On 50th anniversary, a sanitized Vietnam War

South Vietnamese forces follow after terrified children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, center, as they run down Route 1 near Trang Bang after an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places, June 8, 1972. A South Vietnamese plane accidentally dropped its flaming napalm on South Vietnamese troops and civilians. Nick Ut/AP

Is it too soon for honest talk about the Vietnam War?

The Pentagon is planning a 50 year anniversary website of the war and the old band is getting back together to oppose it, the New York Times reports.

It’ll cost $15 million and the website is intended to “provide the American public with historically accurate materials” suitable for use in schools.

The website “largely describes a war of valor and honor that would be unrecognizable to many of the Americans who fought in and against it,” the Times says.

The website’s “interactive timeline” omits the Fulbright hearings in the Senate, where in 1971 a disaffected young Vietnam veteran named John Kerry — now President Obama’s secretary of state — asked, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” In one early iteration, the website referred to the 1968 My Lai massacre, in which American troops killed hundreds of Vietnamese civilians, as the My Lai Incident.

The glossy view of history has now prompted more than 500 scholars, veterans and activists — including the civil rights leader Julian Bond; Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the top-secret Pentagon Papers; Lawrence J. Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan; and Peter Yarrow of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary — to join Mr. Hayden in demanding the ability to correct the Pentagon’s version of history and a place for the old antiwar activists in the anniversary events.

This week, in a move that has drawn the battle lines all over again, the group sent a petition to Lt. Gen. Claude M. Kicklighter, the retired Vietnam veteran who is overseeing the commemoration, to ask that the effort not be a “one-sided” look at a war that tore a generation apart.

The goal of the effort is to “assist Americans” in thanking veterans of Vietnam, a spokesman for the Pentagon says.

“All of us remember that the Pentagon got us into this war in Vietnam with its version of the truth,” Tom Hayden, now 74, tells the paper.“If you conduct a war, you shouldn’t be in charge of narrating it.”

  • jon

    This right here is the lesson we should be teaching.

    They can teach the same history that I was taught up to the year 1940, then we shift gears, and engage critical thinking when we learn that “The Vietnam Police Action” is being white washed, and start to ask the question of why we would think that any other war through out history would have ended up being treated differently?

    Ask the question: Was WWI, WWII, Korea, and any other war really the good malevolent armies defeating the evil regimes that would destroy us? Is the damage caused by any given war worth the ugliness that war creates?
    Of course making kids think (about this or anything else) probably wouldn’t show up in standardized testing so we wouldn’t waste our time on it in public schools.

  • Robert Moffitt

    Consider the source (the Pentagon).
    One of the most important lessons of the Vietnam War is that all later conflicts are not the Vietnam War. This one shaped the thinking and politics of my generation, and the generations before. Still, it’s important not to see everything happening today through the prism of Vietnam.

  • Jim G

    My draft number was 314 out of 365. During that fateful year the system only drafted eighteen year-olds unlucky enough to have numbers through 260. Unbelievably, I won the only lottery that I had more than an even chance of losing. My buddy, who lived across the alley, was a 4.

  • Anna

    I remember all too well the anxiety of my entire family as the draft numbers were drawn. My middle brother, born on Christmas Eve 1950, got a draft number of 50. My oldest brother born in May, 1947 got a draft number of 295.

    My middle brother immediately began applications to the U.S. Coast Guard and the Merchant Marine. When he went for his physical, he was declared “4F”, unfit for military duty due to a back deformity, a problem now that would not exclude him from enlisting in the army.

    My oldest brother’s number was never called up.

    All of our neighbors had sons of draft age. My best friend’s oldest brother, enlisted right away in the Army and got an appointment to the Adjutant General Corps outside Washington, D.C. and never went overseas. Her other brother was too young for the draft.

    During major flooding at La Crosse, Wisconsin filling sand bags, I met a black man who had done five tours of duty in Vietnam as a Marine clearing mine fields. He still couldn’t sleep without medication due to flashbacks. He told me his story in detail as we spent several hours at the supply depot.

    Vietnam shaped and changed an entire generation in profound and tangible ways—ways that would affect generations far into the future (Gen-X, Millenniums). It changed our view of government that was held by our Depression Era parents and brought down a president obsessed with obtaining power through any means necessary.

    Sanitizing the history of the war does a great disservice to the men (and women) who fought and died during it and after it. My Lai was a massacre and to call it an “incident” is to make it a footnote in history.

    As the great Civil War hero, Robert E. Lee said, “It is good that war is so terrible, lest we grow too fond of it.”

  • Rich in Duluth

    It’s never too soon for an honest discussion of the Vietnam War or any war. The problem is always going to be the glorification of past wars. That glorification is there to pave the way for future wars.

    Every time I see the above picture, I think back to an air show I went to as a kid. It was maybe about 1959. The Air Force demonstrated napalm at that air show. I’m sure we in the audience were at least a quarter mile away, but I can still feel the intense heat from that terrible stuff. The terror those kids are displaying, must certainly have lasted all their lives.

    Like Jim G, I was one of the lucky ones. My draft physical showed I had a chronic illness and got me an immediate 1Y draft classification, then 4F, in 1966. Ironically, that chronic illness either saved my life or a limb or my sanity.