It Wasn’t Just Cronkite

 

 

50 years ago on February 27th, 1968 Walter Cronkite went on national TV with his “Report From Vietnam,” and rattled America.  The most trusted newsman in the country at the time and a supporter of the war until then, Cronkite, in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, had a change of heart.  Now he urged that Lyndon Johnson begin to disengage from the war–“not as victors but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”  It had become plain to him  that the United States would not soon or successfully conclude its involvement in Indochina. “If I’ve lost Cronkite,” the president lamented, “I’ve lost middle America.” LBJ, it went without saying, had lost the war as well.

The story of Tet since then tends to focus on Cronkite.  Because he was so pessimistic, yet influential, he missed the reality of the fighting in February 1968–the U.S. in fact had “won” the Tet Offensive but was undermined at home by Cronkite’s reporting, and rapidly growing antiwar sentiment, and thus had that “military victory” turned into a “psychological defeat.”  The war was won in Vietnam but lost at home . . .cronkite

 

Barely known but occurring on that same day, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Earle Wheeler, returned a four-day trip to Vietnam where he had assessed the aftermath of Tet.  Despite these revisionist claims of Tet as a victory, Wheeler’s analysis wasn’t much different than Cronkite’s and, since he was the JCS Chair and had just returned from meetings with Commander William Westmoreland and the rest of the U.S. military leadership team in Saigon, his words hit harder.

The Chair’s appraisals contrasted sharply with public optimism about the war. As Westmoreland publicly continued to claim success–concluding that he did “not believe Hanoi can hold up under a long war”–Wheeler told reporters that he saw “no early end to this war,” and cautioned that Americans “must expect hard fighting to continue.” Privately, Wheeler was more pessimistic.  It was “the consensus of responsible commanders” that 1968 would be a pivotal year. The war might continue but would not return to pre-Tet conditions.*  Clark Clifford, the incoming Defense Secretary,  put it bluntly; Wheeler had “presented an even grimmer assessment of the Tet offensive than we had heard from Westmoreland and Bunker.”

“There is no doubt that the enemy launched a major, powerful nationwide assault,” Wheeler observed. “This offensive has by no means run its course. In fact, we must accept the possibility that he has already deployed additional elements of his home army.” The JCS chair also admitted that American commanders in Vietnam agreed that the margin of success or survival had been “very small indeed” during the first weeks of

Tet attacks. The enemy, with combat-available forces deployed in large numbers throughout the RVN, had “the will and capability to continue” and its “determination appears to be unshaken.” Although the Communists’ future plans were not clear, he warned, “the scope and severity of his attacks and the extent of his reinforcements are presenting us with serious and immediate problems.” S

everal PAVN divisions remained untouched, and troops and supplies continued to move southward to supplement the 200,000 enemy forces available for hostilities. The MACV, however, still faced major logistics problems due to enemy harassment and interdiction and the massive redeployment of U.S. forces to the north. Westmoreland in fact had deployed half of all maneuver battalions to I Corps while stripping the rest of the RVN of adequate reserves.

Worse, Wheeler, though surprisingly pleased with the ARVN’s performance, nonetheless questioned its ability to continue, pointing out that the army was on the defensive and had lost about one-quarter of its pre-Tet strength. Similarly, the government of the RVN had survived Tet, but with diminished effectiveness. Thieu and Ky faced “enormous” problems, with morale at the breaking point, 15,000 civilian casualties, and a flood of about one million additional refugees, one-third in the area of Saigon–all part of the huge task of reconstruction which would require vast amounts of money and time. The offensive moreover had undermined pacification.

Civic Action programs, Wheeler admitted, had been “brought to a halt. . . . To a large extent, the VC now control the countryside.” He added that the guerrillas, via recruiting and infiltration, were rebuilding their infrastructure and its overall recovery was “likely to be rapid.” Clearly, then, the military had developed its analyses and policy recommendations in February 1968 from candid, at times desolate, views of the effects of Tet.

