Windsor 5: imperial monuments 2

I offered in my last post an account of an implement of war, an old Russian cannon, recast as a monument to the British empire’s military power and to Canada’s contribution to it. This presentation of the physical spoils of war as a celebration of national glory and imperial reach was common in the 19th and early 20th centuries (see, for example, Berlin’s Siegessäule, or Victory Column, adorned by dozens of captured cannons), whereas I would contend that war memorials and monuments since the end of World War I, and especially since World War II typically emphasize the horrors of war and national sacrifice. They focus less on celebrations of martial victory than on the loss of soldiers’ lives, though I base this argument on my own rather unsystematic observations. Because they embody more recent loss and the crafting of social memory around conflicts that often remain raw and contentious, it is important to examine how we politicize these kind of monuments, and how they themselves politicize landscape. The reconsideration and removal of the numerous Confederate memorials scattered across the US South stands as a useful example, which I wrote about in a previous post, though these are neither recently placed nor do they commemorate recent events. They are nevertheless politicized in new ways by proponents of a sanitized reading of the Civil War, the Confederacy, and the Jim Crow era that followed Reconstruction and during which the vast majority of these monuments were erected, and by those who want them recontextualized or removed. But what of monuments to more recent conflicts and losses, the social disruption of which remains unresolved as the attempt to fix in place a singular meaning via memorialization runs up against the living, active memory of war?

The Vietnam War is just such an event: recent enough that the historical memory within American political and social life and military strategy is unsettled and contentious, deeply politicized and with differential understandings across different groups. It was not so long ago that John Kerry’s presidential bid was upended (in part) by the political action group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which argued Kerry was “unfit to serve” in the presidency by making claims about his actions as a soldier in Vietnam and as a veteran opposed to the war after his return to the US. At the 2004 Republican National Convention, Senator Zell Miller, Democrat of Georgia, broke ranks with his party and rose to endorse incumbent President George W. Bush. His extraordinary speech encapsulated not just the immediate post-9/11 moment, full of paranoia and an intense desire to paint American foreign policy as always benevolent and never self-interested, but also the conflicted memory of the US war effort in Vietnam more than three decades prior. It is worth quoting Miller at length:

Motivated more by partisan politics than by national security, today’s Democratic leaders see America as an occupier, not a liberator. And nothing makes this Marine madder than someone calling American troops occupiers rather than liberators.

Tell that to the one-half of Europe that was freed because Franklin Roosevelt led an army of liberators, not occupiers. Tell that to the lower half of the Korean Peninsula that is free because Dwight Eisenhower commanded an army of liberators, not occupiers. Tell that to the half a billion men, women and children who are free today from the Baltics to the Crimea, from Poland to Siberia, because Ronald Reagan rebuilt a military of liberators, not occupiers.

Never in the history of the world has any soldier sacrificed more for the freedom and liberty of total strangers than the American soldier. And, our soldiers don’t just give freedom abroad, they preserve it for us here at home.

For it has been said so truthfully that it is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us the freedom of the press. It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the agitator, who has given us the freedom to protest. It is the soldier who salutes the flag, serves beneath the flag, whose coffin is draped by the flag, who gives that protester the freedom to abuse and burn that flag.

No one should dare to even think about being the Commander in Chief of this country if he doesn’t believe with all his heart that our soldiers are liberators abroad and defenders of freedom at home.

Not once does Miller mention Vietnam. Yet Kerry’s service in Vietnam was a major issue throughout the campaign, with the Swift Boat organization deriding particular claims of the injuries that led to his Purple Hearts and highlighting his vocal opposition to the war after returning home as part of the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). Though Bush eventually critiqued the Swift Boat group and its many television ads that ran throughout the late summer leading up to the Republican convention, the damage was done to Kerry’s campaign. This was also somewhat self-inflicted, as Kerry himself was at pains to prove his military bone fides and used his Vietnam service and veteran’s first-hand critique of the war as a way of demonstrating his competence in foreign policy amid a rapidly expanding and global war on terror that after 2003 included invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan (I’ll call it that, regardless of Miller’s political and semantic gymnastics). Bush himself faced questions about his service in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam war, while Democrats critiqued VP Dick Cheney for receiving several deferments to avoid service. In all, it was clear that the memory of Vietnam — the conduct of the war, its significance for understanding the US’s shifting role in the world, and for reasserting or challenging the national image of American military superiority — remains deeply contentious and politically volatile.

In this context, memorializing the Americans who died in Vietnam becomes a highly politicized moment of fixing in place particular readings of the war and of military service in Vietnam against a backdrop of constant social and political struggle over the war’s meaning and the relative failure of US policy in Southeast Asia. This is not to say that such memorials are not meaningful and important to those memorialized or to  national identity; rather, it means that memorial and monumental landscapes attempt to render static numerous events and interpretations that remain dynamic well beyond their temporal end point. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, dedicated in 1982, is the most significant and well known of these memorials, and its impressive design has made it one of the most visited monuments on the National Mall. The non-profit foundation that helped build the monument states that in seeking to build the memorial, it “sought a tangible symbol of recognition from the American people for those who served in the war. By separating the issue of individuals serving in the military during the Vietnam era and US policy carried out there, [the foundation] began a process of national healing.” I highlight that one bit because it demonstrates how the memorialization of the American war dead has been explicitly disconnected from the divisive politics and memory of the war, a profoundly different approach from what happens with monuments to soldiers and civilians who died in the two world wars. It also remains true that remembering the Vietnam War in the US almost always means forgetting the enormous number of Vietnamese, both North and South, who died in the conflict, which came on top of a decade-long struggle for national independence from French colonizers. While more than 58,000 American soldiers died in the war from the late 1950s through its end and Vietnam’s reunification in 1975, anywhere from 2.1 to almost 3.8 million Vietnamese — civilian and combatant, North and South — were killed (see also this piece and this one, as estimates of the war dead in Vietnam can vary widely). A more complete telling of the Vietnam War and a reckoning of the full cost in human lives remains elusive as a fixed element in an American memorial landscape.

But the Vietnam wall memorial in Washington is well-known and widely examined. I want here to write about a Canadian memorial to those Canadians who died in Vietnam while serving in the US armed forces. Located on the Windsor riverfront just a couple hundred meters from the Ambassador Bridge, and from the cannon I wrote about last time, it is probably one of the more interesting memorials/monuments I have ever encountered. I focus on three aspects in dissecting it: first, its placement at the border and on the riverfront; second, its design elements, particularly those parts that emulate the Vietnam wall memorial in Washington; and finally, the political message, which is both implicit in what the monument represents and explicit in terms of the specific wording etched into it. So first, the placement. I am absolutely positive that you could see this, or at least some parts of it, from the American side of the river because while the primary elements of the memorial are most visible at street level, as they include names and other textual information, other parts are much larger and meant to be seen from afar. As you might imagine, a war memorial to those who died in Vietnam is not something you’d usually find in Canada, as Canada did not formally participate in the US war effort in Southeast Asia, at least not in a combat role, and so such a memorial requires a fair bit of explanation to the casual observer. On either side of this memorial are enormous Canadian and American flags on the berm that are several meters high and equally wide, and they are certainly visible from Detroit.

The memorial itself, dedicated in 1995, was funded and maintained by the Michigan Association of Concerned Veterans (MACV), and the purpose of the large flags is precisely, I would imagine, to be seen from the US side of the border, though they were added by the City of Windsor in 2013. Prior to this the flags appear to have been made of large flower beds creatively arranged, which certainly would require more maintenance than the painted concrete that is now there. Such symbols of binational cooperation and understanding are legion in the Windsor-Detroit border region, at least on the Canadian side of the border, though again it is vital to note that Canada did not contribute to the US-led combat mission in Vietnam, and Canadians who died in the war did so as members of the US military, with at least 134 killed in action from more than 20,000, and perhaps up to 40,000 Canadian volunteers. This April 2015 issue of CBC’s Rewind recounts some of the ways Canada supported the US effort in Vietnam (including allowing the US to test Agent Orange in New Brunswick, which the Canadian government long denied), though Americans usually think of Canada’s role in the conflict as being the destination of draft dodgers and not much else. According to the CBC stories linked above, Canadian veterans of the US military found themselves on the outside of official government recognition, though they gained the right to join the Canadian Legion, the primary veterans’ organization in Canada, in the mid-1990s. These men were from all over Canada, but the placement of the memorial at the busiest US-Canada border crossing, facing and visible from the US but only to be fully encountered on the Canadian side, makes for some potent symbology in the landscape of Windsor’s riverfront.

The three stones above are some of the many textual and physical elements of the memorial as well, which, while flanked by giant flags, partially mimics the Washington memorial. The stones indicate the material and political support for the memorial, from veterans’ groups across Canada and in Michigan, private businesses, and a former Canadian Senator and advocate for Canadian veterans. I am not sure of the city’s exact role in actually building the monument, but it is on public land and the memorial’s limited wikipedia page notes that city council approved the building of the memorial after the mayor sought out the MACV to locate the memorial in Windsor, though the specific source listed for this info is an inactive link. The memorial is made of a black granite similar to that used in the Washington wall, and it is often called “the Northern Wall”, though it is not a wall but a rectangle perhaps 3 or 4 meters in height, with smaller diamond-shaped pieces on either side. The main, large piece has the names of all Canadian soldiers who were killed or missing in action in Vietnam, 147 in total, on both the front and back of the granite slab. A small map of partitioned Vietnam is on the left diamond along with the insignia of the different branches of the US military, and on the right a short inscription from the MACV. On the ground in front are inlaid small granite squares with symbols representing each Canadian province and territory, and a slightly larger standing piece at the foot of the main rectangle with an inlaid Purple Heart awarded to Larry Semeniuk, a Windsorite killed in action in January 1968. The monument is set back 5 to 10 meters from the main walking and biking trail, and includes a couple of benches and flagpoles behind the main granite block bearing soldiers’ names, flying the Canadian and American flags as well as the POW/MIA flag.

