Suddenly he appeared, riding in the back of a truck, his arms thrust to the heavens, his fists clenched tight. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was Ho Chi Minh, modern Vietnam’s founding father… and he was holding dumbbells.
It was 2010, the eve of the 35th anniversary of the fall of Saigon — though it was known in Vietnam as Liberation Day — and the city was readying itself for a major celebration: a massive parade, fireworks, the whole shebang. That float, adorned with Olympic rings, was apparently designed to exhort Vietnamese onlookers to embrace physical fitness, though no reputable fitness trainer in the world would teach the form of standing shoulder presses being performed on that truck by that papier–mâché “Uncle Ho.”
Nations sometimes commemorate their war victories in strange ways. Not that I have first-hand experience. I grew up in the wake of the Vietnam War, so — like all Americans since the end of World War II — I never saw the celebration of a major victory. Perhaps somewhere, someone commemorated the triumphs over the tiny island of Grenada and the minimalist forces of Panama. There were, apparently, celebrations of the Gulf War before it was clear that meddling in Iraq would turn into a decades-long American debacle, though they didn’t make an impression on me.
What I remember, instead, was a different kind of celebration, a long, meandering moment famously labeled “it’s morning again in America” in a TV ad for Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign. A nation hobbled by the real Uncle Ho, deindustrialization, and a raft of poorly conceived policies that had come home to roost was being gilded back to greatness by a spinmeister-in-chief in the Oval Office — and Hollywood and the toy companies loved it. For me, it meant rousing times watching Rambo and “G.I. Joe” and Red Dawn. Rocky took on a towering Soviet superman, the Evil Empire’s boxing champ, and chopped him down to size. The president flipped the script after the phrase “Star Wars,” taken from George Lucas’s trilogy, was slapped on his fantastical “high frontier” defense boondoggle by critics. “If you will pardon my stealing a film line,” he said, “the Force is with us.” And if Mr. Gorbachev wouldn’t tear down that wall — you know, the one in Berlin — well, Mr. Reagan might just blow it to smithereens with an MX missile. It was a celebratory time, but remind me now, what exactly were we celebrating?
It took me years to wrap my head around what I had lived through, to understand how my entire world had been deformed by the American war in Vietnam and the reaction to our devastating defeat there. I only began to figure this out, mind you, after I processed the fact that these distortions didn’t end with my Reagan-era childhood. But what did it all mean?
Fortunately, Christian Appy helped open my eyes with Patriots, his superb oral history of the Vietnam War from all sides. In his new tour de force history, American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity, he goes even further, drawing on a staggering range of sources, from Pentagon documents and Bruce Springsteen songs to a forgotten bestseller and Tom Cruise’s Top Gun flyboy fantasy. In the process, he grapples with the ways the Vietnam War came home, how it transformed American culture and shaped our society from the 1950s to just last week. How did an idealistic crusade to save poor Asians from godless communism end in a made-in-America bloodbath? And how did we respond? In American Reckoning, drawing on long-ignored sources and his unique way of analyzing things, Appy explodes the myth of American exceptionalism in a genuinely original way.
Today, he takes the lessons of Vietnam further still, examining how a willful societal amnesia about what we did in Vietnam paved the way for an era of endless war. While predicting the future is dicey indeed, here’s a forecast I feel confident about given Washington’s continued misreading of the Vietnam War: in your lifetime, you won’t see a float of George H.W. Bush doing sumo squats on the anniversary of the end of the Gulf War, nor one of his son doing bicep curls to commemorate the start of the surge in the Iraq War that followed. Distressingly enough, our third go-round in Iraq shares many of the hallmarks of our 1950s efforts in Vietnam, so hold off on the Obama-doing-chin-ups float, too.
Until the United States comes to grips with the grim reality of the Vietnam War, it’s hard to imagine Washington moving much beyond its usual diet of foreign policy failures and military fiascos. Picking up a copy of American Reckoning would be a great first step in the other direction.