Posted by rogerhollander in Asia, History, Vietnam, War.
Tags: abby zimet, historical revisionism, history, my lai, roger hollander, tom hayden, veterans for peace, vietnam veterans, Vietnam War, war
Roger’s note: Nearly sixty thousand American soldiers died, god knows how many wounded physically, mentally and spiritually. Over a million Vietnamese killed, many more wounded, the countryside scorched with Agent Orange. For what? So that Lyndon Johnson would not go down as the president who “lost” Vietnam? the way Truman “lost” China? Was LBJ a misguided politician or a war criminal? Is Obama a beleaguered president or a war criminal? Don’t ask me. Ask the families of the slaughtered. Where have all the flowers gone ?
Language is telling; so are facts. With the approach of the “full panoply of Orwellian forgetfulness” that is a 13-year, $65 million commemoration of the Vietnam War by the same people who started it, it’s nigh on impossible to reconcile Obama’s “valor of a generation that served with honor fighting heroically to protect the ideals we hold dear as Americans” with the savage years many “remember, with painful acuity, as other than glorious” – years of lies, loss, rage, trauma, protests and the deaths of millions of innocents. Seeking to “speak truth to power,” Veterans For Peace are rejecting an official narrative they say sanitizes and mythologizes an unconscionable war – and likely helps legitimize further such wars – by organizing their own Peace and Justice Commemoration as part of a larger Full Disclosure Campaign. Its goal is to “truly examine what happened during those tragic and tumultuous years,” and use those lessons to prevent them from happening again.
From the start, many have questioned what longtime activist Tom Hayden calls the “staggering” idea of a commemoration orchestrated by the Department of Defense. Citing the Pentagon’s questionable “version of the truth” that for so long sustained an immoral war, he convincingly argues that, “If you conduct a war, you shouldn’t be in charge of narrating it.” Almost everything about the project, from its website full of glossy pictures of smiling veterans to its very language – its mission to “assist a grateful nation” in thanking veterans, Obama’s thinking “with solemn reverence upon the valor of a generation,” its initial labelling of the massacre of 500 women, children and older men at My Lai an “incident” – bears out the notion that the project’s goal is largely “an ex post factojustification of the war,” or to rewrite history in order to repeat it with as little opposition as possible.
In a petition for revisions that sparked their decision to hold their own commemoration, over 500 veterans and activists argued for “an honest remembrance of what actually went on in Viet Nam.” They seek recognition for the “many thousands of veterans” who opposed or came to oppose the war, who refused the draft, went to jail, left the country, marched in protests; for the millions who marched, prayed, organized; for the military establishment that for years lied, propagandized, made deadly mistakes, and lied again; for the thousands of hapless soldiers thrown into a war of choice who suffered, died, anguished and then came home broken, traumatized and often abandoned – startlingly, more Vietnam veterans subsequently died by suicide than in battle; for the millions of Vietnamese civilians killed, maimed, poisoned, traumatized, driven from their homes, crippled by land mines, their children later disfigured by Agent Orange; for the rage and regret felt by so many Americans towards the war’s lies and losses that a new term was created to express their weariness – the Vietnam Syndrome.
To right those wrongs and expose those truths, Veterans For Peace are now looking for stories, ideas, articles and photos for their own commemoration. “It is incumbent on us not to cede the war’s memory to those who have little interest in an honest accounting, and who want to justify further acts of military adventurism,” they argue. The war, they insist, is a cautionary tale: “What are the consequences of trying to control the fate of a people from afar with little understanding or interest in their history and culture…or their human desires? What are the consequences of dehumanized ideologies used to justify wars of aggression? To honor the Viet Nam generation and to inform current and future generations, we should make every effort to pass on a critical and honest history of the war.”
Posted by rogerhollander in Asia, History, Vietnam, War.
Tags: china, gulf of tonkin, history, ho chi minh, Lyndon Johnson, roger hollander, vietnam, Vietnam War, wayne morse
Roger’s note: The entirely “unnecessary” Vietnam War cost nearly 60,000 American lives and hundreds of thousands wounded and emotionally and physically destroyed. But this doesn’t begin to approximate the cost in lives and physical destruction to the Vietnamese people. There were more than a million deaths, a large percentage civilian.
Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were the commanders in chief who were directly responsible for the slaughter, but Eisenhower and Kennedy served as presidents during the the early years of American political and military intervention. Of course there were many more, including the 98 senators who fell for the Bay of Tonkin hoax. My generation will well remember such warmongers as Secretary of Defence (i.e. WAR) McNamara and General Westmoreland (Waste more land). And then there is always Napalm (Dow Chemical) and Agent Orange (Dow and Monsanto). And let’s not forget the vultures of the war profiteering arms industry.
The above named mass murderers will never be indicted, except perhaps by “history,” for what that’s worth.
I am reminded of Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov’s musing about his crime of murdering a despised old money lender versus the hundreds of thousands killed in Napoleon’s wars. A single mother convicted of shop lifting to feed her children will suffer more at the hands of the criminal justice system than than the astute politicians, military and corporate elites mentioned above. I don’t know why, but this somehow offends my sense of justice.
And why does all this seem not just a matter of history, but just as relevant today?
oped.com, August 4, 2014
HOI AN, VIETNAM. “I believe that history will record that we have made a great mistake,” Sen. Wayne Morse (D, OR) declared fifty years ago this week. He was referring to congressional passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the decisive step into one of the greatest tragedies in American history. That resolution would be used for nearly a decade by Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon as authorization to conduct war in Vietnam.
A look at Vietnam today makes plain just how mistaken and tragic the American venture into war there was. First, though, a brief summary of how the decisive turn into that disastrous mistake a half century ago occurred.A BLANK CHECK FOR WAR
Nearly unanimous (of the 516 members of Congress who voted, only Morse and Sen. Ernest Gruening of Alaska opposed) passage of the resolution was secured on August 7, 1964, on the basis of the claim that three days earlier North Vietnamese boats had launched an unprovoked attack on two American ships. Believing that the argument that he was “soft” on communism and the fight in Vietnam was the only thing that Republican nominee Barry M. Goldwater had as a potentially effective argument against him in the November election, President Johnson seized upon the apparent attack to get what he had wanted for months: a Congressional resolution giving him a blank check to conduct whatever military operations in Vietnam he deemed necessary and that would pass “quickly, overwhelmingly, and without too much discussion of its implications.”AN ATTACK THAT DIDN’T HAPPEN
As Johnson was moving to launch retaliatory airstrikes against North Vietnam on August 4, reports reached the Pentagon from the scene off the coast of North Vietnam that there was serious doubt that an attack had occurred and from Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, Jr., at Pacific Command in Hawaii, suggesting that “a ‘complete evaluation’ be undertaken before any further action.” There is no indication that Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara informed the President of these communications during the crucial hours when the airstrikes were being set in motion.A 2000 National Security Council historical study reached an unambiguous conclusion about the alleged North Vietnamese attack on August 4: “No attack happened that night.” But an event that didn’t happen led to a resolution that served as the concept sketch for the script of a major tragedy.
Fifty years later, the magnitude of that mistake is unmistakable in Vietnam.
VIETNAM AND CHINAAmong the reasons given for undertaking the war, the most prominent were to block the expansion of Chinese influence into Southeast Asia and to oppose communism.
What was needed to accomplish the first objective was a strong, unified Vietnam. The Vietnamese have hated China for two thousand years, and having a communist government would not alter that basic fact in any way. Ho Chi Minh was by far the best bet to achieve this American goal.Less than four years after Hanoi’s reunification of Vietnam in 1975, the Communist regime was engaged in a brief but bloody border war with its putative comrades from China. And currently tensions between the two countries over islands in the South China Sea (Vietnam rejects that name and calls it the Eastern Sea) are high. Vietnam and the United States find themselves virtual allies in opposing Chinese expansionism.
MORE SOCIAL DARWINIST THAN SOCIALIST
As for the other main war aim, how communist is Vietnam in 2014?There is a store in Hanoi called “Shop Aholic.” There must be steel cables restraining the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh so it doesn’t spin in its glass coffin in the nearby mausoleum.
Versace store, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
(image by Robert McElvaine)
On a walk in Saigon–its current official name notwithstanding, it is not now and never has been Ho Chi Minh’s city–from Notre Dame down Dong Khoi (the famous Rue Catinat in the days of the French Empire, when it was considered Saigon’s Champs Ãlysees) to the Hotel Continental, the Opera House, and beyond, one passes all the familiar ration outlets of a communist country: Cartier, Versace, Dior, Piaget, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Rolex . . . . “Dong Khoi” means “Total Uprising Street.” The total uprising taking place along it and throughout Vietnam is an explosion of capitalism.
When one visits the still more-or-less-communist country of Cuba, among the many indelible impressions is the nearly complete absence of trucks on the highways. They have no products to move around. Has anyone ever seen “Hecho en Cuba” on anything? They make, in a word, nada. Superimpose the roads in Vietnam on those in Cuba and the result would be a chiaroscuro painting. Vietnam’s highways are clogged with trucks moving goods around, reflecting the entirely market-based economy in this nominally socialist country.If they look at many aspects of Vietnam today, conservative Republicans in the United States might see the paradise of which they dream. This “socialist” nation has a paddle-your-own-canoe-or-sink economy. There is no welfare, no minimum wage, no unemployment insurance, no national healthcare, no old-age pensions for most people, no free education beyond middle school ….
