for women as part of his national modernization program. His wife, Queen Soraya, opened a girls’ school in Kabul in 1921 and appeared unveiled in public. Subsequent Afghan leaders continued promoting the education of women and girls, raised the legal age of marriage, and abolished polygamy and state-enforced veiling. Progressive legislation regarding women’s rights was not without its critics, who tended to be in the more conservative, tradition-bound rural areas. Certain rulings, such as the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan’s banning of the burqa in 1978, fueled armed revolts in the countryside. Political unrest culminated in war with the Soviet Union, which lasted for nearly a decade and was followed by a civil war that led to the rise of the Taliban in 1996.

The Taliban reversed progressive gender legislation and forbade women from working outside the home, going out in public without a male relative, going to school after the age of eight, and being treated by a male doctor. Taliban law also required women to be fully covered in public, allowed child marriage, and authorized corporal punishment such as whipping and stoning to be used against women. Horia Mosadiq, Afghanistan researcher for Amnesty International UK, believes that 35 years of militarization and war is to blame for the status of women in Afghanistan today. She remembers her mother in miniskirts and her aunt as a college student in the 1970s, but, she says in an interview with Amnesty UK, the Soviet war along with U.S. and CIA support of the mujahideen, created the conditions that allowed the Taliban to seize power. Since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, stories about Afghan women’s lives have been part of the broader narrative about U.S. and NATO efforts to modernize Afghanistan.

Yet linking the modernization of Afghan women’s lives to Western intervention misses much of 20th century Afghan history. In 2013, the New York Times asked Afghans, via Facebook, to offer their thoughts about Western involvement in Afghanistan over the past decade, and several respondents pointed out that Afghan leaders had written women’s civil rights into law in the early 1920s, in the 1964 Constitution, and in the 1977 Civil Code. The concept of Afghan women’s rights is not a “Western” thing. Before war began tearing Afghanistan apart in the 1980s, Afghan women earned university degrees, had careers, and enjoyed personal freedoms. Class determined which Afghan women had access to certain opportunities, and urban elite women were the primary beneficiaries of Afghan modernization efforts, but the potential for the expansion of women’s rights was there. The sharp contrasts in images of Afghan women then and now show just how drastically war has transformed Afghan women’s lives. Twentieth-century Afghan history reveals that the conflict over women’s rights specifically and modernization more generally is not one that necessarily pits Afghanistan against the West but rather pits conservative Afghan elements against Afghans with a progressive vision for the future and, in some cases, a memory of Afghanistan’s modern past.

Further reading:

Remembering Afghanistan’s Golden Age. New York Times:

Afghans Share Their Views on the West’s Influence. New York Times:

Timeline of Women’s Rights in Afghanistan. PBS:

Women in Afghanistan: The Backstory. Amnesty International UK:

Scott Levi, The Long, Long Struggle for Women’s Rights in Afghanistan. Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective:

Female Afghan MP survives suicide attack. Al Jazeera English:

Maryam Zar, For women and girls in Afghanistan, not silence:—for-women-and_b_6187788.html

Afghanistan’s untold story: Stability, tourists, miniskirts. CNN:



November 9, 2014

This morning, as I read news and commentaries marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I found myself thinking about the messages I, a 14-year-old in November 1989, received about the wall, East and West Germany, and the Cold War in general from popular culture. Two songs, Elton John’s “Nikita” and “Wind of Change” by the Scorpions, quickly came to my mind. Both songs illustrate how pop culture packages complex issues, such as Cold War international relations, and delivers messages that make sense to young minds. In the mid- to late-80s, I wasn’t reading international news, but I have distinct memories of what I perceived to be the world situation at that time, and it came largely from MTV, pop music radio, and movies. This was not frivolous — pop culture portrayals of the Cold War reached millions of people throughout the world and probably shaped more opinions — for better or for worse — than foreign policy analysts did.

