The Vietnam War: A Tragic Mistake?

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W.J. Astore

I’ve watched the first three episodes of the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick series on the Vietnam War, which take us from the French colonial period beginning in the 19th century to the end of 1965 and a mushrooming U.S. military commitment.  The narrative thread, it seems to me, is the notion of the war as a tragic mistake, most especially for the United States.

The series begins with a voice-over that suggests the war was begun in good faith by America, even as other American voices in the series suggest otherwise.  I kept a notebook handy and jotted down the following notes and thoughts as the series progressed:

  1. There were divisions among the Vietnamese people, but they were more or less united by one idea: resist the foreign invaders/occupiers, whether that foreign presence was French, Japanese, the French again, American, or (both earlier and later) Chinese.  And there’s no doubt Ho Chi Minh would have won a democratic election, as promised at Geneva.  Which is exactly why that election never came.
  2. As one American admitted, the U.S. totally misread the situation in Indochina after the French defeat in 1954.  The Cold War and Falling Dominoes dominated the thoughts of Americans, obscuring the reality of a powerful and popular anti-colonial and nationalist revolt that tapped Vietnamese patriotism.
  3. When not fearing Falling Dominoes, U.S. officials were far more concerned about their own prestige (or political fortunes) than they were with the Vietnamese people.
  4. U.S. officials recognized South Vietnam was a fiction, a puppet government propped up by American money and power, and that they had “backed the wrong horse.” But they came to believe it was the only horse they had in the race against communism.
  5. U.S. presidents, stuck with a losing horse of their own creation, began to lie. As president, Kennedy said he hadn’t sent combat troops; he had.  As president, Johnson tried to obscure both the size and intent of the U.S. military’s commitment. These lies were not done to deceive the enemy — they were done to deceive the American people.
  6. After backing the wrong horse (Diem and his family), American leaders conspired to eliminate him in a coup.  When Diem was assassinated, matters only grew worse. Left with no horse in the race and a “turnstile” government in South Vietnam, the U.S. began to bomb North Vietnam and committed combat units beginning in March of 1965.
  7. More duplicity by U.S. officials: Battles such as Ap Bac and Binh Gia, which revealed the “miserable performance” of the South Vietnamese army (ARVN), were reinterpreted and sold as victories by senior U.S. military leaders.
  8. Both JFK and LBJ had serious reservations about going to war in Vietnam. However, domestic political concerns, together with concerns about containing the spread of communism, always came up trumps.  For example, the series quotes Kennedy as saying he believed America couldn’t win in Vietnam, but that he couldn’t win the 1964 presidential election if he withdrew U.S. advisors from Vietnam. LBJ was similarly skeptical but took a tough line with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which saw his approval rating on Vietnam soar from 42% to 72%, ensuring his electoral victory over Goldwater in 1964.

One of the more compelling sound bites comes from then-Major Charles Beckwith, who is at pains to praise the fighting quality of Viet Cong/NLF forces, their total commitment to the struggle.  If only he had (Vietnamese) troops like them to work with, says Beckwith.

To summarize: the series provides evidence of U.S. dishonesty and duplicity and showcases the mistakes generated by hubris when aggravated by ignorance.  Yet, the overall message is one of sadness about a “tragic mistake” committed by decent men who were overwhelmed by fears of international communism.

Final points: As we watch the series, we follow individual Americans, and hear American commentators, far more than we hear Vietnamese voices.  Also, while the series shows U.S. bombing from afar and mentions Agent Orange, the effects of this destruction haven’t yet been shown in detail.  (A telling exception: a young Vietnamese women joins the communist resistance after U.S. bombing destroys a center for senior citizens near her home.)

In short, the Burns/Novick series privileges the American experience, suggesting that U.S. troops of that era fought courageously as a new “greatest generation,” even as senior U.S. leaders spoke privately of an unwinnable war.

Is killing millions of people in a lost cause merely a tragic mistake?  Or is it something far worse?  More to come as the series continues to air on PBS.

35 thoughts on “The Vietnam War: A Tragic Mistake?

  1. I think the author does not realize the obsession Americans had about the “domino theory”. I was born in 1926 and during the thirties and especially the fifties observed how Americans were frightened of “the ideology of communism.”
    I think the film does not understand this, but Ken Burns is too young to have lived thru the fifties as an adult.