Shrine to Ho Chi Minh, Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam
(image by Robert McElvaine)
Ho Chi Minh’s countenance appears everywhere in contemporary Vietnam, benevolently smiling upon policies that he strongly opposed. It is much like the situation with many “Christians” in the United States who do the opposite of what Jesus taught. The farther self-identified followers get from the teachings of their supposed leader, the louder they proclaim his name. Uncle Ho has been deified–to the point of being portrayed like the Buddha on a lotus blossom. But when it comes to actual economic practice in Vietnam today, the altars at which worship takes place are those of William Graham Sumner and Ayn Rand.
But outside the economic realm the role of government is large. Vietnam remains a one-party political system in which corruption is rife and basic freedoms are restricted. The Vietnamese receive none of the benefits of positive government, but bear all the burdens of negative government. There are neither political nor economic checks and balances.A proposal was made in 2013 to change the country’s official name from the “Socialist Republic of Vietnam” back to what Ho had named it in 1945: the “Democratic Republic of Vietnam.” That would constitute a lateral move–from one wholly inaccurate name to another, equally inaccurate, one. By no stretch of the imagination is contemporary Vietnam either socialist or democratic.
If they want to adopt a name that reflects reality, they should call the nation the “Social-Darwinist Dictatorship of Vietnam.”A WAR FOR NOTHING
American policymakers in 1964 sought a Vietnam that was capitalist, would block China, and with which they could have good relations.The United States fought a war at terrible cost to achieve those ends and lost. Today, though, Vietnam is staunchly capitalist, adamantly opposed to China, and friendly to the United States. Had the war never been fought, it is highly likely that all of those ends would have been achieved at a much earlier date.
What, then, was this “b*tch of a war,” as Lyndon Johnson would later call it, to which the President proposed marriage a half century ago this week, with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as the engagement ring, good for?Absolutely nothing.
Posted by rogerhollander in Chemical Biological Weapons, History, Israel, Gaza & Middle East, Japan, Nuclear weapons/power, Occupy Wall Street Movement, Vietnam.
Tags: #occupy movement, agent orange, atomic bomb, chemical weapons, depleted uranium, gaza, hiroshima, history, Iraq war, israel attack, kurds, Middle East, nagasaki, napalm, roger hollander, saddam hussden, Syria, syria war, tear gas, Vietnam War, waco massacre, War Crimes, wesley messamore, white phosphorous
Washington doesn’t merely lack the legal authority for a military intervention in Syria.
It lacks the moral authority. We’re talking about a government with a history of using chemical weapons against innocent people far more prolific and deadly than the mere accusations Assad faces from a trigger-happy Western military-industrial complex, bent on stifling further investigation before striking.
Here is a list of 10 chemical weapons attacks carried out by the U.S. government or its allies against civilians..
1. The U.S. Military Dumped 20 Million Gallons of Chemicals on Vietnam from 1962 – 1971
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military sprayed 20 million gallons of chemicals, including the very toxic Agent Orange, on the forests and farmlands of Vietnam and neighboring countries, deliberately destroying food supplies, shattering the jungle ecology, and ravaging the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Vietnam estimates that as a result of the decade-long chemical attack, 400,000 people were killed or maimed, 500,000 babies have been born with birth defects, and 2 million have suffered from cancer or other illnesses. In 2012, the Red Cross estimated that one million people in Vietnam have disabilities or health problems related to Agent Orange.
2. Israel Attacked Palestinian Civilians with White Phosphorus in 2008 – 2009
White phosphorus is a horrific incendiary chemical weapon that melts human flesh right down to the bone.
In 2009, multiple human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and International Red Cross reported that the Israeli government was attacking civilians in their own country with chemical weapons. An Amnesty International team claimed to find “indisputable evidence of the widespread use of white phosphorus” as a weapon in densely-populated civilian areas. The Israeli military denied the allegations at first, but eventually admitted they were true.
After the string of allegations by these NGOs, the Israeli military even hit a UN headquarters(!) in Gaza with a chemical attack. How do you think all this evidence compares to the case against Syria? Why didn’t Obama try to bomb Israel?
3. Washington Attacked Iraqi Civilians with White Phosphorus in 2004
In 2004, journalists embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq began reporting the use of white phosphorus in Fallujah against Iraqi insurgents. First the military lied and said that it was only using white phosphorus to create smokescreens or illuminate targets. Then it admitted to using the volatile chemical as an incendiary weapon. At the time, Italian television broadcaster RAI aired a documentary entitled, “Fallujah, The Hidden Massacre,” including grim video footage and photographs, as well as eyewitness interviews with Fallujah residents and U.S. soldiers revealing how the U.S. government indiscriminately rained white chemical fire down on the Iraqi city and melted women and children to death.
4. The CIA Helped Saddam Hussein Massacre Iranians and Kurds with Chemical Weapons in 1988
CIA records now prove that Washington knew Saddam Hussein was using chemical weapons (including sarin, nerve gas, and mustard gas) in the Iran-Iraq War, yet continued to pour intelligence into the hands of the Iraqi military, informing Hussein of Iranian troop movements while knowing that he would be using the information to launch chemical attacks. At one point in early 1988, Washington warned Hussein of an Iranian troop movement that would have ended the war in a decisive defeat for the Iraqi government. By March an emboldened Hussein with new friends in Washington struck a Kurdish village occupied by Iranian troops with multiple chemical agents, killing as many as 5,000 people and injuring as many as 10,000 more, most of them civilians. Thousands more died in the following years from complications, diseases, and birth defects.
5. The Army Tested Chemicals on Residents of Poor, Black St. Louis Neighborhoods in The 1950s
In the early 1950s, the Army set up motorized blowers on top of residential high-rises in low-income, mostly black St. Louis neighborhoods, including areas where as much as 70% of the residents were children under 12. The government told residents that it was experimenting with a smokescreen to protect the city from Russian attacks, but it was actually pumping the air full of hundreds of pounds of finely powdered zinc cadmium sulfide. The government admits that there was a second ingredient in the chemical powder, but whether or not that ingredient was radioactive remains classified. Of course it does. Since the tests, an alarming number of the area’s residents have developed cancer. In 1955, Doris Spates was born in one of the buildings the Army used to fill the air with chemicals from 1953 – 1954. Her father died inexplicably that same year, she has seen four siblings die from cancer, and Doris herself is a survivor of cervical cancer.
6. Police Fired Tear Gas at Occupy Protesters in 2011
The savage violence of the police against Occupy protesters in 2011 was well documented, and included the use of tear gas and other chemical irritants. Tear gas is prohibited for use against enemy soldiers in battle by the Chemical Weapons Convention. Can’t police give civilian protesters in Oakland, California the same courtesy and protection that international law requires for enemy soldiers on a battlefield?
7. The FBI Attacked Men, Women, and Children With Tear Gas in Waco in 1993
At the infamous Waco siege of a peaceful community of Seventh Day Adventists, the FBI pumped tear gas into buildings knowing that women, children, and babies were inside. The tear gas was highly flammable and ignited, engulfing the buildings in flames and killing 49 men and women, and 27 children, including babies and toddlers. Remember, attacking an armed enemy soldier on a battlefield with tear gas is a war crime. What kind of crime is attacking a baby with tear gas?
8. The U.S. Military Littered Iraq with Toxic Depleted Uranium in 2003
In Iraq, the U.S. military has littered the environment with thousands of tons of munitions made from depleted uranium, a toxic and radioactive nuclear waste product. As a result, more than half of babies born in Fallujah from 2007 – 2010 were born with birth defects. Some of these defects have never been seen before outside of textbooks with photos of babies born near nuclear tests in the Pacific. Cancer and infant mortality have also seen a dramatic rise in Iraq. According to Christopher Busby, the Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk, “These are weapons which have absolutely destroyed the genetic integrity of the population of Iraq.” After authoring two of four reports published in 2012 on the health crisis in Iraq, Busby described Fallujah as having, “the highest rate of genetic damage in any population ever studied.”
9. The U.S. Military Killed Hundreds of Thousands of Japanese Civilians with Napalm from 1944 – 1945
Napalm is a sticky and highly flammable gel which has been used as a weapon of terror by the U.S. military. In 1980, the UN declared the use of napalm on swaths of civilian population a war crime. That’s exactly what the U.S. military did in World War II, dropping enough napalm in one bombing raid on Tokyo to burn 100,000 people to death, injure a million more, and leave a million without homes in the single deadliest air raid of World War II.
10. The U.S. Government Dropped Nuclear Bombs on Two Japanese Cities in 1945
Although nuclear bombs may not be considered chemical weapons, I believe we can agree they belong to the same category. They certainly disperse an awful lot of deadly radioactive chemicals. They are every bit as horrifying as chemical weapons if not more, and by their very nature, suitable for only one purpose: wiping out an entire city full of civilians. It seems odd that the only regime to ever use one of these weapons of terror on other human beings has busied itself with the pretense of keeping the world safe from dangerous weapons in the hands of dangerous governments.
Posted by rogerhollander in Education, History, Vietnam, War.
Tags: bill bigelow, daniel ellsberg, education, hearts and minds, history, ho chi minh, howard zinn, pentagon papers, roger hollander, vietnam, Vietnam War
In the Academy Award-winning documentary Hearts and Minds, Daniel Ellsberg, who secretly copied and then released the Pentagon Papers, offers a catalog of presidential lying about the U.S. role in Vietnam: Truman lied. Eisenhower lied. Kennedy lied. Johnson “lied and lied and lied.” Nixon lied.
Ellsberg concludes: “The American public was lied to month by month by each of these five administrations. As I say, it’s a tribute to the American public that their leaders perceived that they had to be lied to; it’s no tribute to us that it was so easy to fool the public.”