Later claims of success aside, in February Wheeler at best found the situation “fraught with opportunities as well as dangers” and conceded that only the timely reaction of U.S. forces had prevented Communist control in a dozen or so places.” While Harold K. Johnson, the Army chief-of-staff plainly admitted that “we suffered a loss, there can be no doubt about it,” Wheeler’s euphemistic description of Tet was that “it was a very near thing.”

Subsequent events in 1968, especially the so-called Mini-Tets in May and August, cost the VC/PLAF/PAVN forces dearly and the U.S. and southern Vietnamese militaries rallied to create better conditions, something of a stalemate.  But the decisions made in the aftermath of Wheeler’s report and similar analyses from Vietnam had been made–the U.S. would “Vietnamize” the war, essentially conceding that the influx of over 500,000 American soldiers had not defeated the Communists in Vietnam.

The Americans couldn’t wait until the dust settled late in 1968 to do otherwise; Cronkite had shocked Americans with his bleak report (only months after they had been assured there was “light at the end of the tunnel”) and Wheeler had unnerved official Washington.  Now, when American scholars continue to peddle the “Tet as Victory” line, Wheeler’s report and the overall level of military candor about the parlous nature of the war needs to be a huge part of that dialogue . . .

******

For more on this, see my article in Jacobin, “The Story of the Tet Offensive”

*For Wheeler’s report, see  in Neil Sheehan, et al, eds., The Pentagon Papers–New York Times Edition (New York, 1971), 615-21.

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Gun Crazy

I’m in Venice this semester as a visiting professor, so I’m not keeping up with U.S. politics like I normally would.  But I woke up to another report of a mass killing at a public place, another school.

Yesterday, after class, a student here said he had a question about Texas. He’d visited there last year and was “scandalized” by the public display and worship of guns. Asked why Americans were so obsessed with guns and why there was so much gun violence, and most importantly why they didn’t do anything about it.  In Italy, a white anti-immigrant zealot killed 5 people last week and it’s a huge story, because it’s so rare.  (To prove “self-defense” in the use of a gun here, you really have to show that your life was in danger and you had to shoot someone . . .  not simply assert that you feared your “castle” might be violated, or saw someone with dark skin running from your house, or wear a badge).

I talked to him for at least 20 minutes and had no useful answers.

“The Script” for gun killings immediately went into effect. Politicians and personalities are offering their “thoughts and prayers” as always.

A lot of people are rightly condemning the NRA’s stronghold on this issue, which has been a political reality for generations and hadn’t budged. Screeds about the NRA are approaching “rain is wet” category.

I’m seeing a lot of self-described radicals cue up their lines about The Patriarchy, Privilege, and other such things, again. That most of the victims  in these mass killings are white and male and that the shooters don’t issue any political manifestos doesn’t seem to fit into the narrative, but what the hell, when you’re on a roll . . .

I’m also seeing a lot of self-described radicals who cue up their lines about The Patriarchy, Privilege, and other such things, again, angrily dismiss claims of mental illness as a mere “alibi” to apologize for The Patriarchy, Privilege, and other such things. If a mass killing isn’t the time to discuss the American mental health crisis, then I can assume there isn’t one, and we’re spending too many resources and too much time talking about mental health?

Lefties who want to gun up for the Revolution because The Man is well armed . . . look in the mirror, you’re not John Brown, you’re a living satire. The Man has drones and nukes–good luck with your revolution. Those guns you get will far more likely be used against yourself or a family member.  Every time a “radical” calls for lefties to go out and buy guns, the suits at Smith & Wesson smile and pop another bottle of champagne, and laugh at you.

There is only one thing in common in every single one of these mass attacks–a Gun.

There is one thing in common probably in all of them but surely in the vast majority–a history of psychological disturbance, red flags all over the place, some type of punishment, jail time, whatever, and a long trail of warnings all over the internet and among friends (and not infrequently some military experience).  Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris from Columbine, Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook Elementary, Devin Patrick Kelley in Sutherland Springs, Texas, Omar Mateen at the Pulse Nightclub, Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock, this kid . . . and so it goes–all of them showed clear signs of being a threat to use arms and commit violence.

