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date: 22 September 2020

Summary and Keywords

The meaning of the Vietnam War has enduringly divided Americans in the postwar period. In part because the political splits opened up by the war made it an awkward topic for conversation, Vietnam veterans felt a barrier of silence separating them from their fellow citizens. The situation of returning veterans in the war’s waning years serves as a baseline against which to measure subsequent attempts at their social reintegration. Veterans, as embodiments of the experience of the war, became vehicles through which American society could assimilate its troubled and troubling memories.

By the 1980s, greater public understanding of the difficulties of veterans’ homecoming experiences—particularly after the recognition in 1980 of the psychiatric condition, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—helped accelerate the efforts to recognize the service and sacrifices of Americans who fought in Vietnam through the creation of memorials. Because the homecoming experience was seen as crucial to the difficulties which a substantial minority suffered, the concept emerged that the nation needed to embrace its veterans in order to help restore their well-being.

Characteristic ways of talking about the veterans’ experiences coalesced into truisms and parables: the nation and its veterans needed to “reconcile” and “heal”; America must “never again” send young men to fight a war unless the government goes all-out for victory; protesters spat on the veterans and called them “baby killers” when they returned from Vietnam.

Strategists debated what the proper “lessons” of the Vietnam War were and how they should be applied to other military interventions. After the prevalent “overwhelming force” doctrine was discarded in 2003 in the invasion of Iraq, new “lessons” emerged from the Vietnam War: first came the concept of “rapid decisive operations,” and then counterinsurgency came back into vogue. In these interrelated dimensions, American society and politics shaped the memory of the Vietnam War.

Keywords: Vietnam war commemoration, Vietnam veterans, post-traumatic stress disorder, Vietnam War: lesson-learning, counterinsurgency

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