Today marks the 45th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War.
If not for the COVID-19 dominating headlines, there would typically be a flurry of articles remembering that somber occasion, an important one since the Second Indochina War was the second longest military conflict for the United States and the first one it lost (though the war was never declared officially by Congress).
That date forever etched in history marks the takeover of U.S.-allied South Vietnam by northern communists, a stunning conclusion to one of America’s most embarrassing blunders overseas. Inspiring violent unrest and agitation, the conflagration equally shattered the domestic image of the USA as a peaceful liberal democracy.
Since 1975, “Vietnam” analogies have haunted the American imaginary coming back every time with a vengeance. However, Covid-19 changes the usual script and narrative related to an unforgettable war, rewriting its problematic legacy for our current times.
When Trump marshalled his authority to fight coronavirus as a “wartime president,” this brought another level to his prior overtures to Nixon. There is an almost eerie resemblance to the rise in activism fostered under two polarizing impeached presidents. Nixon exploited the Vietnam War to win reelection, and many speculate if Trump will do the same with the corona-quagmire. Despite the intended will of leaders, unwinnable wars chip away at America’s global standing and “Trump’s Vietnam” (COVID-19) could promise to do the same.
Under America’s recurring “Vietnam Syndrome,” the country keeps comparing every protracted divisive war to its past involvement in Southeast Asia. The U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have even dubbed by commentators as “another Vietnam.”
The war against coronavirus is no exception. Two days before anniversary for what Vietnamese refugees call “the Fall of Saigon,” the U.S. death toll exceeded the number of veterans who died in combat. One month earlier, media outlets recognized the number of coronavirus-related deaths as surpassing the 3,000 individuals that passed away from the 9/11 attacks. That grim statistic soared to greater heights and tragedy with a devastating toll on lives. As the epicenter of the pandemic, the United States had a mortality rate that dwarfed anything other country in the world, including China where the outbreak first appeared.
As more dead bodies piled up, media outlets and social media users turned to the numbers of deceased in Vietnam to explain our losing battle with COVID-19. An op-ed piece in The Washington Post faulted this juxtaposition in technical terms, laying out the differences between a guerrilla war fought in the jungles and a pathological one focused on biosecurity.
Reporters did not delve deeply into why the U.S. would still invoke the name of a failed war to shape the narrative around a new nightmare. In a New York Times piece, writer and academic Viet Nguyen recognizes that American exceptionalism is at stake and it can hardly emerge unscathed.
He writes, “If the illusion of invincibility is shredded for any patient who survives a near-fatal experience, then what might die after COVID-19 is the myth that we are the best country on earth.”
Wars are multi-sided affairs and the U.S. only remembers its side of the story.
Meanwhile, Vietnamese Americans hold another perspective. On a Facebook post, novelist Monique Truong wrote this critique of America’s historical amnesia: “On the eve of April 30, I implore you not to accept the WH’s [White House] framing of COVID-19 as a war. Do not use other wars as a gauge for the lives lost, especially when the body count of the Vietnam War was over 3 million, not just the 58,220 Americans who died. COVID-19 is a pandemic.”
Ethnic studies scholar Yen Le Espiritu in book “Body Counts” recalls that the original “body count” during the Vietnam War referred to the daily enumeration of perished Vietnamese “enemy combatants,” where a higher dead count was proclaimed a military victory. She says that ritualistic body counts must always provoke questions about who counts and who is not counted.
When the media strangely conflate the (American) body count in Vietnam to that of the pandemic, we must ask who is remembered or forgotten. Martin Luther King Jr. and others critical of US involvement in Vietnam as well as Cambodia and Laos saw “war” as a malady whose symptoms lies in imperialism, racism, and economic dispossession. The true survivors of this are the poor, the marginalized, and the colonized. To address the symptoms of a disease through the rhetoric of war without tackling its structural causes or root serves to spread further devastation (and disinformation).
When the Hanoi communist government reported no deaths by COVID-19 and ended its social distancing proscriptions in the People’s Republic of Vietnam, one Twitter user took the Vietnam War analogy to its logical limit: “What do you expect from Vietnam? Lmao [laugh my ass off], they defeated the USA.”
The language of warfare with defined belligerents might not seem appropriate for speaking of the circumstances surrounding a mysterious pathogen, but it tells of the collective need to make sense of chaos—while mobilizing public sentiment and national resources.
At the same time, it brings a simplified geopolitical outlook on things and provokes a ceaseless “under siege” mentality around an “invisible enemy,” be it communism or coronavirus. These martial metaphors follow psychologist Abraham Maslow’s iconic refrain, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
The coming struggle against pandemics could define a new era of war. With the passage of time, people might try to memorialize this current pandemic as something that shattered expectations for American greatness and lowered the international standing of the United States, much like the Vietnam War did. Maybe, in a wry gesture to the ways this “war” tears our psyche and rips apart the social fabric, they will call it “the Coronavirus Syndrome.” Or perhaps, they will once again return to the ghost of the Vietnam War.
Long Bui is an assistant professor in the Global & International Studies Department at the University of California, Irvine.