(Painting by Robert Shetterly, American’s Who Tell the Truth series)
The Pentagon Papers that Ellsberg exposed were not military secrets. They were historical secrets—a history of U.S. intervention and deceit that Ellsberg believed, if widely known, would undermine the U.S. pretexts in defense of the war’s prosecution. Like this one that President Kennedy offered in 1961: “For the last decade we have been helping the South Vietnamese to maintain their independence.” No. This was a lie. The U.S. government’s Pentagon Papers history of the war revealed how the United States had sided with the French in retaking its colony after World War II, ultimately paying for some 80 percent of the French reconquest. By the U.S. government’s own account, from Truman on, Vietnamese self-determination was never an aim of U.S. foreign policy.
Like today’s whistle-blowers Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, Daniel Ellsberg knew the consequences for his act of defiance. Ultimately, he was indicted on 11 counts of theft and violation of the Espionage Act. If convicted on all counts, the penalty added up to 130 years in prison. This story is chronicled dramatically in the film The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, and in Ellsberg’s own gripping autobiography, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.
In June of 1971, Ellsberg surrendered to federal authorities at Post Office Square in Boston. Forty-two years later, few of the historical secrets that Ellsberg revealed— especially those that focus on the immediate post-World War II origins of U.S. involvement in Vietnam—appear in the school curriculum.
Corporate textbook writers seem to work from the same list of must-include events and individuals. Thus, all the new U.S. history textbooks on my shelf mention the Pentagon Papers. But none grapples with the actual import of the Pentagon Papers. None quotes Ellsberg or the historical documents themselves, and none captures Ellsberg’s central conclusion about the United States in Vietnam: “It wasn’t that we were on the wrong side; we were the wrong side.”
Textbooks resist telling students that the U.S. government consistently lied about the war, preferring more genteel language. Prentice Hall’s America: History of Our Nation includes only one line describing the content of the Pentagon Papers: “They traced the steps by which the United States had committed itself to the Vietnam War and showed that government officials had concealed actions and often misled Americans about their motives.” The textbook offers no examples.
Teaching students a deeper, more complete history of the American War—as it is known in Vietnam—is not just a matter of accuracy, it’s about life and death. On the third anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, spoke bluntly about what it means when we fail to confront the facts of our past wars: “If we don’t know history, then we are ready meat for carnivorous politicians and the intellectuals and journalists who supply the carving knives.”
The “we” in Zinn’s quote refers especially to the young people who will be convinced or tricked or manipulated—or lied—into fighting those wars, even if it is only “fighting” by guiding remote assassination drones from bases in a Nevada desert.
For almost 30 years, I taught high school U.S. history. I began my Vietnam unit with a little-remembered event that happened on Sept. 2, 1945. I showed students a video clip from the first episode of PBS’s Vietnam: A Television History, in which Dr. Tran Duy Hung, a medical doctor and a leader of the resistance to French colonialism, recounts the massive end-of-war celebration with more than 400,000 people jammed into Hanoi’s Ba Dinh Square. Japan had surrendered. The seemingly endless foreign occupation of Vietnam—Chinese, then French, then Japanese—was over.
Dr. Hung remembers: “I can say that the most moving moment was when President Ho Chi Minh climbed the steps, and the national anthem was sung. It was the first time that the national anthem of Vietnam was sung in an official ceremony. Uncle Ho then read the Declaration of Independence, which was a short document. As he was reading, Uncle Ho stopped and asked, ‘Compatriots, can you hear me?’ This simple question went into the hearts of everyone there. After a moment of silence, they all shouted, ‘Yes, we hear you!’ And I can say that we did not just shout with our mouths, but with all our hearts.” Dr. Hung recalls that, moments later, a small plane began circling and then swooped down over the crowd. When people recognized the U.S. stars and stripes on the plane, they cheered, imagining that its presence signaled an endorsement for Vietnamese independence. “It added to the atmosphere of jubilation at the meeting,” said Dr. Hung.
I want my students to recognize the hugeness of this historical could-have-been. One of the “secrets” Ellsberg risked his freedom to expose was that the United States had a stark choice in the fall of 1945: support the independence of a unified Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh, which had spearheaded the anti-fascist resistance during World War II; or support the French as they sought to reimpose colonial rule.
Think about all the suffering that might have been avoided had the U.S. government taken advantage of this opportunity. Howard Zinn quotes from the Pentagon Papers in A People’s History of the United States:
Ho [Chi Minh] had built the Viet Minh into the only Vietnam-wide political organization capable of effective resistance to either the Japanese or the French. He was the only Vietnamese wartime leader with a national following, and he assured himself wider fealty among the Vietnamese people when in AugustSeptember 1945, he overthrew the Japanese . . . established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and staged receptions for incoming allied occupation forces. . . . For a few weeks in September 1945, Vietnam was—for the first and only time in its modern history—free of foreign domination, and united from north to south under Ho Chi Minh. . . .
In class, I brought this historical choice point to life with my students through a role play, in which some students portrayed members of the Viet Minh and others represented French business/government leaders arguing before “President Truman” about the future of Vietnam. (A fuller description and materials for the activity can be found at the Zinn Education Project website.) The role play depicted a make-believe gathering, of course, because the United States never included any Vietnamese in its deliberations on the future of Vietnam. Nonetheless, the lesson offers students a vivid picture of what was at stake at this key juncture.
In this and other activities, I want my students to see that history is not just a jumble of dead facts lying on a page. History is the product of human choice—albeit in conditions that we may not choose. Tragically, the United States consistently chose to side with elites in Vietnam, first French, then Vietnamese, as our government sought to suppress self-determination—perhaps most egregiously in 1954, when the United States conspired to stonewall promised elections and to prop up the dictator Ngo Dinh Diem.
Forty-two years ago this month, Daniel Ellsberg allowed himself to be taken into custody, with no clear outcome in sight. A reporter asked Ellsberg whether he was concerned about the possibility of going to prison. Ellsberg replied: “Wouldn’t you go to prison to help end this war?”
No one expects that kind of integrity from textbook corporations. But educators needn’t confine ourselves to the version of history peddled by giant outfits like Pearson and Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt. Right now, every high school student is learning either to accept or to question the premises that lead our country to wage war around the world. As Howard Zinn suggested, if students don’t know their history, then they are “ready meat” for those who will supply the carving knives of war. Fortunately, more and more teachers around the country recognize the importance of teaching outside the textbook, of joining heroes like Dan Ellsberg to ask questions, to challenge official stories.
This article first appeared at the Zinn Education Project.
Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, History, Vietnam, War.
Tags: allison krause, fbi, history, j. edgar hoover, kent state, laurel krause, ohio national guard, pat lamarche, Richard Nixon, roger hollander, Vietnam War
Gwen Ifell and Oliver Stone were at Kent State this weekend to commemorate the May 4, 1970 shootings at the university that claimed four lives and wounded nine people. The celebrities will share their thoughts on what happened 43 years ago as the university dedicates its new May 4 visitor center. Among the visitors who dropped by to hear them speak and scrutinize the new center was Laurel Krause, sister of Allison Krause, the 19-year-old freshman honor student, who was killed that day by members of the Ohio National Guard. The soldiers shot her where she stood — 343 feet from away from them on the campus lawn.
What was the climate like the day Allison and the others were shot?
Well, aside from the fact that it was the first beautiful day after weeks of rain, the political climate was anything but clearing. Just four days earlier President Richard Nixon announced the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. He struggled to justify his decision to further escalate the conflict in south east Asia even as he worked to conceal the fact that he had authorized the illegal bombing of Cambodia for more than a year.
Domestically the clouds were gathering as well. Two years and one month earlier, Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated after turning his attention on the evils he perceived were associated with the Vietnam War. His voice had added to the growing number of young voices speaking out across the nation calling for an end to the war and an elimination of military conscription, better known as the draft.
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had compiled surveillance tapes and documents on everyone from the Kennedy family to MLK, Jr. and while his top secret files were destroyed upon his death, there is no reason to believe he did not run a series of intelligence programs based at monitoring and curtailing the efforts of young people on campuses all across the nation who he felt “seek to destroy our society.”
For these and other reasons, Laurel Krause and her organization, The Kent State Truth Tribunal (KSTT), filed a petition on February 9, 2013, with the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), asking them to review their claim that Vietnam War protesters were intentionally targeted by Hoover’s FBI and the Department of Defense. On April 5, the UNHRC agreed to hear the case.
Laurel and the other members of the KSTT have a lot to say on what they believe has been a 43 year coverup and spin job. From the time headlines broke that called the shooting victims “bums” and portrayed them as an unwashed violent rabble of questionable morality, until this year when the UN became the first governing body willing to dig a little deeper into the official story, Laurel has keenly remembered the details of the day her sister died.
Time will tell what will come of Laurel’s struggle to get justice for her sister and the other victims. And justice for Laurel means that the government will one day acknowledge the truth. Until that day comes and on this anniversary of Allison’s death, it’s illuminating to know exactly how the day unfolded for the rest of the Krause family.
At 12:24 p.m. 28 Ohio National Guard soldiers — after hearing what they later called sniper fire — opened fire on unarmed protesters at Kent State University. Most of the protesters were more than the length of a football field from the soldiers. The soldiers had live rounds in their guns and must have been cautioned that they may need to shoot to kill the college kids.
At about 3:00 p.m. 15-year-old Laurel Krause got off the school bus and started walking to her home. A neighbor ran up to Laurel and told her that the radio had announced that Allison had been hurt in a shooting at Kent State.
Laurel called her mom and dad who were at work.
Laurel’s mom came home and called the Robinson Memorial Hospital in Ravenna, Ohio, and was told over the phone that “she was DOA.” Doris Krause collapsed on the floor.
