Images, flags, burning desires, and Vietnam


Following up on our previous post about Donald Trump’s to criminalize and deport folks who burn flags as a means of protesting malignant policies of the American government, we are old enough to remember the Vietnam War, the American government’s failed effort to cement a regime in then-South Vietnam that would dance to a tune orchestrated in Washington.

At the start of World War II, Vietnam was part of the French colony of Indochina, and during the war, Japan invaded and seized control of the region, and a powerful guerilla movement spring up under Ho Chi Minh — who was provided with arms and advisors by the Allies.

Nine years after the war’s end, Vietnam was ruled by Emperor Bao Dai, who had grown increasingly unpopular, Ho’s forces, meanwhile had turned against the French, inflicting a disastrous and decisive defeat of a trapped French army at the battle of Dien Bien Phu on 7 May 1954.

As a result, the nation was partitioned at, with the north governed by Ho and his allies, and Bao Dai ruling in the South, with an election to be held in 1956 to decide on reunification and the leadership of a united Vietnam.

But with U.S. back, Ngô Ðình Diêm defeated Bao Dai in a 1954 election in the south, and the U.S. began pouring in military aid while cutting off the north from sorely needed access to resources.

That same year, as the Pentagon Papers noted, “President Eisenhower is widely quoted to the effect that in 1954 as many as 80% of the Vietnamese people would have voted for Ho Chi Minh, as the popular hero of their liberation, in an election against Bao Dai.”

Since neither the U.S. nor the South Vietnamese governed had signed the treaty calling for the elections, the vote was never held [talk about yer foreign interference in an election. . .].

The stage was thus set for war, and events in Vietnam were elevated into a major Cold War confrontation, with the Soviet Union backing Ho and the U.S. backing Diem.

The U.S. spent lavishly supporting Diem’s military, while Soviewt aid to the North was less extensive, although it did include the war’s decisive weapon, tjhe virtually indestructible AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifle, a weapon more durable than any then used by the U.S., and still in use among guerilla forces around the world.

The North supported guerilla forces in the south, the famous Viet Cong, and they steadily eroded the Diem military.

Under John F. Kennedy, American military “advisers” were dispatched to the South, quickly assuming combat roles before becoming the dominant force supporting the Diem regime.

But Diem, a member of the country’s small Catholic community, was immensely unpopular among the country’s majority Buddhists, and the first and most dramatic instance of protest involving fire occurred on 11 June 1963, when in protest of Diem’s repression of the country’s Buddhists, a monk named Thích Quang Duc immolated himself at an intersection just a few short blocks from the Presidential Palace in Saigon.

Images of the act prompted a wave of outrage against Diem that swept around the world:

blog-fire-monk

As the war intensified, the draft began to loom larger in the lives of young American men, many of whom could see no valid reason for killing and being killed in a nation many had never heard of before the war flared into a raging conflagration.

One young man who received his draft notice announced he would not servem declaring:

“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. . .Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”

A year later he would declare:

“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father.”

And thus Muhammad Ali earned a federal prison sentence, emerging from behind bars to prove himself the greatest pugilist America has ever produced.

Organized protests began to arise [some of which we participated in], and on 15 October 1969, more than two million Americans marched against the war.

One emblematic action of protests throughout the Vietnam war was flag-burning, here illustrated by protesters demonstrating at the 20 January 1969 presidential inaugural of Richard M. Nixon:

blog-fire-flag

Needless to say, the flag-burnings outraged Republicans of the day.

But the most potent and iconic symbol of the war was the result of the American military’s use of fire bombs during the conflict, delivered sometimes by U.S. jets and, in this instance, by American-supplied South Vietnamese fighter-bombers.

It happened on 8 June 1972, when the village of Trang Bang was targeted with napalm bombs because of intelligence suggested that it harbored Viet Cong guerillas.

One of those burned by the napalm was a nine-year-old girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, and the image s of her flight from the devastation captured by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut burned their way into the American conscience, revealing the ruthless strategy employed by the United States to win at all costs:

blog-fire-vn

But a second photo, showing her grandmother carrying the seared corpse of one of her cousins is perhaps ever more devastating:

blog-fire-vn-2

Perhaps no one better captured the hypocrisy of criminalized flag-burning with the burning of human bodies by a detestable weapon of war that did esnl’s favorite alternative press cartoonist of the 1960’s, R. Cobb, in this brilliant 1967 graphic for the Los Angeles Free Press:

blog-fire-cobb

As for the legality of burning the American flag, here’s the bottom line from Texas v. Johnson, the 21 June 1989 Supreme Court ruling that is currently the law of the land:

If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.

We have not recognized an exception to this principle even where our flag has been involved.

But with Republicans in full control of the White House and national legislature and poised to gain control over the Supreme Court, we expect that Trump will get his wish, one way or another.

Finally, back to Vietnam

The Vietnam War taught the American government two important lessons.

First was an end to the draft.

While virtually unreported by the American media, the real reason Richard Nixon realized he had to end the war was the rebellion of U.S. troops along the Demilitarized Zone [DMZ] separating the two halves of Vietnam.

That’s what happens when you draft young men to fight for a cause for which they see no valid reason to sacrifice their own lives.

Ripping unwilling combatants away from their homes, families, and jobs is a sure-fire way to foster resentment and rebellion, nowhere better shown that in Daniel Zeiger’s brilliant 2005 documentary Sir! No Sir!, recorded here from a broadcast on BBC:

Sir! No Sir! A Film About The GI Movement Against The War In Vietnam

America turns to mercenaries, embedded reporters

Since Vietnam, America has fought its war with mercenaries, soldiers recruited often from the nation’s poorest regions, where youths facing bleak prospects at home are drawn to the military by promises of job training, education funds, and a position they are assured will imbue them with self-dignity and respect.

No more unwilling combatants; rather, a military filled with those who see no other alternative than lives filled with misery.

The second lesson the Vietnam war taught Americans military and political elites was that free-roving reporters could capture images and stories threatening to their interests by revealing powerful counter-narratives to the official line.

Hence the evolution of the embedded reporter, carefully contained and controlled.

And by criminalizing flag-burning, Donald Trump would deprive protest movements of one of their most powerful symbolic acts.

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