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    1. Yes, the domino theory played its part. But U.S. presidents and their staffs were also motivated by their own political prospects. No one wanted to appear “soft” on communism, even when the cause was lost (and unjust to boot). And no U.S. president wanted to be the first to lose a war (even though other wars, such as 1812 or Korea, weren’t exactly stunning victories).

      Hubris, ignorance, ambition, ego, were all more important than images of falling dominoes.

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  2. “… a tough line with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution …saw [President Johnson’s] approval rating on Vietnam soar from 42% to 72%, ensuring his electoral victory over Goldwater in 1964.”

    I dispute that. As a high school senior in 1964, I dreaded the coming year when I would graduate and face military conscription. I couldn’t vote at the time, but my mother and her generation could and they bitterly remembered the Korean War: that dreadful thing, getting bogged down in an Asian land war, as General MacArthur had warned against. They wanted no part of another one of these disasters in some Asian place they had never heard of before. President Johnson understood this and righteously promised “not to send American boys to fight a war that Asian boys can fight for themselves.” His Republican opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater, promised to bomb the living dogshit out of the North Vietnamese, including the use of nuclear weapons if “necessary.” This loose and belligerent blather further terrified the American people. President Johnson responded to this justifiable fear by running one of the most effective television attack ads ever produced. A sweet innocent blond girl looks into the camera, which zooms in on one of her little blue eyes in which the audience saw reflected an exploding mushroom cloud. President Johnson won in an landslide. The American people had spoken in unmistakable terms. They did not want any part of another Asian land war which could very easily escalate into a nuclear war with China and/or Russia.

    The newly elected President Lyndon Johnson promply gave the American people — in spades — precisely what they had overwhelmingly voted against. The utter cynicism of this betrayal went like a knife straight into the hearts of the American people and opened up a yawning, irreparable “credibility gap” from which Lyndon Johnson would never recover. President Lyndon Johnson’s election-year popularity stemmed directly from his promise of peace, coupled with Senator Goldwater’s foaming-at-the-mouth war-agitating. The corporate media and the uniformed military brass, of course, wanted war and had a vested interest in promoting the idea of a “strong” commander-in-brief “standing up” to some torpedo boats off the fog-shrouded coast of some country few if any Americans could locate on a map of the earth. As Stanley Karnow has already written in Vietnam, A History: the First Complete Account of Vietnam at War (1984):

    “[President Lyndon] Johnson subscribed to the adage that “wars are too serious to be entrusted to generals.” He knew, as he once put it, that armed forces “need battles and bombs and bullets in order to be heroic,” and that they would drag him into a military conflict if they could But he also knew that Pentagon lobbyists, among the best in the business, could persuade conservatives in Congress to sabotage his social legislation unless he satisfied their demand. As he girded himself for the 1964 presidential campaign, he was especially sensitive to the jingoists who might brand him “soft on communism” were he to back away from the challenge in Vietnam. So, politician that he was, he assuaged the brass and the braid with promises he may never have intended to keep. At a White House reception on Christmas Eve 1963, for example, he told the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “Just let me get elected, and you can have your war” [emphasis added].

    “They” — meaning the uniformed military brass — wanted “their” war and President Lyndon Johnson — in fear of their reactionary political alliance with Congressional Republicans and major-media corporate oligarchs — gave it to them, in complete disregard of what the American voters had unmistakenly said that they wanted. President Johnson planned this betrayal as early as Christmas Eve 1963, nearly a full year before the 1964 elections.

    No. Not a “mistake.” A crime. A carefully planned and meticulously executed crime, perpetrated precisely by the political and military “leaders” of the United States: a cabal of clueless conspirators interested solely in themselves and their own “career” advancement, regardless of what devastation their venal and myopic understanding of life would bring to others, whether Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, or American.

    And this tedious type of greasy-pole-climbing corporatist twerp hasn’t changed, grown, or learned one bit in the last fifty-two years: (1964-2016). To paraphrase former U.S. President George H. W. Bush: “By God, we’ve licked that Memory Syndrome once and for all.” …. At least until next year when we’ll have to lick it again.