Two-thirds of gun deaths are Suicides so while these mass attacks are terrifying and far-too-common, they do remain statistically small.   Easy access to guns for a depressed person makes it easy to kill oneself.

It’s Occam’s Razor time here: Mental Health needs to become a huge national priority, not only because of gun deaths, but just because . . . Look into the backgrounds of mass killers, and you’re not gonna come away thinking “wow, there were no signals, who could’ve seen that coming . . . .”

Guns . . . oh, hell, what’s the point. If a classroom of slaughtered 2d Graders doesn’t provoke action, what will?

Too bad Barack Obama’s not still president. He was so good at shedding crocodile tears at the obligatory memorials for these victims, while doing nothing.

Guns and mental illness–it’s not that hard.

Have a great day. My thoughts and prayers are with you all.

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Suicide and Guns–AFSP Tells Gun Safety Groups to Get Lost

 

“Suicide Prevention Walk Organizers Tell Gun Control Advocates to Keep Away”

That’s a headline from this past Friday’s “Voice of San Diego” News Organization website.  It forced me to do a triple-take because I was saddened and angry.

I know more about guns and suicide than most people–more than I ever wished I’d known.  My son Kelsey died by suicide in March 2010 using a gun he’d bought at Academy Sports on his 21st birthday a couple months earlier.  From infancy Kelsey had real issues with judgement, anger, and motivation.  He’d been to shrinks, doctors, homeopaths, acupuncturists, . . . you name it, in my attempts to help him out.  He had problems at school and was well known with the neighborhood cops. He was smart as hell but seemed to find trouble, and trouble found him just as easily.  And he was fascinated with guns, and living in Texas . . . the most gun-loving dystopia in America.

Gun-Violence-Graphic_043730516219

Suicides by Guns

Each year in America (and the numbers are rising) there are about 44,000 suicides, and half of those involve a gun.  Each year in America, there are about 33,600 deaths caused by gun, and about 22,000–a full two-thirds–involve a gun.  Just to make a comparison, there are about 36,000 auto-accident deaths per year (a huge decline from a peak of around 55,000 in the early 1970s).  As the crisis of auto safety grew, manufacturers and lawmakers developed and regulated new safe devices, and cars soon had better seat belts and air bags . . . and today, car advertisements regularly emphasize their safety features.

Motor_vehicle_deaths_in_the_US.svg

Motor Vehicle Deaths

Guns . . . ?   Ha!  Due to the power of the NRA, the many legislatures it has bought, and the inaction of allegedly friendly politicians (especially Democrats and President Barack Obama), the problem worsens (thought Obama was moving when he gave his frequent crocodile-tear-laden talks at memorial services).

But this . . . a suicide prevention event that has banned Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense and the Brady Campaign–probably the two leading groups trying to address the rampage of gun violence in America–is downright chilling, and disgusting, and utterly craven.

And, from a personal standpoint, it’s painful because I’ve been involved with the group doing the banning, The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention  since Kelsey died.  I’ve attended their “Walk Out of Darkness” fundraisers both in the Houston communist and on the University of Houston campus.  I’ve donated, and encouraged and pushed people to donate–probably several thousands of dollars over the years.  And when asked to speak about Kelsey’s story–I always, 100 percent of the time–talked about the needs to do something about guns.

The problem of suicide in America is the problem of guns in America (and vice-versa)!  The more guns you have, the more likely the suicide rate is to rise.  Access-to-guns-and-risk-of-suicide-chartIt’s quite simple, really.

But according the regional director of the AFSP in Seattle, Jessica van der Stad,  the legistative goals of Moms Demand Action and the Brady Campaign, “related to guns is inconsistent with our efforts . . . As a suicide prevention organization, we are not in the business of saying who can and cannot own firearms. We are in the business of saving lives.

Prior to the walk, a representative from the Brady campaign told the AFSP people in San Diego that “We are planning on wearing our standard t-shirts that say Brady Campaign and ‘gun violence prevention saves lives.’”  One of the Brady goals “is to educate and put measures in place to prevent firearm suicides – is this an appropriate place to spread that word by wearing our t-shirts?”

However, the chair of the AFSP San Diego chapter, you know, the ones “in the business of saving lives,” replied: “Upon consulting with our National leadership we still are unable to have the Brady Campaign / Moms Demand Action promote itself at our community events. We value the work you are doing to create awareness around the effects of firearms in our communities as it relates to suicide means. And you rightly point to the possibility of our walker guests being negatively affected by any depiction of guns, printed word, etc.”

And then, the money quote, the nadir of cowardice and political ignorance:

“AFSP has formed a partnership with National Sports Shooting Foundation, and has developed a new educational program and materials emphasizing Firearm Safety. Acknowledging that firearms are a primary means of suicide, this effort is a vital component of AFSP’s goal to achieve 20% reduction in suicide by the year 2025.”

The AFSP, a group that exists in largest measure because people kill themselves with guns every damned day,  is working with the National Sports Shooting Foundation, a group that exists to promote gun purchase and gun use.  The AFSP had to work with a gun group to develop “a new educational program and materials emphasizing Firearm Safety?”   It even acknowledged the rule of firearms as a primary means of suicide, yet paired up with a Shooting group?  Moms Demand Action and the Brady Campaign have had such programs for years and would gladly have worked with AFSP, but were told to stay home.

I told you above about my son Kelsey and his death by suicide using a gun.  His death, though one of thousands, stands out–not just because it affected me personally.  When Kelsey was born, when he was a toddler, his mom worked for what was at the time Handgun Control Inc., a groups started by Sarah Brady, the wife of Jim Brady, Ronald Reagan’s press secretary who was shot and nearly killed by John Hinckley in the assassination attempt on Reagan.  Kelsey grew up with daily epistles about the dangers of guns.  I wouldn’t even buy him a toy gun.  But mental illnesses and living in desolate Texas can undo the best lessons, and that’s what happened.  For those of us who are “suicide survivors,” all we can really do is try to help people who are in crisis, and that means making it a lot harder for people to obtain the most likely tool used to kill themselves–a gun.

In the AFSP’s Orwellian world, suicide will become less frequent by giving shooting clubs access to their membership, people who’ve already lost loved ones by guns, instead of allowing Moms Demand Action and the Brady Campaign simply to appear and leaflet a rally–a simple act of free expression.

Personally, I’m done with the AFSP, and I would ask it to return all the money I’ve donated and raised (they keep good records so it would be easy to figure out) so I can give it to groups working on gun violence, and also return the money of people I’ve connected with through their “Out of the Darkness Walks” because I think we all donated to an organization based on the now-fraudulent idea that it was serious about preventing suicides . . . and if you’re going to prevent suicides you have to prevent people from getting guns so easily.

I will discourage anyone I know from working with or donating to the AFSP.

I would implore the AFSP to rethink its relationship with gun groups while excluding gun safety groups.

In the meantime, you can contact AFSP and tell them how disappointed you are in their decision to give priority to gun rights over the right to life.  By making league with gun groups–who exist in some large measure to enhance the sales of guns and make profits for gun manufacturers–they’re ensuring that the suicide rate will continue to go up.  And for the AFSP that means more business, built on more self-inflicted death.

Info on the AFSP is below.

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HouChron Op-Ed on VN, Afghanistan

What can Vietnam War teach us about Afghanistan, North Korea?

Prompted by documentary, historian examines parallels to current conflict in Afghanistan

By Robert Buzzanco

September 30, 2017 Updated: October 1, 2017 9:10am

http://www.houstonchronicle.com/opinion/outlook/article/What-can-Vietnam-War-teach-us-about-Afghanistan-12243521.phphttp://www.houstonchronicle.com/opinion/outlook/article/What-can-Vietnam-War-teach-us-about-Afghanistan-12243521.php

On Wednesday, Taliban forces fired rockets at the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, shortly after Defense Secretary James Mattis’ visit. Though Mattis was the target, he had left before the attack and was not harmed.
The U.S. has been at war in Afghanistan for 16 years – a long, tragic and ironic conflict. In the 1980s, the U.S. government funded and armed various mujahedeen groups fighting against the Soviet-backed government. In that era, many of the same people now trying to attack American officials like Mattis were hailed as “freedom fighters.”

In the 1960s, as millions of Americans have been reminded by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary “The Vietnam War,” the U.S. also was supporting other “freedom fighters” in the southern part of Vietnam with huge amounts of money and weapons.

Just as Mattis was a target in Kabul, then–National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy was visiting Vietnam in February 1965 when enemy Viet Cong forces attacked a U.S. airbase at Pleiku, in the Central Highlands. Even in “friendly” territory, American officials were at risk.

The Viet Cong were never recipients of U.S. aid nor American support, unlike many of the Afghan fighters who later joined the Taliban, but both attacks illustrate the peril of intervening in the internal conflicts of another country.

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Hugh Hefner, Cultural Rebel

Hef was as much a cultural revolutionary as America could produce at mid-century. Began Playboy right after the Kinsey studies were published, while McCarthyism was in full swing. Got called a “Communist” for undermining American morals, “weakening” American society against the threat of godless Communism. Insisted sex should was essential and should be enjoyable for all. Gave a lot of great journalists their starts. If you got Playboy “just for the articles” you read about Civil Rights, Ban the Bomb, Vietnam, and homosexuality there probably before anywhere else. He was a good liberal when the term meant something.  Time, Newsweek, or The Saturday Evening Post never gave a long, free-wheeling interview to Martin Luther King.

Gave tons of money to progressive causes. Had a late night show featuring not just celebs, but writers, political figures, philosophers, etc. Today he most assuredly would have Colin Kaepernick as a guest. Loved jazz and created the idea of the Playboy Man, who didn’t just love women but believed in seeing the world, reading, treating people with respect. Trump is the antithesis of the Playboy image. As the best minds of that generation were “destroyed by madness,” Hef offered refuge.

I know he wasn’t a 3d Wave feminist, and Playboy Bunnies worked in often difficulty-if-not-hostil environments,  but few have made American culture more tolerant and created a space for marginalized people in the media and told Americans the truth about power more than Hugh Hefner did.

Media today is in crisis.  So many people read 140 character tweets rather than reasoned articles.  The corporate media is a powerful wing of the ruling class.  Social media spreads contrived information via memes.  But Playboy still  writes about class, poverty, inequality, war, justice, and other issues that are no longer sexy.

Hef’s death reminded me of something a friend said to me about Bob Dylan years ago, “he’s a genius, not a saint.”

 

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Ken Burns’s War Stories

[Original version at History News Network, 21 September 2017]

I began my first book on Vietnam (Masters of War) with a poem, Adrian Mitchell’s “To Whom It May Concern”:

You put your bombers in, you put your conscience out.

You take the human being and you twist it all about

So scrub my skin with women

Chain my tongue with whisky

Stuff my nose with garlic

Coat my eyes with butter

Fill my ears with silver

Stick my legs in plaster

Tell me lies about Vietnam.

When written in 1968, Americans were finally realizing and tiring of the lies they had been told about Vietnam. And the point of the poem was that, against that flood of lies, was some kind of truth, one that a majority of Americans began to understand as they opposed the American war on Vietnam.

“Triangulating” (or Teaching?) the War

Now, a half-century later, America’s best-known documentarians and teachers of popular history, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have produced an 18-hour examination of the war for PBS (a “masterpiece” according to George Will, with sponsorship and promotion from the Koch Brothers, Bank of America, and Pentagon, inter alia) which is getting a huge amount of attention already. Like their documentary on the Civil War, The Vietnam War will surely become a major work of public history and be ingrained in our national consciousness. But what do Burns and Novick do, is it anything new, and what consequences will their work have?hochiminh

Burns and Novick, in their public relations blitz for the show (which debuted Sunday night, September 17th) have stressed that this documentary is different than the studies of Vietnam that have preceded it because they focused on the people who were involved in the war and especially representatives of the enemy (the “North Vietnamese” in their parlance, not the “revolutionaries” or “the NLF”). Their goal was to “triangulate” the telling of the war—speak to people from North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the United States. Their main purpose is to “honor the courage, heroism and sacrifice of those who served,” and “we have tried to do this by listening to their stories.” They add that they conveyed the tragedy of the war through “good storytelling.”

