Monday, May 07, 2007
The Vietnam -
America Does Not Want to Remember
By Richard E. Noble
There is no shortage of books written about Vietnam. Unfortunately, most folks haven’t read any of them. I’ve gone to my library and picked out one book. It contains only two chapters on Vietnam but it deals with the appropriate issues and reflects on our present day political and social debate. It is entitled, “The First Casualty”. The title is taken from a quote by a Senator Hiram Johnson in 1917 - “The first casualty when war comes - is truth.” This book is written by Phillip Knightley.
My reason for doing this is our current historical understanding of this issue and our present situation. I wanted to refresh my memory on why such a great and patriotic nation as the United States of America had ever decided to abandon South Vietnam, in its time of need. Young people today also seem to be having a problem understanding it. I do remember that at one point in that fifteen year war, a wide majority (70%-80%) of Americans wanted the war stopped and an immediate withdrawal. Why? What follows is just a part of the answer to that question.
The majority of what is to follow will be quoted directly from Mister Knightley’s book:
Our involvement began with a man named Ngo Dinh Diem.
“Battered and shunted about by the war,” wrote Leo Cherne in Look magazine on January 25, 1955, the South Vietnamese “are too weary to resist the Reds without us..."
Diem, later to be recognized as one of the most corrupt leaders in Asia, was hailed by Newsweek as one of Asia ablest leaders and by Time as doughty little Diem . . . this deception on the American public was necessary, that the Communists had to be stopped, that the United States had put all its chips on Diem, and to appeal to the correspondents’ patriotism not to damage the national interest.
While American newspapers were describing “Operation Sunrise” as a trial resettlement programme, Bruce Rothwell of the Daily Mail wrote that whole villages were being burnt down and thousands of peasants forcibly resettled in camps, which had a minimum of barbed wire, to avoid a concentration camp atmosphere. . . In The Times of London, John White explained one reason why the American army was not averse to further involvement in Vietnam: South Vietnam is the only part of the world where the Pentagon’s training manuals can be put to the test under conditions of real warfare. In this tropical Salisbury Plain [British army training area] new techniques are being developed of counter- insurgency.
“American correspondents wrote stories like these at their own risk. Francois Sully wrote and article for Newsweek on August 22, 1962, headed; Vietnam: The Unpleasant Truth. It said that the war was a losing proposition. . . Sully had to leave Vietnam.
It became a war like no other, a war with no front line, no easily identifiable enemy, no simply explained cause, no clearly designated villain on whom to focus the nations hate, no menace to the homeland, no need for general sacrifice, and, therefore, no nation-wide fervor of patriotism . . . the whole awesome range of American military technology - short only of nuclear strike or the sowing of the biological plague - was steadily brought to bear on an Asian peasant nation.
the unimaginable scale of corruption in Vietnam. As Murray Sayle in 1967 - the correspondent for the Sunday Times of London - wrote: Saigon is a vast brothel; between the Americans who are trying more or less sincerely to promote a copy of their society on Vietnamese soil, and the mass of the population who are to be reconstructed, stand the fat cats of Saigon. . . the full story of the pilfering, theft, hijacking, bribery, smuggling, extortion, and black-market dealings finally emerged - mainly through the United States Senate hearings in Washington.
“John Hughes . . . the Christian Science Monitor - the facts were staggering. In one South Vietnam black market, at Qui Nhon, thousands of cases of army C rations, liquor, clothing, television sets, washing machines and weapons and ammunition worth an unbelievable $11 million changed hands each month. Vietnamese dealers offered to supply anything from a heavy-duty truck or an armored personnel carrier to a helicopter. One American sub-contractor lost through pilfering, over a one year period, $118 million worth of goods. In 1967, half a million tons of imported American rice simply disappeared. Black-market currency was estimated to run to some $360 million a year. The Central Intelligence Agency allowed Laotian generals to use its private airline, Air America, to smuggle opium. The United States Army’s own police force, the Criminal Investigation Division, accused its senior officer, Major-General Carl C. Turner, of refusing to permit it to investigate the dealings of a network of sergeants who personally profited from their operation of clubs for servicemen at army bases. And finally, in the three fiscal years 1968-70, $1.7 billion authorized for the Saigon government pacification programme was, according to the General Accounting Office, lost without trace.