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    1. Mike: I’m not sure what you’re disputing. Goldwater was attacking LBJ as being soft on communism, notably with Vietnam, and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, combined with bombing and so forth, insulated LBJ from those charges, boosting his approval rating on that issue. At the same time, he did promise in 1964 not to send American boys to fight in ‘Nam, a promise he broke the next year, as you say.

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      1. I thought I made it clear that LBJ’s “approval” rating in 1984 came from his campaign promise of peace as clearly differentiated from Goldwater’s virulent agitating for escalated war. It did not come from any “insulation” that you claim the Republicans gave LBJ as a sort of “tough” guy for “standing up” to some torpedo boats somewhere on the other side of the globe. And I repeat that the bitter memory of the Korean War — or “police action” — still deeply rankled in the American bloodstream, but for some reason the pollsters didn’t ask anyone how they felt about that. Again, the American people did not want war and they didn’t give a rat’s ass how the United States stayed out of war, just so long as it did. But did their “government” listen? Of course not. Not then. Not now.

        I thought I made it clear that the usual-suspect agitators for war — namely the Republicans in Congress (along with the thorougly intimidated Democrats), the military brass, and the corporate oligarch media most definitely did want war in Southeast Asia, but, again, these motherless cretins did not represent the American people who made it clear with their votes that they wanted no such thing. The American people overwhelmingly do not want this “bipartisan” endless war thing today, either, but their “bipartisan” government gives it to them anyway. Who in corporate Washington gives a shit what the working-class proles want? They care no more today than they cared fifty-two years ago. But they’ve always got “polls” that “prove” otherwise. What horse shit. Polls don’t ask what the American people think. Polls tell Americans what to think because they tell Americans what everyone else supposedly thinks. And they repeat this drumbeat message two or three times a week for months stretching into years. I would have thought that you understood this.

        I grew up during the virulent Nixon/McCarthy red-baiting witch hunts and I never knew a Republican to ever give a Democat credit for “toughness” on anything. They never did and they never will. Just as soon as a Democrat gives them “Green Berets, ” and “limited war,” the Army wants in with “regular” divisions. As soon as the Army gets in with more troops, the Navy and Marine Corps have to get in on the action, too. Then the Air Force wants in. They all insist on “playing a role,” you see; and no matter how much war a Kennedy or an LBJ gave the Republicans, the Republicans and their hand-maiden generals always screamed that it “came too late,” “wasn’t enough,” or “wasn’t used ruthlessly enough.” As one U. S. rmy general explained the failure of all the killing to produce a victory in Vietnam: “Didn’t kill enough Viet Cong.” That simple.

        So I dispute that LBJ enjoyed any “popularity” or won reelection because he looked “all-tough-and-stuff” for promising to show those North Vietnamese torpedo boats a thing or two. He promised peace and so won election in a landslide. He immediately betrayed that promise and flushed his name and reputation down the toiletbowl of history. For their part, a bunch of generals and admirals got medals and promotions and cushy retirements, but they lied like rugs every bit as much as any politician ever did, just for their share of the budget. I would have thought that you understood this bureaucratic “inter-service rivalry” better than most. If you really need an explanation for the United States in Vietnam from start to finish, there you have it.

        I hope I made myself clear this time.

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      2. Yes. The figures I cited (42%-72%) were from the documentary. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, in the short term, helped to neutralize Republican charges of “softness” on Communism. It had little to do with LBJ’s victory, I think. Of course, in the long term that resolution was a disaster because it came to be seen, like the more recent AUMF in the war on terror, as a blank check for any and all military options.

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    2. Remembering Deputy Dubya’s daddy and his back-of-the-hand insult to America’s memory of disaster in Southeast Asia, my addled Vietnam-veteran’s brain began spontaneously composing lines of verse, like I always do when my head feels about to explode from impotent rage and shame …

      Kicking the Memory Syndrome

      Kicking the Memory Syndrome
      “Once and for all” every year
      Soon we’ll be kicking it daily
      As we advance to the rear

      Kicking and sticking and licking
      Vigorous, vicious, and vain
      Virtual “war” on a flatscreen
      Digital aliens slain

      Back to life soon after “dying”
      Spock and Kirk replay their parts
      Black holes and alternate timelines
      Rebooted, Star Trek then “starts”

      Episode twelve, season twenty
      Plot lines unravel and rot
      “Final,” at least for the present.
      Next year, who knows? Maybe not.

