Contested memories. The Vietnam War in American popular culture and civil discourse
Sociology Universität Konstanz Konstanz, Germany
The paper is a theoretical contribution to the contemporary debate on cultural trauma as well as an empirical study of the Vietnam War in American memory. Up until now only the trauma of victims and the trauma of perpetrators have been elaborated in sociological trauma theory - accompanied by a broad empirical research. My paper introduces the trauma of failure as a third type of cultural trauma. The trauma of failure plays an important role public discourses from the German "Dolchstoßlegende" to some American reactions to the military throwbacks in the Iraq war. I will show that the American memory of the Vietnam War is characterized by a threefold trauma of victimhood, perpetratorship and military failure. The contested and collective memories of the Vietnam war manifested themselves in movies, photographs and novels. They are also embodied in monuments like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the remembrance of the My Lai massacre and the policy of conservative administrations. I claim that these conflicting narratives shape the discourse of American civil society to this day. I will prove this point by showing how these cleavages in the discourse on Vietnam refracted the public perception of the Iraq War in the last years. With the rising number of casualties and an upcoming legitimation crises the victimization of American soldiers entered the public discourse. The Abu Ghraib abuses rekindled the left wing debate on American perpetratorship. And finally, George Bush's warning of Iraq becoming a "second Vietnam" and the related right wing discourse shows how deep the wound of the military defeat in the Vietnam War is, at least for a substantial part of the American civil discourse.