Nick Turse has an excellent article at TomDispatch.com documenting how U.S. special ops forces are involved in many countries that share a border with Russia. A telling quotation from his article comes from General Raymond Thomas, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Testifying before Congress, Thomas said
“We are working relentlessly with our [European] partners and the Department of State to build potency in eastern and northern Europe to counter Russia’s approach to unconventional warfare, including developing mature and sustainable Special Operations capabilities across the region.”
This looks like typical bureaucratese, but two words struck me as revealing: “relentlessly” and “potency.” Typically, one might say one is working “tirelessly,” or “cooperatively,” or just plain working. The idea one is working “relentlessly” serves to highlight the often frenetic nature of U.S. military deployments, the emphasis on ceaseless toil and constant action, especially of the kinetic variety. This is a leading feature of America’s can-do military, a strong preference for acting first, thinking later. And it doesn’t bode well as American special ops forces take up “mature and sustainable” positions in former Soviet satellite countries for the alleged reason of deterring Russian aggression.
The second word that struck me from the general’s testimony was “potency.” Americans certainly can’t be seen as impotent. But potency here is really a weasel word for offensive potential — the ability to strike “kinetically” at an enemy. For example, one could say the Soviets were building up potency in Cuba during the early 1960s, but the Kennedy administration didn’t exactly see nuclear missiles being based there in those terms. Is Kim Jong-un similarly building up regional “potency,” working “relentlessly” to deter U.S. aggression in his region of the world? American military and foreign policy experts would laugh at those words and sentiments coming from the mouth of rival leaders like Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong-un.
With ever bigger military budgets, and ever growing ambitions, the U.S. military is relentlessly building up potency, which is nevertheless always framed as defensive, even benign.
Something tells me the Russians don’t see it this way.
President Donald Trump has a disturbing way of talking about the U.S. military. Consider the following Trump quotation about the recent attack on U.S. troops in Niger:
“I have generals that are great generals,” Trump said. “I gave them authority to do what’s right so that we win. My generals and my military, they have decision-making ability. As far as the incident that we’re talking about [in Niger], I’ve been seeing it just like you’ve been seeing it. I’ve been getting reports.” [emphasis added]
For Trump, it’s not the American people’s military, it’s “my” military. Generals are not Congressionally-appointed officers, they’re “my” generals. Trump has a fundamental misunderstanding of his role as commander-in-chief, as well as the role of the U.S. military. He sees himself as the big boss of “his” military, with generals as his personal employees whom he can order around and fire at will.
And by “order around,” I mean the issuance of orders regardless of their legality, a point Trump made back in March of 2016, in response to a debate question by Bret Baier:
BAIER: Mr. Trump, just yesterday, almost 100 foreign policy experts signed on to an open letter refusing to support you, saying your embracing expansive use of torture is inexcusable. General Michael Hayden, former CIA director, NSA director, and other experts have said that when you asked the U.S. military to carry out some of your campaign promises, specifically targeting terrorists’ families, and also the use of interrogation methods more extreme than waterboarding, the military will refuse because they’ve been trained to turn down and refuse illegal orders.
So what would you do, as commander-in-chief, if the U.S. military refused to carry out those orders?
TRUMP: They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me.
BAIER: But they’re illegal.
TRUMP: And — and — and — I’m a leader. I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.
As I wrote then, Trump’s fundamental misunderstanding of leadership, and especially his boasts about the military obeying his orders irrespective of their legality, disqualified him as a presidential candidate. Of course, Trump’s dictatorial statements didn’t deter his determined fans. Indeed, they elected him because they wanted a Strong Man, not because they feared one.
So here we are, with a dictator wannabe as president, treating the U.S. military as if it’s his personal Praetorian Guard. If the Republic isn’t dead, its heartbeat is fading fast. Meanwhile, the sordid and corrupt Empire of Trump – just by its endurance – grows ever stronger.