“All governments realize that to wage war successfully their troops must learn to dehumanize the enemy. The simplest way to do this is to inflame nationalistic or racist feelings . . . In Vietnam racism became a patriotic virtue. All Vietnamese became dinks, slopes, slants, or gooks and the only good one was a dead one.
“Philip Jones Griffiths a British free-lance photographer went out with a platoon from the First Cavalry;
“The Americans mutilated bodies. One colonel wanted the hearts cut out of dead Vietcong to feed to his dog. Heads were cut off, arranged in rows, and a lighted cigarette pushed into each mouth. Ears were strung together like beads. Parts of Vietnamese bodies were kept as trophies; skulls were a favorite, and the then Colonel George Patton III - I like to see the arms and legs fly - carried one about at his farewell party. The Americans photographed dead Vietnamese as if they were game trophies - a smiling marine with his foot on the chest of the nearest corpse, or holding a severed ear or two - or in the case of a dead Vietcong girl without her pyjama pants and with her legs raised stiffly in the air.
“It was the racist nature of the fighting, the treating of the Vietnamese like animals that led inevitably to My Lai.
What happened at My Lai is now well known. C Company, First Battalion, Twentieth Infantry, Eleventh Brigade, Americal Division entered the village of My Lai on March 16, 1968 and killed between 90 and 130 men, women and children. Acting, the men said later, under orders from the platoon commander, Lieutenant William L. Calley, Jr., they gathered the villagers into groups and wasted them with automatic weapon fire. Anyone who survived was then picked off. (Griffiths) ‘A really tiny kid - he had only a shirt on - nothing else. . . came over to the people and held the hand of one of the dead. One of the GIs behind me dropped into a kneeling position thirty meters from this kid and killed him with a single shot.’
“Lieutenant Calley was charged with the murder of 109 Oriental human beings . . . This fact was made public in a small item, of fewer than a hundred words. . . The story appeared to die.
A free-lance reporter named Seymour Hersh got the story publicity. Ronald L. Haeberle, who had been with Calley and C Company, had photographs . . . One showed a boy about seven lying on a pathway with protective arms around a smaller boy, who had been shot but was still alive. Then, according to Haeberle, the GIs had moved in and shot both of them dead.”
The story gained attention . . . “Suddenly, nearly every war correspondent who had been to Vietnam had an atrocity story to tell ... My Lai . . . was an unusually pure example of the nature of the war in Vietnam and departed little - if at all - from common American practice. There were events equally horrifying before My Lai and massacres on a larger scale occurred afterwards.
“My Lai removed inhibitions on talking about the nature of the Vietnam War. Ex-soldiers appeared on television to confess to having shot children. In hearings conducted by the National Committee for a Citizens Commission of Inquiry on United States War Crimes in Vietnam, told of rape, the machine-gunning of women and children in fields, torture and murder. Lieutenant-Colonel Anthony Herbert, the most decorated soldier of the Korean War, a battalion commander of the elite 173rd Airborne Brigade, claimed he had reported seeing a United States lieutenant allow a South Vietnamese soldier to slit a woman’s throat while her child clung screaming to her leg. Colonel Herbert alleged that when he made his report, his superiors told him to mind his own business.
“The writer Norman Poirier used the files of the judge-advocate-general of the navy, in Washington, to compile a story of how a squad of nine Marines gang-raped a young Vietnamese mother at Xuan Ngoc on the night of Sept 23, 1966 and gunned down her entire family - herself, her husband, her two children, and her sister. When the marines returned in the morning to make the carnage look like an engagement with the Vietcong, they found that one of the children, a five year old girl, was still alive, and so one of the marines stood over the child, ‘and with his M14 rifle bashed its brains in.’ They were exposed by the recovery of the mother, who had been left for dead, were arrested and tried, and six of them were convicted. Poirier’s account of the incident appeared in Esquire in August 1969 - three months before the story of My Lai broke.