      Fighting on some far horizon,
      Always our armies will “win”
      “Victory” product consumption:
      Cigarettes, mansions, and gin

      Fed on Orwellian jargon
      Straight from Nineteen Eighty Four
      Duckspeaking Crimestop and Blackwhite
      Doublethink peace equals “war”

      Let us look into the future
      Yesterday doesn’t exist
      History starts with tommorrow
      That’s why our ‘war” will persist.

      Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” copyright 2017

      OK. I feel better now.

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  3. You didn’t mention that Roosevelt said the colonial period was over after WW2. Why did we let the French back in? There always seems to be a Frenchman in the woodpile in most of our conflicts. I think we’ve paid the Lafayette debt along time ago.

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    1. Yes. FDR, of course, died in April 1945. In the immediate aftermath of WWII, Truman apparently decided he needed French support for NATO and the emerging strategy of containing communism; the price for that was support for the French as they attempted to regain Indochina. And of course the end result for France was devastating defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

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  4. Certainly hoping “The Vietnam War” is getting a good “viewership”. Husband & I in our 60’s finding it affirming to our beliefs about that war. Also, VERY relevant for war plans of today!

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  5. Another take on the series: https://www.alternet.org/burns-wrong-lessons

    The concluding paragraph: “Stories that Vietnam veterans were called “baby killers” are now as common as the spitting stories. They seem to fill some need for the people who tell and believe them. Perhaps it is a need for conformity to the now-dominant narratives about the war and those who opposed it, or guilt that the war was fought by those less privileged than those who fought against it. Whatever the reason, the stories keep alive the idea that the war could have been won if home front support had not wavered—and that wars like it can be won in the future if We the People stay loyal to the mission.”

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    1. I don’t understand why this is still being debated. There was nothing to “win”. No one including lying McNamara had a clear view on that. You could have the whole US population behind that concept and still have no clue what winning was or is in that type of conflict. What are we going to win in Sandland? We never seem to learn from the past.

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    2. I served in the S. F. Bay area on two separate occasions during my almost-six-years in Uncle Sam’s Canoe Club: six months at Nuclear Power School in Vallejo and eight months at Defense Language Institute in Monterey. I also spent a year aboard a submarine tender moored at Ballast Point just outside San Diego. I rode public buses and flew standby out of Oakland, S. F., and Orange County (now John Wayne) airports in my uniform many times and never once did anyone hassle or insult me because of the ongoing U. S. military Bungle in the Jungle. If anything, most civilians that I met seemed to feel sorry for me.

      After I came home from the Southern half of Vietnam in early 1972, however, the nature and scale of our defeat had become obvious and most Americans just wanted to forget the whole thing. I got out of the military and went back to college, pretty much getting on with my life, although the disaster had a few more years to run before the American people ran Tricky Dick Nixon out of office and Congress just cut off the money for any more of the bloody nonsense. President Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger warned of dire geopolitical consequences and the irreparable loss of American “prestige,” but few people would any longer listen to their predictable bullshit. The whole mess just petered out with a barely audible moan.

      Certainly, some of the usual war enthusiasts felt bad that we had “lost” something or other — principally their own self-image as “winners” — but I can only remember one insult hurled at us Vietnam veterans, this one from U. S. Air Force General (and famed test pilot) Chuck Yeager who said — in The Saturday Evening Post or Life Magazine, or some such monthly publication: “Those boys in Vietnam just had something missing in their character.” Yeah, some of the WWII “winners” and VFW types looked down on us Vietnam veterans for awhile, but they got over that when they realized who they would have to depend upon for new memberships.

      As for “killing babies,” when we Americans killed about three-million Southeast Asians (in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) I suppose that number did include quite a few babies. Women and old people, too. Also their farm animals and pets. Also their crops. We killed all sorts of living things on an almost unimaginable scale. We had bizarre concepts like Free-Fire Zones which pretty much meant that we killed whole geographical areas on the presumption that any Southeast Asians in those areas had to be “Viet Cong” and therefore they deserved whatever happened to them. We didn’t have to target them individually. Too much trouble. I wonder if this film series will try to capture that cavalier military attitude towards life that “doesn’t deserve” to live?

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  6. A few years ago I read a book about the War in the Pacific. Unlike many books it did not start with the Pearl Harbor attack or the events shortly before. The book delved into the Sino-Japanese War from it’s beginning. The Japanese Military was modern for it’s time compared to the Nationalist Chinese Military and the Communists. The narrative among the Japanese Military was “More”. More troops, more equipment and more effort were needed to achieve victory in China. The Japanese would defeat the Chinese Armies in the open, but would find it difficult to control the area they conquered. The Japanese Home Front was showered with stories of victories and heroics, but more sacrifices were needed.

    The blame game started when the Nationalist Chinese were defeated by the Communists. Who Lost China became a theme of the Republicans and the Red Baiting of the McCarthy era resulted.

    Noam Chomsky, a leading critic of U.S. foreign policy, has commented that the terminology “loss of China” is revealing of U.S. foreign policy attitudes:
    “In 1949, China declared independence, an event known in Western discourse as “the loss of China” – in the US, with bitter recriminations and conflict over who was responsible for that loss. The terminology is revealing. It is only possible to lose something that one owns. The tacit assumption was that the U.S. owned China, by right, along with most of the rest of the world, much as postwar planners assumed. The “loss of China” was the first major step in “America’s decline.” It had major policy consequences.”
    ================================

    This death shroud of blame would reverberate in the mid 50’s and 60’s. The rhetoric of war mongering toughness against communism or anyone on the Left, would supersede any thoughtful analysis. Communism was framed as monolithic, even though the Sino-Soviet split had occurred and Tito stopped taking orders from Moscow.

    The Pentagon Papers revealed the truth about our involvement. You have to wonder how much of what the Pentagon Papers exposed would have been trashed or buried in some vault.

    The Vietnam War was a fraud, and a cover-up that required concealment of the facts. The American people were betrayed by elected politicians and the military into a state of Hyper-Patriotism.

    A serious person might ask – How could the Gulf of Tonkin Incident result in the eventual unleashing of the US Military establishment less the Nukes in S.E. Asia? I think the answer is clear, the USA, was looking for fight in the Bucket of Blood Bar and needed a flimsy excuse to do so.

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  7. As a late comer to Vietnam War and not being knowledgeable enough about what the USA govt was doing, my knowledge is limited to what I have read…a book and many articles.
    The reviews I have read are mostly critical, including the one mentioned above by Jerry Lembcke. Another take is….
    At lunch, Burns defended his change, on the ground that My Lai continues to have “a toxic, radioactive effect” on opinion. “Killing” was the better word, he said, “even though My Lai is murder.”
    And I always read and believed it was a “massacre”!
    https://www.laprogressive.com/ken-burns-vietnam/

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  8. One of my favourite Historians/Professors…..
    “According to Burns and Novick, the American war in Vietnam was “begun in good faith, by decent people.” It comes closer to the truth to say that the war was begun—and then prolonged past all reason—by people who lacked wisdom and, when it was most needed, courage. Those who fought in the war and those who fought against it will certainly want to watch this series. Yet to find the answers that many are still searching for, they will have to look elsewhere. “
    https://www.thenation.com/article/the-vietnam-war-past-all-reason/

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  9. I think what is rather clear, the USA sent about 2.5 million uniformed representatives of the military all the way across the Pacific to Vietnam. The USA invaded Vietnam.

    Essentially, we created a series of puppet regimes in Vietnam that would give their approval for this invasion. No matter how much death and destruction the USA brought down on the people of Vietnam, the puppet leadership was mute as long as the USA protected the leadership.

    Thieu and Ky did not fight to the last breath in the streets of Saigon. When the going got tough, Thieu and Ky got going, it was disgraceful performance, but like actors on a stage when the curtain fell they left the stage.

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  10. I KNOW I am posting links to negative reviews…. I am passionately against ANY war and form what I have read to date, there has been lack of HONESTY…. omission and commission. I believe, unless one has seen and felt the horrors of a war personally ( soldiers, reporters, photographers ), it would be very difficult to bring those emotions in a documentary…. specially when one is trying to sugar coat the awful truth!
    This is more a prediction rather than a review and long but worth the time.
    https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/09/22/ken-burns-and-lynn-novicks-vietnam-war-some-predictions/

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  11. As a former enlisted Vietnamizer of the Vietnamese, I truly appreciate the unintended irony of the following quotation:

    “One of the more compelling sound bites comes from then-Major Charles Beckwith, who is at pains to praise the fighting quality of Viet Cong/NLF forces, their total commitment to the struggle. If only he had (Vietnamese) troops like them to work with, says Beckwith.”

    As a matter of fact, we Americans had the same Vietnamese to work with as did the NVA and the NLF. The “problem” of “poor performance” by “our” Vietnamese arose precisely because “our” Vietnamese had Americans like Major Beckwith and me “working with” them. Once we Americans stopped “working with” the Vietnamese and went back to America where we belonged, “our” Vietnamese gave up, threw down their weapons, took off their pants, and ran off in their underwear. The Vietnamese who had not endured the handicap of having Americans like Major Beckwith and me “working with” them eventually brought the war to a close and reunified their country.

    Nothing about this “working with” business — the U.S. military likes to call it “training” — has changed since I came home from the Southern half of Vietnam in early 1972. As Chris Hedges writes of the U.S. military “training” the ANA (Afghan National Army) in Death of the Liberal Class (2010):

    The real purpose of American advisers assigned to ANA units, however, is not ultimately to train Afghans but rather to function as liaisons between Afghan units and American firepower and logistics. The ANA is unable to integrate ground units with artillery and air support. It has no functioning supply system. It depends on the U.S. military to do basic tasks. The United States even pays the bulk of ANA salaries.”

    Substitute ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) for ANA and the story reads the same. Ditto for the “training” that we Americans gave the Iraqi Army that ran off from Mosul when attacked by a relatively few ISIS jihadis. Only recently did the U.S. military “help” the “U.S. trained and equipped” Iraqi Army retake Mosul by doing that thing the U.S. military did when “liberating” Hue in 1968: we simply levelled the place. “We had to desroy the village in order to save it.” The U.S. military does a lot of that. Saving by destroying.

    Vietnam never ends for the U.S. military. The U.S. military just relocates to some other part of the world and starts “Vietnam” under another name all over again. And again. And again. As a former enlisted Vietnamizer of the Vietnamese I totally concur with what the Apartheid Zionist military historian Martyn Van Crevald said about U.S. military trainers in Iraq:

    “The only thing the Americans can train the Iraqis to do is how to kill Americans. How stupid can they be?”

    As I wrote at the conclusion of my poem Boobie Counter Insurgency eleven years ago:

    The blowback, though, comes round in time;
    No one has yet escaped.
    Vietnamized; Iraqified;
    Corrupted by the raped,
    The “victors” thus are vanquished by
    The monkeys that they aped.

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2006

    If viewers of this television series think that “Vietnam” happened a long time ago instead of just yesterday along the Euphrates River in Syria and in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains, then they have largely foregone the value of watching this “history” in the first place. Something called “context” always helps when answering the question: “Why study history in the first place?” As William Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”

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      1. Poetic license. I needed a word that rhymed with “escaped” and “raped.” The word also needed to bring to mind “copying,” which we Americans expected “our” Vietnamese — and “our” Iraqis and “our” Afghans — to do without question. In colloquial speech, when we “ape” someone, it means that we pattern ourselves after them.

        I didn’t use quotation marks because the word “monkeys” refers to actual monkeys, as in the behavior of primate animals swinging from trees. Early in the American phase of the war, President John F. Kennedy took a fancy to the U.S. special forces and the concept of “limited” war. He first dispatched these “special” warriors to the southern part of Vietnam in order to “train” the Vietnamese to look, act, and fight, like Americans. Somewhere I remember reading of the Green Berets giving a demonstration of their many abilities for visiting U. S. dignitaries, one of whom — rather unimpressed — refered to them as “swinging from trees, speaking Russian and Chinese.” I think my image of them comes from that recollection.

