One year ago President Barack Obama issued a proclamation establishing every March 29 as Vietnam Veterans Day. Last week Gov. Sean Parnell signed House Bill 67 adding this day of recognition to state law. But if there’s any truth to the Clausewitz theorem that “War is the continuation of Politik by other means,” then can there be a hidden political agenda when leaders of nations seek to honor veterans of war?
I pose this question following Vietnam Veterans Day not to diminish the valor of those who served in that war. But as veterans of war they deserve more than superficial acknowledgements of the sacrifices they made. And if we as a nation are to sincerely atone for our decades long mistreatment of those warriors, then we must understand how the country turned its back on them.
It’s clear that Vietnam Veterans Day is an effort to help heal the emotional wounds inflicted on soldiers after returning to America. As President Obama stated, many “came home to be shunned or neglected — to face treatment unbefitting their courage and a welcome unworthy of their example. We must never let this happen again.” And upon signing HB67 last week, Governor Parnell acknowledged that shameful treatment before adding “these fine veterans became champions for the cause of all veterans, so that no other warrior would have to experience what they did.”
Who are the president and our governor claiming acted contemptuously toward our troops? Many would look back at the antiwar movement. Some would bring up the image of activists spitting on the face of soldiers. But the population as a whole never tried to understand what individual veterans experienced in that war. And government funding was grossly inadequate for the medical care needed by veterans coming home with limbs missing, post-traumatic stress disorder, or the cancerous side effects of being exposed to Agent Orange.
Yes, the shame belongs to all of us. But it’s more than neglecting our responsibility for their welfare after the war. What the nation lacked in regard to Vietnam was the collective will to question President Johnson’s political motivation to escalate the war.
Was the Vietnam War one of necessity? Our government claimed the spread of communism was imminent if we didn’t stop it there. So from 1950 to 1964 we sent military advisors to aid South Vietnam’s resistance to the Viet Cong communists who sought to unify the small nation. Then in 1964 Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. It gave President Lyndon Johnson the authority to deploy combat troops to Vietnam, and over the next decade more than a million U.S. soldiers were sent off to war.
The resolution was in response to reports that the North Vietnamese had twice attacked U.S. naval ships patrolling in international waters. Robert McNamara, Johnson’s Secretary of Defense, told Congress that the Navy had provided “unequivocal proof” of the second attack. However, we know now that it never happened. And despite the fact that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had evidence suggesting that McNamara had deliberately misled Congress, they never sought to hold him or anyone in the Johnson administration accountable.
Herein lies my beef with President Obama’s proclamation. He states that the war was fought “to preserve the liberties we hold dear.” But the truth is North Vietnam never posed a threat to America. And not once does he acknowledge our government’s deceit even though Johnson’s unjustified escalation of the war was the first and most egregious mistreatment of our veterans.
If “never again” is the primary message for Vietnam Veterans Day, then it’s a demand on American citizens to keep our government honest —for the best way to honor our soldiers is to prevent the president from sending them off to an unjust war in the first place. Sadly, that’s test we failed in 2003 when we let President Bush take the nation to war in Iraq under the false pretenses that Saddam Hussein was acquiring weapons of mass destruction.
That’s why I’m asking about Obama’s omissions regarding the wrongful acts of the Johnson administration. Honoring our veterans long after they’ve fought shouldn’t excuse the legacy of any president who sacrifices American blood and treasure in any unnecessary war.
• Moniak is a resident of Juneau.