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Archive for the ‘Guerra de Vietnam’ Category

Vietnam: 40 años de una masacre

Por Luis Mazarrasa Mowinckel

EL PAÍS  04 de mayo de 2015
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Un tanque norvietnamita cruza delante del palacio presidencial en Saigón el 30 de abril de 1975. / Reuters

El 30 de abril de 1975 los telediarios mostraban la imagen en blanco y negro de un tanque con la bandera del Vietcong derribando la verja metálica del Palacio Presidencial de Saigón. La Guerra de Vietnam había terminado. Atrás quedaba un conflicto de altísima intensidad que había durado quince años, si se cuenta a partir del comienzo de la actividad guerrillera del Vietcong contra el Gobierno de Vietnam del Sur, en 1959, o incluso 34 si se considera como punto de partida los ataques de las guerrillas de Ho Chi Minh contra el colonialismo francés.

La Guerra de Vietnam, que tomaba por asalto a diario los noticieros de los años sesenta y setenta, fue el enfrentamiento bélico más fotografiado y filmado de la historia, el mayor filón que haya existido para un corresponsal de guerra y el que dejó también casi tantas bandas sonoras como los filmes sobre la II Guerra Mundial.

Esa cobertura exhaustiva del conflicto, sobre todo a partir de la total implicación del Ejército de EE UU a favor de Vietnam del Sur en 1964, fue precisamente un factor fundamental en su desarrollo, ya que incendió a la opinión pública mundial, incluida la norteamericana, que reclamó masivamente la retirada de esa potencia de la guerra en un país del Sureste asiático.

El origen de la contienda que terminó con la victoria de las tropas del Norte y la reunificación de Vietnam en 1975 se encuentra en la lucha del Viet Minh –el ejército guerrillero al mando del líder Ho Chi Minh- en los años cincuenta contra la potencia colonial que desde 1883 había integrado el país, junto con Laos y Camboya, en la Indochina Francesa.

Efectivamente, tras la derrota del invasor japonés al término de la II Guerra Mundial la actividad guerrillera y las ansias independentistas de los vietnamitas se recrudecieron. Así, con la rendición del ejército colonial en 1954 a los vietnamitas del general Giap, en lo que se calificó como el desastre de Dien Bien Phu, Francia se vio obligada a abandonar sus colonias en Indochina.

Los Acuerdos de Ginebra de ese mismo año establecieron una frontera temporal a lo largo del río Ben Hai, a la altura del Paralelo 17, que separó hasta las elecciones de 1956 el norte del país, con un Gobierno comunista que había liderado la victoria, de un Vietnam del Sur, capitalista y cuyos dirigentes se habían alineado con la Francia colonial.

Sin embargo, ante la previsible victoria de Ho Chi Minh –el líder del Norte apoyado por China- en las elecciones acordadas en Ginebra por todas las partes, el primer ministro del Sur, Ngo Dinh Diem, convocó un referéndum en su territorio que lo reafirmó en el cargo, suspendió los comicios y estableció como definitiva la frontera que dividía a la República Democrática de Vietnam del Norte –con capital en Hanoi- y a Vietnam del Sur, con un gobierno instalado en Saigón, también dictatorial, anticomunista y fuertemente ligado a los intereses de Estados Unidos, que desde la marcha de los franceses había inundado el sur de asesores militares.

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Cartel de propaganda en el Museo de Arte de Vietnam. / luis mazarrasa

La flagrante violación de los acuerdos de paz provocó el fin del alto el fuego y la reanudación, pues, de los ataques del Ejército del Norte en los alrededores del Paralelo 17 y de su guerrilla aliada del Vietcong en numerosos puntos del Sur donde se había infiltrado.

1964 marca el inicio de la implicación total de EE UU en el conflicto. El presidente Lyndon B. Johnson, que ha sucedido al asesinado John F. Kennedy, aprovecha el incidente del Golfo de Tonkín, en agosto de ese año –cuando dos buques norteamericanos fueron supuestamente atacados-, como pretexto para bombardear Vietnam del Norte y ordenar el desembarco masivo de marines en las playas de Danang. A finales de 1965 ya eran 184.000 los soldados estadounidenses en el territorio y dos años más tarde, medio millón.

Años después del fin de la contienda se reveló que, en realidad, el destructor Maddox sufrió un ataque al encontrarse en aguas jurisdiccionales norvietnamitas apoyando una operación de tropas de Vietnam del Sur, mientras que el Turner Joy no sufrió agresión alguna. Además, también se demostró que Lyndon Johnson ya disponía de un borrador de la resolución del suceso con fecha anterior a que el incidente de Tonkín hubiera ocurrido.

Las razones que en un principio los presidentes Kennedy y Johnson declararon a la opinión pública norteamericana para justificar la implicación en una guerra: la agresión a un país aliado por los comunistas de Ho Chi Minh y la “evidente” amenaza de un contagio a todo el Sureste asiático en caso de la victoria del Norte, que podría inducir a Tailandia, Camboya, Laos y Corea del Sur a integrarse en el bloque socialista, fueron perdiendo fuerza a medida que las noticias mostraban la terrible devastación provocada por los bombardeos de los B-52 en ciudades y aldeas y los testimonios de numerosos veteranos licenciados del combate y de otros tantos objetores a filas que rechazaban “ir a masacrar a unos campesinos de un país tan lejano”, como declaró algún marine a la vuelta a casa.

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Dos niños corren por una carretera intentando escapar de un ataque con napalm, en Trang Bang, a 26 millas de Saigón, el 8 de junio de 1972. / Reuters

Mientras el conflicto se enconaba, EE UU bombardeaba incesantemente Hanoi y otras ciudades del Norte y el presidente de Vietnam del Sur era asesinado en un golpe de Estado apoyado por la propia Administración norteamericana, las fuerzas armadas de Ho Chi Minh protagonizaban espectaculares golpes de mano, como la Ofensiva del Tet en 1968, que marcó el punto de inflexión en la guerra. Las imágenes en directo de la mismísima embajada de EE UU en Saigón tomada durante unas horas por un grupo de guerrilleros, que actuaban en coordinación con otros que atacaron más de cien ciudades y pueblos protegidos por los marines, conmocionaron aún más a una sociedad que meses más tarde viviría las manifestaciones pacifistas del verano  del amor en 1968 en California y las más violentas del mayo francés.

A ello se sumó la revelación de masacres cometidas por los marines en distritos como My Lai, donde el 16 de marzo de 1968 tres pelotones asesinaron a cientos de campesinos, mujeres, ancianos y niños, y las imágenes de la destrucción causada por los bombardeos y la utilización masiva por parte de EE UU de armas químicas, como el napalm y otras.

En 1970, el descrédito del Gobierno norteamericano por la guerra de Vietnam alcanza su cenit a raíz del golpe de estado tramado por los servicios de inteligencia estadounidenses contra el rey de la vecina Camboya, Norodom Sihanouk. Los soldados norteamericanos cruzaron la frontera para respaldar al dictador Lon Nol como mandatario del país y la Administración de Richard Nixon, el nuevo presidente de EE UU, se vio inmersa en otra guerra hasta entonces llevada en secreto.

Para entonces Estados Unidos ya había perdido más de 40.000 soldados en la Guerra de Vietnam, algo inaceptable para su opinión pública. Por contra, los cinco millones de víctimas vietnamitas –entre combatientes y civiles- no suponían lastre alguno para el Gobierno de Lê Duân, sucesor del recién fallecido Ho Chi Minh. Nadie cuestionaba el precio que habría de pagarse por una guerra nacionalista de liberación.

El 27 de enero de 1973 Estados Unidos, los dos Vietnam y el Vietcong firmaron en París un alto el fuego, la retirada total de las tropas estadounidenses, la liberación de prisioneros y la creación de un Consejo Nacional de Reconciliación. Por primera vez en 115 años el país se veía libre de la presencia de militares extranjeros. EE UU sufría la primera derrota de su historia, que le había causado más de 58.000 militares muertos.

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Atentado del Vietcong en la embajada de Estados Unidos en Saigón. / Agencia Keystone

Pero los Acuerdos de París no trajeron la paz inmediata, con el Sur tremendamente debilitado por la marcha de EE UU y las deserciones masivas de sus tropas. Las hostilidades se reanudaron y en enero de 1975 el Ejército del Norte cruzaba el Paralelo 17 en dirección a Saigón, esta vez sin ceder el protagonismo a los guerrilleros Vietcong.

El general Nguyen Van Thieu, a la cabeza de la República de Vietnam del Sur desde 1967, vio como la promesa de ayuda económica de EE UU para la fase de transición después de los Acuerdos de París era rechazada por la nueva Administración de Gerald Ford, al frente de un país con las heridas del conflicto vietnamita en carne viva y la vergüenza de la dimisión de Richard Nixon una año antes, en 1974, por el caso Watergate.

Con las ciudades del centro del país: Hue, Danang, Nha Trang… cayendo en manos del Norte como fichas de dominó, Van Thieu se atrincheró con sus pocos leales en Saigón hasta el 21 de abril de 1975, cuando dimitió y huyó camino del exilio. Nueve días más tarde, el 30 de abril, Saigón –que las nuevas autoridades de un Vietnam reunificado cambiarían el nombre por Ciudad de Ho Chi Minh- caía en medio de la euforia nacionalista. Las imágenes de la apresurada huida del embajador norteamericano y del personal de la CIA a bordo de helicópteros, horas antes desde las azoteas de sus edificios hacia portaaviones anclados en el Mar del Sur de China, serían la última humillación mediática para EE UU, envuelto en un conflicto que, como declararía años más tarde Robert S. McNamara, el ideólogo de los bombardeos sobre Hanoi y uno de los cocineros del embuste del incidente de Tonkín, fue un tremendo error: “No fuimos conscientes que los vietnamitas no luchaban solo por imponer el comunismo, sino por un ideal nacionalista”.

Hoy, cuando Vietnam celebra los cuarenta años de paz casi por primera vez en su convulsa historia, el país pasa por un espectacular desarrollo económico en el que la pobreza extrema prácticamente se ha erradicado y llueven las inversiones nacionales y extranjeras, aunque sus campos de verdes arrozales todavía sufren las secuelas de los bombardeos y la guerra química. Y medio millón de niños, muchos de ellos nacidos cuatro décadas después, padece terribles deformidades como consecuencia de la irrigación de la jungla con el agente naranja, el defoliante utilizado por EE UU para destruir el ecosistema del país. Su componente principal, la dioxina, daña el ADN de las personas expuestas y se estima que puede transmitir sus efectos durante tres generaciones.

Con un modelo calcado de su gigante vecino chino, Vietnam es una dictadura de partido único en lo político y sin asomo de libertad de expresión ni disidencia y, al mismo tiempo, se halla inmerso en un capitalismo casi salvaje en lo económico.

Luis Mazarrasa Mowinckel es autor de Viajero al curry (Ed. Amargord) y de la Guía Azul de Vietnam y de numerosos reportajes sobre este país.

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ast Days in Vietnam Civilians evacuating ahead of Communist troops about to enter Saigon in this documentary opening Friday. Credit Juan Valdez/American Experience Films, WGBH

Last Days in Vietnam Civilians evacuating ahead of Communist troops about to enter Saigon in this documentary opening Friday. Credit Juan Valdez/American Experience Films, WGBH

 

Witnesses to the Collapse
‘Last Days in Vietnam’ Looks at Fall of Saigon
By A. O. SCOTT    

The New York Times  September 4, 2014
Perhaps the most striking thing about “Last Days in Vietnam,” Rory Kennedy’s eye-opening documentary about the 1975 evacuation of the American Embassy in Saigon, is how calmly it surveys what was once among the angriest topics in American political life. The story is full of emotion and danger, heroism and treachery, but it is told in a mood of rueful retrospect rather than simmering partisan rage. Ms. Kennedy, whose uncle John F. Kennedy expanded American involvement in Vietnam and whose father, Robert F. Kennedy, became one of the ensuing war’s most passionate critics, explores its final episode with an open mind and lively curiosity. There are old clips that have never been widely seen and pieces of information that may surprise many viewers.
Pictures, moving and still, have always been part of the American collective memory of Vietnam. The fall of Saigon conjures up the image of a helicopter on a rooftop as desperate people try to climb aboard. One thing I learned from “Last Days in Vietnam” is that it was not the roof of the embassy, as is sometimes assumed, but of the building where the C.I.A. station chief lived, in another part of the city. What happened at the embassy — and in the waters off the coast of Saigon — was desperate and dramatic and much more complicated.

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The Paris Peace Accords of 1973 had provisionally maintained the partition of Vietnam into North and South. As soon as the American forces were gone, the Communist North began to unify the country by force, sweeping quickly through Da Nang and other Southern cities and closing in on Saigon by April of 1975. For tangled reasons that Ms. Kennedy and her interview sources manage to clarify impressively, plans for evacuation were delayed until the 11th hour. Thousands of Vietnamese who had loyally served the American cause and the South Vietnamese government were in imminent danger, and “Last Days in Vietnam” is largely a chronicle of efforts to get them and their families out.

 

 Evacuees board a helicopter. Credit Bettmann, Corbis/American Experience Films

Evacuees board a helicopter. Credit Bettmann, Corbis/American Experience Films

The narrators are an assortment of American and Vietnamese men who witnessed the events firsthand, and whose accounts are deftly woven into a conciseand gripping film. Some are well known, like Henry A. Kissinger, the secretary of state and national security adviser at the time, and Richard L. Armitage, who went on to serve in the State Department in the administration of George W. Bush. At the time, he was a naval officer, and he remains a natural-born storyteller with a gruff sense of humor and a vivid sense of detail. Hour-by-hour accounts of the airlifts that brought thousands of people from the embassy to American ships are provided by embassy guards, journalists and military personnel. We hear from residents of Saigon who made it out, and also from some who didn’t.
The central figure in the drama is the American ambassador, Graham Martin, who died in 1990 and could not be interviewed for “Last Days in Vietnam.” That is unfortunate, but the portrait that emerges from archival news footage and the memories of others is fascinating in its ambiguity. As the North Vietnamese armies routed the Southern forces, he refused to plan an exit strategy, believing in the face of overwhelming evidence that South Vietnam would survive.

 The crew members aboard the U.S.S. Kirk signal an arriving helicopter to send its passengers out, on April 29, 1975. Credit Hugh Doyle/American Experience Films

The crew members aboard the U.S.S. Kirk signal an arriving helicopter to send its passengers out, on April 29, 1975. Credit Hugh Doyle/American Experience Films

This almost delusional stubbornness — which Ms. Kennedy’s interviewees still marvel at 40 years later — revealed another side as the Communist capture of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) drew near. Defying prudent advice and at some risk to his own safety, Ambassador Martin delayed his own departure from the embassy for as long as he could, so that as many Vietnamese as possible could escape.
Not that this is a story with a happy ending. What followed was brutality and repression on the part of the victors, and a refugee crisis among their victims. Now that so much time has passed, and relations between the United States and Vietnam have normalized, it might have been good to hear a voice or two from the other side, to learn what was going through the minds of the soldiers entering Saigon as the Americans left. But this omission does not diminish what Ms. Kennedy has accomplished, which is fairly and compassionately to reconstruct a messy episode in history.

 

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50 Years Ago Congress Gave the President a Blank Check for War 

by Leonard Steinhorn

HNN August 3, 2014

 

Walt Rostow showing LBJ a map of Khe Sanh in 1968

 

Fifty years ago, on August 10, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed what is known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. It is a day that should live in infamy.

On that day, the President gave himself the power “to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed forces,” to fight the spread of communism in Southeast Asia and assist our ally in South Vietnam “in defense of its freedom.”

Or as former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara put it decades later, it gave “complete authority to the president to take the nation to war.”

History has shown that the resolution was built on a foundation of misinformation, fabrication, and willful evasion of the truth. Contrary to what the President claimed, there was no unprovoked “act of aggression” against the American  destroyers that were patrolling the Tonkin Gulf, and a second alleged incident never even took place.

But the Johnson administration was looking for a pretext to escalate the war. “We don’t know what happened,” National Security Adviser Walter W. Rostow told the president after Congress passed the resolution, “but it had the desired result.”

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution may have had the desired result, but the war it unleashed didn’t.

By the time Lyndon Johnson left office more than four years later, we had amassed over half a million troops in Vietnam, lost nearly 37,000 soldiers, dropped more bomb tonnage than we had in all of World War II, released chemical weapons – Napalm and Agent Orange – throughout Southeast Asia, and burned thousands of South Vietnamese homes and villages to the ground.

Yet it was increasingly clear by then that we could not win the war.

Rather than stopping any dominoes from falling in Southeast Asia, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution set in motion a series of dominoes in our own country  that would profoundly alter our politics, economy, and culture for years to come.

Perhaps the most significant decision President Johnson made beyond using his newly authorized power to escalate the war was to hide the cost of the war and resist any tax increase to pay for it. Johnson feared that any congressional debate over funding the war would come at the expense of his Great Society program.

He wanted both guns and butter, but he worried that Congress would choose guns over butter. So once again he resorted to obfuscation and deception to get his way.

What resulted was a cascading series of economic  consequences that would transform our nation and undermine the Great Society he so dearly wanted to protect.

To pay for the war without gutting his robust domestic agenda, Johnson resorted to deficit spending which fueled an already overheating economy that was now being asked to divert its productivity away from consumer goods and toward the war effort.

Consumer demand began to outstrip supply, and that let the inflation genie out of the bottle. Less than five years after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed, inflation more than quadrupled.

Johnson couldn’t hide the rising cost of the war for long, and by 1968 he asked for a 10 percent tax surcharge on all but the poorest Americans. But it came at a cost: Congress demanded, and he had to accept, a 10 percent reduction in domestic discretionary spending. Barely three years after birthing the Great Society, he began to starve it to pay for the war. It never fully recovered.

To middle and working class Americans, the backbone of the New Deal coalition, the war’s economic impact was taking a toll. Though inflation meant pay raises once a year, prices for food and consumer goods were rising every month which then ate away at any increase in their wages.

Their standard of living began to stagnate. Nor were taxes indexed to inflation in those years, so every pay increase risked pushing them into a higher tax bracket, which took even more money from their pockets in addition to the tax surcharge they would have to pay.

These were largely Democratic voters who generally supported the president and the war – many had their own boys fighting in Vietnam – so if they were looking for blame they weren’t about to point the finger at a deceptive and misguided war policy.

Instead, they saw higher taxes, higher domestic spending, and lots of fanfare for a Great Society that didn’t seem to include them. They also saw domestic unrest and urban riots.

To them, they were hard-working Americans who played by the rules yet were now forced to tread water just to keep from falling behind while government seemed to be giving everything away to the poor. That domestic programs themselves were getting squeezed by the war was a detail that got lost in the heat of the moment.

Couple these growing resentments with the fact that it was their boys, not the children of the well-educated, who were being sent off to war. From their perspective, the liberal elites were taxing them to coddle the poor, yet when it came to defending our nation these same liberal elites sheltered their sons in colleges and universities.

Those seeking to understand the rise of Reagan Democrats and white working class Republican populists – and the corresponding demise of the New Deal majority – need look no further. The cultural and political divide that began in the Sixties was a direct result of the deceit that brought us the Vietnam War.

And what was then a still fragile liberal consensus that government could mitigate the hardships of poverty – a consensus that enabled passage of the Great Society legislation – began to erode.

That an administration could dissemble us into war would lead to another cultural and political repercussion of Vietnam: our growing and seemingly permanent distrust of government.

Trust in government peaked at 76 percent in 1964, not coincidentally the same year as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and declined precipitously in the years thereafter, reaching what was then a low of 25 percent in 1980, according to the University of Michigan’s National Election Studies.

Not all of this decline is due to Vietnam, but a war built on the original sin of deception, fiction, and illusion deserves a good deal of the blame.

Almost daily, Americans were treated to an official  version of the war that had us winning. The  Johnson administration trumpeted body counts and bombing raids and assured us, in the famous words of General William Westmoreland, that there was “light at the end of the tunnel.”

But there was no light. The dark reality we saw every night on television contradicted what our leaders were telling us. We saw bloodied soldiers, troops burning villages, body bags, fear and despair and little of the triumphalism that was emanating from the Pentagon.

When the Vietcong launched their Tet Offensive in  January 1968, striking at the U.S. Embassy and other key sites in the heart of Saigon, Americans had a hard time reconciling the official version with what they were witnessing.

Thus was born the credibility gap between the American government and its citizens.

And nowhere did it grow wider than among journalists, who were greeted with untruths during the daily military briefings in Vietnam – known as the Five O’clock Follies – and saw through such euphemisms as “pacification,” which in truth meant torching Vietnamese huts and shooting those who resisted, and “collateral damage,” which in reality meant civilian deaths.

Reflexive skepticism of government remains a defining characteristic of contemporary journalism.

Watergate, which calcified the credibility gap, also grew out of Vietnam when President Richard Nixon authorized his secretive White House Plumbers to retaliate against Daniel Ellsberg, whose leak of the Pentagon Papers laid bare the duplicity behind the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the U.S. prosecution of the war.

Years later Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, one of two who voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, told Ellsberg that if members of Congress had seen the evidence from the Pentagon Papers in 1964, “the Tonkin Gulf Resolution would never have gotten out of committee, and if it had been brought to the floor, it would have been voted down.”

What Lyndon Johnson saw as a ploy to grant him war powers ended up harming so many and transforming our nation in ways the President surely never intended. It would end up engulfing the liberalism he so loved. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the hubris behind it were the linchpins of Johnson’s Shakespearean Vietnam tragedy – and ours as well.

Leonard Steinhorn is a professor of communication and affiliate professor of history at American University, where he teaches politics, strategic communication, and courses on the presidency and recent American history. He is the author of the much discussed book on baby boomers, The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy, and co-author of the critically acclaimed By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and The Reality of Race.

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No End of a lesson- Unlearned

William R. Polk

HNN June 15, 2014

America appears once again to be on the brink of a war. This time the war is likely to be in Syria and/or in Iraq. If we jump into one or both of these wars, they will join, by my count since our independence, about 200 significant military operations (not all of which were legally “wars”) as well as countless “proactive” interventions, regime-change undertakings, covert action schemes and search-and-destroy missions. In addition the United States has provided weapons, training and funding for a variety of non-American military and quasi-military forces throughout the world. Within recent months we have added five new African countries. History and contemporary events show that we Americans are a warring people.

So we should ask: what have we learned about ourselves, our adversaries and the process in which we have engaged?

The short answer appears to be “very little.”

As both a historian and a former policy planner for the American government, I will very briefly here (as I have mentioned in a previous essay, I am in the final stages of a book to be called A Warring People, on these issues), illustrate what I mean by “very little.”

I begin with us, the American people. There is overwhelming historical evidence that war is popular with us. Politicians from our earliest days as a republic, indeed even before when we were British colonies, could nearly always count on gaining popularity by demonstrating our valor. Few successful politicians were pacifists.

Even supposed pacifists found reasons to engage in the use of force. Take the man most often cited as a peacemaker or at least a peaceseeker, Woodrow Wilson. He promised to “keep us out of war,” by which he meant keeping us out of big, expensive European war. Before becoming president, however, he approved the American conquest of Cuba and the Philippines and described himself as an imperialist; then, as president, he occupied Haiti, sent the Marines into the Dominican Republic and ordered the Cavalry into Mexico. In 1918, he also put American troops into Russia. Not only sending soldiers: his administration carried out naval blockades, economic sanctions, covert operations — one of which, allegedly, involved an assassination attempt on a foreign leader — and furnished large-scale arms supplies to insurgents in on-going wars.

The purpose, and explanation, of our wars varied. I think most of us would agree that our Revolution, the First World War and the Second World War were completely justified. Probably Korea was also. The United States had no choice on the Civil war or, perhaps, on the War of 1812. Many, particularly those against the Native Americans would today be classified as war crimes. It is the middle range that seem to me to be the most important to understand. I see them like this.

Some military ventures were really misadventures in the sense that they were based on misunderstandings or deliberate misinformation. I think that most students of history would put the Spanish-American, Vietnamese, Iraqi and a few other conflicts in this category. Our government lied to us — the Spaniards did not blow up the Maine; the Gulf of Tonkin was not a dastardly attack on our innocent ships and Iraq was not about to attack us with a nuclear weapon, which it did not have.

But we citizens listened uncritically. We did not demand the facts. It is hard to avoid the charge that we were either complicit, lazy or ignorant. We did not hold our government to account.

Several war and other forms of intervention were for supposed local or regional requirements of the Cold War. We knowingly told one another that the “domino theory” was reality: so a hint of Communist subversion or even criticism of us sent us racing off to protect almost any form of political association that pretended to be on our side. And we believed or feared that even countries that had little or no connections with one another would topple at the touch — or even before their neighbors appeared to be in trouble. Therefore, regardless of their domestic political style, monarchy, dictatorship. democracy., it mattered not, they had to be protected. Our protection often included threats of invasion, actual intervention, paramilitary operations, subversion and/or bribery, justified by our proclaimed intent to keep them free. Or at least free from Soviet control. Included among them were Guatemala, Nicaragua, Brazil, Chile, Italy, Greece, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Indonesia, Vietnam and various African countries.

Some interventions were for acquisition of their resources or protection of our economic assets. Guatemala, Chile, Iraq, Iran and Indonesia come to mind.

Few, if any, were to establish the basis of peace or even to bring about ceasefires. Those tasks we usually left to the United Nations or regional associations.

The costs have been high. Just counting recent interventions, they have cost us well over a hundred thousand casualties and some multiple of that in wounded; they have cost “the others” — both our enemies and our friends — large multiples of those numbers. The monetary cost is perhaps beyond counting both to them and to us. Figures range upward from $10 trillion.

The rate of success of these aspects of our foreign policy, even in the Nineteenth century, was low. Failure to accomplish the desired or professed outcome is shown by the fact that within a few years of the American intervention, the condition that had led to the intervention recurred. The rate of failure has dramatically increased in recent years. This is because we are operating in a world that is increasingly politically sensitive. Today even poor, weak, uneducated and corrupt nations become focused by the actions of foreigners. Whereas before, a few members of the native elite made the decisions, today we face “fronts.” parties, tribes and independent opinion leaders. So the “window of opportunity” for foreign intervention, once at least occasionally partly open, is now often shut.

Delta Force of Task Force 20 alongside troops of 3rd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, at Uday Hussain and Qusay Hussein’s hideout (Wikipedia)

I will briefly focus on five aspects of this transformation:

First, nationalism has been and remains the predominant way of political thought of most of the world’s people. Its power has long been strong (even when we called it by other names) but it began to be amplified and focused by Communism in the late Nineteenth century. Today, nationalism in Africa, much of Asia and parts of Europe is increasingly magnified by the rebirth of Islam in the salafiyah movement.

Attempts to crush these nationalist-ideological-religious-cultural movements militarily have generally failed. Even when, or indeed especially when, foreigners arrive on the scene, natives put aside their mutual hostilities to unite against them. We saw this particularly vividly and painfully in Somalia. The Russians saw it in Çeçnaya and the Chinese, among the Uyghur peoples of Xinjiang (former Chinese Turkistan).

Second, outside intervention has usually weakened moderate or conservative forces or tendencies within each movement. Those espousing the most extreme positions are less likely to be suborned or defeated than the moderates. Thus particularly in a protracted hostilities, are more likely to take charge than their rivals. We have seen this tendency in each of the guerrilla wars in which we got involved; for the situation today, look at the insurgent movements in Syria and Iraq. (For my analysis of the philosophy and strategy of the Muslim extremists, see my essay “Sayyid Qutub’s Fundamentalism and Abu Bakr Naji’s Jihadism” on my website.)

What is true of the movements is even more evident in the effects on civic institutions and practices within an embattled society. In times of acute national danger, the “center” does not hold. Centrists get caught between the insurgents and the regimes. Insurgents have to destroy their relationship to society and government if they are to “win.” Thus, in Vietnam for example, doctors and teachers, who interfaced between government and the general population were prime targets for the Vietminh in the 1950s.

And, as the leaders of governments against whom the insurgents are fighting become more desperate, they suppress those of their perceived rivals or critics they can reach. By default, these people are civilians who are active in the political parties, the media and the judiciary . And, as their hold on power erodes and “victory” becomes less likely, regimes also seek to create for themselves safe havens by stealing money and sending it abroad. Thus, the institutions of government are weakened and the range of enemies widens. We have witnessed these two aspects of “corruption” — both political and economic — in a number of countries. Recent examples are Vietnam and Afghanistan.

In Vietnam at least by 1962 the senior members of the regime had essentially given up the fight. Even then they were preparing to bolt the country. And the army commanders were focused on earning money that they sold the bullets and guns we gave them to the Vietminh. In Afghanistan, the regime’s involvement in the drug trade, its draining of the national treasury into foreign private bank accounts (as even Mr. Karzai admitted) and in “pickpocketing” hundreds of millions of dollars from aid projects is well documented.  (See the monthly reports of the American Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction.)

Third, our institutional memory of programs, events and trends is shallow. I suggest that it usually is no longer than a decade. Thus, we repeat policies even when the record clearly shows that they did not work when previously tried. And we address each challenge as though it is unprecedented. We forget the American folk saying that when you find yourself in a hole, the best course of action is to stop digging. it isn’t only that our government (and the thousands of “experts,” tacticians and strategists it hires) do not “remember” but also that they have at hand only one convenient tool — the shovel. What did we learn from Vietnam? Get a bigger, sharper shovel.

Fourth, despite or perhaps in part because of our immigrant origins, we are a profoundly insular people. Few of us have much appreciation of non-American cultures and even less fellow feeling for them. Within a generation or so, few immigrants can even speak the language of their grand parents. Many of us are ashamed of our ethnic origins.

Thus, for example, at the end of the Second World War, despite many of us being of German or Italian or Japanese cultural background, we were markedly deficient in people who could help implement our policies in those countries. We literally threw away the language and culture of grandparents. A few years later, when I began to study Arabic, there were said to be only five Americans not of Arab origin who knew the language. Beyond language, grasp of the broader range of culture petered off to near zero. Today, after the expenditure of significant government subsidies to universities (in the National Defense Education Act) to teach “strategic” languages, the situation should be better. But, while we now know much more, I doubt that we understand other peoples much better.

If this is true of language, it is more true of more complex aspects of cultural heritage. Take Somalia as an example. Somalia was not, as the media put it, a “failed state”; it was and is a “non-state.” That is, the Somalis do not base their effective identify as members of a nation state. Like almost everyone in the world did before recent centuries, they thought of themselves as members of clans, tribes, ethnic or religious assemblies or territories. It is we, not they, who have redefined political identity. We forget that the nation-state is a concept that was born in Europe only a few centuries ago and became accepted only late in the Nineteenth century in Germany and Italy. For the Somalis, it is still an alien construct. So, not surprisingly, our attempt to force them or entice them to shape up and act within our definition of statehood has not worked. And Somalia is not alone. And not only in Africa. Former Yugoslavia is a prime example: to be ‘balkanized’ has entered our language. And, if we peek under the flags of Indonesia, Burma, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Congo, Mali, the Sudan and other nation-states we find powerful forces of separate ethnic nationalisms.

The effects of relations among many of the peoples of Asia and Africa and some of the Latin Americans have created new political and social configurations and imbalances within and among them. With European and American help the governments with which we deal have acquired more effective tools of repression. They can usually defeat the challenges of traditional groups. But, not always. Where they do not acquire legitimacy in the eyes of significant groups — “nations” — states risk debilitating, long-term struggles. These struggles are, in part, the result of the long years of imperial rule and colonial settlement. Since Roman times, foreign rulers have sought to cut expenses by governing through local proxies. Thus, the British turned over to the Copts the unpopular task of colleting Egyptian taxes and to the Assyrians the assignment of controlling the Iraqi Sunnis. The echo of these years is what we observe in much of the “Third World” today. Ethnic, religious and economic jealousies abound and the wounds of imperialism and colonialism have rarely completely healed. We may not be sensitive to them, but to natives they may remain painful. Americans may be the “new boys on the block,” but these memories have often been transferred to us.

Finally, fifth, as the preeminent nation-state America has a vast reach. There is practically no area of the world in which we do not have one sort of interest or another. We have over a thousand military bases in more than a hundred countries; we trade, buy and sell, manufacture or give away goods and money all over Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe. We train, equip and subsidize dozens of armies and even more paramilitary or “Special” forces. This diversity is, obviously, a source of strength and richness, but, less obviously, it generates conflicts between what we wish to accomplish in one country and what we think we need to accomplish in another. At the very least, handling or balancing our diverse aims within acceptable means and at a reasonable cost is a challenge.

It is a challenge that we seem less and less able to meet.

Take Iraq as an example. As a corollary of our hostility to Saddam Husain, we essentially turned Iraq over to his enemies, the Iraqi Shia Muslim. (I deal with this in my Understanding Iraq, New York: HarperCollins, 2005, 171 ff.) There was some justification for this policy. The Shia community has long been Iraq’s majority and because they were Saddam’s enemies, some “experts” naively thought they would become our friends. But immediately two negative aspects of our policy became evident: non-specialists: first, the Shiis took vengeance on the Sunni Muslim community and so threw the country into a vicious civil war. What we called pacification amounted to ethnic cleansing. And, second, the Shia Iraqi leaders (the marjiaah) made common cause with coreligionist Iranians with whom we were nearly at war all during the second Bush administration. Had war with Iran eventuated, our troops in Iraq would have been more hostages than occupiers. At several points, we had the opportunity to form a more coherent, moral and safer policy. I don’t see evidence that our government or our occupation civil and military authorities even grasped the problem; certainly they did not find ways to work toward a solution. Whatever else may be said about it, our policy was dysfunctional.

I deserve to be challenged on this statement: I am measuring (with perhaps now somewhat weakened hindsight) recent failures against what we tried to do in the Policy Planning Council in the early 1960s. If our objective is, as we identify it, to make the world at least safe, even if not safe for democracy, we are much worse off today than we were then. We policy planners surely then made many significant mistakes (and were often not heeded), but I would argue that we worked within a more coherent framework than our government does today. Increasingly, it seems to me that we are in a mode of leaping from one crisis to the next without having understood the first or anticipating the second. I see no strategic concept; only tactical jumps and jabs.

So what to do?

At the time of the writing of the American Constitution, one of our Founding Fathers, Gouverneur Morris, remarked that part of the task he and others of the authors put it, was “to save the people from their most dangerous enemy, themselves.” Translated to our times, this is to guard against our being “gun slingers.” All the delegates were frightened by militarism and sought to do the absolute minimum required to protect the country from attack. They refused the government permission to engage in armed actions against foreigners except in defense. I believe they would have been horrified, if they could have conceived it, by the national security state we have become. They certainly did not look to the military to solve problems of policy. They would have agreed, I feel sure, that very few of the problem we face in the world today could be solved by military means So, even when we decide to employ military means, we need to consider not only the immediate but the long-term effects of our actions. We have, at least, the experience and the intellectual tools to do so. So why have we not?

We have been frequently misled by the success of our postwar policies toward both Germany and Japan. We successfully helped those two countries to embark upon a new era. And, during the employment of the Truman Doctrine in Greece, the civil war there ended. There were special reasons for all three being exceptions. Perhaps consequent to those successes, when we decided to destroy the regimes of Saddam Husain and Muammar Qaddafi, we gave little thought of what would follow. We more or less just assumed that things would get better. They did not. The societies imploded. Had we similarly gone into Iran, the results would have been a moral, legal and economic disaster. Now we know — or should know — that unless the risk is justified, as our Constitution demands it be by an imminent armed attack on the United States, we should not make proactive war on foreign nations. We have sworn not to do so in the treaty by which we joined the United Nations. In short, we need to be law abiding, and we should look before we leap.

Our ability to do any of these things will depend on several decisions.

The first is to be realistic: there is no switch we can flip to change our capacities. To look for quick and easy solutions is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

The second is a matter of will and the costs and penalties that attach to it. We would be more careful in foreign adventures if we had to pay for them in both blood and treasure as they occurred. That is, “in real time.” We now avoid this by borrowing money abroad and by inducing or bribing vulnerable members of our society and foreigners to fight for us.. All our young men and women should know that they will be obliged to serve if we get into war, and we should not be able to defer to future generations the costs of our ventures. We should agree to pay for them through immediate taxes rather than foreign loans.

The third is to demand accountability. Our government should be legally obligated to tell us the truth. If it does not, the responsible officials should be prosecuted in our courts and, if they violate our treaties or international law, they should have to come before the World Court of Justice. We now let them off scot-free. The only “culprits” are those who carry out their orders.

Fourth, in the longer term, the only answer to the desire for better policy is better public education. For a democracy to function, its citizens must be engaged. They cannot be usefully engaged if they are not informed. Yet few Americans know even our own laws on our role in world affairs. Probably even fewer know the history of our actions abroad — that is, what we have done in the past with what results and at what cost.

And as a people we are woefully ignorant about other peoples and countries. Polls indicate that few Americans even know the locations of other nations. The saying that God created war to teach Americans geography is sacrilegious. If this was God’s purpose, He failed. And beyond geography, concerning other people’s politics, cultures and traditions, there is a nearly blank page. Isn’t it time we picked up the attempt made by such men as Sumner Wells (with his An Intelligent American’s Guide to the Peace and his American Foreign Policy Library), Robert Hutchins, James Conant and others (with the General Education programs in colleges and universities) and various other failed efforts to make us a part of humanity?

On the surface, at least, resurrecting these programs is just a matter of (a small amount of) money. But results won’t come overnight. Our education system is stogy, our teachers are poorly trained and poorly paid, and we, the consumers, are distracted by quicker, easier gratifications than learning about world affairs. I had hoped that we would learn from the “real schools” of Vietnam and other failures, but we did not. The snippets of information which pass over our heads each day do not and cannot make a coherent pattern. Absent a matrix into which to place “news,” it is meaningless. I have suggested in a previous essay that we are in a situation like a computer without a program. We get the noise, but without a means to “read” it, it is just gibberish.

Our biggest challenge therefore comes down to us: unless or until we find a better system of teaching, of becoming aware that we need to learn and a desire to acquire the tools of citizenship, we cannot hope to move toward a safer, more enriching future.

This is a long-term task.

We had better get started.

William R. Polk was a professor of history at the University of Chicago. During the Kennedy and part of the Johnson administrations, he was the member of the Policy Planning Council responsible for North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Among his books are “Understanding Iraq, Violent Politics and Understanding Iran.” He is vice chairman of the W.P. Carey Foundation

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Forty-six years ago, in January 1966, Jonathan Schell, a 23-year-old not-quite-journalist found himself at the farming village of Ben Suc, 30 miles from the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon.  It had long been supportive of the Vietcong.  Now, in what was dubbed Operation Cedar Falls, the U.S. military (with Schell in tow) launched an operation to solve that problem.  The “solution” was typical of how Americans fought the Vietnam War.  All the village’s 3,500 inhabitants were to be removed to a squalid refugee camp and Ben Suc itself simply obliterated — every trace of the place for all time.  Schell’s remarkable and remarkably blunt observations on this grim operation were, no less remarkably, published in the New Yorker magazine and then as a book, causing a stir in a country where anti-war sentiment was growing fast.

In 1967, Schell returned to Vietnam and spent weeks in the northern part of the country watching from the backseats of tiny U.S. forward air control planes as parts of two provinces were quite literally blown away, house by house, village by village, an experience he recalls in today’s TomDispatch post.  From that came another New Yorker piece and then a book, The Military Half, which offered (and still offers) an unmatched journalistic vision of what the Vietnam War looked like.  It was a moment well captured in a mocking song one of the American pilots sang for him after an operation in which he had called in bombs on two Vietnamese churches, but somehow missed the white flag flying in front of them. The relevant stanza went:

“Strafe the town and kill the people,
Drop napalm in the square,
Get out early every Sunday
And catch them at their morning prayer.”

If Afghanistan is the war we somehow haven’t managed to notice most of the time, even while it’s going on, Vietnam was the war Americans couldn’t forget and have never been able to kick, possibly because we never managed to come to grips with just what it was and what we did there. Now, so many years later, in a monumental essay appearing in print in the Nation magazine and online here at TomDispatch, Schell returns (via Nick Turse’s new book, Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam) to the haunted terrain he last visited so many decades ago All of us, whether we know it or not, still live with the ghosts of that moment. Tom

How Did the Gates of Hell Open in Vietnam? 
A New Book Transforms Our Understanding of What the Vietnam War Actually Was 
By Jonathan Schell

TomDispatch.com  May 4, 2014

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 MovesNick 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 theToledo 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 actuallywaging 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 Movespermits 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?

Jonathan Schell is a Fellow at The Nation Institute, and the peace and disarmament correspondent for the Nation magazine. Among many other works, he is the author of The Real War, a collection of his New Yorkerreportage on the Vietnam War.

 

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DOKTOR ZOOM

Wonkette.com March 30, 2014

super-green-beretYou’ll never guess what fun topic we’re going to address this week, kids! That’s right: The years of Mitt Romney’s mission in France! We’ll learn all about how the Vietnam War was a just and important fight to save Southeast Asia from being crushed by dominoes, and why things happened as they did — or as Donald Rumsfeld recently analyzed the war with characteristic depth, “Some things work out, some things don’t, that didn’t.”

With typical clarity of purpose, our 8th-grade textbook, America: Land I Love (A Beka, 1994, 2006), explains exactly why America had to fight in Vietnam:

Concerned Americans believed in the domino theory of Communism in the poorer areas of the world. President Eisenhower had first used this term while referring to Southeast Asia. He said all of the countries there were like a row of standing dominoes. South Vietnam was the first domino, and the Communists were trying to knock it over. lf South Vietnam fell, all of the others — Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma, Indonesia — would fall, too. Lesser developed nations were especially vulnerable to Communism. Foreign policy planners began to refer to the poorest nations as the “Third World.”

Eisenhower believed it, and it must have been so. Also the third world (no, they don’t explain the term). Strangely, Land I Love makes no mention of how, following the fall of South Vietnam, all those other countries turned communist as well.

Our other text, the 11/12th-grade United States History for Christian Schools (Bob Jones University Press, 2001), is a little less absolute about all this; it devotes space to the initial involvement in Vietnam in the ’50s and early ’60s in fairly objective terms, and described the shift in American troops’ role from “advisors” to combatants with this up-to-date metaphor:

Ostensibly the troops were there to train the South Vietnamese army and to protect American personnel. However, the situation in Asia, as one historian has noted, was proving to be like a “tar baby”: the more the United States tried to free itself, the more entangled it became.

Surprisingly, considering its tendency to be the less frothing-mad of the two texts, U.S. Historyhas no doubt about the reality of the event that led to the expansion of the U.S. role:

In the midsummer of 1964 the American destroyer Maddox repulsed an attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. Although the affair was relatively minor, Johnson denounced this attack on an American vessel and asked Congress to pass a joint resolution giving him authority to respond to Communist aggression in Vietnam.

Land I Love at least calls it an “alleged” attack, but in its eagerness to justify the fight against atrocity-committing communists, weirdly suggests that it came after American soldiers were in frequent combat:

Communist guerrillas, called Viet Cong, terrorized innocent South Vietnamese villagers, forcing men, women, and children to help them. The Viet Cong sometimes equipped little children with explosives and sent them on suicide missions against unsuspecting American soldiers who had come to liberate the villages. In 1964, the North Vietnamese navy allegedly attacked American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Apart from that Gulf of Tonkin slip, U.S. History presents a pretty fair discussion of the Vietnam conflict, noting that it was “not a clear-cut conflict between two separate nations, as the Korean War had been. Americans were fighting both the North Vietnamese and pro-Communist South Vietnamese (called the Viet Cong).” U.S. History even notes that the South Vietnamese government, while non-Communist, “was corrupt, undemocratic, and unstable. The only advantage it offered to Americans was that it was ‘better than the Communists.’” We’re wondering if Bob Jones University has investigated the loyalty of whoever wrote that — nothing of the sort appears in Land I Love.

And then there’s the whole “limited war” strategy; U.S. History suggests that it was not a simple decision:

Johnson was committed to the idea of a limited, defensive war. He did not want to risk an outright war against North Vietnam — a war which might draw in the Soviet Union or Communist China, divert dollars from the Great Society at home, and prove politically damaging.

Land I Love knows, of course, that the real purpose of teaching history is to tell children who the good guys and bad guys were:

President Johnson wanted to fight the Communists in South Vietnam, but Congress refused to allow American forces to take the offensive and invade Communist North Vietnam. Congress opposed a clear military victory and the President himself wavered in his commitment because he did not want military spending to interfere with social welfare programs.

Under President Johnson, the United States sent some 500,000 American soldiers to South Vietnam to defend freedom in a no-win conflict known as the Vietnam War. These men fought bravely but they were not allowed to win. Conservative Americans felt that if the military had been allowed to fight the war as it should have been fought, fewer people would have been killed and Communism would have been defeated in that part of the world.

Land I Love is not quite as certain about how the war “should have been fought,” but it knows for sure that we should have won, because we’re America.

To its credit, U.S. History includes this lovely cynical comment from an unidentified girl in the early days of the campus protest movement: “I was told if I voted for Goldwater we would be at war in six months. I did — and we were.” It even acknowledges that the Johnson administration was deceptive about he progress of the war:

President Johnson feared that if Americans knew how deeply committed the United States was to the war and how it was actually going, they would stop supporting the programs of the Great Society. Therefore, he attempted to disguise the number of U.S. troops involved in the conflict and to cover setbacks. All that the American people generally heard were cheery, optimistic reports of how well the war was going.

U.S. History even blames Johnson’s deceptions — partly — for the public response to the 1968 Tet Offensive, noting that after the Viet Cong’s initially successful assault on targets all over South Vietnam, U.S. and South Vietnamese troops eventually “drove back the enemy, recapturing what had been lost and inflicting massive casualties”:

Militarily, the Tet Offensive was a failure for the Communists, but it had a dramatic effect on the American public. Television newscasts emphasized the negative aspects — the suddenness of the attack and the heavy losses — thus leading many Americans to believe that Tet was a Communist victory. The U.S. government, to some extent, reaped what it had sown. Having misled the American people and media about the course of the war, the government now faced the wrath of a public who wanted to know how things could come so close to disaster so suddenly. After Tet, many Americans were seemingly no longer looking to win the war; they only wanted a way out.

That’s really not much different from Kid Zoom’s secular textbook, The American Pageant, which says the Tet offensive “ended in a military defeat but a political victory for the Viet Cong.”

Happily, we have Land I Love to infuse a much-needed taste of Pure Wingnut Bullshit:

The Tet Offensive. Congress’s refusal to allow the American military to take an offensive position and fight to win was exposed in early 1968 when the Viet Cong began a series of devastating battles known as the Tet Offensive. As American and South Vietnamese troops suffered heavy casualties, it became clear that unless Congress allowed the troops to invade North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia and wipe out the Communist guerrillas and their war factories, the Vietnam conflict would never end.

Land I Love is so busy with the “what we shoulda done” to even note that the Tet offensive didn’t succeed in holding any significant territory — so yep, that really was some political victory for the Viet Cong; it even convinced rightwing textbook editors that all was lost.

We’ll let Land I Love have the last word this week, because it’s just so brilliantly paranoid, right down to the paragraph heading:

Betrayals all around. Although Congress refused to allow the needed military action, American and South Vietnamese forces managed to hold the Communists back. But Communist troops from North Vietnam continued to pour into the South, and European countries who sympathized with the Communists continued to supply North Vietnam with food and medical supplies. Some conservatives felt that Communist sympathizers in high-ranking government positions were deliberately hindering the U.S. military’s ability to achieve a victory in Vietnam.

Yes, this Christian textbook just complained that North Vietnamese were allowed to eat and get medical supplies. And of course, we never find out who those high-ranking traitors were, with all their back-stabbing, but they were almost certainly there.

Next Week: We’ll wrap up Vietnam and look at the dangerous radicals in the “peace” movement; take a wild guess which textbook makes no mention at all of My Lai, the Pentagon Papers, or Kent State? Hint: It’s the one that’s sure America was betrayed.

[Image Credit: Cover of Tod Holton: Super Green Beret (1967). Read the whole incredible mess at Ethan Persoff’s blog]


Read more at http://wonkette.com/545253/sundays-with-the-christianists-u-s-history-books-that-won-in-vietnam#gRL3CPftg9kVRjiD.99

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America´s Dien Bien Phu Syndrome

by John Prados
Histrory News Network    March 12, 2014
Image via Wiki Commons.

Image via Wiki Commons.

March 13, 2014 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the day in 1954 when the Vietnamese revolutionaries known as the Viet Minh opened the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, which marked the end of the French imperial adventure in Indochina. General Vo Nguyen Giap, the Viet Minh commander, passed away just a few months ago and did not live to see this day. But Giap, who served as the defense minister of North Vietnam through the entire American War — and, indeed, many Vietnamese — always considered Dien Bien Phu their greatest moment.

It’s not hard to see why.

During America’s war in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese beneffitted from having a real army, trained over years, well-equipped by Chinese and Soviet patrons, and a well-entrenched state apparatus. At the time of Dien Bien Phu, by contrast, the Viet Minh controlled only portions of the land (outside of the major cities, naturally), faced economic challenges, and were already weary from years of bitter fighting. In addition, the logistical obstacles simply in mounting the effort to assault the remote French position were enormous.

Dien Bien Phu was a far-away mountain valley in the northwest quadrant of Vietnam, hundreds of miles from Viet Minh bases. Roads were few and mostly had not been maintained for a decade. To support an army there — and the Viet Minh numbered 50,000 men — required a scale of supply far beyond anything the Vietnamese had ever attempted. Their opponents, the French Expeditionary Corps, possessed all the advantages of a modern, Western army — tanks, guns, planes, elite paratroops and Foreign Legion units, sophisticated command control mechanisms, good intelligence regarding their adversary — and they fought in a region where the Viet Minh had made many fewer inroads with the population than in the coastal lowlands. The French had another major advantage: massive militaryaid from the United States, a torrent by comparison with Chinese and Soviet support for the Viet Minh.

But this did not mean the French expected victory to be easy at Dien Bien Phu. It was in many respects the final roll of the dice for the French war effort — and the generals knew it. Like their enemy, France had grown weary of the war. The mountain valley lay far from French bases too, and the total French lack of control of the ground in northwest Vietnam made Dien Bien Phu completely dependent on aerial supply. When Giap’s artillery opened a barrage on Dien Bien Phu’s airfield, the only way French troops could be resupplied was via airdrop. Within days Giap’s men captured positions that sealed it completely shut with anti-aircraft guns ringing the drop zone.

By then, the battle became an albatross around the French neck. Only American intervention in the form of Operation Vulture could have saved the French position. Washington struggled hard throughout the siege of Dien Bien Phu, and even after it ended, to craft conditions suitable for American military action. The effort to create a platform from which to intervene did not end with the Geneva agreements of 1954, or with the formation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, or even with U.S. support for the nascent government of South Vietnam — and it ultimately led direct to America’s war in Vietnam.

The decades since Dien Bien Phu are littered with similar dramas. The typical production features a local ally — usually a government but sometimes an insurgent force — who possesses a modicum of power but is unstable, and an adversary (with varying degrees of power and determination) contesting some place the United States considers to have strategic importance. Today, the play is Crimea. Syria was yesterday. A year ago, Libya. Iraq (and its prelude). Afghanistan. Kosovo. Haiti. Somalia. Panama. Nicaragua. Lebanon. the Dominican Republic. The reviews of these productions can be left to others.

At Dien Bien Phu, the United States had a substantial capacity to act. But the lesson of Dien Bien Phu is that the critical variables lie in the stability of America’s local ally and in its own goals and interests, rather than U.S. firepower. At Dien Bien Phu American intelligence believed there was no reason the loss of the French garrison should affect the overall conduct of the war. But General Giap and Ho Chi Minh knew better. A weary American ally had decided the game was no longer worth the candle and wanted to get out of the war. That made Paris extraordinarily vulnerable to the impact of a military defeat in the Vietnamese mountains. Washington discovered it could not make Paris stick to the commitments the French made along the way as the U.S. strove to craft conditions for its intervention. Something similar appears to have happened in Afghanistan, where Hamid Karzai is backing away his own commitments to the United States.

In making their decisions on intervention, United States officials need to become much more sophisticated in their appreciations of the stability of local allies — and discerning of the goals and interests of those parties to conflict.

John Prados is a senior fellow of the National Security Archive in Washington, DC. His current ebook is Operation Vulture: America’s Dien Bien Phu. Read more of Prados’s work on his website. © John Prados, 2014

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