Waving flags and the lesson of Vietnam

November 11, 2007 | By | 8 Replies More

I’m in Washington DC still (I’ve been here most of the week for a business conference).  Yesterday was the day of the American flag.  You can see flag-waving everywhere these days.  Americans do focus on the accoutrements of democracy rather than making sure we have a healthy democracy with active citizen participation (e.g., consider our pathetic voter turnouts compared to many other countries).

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We obsess about flags instead of getting our citizens involved in their government.  Our persistent failure to correct this situation is mind-numbing.  It’s like being a baseball player at bat in the 9th inning.  He could tie the game with one swing of the bat, but strikes out.   Instead of focusing on putting the wood of the bat on the ball, he’s obsessing about drinking champaign and having his photo in tomorrow’s newspaper.  He’s spending his energy at the wrong level.  The waving of American flags is like thinking of drinking champaign while at bat.  By waving flags instead of educating and empowering the People, we’re waiving real democracy.

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For a strong democracy we need fewer flags, fewer Pledges of Allegiance and a lot more participation by informed citizens.  This would start with an active and vigorous media.  It would also involve cultivating citizens who cared enough to make sure that they are informed.  These problems relate, of course.  We need to public financing of political campaigns so that we could have honest conversations with our elected officials.  We are failing Democracy in so many ways in the U.S. . . .

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Yesterday was also the 25th Anniversary of the Vietnam Memorial.  The Wall is an exquisite piece of architecture that honors an unfortunately large number of valiant soldiers.   I never served, though I might have, had the war dragged on.  I registered for the draft in 1974 with a lottery number of 50.   Back then, I was the kind of young man who would have just done what they told me to do (especially under the threat of prison).   Many of those dead soldiers did what they were told too.  Instead of living lives today, they are names on a Wall.

The Vietnam Wall 25th Memorial.jpg

Yesterday, I also saw a parade honoring the Vietnam War itself.   This proud celebration disoriented me. This was especially because the war was characterized as an effort to preserve “freedom” (sound familiar?). 

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Vietnam was a war that we lost.  We removed our troops and the “enemy” took over.   Now that we’ve been gone for awhile, however, peace reigns in Vietnam, which has become a respected trading partner of the U.S.   I know families who have traveled to Vietnam to adopt Vietnamese orphans.  I know of people who have traveled to Vietnam as tourists to admire the natural beauty.   Isn’t it funny how it all got so much better after the U.S. stopped meddling?

But don’t tell this to the families of all the soldiers who died.   I wouldn’t have the heart to say such things, though they are apparent to me.   Yesterday, many of those families showed up for the reading of the names of tens of thousands of dead soldiers.  They read about a dozen names per minute.  It probably took 50 hours to read all the names.  It was a somber and emotionally moving ceremony.  Attending were many Vietnam vets, many of whom were happy to see each other. Many of them were trading stories of the many good times they had serving together (based on the smattering of conversations I overhead). I felt proud of them and their efforts, given the difficult situation imposed upon them.

But I just can’t get over that U.S. policy regarding Vietnam was a big mistake and that it was a hugely costly mistake.  It’s all very sad to me.  Perhaps this explains why I am disoriented by those who still think of that war as justified.  

I took one final photo at the Wall while listening to the names being read.   I wondered what the soldier statues would be thinking about the Vietnam War.  And what would they think about all of the happy U.S. flag waving that spurs on current U.S. policy in the Middle East? 

Vietnam - soldier statutes looking on.jpg

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Category: American Culture, Politics, The Middle East, War, Whimsy

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (8)

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  1. Now that we’ve been gone for awhile, however, peace reigns in Vietnam, which has become a respected trading partner of the U.S.

    The silent peace of the oppressed and dead… And I just can't help it, but "respected trading partner of the US" sounds so incredibly condescending and patronizing, as if this was the only thing a country could strive for, to do business with the US (and I'm sure the US also calls Saudi-Arabia a respectable trading partner, ha!).

    I know families who have traveled to Vietnam to adopt Vietnamese orphans. I know of people who have traveled to Vietnam as tourists to admire the natural beauty. Isn’t it funny how it all got so much better after the U.S. stopped meddling?

    Totally better, the communists were true saints and always had the best for the people in mind. And who has it better now, the Vietnamese people or the tourists and childless couples?

    How anybody can defend communist systems is so absolutely beyond my understanding. And the praise rarely comes from people who live there. No, it's usually the idle musing of people in free democracies with too much time at their hands which they certainly would not have if they were living in this communistic paradise with all its pleasures such as corrupt filth, oppression and poverty, just to name a few.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    projektleiterin:

    OK, I am not claiming that Vietnam is a place where people are allowed unmitigated self-expression and criticism of their government. Do they have issues? Absolutely. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam

    Had the U.S. gained control, though, you can bet that the government of Vietnam would have been at least as corrupt as it is, probably much more. That's what happens in most places where the U.S. meddles, especially throughout Latin America, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

    What struck me is that that "war" was supposed to be justified because Vietnam was such an incredible threat to the U.S. You know, the domino theory of Communism. That theory and all the hype about the threat of Vietnam were big lies that resulted in so many deaths that it takes a huge monument to list all their names.

    I'm assuming that you view the Vietnam War as a noble cause and that the U.S. should have continued that War until "victory"??

  3. projektleitrin:

    It's always difficult to argue values of freedom in a place where there never was any. Vietnam went from a fiefdom of France to a U.S. backed dictatorship of a minority group (catholics) to a hell hole of inter-village conflict to a communist regime. To try to assert on any level that these people over all are worse off than when we were regularly bombing their rice paddies is impossible, since Bad was the only common thread linking the history of that country for almost a century. It was better for some people in Saigon for a time, here and there. But it was always the kind of "better" built on the backs of the oppressed, and it doesn't matter what economic system does the oppressing.

