Matthew Israel’s Kill for Peace: American Artists Against the Vietnam War (University of Texas Press, 278 pp., $29.95, paper) fills the space that was left by Lucy Lippard’s A Different War: Vietnam in Art and the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum’s Vietnam: Reflexes and Reflections.
Much of the art in those two books is antiwar; in his book Matthew Israel focuses on that art to great effect. Israel is a New York art historian and author who has taught at New York University and the Museum of Modern Art. No information is given in the book on his military service.
The “baby killer” motif is prominent in Israel’s presentation and analysis of antiwar art. I’ve read hundreds of books by Vietnam veterans who say they are tormented by that appellation. This book has many references to the “baby killer” theme, although when I went to the otherwise fine index, that term was not there.
Korean War and World War II veterans got a free pass on the issue of killing innocent civilians, but Vietnam War veterans are held to account in a way that veterans of those wars were not. Was it that no women and children were killed in previous wars? We know that is not true. Previous wars also drafted civilians to be soldiers, so that isn’t the variable either. So what is it?
Israel addresses this question in a chapter entitled “AWC, Dead Babies, Dead American Soldiers.” It contained an epiphany for me. First, Israel doesn’t say it straight out, but most home-front Americans believed that all soldiers in Vietnam were in the infantry. Americans still tend to think this. But something like ninety percent of us were support troops who had little or no access to weapons—and if we had them, we would not have chosen to kill women and children with them.
The visuals in this chapter clearly show that the posters disseminated after the My Lai massacre focused on the notion that American soldiers were baby killers—that that, in fact, was their mission.
The most scurrilous image in the book is of a 1970 poster, Jeff Kramm’s “My Lai,” displaying a naked ROTC soldier as a muscular, smug rapist and murderer. The caption is “My Lai—We Lie—They Die.” As if young men were joining ROTC motivated by the urge to kill. Most men were in ROTC either as a way to get a college education or because we attended Land Grant colleges that required ROTC. That’s why I was in ROTC—no choice at all, just like when I got my draft notice in late 1965.
Leon Golub created a lot of art about the war: the Vietnam Series and later, the Napalm series. He later recanted. “I couldn’t blame the G.I.’s for the guys who were initiating all this,” he said. “The soldiers weren’t assassins. I became ashamed.” Golub then destroyed most of those demonizing art works, but it was too late, the damage was done.
Tens of thousands of posters showing Vietnamese civilians—including the iconic photo taken by Ron Haeberle of My Lai (below)—did their work in demonizing American troops in Vietnam. That includes a poster that showed a Vietnamese mother holding her burned child with the words:“Would you burn a child? When necessary.”
These images became the defining visual myth that ruled the minds of most Americans, convincing them that we were all “baby killers.” The idea that Golub presents—that those who sent us to Vietnam are the real “baby killers”—escapes most Americans.
The entitled elite who used the term “baby killers” against us re-purposed the term from World War I, when the English used it to refer to what the German use of zeppelins did over English cities.
The World War II generation—the so-called “Greatest Generation”—punished Vietnam veterans for this sin when we returned home by not giving us much of a G.I. Bill, by not giving us jobs, and by not allowing us to join the VFW and similar old-line veterans organizations because we weren’t “real” war veterans.
Reading this book reminded me again and again of the questions I had in the eighties when I taught Vietnam War classes at a community college. In a nutshell, students would ask, “Why did you go? If you’d just refused to be drafted, there would have been no war, no dead Americans, no dead Vietnamese.”
My answer was: You are right, but young men don’t get to decide. Also, they don’t know what they knew later, and they don’t know what you know now. They just know that America was in a war against communism and that their dads wore the uniform and saved the world, and they now had the opportunity to do the same. Later, they know stuff that changes their point-of-view, and makes them very bitter at how they were taken advantage of. They knew then that if they hadn’t served, prison and infamy awaited them, and their families would disown them.
Anyone curious about how American soldiers who served in Vietnam became stereotyped as “baby killers” should read this fine book. Matthew Israel has done a brilliant job demonstrating the power of the media, both television and art. He shows how they worked together to foster the myth of American soldiers running amok in Vietnam.
The author’s website is www.matthewisrael.com