This story is dedicated to my Dad.
The elitist view of American history that is taught in American schools is poor preparation of our kids to be good citizens. It’s based on the premise that American greatness was the natural order of things. Less than heroic events like wiping out the American indigenous people, slavery, Jim Crow and Vietnam don’t smell in most American history textbooks. James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me is a good primer on that and how badly American history is taught.
There was little American greatness in 1787 when delegates to the Constitutional Convention met to rescue the potential greatness of the Revolutionary War from the ineptness of the Articles of Confederation. Against almost impossible odds, they produced a representative federal government never before tried on such a large scale that has seen the United States through good times and bad for 250 years.
They achieved the impossible through compromise that seems unfathomable in today’s politics and by finessing issues they knew were beyond their ability to address in 1787. Slavery and true representative government were left to future generations. The Civil War was the near inevitable result and we’re still dealing with a convoluted Electoral College that skews elections.
This is not to minimize what was achieved. It is only to point out that there is no ‘natural order’ of things. Even the Founding Fathers, the elite statesmen of their time, maybe of all time, didn’t get everything right. But at least they were more or less honest about what they couldn’t do.
Few would consider Dwight Eisenhower an elitist, but he was induced by the elitists running big oil to overthrow the elected President of Iran in 1953 and others running the fruit companies to prop up banana dictators in Latin America. At home, both were couched in terms of the battle against Communism but were viewed by most of the world as naked aggression. Both continue to haunt us. Maybe Eisenhower learned. He ended his presidency with a warning about the military-industrial complex, something he knew a thing or two about.
Eisenhower also started our Vietnam intervention. It sucked in the next three Presidents, all of them supporting quasi-dictators and last two lying through their teeth in the name of fighting Communism to avoid being labeled as the first American President to lose a war. So much for the honesty of the Founding Fathers.
As a father and a veteran, I weep unashamed for the young lives cut short for ego every time I visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. Ken Burns’ Vietnam series and The Washington Post movie are good primers on Vietnam, a war the textbooks still treat gingerly.
Which brings me to my youthful impulse to volunteer for Vietnam that I mentioned in 'The Shore'.
In high school, I had a bit of an attitude toward lazy teachers and pompous administrators but was fairly naïve when it came to the bigger world. Both of my older brothers had served in the military, one in the Navy, one in the Army. I pretty much accepted the ‘My country right or wrong’ dogma. For the most part, I worked hard, mostly kept out of trouble, and did what was expected of me. I don’t regret any of that because it embedded a strong work ethic and strong sense of what’s right and wrong. Both have served me well over the years.
My Dad didn’t object to patriotism but had good reason to not trust the establishment and was good about reading between the lines. He knew Vietnam was wrong.
Working with grizzled Vietnam NCOs and around incompetent superiors as a wet behind the ears 2nd Lieutenant were valuable, hard earned lessons. But Dad saved my skinny young patriotic ass from a year in hell, maybe worse, because the Army taught me these lessons stateside. Vietnam was lost by the time I served.
These days I have a more nuanced view of patriotism and hope someday American history will be taught more honestly, or at least better. Donald Trump’s testimonial to the Continental Army’s closing the airports and putting Ft. McHenry in the Revolutionary War in his 2019 4th of July speech is an embarrassing case in point. It reminds me of a cartoon from the Reagan era showing aids rushing to the podium when Reagan started going off script.
Vietnam was a mistake. It wasn’t the first in our country’s history and it won’t be the last. We might avoid some of them with a citizenry that knows our history better and Presidents who tell the truth, or at least have a concept of what the truth is.