Neither song is exclusively about the Berlin Wall, and neither was released in 1989, but both deal with Cold War issues that the wall symbolized. “Nikita,” released in late-1985, tells the story of an East German woman border guard who is kept away from her would-be lover by the international politics of the Cold War. In the video, Elton John dreams of taking her to England, where they can do “free world” things together like watch soccer games and go bowling. At least, that’s the message my 10-year-old mind received when I listened to the song. Behind the “Iron Curtain,” people could not do the fun things we in the West could. Even now when I hear the song, I’m struck by how “Cold War” the song’s imagery is:

Do you ever see the letters that I write?
When you look up through the wire,
Nikita, do you count the stars at night?

And if there comes a time
Guns and gates no longer hold you in
And if you’re free to make a choice
Just look towards the West and find a friend.

Censorship, barbed wire, barriers that divide people with the threat of military force, and the hope for a future where those in the Eastern bloc will have the freedom to connect with their friends and supporters in the West — this imagery was Western pop culture shorthand for Cold War foreign relations between NATO and Warsaw Pact countries. Obviously, the message in “Nikita” was a simplistic take on extremely complicated international affairs, which is often what happens when pop culture forms attempt to distill complex issues. But the messages reach a broad audience and have an impact. For young American ears hearing this song in the mid-’80s, Eastern Europe was isolated, oppressive, and forbidden. At the time, I thought I would never be able to go there.

But then, 25 years ago, the Berlin Wall came down, symbolizing the start of major global transformations. The Scorpions’ “Wind of Change,” released as a single in January 1991, expressed the cautious optimism that accompanied the end of the Cold War, and that the Scorpions are a German band heightened the drama of the song’s portrayal of that historical moment. The video features brief footage of Potsdamer Platz in 1961 during the construction of the Berlin Wall and, later, the destruction of the wall, as well as clips of Tiananmen Square and Mikhail Gorbachev shaking hands with Pope John Paul II. “Wind of Change” reached number 4 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and number 2 on the UK Singles chart, and it was the 1991 year-end number 1 single in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. The song’s international popularity suggests the power of its hopeful view of the emerging post-Cold War world. Could Scorpions front man Klaus Meine, or the young Germans celebrating as the Berlin Wall crumbled, or anyone, have predicted the violent, tense world of 2014?


October 16, 2014

The Pentagon’s Vietnam War 50th anniversaries commemoration series made the news again earlier this month after a group of 500 Vietnam War scholars, Vietnam veterans, and former antiwar activists sent a petition to the series organizers demanding that the series be revised to incorporate antiwar perspectives. I, as well as others, have criticized the series as an attempt to recast U.S. military intervention in Vietnam as a noble cause (click here for my May 2013 post). Veterans for Peace, a Vietnam vets group, has created an alternative commemoration series called “Full Disclosure: Toward an Honest Commemoration of the American War in Vietnam“. Tom Hayden, one of the founders of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and a leading ’60s activist in the antiwar movement, said this to a New York Times reporter about the Pentagon’s Vietnam commemoration program: “If you conduct a war, you shouldn’t be in charge of narrating it.” Common Dreams picked up the story and highlighted Hayden’s quote.

At issue is who should write the history of the Vietnam War and whose experiences should be part of the narrative. Hayden believes that the U.S. government body responsible for perpetrating the war should not be entrusted to commemorate accurately the havoc the war wreaked on Vietnam and the American social fabric. The Defense Department has a vested interest in creating a public memory of the Vietnam War that highlights the sacrifices of veterans, civil-military cooperation, and military technologies developed during the war. Acknowledging atrocities, PTSD, and home front opposition to the war would require policy makers and military leaders to grapple with tough questions about the decisions that led to and escalated U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict. Nearly forty years after the war ended, perhaps Pentagon officials see an opportunity to cultivate a sanitized public memory of the war, and aging antiwar activists such as Hayden are worried that their commitment to ending the conflict will fade from the narrative of one of the most controversial events in U.S. history.

