It is difficult to grapple with our complex understanding of the past. Sometimes we remember an event. Sometimes, at the very same time, we forget it.
Late January 2018 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Tet Offensive. During this battle in the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese launched a full attack on many Southern cities. This lead to heavy casualties for U.S. and Southern Vietnamese forces. The North Vietnamese made significant territorial gains. While it may not have been technically a military defeat for the U.S. or the South Vietnamese, it showed many in the U.S. that we could not win the war, thus energizing the peace movement. Many realized this was not a war we should have fought. We dropped bombs and napalm with no care for civilian life. We committed unimaginable atrocities. We forced poor Americans to fight a war in a country we did not care to learn about. We never should have opposed the liberation of a people.
We remember these things. They stay in the collective conscious; images of U.S. soldiers burning down homes do not just disappear. We stayed away from an all-out war. We took a different route, we fought a secretive war. We aided contras in Nicaragua, invaded Panama and supported brutal dictatorships from Spain to Pakistan. The atrocities, from death squads in Argentina to massacres in Indonesia, continued. Yet our involvement was not immediately broadcast on the news. It was easier that way. It is hard to remember what one cannot see.
Yet then, we forgot. In the early 2000s, we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. We stopped the press from publishing photos of atrocities on the news because we did not want the images to reappear. We did not want the Tet Offensive and Vietnam to haunt our consciousness. It seemed only ghosts could stop us from dropping bombs on Baghdad and Fallujah. The wars dragged on as thousands of American soldiers died and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans died. The fighting was not sustainable, especially with a war instigated by a lie about the threat of nuclear weapons we never found. Iraq and Afghanistan remain destabilized today. Most of our troops left, but 26,000 soldiers remain in the Middle East, fighting wars with no end in sight.
So what is the legacy of the Tet Offensive and Vietnam? In today’s society, there could not be a Tet Offensive. Now, we mostly fight with drones and special units. We have demolished national boundaries. We attack and bomb all over Africa and the Middle East without the U.S. banner flying overhead. We only hear news when we capture Osama Bin Laden or some operation goes horribly wrong. We live in a perpetual war that most Americans barely see. After all, it is hard to remember what one cannot see.
Our selective memory works well. There is a cavernous hole where we dump the images of murder, torture and atrocity. We bury them deep. Above ground, we fly our flag in the air, while we drop more bombs from unmanned drones on places most Americans have never heard of. It seems the hole only grows wider. We pretend we are a pillar of light stretching across the globe, but underneath us sits a pit of darkness.
Remembering is about digging into this obscurity. So today, we should plunge into that darkness. The problem is that the further we go, the more we collide with the dreams of America. We come face-to-face with manifest destiny, imperialism and American exceptionalism. We uncover the lies and hatred that have justified our past behavior. We uncover the lies and hatred that fuel our current ability to ignore or explain away every new atrocity. No, maybe the problem is not that we forgot. We remember it all. We just know that if we face it, it will destroy us.