When I was still teaching college, I’d tell my students that a major goal of their education was developing a bullshit meter. This BS meter, I said, would help them to discriminate between fact and fiction, between informed views and misinformed ones, between respectable opinions and disreputable propaganda. Become critical thinkers, I told them. And that included being critical of my teaching, for every professor has biases and makes choices about what to include and what to exclude, what to stress and what to elide.
Critical thinking skills are what is being elided and excluded in much of education today. This is obviously convenient to those in power, for they do not wish to be questioned. In the name of economic competitiveness, of teaching job skills, of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), students are encouraged to focus on getting ahead, on making a high salary after graduation, the better to repay student loans and contribute back to the college as alumni. On their web sites and marketing brochures, colleges often feature prominently how much their students can be expected to make in salary after graduation. The almighty dollar sign: It’s the key metric of success.
A narrow utilitarianism, based on money, has come to define education. Much like war, education is becoming just another racket (think here of Trump University!). Eight years ago, when I was still teaching away in the classroom, I wrote the following article for TomDispatch.com. I’ve decided to share it here today, because I don’t think much has changed since 2009. Indeed, education in America has only worsened as Donald Trump and Company have taken a hatchet to educational funding. But stupid is as stupid does. (Then again, Trump isn’t so stupid; as he himself enthused after the Nevada caucuses in 2016, “I love the poorly educated!” Yes, hmm, yes.)
Hardly a week goes by without dire headlines about the failure of the American education system. Our students don’t perform well in math and science. The high-school dropout rate is too high. Minority students are falling behind. Teachers are depicted as either overpaid drones protected by tenure or underpaid saints at the mercy of deskbound administrators and pushy parents.
Unfortunately, all such headlines collectively fail to address a fundamental question: What is education for? At so many of today’s so-called institutions of higher learning, students are offered a straightforward answer: For a better job, higher salary, more marketable skills, and more impressive credentials. All the more so in today’s collapsing job market.
Based on a decidedly non-bohemian life — 20 years’ service in the military and 10 years teaching at the college level — I’m convinced that American education, even in the worst of times, even recognizing the desperate need of most college students to land jobs, is far too utilitarian, vocational, and narrow. It’s simply not enough to prepare students for a job: We need to prepare them for life, while challenging them to think beyond the confines of their often parochial and provincial upbringings. (As a child of the working class from a provincial background, I speak from experience.)
And here’s one compelling lesson all of us, students and teachers alike, need to relearn constantly: If you view education in purely instrumental terms as a way to a higher-paying job — if it’s merely a mechanism for mass customization within a marketplace of ephemeral consumer goods — you’ve effectively given a free pass to the prevailing machinery of power and those who run it.
Three Myths of Higher Ed
Three myths serve to restrict our education to the narrowly utilitarian and practical. The first, particularly pervasive among conservative-minded critics, is that our system of higher education is way too liberal, as well as thoroughly dominated by anti-free-market radicals and refugee Marxists from the 1960s who, like so many Ward Churchills, are indoctrinating our youth in how to hate America.
Today’s college students are being indoctrinated in the idea that they need to earn “degrees that work” (the official motto of the technically-oriented college where I teach). They’re being taught to measure their self-worth by their post-college paycheck. They’re being urged to be lifelong learners, not because learning is transformative or even enjoyable, but because to “keep current” is to “stay competitive in the global marketplace.” (Never mind that keeping current is hardly a guarantee that your job won’t be outsourced to the lowest bidder.)
And here’s a second, more pervasive myth from the world of technology: technical skills are the key to success as well as life itself, and those who find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide are doomed to lives of misery. From this it necessarily follows that computers are a panacea, that putting the right technology into the classroom and into the hands of students and faculty solves all problems. The keys to success, in other words, are interactive SMART boards, not smart teachers interacting with curious students. Instead, canned lessons are offered with PowerPoint efficiency, and students respond robotically, trying to copy everything on the slides, or clamoring for all presentations to be posted on the local server.