The POW/MIA issue remains controversial, as it builds on the rhetorically and symbolically powerful myth that several hundred American servicemen were left behind in Vietnam long after the war’s conclusion, betrayed, like the war effort itself, by weak public support and spineless politicians at home. See, for example, this 1985 piece in The New Republic and this 2013 story in The Nation; in the latter, author Rick Perlstein states that conservative Republican insistence on the presence of over 1000 unaccounted-for US prisoners of war and missing servicemen “was the right-wing variant of the Watergate-induced dread about whether anyone in Washington could be trusted.” He continues:

It took on a life of its own. In 1975 a conservative Democratic congressman from Mississippi, Gillespie “Sonny” Montgomery, empaneled a House Select Committee on Missing Persons in Southeast Asia. He was initially sympathetic to the families’ claims of Communist perfidy. Then he led a delegation there which found their hosts warm, accommodating—and, once more, befuddled at what it was they were being asked to account for. (Just about every Vietnamese family had relatives who had disappeared in the war or whose remains could not be returned to the ancestral village—a sacred duty in Vietnamese culture.) Montgomery concluded that the existence of American prisoners in Vietnam was almost certainly a myth.  

This brings me to the final point about the monument on Windsor’s riverfront, which is the embedding of a particular political reading of the Vietnam War, of its failure as foreign policy, and of Canada’s and Canadians’ place in that failure. And there is no reason to pull up short of the very clear conclusion that as a set of foreign policy objectives, the partition of Vietnam, defense of South Vietnam as a viable state, and massive military campaign to crush the North and its allies within the South were, overall, failures for the United States in Vietnam and in the region more widely. Imperial visions of American hegemony based on checking and rolling back Communist insurgencies and governments across the Third World, and of promoting US national interests and economic dominance by opening new regions and markets for investment and accumulation were vital to the US commitment to military intervention in Vietnam from Kennedy to Nixon. It was not exactly the British imperial model of a century before, but there is a wide literature on the nature of post-WWII “informal imperialism” under US direction and advancing US interests (though ‘national interest’ is, at best, a moving target), and the failures of Vietnam were both a blow to that project, and a means of reconfiguring American power and influence across East Asia. The Vietnam War cemented the status of Thailand, South Korea, and Japan within American military and economic systems, and helped reshape strategic thinking about nation-building, guerrilla warfare, psychological operations, and the security-development nexus in ways that reverberate today in Afghanistan and Iraq, where US-led military intervention has drawn comparisons to the Vietnam quagmire. How does a society remember those who died for a failed effort that was deeply divisive at the time it was undertaken? How can meaning and memory be fixed in the landscape when they remain in so much flux in public and political discourse?

Recall the explanation above of the ideals that inspired the Vietnam wall memorial in Washington, the goal being to “separat[e] the issue of individuals serving in the military during the Vietnam era and US policy carried out there” and to promote a process of national “healing”. This is the basis for memorialization of those who died in support of an almost 20-year-long foreign policy failure, to strictly separate in thought and in the landscape the service and sacrifice of those who died from the policies that took them to Vietnam in the first place. It is a strange kind of depoliticized political statement, though the legacy of Vietnam in American geostrategic, military, and cultural thought is far-reaching and profoundly political. The POW/MIA issue is one expression of this; picture John Rambo, upon accepting an offer to return to Vietnam to recover POWs, asking his former commanding officer, “Do we get to win this time?” Others include the idea that the war effort in Southeast Asia was compromised by political expediency, fifth columnists, and social decay at home; the notion that strategic blunders and eventual withdrawal from Vietnam created a kind of “Vietnam syndrome” that could only be overcome by total victory elsewhere; the myth (here and here) that returning American soldiers were spit on by hippies and protestors; the sense that American failure to impose its will on Vietnam despite a truly massive and horrifying bombing campaign and half a million troops was the loudest signal of a more general US decline as a world superpower; and the desire to strictly control the narrative of warfare and imperial adventure rather than allow images of bodybags in far-off rice paddies to be beamed back to American viewers every night. It is thus difficult, if not impossible, to memorialize those who died in service to this project while also disconnecting that service from its political roots, manifestations, and legacy. Thus we get the explicit desire to remember while forgetting, and, in the Canadian version of this, perhaps one of the most strangely worded pieces of text I have seen on any memorial. On the the back and at the very bottom of the granite block listing the names of the Canadian dead, it reads: “This memorial is placed here to commemorate Canadians who died in the Vietnam tragedy. It is not intended as a political statement concerning the merits of this or any other foreign conflict.”

Inscription at the bottom back of the main granite section of the memorial.

What exactly is the observer to make of this? Compare it to the inscription below the Purple Heart on the front of the memorial, which reads, in part, “Whether they wore the maple leaf of Canada or the stars and stripes of the United States these memorialized veterans are heroes believing that freedom knows no borders, and must be defended wherever it is challenged.” This is explicitly political, and concerns directly the merit of the conflict for which those whose names are carved here volunteered (against the laws of their own country, moreover), and in which they perished. Thus is the contradictory nature and memory of the Vietnam war itself written into the landscape created to memorialize it; rather than resolving this contradiction, it is now carved into stone.