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Stalking the Vietnam myth

Archived article from Dec 1, 2000

By Douglas Frank  

POW-MIA Flag

More than 30 years ago, H. Bruce Franklin resigned his Air Force commission, disillusioned when President Lyndon B. Johnson broke his campaign promise never to send American troops to Vietnam.

Some years later, as a well-published associate professor with tenure, he was fired by Stanford University for speaking out against the university's participation in the Vietnam War.

Today Franklin, the John Cotton Dana Professor of English and American Studies on the Newark campus, has revisited that painful era in a wide-ranging new book that explores the causes, meaning and continuing significance of the conflict, which still looms large in America's collective memory.

He discusses the history of the antiwar movement, including his own participation in a campaign against the use of napalm; examines soul-searching literature produced by veterans; analyzes film and video treatments of the Vietnam War, including its influence on "Star Trek" and other science fiction; and delves into the origin and persistence of what he calls "the POW/MIA myth."

Prof. H. Bruce Franklin

Images of Vietnam, some of which distort the reality of the war, continue to haunt the American imagination, says H. Bruce Franklin.


Photo by Roy Groething/
Jersey Pictures Inc.

The book, "Vietnam and Other American Fantasies" (University of Massachusetts Press), came out in October, bracketed in time by the presidential primary candidacy of former prisoner of war John McCain and the more recent sojourn of Bill Clinton, the first American president to set foot in Vietnam since the end of the war and the first ever to visit Hanoi. Clinton was accompanied by an entourage of American businessmen, signaling, the president said, "a new page in our relations with Vietnam."

"The astonishing thing is Vietnam, rather than going away, seems to be becoming more imbedded in American culture, psychology and politics," observed Franklin in a recent Focus interview. "This book is about the relation of Vietnam to American culture, before, during and after the war. And there is simply no way to understand America today without understanding its interrelations with Vietnam."

As an example of the way the war's images have metamorphosed in the American imagination, the book offers the shocking Associated Press photo of the execution of a manacled National Liberation Front prisoner by the chief of the Saigon national police.

The image of the gun firing at the victim's head was replicated in the Academy Award-winning movie "The Deer Hunter"(1978), but this time with American prisoners as the victims forced by their North Vietnamese captors to play Russian roulette. It also appears in "The Escape" (1986), in which the execution was transformed into a North Vietnamese prison commander's murder of an American prisoner, Franklin points out in the book.

Such "brazen reversal of this image was a spectacular success," the author discovered while lecturing on college campuses in 1992. Most students he talked to were convinced the original photo depicted a North Vietnamese or communist officer executing a South Vietnamese civilian prisoner.

Sometimes, the Vietnamese disappeared altogether, as in the Academy Award-winning movie "Forrest Gump" (1994), which, writes Franklin, "projects Vietnam as merely an uninhabited jungle that for inscrutable reasons shoots at American soldiers."

The Vietnam experience also dictated how America would report on the progress of its subsequent wars, stretching reality toward the realm of the fantastic. Controlled battlefield images, ensured by the strict guidelines set down for reporters and photographers in later conflicts such as Grenada, Panama and the Gulf War, stemmed from the Pentagon's belief that photographic and televised images had helped bring about the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, says Franklin.

Some images, though, were found to be necessary in the Gulf War, particularly that of a "'clean' techno-war -- a war almost devoid of human suffering and death, conducted with surgical precision by wondrous mechanisms," he writes.

Franklin describes how American viewers could watch a target getting closer and closer, larger and larger, until everything ended in a soundless explosion.

"There were no bloated human bodies, as in the photographs of the battlefields at Antietam and Gettysburg. There was none of the agony of the burned and wounded glimpsed in television relays from Vietnam. There was just nothing at all. In this magnificent triumph of techno-war, America's images of its wars had seemingly reached perfection."

According to Franklin, the representation of the Vietnam War still dominant in America at the beginning of the 21st century is based on a series of fantasies originally constructed from 1954 through the 1970s and then elaborated and embellished during the Reagan and Bush administrations. These "denials of historical reality" include:

*There were two nations called South Vietnam and North Vietnam. "In the face of all evidence, Washington maintained that the Geneva Accords of 1954 established two nations, a blatant falsehood that justified support of the government it had created in Saigon, ranging from covert operations through full-scale American war," he writes.

*The United States lost the war because the military was restrained by politicians, the news media and the antiwar movement. "We used more explosives on Vietnam than all countries in all previous wars put together and also waged the most massive chemical warfare in human history. What is it that the military wanted to do that they weren't allowed to do?" he asks.

* Returning home, American veterans were routinely spat upon by antiwar activists. "There is no contemporaneous evidence of any antiwar activists spitting on veterans," the book asserts. "The first allegations of such behavior did not appear until the late 1970s. The spat-upon veteran then became a mythic figure used to build support for military fervor and, later on, the Gulf War."

* Many American prisoners of war were being kept by North Vietnam to be used as slave laborers, hostages or "bargaining chips," or simply as torture victims. "This issue was concocted by Nixon and Ross Perot sitting in the White House in 1969 to sabotage the peace talks and generate emotional support for the war," Franklin declares. The book argues compellingly that the belief that Americans are still imprisoned in Vietnam "runs counter to reason, common sense, and all evidence."

Back in 1972, when Stanford fired Franklin, the university claimed that "rehabilitation is not a useful concept in this case" because the professor was "unlikely" to change his "perception of reality."

"I'm happy to report," Franklin now says, "that their forecast was accurate," noting that both this book and his popular course on Vietnam and America express his ongoing concern over the destructive fantasies that dominate American perceptions of the war.


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Last Updated: May 30, 2006

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