Wednesday, May 26, 2010

11 Frontiers in Vietnam

Richard Slotkin argues that the myth of the frontier is one of those narrative stories that runs through American culture, from 1820s Leatherstocking to 1970s John Wayne. It is a myth in which American men find masculine renewal by separating from the settled areas, venturing into the wilderness where they regress to savagery in order to fight with savages, then emerge having progressed towards a higher, American civilization. This myth has many iterations, one of which was Turner's thesis. This myth is what Slotkin called in an earlier work Regeneration through Violence.

This myth has political consequences: compressing historic stories (that's what Burbick called "cardboard cutouts" in day 12 of our class), promoting gender stereotypes, soaking up class resentments, hiding non-binary racial politics, and racializing class differences. As if that weren't enough consequences, Slotkin argues that in its mid-twentieth-century versions, the frontier myth also helped lead America to the Vietnam War.

Notice Slotkin's epigram from journalist Michael Herr, who wrote in Dispatches in 1977: "... might as well say that Vietnam was where the Trail of Tears was headed all along, the turnaround point where it would touch and come back to form a containing perimeter..."

That's a lot to digest. What does the 1840s Indian removal policy (the Trail of Tears) have to do with the bitterly divisive war in Asia that America slipped into in the 1960s and 70s?

The chapter we are reading from Slotkin begins with John F. Kennedy's "Turnerian" view of new frontiers, with frontiers that replace Turner's hope that free land would be a safety valve with a new 1960s hope that endless growth would be a safety valve. Kennedy's vision of a "new frontier" helped him get elected because it was part of a whole 1960s-era discourse about frontiers, including 1960s blockbuster movie Westerns starring Charlton Heston and John Wayne. Slotkin offers a thoughtful close reading of those movies and the way those fictions functioned in a dialogue with actual people in Vietnam. There is much subtlety here, especially in the way Slotkin traces disillusionment with this myth after Americans became appalled at their own brutality in the My Lai massacre.

The best way, I think, to help you think about it is to show you some of the powerful images of Vietnam that Americans saw on their own nightly news in the 1960s and early 1970s:

Normally, I analyze the images I show you, but no caption that I write can match the horror of those images as they are. So here's all I'm going to say: keep those images in mind while considering some statements from actual Vietnam vets.

Captain Robert B. Johnson, in Congressional testimony in 1971, explained the violence of this war as:

"First, the underlying rational policy, that is, that the only good gook is a dead gook. Very similar to the only good Indian is a dead Indian and the only good nigger is a dead nigger.... We used the term 'Indian county'" to describe Vietnam.

When asked what that meant, he elaborated:

"I guess it means different things to different people. It's like there are savages out there, there are gooks out there. In the same way we slaughtered the Indian's buffalo, we would slaughter the water buffalo in Vietnam."

That's a strong parallel, and strong evidence to persuade me to agree with Slotkin and Kerr's idea that America's frontier myths motivated some of America's Vietnam soldiers.

In 1990, Vietnam veteran Ben Chitty reflected thoughtfully on the way this myth had worked for him.

"By the time we were drafted or enlisted to fight in Vietnam, we had already been indoctrinated for that war since childhood by the mythology of America. One myth we soaked up was "cowboys and Indians" - the long saga telling how white Europeans carved a great nation out of a land inhabited by savages. But when we went to war, it wasn't much like the movies. Not much of a script. The guys in white hats weren't winning, and weren't the good guys anyway. The victims weren't grateful. Death wasn't noble. War was mostly confusing and sometimes terrifying. At best, we survived to come back.

"War taught us some things. We learned that politicians tell lies, and call themselves "patriots," that the "national interest" usually means someone can make a lot of money…. But Vietnam had another, harder lesson for us. We saw the "American way of life" from a different angle, at the edge of the empire. We enforced it, made it work. Nations occupied. Populations terrorized and decimated. Countrysides laid waste. Societies and cultures destroyed. For what? So that people would fear us, and learn that opposing the United States government meant poverty, misery, and death. So that corporations could keep making money. So that colonels and commanders could become generals and admirals. So that politicians could get re-elected.

"Back in the world, home looked different. The country we served - it turned out to be a racist nation from the very beginning, when the indigenous peoples were killed to clear the land, and Africans enslaved and transported to work the newly-cleared land. The system we defended - it was set up so that a lot of people had to be poor so that a few could get rich, and poor and working people, our own families and friends, had to squabble over fewer and fewer opportunities. … It produced masterpieces of machinery which no one could control, and stripped and poisoned the land to protect and increase the margin of profit. What a world to come home to.

"Then when we looked again at our own history, our war in Indochina turned out to be an all-American war. The Dominican Republic, Korea, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Haiti, the Philippines, Cuba, Mexico: American soldiers fought in all these countries, occupying some, annexing others, installing puppet regimes in the rest, extending or defending an empire. A bitter irony - we had wanted to serve: we wanted to be patriots. African Americans whose parents couldn't vote; Chicanos and Puerto Ricans whose culture dissolved into assimilated poverty. Poor and working-class whites tracked into the draft instead of college or the National Guard. Native Americans proving they too were "real" Americans. The real war - it turned out - was here at home too, and we had been on the wrong side.

"If this country is ever to be the kind of country we wanted to serve, it has to change."

This is powerful stuff here. It's one reason I focused this class on the frontier: because actual everyday Americans have been thinking about the life-and-death politics of what might seem to be simply popular culture. Of course, not every Vietnam vet came home like Ben Chitty, disillusioned with the war and disillusioned with their own country's myths, but many did, and this is the week when we listen to them in order to think about the surprising power of popular culture, historic memory, and the frontier myth.

UPDATE: When I first wrote this in 2009, I thought the frontier myth had faded a bit. I thought few young people in the 21st-century watch John Wayne westerns any more. Our current military tends to name equipment after Indians -- Blackhawk helicopters, Tomahawk missiles -- oddly acknowledging the warrior prowess of tribes whom our military once fought. Native Americans now join the U.S. army in large numbers disproportionate to their population.

I thought Slotkin might be outdated. Then, on May 1, 2011, when Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, the Navy Seals sent a coded message to President Obama: "Geronimo EKIA," Geronimo Enemy Killed In Action. The Navy's code-name for Osama bin Laden, it turns out, was Geronimo. Geronimo was an Apache leader famous for eluding capture, a man who supposedly had the ability to walk without leaving footprints. The military code-name might almost make sense, except that Indians are no longer supposed to be seen as terrorist enemies. Many Native Americans were outraged by the code-name Geronimo. Historian Karl Jacoby writes best about the historic implications of this coded name for Osama bin Laden.

What do you think? Are we still haunted by mis-remembered Indian wars? Does it matter that Osama's code-name was Geronimo? 

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