Printer Friendly

Canada's Vietnam legacy.

Last April, the black celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, and the end of the Vietnam War, rippled across America. Veterans groups, politicians and media pundits considered the legacy of what former President Gerald Ford called "America's nightmare" in Vietnam. The Right's rage over the loss of American pride, and the Left's fury over the loss of American and Vietnamese lives, were both further antagonized by Vietnam-era US defence secretary Robert McNamara's admission that "we were wrong, terribly wrong," to pursue the war in Vietnam.

Two decades later, with 58,000 American soldiers dead and 2,000 missing in action (in contrast to 300,000 Vietnamese MIA's, and almost 3 million Vietnamese soldier and civilian casualties) America is no closer to answering the question Country Joe McDonald raised in his I-Feel-like-I'm-Fixin-to-Die-Rag: "What are we fighting for?"

Canada's role: myth and reality

In Canada, we also commemorated the legacy of America's war with Vietnam. But our commentators wrote from a specifically Canadian perspective -- an image of post-Vietnam War Canada that Globe and Mail columnist Rick Salutin depicted well in his collection of essays, Marginal Notes (1984):


The peaceable kingdom. The all-too-familiar story goes that as the American dream turned to ash in the shadow of Vietnam, Canadians discovered that they had a less militaristic, more friendly nation to the north of the great war complex. The peaceable kingdom was our claim to separate status and an independent culture. The Prime Minister of the peaceable kingdom, Lester B. Pearson, tried to be an "honest broker," struggling to contain the American war machine: After all, Canada sent almost 1,000 peacekeepers to the region in 1973 to help to end the war. America's nightmare, Salutin wrote, became a Canadian "wet dream."

When Canadian journalists set about to remember the Vietnam War last April, they used the peaceable kingdom as their frame of reference -- and emptied Canadian history into a vacuum.

On April 27, Paul Watson wrote in the Toronto Star about the cancers, birth defects and thousands of deaths that the people of Vietnam are still enduring due to their exposure to "Agent Orange," a carcinogenic defoliant sprayed indiscriminately over soldiers and civilians throughout the war. Watson neglected to mention that Agent Orange was produced in Elmira, Ontario, and tested in Camp Gagetown, New Brunswick.

Dalton Camp wrote in his nationally syndicated column in April that "most Canadians were either neutral or silent on the subject of Vietnam, a notable exception being Mike Pearson, then prime minister of Canada." Yet, a Canadian Institute of Public Opinion survey done in 1966 showed that more than half of those surveyed would have liked to have seen the same level of fighting, or stepped up attacks, by the US in Vietnam.

On April 23 The Montreal Gazette ran a quiz entitled "How much do you remember about the Vietnam War?" Of the full-page survey, not one question mentioned the Canadian role in the war.

The media recoiled in horror and disbelief as one of our peacekeepers, a member of the Canadian Airborne regiment in Somalia, was video-taped saying, "I love the smell of Somalia in the morning. It smells like shit." Few made the link that this representative of the peaceable kingdom's army was merely mimicking Robert Duval's legendary war-cry from the Vietnam War film, Apocalypse Now: "I love the smell of napalm in the morning -- it smells like victory."

Recent Canadian history has been reduced to a series of cinematic cliches, even though Canada's wartime legacy, which was anything but peaceable, has been amply documented. The story of Canada's role as the chief US arms supplier during the Vietnam era had first been trumpeted by Claire Culhane in Why is Canada in Vietnam? (1972), and in Victor Levant's Quiet Complicity: Canada and the Vietnam War (1986). Although editorialists have defaulted to their hazy memories in writing about the Canadian legacy of the Vietnam War, the facts Levant and Culhane pulled together on Canada's complicity have been readily available, for close to a decade, under the heading "Vietnam War" in the Canadian Encyclopedia.

