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2014 Stanford-Area Movement (A3M-plus) Reunion
The Cultural Memory of the Vietnam War in the Epoch of the Forever War
by H. Bruce Franklin
The hawks are screaming in anger about America’s “war weariness” and croaking that the civilian population has no right to be weary because these continual wars have “posed no burdens, required no sacrifices, and involved no disruptions.” “Of what exactly are you weary,” demands an irate Wall Street Journal correspondent, arguing that those with an authentic right to weariness are just “those who have suffered severe physical and mental wounds or lost a loved one.” War-weary civilians seem to be just selfish, spoiled brats, traitors to the heroes fighting all these wars.
Maybe we have no right to be weary of having our young service people maimed and killed in these wars, weary of the slaughter and devastation we have been inflicting on peoples in dozens of nations, or just selfishly weary of having trillions of dollars sucked out of health, education, infrastructure, and the environment to pay for these wars. Whatever the reason, it’s certainly true that the American people are sick and tired of our endless wars. Polls show 61 percent of Americans opposed to any U.S. intervention of any kind in Ukraine. During the run-up to Washington’s planned military intervention in Syria in the fall of 2013, polls revealed 63 percent of Americans opposed to any form of military action, even to risk-free missile strikes on Syrian air bases.
The hawks, however, better watch out before invoking the troops as an antidote to war weariness. The soldiers are even more opposed than the civilians to this endless combat. When the Military Times polled active-duty service people during Washington’s threat to intervene in Syria, the troops opposed any form of intervention by a three-to-one margin, and eighty percent said that any intervention was not in the U.S. national interest.
Teaching students in the 21st century—including the combat veterans, National Guard soldiers, and reservists in my classes at Rutgers, Newark—I have to keep reminding myself that they all have lived their entire conscious life during America’s endless warfare. For them, that must seem not just normal, but how it has always been and always will be. Is that also true for the rest of us?
I had to rethink this question three months ago, when I woke one day to discover that I was 80 years old. It was hard to believe that for more than half a century I’ve been involved in struggles to stop wars being waged by our nation or to keep it from starting new ones. Before that I had spent three years in the USAF flying in operations of espionage and provocation against the Soviet Union and participating in launches for full-scale thermonuclear war. Some of these launches were just practice, but a few were real ones that were recalled while we were in flight just minutes before it was too late. (I recall in embarrassment that I never had a flicker of doubt about whether I should be participating in the start of a thermonuclear Armageddon.) And before that were four years of ROTC, which I joined during the Korean War, a war that had started when I was sixteen. From age eleven to sixteen, I had bounced right from the Victory Culture at the end of World War II into the repression and militarization of the early Cold War years.
So it dawned on me that living one’s life during America’s forever war is hardly unique to those millennials I’m teaching. How many people alive today—including the people in this room—have ever lived any part of our conscious lives in a United States of America at peace with the rest of the world? One would have to be even older than I to have any meaningful memory of what such a state of peace was like. How many Americans are even capable of imagining such a state? I can clearly remember only two periods, bracketing World War Two, when I believed I lived in a nation at peace. And even these were probably just childish illusions.
My first memory of peace was under the encroaching shadow of war. Every night just before getting into bed I would kneel on the floor and say my prayers, which ended, “Dear God, please keep us out of the war.” That was in 1940 and 1941, when I was six and seven. Of course war was already pulsing through the veins of American culture, including the veins of us little boys. Every week I looked forward to Friday, my father’s payday, the day he came home with one or two metal toy soldiers for me. While I was kneeling in my pajamas praying for peace, the first contingents of Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses were being deployed to the U.S. colonies of Hawaii and the Philippines and loaded with incendiary bombs designed to carry out Air Corps General Claire Chennault’s plan to “burn out the industrial heart of the Empire with fire-bomb attacks on the teeming bamboo ant heaps” of Japanese cities. Work on atomic bombs was already under way, although the designers and builders of these bombs intended them only to deter potential Nazi use of atomic weapons. The idea of our using them first on an enemy population was anathema not just to these scientists but to American culture—at least until mid 1941 when the government secretly prohibited Americans from hearing or reading anything at all relating to atomic energy.
