- The Vietnam War in American Memory: Veterans, Memorials, and the Politics of Healing by Patrick Hagopian
Like repeated declarations that “Freud is dead,” perennial announcements that the U.S. war in Vietnam is over seem premature. The shooting ended forty years ago, and travelers to Vietnam today often note the degree to which Vietnamese have moved beyond the war. For Americans, however, the war lingers in popular and political culture, with Hollywood borrowing from Vietnam War representations for its new war films set in the Middle East and disputes over the loss of the war still deciding the outcome of political campaigns. The “swiftboating” of John Kerry’s campaign for president in 2004 was a case in point.
Barack Obama’s defeat of the Vietnam War veteran John McCain in the 2008 presidential campaign might have been the war’s political curtain call, but Obama gave it new life in 2012 by choosing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall as the site for his keynote Memorial Day speech. At a time when Obama was up for reelection, many news pundits took the speech to be a pitch for “the veterans’ vote” in November but his focus on the supposed mistreatment of returning soldiers from Vietnam by antiwar activists was heard by others as endorsing the myth of home-front betrayal as an explanation for the defeat in Southeast Asia. From that standpoint, Obama seemed to be appealing to neoconservative ears by distancing himself from the images of the 1960s-era antiwar left. [End Page 275]
With so much at stake in what and how Americans remember the war, studies of that subject could hardly be more important. We are fortunate to have for the task books that are rich in historical detail and cultural analysis by Christian Appy, Keith Beattie, H. Bruce Franklin, James William Gibson, Bernard von Bothmer, and Natasha Zaretsky, to name only a few. Joining them is Patrick Hagopian’s The Vietnam War in American Memory, a large, thickly documented, and eminently readable book that is the most comprehensive effort yet to engage the images and representations through which Americans have come to know the war.
We see from Hagopian’s early chapters how the centrality of “the personal” in the narratives that fueled the wars’ controversies imbued the postwar image of the veteran with iconic qualities. Those narratives include the draft that pulled a million or more men from farms, factories, and families; the large number of veterans and in-service personnel who put up resistance to the war; the drama of prisoners held in Hanoi that stretched out support for the war until their return; and the continuation of that drama through claims and counterclaims about the missing in action that passed between U.S. and Vietnamese officials for years after the war. The foregrounding of “the personal” climaxed with the construction of the Memorial Wall in Washington in 1982. A “veterans’ memorial,” not a “war memorial,” notes Hagopian had the effect of displacing from memory the political controversies surrounding the war itself through remembrance of those who had fought it. Thirty years after installation of “the wall,” it and the names on it can still send a charge through a political campaign.
The thoroughness of Hagopian’s work is on display in chapters 3 and 4, where he takes us through the political, economic, and aesthetic in-fighting leading to construction of the wall. By his account, the administration of President Ronald Reagan was divided over wanting to heal a country torn by the war in Vietnam and needing to evade the war’s legacy lest popular support for contemporary wars in Central America be diminished. The conservative businessman H. Ross Perot was an early donor to the project and threatened to use his economic clout to scuttle its development if his artistic tastes were not met.
The decisive turn toward completion of the wall entailed the rhetorical maneuver of separating the war from the warrior, allowing the nation to honor those who fought and died while putting...