The Pentagon has hijacked the history of the Vietnam War, magically transforming it into a memory to honor and cherish. George Orwell never imagined better. The Pentagon omits any discussion of the deception and misdirected policies which sucked us into that quagmire. It ignores failures of both civilian and military leaders. The widespread breakdown of military command and discipline is glossed over and the military effort was led only by medal winners. The rending of the American social and political fabric which marked the 1960s and '70s is not acknowledged. Most of all, the Pentagon is unwilling to face the painful truth: We lost.
The Pentagon has launched a 50th anniversary commemoration of the war to provide "historically accurate materials" for schoolchildren. Get 'em young.
Will the Pentagon acknowledge the mistakes of American presidents and generals who for seven years steadily increased our commitment to more than 500,000 troops, the largest army raised since World War II? Will it recognize the growing public protests against the war, with increasing criticism in Congress, until eventually it was willing to cut off funding for the war, an unprecedented step which pointedly rejected the validity of the war? Most importantly, if our war aim was to preserve the independence of a non-communist South Vietnam, where is a South Vietnam today?
The human cost overwhelms our lost pride. Over 58,000 U.S. soldiers were killed in action; over 150,000 wounded; there is a downwardly revised figure of 1,641 MIAs; and contrary to organized, wealthy public pressure groups, no American POWs are in Vietnam and have not been since 1973. Let us not forget, 1 million Vietnamese lost their lives.
Will the Pentagon's educational campaign include lessons learned from the war — most particularly the lesson of the limits of American power and what critics of the time labeled the arrogance of American power? Such lessons remain blissfully ignored as we witness futile attempts of intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The spokesman for the Pentagon's commemoration efforts insisted "there is no attempt to whitewash the history of the Vietnam War." The Pentagon, he said, only wanted "to assist a grateful nation" in thanking veterans and their families. But what will the Pentagon say to Vietnam veterans who actively criticized, questioned, and opposed the war, then and now? Truth is the best thanks and honor we can render.
We erred in intervening in a civil war, and then our military and civilian leaders made colossal errors for more than 15 years, errors resulting in defeat. We offer an obligatory bow to the brave soldiers who fought and died, all the more tragically because they were sent on a fool's errand, covered in arrogance and deceit.
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Pentagon in-house historians are determined to shelve the "domino theory," that empty justification for the war which insisted that if we did not stop the Communist "hordes" in South Vietnam, they would be in the Philippines, Hawaii, and eventually on the beaches of La Jolla. Such theory is every bit as fraudulent as George W. Bush's 21st century search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
When Richard Nixon finally agreed to the 1973 Paris Peace Accords — the peace that he and Lyndon Johnson could have had for five years — he told the nation that he brought us "peace with honor." More deceit for the accords offered neither peace nor honor. No one knew better than Nixon and Henry Kissinger, who cobbled together and then delayed any settlement because of domestic politics. "Peace is at hand," said Kissinger, a month before the presidential election, and then waited three months before signing the agreement. They knew we could not "save" South Vietnam, only hoping for a "decent interval" before the inevitable collapse. Nixon realized in 1968 that the war was doomed. Yet it lingered for nearly five more years, with another 25,000 American deaths. That is our shame.
Le Duc Tho, Kissinger's North Vietnam counterpart, declined the empty honor of the Nobel Peace Prize; Kissinger needs to return his. Within months, and without a "decent interval," our artificially contrived state fell to the rapidly advancing communist forces. No domino fell.
Beyond the bravery and valor of our soldiers, we cannot expect the Pentagon to offer the flip side of war. They have reduced the savagery of My Lai to an "incident." We have ample documentation of the breakdown of discipline, the "fragging" of officers, the rampant use of drugs, and the repeated breakdowns in command. Teach that to children.
The Vietnam War has been lost and obscured in the mists of history. Its lessons on the limits of American power are rarely raised and discussed; military circles are well aware of why and how we lost, as it is widely taught in the military academies. The lessons focus a recognition that wars have domestic political consequences; and to effectively deal with such situations, the military needs to sharpen their use of public relations. The current Pentagon website offers a lesson learned.
Historical revision is as inevitable as death and taxes. New documents and evidence might reveal previously ignored or overlooked facts. New viewpoints, supported by fresh evidence, deserve a respectful hearing at the bar of history. But the Pentagon now offers history reflecting its own interests and needs, ignoring contributions of numerous, acclaimed historians. Its efforts are an elaborate hoax as it rewrites history for its own convenience, dismissing salient, painful facts.
The Pentagon is not our Ministry of Propaganda. History is a potent weapon, dangerous weapon, especially when used to mold the minds of the young. The military is not simply providing materials for schoolchildren; instead it consciously seeks to scrub the real history of the Vietnam War. History should be a way of learning; it is not in this case.
Stanley Kutler has written "Nixon's the One" with Harry Shearer, now on YouTube, and the play, "I, Nixon." He has written widely on Vietnam and is a UW-Madison professor emeritus. This column first appeared on HuffPost.