One “bonus” from this approach is that colleges can more easily measure (or “assess,” as they like to say) how many networked classrooms they have, how many on-line classes they teach, even how much money their professors bring in for their institutions. With these and similar metrics in hand, parents and students can be recruited or retained with authoritative-looking data: job placement rates, average starting salaries of graduates, even alumni satisfaction rates (usually best measured when the football team is winning).
A third pervasive myth — one that’s found its way from the military and business worlds into higher education — is: If it’s not quantifiable, it’s not important. With this mindset, the old-fashioned idea that education is about molding character, forming a moral and ethical identity, or even becoming a more self-aware person, heads down the drain. After all, how could you quantify such elusive traits as assessable goals, or showcase such non-measurements in the glossy marketing brochures, glowing press releases, and gushing DVDs that compete to entice prospective students and their anxiety-ridden parents to hand over ever larger sums of money to ensure a lucrative future?
Three Realities of Higher Ed
What do torture, a major recession, and two debilitating wars have to do with our educational system? My guess: plenty. These are the three most immediate realities of a system that fails to challenge, or even critique, authority in any meaningful way. They are bills that are now long overdue thanks, in part, to that system’s technocratic bias and pedagogical shortfalls — thanks, that is, to what we are taught to see and not see, regard and disregard, value and dismiss.
Over the last two decades, higher education, like the housing market, enjoyed its own growth bubble, characterized by rising enrollments, fancier high-tech facilities, and ballooning endowments. Americans invested heavily in these derivative products as part of an educational surge that may prove at least as expensive and one-dimensional as our military surges in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As usual, the humanities were allowed to wither. Don’t know much about history? Go ahead and authorize waterboarding, even though the U.S. prosecuted it as a war crime after World War II. Don’t know much about geography? Go ahead and send our troops into mountainous Afghanistan, that “graveyard of empires,” and allow them to be swallowed up by the terrain as they fight a seemingly endless war.
Perhaps I’m biased because I teach history, but here’s a fact to consider: Unless a cadet at the Air Force Academy (where I once taught) decides to major in the subject, he or she is never required to take a U.S. history course. Cadets are, however, required to take a mind-boggling array of required courses in various engineering and scientific disciplines as well as calculus. Or civilians, chew on this: At the Pennsylvania College of Technology, where I currently teach, of the roughly 6,600 students currently enrolled, only 30 took a course this semester on U.S. history since the Civil War, and only three were programmatically required to do so.
We don’t have to worry about our college graduates forgetting the lessons of history — not when they never learned them to begin with.
Donning New Sunglasses
One attitude pervading higher education today is: students are customers who need to be kept happy by service-oriented professors and administrators. That’s a big reason why, at my college at least, the hottest topics debated by the Student Council are not government wars, torture, or bail-outs but a lack of parking and the quality of cafeteria food.
It’s a large claim to make, but as long as we continue to treat students as customers and education as a commodity, our hopes for truly substantive changes in our country’s direction are likely to be dashed. As long as education is driven by technocratic imperatives and the tyranny of the practical, our students will fail to acknowledge that precious goal of Socrates: To know thyself — and so your own limits and those of your country as well.
To know how to get by or get ahead is one thing, but to know yourself is to struggle to recognize your own limitations as well as illusions. Such knowledge is disorienting, even dangerous — kind of like those sunglasses donned by Roddy Piper in the slyly subversive “B” movie They Live (1988). In Piper’s case, they revealed a black-and-white nightmare, a world in which a rapacious alien elite pulls the levers of power while sheep-like humans graze passively, shackled by slogans to conform, consume, watch, marry, and reproduce.
Like those sunglasses, education should help us to see ourselves and our world in fresh, even disturbing, ways. If we were properly educated as a nation, the only torturing going on might be in our own hearts and minds — a struggle against accepting the world as it’s being packaged and sold to us by the pragmatists, the technocrats, and those who think education is nothing but a potential passport to material success.
