Memories are made of this – or maybe not
by Michael Brenner on 18 Dec 2020 1 Comment

The human memory bank blends the truthful with the fictive. It is highly selective in what it retains and what it (tries to) discard. Selection and arrangement of memories is in part a conscious process; most of it is unconscious. For emotional stability requires a screening of happenings in order to concentrate on those things of utility that enable us to survive with a reasonable degree of functionality. Since we are social animals capable of elaborate communication, and since our social environment is critical to determining the terms of our existence, memory function and retention is strongly influenced by collective institutions and inherited culture. They, in turn, knowingly propagate certain information and ideas while sublimating others. They transmit while attaching meaning. To a considerable degree, that is done without calculation – in the manner of individuals’ own discriminating memory.


This pattern unavoidably entails some distortion of reality. Indeed, even by a purely utilitarian measure, it can produce sub-optimal effects. There is always the risk of manipulation by powerful leaders and other parties who place their own interests and preferences above the communal welfare. At a more fundamental level, there often is a strain between what rendering of the past facilitates social solidarity, on the one hand, and what lessons drawn from the past best serve the national interest currently, on the other. That potential contradiction is most evident, as well as dangerous, in regard to a country’s dealings with the rest of the world.


All countries airbrush their histories in order to make them palatable. The crucial need for self-esteem is the underlying element. Fashioning that narrative is complicated when different parts of society have experienced the past in different ways, interpreting past events that continue to resonate in contemporary politics. That increases the incentive to find a least-common denominator version which papers over neuralgic issues and emphasizes collective successes.


How collective memory is formed, and the crucial influence it exercises on the way a people orient themselves toward the world, can be illuminated by reference to the Vietnam experience, and then comparing it to Iraq and the ‘War on Terror.’ What first stands out from a probing exploration of the differing experience of the Vietnamese (on the two sides) and the Americans is the extremity of the difference in what has been assimilated from their encounter over a period of roughly 15 years. The phenomenon offers insight into the make-up of each nation as well as casting light on the mechanisms by which collective memory takes shape. In this sense, national memory is intimately bound up with collective identities before and after the experience. It is a dynamic cultural phenomenon wherein power political concerns per se play only a subordinate part.


While reams of studies have concentrated on the “lessons of Vietnam” in terms of foreign policy, military doctrine and so-called nation-building, relatively little attention has been paid to this deeper process. Wars are trauma. They shake societies to their roots – especially when they are protracted, follow no established script and conclude with an unprecedented outcome. Those are features of the American experience in Vietnam and about Vietnam. So, too, for the multiple episodes of the GWOT. One might naturally expect that the after-effects would cut deep into the national psyche and endure. Yet, oddly, there is little evidence of that on the American side.


Americans are largely as oblivious to the consequences of both wars as they are ignorant of their events. This is true not only now, but was discernible decades ago in regard to Vietnam. Yes, many visit the moving memorial in Washington, veterans of the war are powerfully affected by grazing their fingers across the gilded names and conjuring visions of those long lost. Relatives stare with silent emotion at photographs half-a-century old. That, though, is a very small minority of citizens. While many served, casualties were low relative to population or to WW II. Disruption, much less sacrifice, at home was minimal. The graphic images played on television screens are effaced over time and anyone under fifty never has seen them. 


Most significant, the country has made a systematic effort to forget – to forget everything about Vietnam. Understandably; most of it was ugly, on every count. Textbooks in American history give it little space; teachers downplay it; television disregards it as retro; Hollywood has other fish to fry as it strains and struggles to bring our more recent wars in the greater Middle East into line with American myth and legend. All we have are cinematic antiques like The Green Berets, Deerhunter and the weird Apocalypse Now. Most recently, Ken Burn’s multi-part television documentary has rekindled interest among some. This last was more candid than any of its precedents. Still, it excluded two outstanding features of the war: how calculated American strategy produced millions of casualties in Cambodia as well as Vietnam; and the personal experience of those on the Vietnamese side.


Each of these works stirred American feelings (in different ways) for a short time before disappearing over the emotional horizon. One could speak of displacement were it not that Vietnam was expunged from the collective memory book well before 9/11, Iraq and all that. Even the most graphic images have proven transient. That came home for us a while ago when Facebook censured the infamous picture of a young girl, her clothes burnt off her scorched body, fleeing in terror from her napalmed village.* No one in the company recognized it as other than child pornography posted by a pedophile with a taste for S & M.  Zuck, ringmaster of America’s social media circus, and his fellow ignoramuses in Menlo Park, were clueless. And that’s a guy who allegedly spent four years at Harvard.


In a sense, the most noteworthy inheritance from the post-Vietnam experience is the honing of methods to photoshop history. Vietnam was a warm-up for the current more thorough, widespread cleansing that has made palatable Presidential mendacity, sustained deceit, mind-numbing incompetence,  systemic torture, censorship, the shredding of the Bill of Rights and the perverting of national public discourse - as it degenerates into a mix of propaganda and vulgar trash-talking. The “War on Terror” in all its unsavory aspects.


