By 1968, President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and all the people running the Vietnam War, had all said privately to their friends in the Congress, the FBI, and CIA, that the war was lost, that we should have never gotten into it. As early as May 1964, President Johnson told Special Assistant for National Security Affairs McGeorge Bundy that further commitment to the war was concerning: “The more I think of it,” Johnson said, “I don’t know what in the hell, it looks like to me that we’re getting into another Korea. It just worries the hell out of me. I don’t see what we can ever hope to get out of there with once we’re committed. I believe the Chinese Communists are coming into it. I don’t think that we can fight them 10,000 miles away from home and ever get anywhere in that area. I don’t think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out. And it’s just the biggest damn mess that I ever saw… What in the hell is Vietnam worth to me? What is Laos worth to me? What is it worth to this country?”
Despite this, the American war leaders all told their colleagues that we can’t break the news about the imminent failure of the war to the American people yet. The immediate, legitimate question is how does this sound to people whose sons were killed in Vietnam after the war had been given up on by the political leaders?
Consider more: In 1968 there was a peace agreement being negotiated in Paris by President Johnson to begin an orderly withdrawal from the fiasco of Vietnam. The presidential campaign of Richard Nixon, we know now, went to the military leadership of the South Vietnamese and secretly urged them to sabotage the talks. The Nixon campaign convinced the South Vietnamese to pull out of the talks because it believed the failure of the Paris peace talks would undermine the American elections. Nixon’s aides offered the South Vietnamese, if they complied, a better deal, that the new administration would continue the war illegally and secretly on the South Vietnamese’s terms. The Johnson administration knew of Nixon’s subterfuge but refused to leak it to the press.
The least you can say, when reminded of all this, is that soldiers, families of soldiers, and the American people were lied to by the state. A case could be made those soldiers were also murdered by the state. Meantime, in February 1972, while officials were repeating the government line that the US was in Vietnam to stop the Chinese communists from taking over Indochina, President Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger were landing in Beijing for a kiss-and-toast photo op with the founder of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong. So much for American fears of the Chinese communists’s takeover of Indochina.
When Yusef Komunyakaa, who served as managing editor of The Southern Cross during his tour in Vietnam, published “Facing It” as the final poem in Dien Cai Dau in 1988, he offered a response from the soldier/citizen to reshape the contours of America’s Vietnam Syndrome—
My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t
dammit: No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way—the stone lets me go.
I turn that way—I’m inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap’s white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet’s image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I’m a window.
He’s lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.
As a vision poem, “Facing It” pits consciousness against consciousness: black vets and the white vets, surviving vets and their dead peers, the lonely mother and the absent son, the black marble and the reflective marble, the window of the wall and the mirror of the wall, emergences and erasures, the present and the past, the solidity of the memorial and the flashes of memory, the fixed quantities of names and the fleeting shimmer of assessment, and so on. There is neither consignment of history to oblivion in the poem nor atonement.
This is, in my view, as it should be. There should be no forgetting, much less forgiveness, of what happened during the Vietnam War. Nor will there be while poems like “Facing It” are still around to memorialize it as a war fought with wholesale slaughter by a conscripted army in combat against an elaborate, mature revolutionary movement.
Maya Lin’s wall itself epitomizes Komunyakka’s argument, first by being independent of the old traditions of monument design. There are no Greco-Roman columns or Egyptian sculptural archetypes typical of previous American memorials. The black granite polished to a reflective shine is imbued with both honor and shame. Sunk in the ground, the shape of the wall is like a scar, a gash. The list of the thousands of names lack ornamentation yet defy nihilism. To walk down the slope to the bottom of the wall is to reject the usual verticality of American monuments and to enter the silence of a heart-breaking abstraction. The experience leads you, paradoxically, to emerge into ground, deeper and deeper, where the sounds above you from the cheerful tourists at the Lincoln Memorial to the rumble of traffic on Constitution Avenue vanish, and then reemerge, step by step, out of the magnitude of loss. It is to feel the symptoms of war and to place your hand along the chiseled consequences.
Still and all, like other post-war maladies, the Vietnam Syndrome shifted from first being a medical term to having only a political meaning. Coined by Henry Kissinger, the term came in the 1980s (and since then) to describe the United States’s reluctance to send troops into combat overseas. The Pentagon had a bout of the syndrome for decades. Leaders were nervous about lives lost, terrain too tough to cross, political forces provoked, blood spilled, consequences hard to predict, and the like. The Powell Doctrine came out of this era, emphasizing clearly defined national security interests, the organization of overwhelming force with an emphasis on air power followed by ground forces, and a clear exit strategy based on widespread public support. That rejoinder from Neo-Cons, hawkish conservatives, and other rightists has been to dismiss the fact that the Vietnam War was a loss at all, and to view the Vietnam Syndrome as merely a bias in the American public against any type of military conflict as potentially “another Vietnam.”
None of that debate excuses the appalling, cynical manner in which the 1968 election was undermined and distorted by Richard Nixon, and the amoral, if not illegal, alliance between Nixon, Kissinger, and the South Vietnamese dictatorship that would lead to extending the years of this atrocious war. If that is not an act of evil, I don’t know what is. When I see—
the booby trap’s white flash [and] Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall
—I recognize the America that Komunyakaa is shaping as one bound by moral justice, where—
In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair
Even as the right tries to rewrite the whole history of the Vietnam War, not to mention the resistance movement against it, we should be especially wary, as this poem is, not to collude with the process. If the poem is not reason enough, then the names on the wall are.
This is part seven of a twenty-one part series. Here are links to parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. These pieces will appear every two weeks. We value your feedback and your suggestions for other pieces to be included in this list of poems which shaped, and continue to shape, America. The Poetry Wire is going on its usual winter hiatus, but will be back in 2017 to continue this discussion.