Dumb question

I’m about to show my youth and ignorance here with regard to the Vietnam War (’cause even though I lived through it, I was truly a child then). But first, let me back up a bit. Mr. Bookworm rented Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a film with an interesting conceit: Ms. Taymor takes 33 of the Beatles songs and interweaves a story around them. As a musical, it’s pretty successful. Bucking trends in musicals for the last 40 years, she chooses actors who actually have really good singing voices. Also, showing her background in theater and puppet work, it’s a visually impressive movie, if you don’t mind that she goes over the top sometimes. That’s the praise.

Now for the criticism: The movie is set during the Vietnam War era and is totally anti-War. American soldiers are shown as brutal robotic types who work for a military that takes sweet, innocent young men and throws them into the maw of hell. Anti-war protests are shown as seminally important events that simultaneously reveal the grossness of American policy in Vietnam and that allow wholesome, moral young Americans to find a place for themselves in opposition to the evil war. In this regard, the movie is both a babyboomer nostalgia trip and a nudge-nudge wink-wink anti-Iraq War movie. So, even as the movie is beautiful to look at and lovely to hear, it offends me. It’s blithe acceptance of the 60s Leftist tropes is so facile as to be almost grotesque — but it did leave me thinking.

The street protest I mentioned above culminates with a speaker talking about American imperialist aggression and Americans as baby killers. What I wondered very much was how and where this angle on the war started. Truth to tell, it sounds precisely like the kind of talking points you can see brooded over by a handful of people attending some secret Communist meeting in a grimy NY basement apartment.

Looked at objectively, from the point of view of a whole nation, the “our nation is evil” idea is kind of fringey. That being the case, how did it gain so much currency? Why did Americans embrace this paradigm about the war instead of viewing the War — as John F. Kennedy, their hero, viewed it — as a necessary (for America) way to stop worldwide Communist aggression and as an act of decency to keep the Vietnamese free? Where did Americans get the idea, stated in this movie, that the Vietnamese wanted us to go? Maybe the North Vietnamese, who were Communist puppets did, but I was under the impression that the South Vietnamese were desperate for us to stay there and protect them from a Communist takeover — a takeover that, when we pulled out, was even more horrific than anyone had anticipated. (One of my most vivid pre-teen memories is of the extraordinary panic on the ground, amongst ordinary Vietnamese, when the Americans pulled out.)

In the current War, from the first second, the Leftists just leapt upon the Vietnam War template, dragging their old signs out, and replaying the identical scenario, with a sympathetic media to help out and spread it amongst people who normally wouldn’t give too much of a rat’s ass one way or another. It’s been like watching a re-run. But who created the original 1960s script, and how did it spread so rapidly and effectively that it became the accepted view that our American men and boys were brutal, imperialistic babykillers — end of story?

Did the original script come from the Kremlin, which was gleefully spreading misinformation, or was it an organic, homegrown Leftist process? Was it embraced so quickly because, after the Korean War, we were sick of getting involved in jungle fighting in the Far East? Or was the draft the problem, with articulate, well-read, generically liberal/Leftist students suddenly having a vested interest in saving themselves — and shooting further Left in the process? And if it’s the latter explanation — that is, the draft created self-interested young people who would rather attack their own nation and leave the Vietnamese in hell than put themselves at risk — why didn’t the draft create precisely the same problems with WWII?

I know I’m asking a lot of questions, but it suddenly occurred to me that, while I’ve always seen the end result of anti-Vietnam War agitation, I’ve never understand how the theme came into being and how it got a toehold in the American psyche and the American body politic.

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  • Joseph T Major

    I suggest you read “Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism” by James Piereson (Encounter Books, 2007). The “our nation is evil” idea came about, he says, because the people spreading it wanted to believe that JFK had died for the cause of civil rights, stricken down by a wave of hate from the heart of America. Hence on the one hand, assassination conspiracy theories including everyone down to the men’s room janitor at the CIA, and on the other, the chastising of Eeevil AmeriKKKa.

    An illuminating work.