        Additionally, because we Americans have more hair on our bodies than Asians typically do, they thought of us as monkeys, or apes, even when they didn’t especially mean anything bad by the comparison. I had a Chinese girlfriend once whose nickname for me — “xing xing” — means “Orangutan.” I really couldn’t argue the point.

        At any rate, if you had read the entire poem, you ought to have figured out who I had in mind by “monkeys.” I don’t see where anyone would get the idea that I meant the Vietnamese or Afghan or Iraqi people. We Americans consider ourselves the “teachers” and foreigners our “pupils.” We tell them that if they copy us, especially our military — that they will “win,” but to the extent they do that, they lose. Hence, it seemed more appropriate for me to put quotation marks around “victors.” Nobody really “wins” from war.

        But I can see where someone unacquainted with all these references might not get everything that I meant by them. I can’t do anything about the excerpted stanza posted here, but I can go to my own website and put in some quotation marks in the original poem. Doing too much of that sort of thing can sometimes defeat the purpose of metaphor and simile, but in this case, I’ll see what the poem looks like with the added punctuation.

        The central point still remains: namely, that any foreign military forces who ape American monkeys will lose, and American soldiers will come back home from the experience as corrupted by what they have done as their victims.

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  12. From an article https://dandelionsalad.wordpress.com/2009/10/05/both-forgotten-and-misread-robert-tabers-the-war-of-the-flea-by-daniel-n-white/

    Taber’s analysis of the US’ position in Viet Nam in 1965 is the best analysis I’ve ever read, and events proved him prophetic. From p. 177-8:

    “The choices open to Washington in Viet Nam appear obvious. Unless the dissident Vietnamese population can be persuaded to embrace a solution acceptable to the United States (certainly a forlorn hope), the alternatives are: (1) to wage a relentless, full-scale war of subjugation against the Vietnamese people, with the aid of such Vietnamese allies as remain available; (2) seek a solution acceptable to the Vietnamese people, a step that would clearly entail negotiating with the Viet Cong; (3) quit the field and let the Vietnamese work out their own solution.

    A fourth possibility does exist. Essentially it is a monstrous variation of the first. The United States can change the character of the war, or its apparent character, by expanding it; that is, by taking arms against Hanoi and, inevitably, against China. To do so, with the right kind of window dressing, could conceivably be justified in the minds of the American people and perhaps of their allies despite the tremendous expense and risk involved, where a losing war in the limited theater of South Viet Nam cannot be justified.”
    ===========================================
    We did take the “monstrous variation” less the war with China.

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  13. An important point is the fact that the South Vietnamese never seemed to truly embrace the Puppet Government that the U. S. installed. We always prop-up well-educated, English speakers, who are as corrupt as most third-world “leaders.” During my two tours in Intelligence (1967-68), I never had the feeling that the U. S. and its foreign allies were doing much of the fighting.

    The Palace Intrigues and assassinations of top leaders is perhaps due to the differences between the People and the “Leaders”. The top government officials were mostly Roman Catholics who fled the North, while the People of Vietnam are mostly Chinese buddhists.

    For those seeking answers, most unnecessary wars are fought for political reasons to give the appearance that our President is tough of defending the nation.

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    1. Not quite finished reading “A Bright Shining Lie”, by Neil Sheehan. It confirmed the views that I returned with in 1968, and doing much reading over the years. Mr. Sheehan’s meticulous dealing, in fact, showed that it was much, much worse. In spite of the 58,000 American’s who died, and 243,000 wounded, in the end it had always been up to the Vietnamese People–North and South–to find a way to make things work.

      Also, most of the People in the South were driven into the Viet Cong guerrillas and the North Vietnam Army. Between us and our puppet Saigon Government, indiscriminate bombing and shelling, torch and burn programs (destroying their villages) and other disregard for the Geneva Convention’s guideline of warfare were disregarded by the Americans and the South.

      Neil Sheehan’s book is an excellent, but long, read.

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  14. For my money, Peter Van Buren simply nails it with his review of the Ken Burns documentary — or docudrama — series on “Vietnam.”

    See: Ken Burns’s ‘Vietnam War’ is No Profile in Courage – Celebrated filmmaker continues tradition of avoiding inconvenient truths., The American Conservative (September 26, 2017)

    I’ll skip right to what I consider his most salient observations:

    “… Vietnam was not an exception, it was a template.”

    In other words, the U.S. military learned nothng from its defeat in Southeast Asia except how better to assure that the American people would not try to involve themselves in the next “ietnam” failure, and the one after that.

    “Burns tried to be all things to all people, while failing at the most important task, making history valuable to the present. He does not seem in search of lessons, only in creating a catalog of Vietnam stuff and leaving it on the table for us to poke at …”

    America’s greatest foreign policy blunder in the twentieth century has only one lesson: You Can’t Do A Wrong Thing The Right Way, although the U.S. military will dispute that eternal truth while in every instance reaffirming it in practice.

    There is no reckoning in The Vietnam War, and it is doubtful there ever will be. You can’t close the book on Vietnam if you want to keep it open for Syria, or Iran, or wherever America makes war on an industrial scale against nations far less advanced, and commits torture, assassinations, and mass killings all the while trying to hide its dirty hands from the American public with the media’s financially-comfortable cooperation.”

    “Each of these wars is not the equivalent of stepping on a Lego in a darkened bedroom. It’s the same story, the same war. It has the same ending. It serves the same purpose. It’s Vietnam. We just slog through 18 hours of Vietnam documentary because it lasts 18 hours. After the 25th similar shot of helicopters landing, you may not even be sure why you’re still watching. You want to finish Burns’ documentary with the feeling the American people will rise up and shout “we won’t be fooled again,” but instead shut off the TV knowing we have, and will.

    At last, someone who sees America’s War on Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) in the same way I do — as just an imperial operations manual with another name relocated to another relatively defenseless part of the globe with no other utltimate purpose but to drain the U. S. economy of every resource necessary for the betterment of the American people. And the American people never fail to fall for the shabby mythological shadows projected for them on their theater or television screens. So Vietnam goes on happening and will happend again.

    Thank you, Peter Van Buren.

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    1. Mike: Be sure to catch the article by Nick Turse at The Intercept:

      Nick Turse reminds us of the essence of the Vietnam War — If you were a Vietnamese villager or farmer

      If you really want to get a sense of “what happened” in Vietnam, by all means watch “The Vietnam War.” But as you do, as you sit there admiring the “rarely seen and digitally re-mastered archival footage,” while grooving to “iconic musical recordings from [the] greatest artists of the era,” and also pondering the “haunting original music from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross,” just imagine that you’re actually crouched in your basement, that your home above is ablaze, that lethal helicopters are hovering overhead, and that heavily-armed teenagers — foreigners who don’t speak your language — are out there in your yard, screaming commands you don’t understand, rolling grenades into your neighbor’s cellar, and if you run out through the flames, into the chaos, one of them might just shoot you.

      https://theintercept.com/2017/09/28/the-ken-burns-vietnam-war-documentary-glosses-over-devastating-civilian-toll/

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      1. I have read Nick Turse’s fine book, Kill Anything That Moves: the Real American War in Vietnam and I would recommend it without reservation. Absolutely authentic. Along similar lines, David Halberstam, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his reporting from South Vietnam, published a novel in 1967 entitled, One Very Hot Day, which accurately portrayed a typical U.S./ARVN patrol which ran into a typical ambush which produced the typical “friendly” casualties, one or two dead “insurgents” for the body-count statistics, no enemy automatic weapons captured, and the air force finally arriving once the engagement had already broken off. Not one to pass up the chance to detonate surplus ordnance once finally made available, the U.S. Army captain/advisor instructs the chain-of-command where to have the incoming pilots lay their explosive eggs:

        “I want it all over the goddamn place. I want it where they were supposed to get us, and I want it north, because they’ll probably head north, and you tell the zoomies that if they see anything moving, any mother’s sons, white pajamas, black pajamas, no pajamas to zap their goddamn yellow ass. Anything moves, kill it. I’ll take the responsibility.”

        As Nick Turse says in his Introductiion: An Operation, Not An Aberration. Everyday stuff in Southeast Asia fifty years ago. Everyday stuff in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan today, too, except that today the U.S. military kills anything that radiates a cell phone signal. I read just the other day where someone in Afghanistan said that whenever he hears a buzzing noise overhead he removes the SIM card from his cell phone. The human targets always adapt.

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