The mythology of a nation is the intelligible mask of that enigma called the “national character”. Through myths the psychology and world view of our ancestors are transmitted to modern descendants, in a way and with such power our perception and contemporary reality and our ability to function in the world are directly, often tragically, affected.
We shoot the sick, the young, the lame, We do our best to kill & maim, Because the kills count all the same….Napalm sticks to kids….
Ox cart rolling down the road, Peasants with a heavy load, They’re all VC when the bombs explode….Napalm sticks to kids.
Song composed/sung by soldiers of the US Army’s 1st Cavalry, the first full Army Dvn. deployed on Sept. 11, 1965 to Vietnam.
(Source: Jan Barry [ed.] Peace Is Our Profession).
In Memoriam: Neil Davis, Australian cameraman, the only Western newsman to film the Vietnam war from the Vietnamese viewpoint. Davis died in 1985 from shrapnel wounds sustained in the line of duty.
In Brief: With the present geopolitical turmoil the result of America’s ongoing foreign policy machinations in support of global peace, stability and security, in order to gain some context and perspective, it may be timely to ransack the past given the anniversaries this year of two pivotal events in U.S. military history—neither of which are being loudly celebrated, at least outside the Pentagon and the Washington Beltway. In the first instalment of a two-parter, we reflect on Uncle Sam’s foray into Vietnam and South-east Asia in general, and the implications for the here and now.*
— Another Splendid Little War —
Most everyone loves a celebration of course—especially a victory celebration, and it seems the U.S. military is no different. In a 2014 article, Marjorie Cohn revealed that the Pentagon brass earmarked $30m of the American taxpayers’ ‘hard-earned’ to celebrate—wait for it—the 50th anniversary of the “victory” in Vietnam. This money will underwrite in Cohn’s words “a program to rewrite and sanitize” the history of America’s involvement in this sad and sorry episode in the history of Cold War belligerence and insanity and in U.S. foreign policy in general.
The Pentagon have already spent a ‘motza’ on its all-frills website, a ‘no-expense spared’ portal that appears designed to facilitate a ‘re-education’ of sorts of Americans about the ugly truth of this unholy war, and the highly dubious rationale and justification for it. After poignantly noting what information was left out or played down by the website’s content managers, Cohn notes grimly:
‘We cannot forget the millions of victims of the war, both military and civilian, who died in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, nor those who perished or were hurt in its aftermath by land mines, unexploded ordnance, Agent Orange, napalm and refugee flight.’
In another separate article, Jack Smith, in anticipation of the same anniversaries, reprised in 2014 earlier observations he’d made about the upcoming commemorations: that the two-fold purpose of this event is firstly to “legitimize and intensify” a renewed militaristic spirit within America, and secondly to “dilute the memory” of historic public opposition to the Vietnam war. In this piece Smith, like Cohn, attempts a reality check for those in Washington and the military establishment who like to pick and choose elements of the ‘Nam narrative that best fit their own entrenched, retrospective views.
Unfortunately, “reality” is not something these folks readily embrace when it conflicts with their pathologically righteous delusions. One of Smith’s most remarkable and poignant observations—one that, quantitatively at least, says as much about the Vietnamese as it does about the Americans who invaded their country and turned it into a living, breathing, revolving-door nightmare—is the following:
‘What strikes visitors to Vietnam in recent years is that the country appears to have come to terms with what it calls the American War far better than America has come to terms with [it]. Despite the hardships inflicted upon Vietnam, the government and people appear to hold no grudges against the United States.’
As for highlighting the qualitative difference in the respective attitudes of selected people on both sides of the conflict, Smith notes that many, in Congress, the White House, and the Pentagon in particular, are looking to prosecute the war all over again by ‘organizing a massive propaganda effort to distort the history of Washington’s aggression and unspeakable brutality in Vietnam’.
With the Pentagon’s Vietnam celebratory plans in mind, and taking a lead from Cohn and Smith, it seems timely to consider some alternative context and perspective, even if for some folks such an exercise may cause a measure of cognitive dissonance of the patriotic kind.
— Hey, hey LBJ, How many boys did you kill today? —
This year marks two ‘Nam related anniversaries, indeed Cold War signposts. These are the 50th anniversary of the U.S.’s official 1965 ‘boots on the ground’ entry into the country, along with the 40th anniversary of its ignominious withdrawal in 1975. At this point a stroll down memory lane is timely. It was in August 1964 [then] US president Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) signed off on the Gulf of Tonkin (GoT) Resolution signalling America’s official escalation of its previously below the radar military involvement there.
Thus was handed LBJ carte blanche approval for aggressive intervention in ‘Nam, with the Gulf of Tonkin incident itself — much like 9/11 and Saddam Hussein‘s ‘fictional’ WMDs served to trigger the Iraqi invasion and occupation almost four decades later—providing the president the pretext for deploying combat troops in large numbers, all purportedly to ‘stop the dominoes falling’ to communism in South-east Asia and beyond.
In response to the ‘provocations’ by the North Vietnamese in the GoT—now all but officially recognised as a false-flag ploy for upping the Vietnam ante—Johnson instantly ordered ‘retaliatory’ air strikes against North Vietnam, which depending on the piece of ideological real estate you occupied (then or now), was either nationalist or communist. Appropriately codenamed ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’, this relentless aerial bombing campaign lasted three years, and eventually spilled over into neighbouring, neutral Cambodia.
Although in various forms since 1950 America’s presence in Indochina — Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam — was well established if not generally well understood at the time, it was 1965 that ushered in its ‘boots-on-the-ground’ entry into what became the miasmic quagmire of the Vietnam War. This was followed by an even more rapid escalation topping out at around 200,000 by year’s end.
At its peak in 1968, there would be over 535,000 troops serving in Vietnam, which by some accounts ran close to a million individual deployments on rotation throughout. By any measure this is a lot of boots on the ground. Estimates of the cost in 2012 dollars of the Vietnam adventure run anywhere between $US700 billion to $US1 trillion.
(For additional perspective, readers may wish to note that the cost of the Iraq invasion and occupation is conservatively estimated to be around $3-4 trillion. Those curious to know what an actual ‘trill’ looks like can click here.)
That this decision proved to be one of America’s most portentous Pandora’s Box moments is now generally accepted by all but the most ideologically myopic. Ten years, 58,000 American lives, and 150,000 wounded later, in 1975 it was all over bar the humbling rush to the exits and subsequent post-mortems as to how it could have gone so horribly pear shaped. These figures do not include those casualties of other occupying nations with roughly around 6,000 KIAs, of which around 450 were my fellow Australians, with South Korean KIAs over 10 times as many at around 5,000.
Along with the ‘deep-sixing’ of dozens of US Army Huey choppers off of aircraft carriers into the South China Sea, this “rush” was best epitomised by the iconic scenes atop the US Embassy in the South Vietnamese capital Saigon, with hundreds of Americans and Vietnamese alike scrambling to get on one of the few seats left on the last chopper out of town. The Vietnam War (or as referred to by the Vietnamese, the “American War”), was no more.
For the majority of Americans it had come not a nanosecond too soon. The empire had endured a slow motion, humiliating, ‘never-again’ defeat. Yet from 1965-1975, the Vietnam engagement would dominate American foreign policy; it would also dictate the course of the Cold War politics, virtually defining the notion of the proxy war that characterised the decades long standoff with its Cold War opponent the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
Moreover, Vietnam would change the face of American society, culture and politics for generations to come. For those paying attention it still has implications for America’s role in the world today not least in Iraq and Afghanistan. As evidenced by the Pentagon’s self-congratulatory ‘Viet-fest’ mentioned in the opening, its fallout continues to inform the collective political milieu and military mindset, although many would argue in ways revealing few lessons have been learned.
Which is to say, that these ‘bookend’ milestones might prompt some serious, genuine reflection on the country’s ‘groundhog day’ foreign policy machinations should be a given. This is especially the case considering the U.S.’s more recent, imperially inspired escapades in Iraq and Afghanistan without even considering military involvement in and around Syria, Libya, Yemen and (again), Iraq, and possibly even in Iran, not to mention in the Ukraine against nuclear ‘powered’ Russia.
It is not over-stating the case to say that America’s decision to wage war in this “piddling, piss-ant little country” unleashed nothing less than a holocaust. It culminated in the deaths of millions of people (conservative ‘gook’ body count estimates come in at 3-4 million.) This to say nothing of the resultant spill-over conflagration that raged in varying degrees in neighbouring Cambodia nor that other ‘forgotten’ or ‘secret’ war in Laos, both of which we will also look at more closely in Part Two.
One of the numerous extraordinary insights into the absolute folly and hubris displayed by American leaders, and commanders and counter-insurgency advisors is that even at the time of the decision to commit to Vietnam in full-force, despite widespread reservations about the futility of the exercise they still went ahead. General Maxwell Taylor, president John F Kennedy‘s former military advisor (later appointed as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and then as US Ambassador to Vietnam from mid 1964 to mid 1965), along with being one of the few military men that JFK trusted, was as early as 1961 in another revealing minority in that he was one of the few upper echelon military people who had developed deep misgivings about escalation in ‘Nam.
In the summer of 1965, he declared the following, the observation itself tendering not only a highly prescient summation of how things turned out but ultimately vindication for those who held such reservations—not that such vindication provided much consolation for all those impacted, then or now—by the tragically insane devastation ushered in by the decision to escalate:
‘The ability of the Viet-Cong continuously to rebuild their units and make good their losses is one of the mysteries of this guerrilla war…Now only do the Viet-Cong units have the recuperative power of the phoenix, but they have an amazing ability to maintain morale.’
Taylor’s use of the “phoenix” metaphor—as we will see later the very name applied to the counter-insurgency program designed to brutally and mercilessly undermine the “recuperative power” and “amazing ability to maintain morale” of the VC and their supporters—appears coincidental but is nonetheless compelling in both its irony and synchronicity.
And as noted by culture critic and historian Richard Slotkin in The Gunfighter Nation – Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America—in an observation that once again should have particular resonance in the here and now for at least the opponents if not the proponents of the interminable War on Terror—Taylor’s resort to the use of the word ‘mysteries’ signals the failure of counterinsurgency theory to account for the reality of Vietnam, ‘or rather, its failure to provide an account that was both rational and politically acceptable.’ Indeed the aforementioned “resonance” was underscored even moreso by Slotkin’s somewhat calibrated understatement in the following:
‘This failure to recognise and address the political contradictions inherent in the “mission” limited the usefulness of even the best internal policy critiques and made the intelligent revision or adjustment of strategy and tactics more difficult’.
Regardless of whether we are talking about Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya or the Ukraine or elsewhere, it is difficult to see how this summation of situation and circumstance in Vietnam does not apply in all of these conflict zones 40-50 years later.
To get some idea of the truly catastrophic nature of the Vietnam conflict and be able to put it all into some kind of historical perspective, it is only relatively recently we have been able to do this. Of course we have had Errol Morris‘ 2003 documentary Fog of War.
This was a lengthy interview with one of the War’s chief architects Robert McNamara, LBJ’s Secretary of Defense throughout much of the early stages, and a man who later all but acknowledged the pretext for war was bogus.
Along with the 1975 documentary Hearts and Minds by director Peter Davis, there have been several iconic films that showcased diverse perspectives of the conflict from Apocalypse Now, The Deerhunter, Full Metal Jacket, Casualties of War, and Platoon, to name a few. Few of these films portray it as anything resembling—to use Ronald Reagan’s memorable descriptor—a noble cause, and most still provide a harrowing insight into the war’s reality. Much also has been written about Vietnam to be sure; James Gibson‘s The Perfect War and Gabriel Kolko‘s Anatomy of a War are excellent starting points.
But a full understanding of the ‘Nam era is not complete without reference to Douglas Valentine‘s The Phoenix Program: America’s Use of Terror in Vietnam, and Nick Turse‘s Kill Anything that Moves: The Real Story of America in Vietnam. These two wholly gripping narratives provide each in their own way gut-wrenching corroboration of the decidedly unofficial, behind the scenes barbarity, depravity, suffering and needless tragedy that characterised the War from go to woe, the latter word being operative.
For those who don’t normally associate terms such as ‘war crimes’, ‘mass murder’, ‘rape’, ‘atrocities’, ‘crimes against humanity’, ‘chemical warfare’, ‘terrorism’, ‘massacres’, ‘kidnapping’, ‘assassination’—even ‘genocide’—with the conduct of war by the U.S. military and its agents/allies, these books will prove a viscerally disturbing eye-opener. For those looking for “context” and “perspective”, you have come to the right place, although one hesitates to suggest the experience will be a satisfying, or indeed, comforting one, even less to suggest how folks might personally frame either response once they ‘arrive’ at that place.
After noting that the U.S. from the beginning to the end, ‘relentlessly pounded South Vietnam with nearly every lethal technology in their arsenal short of nuclear weapons, indiscriminately spreading death across vast swaths of territory’, Turse said:
‘Such supercharged killing—so often carried out from the relative safety of a jet flying thousands of feet above the ground, a helicopter gunship hovering over thatch-roofed huts, an artillery battery miles from the target zone, a ship lobbing shells from offshore—undoubtedly saved the lives of some American soldiers. But the logic of overkill exacted an immense, almost unimaginable toll on Vietnamese civilians. U.S. commanders wasted ammunition like millionaires, hoarded American lives like misers—and often treated Vietnamese lives as if they were worth nothing at all.’
Almost four decades after America’s final withdrawal from ‘Nam, it is The Phoenix Program, and Kill Anything that Moves that uniquely catalogue—albeit within different contexts and from different perspectives—the depth and scope of a wholly new, mind numbingly horrific reality of war in general and this one in particular.
They further reveal that a considerable amount of this carnage was carried out by U.S. ground troops and special forces alike with the knowledge, approval and active encouragement of their superiors, who themselves exhibited an utterly amoral sense of detachment in the pursuit of the high body count and what eventually amounted to an elusive victory.
— What happens in ‘Nam, Stays in ‘Nam —
In fact, according to Turse, the more morally challenged GIs and their commanders were materially and otherwise rewarded for high ‘enemy’ body counts!
And again, 40-50 years on, with the notable exception of William Calley of My Lai infamy, relatively few GIs or mid- to senior-level serving military personnel were ever held to account for any of these atrocities, and even less were found guilty or for that matter imprisoned.
And by all accounts, not one US war planner or politician was even considered for prosecution for war crimes of any sort, whether in the U.S. or in any international court.
Arguably the biggest criminal of the Vietnam War, the estimable Henry Kissinger—Nixon’s then Secretary of State and National Security Adviser and possibly, until then at least, the most Geneva Convention-defying Nobel Peace Prize-winning war prosecutor in the history of the award—is still as we speak going ‘Johnny Walker’, for which we can assume he’s eternally grateful. Insofar as we can gather, Hank still sleeps well at night, doubtless with his NPP trophy by his bedside. (For more on Hank ‘n Dick’s adventure filled forays deep in the jungles of Indo-China, go here and here.)
All this not to mention those still living with the trauma he helped create, as well as the leftover unexploded ordnance that riddles the countryside and still kills and cripples young and old alike 40 years after the war ended for the Americans and their allies. After noting that ‘the army, like the marines, left a devastating trail of civilian casualties in its wake—thousands upon thousands of non-combatants [were] beaten, wounded, raped, tortured, or killed in the years that followed (the escalation)’, Turse adds:.
‘…between the massacres carried out by members of the army and those perpetrated by marines, [they] make it abundantly clear individual soldiers and their immediate commanders were not the only ones to blame. There is, of course no excusing the acts carried out by the troops on the ground, but these actions did not occur in a vacuum. Rather, they were the unmistakable consequence of deliberate decisions made long before, at the highest levels of the military.’ [My Emphasis]
Suffice it to say, as showcased in Valentine’s and Turse’s books the rules of engagement such as they applied in ‘Nam were not aberrations; they were a normal, routine part of operations, albeit unofficially. To say Vietnam was a numbers game is very much on the money. As the opening epigraph illustrates, whether combatants or non-combatants, it was the Vietnamese body count—and only that one—that counted for the troops, their respective commanders and the war planners and politicians back in Washington.
There is grim irony here in that it was the body count of the American troops that helped turned the tide against the war, much like one supposes, the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts decades did later. And we can easily imagine how many Vietnamese—to say nothing of the Laotians and Cambodians—were left wondering if they might not have been better off having the hated French who had, as their former colonial masters, dominated the region and exploited its people for almost a hundred years prior. Better the imperial devil you know!..
None of this is to suggest that those who fought the ‘good fight’ thinking it was a noble cause are not deserving of our respect. At the time the mainstream media shilled the “principled” purpose of the war, much like they were to do time and time again, especially post-9/11. For this reason alone the escalation of the war received broad public acceptance and support both in the US and here in Australia, one of the countries that followed America into the quagmire. Nor do revelations of the atrocities documented in these books indicate that a majority of combat troops willingly participated in such activities.
In reality many GIs and their commanders were extremely disturbed by what they witnessed with some lodging formal complaints, and others suffering posttraumatic stress disorder.
But for the most part such complaints fell on deaf ears. Some were ostracised and vilified for doing so by fellow soldiers and higher-ups. Abiding by the ‘accepted’ rules of war wasn’t how the game was played in ‘Nam, and the brass didn’t want know about those that insisted on doing so.
Whether American or non-American, ‘Nam veteran or not, anyone who still views the War as something of a worthy, noble cause, should be confined in a room and forced—looking down the ‘business end’ of a locked and loaded M-16 carbine if necessary—to read both of these books in short order before they are allowed out to face the world again.
Once done then, I defy any right thinking individual to walk out of this ‘room’ without feeling emotionally brutalised and with the same view of that world and for that matter, of war itself. For those who might still be inclined to see America as the go-to global good guy, if these books do not at least make you question such assumptions in the current geopolitical milieu, then I’m at a loss as to what might do the trick.
Moreover, anyone looking in either of these books for implicit ‘business as usual’ justifications for the sheer horror and tragedy based on notions of ‘war is hell’ collateral damage or unintended consequences will be disappointed, although there are plenty of examples of both!
For those of us prepared to look beyond the history textbooks, and both the contemporaneous and current mainstream media accounts and myth-making entreaties of politicians’ regarding the sanctity and ‘nobility’ of the war cause, considered hindsight coupled with unsentimental reflection opens up a whole new panorama for looking at these conflicts. In every case, the justifications for these wars—before, during and after—are at complete odds with the reality, a reality to which we only come to belatedly if at all.
And in 2015, ‘Nam of course provides us both a timely and insightful case study that serves to underscore that “reality”.
(This includes, for readers wondering, the so-called “Good War”—World War Two—which was no more a Good War than the First World War was the War to End all Wars, an observation we will explore in greater depth in a future post.)
The sad thing is that for the brass asses at the Pentagon and their belligerent, blood-drenched brethren in the neo-conservative diaspora, such considerations will be the last thing on their deranged, deluded and delusional minds. That this epically tragic, utterly regrettable, totally avoidable exercise in American empire building should be commemorated in such a manner at all leaves one to wonder—especially in the current geopolitical milieu—if there is any real hope for the home of the brave and the land of the free at all.
Don’t mention the war? Sounds like good idea to me!
© Greg Maybury, 2014-2015
End Part One
* This is an updated and revised version of an article first published on Op Ed News in 2014.
Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War, by Jeffrey Kimball & William Burr