For almost three decades after US helicopters flew over a smoke-filled Saigon, Vietnam served as a vault of tragic metaphors for every American to use. In movies and literature, someone who went to ‘Nam was someone who came back a wreck, a traumatized soul who has seen or committed too many horrors to ever return to normal life. In politics, Vietnam was a hard-learned lesson that continued to influence US foreign policies. It was an unhealed wound, the cause of post-traumatic stress, the stuff bad dreams were made of, hell in a small place.
Then came Iraq. Many comparisons have been made about the two wars. But what Iraq may have finally done is not so much remind us of Vietnam as ultimately usurp it in our national psyche.
Fighting the Vietnam War brought a multitude of symbols and icons to the American mind. A new set is now being acquired in the current war. One can almost imagine one era being replaced by another in the way that two kids might trade cards: “I’ll take My Lai for your Haditha”; “I’ll take Hearts and Minds for Operation Iraqi Freedom”; “Let’s have Vo Nguyen Giap and Ho Chi Minh for Muqtada al-Sadr and Osama bin Laden”; “I’ll take Tiger Cage for Abu Ghraib”; and “Let’s have your Gulf of Tonkin for my WMD.”
In another generation, when a future US President sends troops to occupy some intransigent country on a dubious objective, American pundits will most likely ask this familiar question made new: “Will it be another Iraq?”
Yet for a long time, Vietnam functioned as a benchmark for spectacular American failure, and despite subsequent successful US overseas ventures, it remained a deep, searing wound. It took some time after the war’s end before movies were made and books sold on the topic. There was a willful repression of America’s only military defeat, followed by a flourish of Vietnam novels and movies. Together they constructed a mythic reality around the nation’s experience in Vietnam that challenged our old notion of manifest destiny and examined our loss of innocence.
In the 1980s, conservatives began to claim that the “Vietnam syndrome”–which they saw as an undesirable pacifism on the part of the American public and the US government–had been “kicked.” Most famous of them all was George H.W. Bush, who declared in 1991 after victory in the Gulf War that “the ghosts of Vietnam had been laid to rest beneath the sands of the Arabian desert.”
But the elder Bush spoke too soon. The glory of winning did not translate into a second presidential term, and Vietnam continued to haunt our national psyche. When President Bill Clinton withdrew troops from Somalia after eighteen soldiers were killed in Mogadishu in 1993, diplomat Richard Holbrooke called it the new “Vietmalia syndrome.” Later, Clinton was reluctant to deploy military force in Bosnia. Senator John Kerry, a Vietnam vet, lost his bid for the 2004 presidential election in part because of his ambiguous relationship with Vietnam: During the campaign he billed himself as a war hero despite his stint as an antiwar protester. Senator John McCain, who was tortured in Hanoi as a POW during the war, caused an uproar when he used the term “gook” to describe his Vietnamese captives during his 2000 presidential campaign bid. Nor does it seem to help his presidential efforts this time around: The senator, who felt Vietnam could have been won had it not been hampered by politics, is supporting the military surge in Iraq at a time when most Americans desire troop withdrawal.
What we are learning now with the enormous failure of Iraq–the lies and deception from the White House, the images of Iraqis wailing beside their dead loved ones, the shattered homes, bloody sidewalks, tortured prisoners, body parts in market stalls, burned-out cars, roadside bombs, downed helicopters and horribly maimed American soldiers–is that tragedy cannot simply be overcome with some supposed military victory but with another tragedy of equal if not greater proportion.
Indeed, the war in Iraq is showing us that the so-called Vietnam syndrome cannot be “kicked,” as it were, by winning but by losing, as it forces us to face our collective grief and guilt anew. For all the horrors committed in the name of democracy, and all the soul-searching Americans did after the Vietnam War–remember that ’70s mantra, “No More Vietnams!” many screamed from the top of their lungs–we failed to alter the bellicose nature of our nation.
Years ago, poet Robert Bly argued that Americans had yet to experience ablution over past atrocities. “We’re engaged in a vast forgetting mechanism and from the point of view of psychology, we’re refusing to eat our grief, refusing to really to eat our dark side,” Bly told Bill Moyers on national public television. “And therefore what Jung says is really terrifying–if you do not absorb the things you have done in your life…then you will have to repeat them.”
In this sense, individual karma is not so different from that of a nation. For it’s many a country’s fate, too, to keep on repeating acts of barbarism until, hopefully, it comes to some profound reckoning with its own heart of darkness.