War Is Over! (If You Want It)
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. American schooling often emphasizes the nation’s glory and power, sweeping aside massive mistakes made throughout its short history. One of the biggest and more recent instances was American fighting in Vietnam. Though nearly sixty thousand Americans died in this combat, over two hundred thousand Vietnamese died as well. Congress never technically declared this conflict a war, but that didn’t stop the draft and the death. Despite the American population’s disapproval of the involvement, troops stayed in Vietnam for twenty years. Today, the Vietnam War is grouped in with the rest of the sixties, amongst the hippies, drugs, and dreams of peace. Grouping the intense violence with the peaceful ideas of the 60s is overwhelmingly ironic. While these images reflect the past, they may also indicate our future.
American involvement in Vietnam stemmed from a fear of our decided enemy, communism. However, many Americans could not give any specific reasons for involvement, and there were no real threats, only the idea of stopping communism. Vietnam had been a French colony for a long time, but after the Japanese took control during WWII, the country began to demand its own independence. The country divided into North and South Vietnam once France became uninvolved. It was the communist party who dreamed of once again uniting the two, and would likely rule the country as a whole. Because America was already floundering under the threat of the Cold War, government officials rushed to put out this communist fire. The media pumped out an image of a terrifying communist party, motivating citizens to both fear and hate this unknown. Under the Nixon administration in 1969, a draft was installed. The average age of an infantryman was 22 years old, but the youngest soldiers to fight were only sixteen. Nearly sixty thousand Americans died, and seventy five thousand more came home disabled. The majority (approximately 61%) of those killed in the Vietnam war were younger than twenty one years old. The younger generation felt the pain of the war directly. Because of these staggering deaths, many college students across the country held regular protests, from UC Berkeley to Kent State. Musicians like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul, and Mary rose to fame due to their opposition to the war. Pacifist songs like “War Is Over! (If You Want It)”, “Blowin’ In The Wind”, and “Leaving on a Jet Plane” played across the country. While many U.S. citizens strongly and vocally disapproved of the war, government officials continued to fight.
And yet amongst all this fighting and death, immense amounts of love began to pour out of the U.S. American youth united under mutual political views, and both worked and called for political, social, and cultural change. The Civil Rights Movement, counterculture, and the Twenty-Sixth Amendment are direct results of these efforts.
In 1975, President Nixon finally pulled all American troops out of Vietnam. Technically, we lost. The communist North did unite with the South, and continues to uphold communism. Today, the Vietnam War is continuously mentioned, but not necessarily understood, nor drawn upon. America has failed to fully absorb the lessons we learned from our time in Southeast Asia. Although little change occurred in Vietnam, the American public mindset changed for the better, while the government failed to notice.
Like in Vietnam, each incoming modern-day President has had their own take on American involvement in the Middle East, but none have completely dissolved our involvement. Our numbers ebb and flow, but soldiers continue to go over. And yet, many Americans are unable to come up with concrete reasons explaining our nation’s military involvement in the Middle East. Though I have completed thirteen years of public school education in the U.S., I still cannot fully explain why we continue to send soldiers to their deaths every day. All I do know is that some seven thousand Americans are no longer able to come home.
The cultural shift that occurred in the American public has all but disappeared. American culture has reverted back to fear of the unknown, and continues to fight. The once-young generation who felt revolted by the war have grown into grandparents, and tend to sweep over this pain when talking to their descendants. We have forgotten the terrors of Vietnam, and choose to ignore what occur today.
Near my home in California, there is a hill covered in white crosses. After a number of years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, people began to make one small cross for each person killed, spreading them out on the hill across from a busy street. Some crosses hold the star of David or Islamic crescents, among other religious symbols. Every week, the sign at the top of the hill is updated, reading the new official death toll for soldiers. For years now, I have glanced toward these reminders on my frequent drives, and seen the hillside fill more and more. Today, there are 7,930 crosses. And yet the longer this memorial stays, the less dramatic it becomes. When the memorial was first set up, citizens protested. Eleven years later, no one bats an eye towards the cross-covered hill. Like in Vietnam, American citizens find it easy to continue on, forgetting the lives lost.
We cannot stand by and let the government continue to push our soldiers into foreign affairs, simply because we forget or ignore their existence. When we cannot explain why we fight, we shouldn’t. American foreign policy tends to start with guns blazing, but ends in loss and pain. We cannot and should not start a fight with another country simply because they are different than us, and we want to exert dominance. Like in Vietnam, we face far more pressing issues at home. America is on the brink of a major change. Instead of spreading ourselves into other countries to show power, we ought to ensure that all of our citizens can eat, sleep, love, and live.
Ultimately, all we can really hope for is a shift towards peace and love, but this won’t happen if we leave it be. We must work to get what we want, and tell others to take action too. Perhaps we can truly learn from our mistakes, even if it takes a second time around.