Sometime ago, the official death toll for Americans due to COVID-19 surpassed the number of Americans killed in Southeast Asia during the war on Vietnam. Apples and oranges, perhaps, but the name spurred multiple headlines. The numbers did not include the vastly greater numbers of Southeast Asians killed—perhaps 6 million all told. Of course, the counting of the dead of people of color has never been precise, just mind boggling. As the numbers of dying Black, Brown, and Red people mounted in the last month, the pandemic narrative shifted from “the virus does not distinguish” to “reopen” now.
Again, as the statistics lay bare the unequal distribution of death and suffering, the question remains: what to make of it? Would the devastation again be blamed on a red and yellow peril? Would it result in sober reflection leading to fundamental change in the American outlook and practice or would we double down: re-inscribe the inequalities as a so-called return to normal (kick the virus syndrome as our leaders tried to kick the Vietnam syndrome), and for instance, completely close off our borders even as the evidence shows it is Americans spreading the virus out, not Latin Americans spreading it in? Was the lesson of the American war to change the course of American imperialism or rather to learn how to fight destructive wars more effectively—to embed reporters, expand drone warfare, divert public attention from multiple US interventions, organize more compliant surrogates?
Does/can a nation actually learn from past disasters or does it merely practice variations on a well-worn theme: how to dominate more effectively; how to reinvigorate a toxic racism and masculinity? Or can we learn to connect to and work with the rest of humanity (not to mention the natural world)? To choose between honoring, paying and ensuring the safety of essential workers, on the one hand, or endorsing their disposability on the other!
Has the idea of American freedom—fatally tarnished from the beginning as a white, male bound slogan, nevertheless with lingering resonance— been reduced to the right to bear arms or refusal to wear a face mask? Or is a fuller notion of freedom and equality still alive? Has liberty and justice for all, even as a slogan, morphed into “you will not replace us”? Americans, as a society, has failed to come to terms with the evil exposed by the American war in Southeast Asia, not to mention the primal genocide of American Indians and the enslavement of Africans and others. Are we up to the task?
The future is still open, though certainly perilous. The burden is upon us: do we plunge headlong into the abyss on the death trip of a dying empire or do we resolutely move in a more hopeful direction and transform the American trajectory?
Howard Machtinger is a longtime antiwar and racial justice activist. He represented Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at the second session of the Bertrand Russell International War Crimes Tribunal in Copenhagen in 1967, which included testimony (including from US soldiers) about the use of torture by American personnel in Viet Nam and the uses and dangers of Agent Orange. He helped organize an alternate ‘Viet Nam graduation’ at the University of Chicago in 1968. After the war, helped found the Viet Nam Support Committee in Seattle in the hope that Americans would not abandon postwar Viet Nam. He made the first of many visits to Viet Nam in 2002 and continues to help develop connections between Vietnamese and Americans.