From 1964 to 1973 Canada sold more than $2.5 billion worth of ammunition and assorted instruments of war to the US. At least $10 billion worth of other war-related supplies, including arms components, resources to build arms, and, of all things, green berets, were sold to the US armed forces. Every B-52 which unloaded its munitions over civilian targets in North Vietnam -- acts which resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths -- were made out of Sudbury's finest nickel. In the mid-1960s, unemployment in Canada fell to a record low level of under four per cent; not only did select war-related industries prosper, but a wide section of Canadian society shared in windfall profits stemming from America's war in Vietnam.

As the "honest broker" traditions of the peaceable kingdom were celebrated, the story of how supposedly neutral Canadian diplomats transmitted information on bombing targets in North Vietnam to the CIA, allowing the war to drag on for more than a decade, was omitted. Our diplomats were, in the words of a Montreal Star editorial at the time, "functioning as spies when they are supposed to be serving as civil servants." Canada's tarnished image as an independent entity among sovereign nations, especially in the south and among developing countries, isn't part of the media's memory of our Vietnam legacy. Instead, as Richard Gwyn wrote in The Toronto Star last May, our Vietnam War birthright has lead us to see ourselves as "a nation of peaceniks."

But the peaceable kingdom myth has had its most powerful effect in reshaping how we see Canada's Vietnam war victims; The image of our having welcomed more that 50,000 American exiles who fled the Vietnam-era draft has been recast into something of a national myth, as has our memory of the generous way we opened our doors to the 130,000 Vietnamese refugees that came a few years after. Yet, this "kinder, gentler" image of Canada bears no resemblance to our treatment of the American exiles; our lack of acceptance and understanding of the Canadian "volunteers" who went to war in their place; or to the racism former Vietnamese "boat people" face in Canada today. Canadian Vietnam war victims, like the history of Canadian complicity in the arms industry, have been turned from memories, to a movie, to an ahistorical void.

US draft dodgers and Canadian volunteers

The American exiles, many of whom, like Svend Robinson, Tom Hathaway, and Jane Jacobs, are celebrated for being part of the over 50,000 war-resisters who chose to live here, actually faced a chilly Canadian welcome when they first arrived. For example, soon after the Quebec Crisis, Vancouver Mayor Tom Campbell suggested using the War Measures Act to round up the exiles, whom he, and others, thought were a drain on Canadian social services. "I don't like draft dodgers and I'll do anything within the law that allows me to get rid of them," Campbell said at the time. As the mayors of Toronto and Montreal repeated Campbell's suggestion, the RCMP were busy turning over legally landed immigrants to American draft authorities, forcing many exiles to assume an underground persona.

As these American political refugees faced the personal trauma of leaving their families, and risking arrest and imprisonment to protest the war by coming to Canada, they also became targets of left-nationalists. Robin Matthews, a university professor associated with the NDP Waffle, attacked the exiles on the CBC and in the print media for speaking "to the Canadian ear, with the same accent as all US citizens who have taken positions that should have gone to Canadians." Both the left and right exile critics pointed to a 1968 Gallup Opinion poll that found that 51 per cent of Canadians were opposed to the harbouring of American war resisters.

The Selective Service system sorted out who, in America, would go to war, who would go to college, and who be forced to flee to Canada, or go to jail to protest the war. Gen. Louis B. Hershy, head of the Selective Service from 1945 to 1970, described the structure of educational and occupational deferments that encouraged middle-class Americans to stay in school to serve the "national health, safety interest" as "channelling." Others, Hershy said, were "draft motivated:" poor, marginalized, and minority youths were encouraged to enlist to avoid being drafted into a worse assignment.

Young, poor Canadians, who had few other career options, were also swept into the continental channelling system. "The Canadian Vietnam Veterans were looking for some sort of career," said Fred Gaffen, a historian with the National War Museum in Ottawa, and author of Unknown Warriors: Canadians in the Vietnam War. "A lot of them had trouble getting jobs here or had problems with employment. They were looking for training, to improve their education, and then ended up being sent to Vietnam. Some were people being let out from the Canadian armed forces, which were being cut back by the Liberals at the time."

