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Forever Vietnam

How a Divisive War Changed American Public Memory


David Kieran


Amherst & Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014

Paperback. xii+ 305 pages. ISBN 978-1625341006. $26.95


Reviewed by Françoise Coste

Université Toulouse–Jean Jaurès



David Kieran’s starting point in this book is the centrality of the Vietnam War in the contemporary United States. To him, “the war remains an enigma that must be explained, a trauma that must be healed, a disaster that must not be repeated.” Forever Vietnam : How a Divisive War Changed American Public Memory is Kieran’s contribution to this momentous debate.

As he explains it in his introduction, Kieran wants his book to “raise critical questions about the intersections of the legacy of Vietnam, memorialization, and foreign policy in the contemporary United States.” Thus Vietnam becomes a prism through which one can understand and (re)interpret American history and contemporary foreign policy. Kieran’s thesis is that Vietnam and its remembrance, because of the ontological trauma America suffered after its defeat in South-East Asia, now shape the memory of all the main military events in American history, including those that took place before the 1960s.


More specifically, Kieran distinguishes between two periods. From the end of the war to the mid-1980s, Vietnam was largely remembered in the US in a negative manner. Then, the mid-1980s saw the emergence of a revisionist version of the war, which is defined in the book as a “narrative that obscures the imperialist origins of the Vietnam conflict and America’s devastation of Vietnam through claims that it was waged for peace and that American soldiers made the primary sacrifices.” Vietnam revisionism has now become the dominant vision in the United States and explains the country’s “renewed faith in American militarism.”


To demonstrate this ambitious thesis, Kieran chose six case studies. In the chapter devoted to the infamous confederate Andersonville prison which operated in Georgia during the Civil War, Kieran introduces a key figure of his book, that of the POW/MIA activist. The POW/MIA movement is one of the central actors in Vietnam revisionism: putting the focus on the need to locate prisoners allegedly left behind after the war and to recover the remains of missing soldiers participates in the denunciation of the way the American government supposedly abandoned the courageous men fighting in Vietnam. So while the museum at Andersonville was initially conceived as a tribute to the Union prisoners who died there during the Civil War, it became the National Prisoner of War Museum in 1998. This museum’s main focus, through countless Memorial Day speeches on the POW/MIA issue given there every year or exhibits devoted to the famous ‘Hanoi Hilton,’ has turned it into a place commemorating the experience and the suffering of Vietnam’s prisoners of war. A military hierarchy consequently emerges. By placing a special emphasis on the violence of the treatment the POWs endured, the museum implicitly depicts the Vietnamese as the most sadistic enemy the US has ever known, which makes the sacrifices and bravery of Vietnam War prisoners unprecedented in American history―and the war a completely legitimate one.


The second chapter offers a fascinating reading of the way Vietnam changed the remembrance of the Second World War in the United States. Kieran had the great idea to study three World War Two memoirs written after Vietnam. Through many poignant, and often horrifying, quotes, Kieran shows how the ‘greatest generation,’ that has been so repeatedly celebrated for fighting the good war, actually committed numerous atrocities in Europe and in the Pacific. But veterans allowed themselves to reveal such acts only after Vietnam veterans had published their own memoirs admitting to civilian massacres and barbaric fighting on the battlefield. Even more interestingly, these WWII memoirists have heavily borrowed from the narrative and lexical tropes of Vietnam War literature to convey their own experience (like the detailed description of dead bodies, the disillusionment with the goals of the war, or the difficulties of returning home). In this case, Vietnam worked as a delayed trigger for the previous generation of soldiers. But however accurate and interesting this version of events may have been, it proved very difficult to accept for some Americans, like the many Republican leaders who, in the 1980s and early 1990s, stopped Congress from recognizing the existence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in WWII veterans.


