Winter Sunlight

Obviously this is specific to the U.S., but ...

Something kind of random I was thinking about today is how the Vietnam War has almost completely disappeared from pop culture/awareness. I started thinking about it when I was flipping through a table of books at B&N, and picked up a book of war stories I was fully expecting to be WWII (because everything is right now), and opened it up and was briefly thrown to discover it was Vietnam.

And that's relatively rare now! When I was a kid in the late 70s/80s, it was ubiquitous, unavoidable. Most of the war movies were Vietnam. Just about every action-hero character in movies and TV and books had a Vietnam-veteran background to explain how they got their commando skills or acquired a bunch of exotic enemies or ended up living in an out-of-the-way place avoiding the world or whatever.

Which is not at all surprising, because of how thoroughly everyone in my parents' generation (the Baby Boomers) was shaped by the war. This is what makes it so weird and fascinating to me that we never talk about it anymore, because EVERY American male who was a young adult in the 1960s either served in the war or has a unique-to-him story about how he avoided it. There wasn't a single person in the adult generation that I knew growing up who hadn't had their life turned in a particular direction by the war, either through serving in it or avoiding it, through losing the boy they meant to marry or being forced to move to a different place or just having their worldview altered. It drove a whole generation; it's why I grew up in Alaska, and why my parents met in the first place. And 10-15 years after the war, there was a constant awareness of it; I grew up with the background awareness of Vietnam as a THING. And now that's simply not there.

Meanwhile WWII has experienced a resurgence. In the last 5-10 years it's EVERYWHERE, in a way I never remember when I was a kid -- not coincidentally, I imagine, as the generation who actually fought in the war dies off, leaving us to see it through a convenient pair of rose-colored glasses rather than remembering the horror firsthand.

And of course the war that's now used as a convenient backstory for characters in half the books and movies out there is Afghanistan.

I don't really see Vietnam coming back in the same way WWII did, just like WWI didn't. If the pattern held true, then WWI should've been the "nostalgia" war in the media a generation ago, and it wasn't -- probably for the same reason that Vietnam started to fade away, or be erased, once it was no longer close enough in time to overshadow everything. We don't like things that are messy and awful, that can't be reduced to a good-guy/bad-guy narrative (and especially in Vietnam's case, there's also the creeping suspicion that we might actually have been the bad guys). I don't really think the way we view WWII is any more accurate, but it's a whole lot easier to wrap up in a "just war" narrative and package it conveniently for entertainment.

And that narrative vacuum where Vietnam used to be is really interesting to me.

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That is interesting! I remember that in the 80s, when my grandfather visited us when we lived in the US, my mother mentioned to a neighbor that he had had a horrible time in the war. The neighbor knew we were European, and she knew my grandfather's age, and she frowned a little and then said "...Vietnam?" because that was evidently the only war she could think of.
... ouch. >_>

I remember a thread somewhere online awhile back (Reddit maybe?) in which people were asked what "the war" means to them (i.e. your first reaction when someone says it) and it was a really fascinating mix of WWII/Vietnam/Afghanistan/various other national-history-specific wars. It is very different in different places and for different generations.

Actually, in a way, perhaps the most fascinating thing is how quickly we move past them, how a war can be THE defining event for a particular generation and then fade into history just as quickly, taking its hatreds with it. (As a random example of that, I used to babysit for a lady, now in her 60s, whose parents were an American serviceman and a Japanese lady - not Japanese-American, but Japan-Japanese - who met during his overseas WWII service, married, and moved to the U.S. She's equally proud of both sides of her heritage - black American and Japanese - and she & her siblings regularly travel back to Japan to stay in touch with family there. Obviously that's just one small example of all the MANY examples of that sort of thing, but it's one that particularly comes to mind considering how recent it was for her parents and, obviously, how little it mattered to them.)

Edited at 2017-04-12 11:07 am (UTC)
Actually, in a way, perhaps the most fascinating thing is how quickly we move past them, how a war can be THE defining event for a particular generation and then fade into history just as quickly, taking its hatreds with it.

