Public Education About History Is a Problem Essay

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American Cynicism

The Vietnam War represented a series of first, all of them seismically changing and affecting the United States in terms of how it wages wars and the outcomes garnered as a result. To be sure, America was wildly successful in wars for the most part up to that point with the Civil War and World War II perhaps being the most quintessential examples. However, the public's rise against the Vietnam War, the fact that the United States lost the war, that the United States (according to many) could not possibly have won the war if they wanted to and so forth all set a new standard for warfare after that much like the atom bomb did after World War II. While wars are still something the United States is successful at, the media sphere and public cynicism have changed warfare forever and that same public cynicism has become quite fickle and forgetful of even the recent past.


If World War II proved anything, there would be two things in particular. The first is how a country can pull together in times of strife and help win a war. The second is that public unity behind a war effort means a lot and not having it can kill political careers as well as a lot of soldiers and civilians. The Vietnam War, however, proved that not all wars are going to gain and keep the support of the populace and politicians will react in kind. Furthermore, Americans are more and more cynical about war efforts as well as political personnel in general at all levels of government with the "throw the bums out" mentality taking more and more ground in the public sphere.

Indeed, when reading through the offerings of Christian Appy and Alexander Bloom, we find multiple references to "mythology" and the public resistance against the Vietnam War. Appy and Alexander detail a total of twelve different myths, many of which are characterized as "outright lies" as seen and experience by the soldiers let alone the politicians and other people pontificating and theorizing about the war even though they never smelled or heard a combat zone. The myths of the war, as listed by the authors, include the myth of "clean hands," the myth of "hearts and minds" and so on. When reading through these, we can establish that World War II was an entirely different animal than Vietnam as well as just about any recent war in the Middle East.

The "hearts and minds" myth is staggeringly relevant in the modern context given the rise to prominence of the Islamic State in Iraq & Syria (ISIS) and how this has thrown Iraq on its ear not to mention similar issues in Afghanistan. Both of those countries were invaded by the United States and other allies and a nation-building project was undertaken. However, the specter of what happens when the United States mostly if not entirely vacates the area is now rearing its ugly head. The rebuilding of areas like Europe and Japan after World War II took some time but ended up quite well for many people involved despite the fallout, both literal and figurative.

However, such national reclamation projects are going terribly wrong in Afghanistan and Iraq and much the same thing has happened due to internal overthrows or coup-like activities in Egypt and Libya. The marked difference between Europe and the Middle East/Northern Africa is that the fights and struggles that resembled the Crusades and European colonialism are largely over but the religious, ethnic and war-like struggles in Africa and the Middle East are far from over. There are three major religious sects or groups that dominate parts or all of the area, those being Christians, Muslims and Jews, and none of them get along all that well in that part of the world. Throw in racial dimensions such as whites, blacks, Arabs and Jews, and things get even hotter. The reason this is all relevant is that people are getting wise to the fact in the United States that invading Iraq and Afghanistan was probably not the best idea. Sure, there were a lot of terrorists killed and some dictatorial governments were overthrown. However, that area is not conducive to people living in harmony and getting along. Indeed, Egypt overthrew the dictatorship of Mubarak and then found themselves being controlled by a man (Morsi) that tried to pull off much the same thing as Mubarak, that is seizing ultimate control and preventing his rivals and detractors from usurping him. The above dovetails with one of the myths offered by Appy and Bloom, that being the myth of economic modernization. It is not natural or effective to artificially tinker with a nation's economy because very bad things can and will happen, such as what occurred with the rice crops and economic inequality that was created by "assistance" provided by the United States

The above is quite similar to the Taliban government that used to control Afghanistan and also was quite aligned with what Sunni Saddam Hussein did in Iraq in that he controlled a country that was comprised of Shia and Kurds much more so than his own Sunnis. There are so many warring factions in the area and they are all so vehemently distrustful of the West and the United States that winning "hearts and minds" does not mean much as the people that are reasonable and most apt to comply and vote are not the same people that will wield weapons, bombs and so forth without a second thought. There are entirely too many people that refuse to coexist and make peace nation-building in the area is an exercise in insanity and the United States really should have learned their lesson with the Shah in Iran in the 1970's/1980's. Very much what occurred with the Shah, the United States was clearly operating on their own best interests in Vietnam and really did nothing to align and endear themselves with the Vietnamise despite the "lip service" they were spewing

With that established, there is a point that should be made regarding American cynicism. The start of the Afghanistan action in 2001 was met with a response of "it's about time" even though it came to pass literally a small number of weeks after 9/11 and even the second Iraqi War was supported by a broad swath of the public. Fast forward to the present day with several thousands of troops dead and two countries that appear to be on the brink of failure and the United States has not even left yet. The public has caught onto that and is now roiling against our continued presence there and whether or not the mess was worth it. However, irrespective of what the final answer is or should be, it does not change the fact that the Americans were demanding what they got, or at least something similar, in the wake of 9/11. Given that this is the case, it is the height of hypocrisy to say the opposite now even if not everyone realizes it and this was apparent as far back as 2008

As such, it should be pointed out that Vietnam created another public phenomenon that needs to be stopped right away and that is politicians and/or public opinion being allowed to sway war actions in any major way. It has to be established whether something is wise or not and should be done (or not done) based on the merits and not based on what uninformed people with incomplete or flat wrong opinions think. The author of this report will not deign to remark whether the Vietnam War was winnable or not, but that should have been figured out before any boots were put on the ground and at no point should public opinion be allowed to sway what should/can be done and what cannot be done. In retrospect, this might mean that we never should have gone to Vietnam or that we can or should take a different path. In Afghanistan, perhaps the air war that typified the actions against Slobodan Milosevic would have been a better idea not unlike what we do with drones and such in Pakistan.

There are obviously two major pitfalls and issues that can be had with public opinion. Going against public opinion can lead to revolution at the ballot box. Concurrently, public opinion is often rendered by people that are misinformed or partially informed and the aforementioned politicians speaking in sound bites and half-truths only makes things worse. Compound that with an American public that is disgustingly ignorant about history and what it truly takes to win wars and wield power, and there is a very big mess that no sane and educated person could navigate without regressing into expletives and frustration. It is to the point that the number of college educated people in the United States will actually probably fall in the coming years unless major societal changes are undertaken

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