However, Hayden’s argument that participants in an event shouldn’t write the history of it applies to the antiwar movement as well. Those who fought against the war are also invested in a particular memory of it, and Hayden, Todd Gitlin, Staughton Lynd, Amy Swerlow, and other activists have written histories of the antiwar movement that present a view of the Vietnam War that, in its own way, is as narrow as the Pentagon’s. As long as Americans, military and civilian, cling to their decades-old beliefs about the war, we will not be able to appreciate its complexities and truly understand its impact. UC-Berkeley historian and Vietnam expert Peter Zinoman’s recent review of Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves drives home this point. Americans’ unquestioning acceptance of the conventional wisdom regarding Vietnam War atrocities allowed Turse to write a book that has received considerable acclaim even though it does not offer much that is new about the range of violence that devastated civilians in South Vietnam during the war. Zinoman’s point is not that we should quit talking about atrocities but that we should examine wartime terrorism in all its forms, including those unleashed by the National Liberation Front and North Vietnamese Army on Vietnamese civilians.

Zinoman’s review speaks to a larger issue about American memory of the Vietnam War — we call it the “Vietnam War,” but we think of it as an American event. This is why Vietnamese voices remain marginalized, if not silent, in the Vietnam War narrative. Instead of writing a story about Tom Hayden’s frustration with the Vietnam 50th series, why didn’t the New York Times interview Vietnamese people who came to the U.S. after the war? It would be enlightening to know what they and their families think of how Americans remember the conflict. Hayden expressed his concern that the Pentagon series does not mention Daniel Ellsberg, but I wonder if he thought at all about the missing Vietnamese voices. Thankfully, historians such as Pierre Asselin, Philip Catton, Jessica Chapman, Edward Miller, and Lien-Hang Nguyen have written books based on research in Vietnam, and their work has established a foundation on which other historians of the Vietnam War can build a more complex and dispassionate narrative that moves away from the politicized debates between the military and New Left establishments about what happened and how Americans should remember the war.

The Vietnam War is much bigger than the American experience of it. We should never forget the sacrifices of veterans or the courage of those who spoke out against the war, but we must finally start focusing on the multiple Vietnamese sides of the story as well. That Americans continue arguing about the same stories using the same voices forty years after the war ended demonstrates an arrogance that is not unlike the hubris that drove U.S. military intervention in Vietnam. The war wasn’t just about Americans, and there is a lot more to remember beyond what it did to American society. There are Vietnamese on both sides of the Pacific who are still trying to make sense of and heal from the conflict.


September 29, 2014

With pledges of assistance from allies around the world, and the approval of Congress, President Obama has launched a military response to the Islamic State (IS), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The intervention will include targeted airstrikes and increased humanitarian aid. The president has emphasized that the U.S. will not deploy ground troops to fight IS, although some military leaders, including Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have suggested that defeating IS will eventually require ground forces, be they American or otherwise. U.S. public opinion regarding the president’s plan is mixed. According to poll results published in the New York Times, Americans generally support the use of airstrikes but are wary about another U.S. war in the Middle East. They have good reason to be—in addition to military leaders such as Dempsey, foreign policy analysts and even the president have alluded to this latest war in Iraq being a long one.

What to do after the war does not appear to be part of the conversation. U.S. military strategists and policymakers believe it will be difficult to defeat IS, and they are concerned about the risk of IS remnants morphing into another terrorist group in the aftermath. It seems obvious that the end of IS will not spell the end of Islamic extremism, so what will the U.S. and its global partners, so keen to launch airstrikes, do to neutralize the threat of recurring terrorism after this war ends? What are the political solutions that will prevent the next terrorist group from surfacing?