Back in June 2013, I wrote the following article on “Bread and Circuses in Rome and America.” It flashed through my mind this morning because of Robert Lipsyte’s post today at TomDispatch.com on Trump, the NFL, violence, race, brain injuries, and patriotism. I urge you to read it as well as Tom Engelhardt’s introduction, which cites the bread and circuses of the Roman Empire.
A key insight in my article below came from a correspondent, Amy Scanlon, who keenly observed that the Roman Imperium saw compassion, not violence, as a vice. The gladiatorial games were meant to keep Romans at a fever pitch for war (with the bloody, murderous games being the next best thing to war). It’s not much of a stretch to think of NFL violence as keeping Americans at a similar feverish pitch; and, not just the NFL, but the commercials during the games, which are often saturated with guns and violence and war.
The expression “bread and circuses“ captures a certain cynical political view that the masses can be kept happy with fast food (think Cartman’s “Cheesy Poofs” on South Park) and faster entertainment (NASCAR races, NFL games, and the like). In the Roman Empire, it was bread and chariot races and gladiatorial games that filled the belly and distracted the mind, allowing emperors to rule as they saw fit.
There’s truth to the view that people can be kept tractable as long as you fill their bellies and give them violent spectacles to fill their free time. Heck, Americans are meekly compliant even when their government invades their privacy and spies upon them. But there’s a deeper, more ominous, sense to bread and circuses that is rarely mentioned in American discourse. It was pointed out to me by Amy Scanlon.
In her words:
Basically ancient Rome was a society that completely revolved around war, and where compassion was considered a vice rather than a virtue… [The] Romans saw gladiatorial contests not as a form of decadence but as a cure for decadence. And decadence to the Romans had little to do with sexual behavior or lack of a decent work ethic, but a lack of military-style honor and soldierly virtues. To a Roman compassion was a detestable vice, which was considered both decadent and feminine. Watching people and animals slaughtered brutally [in the arena] was seen as a way to keep the civilian population from this ‘weakness’ because they didn’t see combat…
Scanlon then provocatively asks, “Could our society be sliding towards those Roman attitudes in a bizarre sort of way?”
I often think that America suffers from an empathy gap. We are simply not encouraged to put ourselves in the place of others. For example, how many Americans fancy the idea of a foreign power operating drones in our sovereign skies, launching missiles at gun-toting Americans suspected by this foreign power of being “militants“? Yet we operate drones in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, killing suspected militants with total impunity. Even when innocent women and children are killed, our emperors and our media don’t encourage us to have compassion for them. We are basically told to think of them as collateral damage, regrettable, perhaps, but otherwise inconsequential.
Certainly, our military in the last two decades has put new stress on American troops as “warriors” and “warfighters,” a view more consistent with the hardened professionals of the Roman Empire than with the citizen-soldiers of the Roman Republic. Without thinking too much about it, we’ve come to see our troops as an imperial guard, ever active on the ramparts of our empire. War, meanwhile, is seen not as a last course of defense but as a first course to preempt the evil designs of the many hidden enemies of America. Our troops, therefore, are our protectors, our heroes, the defenders of America, even though that “defense” treats the entire globe as a potential killing field.
Scanlon’s view of the Roman use of bread and circuses — as a way to kill compassion to ensure the brutalization of Roman civilians and thus their compliance (or at least their complacency) vis-à-vis Imperial expansion and domestic policing — is powerful and sobering.
At the same time, the Obama administration is increasingly couching violent military intervention in humanitarian terms. Deploying troops and tipping wars in our favor is done in the name of defeating petty tyrants (e.g. Khadafy in Libya; Is Assad of Syria next?). Think of it as our latest expression of “compassion.”
All things considered, perhaps our new national motto should be: When in America, do as the Roman Empire would do. Eat to your fill of food and violence, cheer on the warfighters, and dismiss expressions of doubt or dismay about military interventions and drone killings as “feminine” and “weak.”
At least we can applaud ourselves that we no longer torture and kill animals in the arena like the Romans did. See how civilized we’ve become?
