Memorial Day, Vietnam and the Ever-Changing Agenda

"The United States is fully lifting the ban on the sale of military equipment to Vietnam that has been in place for some 50 years." President Barack Obama made this announcement during a press conference in Hanoi on May 23, 2016. Direct American military involvement in Vietnam ended on March 29, 1973, eight years after the initial deployment of American combat troops in March 1965. During the course of the war more than 58,000 American soldiers died and more than 300,000 were wounded. It is estimated that nearly 31% of Vietnam veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. I believe that the impact on the psyche of an entire generation of American young men can never be accurately quantified. I can only imagine how the veterans and the families of those fallen in that conflict must feel in light of that news. Obama framed this decision as a step to remove a "lingering vestige of the Cold War." Perhaps some of those most directly affected by the war can accept that but I would think the prevailing sentiment must be one of bewilderment if not disappointment or anger. The decision begs the oft repeated question, "What were we fighting for?"

According to the Editorial Board of the New York Times, "The Communist Party controls all institutions in Vietnam, permits no free elections, holds over 100 political prisoners and has yet to meet its obligations under the new trade agreement to allow labor unions." Vietnam is still ruled by a very much authoritarian regime. So what we seem to have in this decision is a classic case of a shift in the national agenda. While we are still engaged in the Middle East, the Obama administration has made clear that the nation's long term interests lie in Asia. China is an ascending force on the world scene and actively seeking to consolidate its power. This is most evident in their buildup of military installations in disputed territory in the South China Sea. China now, much more so than Vietnam, is a rival to American power in the region. As such, the sale of arms to Vietnam seems much more a method to counterbalance growing Chinese power rather than assuage remaining tensions of the Vietnam War. This is but another example of the fickle nature of international diplomacy. As Henry Kissinger said, "America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests." Such truth should make people reasonably skeptical of any armed conflict the nation engages in.

The United States has been mired in conflicts in the Middle East for the greater part of my life but this is can be all but forgotten in the relative security of the nation's soil. Most Americans do not know anything about war. We hear the facts and the figures of war on the news, we read of it in our history classes, we might watch portrayals of combat at the movies but most of us are entirely unacquainted with its realities. I'm writing this as Memorial Day approaches. I think now, as I do at other times, about how fortunate I am that my largest problems typically concern coursework. In a different time I may have had combat duty rather than college as a prospect after high school. But the fact of the matter is that the United States ended the draft in 1973 and it hasn't been instituted since. Today less than .5% of the American population serves in the military. My peers and I may very well never be called upon to take up arms. This is a privilege that comes from our country utilizing an entirely volunteer military. Because of this, though, we risk war becoming an abstraction, irretrievably removed from our civilian lives.

Many take Memorial Day as a time to remember those who have fallen in service, those who have served and those who still serve. Throughout the year many express their gratitude to American servicemen and women in the form of, "Thank you for your service." However, this expression can easily become a platitude. If we are to really express our gratitude to those who serve and honor the memory of those who have fallen we must use the democratic freedoms they swore to protect. We should deliberately, consistently and publicly question the rhetoric and agendas of a government which has poured out the blood of its people only to later render their sacrifices meaningless.

World War II may have been the last glorious war. I use the word glorious here very guardedly. I mean to say that perhaps America will never again achieve victory so complete over enemies so evil. Though human rights abuses inevitably occurred on both sides as the civilian/military target distinction was nearly unidentifiable by the war's end, few would argue that the regimes of Imperial Japan and especially Nazi Germany were morally comparable to that of the United States (the matter of the atomic bomb notwithstanding). Additionally, the United States entered World War II because of declarations of war from both Germany and Japan, justifying absolutely claims of national defense. Today claims of the military being deployed for national defense are far more precarious. In modern conflicts the United States is engaged with stateless enemies and decisive victory is seemingly impossible to achieve. America's tactics, it can be argued, are producing more enemies than they are destroying. Moreover, the conflict in Iraq especially is widely suspected of having been over oil from the onset. In this context it is crucial that we recognize that members of the military are not chess pieces to be sacrificed for narrow, impermanent interests and that we hold the government to account for their well-being. In this way we can honor the fallen by ensuring that those added to their ranks are as few as possible.