Conservatives are much more at ease with establishing parallels between Vietnam and the battle of Fort Alamo, the next topic Kieran discusses. The Alamo memorial in Texas serves Vietnam revisionism in two different ways: first, the values traditionally associated with the Alamo soldiers (bravery, heroism, coming to the rescue of a small country threatened by a tyrannical enemy, sacrificing one’s life for a democratic ideal, losing the battle but winning a moral victory) have been transferred to the soldiers who fought in Vietnam in order to rehabilitate them in the eyes of the American population, erase the stigma of defeat, and justify the war a posteriori; second, the memorial has become another center of POW/MIA activism, especially through the efforts of a group called the Lost Patrol (“People are always saying ‘Remember the Alamo,’ but we say ‘Remember the POWs and MIAs’”)―another proof that, in the 1980s, as Kieran writes, the POW/MIA issue was so predominant that it became “a meta-identity” for all Vietnam veterans.


Kieran also has the good idea to include in his book a chapter on an episode which is often neglected, as it is overshadowed by the tragic events that happened a few years later: the American intervention in Somalia in 1993. Somalia is an interesting case because it offers a counterpoint to the general narrative of Vietnam revisionism. One key revisionist tenet is that the war had actually been winnable―defeat was due to the lack of support for soldiers on the part of timid politicians in Washington. But the difficulties the United States encountered in Somalia (symbolized by the famous ‘Black Hawk Down’ episode) saw a return to the idea that Americans should not get involved in ill-defined missions abroad, even for humanitarian purposes. For the majority of American journalists, and for a large part of public opinion, the famous ‘ Vietnam quagmire’ came back in the guise of the ‘Somalia quagmire’: the United States should have learned its lesson in Vietnam, but it had forgotten it by the 1990s. However, this interesting revisionism of Vietnam revisionism did not last. It did not survive 9/11, to which Kieran devotes the last two chapters of his book.


The memory of 9/11 is obviously still in the making, but Kieran already finds many elements which confirm his thesis. Vietnam looms large in the remembrance of 9/11 and the wars that followed. Kieran first analyzes the memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on the site of the crash of United Airlines Flight 93. He is particularly interested in the temporary memorial which was erected there (he speaks of “temporary memorialization”), before the completion of the official monument in 2011. There, many visitors (including a disproportionately large number of Vietnam veterans) left mementos, like military medals. Their political message was unambiguous: the passengers of Flight 93 were the first victims of the War on Terror, but also the first Americans to fight back; the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were consequently justified, they had to be fought in their memory. In other words, the Flight 93 victims had become conservative heroes (“personifications of the Bush doctrine”). Vietnam also played a central role in the public debates leading to the adoption of a permanent memorial, as the Vietnam Wall in Washington D.C. has become the modern template for war memorials in the United States. As it happens, the Shanksville memorial is organized around a wall featuring the names of the forty Americans who died there―an unmistakable echo. Kieran also finds many echoes of Vietnam in the political debates surrounding the War in Iraq, especially in the counterinsurgency strategies developed by the highest echelons of the US military and in the openly revisionist rhetoric George W. Bush used when calling for the Surge in 2007. Kieran also interestingly notices the conscious effort, on the part of the first Afghanistan and Iraq memoirists, to explicitly break with the language of Vietnam memoirs by openly and proudly supporting these wars and minimizing their violence, especially regarding civilian casualties.


Despite a puzzling omission―the 1991 Gulf War which did so much to help the US overcome the Vietnam Syndrome―Kieran’s six examples work well. They prove Vietnam has become a narrative and historiographical black hole when discussing and remembering American military history. The result is, according to Kieran, a largely “depoliticized, uncritical celebration of the military,” which he regrets. He takes pains to make clear that his stance is neither antimilitary or anti-interventionist, that he only wishes for a more objective and dispassionate relationship between the nation and its military, if only to protect the lives of American soldiers. Yet, even if his sympathy for veterans and their families, and his concern for their specific health needs, is obvious through these pages, it is also sometimes difficult for Kieran to hide his more negative feelings. Vietnam revisionism exasperates him, as it downplays the role of militarism in US history and the often conservative political agenda of those celebrating Vietnam as a “noble cause,” to quote Ronald Reagan. He also seems to have little patience with some Vietnam veterans who appear to him as excessively paranoid, convinced as they are that they are still rejected by the mainstream of American society “although [they] have been publicly venerated at least since the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982.” In this sense, this book goes against the grain and asks questions which will undoubtedly continue to affect the United States as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have bestowed upon the country a new generation of veterans.


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