My impression is that there are many people to whom the government- and propaganda-fostered hatreds of wars didn't / don't matter even while the war was going on, my grandparents and great-grandparents among them. Even when you're forced to actively fight, it doesn't mean you condone the war, or believe in the things the government tries to feed you to make you condone it. The horrible truth of it is that in many situations, there's just nothing that individual people can do to escape the reality of war, while never believing in it at all.

I think that many people who have *been* in that kind of situation realize that it's true for everyone, no matter what country they happened to be born in, and so what "side" they happened to end up on. My mother's family is from a border region where being born literally one village over means that you had to fight against each other in all of last century's horrible wars. The border has moved so often that in some cases, it runs right through villages.

We're not the first generation to realize how ridiculous the divide of nationality really is.

This comment took off in a somewhat different direction - sorry. :-)
No, I think this is a good point, and it also touches on something I started writing about in an as-yet-unposted comment over on the DW side, which is that a recurring theme I've read about, or heard about, in war narratives is how many of the people who were involved refused to buy into the us-and-them mentality even while they were actively fighting. I've read of American soldiers who burst into tears upon learning that the U.S. had dropped nuclear bombs on Japan, German soldiers who wept in sympathy and horror when they heard of the death camps, Allied soldiers in the Pacific who were furious about disrespectful treatment of Japanese war dead and American soldiers who spoke out about the Japanese internment camps back home. My dad's Vietnamese tour of duty happened to be during the time that the My Lai massacre occurred (Vietnamese civilians massacred by U.S. troops) and from what he's said, the mood among the draftees in his unit - admittedly stationed in Alaska, so not close to the actual fighting - was universal horror, disgust, and condemnation.

So yeah, I guess it's easy to assume that previous generations' wars reflected how people "really" thought back in those days, but in reality it was much more nuanced and complicated, and most people probably did recognize the humanity of the people on the other side; they just weren't really given a choice of whether to fight.
There's a Vietnam War-centric movie filming now, "The Last Full Measure." It's the true story of a current-day Pentagon investigator who pushes to get the Medal of Honor for a Vietnam War hero, Airman William Pitsenbarger Jr (his story is amazing). It has Grant Gustin as the airman and Sebastian Stan as the investigator and a host of big names: William Hurt, Christopher Plummer, Samuel L Jackson, just to name a few. Hopefully it'll be as good as the cast would promise (not always a guarantee but still). If it's done right and well received, we might swing back to Vietnam War being featured more in media again.
I think we're still too close to it. Vietnam and its aftermath were just too horrid in too many ways. The World Wars are remembered as patriotic victories. Vietnam never will be because it was not. Remembering a shameful, hurtful, embarrassing, destructive thing isn't quite as fun as remembering the fight for a patriotic victory. I'm 68 and the war, the draft, the protests were all the backdrop of my 20's. I have no interest in reading about it or watching a movie or TV about it. I am far more comfortable in my ostrich approach to the whole thing. Once we (me and my contemporaries) are gone, I suspect the Vietnam war will become more of a thing.
Yeah, I agree about why that is, although what makes it interesting to me is that I don't remember that being the case in the immediate aftermath of the war. It seems to me that, at first, it was something that the people who'd gone through it had to work through, and once that grieving/coping process began to fade into the past, the war itself began to be left behind by the nation as a whole, to the point where it's almost never spoken of anymore.

And hi! :) I started following you because I was fascinated by your stories of life in the 50s/60s. Thank you for sharing them!
Interesting and in some ways scary how some wars seems to disappear from people's narrative.

Though that said, a recent NCIS episode had a Vietnam theme to it, with people who'd served visiting the memorial and one of the vets is a witness. Had some touching moments in it, and some sad ones as he never received a welcome home after the war, quite the opposite in fact, and had shut himself off from the world as a result. So it's not entirely left the narrative, but yeah, WWII is much more 'in' at the moment.
Yeah, I think people want a war in which they can make it fit a simple good vs evil storyline, but of course history doesn't usually oblige with that ...