The government of the day did nothing to stop individual Canadians from giving Uncle Sam a hand in Vietnam, even though their participation may have been illegal under the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1937. Paul Martin, who was the Minister for External Affairs throughout much of the 1960s, said his government would not use the act to prevent Canadians from enlisting in the US Armed Forces, telling the House in 1966, "This is a free country." In this way, the Canadian Vietnam veterans represent another clear form of complicity in the war.

Upon returning, the Canadian veterans faced a double-jeopardy: like their American counterparts, they felt they could not speak about the war as North Americans were trying to move past their decisive memories. But the Canadians had to doubly bottle-up their trauma, because, after all, the peaceable kingdom was not part of that awful war. Few Canadians could identify with the Canadian Vietnam veterans' struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, a psychological disorder which affected over half-a-million American veterans.

One survey of the Canadian Vietnam veterans reported that they suffer a rate of post-traumatic stress disorder that is almost three times larger than the US veteran average. Dr. Robert H. Stretch, who conducted the survey for the American Army wrote that higher rate of trauma among Canadian veterans stems from the fact that they are more isolated, and invisible in the peaceable kingdom than their counterparts in the US. "It may be that being ignored by society is just as devastating as outright hostility and rejection faced in the US," Stretch wrote.

The 'boat people' -- from heroes to villains

But if we ignored our veterans to the point of making their post-war adjustment more traumatic, surely no group of Vietnam-era victims have been more celebrated in this country than the 130,000 former Vietnamese refugees who resettled here. Major newspapers across the country commemorated "the boat people's" struggle to come to Canada, which began in earnest in 1975. Last October, The Toronto Star profiled the "boat people" as being "part of the beautiful story of Canada itself," writing that the Vietnamese community was one the most entrepreneurial and economically successful groups of "immigrants" (forgetting they were refugees from a war).

Yet, the same Vietnamese community has been vilified across Canada for importing an "Asian crime wave" into the peaceable kingdom. Typical was the Maclean's cover story of March 25, 1991, which ran under the banner headline, Terror in the Streets: Young Asian Gangs are Spreading Fear, Violence and Death in Canadian Cities. "These new Asian criminals are unbelievably ruthless," said Toronto Police Constable Kent Bradbury in Maclean's. "They are not afraid of pain, and they're not afraid to die." The last few lines of the 13-page Maclean's feature, one Vietnamese-Canadian community representative was given the chance to recant the image that his people were ruthless killers. Toronto Life Magazine was not so gracious a year later, in their feature article on Asian crime, entitled Murder at the Kimbo: Vietnamese gangs are the new scourge. Not one line was donated to community rebuttal.

No doubt these kinds of racist images spurred on the political momentum that has led to the Liberal government's new "head-tax" on immigration, and bolstered calls for tightening refugee claimants' limits. Some celebratory profiles of "the boat people" did ask the question, 'Would we be so generous today?' But the question of 'Why were they fleeing Vietnam in the first place?' is never asked. You would be hard pressed to find a Canadian news article that makes the connection between the Vietnamese flight from bombed-out houses and villages, and the Canadian made weaponry that wrought the destruction of the countryside and cities of Vietnam.

From Rambo to Forrest Gump

To be sure, Canada did not initiate America's war with the people of Vietnam, and individual Canadians and social movements made great sacrifices in trying to stop the war, and bring compassion to Vietnam war victims living in this country. But to understand how Canadians came to reinvent our role in the Vietnam war, one need look no further than the silver screen. The late 1970s and 1980s saw the rise of "Vietnam: The Movie": a repetitive series of filmatic cliches which reduced the history of the Vietnam war, and its disparate victims to cardboard characters.

In literally hundreds of films and television programs, Chuck Norris, Rambo, Magnum, PI, and the A-Team presented the image of the veteran-as-the-victim of a war that someone else lost. As none of these movies connected the memory of the warrior to the politics of the war, the dulling of the American memory played well into hands of revisionists. Former President Ronald Reagan, for one, described the Vietnam war as a "noble cause" -- a war in which the virtuous veterans were victims of a media that "denied them permission to win." These films never asked the most important question of all: why was America in Vietnam in the first place?

