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Church & State
H. bruce Franklin
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of Massachusetts Press,
Review by Christian Parenti
It seems that intellectually and emotionally America's Vietnam War will never end. After ten years of pulverizing the Vietnamese with the most lethal and technologically sophisticated war machine in human history, what happened? Uncle Sam got its ass handed to him just the same. This despite the fact that “our side” dropped twice as many bombs and chemical weapons on it as America had used in all of WWII.
No wonder American politicians and captains of the culture industry haven't stopped distorting the reality of that war. Vietnam books, videos, comics, and magazines are a mass industry and most of them share the same distortions that elide America's awesome criminality.
Now to unpack the lies great and small comes Vietnam and Other American Fantasies, an excellent book full of both serious politics and surreal cultural trivia, from long-time scholar and activist H. Bruce Franklin. The story begins with a single archetypal image: General Nguyen Ngoc, South Vietnam's chief of police, shooting a suspected communist in the head, live on TV. If you've seen the footage you'll remember it well. At the time this spectacle caused some political fallout for Washington. America was supposedly aiding a fledgling democracy not propping up a sadistic police state.
Thirty years later the image takes on a different meaning. When shown the scene in class, Franklin's students at Rutgers all assume that the man holding the pistol is a Communist, just like in the movie Deer Hunter. Hollywood, of course, is the grand re-fabricator of Vietnam—fictional films are America's main source material on this bit of history—and that particular “celluloid displacement of reality” encapsulates perfectly how the cultural recasting of Vietnam works.
Among the many other “texts” addressed by Franklin is “Star Trek.” Yeah, I know, that show is a Cultural Studies cliché, but here it gets a new twist. As an advisor to the Smithsonian National Institution for an installation on the 1960s and “Star Trek,” Franklin found a sheaf of memos from the show's key producers in which they outline their evolving position on the war as expressed allegorically in four famous Vietnam-oriented episodes.
At first the professional Trekies were all for the war and discussed openly ways to justify America's killing. By 1969 the producers had created “The Omega Glory” an episode where Kirk, et al, descend to a planet where Caucasian “Yangs” and Asian “Kohms” (Yankees and Communists) are locked in a hopeless downward spiral of ever more primitive warfare. Then came “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” in which the war is cast as ripping American society apart along racial lines. That episode even worked in some footage of actual urban rioting.
For Franklin there are three possible conceptualizations of the war, they are: “Noble Cause” (defending democracy with our hands tied by liberals), “Quagmire” (a messy tragedy in which both sides are victimized), or “Imperialism” (in which the U.S. is the immoral aggressor defending a global system of privilege and exploitation, fighting a totally uneven war). Most American cultural production, including “Star Trek,” has oscillated between the first two positions. Franklin urges us to move intellectually toward the third that is, to fully repudiate both the means and the ends of the war.
For Franklin, some of the only cultural production that does this is the novels of veterans, particularly the work of Tim O'Brien. But even these are pitched at a fairly obscure level and get misread. The ultimate tale in this book is that of the “POW/MIA” hoax. That ubiquitous black and white flag, with the silhouette of a bowed head and a guard tower in the background, must fly several times a year over every U.S. post office. It is the only flag other than Old Glory to have ever flown above the White House and, in patch form, it is sewn onto the right sleeve of official KKK robes.
Franklin retraces the origins of this absurd obsession to 1973 and the dying moments of the Nixon era. As Kissinger prevaricated with North Vietnamese negotiators in Paris and the U.S. B-52s carpet-bombed the urban centers of the North and even the suburbs of Saigon, an excuse for delaying the end had to be hatched. So businessperson Ross Perot was recruited to launch a huge PR campaign calling for the return of all “POW/MIAs.”
Never before had these two categories been conflated, in all past wars, “prisoners of war” were people known to be held by the enemy, while people “missing in action” were presumed dead. But the new politically concocted mix invented the myth that “our guys” were still over there and thus that America was, into the late 1990s, still being “victimized” by Charlie.
Crucially the POW/MIA hoax shifts the question of Vietnam from the terrain of the rational (where the U.S. doesn't look so righteous) to the terrain of the purely emotional (where exculpating fantasies are free to flourish). In Franklin's view such fantasies facilitated America's continued imperial adventures such as the genocide in Iraq, or the assault on Yugoslavia, or the escalating proxy war in Columbia. Thus for the sake of the past, present, and future this book demands our attention. Z