But yeah, Vietnam does still turn up from time to time. Most (or at least many) of the people who served are still alive and actively involved in life/entertainment/politics, so it only makes sense that there are still stories to tell.
I find this whole discussion fascinating. I'm a bit older than you, so I was "little" during the end of the '60s, and bizarrely, one of my arguments against "what kids can see on TV" has always been that I literally grew up where we saw body bags from Vietnam on the nightly news (back when there was *only* the nightly news on the three main networks) on a regular basis -- why was *that* not "too much" for kids to see??

I also find it interesting that "war movies" never seem to completely go out of style (so to speak), but they do change what they focus on at times. "Hacksaw Ridge" got a lot of attention this past awards season and is about WW1 ... but as susandennise pointed out, too, Vietnam will never be seen in the same light as either WW is, so it really will be interesting to see how history "further out" treats it, in many ways.
Come to think of it, the upcoming Wonder Woman movie is also set at least partly in WWI. It may be swinging back into pop-culture awareness; it'll be interesting to see how things go over the next decade or so.

That is a really interesting (and horrifying) point about body bags on TV. Interestingly enough, I remember controversy early in the Iraq/Afghanistan war about whether it was appropriate to show coffins of dead U.S. soldiers on TV.
I sometimes think that I - an Anglo-Australian with limited interest in US history - have more echoes and history of Vietnam in my memory than many young Americans (and let's be honest, how many folk these days even recall the Korean war except from MASH episodes?) I suspect that both are fading into the realm of 'vaguely known, but of interest mostly to historians' where the Crimean and Boer and such wars went once those who actual fought weren't around any more.

WW2 is probably different in that it was SO big, SO bloody, and - call my cynical - special as far as popular history/mythstory goes, the 'good side' won and the 'good side' was us (and no, it was never that starkly simple, since the USSR was on our side, but Germany and Japan... yeah, well). WW1, Korea and especially Vietnam don't have that and never will; it does occur to me that the American Civil War had more of it (because of the slavery issue making it easier to assign sides).

At the minute, people like their history, like their films and stories, rather clearcut good vs evil (witness how big superhero movies are and to be fair I've read about but haven't seen them so if I'm imputing a blatant blackandwhite morality that is unfair, let me know)

Edited at 2017-04-12 09:43 pm (UTC)
Yeah, it's a good point that there are a lot of other wars that have all but vanished to history. Only some of them seem to hit the particular combination of "this really affected us" + "this has the right cultural resonance".

I think you're right that WWII was really unique among recent conflicts. Obviously the reality was WAY more nuanced than the pop-culture version, but it lends itself more readily than most conflicts to a "good guys vs. bad guys" narrative, and it also features the "right kind" of bad guys (not communists or some nebulous "people over there", but Nazis and fascist dictators, the sort of people who are easy to render down into cartoon villains for a simplistic version of the war). And yeah, it was so huge and genuinely worldwide that it touched nearly every nation in one way or another.
... and going on a bit with WW2, I notice that it's the European war that gets most of the attention, and the Asian side - which was every bit as ghastly, destructive and history-changing - fades back a bit (how many folk even know how the Chinese suffered?). I know the Americans had Pearl Harbour and Hiroshima which would keep the Pacific War in the public consciousness, but even in Australia, with our Anzac Day to heighten the memories, they get vague and muddled and I doubt most folk even realise Australia was bombed (maybe - vaguely - that Darwin was, but even that isn't really well known). Popular history is, lets face it, a matter of cherrypicking (as 1066 and All That did make clear), and always will be, and people focus on Gallipolli in WW1.

Even the current wars (including that on terror) that dominate pretty much everything at the minute, we can't predict how they'll be seen and/or remembered in half a century, let alone more.
Yeah, I agree with this. It's interesting that the anniversary of WWI doesn't seem to be getting much attention here at all, though that war has never really been a big thing for us, as much as it was in European nations and Australia - we don't do poppies here, for example. But the reasons are pretty straightforward - it wasn't fought on our territory, and relative to other conflicts (and other nations that were involved), our death toll wasn't that staggering. We just weren't that affected by it, overall, and it ended up being eclipsed by WWII for us.