Since 1945, counterinsurgency has been central to the American way of war as the method for bringing about long-term political change, but it has rarely been successful. In the past decade, the U.S. failed to win enough hearts and minds in Iraq and Afghanistan to bring stability to those places, which is not so much about methods as it is about the foreigners who bring them. As Karl Eikenberry, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, has noted, “Historically, visionary indigenous leaders backed by native populations have been the key to building viable states—not foreigners serving one-year tours of duty, no matter how passionate and skilled they might be.”[1] In the case of building a secure Iraq, Iraqi intellectuals can play a central role. Foreign policy conversations in the U.S. must begin focusing on how local intellectuals can establish a viable state and prevent another extremist group from rising out of the ashes of IS if the U.S. and its allies can destroy it. Looking beyond airstrikes, U.S. policymakers should reach out to groups such as the Initiative of Iraqi Intellectuals for the Unity of Iraq, which for the past few months has been circulating a statement online calling for a UN-supervised conference of reconciliation and a restoration of democratic political institutions by an Iraqi coalition that transcends sectarian lines. The statement blames the U.S. military for creating the current mess in Iraq and calls for international political support rather than force. Neither this group, nor the activism of other Iraqi intellectuals, including a group of university professors who founded a campaign called “Stop the Iraqi Bloodshed,” has received much coverage in the U.S. media, but these may be the groups that can bring lasting political change to Iraq.[2] They appear to be homegrown, not lackeys of the U.S., and they are media- and Internet-savvy. The Initiative of Iraqi Intellectuals for the Unity of Iraq has used blogs to gain attention to its statement, which as of June had 1,300 signatures. Members of Stop the Iraqi Bloodshed have broadcast videos of their demonstrations on YouTube. These are individuals who want political change and an end to civil war, so U.S. diplomats should figure out who they are, what their plans are, and how much support they have from the broader Iraqi population.

Now that the U.S. has widened its war against IS into Syria, Americans must confront the issue of what’s next there, too. In a speech to the United Nations last week, President Obama announced that the U.S. will arm and train moderate forces opposing the Assad government, and he called for a political settlement to end Syria’s civil war. The president said the U.S. is “prepared to engage in that effort,” but how? For now, Assad is allowing American fighter jets into Syrian air space to strike IS, and he has voiced support for U.S.-led air strikes, so is he now an ally? Just one year ago, President Obama was poised to go to war against Syria for Assad’s use of poisonous gas against his citizens. How will President Obama explain the arming of troops fighting Assad while enjoying Assad’s approval of U.S. warplanes over Syria? Who will lead the political settlement President Obama envisions?

As in Iraq, Syrian intellectuals may be the answer. In June, a group of Syrian intellectuals established the Syrian Association for Citizenship and New Culture, which issued a statement calling for an end to extremism and the establishment of democracy and good governance practices.[3] Danny Postel, associate director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, recently interviewed Syrian activists and intellectuals regarding U.S. military intervention against IS, and he encountered a variety of attitudes from opposition to ambivalence to support. The U.S. media should cover these individuals, and American diplomats should be in conversation with them.[4] President Obama, his advisers, and the U.S. Congress have decided that it is in America’s interest to fight a war against IS, but without a vision for long-term political stability and an alliance with Iraqis who can implement it, airstrikes and humanitarian aid will, at best, offer a pause in a never ending war against groups like IS in the Middle East.

[1] Karl W. Eikenberry, “The Limits of Counterinsurgency Doctrine in Afghanistan,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2013,

[2] Shukur Khilkhal, “Iraqi intellectuals start campaigns to end bloodshed,” Al-Monitor: The Pulse of the Middle East, Sept. 3, 2014,

[3] “Syrian Intellectuals Establish New Culture Association,” The Syrian Observer, June 2, 2014,

[4] “The War on ISIS: Views From Syrian Activists and Intellectuals,” by Danny Postel, Dissent: A Quarterly of Politics and Culture, Sept. 20, 2014,


September 29, 2014

HO CHI MINH CITY – On the afternoon of Sunday, May 25, Tran Thi Nga was on a motorbike in Hanoi with her two young children, heading home after visiting with blogger and human rights activist Nguyen Tuong Thuy. Along the way, a group of five men attacked the bike and beat Nga with metal pipes as her children, ages four and two, watched. She sustained injuries to her wrist and knee and was eventually taken by ambulance to a hospital. Very quickly, Vietnamese bloggers and human rights activists picked up Nga’s story and began telling it on websites and social media outlets, many of which are blocked here. Nga is not an ordinary citizen who became the victim of a crime. She is a member of Vietnamese Women for Human Rights and is an activist for land rights and religious freedom in Vietnam. Her attackers, according to the bloggers, were undercover police agents trying to scare her into silence.