Although the United States was not yet quite at war, at that point it was rapidly transforming into the warfare state that today seems so normal and eternal. Perhaps the last protest against that government control of scientific information and public discussion of national policy came from John O’Neill—science editor of the New York Herald Tribune and president of the National Association of Science Writers—who charged in 1941 that this government censorship represented “a totalitarian revolution against the American people.” Pointing to the devastating potential of an atomic bomb utilizing uranium 235, O’Neill offered a fateful prophecy: “Can we trust our politicians and war makers with a weapon like that? The answer is no.”
When war did come, it turned out to be surprisingly glamorous and thrilling, especially for young boys. On Sunday, December 7, 1941, my parents and I were visiting relatives in their Manhattan apartment. After dinner someone turned on the radio and heard the news about Pearl Harbor. While the adults were all solemnly buzzing about it, I sneaked over to a window facing west from the high apartment and gazed into the night, staring with a little dread and lots more excited anticipation for the first sight of approaching Japanese warplanes.
Soon we were all participating in the war effort. Except for the draftees, wounded vets, and the families whose windows became adorned with gold stars for their killed loved ones, there were no great hardships. Sure, there were shortages and we needed ration stamps to buy meat and sugar and shoes and to get enough gas for our 1936 Packard. But even kids got to participate in the unity and patriotism of the war effort, planting victory gardens, collecting scrap metal with our wagons, buying victory stamps at school each week until you filled your album with $18.75, enough to exchange for a victory bond worth $25 in ten years. Most of us boys built models of the latest warplanes and warships while imagining fighting in the real things, especially the fighter planes and bombers. Above the bed where I had said my prayers for peace, there now hung a huge map of the northern hemisphere on which I pinned each nation’s flags to mark the advance of the Allied forces.
The reality of war got as close as the Nazi U-boats that were sinking ships so near to Brooklyn that oil and wreckage from the torpedoed victory ships blotted the beaches of Coney Island. But when we had blackouts to keep Brooklyn’s lights from silhouetting the ships, even these were fun.
Yes, we did yearn for peace, but it was victory that we really craved. We were all jubilant when President Truman announced on August 6, 1945, that an American airplane had just dropped an “atomic bomb,” which harnessed “the basic power of the universe,” on “Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base.” Eight days later we heard the news that Japan had surrendered.
August 14, 1945. I was now eleven, and I was crammed in the back of pickup packed with other boys and girls, all yelling our hearts out as loud as we could to be heard over the cacophony of honking horns and blaring air raid sirens. We were part of an impromptu motorcade weaving through the evening streets of our Flatbush neighborhood in Brooklyn. Everywhere we went, more and more cheering people poured onto the sidewalks, waving American flags and homemade signs, hugging, dancing. We kids in the truck were all screaming “Peace! Peace! The War is Over!” We believed this was the end of not just this war but of war itself, that we were all going to live the rest of our lives in a prosperous and victorious nation on a peaceful planet.
Like those people mobbing the sidewalks, none of us was aware that the world of unending U.S. warfare had already begun. Nor did we know that this would be the last victory celebration of our lifetime.
The day after our celebration of V-J Day, eight thousand miles away another people celebrated the surrender of Japan quite differently. That day was the beginning of the August Revolution, when the Vietnamese people rose up and in less than three weeks swept away Japanese and French control and established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
Many of us in the April Third Movement knew about that in 1969. But back then there was a lot about the beginning of America’s war in Vietnam that we didn’t know. Much of that history has come to light only after 1991, the year when the Cold War somehow mysteriously morphed into the Iraq War and its sequels. And our greatest ignorance was about the history of our own movement. In fact, the American people’s struggle against our nation’s war against Vietnam began just a few months after our celebration of victory and peace in August 1945.
On September 2nd, Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence to half a million Vietnamese people jam-packed before him in Hanoi, the old capital of a new nation that had been fighting for its independence for more than 2000 years. “`All men are created equal,’” he read. “`They are endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’ This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.” Suddenly two warplanes appeared overhead. The crowd gazed up. They saw two P-38 fighter bombers, weird-looking planes. When they recognized the U.S. insignia on the planes, those half million people, acting like a single being, let out an earthshaking cheer. Just as we kids in the truck believed in America’s peaceful future, the Vietnamese believed that we Americans were their friends and allies, that we would be the champions of their freedom and independence from colonialism.
At that very moment, Washington was planning with the French government to launch an invasion of Vietnam designed to overthrow the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and restore French colonial rule. This would be a joint French-American project. The United States would supply the weapons and the financing. It would also turn over to the French tens of thousands of Nazi troops, including Waffen SS units, many of whom would be forced into the French Foreign Legion to be shock troops for invasion. Twelve U.S. troopships would be diverted from bringing GI’s home from Europe to carrying the French invasion army—equipped with American weapons, tanks, warplanes, and jeeps—to Vietnam. This was arguably the beginning of America’s Vietnam War. If a huge foreign nation were to arm, finance, and transport to the United States an army of invaders from another nation, would anybody in America not regard this as an act of war?
Whether or not we want to consider this the beginning of the America’s Vietnam War, it was certainly the beginning of the American people’s movement against that war. British troops who had been sent to Saigon to disarm the remaining Japanese forces had instead rearmed the Japanese who had already been disarmed by the Vietnamese. So when those U.S. troopships arrived in Saigon in the late fall of 1945, they were met by uniformed and armed Japanese soldiers, who saluted them on the docks. The sailors manning the flotilla of American troopships were outraged. Every single enlisted crewman on these ships signed petitions to congress and the president condemning the U.S. government for participating in “imperialist policies” designed “to subjugate the native population of Vietnam.”
The antiwar movement at home began as soon as Americans discovered that Washington was supporting the war by France against the DRV. At a large 1947 meeting of the Viet Nam American Friendship Association, the chairman prophetically proclaimed that "the founding of the newest Republic in the world -the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam" is "an event which history may well record as sounding the death knell of the colonial system." Six-time presidential candidate Norman Thomas explained, "It is only by direct and indirect aid . . . from the United States that colonial imperialism can be maintained in the modern world."
As the war went on, with increasing U.S. covert involvement—such as military advisers on the ground and 250 U.S. pilots flying combat missions in U.S. warplanes with French insignia—opposition to this Franco-American war grew and intensified. As the French were on the verge of total defeat in the spring of 1954, the Eisenhower administration prepared for open military intervention. But first Eisenhower had to test possible American reaction.
On April 16, Vice President Richard Nixon floated a trial balloon, declaring that the United States may soon have to “face up to the situation and dispatch forces” because "the Vietnamese lack the ability to conduct a war or govern themselves.” Reaction was swift, impassioned, and came from across the entire political spectrum.
Thousands of letters and telegrams opposing U.S. intervention deluged the White House. An American Legion division with 78,000 members demanded that "the United States should refrain from dispatching any of its Armed Forces to participate as combatants in the fighting in Indochina or in southeast Asia." There were public outcries against "colonialism" and "imperialism." Senators from both parties rose to denounce any contemplation of sending U.S. soldiers to Indochina. The Monday after Nixon's Saturday speech, for example, Senator Ed Johnson of Colorado declared on the Senate floor: "I am against sending American GI's into the mud and muck of Indochina on a blood-letting spree to perpetuate colonialism and white man's exploitation in Asia."
By mid-May, a Gallup poll revealed that 68% of those surveyed were against sending U.S. troops to Indochina. Nevertheless, the Eisenhower Administration was already actively shifting from supporting the French to replacing them. May was the same month as the fall of the French bastion at Dien Bien Phu, the opening of the Geneva Conference to end the French war, and the selection by Washington of Ngo Dinh Diem to be the U.S. puppet ruler of "the State of Vietnam."
