[Marxism] Bob Kerrey and the ‘American Tragedy’ of Vietnam

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jun 21 07:15:34 MDT 2016


NY Times Op-Ed, June 20 2016
Bob Kerrey and the ‘American Tragedy’ of Vietnam
By VIET THANH NGUYEN

Los Angeles — EVEN today, Americans argue over the Vietnam War: what was 
done, what mistakes were made, and what were the lasting effects on 
American power.

This sad history returns because of Bob Kerrey’s appointment as chairman 
of the American-sponsored Fulbright University Vietnam, the country’s 
first private university. That appointment has also prompted the 
Vietnamese to debate how former enemies can forgive and reconcile.

What is not in dispute is that in 1969 a team of Navy SEALs, under a 
young Lieutenant Kerrey’s command, killed 20 unarmed Vietnamese 
civilians, including women and children, in the village of Thanh Phong. 
Mr. Kerrey, who later became a senator, a governor, a presidential 
candidate and a university president, acknowledged his role in the 
atrocity in his 2002 memoir, “When I Was a Young Man.”

Those in the United States and Vietnam who favor Mr. Kerrey’s 
appointment see it as an act of reconciliation: He has confessed, he 
deserves to be forgiven because of his efforts to aid Vietnam, and his 
unique and terrible history makes him a potent symbol for how both 
countries need to move on from their common war.

I disagree. He is the wrong man for the job and regarding him as a 
symbol of peace is a failure of moral imagination.

It is true that Americans have been more forthcoming about some of their 
crimes than anyone in the Vietnamese government and Communist Party. But 
it is equally true that Americans tend to remember the war as an 
American tragedy, as I saw distinctly while watching “Platoon,” 
“Apocalypse Now” and other movies as a boy growing up in California.

I lived among many Vietnamese refugees for whom this war was a 
Vietnamese tragedy. President Obama’s speech on the war’s 50th 
anniversary in 2012 focused on the deaths of over 58,000 American 
soldiers; I wondered why more than 200,000 South Vietnamese and more 
than one million North Vietnamese and Vietcong fighters who died were 
not mentioned, nor the countless thousands of civilians who perished.

With Mr. Kerrey’s new position, we are returning to the familiar story 
about an American soldier’s redemption. Many Vietnamese are also focused 
on that story now, even as it comes at the expense of remembering 
Vietnamese suffering. Some opinion polls show a majority of Vietnamese 
endorsing Mr. Kerrey’s appointment, and some North Vietnamese veterans, 
like the renowned novelist Bao Ninh, have voiced their support.

Some in the United States have said that Mr. Kerrey is also a victim — 
of an unjust war and disastrous leadership — but such a claim seems 
ironic, if not outright ludicrous, when one compares Mr. Kerrey’s 
prominence to the obscurity in which the survivors of the attack he led 
and the relatives of those killed now live. His life and career have 
barely been impeded, except for any personal regrets.

Indeed, as Mr. Kerrey was once in Vietnam as an expression of United 
States power, he now arrives in a different guise but still as a symbol 
of Western influence, this time as a leader of a university.

Many Vietnamese hope the university will deliver free-market values to a 
nominally Communist country eager to continue its capitalist 
development. But such hope must be tempered with the understanding that 
Western-style universities are ambivalent places when it comes to 
encouraging greater equality.

At their best, they cultivate humane thinking. At their worst, they both 
practice and promote an economic inequality that supports the interests 
of the 1 percent: exploitation of underpaid adjunct teachers; tremendous 
increases in student debt; emphasizing the production of workers rather 
than learners.

Which role will Fulbright play? This question foreshadows how Vietnam’s 
capitalist development, guided by institutions like this one, could 
leave behind the country’s most vulnerable.

If Mr. Kerrey does continue as chairman, Americans and Vietnamese 
together should insist on symbolic and material measures to make amends 
to his victims and address his past.

First, he should visit Thanh Phong and apologize to the survivors and 
the families of the dead. Reconciliation between the two countries 
should be about more than the drama of one American veteran; it should 
also include the tragedy of 20 dead Vietnamese villagers.

Second, the Fulbright campus in Ho Chi Minh City should include a 
prominent memorial to Thanh Phong’s dead. Already visible throughout 
Vietnam are “martyrs’ cemeteries” commemorating more than one million 
soldiers who died for the Communist revolution. Memorials to the even 
greater number of civilian dead are rare, possibly because remembering 
their deaths might raise troublesome questions about who killed them.

Third, Fulbright should create educational programs to benefit Thanh 
Phong’s youth and prepare them for a path that will lead to full 
scholarships at the school. The people of Thanh Phong, and the many 
people throughout Vietnam like them, should benefit from the university 
as much as Mr. Kerrey does from his chairmanship’s prestige.

Fourth, the school’s board should include spiritual leaders, peace 
activists and teachers who support a humane vision of education, not 
just a corporate one.

The dead of Thanh Phong, and all the civilian dead, demand an answer to 
the question of whether, and how, a wealthier Vietnam will remember 
them, and whether United States-style economic development will benefit 
all the citizens of Vietnam, or once again make victims of the weakest 
and the poorest.

Viet Thanh Nguyen is the author of “The Sympathizer,” which won the 2016 
Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the 
Memory of War.”



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