The Current Meaning of Vietnam

Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam.  These are words we here with some regularity in today's media.  The metaphorical lens through which all contemporary military conflicts must be viewed is Vietnam.  For anyone championing a notion of American defeat, this metaphor is indispensable.  Vietnam is taken to be a case study in American military failure.  It is interesting to carefully examine this metaphor's relationship to current conflicts.

In 1975, the United States Congress voted to cut off funding to the democratic government of South Vietnam.  The political decision of the Congress constituted the final renunciation of the war in Vietnam for which 58,000 Americans and thousands of South Vietnamese soldiers gave their lives in a decade long struggle.  Images of the American choppers lifting off from Saigon have become emblematic of war the US could never win, even though the military never lost a battle on the ground of Vietnam. 

Congress accomplished with its vote to end funding of the South Vietnam government what Ho Chi Minh and North Vietnamese communist had been unable to accomplish on the battlefield-- the end of democratic governance in Vietnam. 

The Congressional vote in 1975 signaled the North Vietnamese government that it was finally safe to launch an overwhelming military attack on the young democratic government of South Vietnam.  What ensued in Vietnam was cataclysmic.  Close to one million people in Vietnam were executed in "re-education camps" instituted by the now unified Communist government.  These killings did not go unnoticed in Vietnam and elsewhere.  The unified Communist government sought to kill anyone deemed a traitor by their cooperation with the American power that previously sustained the democratic government of South Vietnam. 

These drastic measures unleashed a panicked migration from Vietnam that sent hundreds of thousands of people out into the ocean in feeble crafts.  Sparking this migration were desperate hopes of reaching America-- the former ally that had sustained their hopes in the former homeland.  Thousands of Vietnamese people died at sea trying to cross the South China Sea.  Perhaps their drowning in that ocean of 'peace' was a fitting end to the disingenuous rhetoric that sent them there.  Tens of thousands did successfully emigrate to the United States and found sanctuary from the violence of the North Vietnamese.

Next door in Cambodia, a man by the name of Pol Pot capitalized on the vacuum of America's abrupt military withdrawal and precipitous rejection of funding for democratic governance.  Pol Pot instituted one of the most vicious and swift genocides of the modern era.  Killing as many as 3 million people, Cambodia instituted one of the most bizarre spectacles of human hatred, wherein even children were forced to perform the execution of their own parents under the supervision of the Khmer Rouge state.  Though American and international media provided front row seats to the carnage, the outcry for international action was easily subdued by political movements for "peace" in Southeast Asia and an end to "American imperialism." The American left helped seal the deal on yet another dark chapter of brother abandoning brother into the outrageous public celebrations of human hatred immortalized by the Khmer Rouge. 

And so today, many of us are still wondering what academics and intellectuals are speaking of when they say the magical word of 'Vietnam.'  Is this the world that you speak of?  When you speak of "peace" and the end of "imperialism," do you mean to confirm the world of abandonment and unmitigated ethnic hatred ?   Is the world that looks less like Bagdad, a world that looks more like Rwanda or Darfur?  What do your words mean?  I would really like to know.

Dr. Ben Voth is an associate professor of Communication at Miami University, specializing in argumentation and rhetoric studies.
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