After Republican Bob Corker had the guts to criticize President Trump for his bellicose rhetoric and incompetent management of U.S. foreign policy, Steve Bannon issued the following riposte:
“Bob Corker has trashed the commander in chief of our armed forces while we have young men and women in harm’s way.”
The indecency of Bannon’s argument is obvious. According to Bannon, Corker’s criticism of Trump is tantamount to treason, because an attack on Trump is an attack on “our” troops “in harm’s way.”
If Bannon had his way, no one would be allowed to criticize Trump about foreign policy while U.S. troops are in harm’s way. Since U.S. troops are deployed to more than 800 bases overseas and to more than 130 countries while incessantly fighting wars in places like Afghanistan, they are, in essence, always in harm’s way. Thus, no criticism of our Great Leader would ever be allowed, which is convenient for Trump and Bannon Wormtongue.
It’s infuriating how men like Bannon attempt to squelch criticism of the president by hiding behind the troops. Judging by his rhetoric, Bannon doesn’t want to live in a democracy; he’d much prefer a dictatorship. Meanwhile, Trump’s riposte to Bob Corker focused on his height. (Corker is roughly six inches shorter than Trump.)
Mr. Bannon, Trump is more mocker-in-chief than a commander. And, in defending our chief mocker, your sophistic attempt to hide behind the troops was more than shameful. It’s grotesque.
John Kelly, President Trump’s chief of staff and a retired Marine Corps general, held a press conference on Thursday to deny he’s quitting or that he’s about to be fired. In passing, he referred to two common myths in America that go almost completely unexamined. (By “myth” I mean a defining belief, held in common, and usually without question.)
The first myth: That the United States has “the greatest military on the planet.” The second myth: That the U.S. military’s value is its “deterrent factor.”
The U.S. certainly has a powerful military, one that costs roughly a trillion dollars a year, when all national security expenses are tallied (e.g. Homeland Security, intelligence, nuclear weapons, and interest on the national debt associated with these expenditures, among other costs). But is it “the greatest”? More importantly, why should a democracy and a people allegedly dedicated to peace and freedom be so proud of possessing “the greatest military on the planet”?
There was a time when Americans were proud of having a small standing military. There was a time when Americans were proud of protesting arms sales around the world by “merchants of death.” Those days ended with the Cold War. Now, America leads the world in military spending and arms exports; no other country comes close. Is this something to boast about?
How about General Kelly’s claim of the military’s “deterrent factor”? The U.S. military has 800 bases around the world, with U.S. special operations forces involved in more than 130 countries. Is this all about “deterrence”? Is the U.S. deterring or preventing wars in Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, among other places throughout the greater Middle East and Africa? That hardly seems to fit the facts on the ground.
Of course, the media focused on Kelly’s message that he isn’t being fired and that President Trump is both “thoughtful” and a “man of action.” His claims about the “world’s greatest military” and its strong deterrent value went unreported and unquestioned. Such claims are now as “American” as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet.
“It’s their [South Vietnam’s] war to win. We can help them … but in the final analysis, it’s their people and their government who have to win or lose this struggle.” President Kennedy in September 1963
“We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles from home [to fight in Vietnam] to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” President Johnson in 1964
I now know the main message of the series: the Vietnam war was an “irredeemable tragedy,” with American suffering being featured in the foreground. The ending is revealing. Feel-good moments of reconciliation between U.S. veterans and their Vietnamese counterparts are juxtaposed with Tim O’Brien reading solemnly from his book on the things American troops carried in Vietnam. The Vietnamese death toll of three million people is briefly mentioned; so too are the bitter legacies of Agent Orange and unexploded ordnance; regional impacts of the war to Laos and Cambodia are briefly examined. But the lion’s share of the emphasis is on the American experience, with the last episode focusing on subjects like PTSD and the controversy surrounding the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The series is well made and often powerful. Its fault is what’s missing. Little is said about the war being a crime, about the war being immoral and unjust; again, the war is presented as a tragedy, perhaps an avoidable one if only U.S. leaders had been wiser and better informed, or so the series suggests. No apologies are made for the war; indeed, the only apology featured is by an antiwar protester near the end (she’s sorry today for the harsh words she said decades ago to returning veterans).
