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May 10, 2023

"Charting a different course in the Vietnam War to fewer deaths and a better end," muses a book review in the Washington Post. "The Vietnam War was begun in good faith, by decent people," a Ken Burns PBS documentary tells us. "The Iraq War Reconsidered," reads a headline from The Atlantic.

Often, especially when an anniversary of a U.S. invasion or withdrawal rolls around, we're told that the devastation wrought by the US war machine was complicated, flawed, but ultimately necessary if not beneficial. Sure, the United States has killed millions, destabilized power structures, wrecked communities and economies, lied about the reasons for doing it all, and drawn the ire of people throughout the world. But, in hindsight, many in U.S. media insists, a horrible act of war from a world superpower wasn't an unequivocal, deliberate, and needless crime against humanity, but somewhere between a misunderstood righteous cause and a bumbling, good faith mistake motivated by humanitarian concerns.

An ideological system of reassurance therefore emerges. Once wars are broadly viewed as either wrong or a "failure" in the popular imagination — as in the case of Vietnam and Iraq — a cottage industry of punditry and pseudo-history emerges in the subsequent years designed to soothe the egos of elites and muddy the waters of both memory and reality for casual media consumers.

Put another way: we all see a dead body on the floor, no one can doubt this. No one can reasonably argue the destruction of Vietnam and Iraq didn't happen. So, this cottage industry springs into action, on behalf of those that caused the death, working to get the guilty party a charge of third degree manslaughter rather than murder. It was an accident, they were mistaken, they had bad intelligence, they were driven by concerns for freedom and human rights.

After all, those who destroyed Vietnam remained in power well into the 2000s. And those who destroyed Iraq currently run our major publications, universities, nonprofits, and think tanks. They still even run the country itself. So the incentive to make sure they all plead guilty to third degree manslaughter rather than first degree murder is tremendous, otherwise, we’re just a country led by war criminals — and this simply cannot be. We need absolution. We must remain, when all is said and done, innocent.

On this week's episode, we’ll explore the war revisionism industry, breaking down five ways in which media seek to sanitize and justify even the most notoriously unpopular and horrific U.S.-led and backed wars — namely Vietnam and Iraq — as unpleasant, imperfect, mistaken, but ultimately incidental byproducts of a noble and righteous empire that, above all, meant well.

Our guest is The Intercept's Jon Schwarz.