The 18-year-old to 22-year-old students in Assistant Professor Jay Steinmetz’s classes have never experienced anything other than America at war, but it’s always been a distant war, said the political science professor at Fort Hays State University.
“Studies suggest that the average American doesn’t have a lot of connections to Afghanistan and Iraq,” Steinmetz says, “but at the same time our reverence and celebration for service men and women are really high.”
That’s the polar opposite from the Vietnam War era, which affected nearly every American family, he says, but those soldiers were not held in the same high regard.
That perspective and how the war shaped and influenced American culture and history will be part of the discussion Wednesday evening when decorated Vietnam veteran and Baldwin City resident John Musgrave talks on the FHSU campus as a guest of the FHSU Political Science Department.
The event is open to the public and will include time for questions. Musgrave, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps, will talk at 7 p.m. in the Memorial Union’s Black and Gold Room.
At one time a leader in the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Musgrave is a spokesperson for the Live P.O.W. Movement and was featured in Ken Burns 2017 documentary, “The Vietnam War.”
“This talk is an important talk to have with a fellow Kansan, Vietnam veteran,” Steinmetz said. “It was precisely men like young Kansas men, in the late 1960s, these were the ones that shouldered the brunt of the war.”
World War I, World War II and the Korean War consciously affected almost everyone daily, which is not the case with Iraq and Afghanistan, where Americans are more detached, he said.
But the Vietnam War stood out from earlier wars in that it challenged the previous held notion that America can’t fight an immoral war, perhaps contributing to mistrust in government, said Steinmetz.
“Pew Research polls suggest that starting in the 1960s and going into today, the level of trust that the American public has of political institutions, politicians and political elites, is remarkably low and continues to get lower and lower,” he said.
Trust in the press and the media have also declined since the 1980s, but it actually went up in the 1960s and the 1970s, during coverage of the Vietnam War, he said.
“A lot of literature has been written about the very unfiltered nature of the Vietnam War,” he said. “Journalists had a lot of leeway in how they would cover and report. They were embedded but they were not controlled by the higher ups. And so we had very visceral, brutal, unfiltered images of the war being sent back to America.”
In contrast, Iraq’s Desert Storm in the 1990s saw the U.S. Department of Defense heavily controlling journalists’ access to the war with controlled embedding, also the case now.
Historians looking at the Vietnam era now have suggested political leaders gave too much autonomy to military higher ups, who pressed for more firepower and a higher degree of destructiveness to break the back of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese, Steinmetz said, noting that culminated in the three most brutal and destructive years of the war, 1968, 1969 and 1970.
Vietnam had a reluctant pull over American policymakers at that time, he said.
“Yes there were war hawks, people who were gung ho, but also political elites who had to go with the show, this was the context of The Cold War, this was the domino theory, we had to draw a line in the sand in Vietnam,” Steinmetz said.
“If we didn’t then all of southeast Asia would fall to communism and politically the blowback would be huge for the average politician,” he said. “So even for politicians who didn’t support the war it was as if they were forced to, or had to, reluctantly get in line.”