Laurel’s dad, Arthur Krause, worked as a middle manager for Westinghouse and his co-worker brought him home. Arthur had received a call from his brother saying that the local radio station had announced that Allison was dead. When he arrived home, Doris confirmed it, and the family friend drove them from their home in Pittsburgh, Penn., to the hospital in Ohio.
Laurel recounts that no one from the university or the U.S. government was there to assist them. When the door swung open to the room where Allison lay dead, Laurel could see her sister’s body. When her parents went into the room to identify Alliston, Laurel waited in the hall where two armed men wearing no uniforms were standing. One of the men muttered behind her, “They should have shot more.”
These are the memories Laurel Krause has carried 43 years. These are the memories that motivate her to make regular calls to the Department of Justice and ask when her sister’s murder will be investigated and solved. And every time Laurel calls, she is referred to the civil rights department. Laurel says, “She was nothing more than garbage to them. They don’t want to investigate her murder. The DOJ has no department for the killing of students by the government.”
The day after his daughter’s death, Arthur filed a lawsuit he refused to drop regardless of how much money he was offered. Arthur died never receiving the justice he was after. Laurel has continued his fight. She says the battle can get unpleasant but that won’t stop her. She’s not surprised that she hasn’t gotten answers, and she’s not daunted by the obstacles in her way. Laurel says, “Any time the FBI kills a member of your family, they are gonna to be up your ass for the rest of your life.”
Posted by rogerhollander in armaments, Arms, Asia, History, Iraq and Afghanistan, Laols, Vietnam, War.
Tags: Afghanistan, armaments, arms, boston bombings, cluster bombs, history, Iraq, land mines, laos, Robert Scheer, roger hollander, terrorism, Vietnam War, weapons
Then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton looks at a memorial about cluster bombing during a tour of the Cooperative Orthotic Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) Center in Vientiane, Laos, in 2012.
By Robert Scheer
The horror of Boston should be a reminder that the choice of weaponry can be in itself an act of evil. “Boston Bombs Were Loaded to Maim” is the way The New York Times defined the hideousness of the weapons used, and President Obama made clear that “anytime bombs are used to target innocent civilians, it is an act of terror.” But are we as a society prepared to be judged by that standard?
The president’s deployment of drones that all too often treat innocent civilians as collateral damage comes quickly to mind. It should also be pointed out that the U.S. still maintains a nuclear arsenal and, as our killing and wounding hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese demonstrated, those weapons are inherently, by the president’s definition, weapons of terror. But it is America’s role in the deployment of antipersonnel land mines, and our country’s refusal to sign off on a ban on cluster munitions agreed to by most of the world’s nations, that offers the most glaring analogy with the carnage of Boston.
To this day, antipersonnel weapons—the technologically refined version of the primitive pressure cooker fragmentation bombs exploded in Boston—maim and kill farmers and their children in the Southeast Asian killing fields left over from our country’s past experiment in genocide. An experiment that as a sideshow to our obsession with replacing French colonialism in Vietnam involved dropping 277 million cluster bomblets on Laos between 1964 and 1973.
The whole point of a cluster weapon is to target an area the size of several football fields with the same bits of maiming steel that did so much damage in Boston. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which has been active in attempting to clear land of remaining bomblets, estimates 10,000 Lao civilian casualties to date from such weapons. As many as twenty-seven million unexploded bomblets remain in the country, according to the committee.
Back in 1964 at the start of that bombing campaign, I reported from Laos, an economically primitive land where a pencil was a prize gift to students. It is staggering to me that the death we visited upon a people, then largely ignorant of life in America, still should be ongoing.and the deadly bomblets they contain has since expanded to most of the world, and they have been used by at least 15 nations. As a recent Congressional Research Service report noted:
“Cluster munitions were used by the Soviets in Afghanistan, by the British in the Falklands, by the Coalition in the Gulf War, and by the warring factions in Yugoslavia. In Kosovo and Yugoslavia in 1999, NATO forces dropped 1,765 cluster bombs containing approximately 295,000 submunitions. From 2001 through 2002, the United States dropped 1,228 cluster bombs containing 248,056 submunitions in Afghanistan, and U.S. and British forces used almost 13,000 cluster munitions containing an estimated 1.8 million to 2 million submunitions during the first three weeks of combat in Iraq in 2003.”
Israel is said to have dropped almost 1 million unexploded bomblets in Lebanon in the 2006 war against Hezbollah, which fired 113 cluster bombs filled with thousands of bomblets at targets in northern Israel.
I list all those dreary statistics to drive home the point that the horror of two pressure cooker bombs in Boston that has so traumatized us should help us grasp the significance of the 1.8 million bomblets dropped in Iraq over a three-week period.
Obama was right to blast the use of weapons that targeted civilians in Boston as inherent acts of terrorism, but by what standard do such weapons change their nature when they are deployed by governments against civilians?
On Aug. 1, 2010, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, banning such weapons, became a matter of international law for the 111 nations, including 18 NATO members, that signed the agreement. The U.S. was not one of them. Current American policy, according to the Congressional Research Service report, is that “cluster munitions are available for use by every combat aircraft in the U.S. inventory; they are integral to every Army or Marine maneuver element and in some cases constitute up to 50 percent of tactical indirect fire support.”
However, there is new legislation pending in Congress that would require the president to certify that cluster munitions would “only be used against clearly defined military targets” and not deployed “where civilians are known to be present or in areas normally inhabited by civilians.” Lots of luck with that.
Posted by rogerhollander in History, Imperialism, Vietnam, War.
Tags: general westmoreland, history, jonathan schell, lbj, Lyndon Johnson, my lai, nick turse, roger hollander, scorched earth, vietcong, vietnam, vietnam atrocities, Vietnam War
Roger’s note: the United States military policy of massacres and torture did not begin with George W. Bush. It began with the genocide of the Native Peoples, continued on with the brutality against African Slaves and the imperialist policies that began with the Spanish-American war and continues to this day in the Middle East, Africa, and around the globe.
Published on Friday, January 18, 2013 by Tom Dispatch
A New Book Transforms Our Understanding of What the Vietnam War Actually Was
For half a century we have been arguing about “the Vietnam War.” Is it possible that we didn’t know what we were talking about? After all that has been written (some 30,000 books and counting), it scarcely seems possible, but such, it turns out, has literally been the case.
Now, in Kill Anything that Moves, Nick Turse has for the first time put together a comprehensive picture, written with mastery and dignity, of what American forces actually were doing in Vietnam. The findings disclose an almost unspeakable truth. Meticulously piecing together newly released classified information, court-martial records, Pentagon reports, and firsthand interviews in Vietnam and the United States, as well as contemporaneous press accounts and secondary literature, Turse discovers that episodes of devastation, murder, massacre, rape, and torture once considered isolated atrocities were in fact the norm, adding up to a continuous stream of atrocity, unfolding, year after year, throughout that country.
It has been Turse’s great achievement to see that, thanks to the special character of the war, its prime reality — an accurate overall picture of what physically was occurring on the ground — had never been assembled; that with imagination and years of dogged work this could be done; and that even a half-century after the beginning of the war it still should be done. Turse acknowledges that, even now, not enough is known to present this picture in statistical terms. To be sure, he offers plenty of numbers — for instance the mind-boggling estimates that during the war there were some two million civilians killed and some five million wounded, that the United States flew 3.4 million aircraft sorties, and that it expended 30 billion pounds of munitions, releasing the equivalent in explosive force of 640 Hiroshima bombs.
Yet it would not have been enough to simply accumulate anecdotal evidence of abuses. Therefore, while providing an abundance of firsthand accounts, he has supplemented this approach. Like a fabric, a social reality — a town, a university, a revolution, a war — has a pattern and a texture. No fact is an island. Each one is rich in implications, which, so to speak, reach out toward the wider area of the surrounding facts. When some of these other facts are confirmed, they begin to reveal the pattern and texture in question.
Turse repeatedly invites us to ask what sort of larger picture each story implies. For example, he writes:
If one man and his tiny team could claim more KIAs [killed in action] than an entire battalion without raising red flags among superiors; if a brigade commander could up the body count by picking off civilians from his helicopter with impunity; if a top general could institutionalize atrocities through the profligate use of heavy firepower in areas packed with civilians — then what could be expected down the line, especially among heavily armed young infantrymen operating in the field for weeks, angry, tired, and scared, often unable to locate the enemy and yet relentlessly pressed for kills?
Like a tightening net, the web of stories and reports drawn from myriad sources coalesces into a convincing, inescapable portrait of this war — a portrait that, as an American, you do not wish to see; that, having seen, you wish you could forget, but that you should not forget; and that the facts force you to see and remember and take into account when you ask yourself what the United States has done and been in the last half century, and what it still is doing and still is.
Scorched Earth in I Corps
My angle of vision on these matters is a highly particular one. In early August 1967, I arrived in I Corps, the northernmost district of American military operations in what was then South Vietnam. I was there to report for the New Yorker on the “air war.” The phrase was a misnomer. The Vietnamese foe, of course, had no assets in the air in the South, and so there was no “war” of that description.
There was only the unilateral bombardment of the land and people by the fantastic array of aircraft assembled by the United States in Vietnam. These ranged from the B-52, which laid down a pattern of destruction a mile long and several football fields wide; to fighter bombers capable of dropping, along with much else, 500-pound bombs and canisters of napalm; to the reconfigured DC-3 equipped with a cannon capable of firing 100 rounds per second; to the ubiquitous fleets of helicopters, large and small, that crowded the skies. All this was abetted by continuous artillery fire into “free-fire” zones and naval bombardment from ships just off the coast.