“Daniel Lang, in his book Casualties of War which was based on court files, tells of a patrol of five United States soldiers, operating in the Central Highlands, who abducted a young Vietnamese girl. Four of them raped her, and then ripped her belly open and blew her head off. The fifth soldier reported the incident, and proceedings were initiated against the others, who, after some reluctance on the part of the army, were brought to trial, then retired, and sentenced to rather light terms of imprisonment.”
Newsweek reviewed Lang’s book. “The brutal killing of a Vietnamese civilian . . . should not in itself surprise us . . . after all, no one seriously informed about the war in Vietnam believes that U.S. body counts have not included a number of civilians all along.”
Phillip Jones Griffths ²- “If I had gone back to Saigon and into one of the agencies and had said, ‘I’ve got a story about Americans Killing Vietnamese civilians’ they would have said, ‘So what’s new?’ It was horrible, but certainly not exceptional, and it just wasn’t news.’
“So the My Lai massacre was revealed because it was written, not by a war correspondent on the spot (who were all de-sensitized to atrocity), but by a reporter back in the United States who was capable of being shocked by it.
“A Gallup poll in mid-1967 revealed that half of all Americans had no idea what the war in Vietnam was all about.”
Officers’ attitudes - “My Marines are winning this war and you people are losing it for us in your papers.”
“Edward Jay Epstein’s survey and his book News from Nowhere. An opinion commonly expressed was that people saw exactly what they wanted to in the news reports and that television only served to reinforce existing views.”
“… from 1969 on. . . Nixon policy. . . withdraw troops - pass ground war over to the Vietnamese. . . remaining GIs fight as little as possible and switch the weight of the American attack to the air.
“The military authorities did not want reported the sad state of the United States Army, and they wanted to encourage public apathy about the war by keeping as secret as possible the escalation of the bombing. They were not successful on the first count. The year 1971 saw a series of stories revealing the massive heroin problem among the United States troops (about one in ten was addicted), the fraging, or blowing up by grenades, of unpopular officers (forty-five killed, 318 wounded in 1971), the staggering desertion rate, the number of combat refusals, and the growing tendency to regard an order simply as a basis of discussion. The Washington Post - Army in Anguish.
GIs (in Vietnam) were photographed carrying peace symbols, a picture appeared in Newsweek of a helicopter with a sign on the side saying, My God! How’d we get into this mess, and CBS ran a film of GIs smoking pot from a gun barrel.
“… the intensified bombings of North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia - Newsweek: The most systematic military cover-up in the history of America’s role in the Indo-Chinese War. - the United States over a period of fourteen months in 1969-70, had conducted a clandestine bombing campaign against Cambodia, whose neutrality Washington then professed to respect . . . During the whole of the Second World War, less than 80,000 tons of bombs fell on Britian. In Indo-China, the United States dropped more than four million tons - fifty times as much. Or, put another way, the United States used explosives cumulatively equal to hundreds of the nuclear weapons used at Hiroshima. -
So that’s what one book says. I have others, written by veterans, historians, journalists etc. - they all have similar stories to tell.
Some people today discount all the atrocities as the inevitability of war. That is hard to accept when it was the United States who orchestrated the Nuremberg Trials where thousands of German officers and soldiers were stood up against walls all over Germany and executed for Crimes Against Humanity. We made up the language - Crimes Against Humanity.
At Nuremberg we also agreed, for the first time in four thousand years of Civilization, that wars of aggression were illegal and that the aggressor is the one who strikes first, with intent and premeditation. If you think that atrocities committed by your own are acceptable or that you have the right to attack another nation because that nation freightens you - then you are not a Republican or a Democrat - you are a Fascist or a Nazi and you certainly do not understand what this country, and freedom, and equality, and courage are all about.
If you think that sending last year’s paperboy or Girl Scout over to some place with a target on their back so that you can safely attend the PTA or ride the subway or visit with grandma, is security then you’ve got security mixed up with cowardice. If a million or ten million of us must die, then let’s do it; but please, let’s not throw our babies at them. Let’s remember those New York firefighters and those citizens on those airplanes. Please don’t ask me, an American citizen, to act like a coward, so that our government can promote bomb and bullet factories abroad. That reasoning, even coming from a General, is a little too much for me to take. I may be old, weak and useless, but please give me the right to die with a little dignity.