Three days after pipe-wielding thugs attacked Nga, an online petition to the White House calling for sanctions against China for its confrontation with Vietnam in the South China Sea had received nearly 130,000 signatures. The number is well over the 100,000 needed by June 12 to get an official response. Here is how the White House should respond: The United States will not take sides in disputes between Vietnam and China until the Vietnamese government makes clear progress toward improving its nation’s human rights record. According to Human Rights Watch and the U.S. State Department, as well as Buddhist groups and bloggers who monitor Vietnamese politics, the Vietnamese government severely limits political rights such as freedom of speech and assembly. Some Vietnamese human rights activists would argue those rights do not even exist, although the Vietnamese government surprised observers last month when it allowed citizens to peacefully assemble in protest of Chinese actions in the South China Sea. Vietnam’s corrupt police and judicial system are central to the government’s suppression of civil liberties. Punishments for those who are arrested include beating, torture, and disappearance. The State Department’s 2013 report on human rights in Vietnam provides evidence of the extent of the abuses. Hanoi blogger Nguyen Van Dung was disappeared in 2013. Blogger Le Anh Hung, guilty of writing about government corruption, was placed in a mental institution by police officers against his will for two weeks at the end of January 2013. In May 2013, police seized the computer and cell phone of blogger Nguyen Hoang Vi and beat her, her sister, and her mother. The whereabouts of Buddhist monk Thich Tri Khai of the dissident Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, arrested in 2008, and Le Tri Tue of the Independent Workers Union, arrested in 2007, remain unknown. And that’s information gleaned from just the first three pages of the 46-page report. It also details the poor conditions of prisons, corruption at various levels of government, discrimination against women and minorities, and the harassment and arrests of land rights activists who have protested the government’s practice of confiscating land and forcing citizens to move to make way for infrastructure projects and state-owned enterprises. Vietnam’s human rights abuses are well-documented.

Some Vietnamese human rights activists have used Chinese actions in the South China Sea to push for political reform. On May 12, Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam leader Thich Quang Do, who has been under house arrest for twenty years, issued a declaration calling on the Vietnamese government to institute democratic reforms so that “all Vietnamese, including non-communist political parties and religious communities, may take part on an equal footing in the movement to stem foreign aggression and protect national integrity.” Tran Thi Nga participated in anti-China protests, seeing Chinese expansion as another threat to the freedom and human rights of Vietnamese citizens. The rhetoric of Vietnamese government officials and some protesters has cast China as a bully who is encroaching upon the freedoms of peace-loving Vietnam. The same could be said about the relationship between the Vietnamese government and its citizens. Plainclothes police brutes beat up a woman in front of her kids because she is a democracy activist, and Nga’s experience was not the first of its kind. China is a physical giant throwing its weight around international waters, but Vietnam’s practice of dispatching police to abuse citizens is domestic violence.

The U.S. should use the South China Sea tensions to take a stand against human rights violations in Vietnam. If Vietnam wants the U.S. to come to its defense, then the Vietnamese government must prove that it is better than its Chinese counterpart on the issue of human rights. Some activists here say the government is afraid of a “Vietnamese spring” if gives its citizens a taste of free speech and the right to assemble. Perhaps one will erupt, but the possibility does not justify Vietnam’s continued suppression of its citizens’ civil liberties. The U.S. has an unsavory history of backing authoritarian regimes when doing so seemed to be in its geopolitical interests, but here is a chance to buck that trend. There was a time when the U.S. sent troops to Vietnam under the pretense of democracy building. Perhaps withholding support until the Vietnamese government loosens its grip on citizens’ freedoms might be a more successful way to promote democracy.