Also, as Rambo replaced history, the peace movement was depicted in a moronic light. Peace activists were either portrayed as hedonistic teens out for a good time, as in 1969, or as anti-veteran (read: anti-American) protesters, like in Stone's Born on the Fourth of July. In a particularly telling scene in Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks, still in his military uniform, motions to make an anti-war speech in Washington, DC, but the sound system breaks down and the audience cannot know what he was trying to say. The audience is left wondering, 'What were they marching for, anyway?'

But if the peace movement lost its politics on the screen, the Vietnamese were treated to almost absolute demonization. In The Deer Hunter's savage POW scene -- where the Viet Cong force two captive American soldiers to play Russian Roulette -- the same racism of the "yellow menace" propagated against the Japanese in World War II films is simply extended to the Vietnamese. This kind of cinematic shorthand resurfaced directly into the Canadian debate over the "Asian crime wave." In Nanaimo, BC, where the Vietnamese community has become a scapegoat for the crime problems of the city, Corporal David Deimling, an RCMP officer, told a Globe and Mail reporter last November that "Vietnamese trafficking is part of their culture ... What I mean is that those people come from a war-torn country, they've grown up all their lives fighting to survive each day; in Canada we take that for granted, we don't understand that."

It is easy to recast the Vietnamese victims of war as characters in a Canadian "beautiful story" when "Vietnam: The Movie" is your reference point. The vietnamese, for certain, are constantly being recast in different roles in Canada, whether it be as successful immigrantentrepreneur, or vicious, inhuman killers. Canadian Vietnam veterans, who have never had the opportunity to understand how the birthright of their class played a role in their "volunteering" into the American draft system, can only associate their reality with crazed psychopathic image represented by Rambo, or Taxi Driver -- a distinctly American, thus, doubly foreign, and confusing reflection. And the American exiles' political sacrifices have been reduced to cliched images, as in the 1989 film, 1969. When one draft-age character attempts to flee to the Canadian border, he is lectured by his teenage lover on how going to Canada is a cop-out:

"I'm not going with you Scott. It's not over there. It's inside of us or it doesn't exist at all. I don't want to run away ... I want you to stay with me and fight."

But it was over here, too. Canadians did not simply re-invent the Vietnam War through the void of American cinema. As George Grant pointed out in Technology and Empire, there is another deeper, subconscious reason why Canada has tried to re-invent its Vietnam war legacy by depoliticizing its victims, and revising history. "Many Canadians who are forced to admit the sheer evil of what is being done in Vietnam," wrote Grant in 1969, "say at the same time that we have no choice but to stand with Americans as the pillar of Western civilization." To put it another way, as Claire Culhane did in Why is Canada in Vietnam? with quote from Jean Marchand, Vietnam-era Liberal Minister of Manpower: "Do you want to be the one to tell 150,000 Canadian workers that they are out of work if we discontinue producing war material for the USA under the defence contracts we hold with them?" We have to recast the veterans, the exiles, the Vietnamese, because nobody in the peaceable kingdom wants to remember that we, as a nation, were willing accomplices in the war.

Without a history, there is no political accountability for what Canada does abroad. Ten out of 11 first ministers need not worry that their ethics will be questioned as they smile for a photo-op on the Great Wall of China -- hocking Canadian products with no thought to human rights, or China's brutal occupation of Tibet. In occupied East Timor, the Indonesian Army have used weapons and weapons components that bear the Made in Canada stamp, as a brutal policy of genocide against the East Timorese people continues -- a slaughter that has resulted in almost a million deaths. As long as the big screen remains our historical reference point for the Canadian legacy in Vietnam, these kinds of true north wet-dreams will never end.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Canadian Dimension Publication, Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Canadians' attitudes toward Vietnam War
Author:Ziedenberg, Jason
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Date:Oct 1, 1995
Previous Article:Mary Pitawanakwat.
Next Article:G7: creating global poverty.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters