Posts Tagged ‘Pentagon’


February 18, 2016

Earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter announced a new Pentagon program that will pay for servicemen and women to freeze their sperm and eggs for future family planning. Carter gave two main reasons for the program. One, it would keep women on the career military path, which typically runs right through the childbearing years. Two, it would give deployed troops peace of mind in that they potentially could still have children even if their reproductive organs become casualties of war. The first goal is in line with what appears to be Carter’s commitment to the needs of servicewomen. He has advocated for improved maternity leave, childcare, and breastfeeding support policies, all of which he hopes will help women personnel balance work and family and remain in the service. The second goal speaks to the problems of trying to maintain an all-volunteer force in an age of continuous war.

This is not the first time the U.S. military has gotten into the baby-making business. The 1948 Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, which allowed women to serve as permanent members of the military, permitted the forces to discharge women if they got pregnant. Personnel needs during the Vietnam War led the Army Nurse Corps to grant waivers to some nurses who got pregnant but wanted to stay in the military. In 1975, the Defense Department ruled that the armed forces could no longer forcibly discharge a servicewoman who became pregnant.[1] Considered in this context, Carter’s proposal looks like the next step toward gender equality in the military by giving women the option of delaying childbearing while they advance their careers. Observers have suggested that this policy could position the military as a model that other major employers wanting to implement progressive, pro-family, pro-woman policies in order to recruit and retain the best personnel could follow.

The argument that the U.S. military is becoming more family friendly loses traction when we remember that it is an all-volunteer force, and that the U.S. has been at war for most of this century. Carter’s policies are meant in part to recruit and retain service personnel in a time when enlisting likely will result in deployment. About 60 percent of current troops have been deployed at least once since Sept. 11, 2001. Less than one percent of the U.S. population presently serves in the military, so without a draft, the military must get creative in its efforts to convince young men and women to sign up for a job that could prevent them from having families later on. Conscription would make more Americans –and their reproductive organs – shoulder the weight of U.S. military commitments. That may be the only way to convince the public at large to scrutinize armed interventions and put pressure on elected officials to ponder more carefully the costs and benefits of war. As critics have already pointed out, freezing sperm and eggs will not guarantee that they will result in pregnancy later, so Carter’s program may create false hope in those men and women who have agreed to bear the burden of conflict. The draft has been a topic of conversation since the Pentagon announced in December the opening of combat positions to women, and it is also relevant to the conversation about the military’s use of reproduction as a recruitment tool. Reinstating the draft would either mobilize Americans to hold politicians more accountable for war-making policies or provide the personnel that the military’s long global reach requires. Then the military could leave the baby-making business to the future parents.

[1] Kara Dixon Vuic, “I’m afraid we’re going to have to just change our ways”: Marriage, Motherhood, and Pregnancy in the Army Nurse Corps during the Vietnam War,” Signs, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Summer 2007), pp. 997-1022.



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

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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