Friday, September 26, 2014
September 26, 2014: Women and War: Jane Fonda
[Some of the more complex American histories and stories revolve around women and war. In this week’s series, I’ll highlight and AmericanStudy five such stories—but this is just the tip of the iceberg, for these stories and overall, and so as always I’d love to hear your responses and thoughts!]
On war, activism, and the real problem with propaganda.
Between yesterday’s post on suffragist pacifists and last week’s on the Dixie Chicks, I’ve written a lot recently about famous, controversial anti-war voices and activists. As those posts, and many others like this one on Slaughterhouse Five, no doubt illustrate, my deep-seated opposition to and perspective on the worst elements and effects of war makes me naturally sympathetic to such anti-war voices, and concurrently unsympathetic to the critiques of those voices as unpatriotic or traitorous or the like. Dissent, as Howard Zinn (not Thomas Jefferson) famously put it, is indeed the highest form of patriotism, and I can’t imagine a more important time for such patriotic dissents than in the periods before and during a war.
On the other hand, it’d be just as simplistic to treat all such anti-war activism as equally serious or successful as to critique it all as unpatriotic. I’ll admit to having had my issues with Sean Penn’s December 2002 visit to Iraq—the U.S. wasn’t at war with Iraq at the time (although the Bush administration was already arguing for that war to be sure), but the trip nonetheless felt unnecessarily provocative; Penn could have made the same arguments without visiting Iraq, meeting with Saddam Hussein’s Deputy Prime Minister, and so on. The same could be said for Jane Fonda’s famous—or infamous—visit to North Vietnam in July 1972, but with a very important distinction: the U.S. was at war with North Vietnam at the time, and so Fonda’s meetings with North Vietnamese leaders, her radio broadcasts in support of NVA, her apparently accidental but hugely controversial photo while seated on an NVA anti-aircraft gun, were all amplified by that wartime situation.
The real issue with Fonda’s visit, it seems to me, is this: it constituted a propaganda effort for the North Vietnamese government. I would place the emphasis there not on “North Vietnamese,” but on “propaganda”—concurrent with Zinn’s definition of patriotism would be an ability to critique American propaganda just as much as (if not more than) that of other nations, after all; but it becomes more, not less, difficult to advance such critiques if we participate in the propaganda efforts of America’s adversaries. Which is to say, Fonda had just as much of a point about America’s war in Vietnam as did Maines about the Iraq War (and perhaps even more of one, given that by 1972 America had been fighting that war for a decade), but her participation in propaganda efforts made it far less likely that her point would ever be heard or engaged with by most Americans.
Next war story tomorrow,
PS. One more time: what do you think? Other war stories you'd highlight?