Some claim that these books, like the one that I have been quoting from, are all lies. They may be. History may be all bunk, as Henry Ford once claimed; but there are records; there are testimonies; there are pictures, films and photographs; there are eye witness reports; in many cases there are the confessions of the perpetrators of these atrocities. If we put any credibility to any history - the history of the U.S. in Vietnam is there, and it is not pretty.
In Japan today there are people who are still denying that the Rape of Nan King, or the Bataan Death March ever happened. In Germany, many Germans deny that there was ever any such thing as the Holocaust. There are a good many Russians who still think that Uncle Joe Stalin was really a pretty nice guy. The Roman Catholic Church just recently apologized for the Inquisition.
The United States of America would like to forget what happened in Vietnam. It would like to forget about what happened in the Philippines during the Spanish American War - the executions, the slaughter and the mass graves. It would like to forget Slavery and the attempted Native Indian extermination.
When we honor our veterans we don’t honor everything that each and every veteran has ever done during a time of war. Some act honorably and with courage; others do not. Those that do not are often imprisoned, disgraced, or - if they are on the side who lost the war - executed. But we try to honor all those who go to any war, nevertheless, because we know that they went there because we asked them to go. Whatever happened to them while they were over there, psychologically or physically, is partially - some may even say entirely - our fault.
In the case of Vietnam, millions did not even receive the dignity of being asked; they were forced to go; they were ordered - if they refused they went to prison. Even under these arbitrary circumstances, they were expected to act honorably - because they were Americans.
For a time, those young men who went to Vietnam or who were forced to go, (8 million volunteered; over 2 million were drafted) were considered by many, around the world and at home, to be a disgrace to their nation and, possibly, the human race. They came home; they were spat upon and often they hung their heads in shame. During the war many soldiers who were serving on bases at home, carried their uniforms to work in brown paper bags or in the trunks of their cars. There were more American flags being burnt in the streets here and around the world than there were waving proudly anywhere. They can say what they want today, but soldiers and civilians alike were ashamed.
Today the pendulum has swung the other way and now anyone who has gone to any war is automatically considered a hero. We have almost come around, once again, to the belief that war, itself, is heroic - as we did in the days of Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt. The truth is, as always, somewhere in-between.
George Bush was certainly not a Vietnam hero - no matter how you look at the war. He admits that. But he was not alone. There were 16 million other young men who took one type of “evasive” action or another, just as George did. Over two million were forced to go via the draft and over 200 thousand refused military service altogether and took their chances of going to prison.
Whatever you think of John Kerry - politically; he is an American hero. He was from a wealthy family. He could have done as George Bush and 16 million other Americans, but he volunteered for service in Vietnam. He was wounded and received medals for his courage. Today there are some who are saying that he didn’t bleed enough blood or that the blood that he shed was only red - and not red, white and blue.
When John Kerry got back from the war, he signed up to fight in another war - the domestic war that was going on here at home. He acted with equal courage here on the home front. He stood up for conscience, national pride and honor. He stood up against a war that had gone sour. Whatever you think of the war in Vietnam, no amount of rationalization or revisionist writing will turn it into anything but an ugly and gruesome scar on the history of the American people and nation. Our government failed us; our leaders in Washington and the Pentagon faltered; our soldiers did what they were told to do. They followed the policy and obeyed their commanders. What happen on the ground in Vietnam is what has happened in all wars. This is all the more reason that we should all, always, be wary of any war.
Believe it or not, in the opinion of the world, it is the character of the American people in standing up against their government to end a war that was considered immoral and unjust that is probably most impressive. I don’t know of any other people, throughout all of history, who can brag that it was through the bold and courageous actions of their citizenry that a war was finally stopped. No nation “beat” America. We did not surrender to an overpowering enemy. We had enough power to wipe the whole of Vietnam, North and South, from the face of the earth. But, the American people, through their collective moral conscience, stood boldly against their own leaders and defeated what most of the world considered, at best, a misguided tragedy. The world may not respect our leaders or our government, at any particular time, but they respect us - the people of the United States of America. They appeal to us, the people of the United States, for moral conscience. And we have always led the way - sometimes kicking, screaming and biting - but nevertheless, there have always been those among us who were willing, no matter what the personal cost, to stand up against abusive power - whether that abusive power was foreign or domestic.
