Is the Iraq War like the Vietnam War? Answering that question is harder than you might think. It is complicated by the fact that our national memory of the Vietnam War is splintered and constantly changing. In addition, our recollection of the war is clouded by a haze of ideological posturing that has lasted more than 30 years. In the end, it is clear that there is still no consensus among Americans about what the Vietnam War means, about whether it should have been fought, or about what lessons we should learn from it.
Every decade has seen new meanings and myths attached to our memory of the Vietnam War. In politics, presidents from Ford to Reagan to Bush have been influenced by the nation’s experience in Southeast Asia more than a generation ago. Political rhetoric has often brought the war in Vietnam back to public attention. How often have we heard words like “noble cause,” “quagmire,” “bogged down”–all fixed in public consciousness to that war–applied to international crises?
Meanwhile, movies and television have presented highly selective pictures of the Vietnam War, often distorting or selectively remembering what actually happened. The shifting memory of the war becomes apparent in looking at screen versions of the conflict. In diverse movies — including the likes of The Deer Hunter, Missing in Action, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Rambo, We Were Soldiers and others — it is surprisingly hard to get a clear idea of the big picture. (The same can be said of TV series such as China Beach, and M*A*S*H.) Some productions give a fairly clear view of certain aspects of the Vietnam War and its times. Often, however, so much is left out, or treated with such artistic license, that what is left is too partial and incomplete to be useful in understanding the war as a whole.
Clearly, the Vietnam War has a powerful place in American memory. But our recollections are clouded by many layers of media images and political declarations. In the new book The Afterlife of America’s War in Vietnam (McFarland & Co., 2006), a professor of liberal studies at Montserrat College of Art in Massachusetts takes a fresh look at these issues. In overview fashion, Professor Arnold examines the reincarnations of the Vietnam War in American media and politics since the 1970s, right up until the 2004 Presidential election and the Global War on Terrorism. He successfully presents it as a story full of twists and turns and not one which provides easy answers.
The next time someone asks us if the Iraq War is or is not like Vietnam, we might not want to answer too quickly.Powered by Sidelines