Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Vietnam: It was "our" war

If we’re all in our Third Thirds, then Vietnam is a big part of our past. Whether we fought in it, fought against it, had brothers who did or didn’t, friends who did or didn’t; it haunted our lives for a time. And long afterwards, we lived with the decisions we’d made during that time.

Maybe it was a formative time in my life – high school and college. Maybe it was the combination of civil rights, feminism, and Woodstock, but I feel the Vietnam War helped make me into the person I am now.

Nevertheless, I seem to be visiting a lot of World War II museums lately. First Portland, now the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
I learned a ton of things I never knew. I hadn’t heard of Ruperts, dummy paratroopers that made the D-Day invasion look larger to the Germans. I hadn’t heard of Operation Bodyguard which was the giant deception plan to make the Germans think the invasion was going to be somewhere else, complete with inflatable tanks so they’d appear real to enemy aircraft. In the “Road to Tokyo” exhibit, I realized I knew not a bit about the geography, the islands, and where things were fought; it was all a big empty space in my brain.

But something is bothering me about all this. I’m going to bounce it around here so please help me out if you can clarify. When my book club read To End All Wars, we were blown away by what was happening on the home front during World War I. There were disagreements, raging controversy, political divisions. Big ones, like domestic war.

This is one of the things I got from the World War II Museum: it was won by America’s massive, unprecedented, and truly astonishing production. Planes, tanks, the invention of the Higgins boat right there in New Orleans. When I read about the HUGE load of materials needed overseas for D-Day – it took two years to accumulate it – I saw the enormity of the task.

Yes, the Museum had a Rosie the Riveter poster, but my own mother was an air raid warden, yet I’ve never seen that in a museum. I don’t even know how wartime rationing occurred in the U.S.: were there coupon books?
I know there’s a difference between risking your life and screwing in a bolt, but if everyone says that was a time when everyone pulled together, then where’s the “everyone”? Museums have gotten better in some things: there are panels about the highly decorated Japanese regiment and the Tuskegee Airmen and about how those soldiers came home to discrimination. There were photos of the liberation of the concentration camps … but no mention of the turning away of the St. Louis and its Jewish refugees.

I guess what I’m driving at is the messiness of war. We used to say the Vietnam War was fought in our living room. Uncles insisting their sons would go; sons planning moves to Canada. Families glued to television sets, waiting for lottery numbers to be drawn. Black armbands, marches, protests. “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” body bags, Agent Orange. Pentagon Papers. My Lai.
I don’t know if there’s a Vietnam War Museum in the works. Is it even possible to make a Vietnam War Museum? Would the fights about what goes in it be the same as those fights in the living rooms? Do we have to wait years and years to reflect on our history and does that tend to smooth it out, soften its edges? Give it a false nostalgia? Paint it with a “greatest generation” brush and erase any controversy?

In World War II museums, I’m shown patriotic movies that stir the soul, not Japanese internment camps, for example. I learn “how,” not “whether” (and I’ll grant the necessity of the war itself). But if the intent is to thank, isn’t that a war memorial, not a museum?

When I walked through the state museum exhibit about Hurricane Katrina, I saw the heroism of individuals, the supportiveness of community, the sheer glory and tenacity of human beings. But I also saw an indictment of political apathy and infighting; scathing rebukes of political deceit and negligence; rethinking of scientific policy. There was no dancing around the issues. I saw how things went bad, thought about how they could be improved.

A Vietnam War museum would have to be as tangled as the jungle, as angry as protesters, and as unsure as the newest recruit. Brave enough to look at the mistakes and damage, the heroism, sacrifices, and lessons. Inclusive enough to honor all viewpoints and to remember the home front, but sensitive enough to lead us to understanding. I’d spend days in a museum like that.


  1. Barbara, I would like to see history of war told through efforts to stop them happening. As to all the many museums serving up these proxies for nationalism: Stop. And think.

  2. Absolutely! I really have a hard time with history being tracked war by war rather than by extension of liberties or advances in health or relationship to technology.... I'm tired of the discovery -- years after it should have been known -- that things have "turned into another Vietnam." They started out that way.


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