  • swampacreage

    When the war was finally brought to the American living room people went DUH and said to themselves “there have been millions of civilians killed directly or indirectly since 1960, not to mention thousands of Americans”. So people in America said “there has to a better way “. Pretty simple actually !

    ps never underestimate the potential of free market business in easier places than Vietnam at that time . Even America’s version of freedom has it’s bottom line costs. Everything has a price. Obviously it wasn’t worth it to some people.

    ps we could blame the Beatle invasion Across the Universe and the subsequent coolness of drugs wink wink nudge nudge and Give Peace a Chance people a turn instead of following the war crowd . Or maybe Americans thought the thousands of draft dodgers OOPS i mean conscientous objectors knew what they were talking about ‘NO VIETNAMESE CALLED ME NIGGER

  • Danny Lemieux

    To your last point, let me suggest that the WWII generation was a very different generation that had grown up with the depression. Also, the Left then was very much pro-Hitler and against US involvement in the “European war” until Hitler betrayed Stalin and attacked Russia. Otherwise, I believe that there would have been a lot of opposition. Finally, people then could be genuinely outraged when Pearl Harbor was attacked, unlike the hard Left and 9/11.

  • SGT Dave

    I, too, am too young to remember the days – though my oldest sisters were affected by them. As I understand it, the military was reeling from loss of prestige and place, dealing with drugs, gangs, and corruption, and trying to come to grips with a whole new world. The actions that the press reported were not new – the coverage was. The reporting was one-sided, not because only one side committed atrocities but because one side censored and killed journalists and the other side did not.
    It persists to this day – even though the military has changed considerably in form. My mother, bless her, still does not quite understand why I still serve. Two of my sisters cannot comprehend why I ever joined in the first place.
    So many have taken the easy path, striking at targets that will not strike back (the Army, and indeed most of the DoD will not press slander charges) instead of looking at the whole of warfare and its inhumanity.
    People, including children and non-combatants, die in conflict regions. We don’t target them or place them in areas where we intend to fight. The enemy is not so considerate. We allow reporters and our archivists to view battlefields and report the good and bad with candor so that we can learn how to avoid hurting civilians. The enemy reports and stages scenes of death for propaganda while hiding their own atrocities. We charge, try, and often convict those who violate the Law of Land Warfare. They have no accountability, no evidence to be released, no trials for reporters to shadow, and no use for the law except to hamstring our efforts.
    In the long run, as with efforts now to verify, examine, and redeem the Vietnam conflict (We Were Soldiers Once, and Young; along with other accounts), it will come to be seen that the generation of the 60’s was easily corrupted, foolish, and flawed. Hopefully it won’t take forty years for history to fix my generation’s actions in the 90’s to today in the war against fanatic Islam.

    We are not what we were; we have yet to shed yesterday’s failings and become what we are destined to become.

    Be well and safe,
    SGT Dave – “In the end, honor is defined as the ability to view the mirror and face the eyes that would otherwise accuse you.”

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  • http://cheatseekingmissiles.blogspot.com Laer

    Joseph Major leads off well.

    When opposition to the war first began, I was a junior in high school in Tokyo. We partied regularly with GIs on R&R and didn’t hear any anti-war talk from them at all — the drugged (well, they were pretty drugged), ranting, anti-war GI wasn’t anything I experienced.

    By the time I went to college in the fall of ’68, the anti-war movement was reaching the campuses. By my sophomore year, I was sucked into it. Being a guy who naturally migrates to the center of activity, I very quickly found myself at the dingy kitchen tables where “actions” were being planned. These were sit-ins, poster barrages around campus, teach-ins, draft counseling, all pretty passive stuff. i heard all the rhetoric you mentioned, mostly from one guy (who, looking back, was probably Jewish, raised in the great radical tradition of Socialist Jews who fled Germany) who was our defacto leader. He did not have a source book or outline or instruction manual. Where did he get the rhetoric, which he knew so well? There was no internet of course, but there was Mother Jones, SDS newsletters, itinerant missionaries for the cause.

    No one ever asked for a source. We took it on faith.

    By the end of my junior year, the “actions” were elevating to stupid things like occupying the administration building, and I remember standing on the sidewalk, already decided that i was not going to be a part of that, and hearing for the first time the Beatles song “Let it be” from a radio across the street. They caught my sentiment … a rising sentiment, I think … perfectly. It all began looking very silly.