One widespread cultural fantasy about the Vietnam War blames the antiwar movement for losing the war, forcing the military to "fight with one arm tied behind its back." But this stands reality on its head. Right from the beginning, the government understood that the American people did not and would not support a war in Vietnam. Therefore, when Washington decided to replace France in the war against the DRV, it could not go overt. So it went covert. It thus committed itself to a policy based on deception, sneaking around, hiding its actions from the American people. But each exposed escalation and every unmasked lie would then inevitably intensify opposition. It was the U.S. government that thus created and empowered the internal nemesis of its own war: the antiwar movement. Like the rest of the movement at home, the A3M movement was inspired and empowered by our outrage against both the war and all those necessary lies about the war coming from our government and the media, as well as the deceitful participation of institutions that were part of our daily life, such as Stanford University. Ultimately it was the antiwar movement, especially within the armed forces, that finally forced Washington to accept the terms of the 1954 Geneva Accords and to sign a peace treaty that included, word for word, every major demand made by the National Liberation Front back in 1969, one month after the birth of the April 3rd Movement.
Any pretense that U.S. intervention in Vietnam had ever represented the will of the Vietnamese people was of course finally blown away in the spring of 1975 when the Saigon puppet government and its superbly equipped armed forces fled in panic rather than face the advancing Peoples Army of Vietnam. The truth was that for three decades our nation had sponsored and then waged a war of genocide against a people and a nation that never did anything to us except ask for our friendship and support.
In the mid and late 1970s, there was general agreement across the American political spectrum on one thing: No More Vietnams. Although this had different meanings to different people, there was evident consensus on two points: No more war without the support of the American people. And no more war without a clear exit strategy. But then how would imperial war be possible?
To reopen the pathways to imperial war, it was necessary to rewrite and reimage the history of both the war and the antiwar movement. What was needed was a narrative, a cultural story. The title of the story would be “A Noble Cause.” The story of the Vietnam War was first labeled “A Noble Cause” by Ronald Reagan as he ran for president in the fall of 1980. The Noble Cause story runs like this. There was once a small democratic nation named South Vietnam that was being invaded by the evil Communist dictatorship of North Vietnam. The United States went to South Vietnam to defend its democracy and freedom, and we were succeeding in our heroic efforts. But our noble cause was betrayed by privileged college students, long-haired drugged-up hippies, the liberal media, pinko college professors, and Jane Fonda. This is of course the narrative of the Vietnam War now dominant in American politics and culture.
Soon “Vietnam” became not a people or a nation or not even a war. “Vietnam” became something that happened to us. America became the victim of “Vietnam,” which was some kind of crippling addiction or disease, or, in the immortal words of George H. W. Bush, a “syndrome.”
The noble cause narrative was the matrix of two tremendously powerful myths that became vital organs of a national body in a permanent state of imperial war. As the story line of the narrative unfolded, it revealed that the real heroes and the real victims of Vietnam were the American veterans, hundreds or thousands of whom were still imprisoned in Vietnam and hundreds of thousands of whom were spat upon by those same antiwar protestors who kept us from winning the war. These two myths turned “Vietnam” into the cultural basis of the forever war.
I use “myth” in the fullest sense of the word. For anthropologists or archeologists to understand a society, they must fathom the content and meaning of a society’s myths. Myths, indeed, are often the key clues to unlocking how a society perceives itself and its relations to the world around it. Myths may also dramatize deep psychosocial content.
But the content and meaning of a myth are often not obvious. For example those two powerful myths about “Vietnam”—the myth of the spat-upon veteran and the POW/MIA myth—both have gender content relating to the perceived emasculation of American manhood. It’s not just a coincidence that the most common form of the spat-upon vet myth has the vet being spat upon by a “hippie chick,” usually, by the way, in San Francisco Airport. And in the Hollywood productions that burned the POW/MIA myth into the nation’s memory and imagination, the POWs are betrayed by women or unmanly men. In the first of these movies, Uncommon Valor (1983), Gene Hackman must begin by liberating his team of heroic POW rescuers from their imprisonment by castrating women. The climax of Rambo comes when bare-chested Sylvester Stallone, after rescuing the POWs, mounts the prostrate arch-bureaucrat Murdock and forces this fake man to whimper and moan in terror of our hero's gigantic phallic knife.
While these cancerous myths were colonizing American culture in the 1980s, Washington was busy waging covert and proxy wars, as in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and quick in-and-out wars, as in Grenada and Panama.