By the time I arrived, the destruction of the villages in the region and the removal of their people to squalid refugee camps was approaching completion. (However, they often returned to their blasted villages, now subject to indiscriminate artillery fire.) Only a few pockets of villages survived. I witnessed the destruction of many of these in Quang Ngai and Quang Tinh provinces from the back seat of small Cessnas called Forward Air Control planes.
As we floated overhead day after day, I would watch long lines of houses burst into flames one after another as troops moved through the area of operation. In the meantime, the Forward Air Controllers were calling in air strikes as requested by radio from troops on the ground. In past operations, the villagers had been herded out of the area into the camps. But this time, no evacuation had been ordered, and the population was being subjected to the full fury of a ground and air assault. A rural society was being torn to pieces before my eyes.
The broad results of American actions in I Corps were thus visible and measurable from the air. No scorched earth policy had been announced but scorched earth had been the result. Still, a huge piece was missing from the puzzle. I was not able to witness most of the significant operations on the ground firsthand. I sought to interview some soldiers but they would not talk, though one did hint at dark deeds. “You wouldn’t believe it so I’m not going to tell you,” he said to me. “No one’s ever going to find out about some things, and after this war is over, and we’ve all gone home, no one is ever going to know.”
In other words, like so many reporters in Vietnam, I saw mainly one aspect of one corner of the war. What I had seen was ghastly, but it was not enough to serve as a basis for generalizations about the conduct of the war as a whole. Just a few years later, in 1969, thanks to the determined efforts of a courageous soldier, Ron Ridenhour, and the persistence of a reporter, Seymour Hersh, one piece of the hidden truth about ground operations in I Corp came to light.
It was the My Lai massacre, in which more than 500 civilians were murdered in cold blood by Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, of the Americal Division. In subsequent years, news of other atrocities in the area filtered into the press, often many years after the fact. For example, in 2003 the Toledo Blade disclosed a campaign of torture and murder over a period of months, including the summary execution of two blind men by a “reconnaissance” squad called Tiger Force. Still, no comprehensive picture of the generality of ground operations in the area emerged.
It has not been until the publication of Turse’s book that the everyday reality of which these atrocities were a part has been brought so fully to light. Almost immediately after the American troops arrived in I Corps, a pattern of savagery was established. My Lai, it turns out, was exceptional only in the numbers killed.
Turse offers a massacre at a village called Trieu Ai in October 1967 as a paradigm. A marine company suffered the loss of a man to a booby trap near the village, which had in fact had been mostly burned down by other American forces a few days earlier. Some villagers had, however, returned for their belongings. Now, the Marine company, enraged by its loss but unable to find the enemy, entered the village firing their M-16s, setting fire to any intact houses, and tossing grenades into bomb shelters.
A Marine marched a woman into a field and shot her. Another reported that there were children in the shelters that were being blown up. His superior replied, “Tough shit, they grow up to be VC [Vietcong].” Five or ten people rushed out of a shelter when a grenade was thrown into it. They were cut down in a hail of fire. Turse comments:
In the story of Trieu Ai one can see virtually the entire war writ small. Here was the repeated aerial bombing and artillery fire… Here was the deliberate burning of peasant homes and the relocation of villagers to refugee camps… Angry troops primed to lash out, often following losses within the unit; civilians trapped in their paths; and officers in the field issuing ambiguous or illegal orders to young men conditioned to obey — that was the basic recipe for many of the mass killings carried out by army soldiers and marines over the years.
The savagery often extended to the utmost depravity: gratuitous torture, killing for target practice, slaughter of children and babies, gang rape. Consider the following all-too-typical actions of Company B, 1st Battalion, 35th infantry beginning in October 1967:
The company stumbled upon an unarmed young boy. ‘Someone caught him up on a hill, and they brought him down and the lieutenant asked who wanted to kill him…’ medic Jamie Henry later told army investigators. A radioman and another medic volunteered for the job. The radioman… ’kicked the boy in the stomach and the medic took him around behind a rock and I heard one magazine go off complete on automatic…’
A few days after this incident, members of that same unit brutalized an elderly man to the point of collapse and then threw him off a cliff without even knowing whether he was dead or alive…
A couple of days after that, they used an unarmed man for target practice…
And less than two weeks later, members of Company B reportedly killed five unarmed women…
Unit members rattled off a litany of other brutal acts committed by the company… [including] a living woman who had an ear cut off while her baby was thrown to the ground and stomped on…
Pumping Up the Body Count
Turse’s findings completed the picture of the war in I Corps for me. Whatever the policy might have been in theory, the reality, on the ground as in the air, was the scorched earth I had witnessed from the Forward Air Control planes. Whatever the United States thought it was doing in I Corps, it was actually waging systematic war against the people of the region.
And so it was, as Turse voluminously documents, throughout the country. Details differed from area to area but the broad picture was the same as the one in I Corps. A case in point is the war in the Mekong Delta, home to some five to six million people in an area of less than 15,000 square miles laced with rivers and canals. In February 1968, General Julian Ewell, soon to be known by Vietnamese and Americans alike as “the Butcher of the Delta,” was placed in charge of the 9th Infantry Division.
In December 1968, he launched Operation Speedy Express. His specialty, amounting to obsession, was increasing “the body count,” ordained by the high command as the key measure of progress in defeating the enemy. Theoretically, only slain soldiers were to be included in that count but — as anyone, soldier or reporter, who spent a half-hour in the field quickly learned — virtually all slain Vietnamese, most of them clearly civilians, were included in the total. The higher an officer’s body count, the more likely his promotion. Privates who turned in high counts were rewarded with mini-vacations. Ewell set out to increase the ratio of supposed enemy soldiers killed to American soldiers killed. Pressure to do so was ratcheted up at all levels in the 9th Division. One of his chiefs of staff “went berserk,” in the words of a later chief of staff.
The means were simple: immensely increase the already staggering firepower being used and loosen the already highly permissive “rules of engagement” by, for example, ordering more night raids. In a typical night episode, Cobra gunships strafed a herd of water buffalo and seven children tending them. All died, and the children were reported as enemy soldiers killed in action.
The kill ratios duly rose from an already suspiciously high 24 “Vietcong” for every dead American to a completely surreal 134 Vietcong per American. The unreality, however, did not simply lie in the inflated kill numbers but in the identities of the corpses. Overwhelmingly, they were not enemy soldiers but civilians. A “Concerned Sergeant” who protested the operation in an anonymous letter to the high command at the time described the results as he witnessed them:
A battalion would kill maybe 15 to 20 a day. With 4 battalions in the Brigade that would be maybe 40 to 50 a day or 1200 a month 1500, easy. (One battalion claimed almost 1000 body counts one month!) If I am only 10% right, and believe me its lots more, then I am trying to tell you about 120-150 murders, or a My Lay [My Lai] each month for over a year.
This range of estimates was confirmed in later analyses. Operations in I Corp perhaps depended more on infantry attacks supported by air strikes, while Speedy Express depended more on helicopter raids and demands for high body counts, but the results were the same: indiscriminate warfare, unrestrained by calculation or humanity, on the population of South Vietnam.
Turse reminds us that off the battlefield, too, casual violence — such as the use of military trucks to run over Vietnamese on the roads, seemingly for entertainment — was widespread. The commonest terms for Vietnamese were the racist epithets “gooks,” “dinks,” and “slopes.” And the U.S. military machine was supplemented by an equally brutal American-South Vietnamese prison system in which torture was standard procedure and extrajudicial executions common.
How did it happen? How did a country that believes itself to be guided by principles of decency permit such savagery to break out and then allow it to continue for more than a decade?
Why, when the first Marines arrived in I Corps in early 1965, did so many of them almost immediately cast aside the rules of war as well as all ordinary scruples and sink to the lowest levels of barbarism? What chains of cause and effect linked “the best and the brightest” of America’s top universities and corporations who were running the war with the murder of those buffalo boys in the Mekong Delta?
How did the gates of hell open? This is a different question from the often-asked one of how the United States got into the war. I cannot pretend to begin to do it justice here. The moral and cognitive seasickness that has attended the Vietnam War from the beginning afflicts us still. Yet Kill Anything that Moves permits us, finally, to at least formulate the question in light of the actual facts of the case.
Reflections would certainly seem in order for a country that, since Vietnam, has done its best to unlearn even such lessons as were learned from that debacle in preparation for other misbegotten wars like those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here, however, are a few thoughts, offered in a spirit of thinking aloud.
The Fictitious War and the Real One
Roughly since the massacre at My Lai was revealed, people have debated whether the atrocities of the war were the product of decisions by troops on the ground or of high policy, of orders issued from above — whether they were “aberrations” or “operations.” The first school obviously lends itself to bad-apple-in-a-healthy-barrel thinking, blaming individual units for unacceptable behavior while exonerating the higher ups; the second tends to exonerate the troops while pinning the blame on their superiors.
Turse’s book shows that the barrel was rotten through and through. It discredits the “aberration” school once and for all. Yet it does not exactly offer support for the orders-from-the-top school either. Perhaps the problem always was that these alternatives framed the situation inaccurately. The relationship between policy and practice in Vietnam was, it turns out, far more peculiar than the two choices suggest.
It’s often said that truth is the first casualty of war. In Vietnam, however, it was not just that the United States was doing one thing while saying another (for example, destroying villages while claiming to protect them), true as that was. Rather, from its inception the war’s structure was shaped by an attempt to superimpose a false official narrative on a reality of a wholly different character.
In the official war, the people of South Vietnam were resisting the attempts of the North Vietnamese to conquer them in the name of world communism. The United States was simply assisting them in their patriotic resistance. In reality, most people in South Vietnam, insofar as they were politically minded, were nationalists who sought to push out foreign conquerors: first, the French, then the Japanese, and next the Americans, along with their client state, the South Vietnamese government which was never able to develop any independent strength in a land supposedly its own. This fictitious official narrative was not added on later to disguise unpalatable facts; it was baked into the enterprise from the outset.
Accordingly, the collision of policy and reality first took place on the ground in Trieu Ai village and its like. The American forces, including their local commanders, were confronted with a reality that the policymakers had not faced and would not face for many long years. Expecting to be welcomed as saviors, the troops found themselves in a sea of nearly universal hostility.
No manual was handed out in Washington to deal with the unexpected situation. It was left to the soldiers to decide what to do. Throughout the country, they started to improvise. To this extent, policy was indeed being made in the field. Yet it was not within the troops’ power to reverse basic policy; they could not, for instance, have withdrawn themselves from the whole misconceived exercise. They could only respond to the unexpected circumstances in which they found themselves.
The result would combine an incomprehensible and impossible mission dictated from above (to win the “hearts and minds” of a population already overwhelmingly hostile, while pulverizing their society) and locally conceived illegal but sometimes vague orders that left plenty of room for spontaneous, rage-driven improvisation on the ground. In this gap between the fiction of high policy and the actuality of the real war was born the futile, abhorrent assault on the people of Vietnam.
The improvisatory character of all this, as Turse emphasizes, can be seen in the fact that while the abuses of civilians were pervasive they were not consistent. As he summarizes what a villager in one brutalized area told him decades later, “Sometimes U.S. troops handed out candies. Sometimes they shot at people. Sometimes they passed through a village hardly touching a thing. Sometimes they burned all the homes. ‘We didn’t understand the reasons why the acted in the way they did.’”
Alongside the imaginary official war, then, there grew up the real war on the ground, the one that Turse has, for the first time, adequately described. It is no defense of what happened to point out that, for the troops, it was not so much their orders from on high as their circumstances — what Robert J. Lifton has called “atrocity-producing situations” — that generated their degraded behavior. Neither does such an account provide escape from accountability for the war’s architects without whose blind and misguided policies these infernal situations never would have arisen.
In one further bitter irony, this real war came at a certain point to be partially codified at ever higher levels of command into policies that did translate into orders from the top. In effect, the generals gradually — if absurdly, in light of the supposed goals of the war — sanctioned and promoted the de facto war on the population. Enter General Ewell and his body counts.
In other words, the improvising moved up the chain of command until the soldiers were following orders when they killed civilians, though, as in the case of Ewell, those orders rarely took exactly that form. Nonetheless, the generals sometimes went quite far in formulating these new rules, even when they flagrantly contradicted official policies.
To give one example supplied by Turse, in 1965, General William Westmoreland, who was made commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam in 1964, implicitly declared war on the peasantry of South Vietnam. He said:
Until now the war has been characterized by a substantial majority of the population remaining neutral. In the past year we have seen an escalation to a higher intensity in the war. This will bring about a moment of decision for the peasant farmer. He will have to choose if he stays alive.”
Like his underlings, Westmoreland, was improvising. This new policy of, in effect, terrorizing the peasantry into submission was utterly inconsistent with the Washington narrative of winning hearts and minds, but it was fully consistent with everything his forces were actually doing and about to do in I Corps and throughout the country.
A Skyscraper of Lies
One more level of the conflict needs to be mentioned in this context. Documents show that, as early as the mid-1960s, the key mistaken assumptions of the war — that the Vietnamese foe was a tentacle of world communism, that the war was a front in the Cold War rather than an episode in the long decolonization movement of the twentieth century, that the South Vietnamese were eager for rescue by the United States — were widely suspected to be mistaken in official Washington. But one other assumption was not found to be mistaken: that whichever administration “lost” Vietnam would likely lose the next election.
Rightly or wrongly, presidents lived in terror of losing the war and so being politically destroyed by a movement of the kind Senator Joe McCarthy launched after the American “loss” of China in 1949. Later, McGeorge Bundy, Lyndon Johnson’s national security advisor, would describe his understanding of the president’s frame of mind at the time this way:
LBJ isn’t deeply concerned about who governs Laos, or who governs South Vietnam — he’s deeply concerned with what the average American voter is going to think about how he did in the ball game of the Cold War. The great Cold War championship gets played in the largest stadium in the United States and he, Lyndon Johnson, is the quarterback, and if he loses, how does he do in the next election? So don’t lose. Now that’s too simple, but it’s where he is. He’s living with his own political survival every time he looks at these questions.”
In this context, domestic political considerations trumped the substantive reasoning that, once the futility and horror of the enterprise had been revealed, might have led to an end to the war. More and more it was understood to be a murderous farce, but politics dictated that it must continue. As long as this remained the case, no news from Vietnam could lead to a reversal of the war policies.
This was the top floor of the skyscraper of lies that was the Vietnam War. Domestic politics was the largest and most fact-proof of the atrocity-producing situations. Do we imagine that this has changed?
© 2013 Jonathan Schell
Jonathan Schell is the Doris M. Shaffer Fellow at The Nation Institute, and a Senior Lecturer at Yale University. He is the author of The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger and The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People. .
Posted by rogerhollander in History, Vietnam, War.
Tags: american exceptionalism, fort apache, history, ho chi minh, john ford, john grant, john wayne, kissinger, lbj, nixon, robert mcnamara, roger hollander, the man who shot liberty valance, truth, U.S. imperialism, vietnam, vietnam veterans, Vietnam War
Roger’s note: nearly 60,000 American soldiers and over a million (!!!) Vietnamese, including civilians, were killed in the Vietnam War, hundreds of thousands were wounded, much of Vietnam was destroyed — the notorious scorched earth policy — and untold thousands of American Vietnam veterans returned home to lives traumatized by what they saw and did, many choosing suicide as a way out. That our war mongering president, himself with blood on his hands, is launching a project to whitewash the shameful Vietnam Holocaust is disgusting and criminal in itself.
opednews.com, June 22, 2012
Vietnam, a story of virtually unmitigated disasters that we have inflicted on ourselves and even more on others.
-Bernard Brodie, 1973
The Vietnamese won the Vietnam War by forcing the United States to abandon its intention to militarily sustain an artificially divided Vietnam. The history is clear: It was the United States, not the Vietnamese, who scotched the unifying elections agreed on for 1956 in the Geneva negotiations following the French rout at Dien Bien Phu. Why did the US undermine these elections? As Dwight Eisenhower said in his memoir, because everyone knew Ho Chi Minh was going to win in a landslide of the order of 80% of the population of Vietnam.
So much for Democracy.
“We can lose longer than you can win,” was how Ho described the Vietnamese strategy against the Americans. Later in the 1980s, a Vietnamese diplomat put it this way to Robert McNamara: “We knew you would leave because you could leave. We lived here; we couldn’t leave.”
The Vietnam War was finally over in 1975 when the North prevailed over the US proxy formulation known as South Vietnam, which then disappeared as a “nation,” as many thousands of our betrayed Vietnamese allies fled in small boats or were subjected to unpleasant internment camps and frontier development projects deep in the hostile jungles.
In a word, the Vietnam War was a debacle for everyone involved.
Now, we learn the United States government is planning a 13-year propaganda project to clean up the image of the Vietnam War in the minds of Americans. It’s called The Vietnam War Commemoration Project. President Obama officially launched the project on Memorial Day with a speech at the Vietnam Wall in Washington. The Project was established by Section 598 of the 604-page National Defense Authorization Act For Fiscal Year 2008. It budgets $5 million a year.
President Obama at The Wall by Unknown
“Some have called this war era a scar on our country,” Obama told the specially invited Vietnam veteran crowd at The Wall. “But here’s what I say. As any wound heals, the tissue around it becomes tougher, becomes stronger than before. And in this sense, finally, we might begin to see the true legacy of Vietnam. Because of Vietnam and our veterans, we now use American power smarter, we honor our military more, we take care of our veterans better. Because of the hard lessons of Vietnam, because of you, America is even stronger than before.”
Vietnam toughened us up, made us better human beings. I would submit the President is wrong on that score, that there are profound lessons we have failed to learn.
Phase One of the Commemoration Project goes through 2014 and “will focus on recruiting support and participation nationwide. There will inevitably be international, national, regional, state, and local events planned, but a focus will be on the hometown level, where the personal recognitions and thanks are most impactful. The target is to obtain 10,000 Commemorative Partners.” Phase Two, through 2017, will encourage these Partners to commit to two events a year. “The DoD Commemoration Office will develop and host a “Master Calendar’ to list all the events, reflecting tens of thousands of events across the nation, as we thank and honor our Vietnam veterans.” Phase Three, from 2017 to 2025, will focus on “sustainment” of the positive legacy established in Phases One and Two and will involve “targeted activities” as deemed necessary.
The planners of the Project decided the Vietnam War began in 1962, which makes 2012 the 50th Anniversary of the start of the war. Just that decision alone exhibits disingenuous calculation. Anyone who has read anything beyond a pop novelization of Rambo knows it’s impossible to understand US involvement in the Vietnam War unless one goes back at least to 1945 and the decision to succumb to Cold War hysteria and support the re-colonization of Vietnam by the French. When you understand how Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh soldiers fought side-by-side with US soldiers against the Japanese occupiers of Vietnam, when the Vichy French colonial garrisons were cowed by the Japanese, you begin to understand the profound betrayal at the root of the entire war.
The problem is that understanding is the last thing the Pentagon and the US Government want the American people to wrestle with. If President Obama’s launching language is any indication, the purpose of the Vietnam War Commemoration is to create a malleable and supportive populace for future military operations — especially under the new doctrine of focused killing with drones and special-ops units now being established around the world.
Everyone in Washington knows the post-World War Two behemoth United States faces an inevitable decline vis—vis former third world, colonial nations like China, India and Brazil. It’s also clear globalized actors like al Qaeda founded as a reaction against our international interventions are not static and will evolve with our changing tactics. The world is, thus, getting more and more frightening for Americans, especially those who insist on holding on to the good-old-days of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism.
It has to do with an insistence on living in a glorious western colonial past, a bubble that’s part historical fact and part illusion and that entails ignoring what the Buddhists call the fundamental impermanence of life or what the Greek Heraclitus meant when he said, “You can’t step into the same river twice.” Today we might say: sh*t happens and things change. But for an imperialist, these are subversive thoughts. Just the mention the word “imperialism” and people turn into Sergeant Schultz: “I see nah-thing.”
In our schools and institutions it’s unfortunate American citizens are rarely taught to understand historical events like the Vietnam War. History is subversive, and our leaders have all become corporate panderers who want what every other pandering leader in history has ever wanted: a compliant populace waving the flag and not asking questions. Thus we have the Vietnam War Commemoration Project.
John Ford’s America
I’m a cineaste, a subversive-sounding French word for film buff. Nothing dramatizes all this quite as perfectly as two iconic John Ford movies, in which the director, a Navy reserve admiral, employs John Wayne as a key player in the patriotic task of burying Truth in American popular history. John Wayne, of course, was key to the imagery that got us into Vietnam. Wayne even co-directed and starred in the 1968 patriotic clunker The Green Berets. For those who question the relevance of classic film to American political meta-narrative, one need only mention Ronald Reagan who rose to power by confusing the two realms.
The two Ford movies are Fort Apache in 1947 and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 1962. The former is a cavalry and Indians story and the latter is a gunfighter and bad man story. Ford was an amazing director and both are excellent fiction films that reinforce Manifest Destiny and American cultural values — to the point of necessarily burying unpleasant truths and encouraging popular legends.
At the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a newspaper editor learns that dude lawyer Jimmy Stewart really didn’t shoot the bad gunman Liberty Valance, played by Lee Marvin. The shooting of Valance in a western town at night made Stewart famous and got him elected a US senator. The editor learns that gunfighter John Wayne knew Valance would kill his tenderfoot pal Stewart, so Wayne had dry-gulched Valance with a rifle from a nearby alley.uestion is, will the editor spill the beans and destroy good-guy Stewart’s senatorial career. In what is now an iconic line, the editor says: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Both the official and popular histories of the Vietnam War are rife with this kind of slippage. The emotional emphasis on anti-war activists “spitting” on soldiers and the emphasis on the heroics of individual soldiers in Vietnam are just two examples. In both cases, the larger, historical realities are buried in favor of popularly endorsed and highly publicized narratives on an individual and personal level. The fact anti-war activists were actually opposing LBJ, Robert McNamara, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and the cruel and insidious war they and the institutions they controlled were determined to escalate is lost in the cynical, patriotic focus on individual heroism.
The colonel’s debacle and a newly promoted Wayne promotes the legend by Unknown
Fort Apache is a perfect analogy for the Vietnam War. John Wayne is a cavalry captain in Apache country; he’s a good soldier who respects Cochise and his braves. At this point, along comes Henry Fonda as a tight-ass lieutenant colonel taking command of the garrison; he resents being sent with his teenage daughter Shirley Temple to this smelly armpit of the world — in this case, Ford’s favorite location, the incredibly austere Monument Valley in Utah.
Besides the grand-scale scenes of precise cavalry units advancing on horseback amongst the mesas and desert tabletops, there’s the usual John Ford cotillion dances with officers in formal uniforms and ladies in gowns that are simply preposterous for the frontier. And there’s the usual male camaraderie and buffoonery amongst the enlisted men centered on drinking to lighten things up. Plus a Romeo and Juliet romance between upper class Temple and the fresh West Point 2nd lieutenant son of grizzled Sergeant Major Ward Bond, a Civil War Medal Of Honor winner.
Fonda wants to reestablish military discipline at the fort and to regain the glory he once had as a general in the Civil War. (It seems rank was shuffled considerably once that conflagration was over.) He also wants to rip into the goddamned savages who caused him this ignoble assignment.
Fonda reluctantly allows Wayne to go with only a Spanish translator to talk with Cochise unarmed in his stronghold. (Cochise speaks Spanish but not English.) Wayne and Cochise get on smartly and agree that Cochise can resettle in his former lands. But Fonda has different plans. He dismisses Wayne’s agreement and orders the garrison to mount up to meet Cochise. To Wayne, it’s a loathsome betrayal.
The Apaches have the US cavalry outnumbered ten to one. But this doesn’t phase the madman Fonda. He orders the recalcitrant Wayne to guard the wagons and orders a frontal attack that takes his troops right into an Apache ambush that Wayne warned him was there.
Fonda is shot off his horse, and Wayne rides like the wind to save the wounded officer. But Fonda shoves him away and mounts Wayne’s horse to join his encircled men, now in a formation that resembles images of Custer’s Last Stand. Fonda apologizes to Bond, who makes a jovial crack about their future grandchildren. Then they’re all killed by the infuriated Apaches.
Cut to Wayne back behind the wagons, awaiting the advancing savages. A lone rider comes up and, as Wayne goes out unarmed to meet him, the rider angrily slams the garrison colors into the dirt at Wayne’s feet. Cochise has let his paleface amigo live for another day.
Then there’s a break and its some years later. Wayne is now a colonel, and he’s engaged with some reporters in his office. There’s a dignified, formal portrait of the Fonda character on the wall. The reporters all want to hear about the glory of Fonda’s now famous fatal charge. Wayne plays along and passes on the legend of the great man. Then he goes outside and leads his troops on a stirring march out of the compound. The end.
The fact the arrogance and incompetence of the Fonda character and his blatant betrayal of a negotiated agreement he had sent an officer out to obtain at significant risk had caused the loss of much of his garrison is simply swept under the rug. Truth is secondary to institutional integrity. Wayne has now realized on which side his bread is buttered and that his career is not about negotiating with savages. Geronimo was pointedly introduced earlier in the meeting with Cochise. To protect the women folk and advancing civilization on the frontier, Wayne now has the guerrilla Geronimo to clean up.
As well-wrought film art, one can see Fort Apache in two ways — as glorifying Manifest Destiny and the extermination of Native Americans or as explaining the process of how truth is the first casualty of war and, if we let it happen, a permanent casualty of permanent war.
The Truth Will Set Us Free
A friend of mine just gave me three boxes of books on the Vietnam War to add to my collection; and I’m always looking for more in thrift shops and used book stores. Chris Hedges says we’re becoming an illiterate culture attuned to spectacle. That may be true, but I’m not going to be one of Orwell’s proles in such an equation. The point is, we in the antiwar movement — especially those of us who are Vietnam veterans and still read — have a responsibility to make sure the national record is complete. Bernard Brodie was right in 1973 in his mature, analytic book War and Politics when he said Vietnam was “a story of virtually unmitigated disasters that we have inflicted on ourselves and even more on others.” Nothing has changed in the past 39 years, and a well-funded Pentagon propaganda campaign won’t affect that truth.
I’ll be the first to concede honor and bravery exist even in a lousy, unnecessary and cruel war like the one in Vietnam. But we cannot allow the rah-rah garbage that appears to be lined up for the well-funded Vietnam War Commemoration Project to prevail without a fight — even if that fight is asymmetrical and has to be fought in guerrilla mode with rhetorical jujitsu and even strains of Dada absurdity if necessary. The fact is, there are two sides to the Vietnam War, and the one that says the war was not necessary needs to be heard loud and clear and needs to be respected. Plus, it needs to be made clear to Americans that the Vietnamese endured vastly more pain and suffering than any of us did.
The poet W.D. Ehrhart was a young Marine infantryman in the war. He was wounded there. He returned to Vietnam in 1985 and wrote about his trip, about the good things and about meeting Mrs. Na who lost five sons to The American War. As he is led into her modest peasant home, she looks at him. “I have suffered so much misery,” she tells him, “and you did this to me.”
Ehrhart wants to flee the little house and vomit in the road. The incident reminds him of a poem he had written earlier called “Making the Children Behave.”
Do they think of me now
in those strange Asian villages
where nothing ever seemed
and my few grim friends
moving through them
When they tell stories to their children
of the evil
that awaits misbehavior
is it me they conjure?
It takes great humanity and courage to get to a place like Ehrhart has reached. John Ford would not have understood the need to recognize the truths Ehrhart and other vets have tried to tell Americans, though many Americans like Platoon director Oliver Stone certainly do. The Pentagon and the US government do not want to encourage such difficult truths when they need young soldiers for future wars that may, like Vietnam and Iraq, turn out to be tragic debacles.
In another poem, Ehrhart poignantly addresses the human problem of sending young men to fight delusional and unnecessary wars. It’s called “Guerrilla War.”
It’s practically impossible
to tell civilians
from the Vietcong.
Nobody wears uniforms.
They all talk
the same language,
(and you couldn’t understand them
even if they didn’t).
They tape grenades
inside their clothes,
and carry satchel charges
in their market baskets.
Even their women fight,
and young boys,
It’s practically impossible
to tell civilians
from the Viet Cong.
you quit trying.
Posted by rogerhollander in History, Vietnam, War.
Tags: eugene rostow, history, lbj, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, robert parry, roger hollander, vietnam, vietnam peace process, Vietnam War, Wall Street, Wall Street Bankers, walt w. rostow
Roger’s note: it has been my opinion that in our time things really began to go “off the track” with the Nixon presidency and not with the Bush era, as many argue (of course, in a broader sense the car jumped the rail in 1492). The Nixons and the Bushes and the Obamas and the military-industrial complex behind them sacrifice lives by the hundreds of thousands, and we honor them as presidents and patriots. The cynicism behind it all is almost beyond comprehension, not to mention surreal.
Robert Parry, www.opednews.com, March 3, 2012
This article cross-posted from Consortium News
President Richard Nixon addresses the nation about his bombing of Cambodia, April 30,
As I pored over documents from what the archivists at Lyndon Johnson’s presidential library call their “X-File” — chronicling Richard Nixon’s apparent sabotage of Vietnam peace talks in 1968 — I was surprised by one fact in particular, how Johnson’s White House got wind of what Johnson later labeled Nixon’s “treason.”
According to the records, Eugene Rostow, Johnson’s Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, got a tip in late October 1968 from a Wall Street source who said that one of Nixon’s closest financial backers was describing Nixon’s plan to “block” a peace settlement of the Vietnam War. The backer was sharing this information with his banking colleagues to help them place their bets on stocks and bonds.
In other words, these investment bankers were colluding over how to make money with their inside knowledge of Nixon’s scheme to extend the Vietnam War. Such an image of these “masters of the universe” sitting around a table plotting financial strategies while a half million American soldiers were sitting in a war zone was a picture that even the harshest critics of Wall Street might find hard to envision.
Yet, that tip — about Nixon’s Wall Street friends discussing his apparent tip on the likely course of the Vietnam War — was the first clear indication that Johnson’s White House had that the sudden resistance from South Vietnamese President Nguyen van Thieu to Paris peace talks may have involved a collaboration with Nixon, the Republican candidate for president who feared progress toward peace could cost him the election.
On Oct. 29, Eugene Rostow passed on the information to his brother, Walt W. Rostow, Johnson’s national security adviser. Eugene Rostow also wrote a memoabout the tip, reporting that he had learned the news from a source in New York who had gotten it from “a member of the banking community” who was “very close to Nixon.”
Eugene Rostow’s source said the conversation occurred among a group of Wall Street bankers who attended a working lunch to assess likely market trends and to decide where to invest. Nixon’s associate, who is never identified in the White House documents, told his fellow bankers that Nixon was obstructing the peace talks. Eugene Rostow wrote…
“The conversation was in the context of a professional discussion about the future of the financial markets in the near term. The speaker said he thought the prospects for a bombing halt or a cease-fire were dim, because Nixon was playing the problem as he did the Fortas affair — to block. …”They would incite Saigon to be difficult, and Hanoi to wait. Part of his strategy was an expectation that an offensive would break out soon, that we would have to spend a great deal more (and incur more casualties) — a fact which would adversely affect the stock market and the bond market. NVN [North Vietnamese] offensive action was a definite element in their thinking about the future.”
(The reference to Fortas apparently was to the successful Republican-led filibuster in the Senate to block Johnson’s 1968 nomination of Associate Justice Abe Fortas to replace Earl Warren as Chief Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.)
In other words, Nixon’s friends on Wall Street were placing their financial bets based on the inside dope that Johnson’s peace initiative was doomed to fail. (In another document, Walt Rostow identified his brother’s source, who disclosed this strategy session, as Alexander Sachs, who was then on the board of Lehman Brothers.)
A separate memo from Eugene Rostow said the unidentified speaker at the lunch had added that Nixon “was trying to frustrate the President, by inciting Saigon to step up its demands, and by letting Hanoi know that when he [Nixon] took office ‘he could accept anything and blame it on his predecessor.'”
So, according to the speaker, Nixon was trying to convince both the South and North Vietnamese that they would get a better deal if they stalled Johnson’s peace initiative.
In a later memo providing a chronology of the affair, Walt Rostow said he got the news about the Wall Street lunch from his brother shortly before attending a morning meeting at which President Johnson was informed by U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Ellsworth Bunker about “Thieu’s sudden intransigence.”
Walt Rostow said “the diplomatic information previously received plus the information from New York took on new and serious significance,” leading to an FBI investigation ordered by Johnson that uncovered the framework of Nixon’s blocking operation. [To read that Rostow memo, click here, here and here.]
The Rostow memos are contained in a file with scores of secret and top secret documents tracing Nixon’s Vietnam peace-talk gambit as Johnson tried frantically to stop Nixon’s blocking operation and still reach a peace agreement in the waning days of his presidency.
After Nixon narrowly prevailed in the 1968 election and as Johnson was leaving the White House without a peace agreement in hand, the outgoing President instructed Walt Rostow to take the file with him. Rostow kept the documents in what he called “The ‘X’ Envelope,” although the archivists at the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas, have dubbed it the “X-File” after the once popular TV series.
Rostow’s “‘X’ Envelope” was not opened until 1994, which began a process of declassifying the contents, some of which remain secret to this day.
After Johnson’s peace initiative failed, the Vietnam War dragged on another four years, leading to the deaths of an additional 20,763 U.S. soldiers, with 111,230 wounded. An estimated one million more Vietnamese also died.
[For a much detailed examination of what Johnson called this "sordid story," see Consortiumnews.com's "LBJ's "X' File on Nixon's "Treason.'"]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at more…)
Posted by rogerhollander in History, Vietnam, War.
Tags: book review, daniel seidenberg, david krieger, Dick Cheney, history, roger hollander, tonkin gulf, vietnam, vietnam ambush, Vietnam War, war, westmoreland
Sunday 18 December 2011
by: David Krieger, Truthout | Book Review
Vietnam Ambush Daniel Seidenberg Jr. PublishAmerica Baltimore, 2010
In the 1960s, the United States of America conscripted young men into its military forces. The head of Selective Service, which imposed conscription, was General Lewis B. Hershey. Assisted by local draft boards, he gobbled up young men and put them in uniforms. Then they were trained to kill.
Most young men were edgy and wary about conscription, particularly after it became apparent that the military’s destination of choice was the jungles of Vietnam. To receive a deferment and remain beyond the military’s clutches, one had to stay in college or graduate school. Dick Cheney, one of the subsequent great warmongers of our time, successfully used college deferments to stay out of the military until he qualified first for a marriage deferment and then a deferment for having a child. He always managed to stay one step ahead of the military’s grasp.
Other means of escaping being drafted into the military were failing one’s physical examination, claiming to be gay and conscientious objection. All were difficult. One rumor at the time was that if you drank enough Coke fast enough, it would raise your blood pressure to the point that you would fail your physical. This advice seemed more like an urban legend than fact. Not many young men were secure enough to use homosexuality as a reason for staying out of the military, and the criteria for conscientious objection were rigid and based in traditional religious practices that objected to killing. The truth was that most of us were naive and hadn’t given much thought to avoiding military “service.” That changed as the war in Vietnam heated up and expanded.
The generation before us had fought in World War II, which seemed like a good war, pitting democracy against fascism (Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo). More recently, there had been the war in Korea, which was touted as a fight for democracy against communism. There was precedent for young men to go docilely into the US military and do its bidding. And then, along came Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson’s lies about the Tonkin Gulf incident and General William Westmoreland (“General Waste-more-men”), who always saw a light at the end of the tunnel – all he needed was more conscripts.
The net of conscription ensnared many of us. I was one. Another was Daniel Seidenberg Jr., who received his draft notice at the age of 19 in the winter of 1967. He was just out of high school, and he was a surfer. When his notice came, he thought about escaping to Canada, but, after visiting Canada, decided against it. Instead, he joined the regular army, having been promised by the recruiter that he would not be sent to Vietnam. Despite the promise, after being trained as an infantryman, he was sent to Vietnam. He ended up with near-fatal head wounds that have left him disabled for life.
In 2010, Seidenberg published a book he wrote about his military experience in Vietnam. The book, titled “Vietnam Ambush,” confirms the worst fears of those of us who didn’t go to fight in that needless, reckless and lawless war. It is a well-written account of the war from the perspective of a soldier in the field. It should be read by every young American who thinks war might be glorious. In fact, it is a cautionary tale that should be read by young people throughout the world. It takes the adventure and heroics out of war and tells it like it really is, a dirty business in which the old send the young to fight, kill and die in far-off lands – in the case of the Vietnam War, to fight in humid jungles which US military planes were busy defoliating with the poisonous chemicals napalm and Agent Orange.
Here is how Seidenberg describes his dilemma as a US soldier in Vietnam on the opening page of his book:
I was a combat infantryman in Vietnam. We were shooting dice for our souls. Our very spirits were on the line, if we survived.
No one could say what we were fighting for. The consensus was that our purpose was to simply survive it all. I knew that merely surviving would not be enough. I had to make sure that I survived with a clean conscience.
What good is living, if you wind up hating yourself? And I didn’t want to be responsible for any crimes.
In a war fought entirely in cold blood, keeping a clean conscience was not easy. Simply staying alive was not easy.
Although today there is no longer conscription, there is instead a “poverty draft,” which makes the military an economically attractive option for escaping poverty. Being put into a killing zone makes it difficult to not become a killer if only in order to stay alive oneself. Should we allow ourselves to be used as tools in war? Should we not fight against militarism and those who, like Dick Cheney, promote it? Should we not refuse to subordinate our consciences to leaders who lie us into war?
“Vietnam Ambush” is a short book. It is written in simple prose. It tells the truth. It reminds us that our society has corrupted its youth with war. It reminds us that war steals from the young – their youth and their consciences. It reminds us about the importance of having political leadership that is decent and truthful, not deceitful and dishonest. It reminds us that war is not a game played on a field of battle; it has consequences that last for lifetimes. War traumatizes young men and women. It kills and maims soldiers and civilians alike. It reminds us to choose peace.