John Kerry should receive a medal for serving in the war at home also. In many ways that war took even more courage than the one in Vietnam. In the war at home, he risked his dignity, his respect, and possibly his future - his political future also. He could have just stood on the sideline as did George W. Bush and 16 million other young American men, but he chose, once again, to throw himself into the fray. You can argue all you want about his politics, but you certainly cannot deny that he is a man of principle and courage. That is one thing that is very clear.
To those veterans who are playing politics with one of their own; put your old uniforms back into those paper bags or the trunks of your cars, and hang your heads in shame once again - you’ve come around full circle.
My last employer was a Vietnam veteran. He was a college Professor and officer in the Navy. He was given - shortly before he died - a 100% disability because of his exposure to Agent Orange. He died from a number of things which were not genetically connected to his family history - for whatever that is worth. He wasn’t over in Vietnam shooting - he was doing research. His research project at the time was a study (sponsored I presume by the U.S. Military) of the social prejudices of the American soldiers towards the indigenous native Vietnamese population. When I suggested to him that such a project seemed rather ridiculous to me - he looked at me and smiled. I was left with the clear impression that he thought my remark to be grossly naive.
He was fiercely patriotic and always in support of the American Military whatever the mission but at the same time he was a journalist and somewhat of a radical. It was rather strange working for him from my point of view. I never really knew what he would consider acceptable to print and what was not acceptable. Finally I decided just to write it the way I saw it and let him reject or approve it as he saw fit.
I was constantly amazed that he could be such a “patriot” and military veteran and at the same time a “journalist”. Was it not the “journalists” who had lost the war in Vietnam?
One day as I was driving him to the “big city” to get one of his three weekly kidney dialysis treatments, I brought up this apparent contradiction. I wondered how he could be such an avid and dedicated journalist and a patriot from - of all wars - Vietnam. Certainly he must believe as all Vietnam veterans seemed to believe that it was the journalists and the “press”, domestic and foreign, that lost the Vietnam War for America and its brave soldiers.
“The press didn’t lose the Vietnam War,” he said.
“Really?” I said with considerable amazement and almost total disbelief “Are you trying to tell me that it was not the press who turned the minds and hearts of the American public against that war?”
“The press did exactly what it was supposed to do - it reported what was happening.”
“Then, what in your opinion turned the American people against that war?”
“It was the soldiers themselves. When the soldiers returned year, after year, after year and their numbers increased by the tens and hundreds of thousands and they told their friends and families what was happening over there; what they had seen and in some cases what they had done, the American people became appalled and turned against the whole business. It was word of mouth - one human being to another. The press was mostly after the fact and, as always, a day late and a dollar short. It wasn’t the press.”
I still don’t know if I believe that explanation myself - but that is what “the boss” told me.
I had another friend who had been a marine and went to three tours of duty in Vietnam. We were having a discussion about war in general and not discussing Vietnam. I purposely never brought up the subject. But in the middle of our conversation he said, “Listen, in my heart I have to believe that the war in Vietnam was justified. If I let myself believe that it wasn’t, then how in the hell am I going to be able to live with what I saw and did over there? I have no choice.” He was that type of ex-soldier and veteran who was very much opposed to new American involvements in foreign countries. Today, whenever I hear a veteran defend any war, I see my buddy and I hear those words. What choice do they have?
In any case and in conclusion we have learned from the Vietnam experience not to blame the soldiers - that is good. But it doesn’t seem that we have learned much else.
Of the soldier it is said; “Theirs is not to reason why; theirs is but to do or die.”
It seems to me that the journalist, writers and historians, have exactly the opposite mandate; “Theirs is to live on and forever cry - why god . . why, why, why?” And just like the soldier maybe we should consider that those who are the record keepers and the modern day scribes of the events of our times are also not to be blamed - they are just doing their job and just like the soldier - often a rather dirty and thankless job at that.(3)
1 This paragraph is paraphrased, but from the book cited.
2 Jones Griffiths: Vietnam war photographer, published a
book of photographs entitled - Vietnam Inc.
3 First Casualty” Phillip Knightley, Harcourt Brace
Jovanovich, New York and London 1975.