1991 was the crucial year for the current form of our forever war. From the end of World War II until 1991, our nation’s number one priority, to which all social goods were subservient, was of course the Cold War. That is, defending freedom and democracy from the menace of Communism. But in 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. So now was the moment for our long-awaited peace and our anticipated Peace Dividend, which could now fund our health, education, infrastructure, and other social goods. But, in a remarkable coincidence, it was also the moment when the Iraq War began.
In August 1990, eight months after the invasion of Panama, the Bush Administration dispatched the first U.S. forces to Saudi Arabia, thus launching Operation Desert Shield ostensibly to protect Saudi Arabia and convince Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. Then began the propaganda campaign designed to generate fervor for launching a war against Iraq. This was necessary to satisfy the first criterion of “No More Vietnams”: gaining the full support of the American people. The campaign tried one line after another: Saddam Hussein is a new Hitler. We need Iraq’s oil. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait is naked aggression. Iraqi soldiers are throwing babies out of incubators in Kuwait. But none of these was working to get the emotional juices of war flowing through the veins of the American public. In fact, opposition to war was rapidly building. What did the job was the myth of the spat-upon vet, which had been mushrooming throughout the 1980s despite the fact that there has never been a shred of contemporaneous evidence of any anti-war protestor spitting on even one Vietnam veteran. In the late fall, Operation Yellow Ribbon was launched. In December the media enthusiastically joined this campaign. The theme was “Support Our Soldiers.” America was not about to scream “baby killers” and spit on our brave fighters like the antiwar protesters spat on all those returning Vietnam veterans. Newspapers, radio, and TV started campaigns to write letters of support to the soldiers in Saudi Arabia. Full-page pro-war ads said nothing about Iraq and Kuwait, but showed the American people voicing support for “all the men and women participating in Operation Desert Shield.” Yellow ribbons sprouted everywhere, even as magnet emblems attached to cars throughout the land. Now we had something to fight for. As Jerry Lembcke put it in The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, his brilliant book about the history and power of the myth of the spat-upon veteran, “The war was about the American soldiers who had been sent to fight it.” And the main enemy was all those people who had spat on the Vietnam vets and who were now voicing opposition to a new war.
The campaign did hamper the antiwar movement, which now had to defend itself against the myth. Nevertheless, it was still a close call for the Bush Administration. When it went to Congress in January 1991 to get authorization for possible military action, it barely squeaked through the Senate on a 52-47 vote.
The nation that went to war a few days later was a nation festooned in yellow ribbons. It was also a nation flying omnipresent black and white flags.
The United States of America in the 21st century still has two national flags. One is the colorful red, white, and blue banner created during the American Revolution, with stars that represent, in the words of the 1777 Continental Congress, "a new constellation." The other is the black and white POW/MIA flag, America’s emblem of the Vietnam War.
The POW/MIA flag is the only one besides the Star-Spangled Banner that has ever flown over the White House, where it has fluttered yearly since 1982. As visitors from around the world stream through the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, they pass a giant POW/MIA flag, the only flag that has ever been displayed amid the epic paintings and heroic statues, given this position of honor in 1987 by the Congress and President of the United States. The POW/MIA flag flies over every U.S. post office, thanks to a law passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1997. During the 1980s and 1990s, the legislatures and governors of each of the fifty states issued laws mandating the display of this flag over public facilities such as state offices, municipal buildings, toll plazas, and police headquarters. The POW/MIA flag also hangs over the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, waves at countless corporate headquarters, shopping malls, union halls, and small businesses. It is sewn into the right sleeve of the official Ku Klux Klan white robe and adorns millions of bumper stickers, buttons, home windows, motorcycle jackets, watches, post cards, coffee mugs, T-shirts, and Christmas-tree ornaments. Much of my speaking in the last few years has been at the local headquarters of the VFW, Elks, American Legion, and Knights of Columbus. Over each of these buildings flies the POW/MIA flag.
The flag displays our nation's veneration of its central image, a handsome American prisoner of war, his silhouetted head slightly bowed to reveal behind him the ominous shape of a looming guard tower. A strand of barbed wire cuts across just below his firm chin. Underneath runs the motto: YOU ARE NOT FORGOTTEN. This flag has flown and still flies as America’s understanding of the meaning of the Vietnam War.