September 29, 2014

HO CHI MINH CITY – As the early morning sky began to brighten over Ho Chi Minh City on Friday, May 23, 67-year-old Le Thi Tuyet Mai got out of a taxi at Independence Palace in front of the main gate, poured gasoline on her body, and set herself on fire. Vietnamese newspapers reported that palace guards rushed to put out the fire, but the woman died before they extinguished the flames. She had brought signs protesting China’s recent deployment of an oil rig to contested waters in the South China Sea, and, according to state-run media, her suicide was the latest expression of Vietnamese anger over Chinese belligerence. That is the official story.

The unofficial story, the one told in street side cafes and private conversations here, is that Ms. Mai’s self-immolation, the first reported in Vietnam since Thich Quang Duc burned himself in 1963 to protest the Ngo Dinh Diem regime, was a statement against China and the Vietnamese government. Ms. Mai was the director of the youth committee of the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), a dissident sect that has clashed with the Vietnamese government and whose leader, Thich Quang Do, has been under house arrest for twenty years. On May 12, Thich Quang Do issued a declaration calling on the Vietnamese government to institute democratic reforms so that “all Vietnamese, including non-communist political parties and religious communities, may take part on an equal footing in the movement to stem foreign aggression and protect national integrity.” Earlier this month, police in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi unexpectedly allowed citizens to take to the streets in protest of the Chinese ship Haiyang 981 moving into waters Vietnam claims. Citizens got only a taste of freedom of speech, though, as the government soon returned to its policy of cracking down on public protest out of concern that anti-government forces would use any gathering as an opportunity to denounce the Communist Party. Given the tensions between the UBCV and the Vietnamese government, Thich Quang Do’s call for democratization in the face of Chinese belligerence, and police suppression of anti-China protests in Vietnam, it would not be surprising if Ms. Mai intended her self-immolation to send a dual message.

Both messages were clear to Nickie Tran, the 35-year-old owner of a small seafood restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City not far from the Chinese consulate. She marched in the anti-China protests here earlier this month and is well-connected with Vietnamese bloggers and democracy activists, including those who have been arrested and beaten by police and plain clothes “security” agents working with law enforcement officials. Tran is mad at China, but she is equally mad at her own government for what she sees as its hypocrisy: the government is protesting China on the international stage while prohibiting its own citizens from doing so on Vietnam’s streets. Tran is especially angry because of the sacrifices her family has made in service to Vietnam’s Communist Party. As she has said to me several times, “No family is redder than my family.” Her father’s father fought with the Viet Minh against the French; her mother’s father fought the French and died fighting the Americans. Her parents were among the children of the revolutionary families whom the government sent to Russian universities to get their degrees. Now Tran feels as though she is fighting against her own government, the government that several generations of her family has supported, in order to have the right to protest Chinese belligerence. That national pride that motivated Vietnamese to stand up to France and the U.S. in the twentieth century is now being muffled by a government that appears more afraid of a crowd of its own citizens than its large and powerful neighbor to the north.

Tran thinks the government fears a “Vietnamese Spring” like the uprisings that swept across North Africa and the Middle East beginning in 2010 and toppled governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen. Ms. Mai’s suicide and the statement Thich Quang Do issued from his confinement are part of a chorus of Vietnamese voices that, through blogging and social media, are growing louder in their demands for freedom of speech and the right to assemble publicly. If young, social media savvy Vietnamese, who already know the attention they can get through blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, begin to explore the potential of public assembly, the Vietnamese government might face a serious threat for the first time in nearly forty years. Political leaders now must decide how much it is willing to allow public protest against China knowing that a taste of freedom could lead Vietnamese citizens to demand more. What is more threatening to the Vietnamese government: Chinese warships or Vietnamese democracy activists? Could China’s expansion lead to real democratic reforms in Vietnam?


