I get an ache in my heart every time someone who learns that I am a Vietnam veteran, says “Thank you for your service.”
Even before I returned to the United States from my combat tour in Vietnam, I had decided that we were fighting an unjust war. Now more than 50 years later, Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” set off my internal alarm bells, warning against African Americans blindly participating in U.S. foreign policy.
Lee’s latest movie is an excellent commentary on some of the complexities of the Vietnam war for African Americans, which he boils down to a single line spoken by a central character: “We fought in an immoral war that wasn’t ours… for rights that wasn’t ours.”
I am a big fan of Spike Lee, and “Da 5 Bloods” is among his best work, but the film points out how Black folk were victims of America’s foreign policy while understating our complicity in it. I do not fault Lee for this because this war was too broad in its social and political ramifications to fit into a single movie. But it omits two lessons Black folk should have learned from this painful bloodbath.
First, the American War in Vietnam was an attempt to maintain White supremacy in Southeast Asia. U.S. involvement in that part of the world did not ramp up until after the Vietnamese had forced out their former colonial masters – the French.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, with Blacks being murdered with impunity and denied basic constitutional rights in America, the U.S. government chose instead to focus on the “rights” of people half a world away. But “freedom” was not what Washington was seeking to establish in Southeast Asia; it was “compliance.” The United States wanted to bend that part of the world to its will – a world order based upon White supremacy.
If one ignores the rhetoric and examines America’s actions towards Africa, Asia and South America, the evidence is clear that White supremacy has driven U.S. foreign policy throughout its post-World War II history.
Secondly, African Americans have been complicit in U.S. aggressions towards People of Color around the world. Black folk have too often been enablers in America’s efforts to keep Whiteness perched upon its global pedestal. Even those of us who knew that Washington’s anti-Communist zeal made no sense, particularly as it related to Africa and South America, did not make the connection between U.S. foreign policy and White supremacy.
Attempts to deny our complicity in spreading misery around the globe in support of White supremacy is not unlike Confederate sympathizers refusing to acknowledge that the underlying cause of the Civil War was the preservation of slavery, not the noble South.
As Confederate statues finally come tumbling down, African Americans are asking, “Why has it taken so long? There was no just cause. There was no noble South.” By that same measure, we must ask ourselves, “What was the true cause and where was the nobility of America’s involvement in Vietnam?”
Not only must we ask ourselves these questions about Vietnam, we must continue to ask these types of questions about all of America’s foreign policies.
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia.