Monday, September 22, 2014

Vets for Peace push for honest discussion of Vietnam War

A national veterans group launched a campaign in response to the Defense Department’s “sanitized” commemoration of the conflict in Vietnam.

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The notion that the general public might hold an ounce of faith in Washington is strangely foreign nowadays, but near the start of the Vietnam War, nearly 80 percent of Americans said they almost always or mostly trust the federal government, according to data compiled by the Pew Research Center.

Since the disastrous debacle in Vietnam, trust in Washington never truly recovered from that hit to the government’s credibility.

Hoping to ensure that Americans do not forget that earth-shattering war, Veterans for Peace held a service last month outside the Johnson County Courthouse on the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that launched the Vietnam War.

The organization drew attention to the federal government’s recently launched $65 million memorial campaign that the veterans group feared would glorify the Vietnam War and glaze over its troubling history.

“We think, as Veterans for Peace, that this is going to make mythical the actions of American soldiers and minimize the damage we’ve done in these cultures, the killing we’ve done to all the people: agent orange, generations of suffering, unexploded landmines that still plague [the Vietnamese people],” said John Jadryev, president of Iowa City’s chapter of Veterans for Peace.

A crowd of supporters gathers before the Vietnam memorial service. (Jon Overton/Iowa Peace Network)

In response to the Defense Department’s initiative, Veterans for Peace launched a campaign called, Full Disclosure, which seeks to promote a more accurate view of the Vietnam War.

In an official statement, the veterans said the federal government’s official version of events failed to acknowledge the suffering of the Vietnamese people, harm to the troops who fought in the war, and the existence of widespread domestic protests and unrest in response to the Vietnam War, among other disreputable facets of the conflict.

Steve Hanken, a member of Veterans for Peace, said he was unaware of the arguably sinister nature of the war while serving in Vietnam.

“After completing over 18 months in Vietnam and heading into my final extension — cause I was foolish enough to make two extensions — I was still naïve, and I was thinking that there was some moral reason that we should be there, but maybe I was just not smart enough to figure it out,” he said.

Hanken also spoke of an encounter with a purportedly retired soldier working in Vietnamese schools for USAID. The officer told Hanken that his real job was to track down and assassinate suspected members of the Viet Cong, often in their own homes. Although Hanken didn’t believe the soldier at the time, he later learned of several programs that conducted operations like those described by the soldier in Vietnam.

Back in 2003, the Toledo Blade reported in a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation that an elite U.S. Army unit, called the Tiger Force was responsible for an untold number of atrocities in Vietnam.

“One soldier kicked out the teeth of executed civilians for their gold fillings,” the Blade reported. “... Platoon members strung the ears on shoe laces to wear around their necks, reports state. There was a period when just about everyone had a necklace of ears ... A 13-year-old girl’s throat was slashed after she was sexually assaulted, and a young mother was shot to death after soldiers torched her hut.”

Members of Veterans for Peace also connected the Vietnam War to more recent conflicts where the United States has been involved. Jadryev, the Iowa City chapter president, pointed to damage caused long after the U.S. military withdraws from warzones like unexploded landmines in Vietnam that still kill people today and parts of Iraq contaminated by the use of radioactive weapons containing depleted uranium.

“We’ve gotta start dealing with people the way we would want them to deal with us,” Hanken said. “The things that you learn in the second grade for gods sake, we don’t know, or we've forgotten at least in the White House and in the Pentagon, and in Washington D.C.”

Jon Overton is the Media Editor of Iowa Peace Network and an undergraduate at the University of Iowa studying Ethics & Public Policy and Sociology.

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