In addition to telling the stories of Americans who fought in Vietnam, Burns and Novick talk to partisans from the enemy, who talk of battles and tactics and their simultaneous respect and hatred of the Americans they fought. In fact, the documentarians seem to suggest that the Vietnamese were unaware of much about the war until educated by Americans. In Vietnam, Novick was surprised to see “a willingness, an openness” to talk about the war in a way “they never speak about it in Vietnam, which is the human story . . . . The war there is sort of a grand sort of victorious narrative without people in it.” And the people to whom Novick spoke “want the next generation to know how terrible it was, how difficult it was.” (Emphases mine).

diem on timeI haven’t been to Vietnam, so maybe they’re right. But I’m pretty certain the Vietnamese talk about the war and know how terrible and difficult it was . . . I’ve talked to a lot of Vietnamese about the war, in depth . . . the war fought for decades in their country. They lost 2-3 million people in the American phase of their long struggle, which means that virtually every family had an immediate member die. There are cemeteries and memorials all over, constant reminders of the war. There are museums to honor battles fought and soldiers and civilians killed. There is a museum dedicated to the dead at My Lai. A close friend who spent 3 months traveling in the area told me that remembering the war in general and its victims is “one of the most significant parts of their identity, more so than here.” There are tributes to the dead. There is a replica of the Washington D.C. Vietnam “Wall.” And if they’re somehow not aware of how terrible the war was, the continued loss of life, perhaps as many as 50,000 people after hostilities ended, from unexploded bombs, and the continued impact of Agent Orange in high cancer rates and countless deformed babies, would help them remember. Did the Vietnamese really need two Americans, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, to finally teach them about the bloodshed and devastation their own land suffered because of the Americans?

And therein lies the core flaw of the entire project—it’s a series of stories, but not really a history of the war. That’s the Burns-Novick trademark and it’s worked for a long time, making them famous and I suspect wealthy. But it substitutes vignettes for ideas, personal anecdotes for larger structural factors, bathos for analysis. And it ends up providing a misguided view of the war, one that has politically conservative consequences (ironic because Burns himself is openly liberal) by shifting attention away from the historical, material reasons for American intervention and focusing on 79 people interviewed who were directly involved in Vietnam. Instead of an exposé of aggressive militarism, they give us sentimental stories of survival and perseverance.

Burns and Novick, despite their claims of originality, provide a pretty boilerplate liberal examination of the war. It “was begun in good faith, by decent people.” The people of South Vietnam created a state, the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), which was invaded by “North Vietnam” and precipitated the war because of the American mission to prevent Communists from taking over “free” countries. After the partition of Vietnam at Geneva, the conflict became a “civil war” in which the U.S. became involved to save the “free” southern half of Vietnam according to Cold War logic. Americans made anguished decisions to invade and then escalate the war, they kept blundering further along and then couldn’t get out, there were decisive battles at places like Ap Bac and Ia Drang, Americans turned on the war, it was a tragedy, there are only victims, and so on . . . It’s not a bad history, but in no way original and in its pursuit of “all sides” it creates a false equivalency. The intervention into Vietnam was a war crime, and PBS isn’t going to fund a documentary saying that, and Burns and Novick don’t go beyond the liberal consensus to think about it.33 B52-vietnam