    The United States bought into the idea of Ho Chi Minh being a threat worse than Diem or Thieu, despite the fact that the people—you know, the actually inhabitants?–preferred Ho to those we kept in power artificially.

    This is not a debate over how people live, whether it's better or worse, but over whether they had any right whatsoever to determine their own fate. By meddling, we made the transition far more painful than it should have been.

    Gee…doesn't that have a familiar ring?

  4. since Bad was the only common thread linking the history of that country for almost a century

    Maybe you should compare the number of people who left the country before and after the communists came to power. I'm Vietnamese and my parents are Vietnamese, none of them was eager to emigrate before the communists. My mom's family, like many others, fled from the South to the North when the communists started taking over. Nobody wanted to stay with them. Why do you think the Vietnamese community in the States is so big?

    The United States bought into the idea of Ho Chi Minh being a threat worse than Diem or Thieu, despite the fact that the people—you know, the actually inhabitants?–preferred Ho to those we kept in power artificially.

    This was not Chile and Ho was not Allende. The communists supported him, but that. was. it. Leaders of opposing parties got killed, people who were against them ended in re-education camps. They were terrorizing the population and spreading fear. One day they came and took my grandfather with him, for no reason. He never came back. What had he done? – Nothing. You know what they did with landowners? They executed them for owning land. Wanna know how they did it? They dug holes into the ground, buried them with the heads sticking out and cut their heads off with the harvester. They laid bombs in theaters and movies. They taught kids to spy on their parents. My mom told me there were people who left their kids behind out of fear that their kids would betray their plans to escape to the officials.

    The US were there for their own interest, but it's not as if it was them against the whole Vietnamese population and it's not as if the communists were the good people in this game. You should know it better than these hippie students with their Che Guevara romanticism.

  5. xiaogou says:

    I believe that people are people. It is the rare person who looks to the good of everyone. And like the proverb of the man, the boy and the donkey. It is impossible to please everyone. There will always those who want power and those who would do anything to get more power. Those who want power will label themselves whatever they want to create as Erich put it the ‘halo effect’.

    Flag waving is one of them and like the matador that waves his cape to keep the bull’s attention. People who want power will wave the flag to keep the people’s attention from seeing the real problems.

    The label communist is another halo. The Russians have a joke that goes “Communism is better, before the Czars would run over the peasants in their horse drawn carriages. Now the Politburos run over the Proletariats in their Mercedes Benzes.

    Unfortunately, we are raised to see the symbols and not the issues. And I am pretty sure that those in power do not want to change that.

    As for the idea of going to war, it is never a good idea to go to war. People get hurt; people die and the lives of the survivors gets shattered. The bad blood created in the war can last generations even after peace has been made.

  6. I do know better and believe me I hold no romantic illusions about how wonderful a People's Republic can be. But I think you ought to go back a bit further in your own history about Ho. He was called, by the 1930s, the Father of His Country. Ho was at Versailles in 1919, petitioning for independence. The more the western powers refused to listen, the more hardline the insurgents became. It's a nasty feedback loop. The U.S. got suckered by France into fighting that war, and it only led to an even more reactionary government by the time we left.

    There were no winners in that debacle. If first off Wilson and then later Truman had had the proper information and balls to tell France to back off and let Vietnam have its independence—in 1947, when the French murdered a U.S. intelligence officer who was pro-independence and blamed it on the communistis—a whole lot of ugliness might have been avoided. For our part, we were so reflexively paranoid of the very word "communist" that we abandoned our own principles to crush a rebellion that, in the 50s, was more about native freedom than planned economies.

    Ho went to Russia became we turned our back on him. Imagine if we'd helped him instead. How different would the world be today?

  7. xiaogou ,

    The label communist is another halo. The Russians have a joke that goes “Communism is better, before the Czars would run over the peasants in their horse drawn carriages. Now the Politburos run over the Proletariats in their Mercedes Benzes.

    There is nevertheless a difference between these czars and communists. Both oppress(ed) the proletary or peasants, but the latter claims that it is there to protect and serve the people. Have at least the guts to say that you are a despicable parasite. This hypocritical gibberish is unbearable. Look at China. Admire the unconditional and loving caring of the millions of workers who are at the government's disposal to ensure a soaring economy. I don't believe capitalism is so much better, but communism wherever it has established itself as the leading type of government it has proven to be the epitome of hypocrisy.

  8. He was called, by the 1930s, the Father of His Country.

    I'm sure nobody in my closer family called him like this. How representative is this anyway. The biggest slaughterers in the history of mankind had fans. Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin, Sadam Hussein, Hitler, just to name a few. A small minority will always whine about the past glorious days.

    to crush a rebellion that, in the 50s, was more about native freedom than planned economies.

    Ho went to Russia became we turned our back on him. Imagine if we’d helped him instead. How different would the world be today?

    The fact remains that instead of trying to forge alliance with diverse political groups in Vietnam against a common enemy he went and murdered their leaders. His followers, who were supposedly interested in helping the people, terrorized the population and coerced them into supporting them. When the communists came to power, a lot of people left. Obviously some found risks like drowning in the sea or meeting pirates to be worth it if they came along with the chance to escape living in a communist regime. History books are full of stories with strong leaders who united their people to fight against a common enemy. Their people followed their lead willingly, the emphasis is on "willingly".

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