In 1991, that meaning shifted dramatically. The flag now came to symbolize our culture’s dominant view of America as the heroic warrior victimized by "Vietnam" but then reemerging as Rambo unbound. The yellow ribbons and the black and white flags had all transformed into symbols of American pride, not shame. This is what George H. W. Bush meant on March 1st, 1991 when he proclaimed this is “a proud day for America” because, "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!"
How many people knew then that Bush was really celebrating the beginning of our epoch of endless wars?
A month after Bush’s proclamation, Jane and I were on our way to Japan, where I was to teach American Studies for a few weeks as a visiting professor at Tokyo’s Meiji University. I had just finished the manuscript for my book M.I.A., Or, Mythmaking in America. I thought I understood everything about the history and meaning of the POW/MIA myth. I was wrong. I was about to learn something crucial about American culture and culture in general.
Where does a society’s culture exist? Of course in the artifacts, cultural productions, and discourse of the society. But in the final analysis, culture exists inside the heads of the people who constitute the society. That’s why it’s sometimes hard to understand or even see what is most peculiar about one's own culture because inside one's own head lie tangled mazes of unexamined assumptions basic to one’s culture. The most distinctive and sometimes most bizarre aspects of one’s culture may thus seem not just normal but universal.
One night several Japanese scholars of American Studies, from Meiji and other universities, expressed their keen interest in the POW/MIA myth. They said that on some levels they thought they understood the myth, that from their study of the POW movies and other cultural artifacts they saw that the prisoner of war was functioning in American society as an icon of militarism. "But," one said, "that's what we find so puzzling. When militarism was dominant in Japan, the last person who would have been used as an icon of militarism was the POW. What did he do that was heroic? He didn't fight to the death. He surrendered." I was flabbergasted and totally flummoxed. Here I had been studying the POW/MIA myth for years and I had missed its most essential and revealing aspect.
After we got home, I had to look once again at all those disgusting POW/MIA movies. Only then did I realize that this is a myth of imprisonment, a myth that draws deep emotional power by displacing onto Vietnam the imprisonment, helplessness, and alienation felt by many Americans in an epoch when alien economic, technological, and bureaucratic forces control much of their lives. And the man on the flag is American manhood itself, beset by all those bureaucratic and feminine forces seeking to emasculate him. He incarnates America as victim, a victim who must regain his manhood in victorious war, who can then truthfully boast “Mission Accomplished” and have its first joyous victory celebration since August 1945.
Before we left Japan, I was asked to give a lecture about the Gulf War and American culture at Hiroshima University. After the talk, Professor Hiroyuki Miyagawa offered to give Jane and me a guided tour of Hiroshima the next day. Miyagawa was sixteen years old on the day the atomic bomb was airburst at 8:15 AM, a time that would inflict maximum casualties on the workers going to work and the children going to school. Luckily, he was home sick that day. He showed us on the diorama at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum the small hill between ground zero and his home, a feature that provided enough protection so that he was able to live despite severe burns. The tour was one of the most profoundly disturbing experiences of my life, especially as I recalled my own joy on hearing the news of the atomic bomb later that day in Brooklyn.
Perhaps even more influential was what Miyagawa told us about his experience—and his role—as a survivor. Typical of the survivors, for many years he was unable to talk to anyone about his experience. But then survivors began to meet together and share their personal stories. From these meetings—which were, like ours today, also reunions—emerged a collective vow that for the rest of their lives they would share their experience with as many people as possible. They believed that their special knowledge committed them to a lifetime goal of preventing not just nuclear war but all war.
We veterans of the antiwar movement should take the same kind of vow as that taken by the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We too possess knowledge that should not die with us. And the young people who have lived only during the Forever War need to hear the true history of the Vietnam War, of the movement against it, and of the false history that is part of their culture. That false and mythologized history is now used, grotesquely and obscenely, as a weapon against today’s antiwar movement. Just as the truth about Vietnam once transformed our own consciousness and lives, that truth can now once again reverse the role of Vietnam in America’s cultural memory. That way, the movement against the Vietnam War can live on as a vital part of the 21st-century movement to stop the Forever War.