September 29, 2014

On May 25, 2012, President Obama issued a proclamation launching a 13-year program to commemorate the 50th anniversaries of important dates in the Vietnam War.  The series began on Memorial Day 2012 with ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery and the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial and will end in 2025 with the 50th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.  In partnership with the Department of Defense, National Park Service, and Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, local governments, veterans groups, and civilian organizations throughout the U.S. will host events honoring Vietnam veterans for their service and acknowledging the contributions made by American citizens and U.S. allies to the war effort.  In his proclamation and other statements regarding the commemorations, the president emphasized the public’s obligation to pay belated tribute to a generation of veterans who returned home to silence rather than fanfare.

Reflecting on the service of military veterans is an important act.  It reminds us that the human costs of war include those who live with mental and physical battle scars as well as those who died fighting.  Focusing on veterans can raise awareness about policy issues such as healthcare.  One of the Vietnam War Commemoration events held in June was a seminar in Holmdel, New Jersey, on how to navigate the Veterans Administration healthcare system.  A mobile medical unit was on site offering screenings and patient education.  This is an example of how war memorials can move beyond mere flag-waving to offer concrete support to veterans.

War commemorations also provide opportunities to scrutinize national security policies and military commitments.  In a way, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial served that purpose when it was unveiled in 1981.  Designed by Maya Lin, a Yale undergraduate student at the time, the black wall with the names of the more than 58,000 dead servicemen and women etched into it symbolizes the wound that the war burned into the American psyche.  Critics of the memorial have argued that the wall demeans the service of Vietnam veterans and casts the war as a source of shame.  Yet probably more than any other memorial in the U.S., the Vietnam wall exposes war’s intimate reach.  We literally see ourselves reflected in the glossy, black stone behind the names of the dead.  Men, women, and children approach the wall to take etchings of the names of their loved ones—an act so personal yet so public that, observing it, it is hard not to ponder why the U.S. fought in Vietnam and hope that war will cease to be an instrument of international relations.

This is where the Vietnam War 50th anniversaries commemoration fails because it seeks to remember the war as a noble cause.  Since the war ended, Vietnam has served as a speed bump, if not a roadblock, along the way to subsequent military engagements.  In debates over whether to engage in conflicts in Africa, Central America, or the Middle East, the question of “will this be another Vietnam?” has forced policymakers to weigh the costs and benefits of military intervention even if the memory of Vietnam did not ultimately prevent war.  The Vietnam War has been an example of the worst that could happen when the U.S. intervenes without a clear security objective or goal.  But the commemoration series has set out to cast the war in a new light.  Its objectives include: “to thank and honor veterans of the Vietnam War,” to emphasize civil-military cooperation in the war effort, and “to highlight the advances in technology, science, and medicine related to military research conducted during the Vietnam War.”  Drones may very well be the legacy of Vietnam-era technological development, and reports of errant missiles that miss their targets remind us of war’s impact on civilians.  President Obama’s proclamation spoke of honor, valor, and heroism but said nothing of misguided policy decisions, atrocities, or PTSD.  The president talked of Vietnam veterans having fought “to protect the ideals we hold dear as Americans,” but what are those ideals?  How were they threatened by a civil war Vietnam?  Should the U.S. have intervened, at the cost of more than 58,000 American and countless Vietnamese lives?  Hollow rhetoric only shrouds the harsh and far-reaching consequences of the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam.  By reducing the Vietnam War to meaningless generalities or creating an image of it as a noble cause, we lose the most important purpose the collective memory of the conflict has served.  Ralph Ellison’s description of the blues offers us a better way to commemorate the 50th anniversaries of the Vietnam War.  Instead of concealing the uncomfortable details of the war, we should “finger its jagged grain” so that the painful memories of Vietnam make us pause before we commit American men and women to any military engagement that is not clearly in the nation’s best interests.  That is the honorable way to recognize the service of Vietnam veterans.

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