More Reconciliation and Healing

Burns and Novick talk a lot about reconciliation and healing, sort of a Vietnam War version of Dr. Phil and Oprah. “For more than a generation, instead of forging a path to reconciliation, we have allowed the wounds the war inflicted on our nation, our politics and our families to fester,” they claim. “ . . . alienation, resentment and cynicism; mistrust of our government and one another; breakdown of civil discourse and civic institutions . . . so many of these seeds were sown during the Vietnam War.” The war wracked American society, pitting generation against generation, even family against family. These are troubling issues to be sure, and Burns and Novick seem to easily pin them on Vietnam. But their explanation is facile and self-serving. Continue reading

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Vietnam: The Commodity

(Talk given at Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston, for The Propeller Group exhibit, 13 September 2017)

I’m not an artist nor an art historian, yet art is necessary to any reasonable and meaningful examination of the past. The way people view and represent their past—culture, struggles, social relations, work, wars—is an essential part of understanding where the world has been and maybe where it’s going.ak47m16

I’ve also spent a lot of time studying the American war on Vietnam, which began after World War II and continued into the early 1970s. I know a good deal about the historical episode that we call “The Vietnam War,” but this exhibit isn’t about that . . . except when it is.

The Propeller Group [TPG]—an art collective-cum-ad agency—has created an exhibit that tells us something about the Vietnam War, something about Vietnamese culture, and a lot about the way ideas and indeed the past itself becomes contested and commodified. And that’s the immanent lesson I’ve taken from this collection of art, performance, and video.

At first look, I saw/experienced a recreation of a conversation between a Fedex worker and one of the collective members.

Fedex: The staging of history is happening around us all the time. We basically live in a staged version of the past . . . As if the past was a mall where you could pick and choose a lifestyle as easily as choosing a new wardrobe.

 Tung: I’m not sure . . . I don’t even care much about authenticity.

 Fedex: That’s exactly my point! You should care. Stop being so ironic and use something real for your show.

As soon as I read this exchange, a lot of thoughts came to me, ideas I’ve used in my classes and in my own writing. I thought of Guernica and Confederate statues, of internet memes that today constitute a large part of our public education. Of Antonio Gramsci and bourgeois cultural hegemony.  And I thought a lot about the intersection of art, politics, history, and revolutions and wars. What we call “The Vietnam War” was in the first instance “The Vietnamese Revolution,” in which nationalist/communist forces led by the Viet Minh (later Viet Cong) fought against the occupation of French and Japanese forces, and then fought a long war of revolution and liberation against the most powerful nation on the globe, the United States. The Propeller Group leaves this unsaid, and lets us see what the war brought—not why it happened or why it was fought. It’s up to us to fill in all those spaces.

I thought of Leon Trotsky, the Bolshevik revolutionary, who in Revolution Betrayed wrote that “. . . a protest against reality, either conscious or unconscious, active or passive, optimistic or pessimistic, always forms part of a really creative piece of work. Every new tendency in art has begun with rebellion.” Or the Dada idea of upsetting the bourgeois world created by affluent and artistic Europeans, and making us question the very point of art and what artists do, most relevantly in the case of TPG by incorporating everyday objects (like the Honda Dream) and happenstance into their work, making a mockery of the established hegemonic culture as a way of resisting it. Or Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapping the Reichstag or Pont-Neuf Bridge . . .

It especially made me think of the idea of the spectacle.   In all that I read about and by TPG, their videos and manifestos, they never made reference to the society of the spectacle, but they had to have been thinking about it. The Marxist philosopher Guy Debord, writing amid the global uproar sparked by decolonization but especially the massive resistance to the Vietnam War as well as the careening consumerism that had grasped control of postwar Western culture, developed the idea of “the spectacle,” his encompassing term for the way postwar capitalism created the cultural devices—advertising, television, film, celebrity, media, scandal, and others—to foster, and yet conceal, “the autocratic reign of the market.” The spectacle shifts our attention and soothes us from the reality of consumption, struggle, wars and so on.  Debord himself was a founder of the Situationist International, a collective of artists and others who opposed postwar capitalism and played a prominent role in the 1968 May uprising in Paris, where their motto, “Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible” summed up their vision of the world they wished to create (and also helped create the Sex Pistols via Malcolm McLaren).

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