What the United States learned in terms of political lessons was just as ephemeral. The Vietnam tragic failure did not inform the decisions to invade Iraq, Afghanistan or consider attacking Iran. Even the improbability of nation-building out of the barrel of a gun in an alien society was lost wisdom. Public rationalization for our occupation in Iraq stressed the post-war experience of Japan and Germany rather than the far more pertinent Vietnamese experience.


Remember COIN, and its prophet David Petraeus? Or look at General H.R. McMaster’s much lauded revisionist history of that experience which gets wrong just about everything about the Vietnam episode – including most facts. It is noteworthy that there was total silence about his distortions and untruths. This forgetfulness is nothing new – so thin are recollections of what actually happened there. Recall that after the Korean War, everyone seemed dedicated to the proposition: “never again a conventional war on the mainland of Asia.” Less than a decade later we were up to our waist in the paddy fields of the Mekong Delta.


We find it far easier to recognize and accept fresh insight into others than into ourselves. ‘They’ are part of the external world that we can objectify to a degree. How much affect we feel toward others does have a bearing on our openness to better understanding of who they are and our confidence evaluating their conduct. Dispassion about our own identity and qualities is of another order. After all, self-examination requires us to be at once subject and object. The essence of our being, and the pivot of our behavior, falls into existential doubt. The very act of reflection, of inner scrutiny, ipso facto changes who we are, in some way, to some immeasurable degree. That is discomforting.


The great innovation we Americans have made in the handling of collective memory is cultivated amnesia. That is a craft enormously facilitated by two broader trends in American culture: the cult of ignorance whereby a knowledge-free mind is esteemed as the ultimate freedom; and a public ethic whereby the nation’s highest officials are given license to treat the truth as a potter treats clay so long as they say and do things that make us feel good.


So our strongest collective memory of America’s wars of choice is the desirability – and ease – of forgetting them. “The show must go on” is taken as our imperative. Or “find closure” in the convenient pop psychology jargon that our elites favor. That is to say, the pageant of American life must go on: shopping, spectating, ogling celebrities; grabbing riches where and however we can; and titillating ourselves with games of every sort – fantasy football, porn and Pokeman being the outstanding examples.


The tumult that shook American in the late 60s and early 70s had Vietnam as one epicenter – civil rights at the other. The rebellion in politics intersected the simultaneous youth rebellion in numerous complicated ways. One fed off the other. Each seemed poised to recast the United States’ collective identity – or at least transform it in significant respects. From today’s vantage-point, those expectations clearly were misplaced – whether one viewed them with hope or anxiety. 


In regard to how we relate to the rest of the world, there is no discernible change whatsoever. The overweening pride, the belief in American exceptionalism – as duty and/or prerogative, the penchant for using military force, the self-righteousness, the double standards applied in politics and ethics – they remain hallmarks of our foreign policy. That truth has been demonstrated in the Middle East, in the yen for picking fights with Russia, China, Venezuela, al-Shabab, Iran or whomever, also in our sub rosa interventions in Latin America.


These days that is done without the Cold War justification of our facing a diabolical threat to our core interests (even survival) as the Soviet Union and/or Red China supposedly did.  Instead, we have the disorganized Salafist thugs with a penchant for acts of terror – 98% of them abroad. By no measure can so-called Islamo-Fascism be equated to Soviet-led international communism (actual or imagined). On this score, America has become more belligerent than it was in 1968.


On the other side of the equation, today's university campuses are more like the 1950s than 1965-1972 – as far as collective action is concerned. No one protests our mindless wars, no one protests draconian surveillance, no one protests administrators kow-towing to reactionary state legislators and other forces pushing hard for the vocationalizing of higher education. Only identity issues stir a modicum of student interest.


And some of this flailing about is due to the fraying of the myths that have given meaning to the American experience all these years. Those myths are bound up with the country’s unique place and mission in the world. Now untenable, the inability to come to terms with awakened awareness of realities that should have been evident in 1975 adds markedly to what haunts us. 


Cultivated amnesia in effacing collective memory did not serve the nation well. It will harm us even more – going forward. It cannot be otherwise among those masses of Americans who see memory itself as a threat to the precious autonomy to live in the instant. Poking at their smart watches to recall the home address they text to the robot who sends an automated Uber taxi, they have closed off all mental space for pondering Tet, the Mekong, Pol Pot, My Lai and those fellow countrymen who fell in the misbegotten quest for an imagined America.


And the national memory book already is closing, too, for Guantanamo, Falluja, Abu Ghraib, Bush’s puerile “Mission Accomplished” stunt, and Obama’s hacking of the Senate Intelligence Committee to better serve the CIA’s extra-legal machinations abroad and spying at home. (Really? When did that happen?) In compensation, we’ll always have the war porn of The Sniper and Zero Dark Thirty to cuddle with. Like Patton.


Americans faithfully believe that with the dawn of each bright new day, the world begins anew. The past neither shadows nor looms. It is an outlook that does have its advantages. At the same time, it permits us to make the same errors and mire ourselves in the same messes which marred our earlier national enterprises.


*Phan Thi Kim Phuc survived the excruciating ordeal of multiple surgeries – made possible by the remarkable efforts of the photo-journalist who took this picture. Indeed, he first saved her from abandonment by the triage doctors. She married and is lives in Canada.



(This essay was written a year ago and is recalled in the light of contemporary events)


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