The lack of apologies for wide-scale killing and wanton destruction, the lack of serious consideration of the war as a crime, as an immoral act, as unjust, reveals a peculiarly American bias about the war, which Burns/Novick only amplify. The series presents atrocities like My Lai as aberrations, even though Neil Sheehan is allowed a quick rejoinder about how, if you include massive civilian casualties from U.S. artillery and bombing strikes, My Lai was not aberrational at all. Not in the sense of killing large numbers of innocent civilians indiscriminately. Such killing was policy; it was routine. Sheehan’s powerful observation is not pursued, however.
What the Burns/Novick series truly needed was a two-hour segment devoted exclusively to the destruction inflicted on Southeast Asia and the suffering of Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian peoples. Such a segment would have been truly eye-opening to Americans. Again, the series does mention napalm, Agent Orange, massive bombing, and the millions of innocents killed by the war. But images of civilian suffering are as fleeting as they are powerful. The emphasis is on getting to know the veterans, especially American ones, of that war. By comparison, the series neglects the profound suffering of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians.
In short, the series elides the atrocious nature of the war. This is not to say that atrocities aren’t mentioned. My Lai isn’t ignored. But it’s juxtaposed with communist atrocities, such as the massacre of approximately 2500 prisoners after the Battle of Hue during the Tet Offensive, a war crime committed by retreating North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and National Liberation Front (NLF) forces.
Yet in terms of scale and frequency the worst crimes were committed by U.S. forces, again because they relied so heavily on massive firepower and indiscriminate bombing. I’ve written about this before, citing Nick Turse’s book, Kill Anything That Moves, as well as the writings of Bernard Fall, who said that indiscriminate bombing attacks showed the U.S. was not “able to see the Vietnamese as people against whom crimes can be committed. This is the ultimate impersonalization of war.”
Why did many Americans come to kill “anything that moves” in Vietnam? Why, in the words of Fall, did U.S. officialdom fail to see the peoples of Southeast Asia as, well, people? Fellow human beings?
The Burns/Novick series itself provides evidence to tackle this question, as follows:
At the ground level, U.S. troops couldn’t identify friend from foe, breeding confusion, frustration, and a desire for revenge after units took casualties. It’s said several times in the series that U.S. troops thought they were “chasing ghosts,” “phantoms,” a “shadowy” enemy that almost always had the initiative. In American eyes, it wasn’t a fair fight, so massive firepower became the equalizer for the U.S.—and a means to get even.
Racism, depersonalization, and alienation. U.S. troops routinely referred to the enemy by various racist names: gooks, dinks, slopes, and so on. (Interestingly, communist forces seem to have referred to Americans as “bandits” or “criminals,” negative terms but not ones dripping with racism.) Many U.S. troops also came to hate the countryside (the “stinky” rice paddies, the alien jungle) as well. Racism, fear, and hatred bred atrocity.
Body count: U.S. troops were pushed and rewarded for high body counts. A notorious example was U.S. Army Lieutenant General Julian Ewell. The commanding general of the 9th Infantry Division, Ewell became known as the “Butcher of the Delta.” Douglas Kinnard, an American general serving in Vietnam under Ewell, recounted his impressions of him (in “Adventures in Two Worlds: Vietnam General and Vermont Professor”). Ewell, recalled Kinnard, “constantly pressed his units to increase their ‘body count’ of enemy soldiers. This had become a way of measuring the success of a unit since Vietnam was [for the U.S. Army] a war of attrition, not a linear war with an advancing front line. In the 9th [infantry division] he had required all his commanders to carry 3” x 5” cards with body count tallies for their units by date, by week, and by month. Woe unto any commander who did not have a consistently high count.”
The Burns/Novick series covers General Ewell’s “Speedy Express” operation, in which U.S. forces claimed a kill ratio of 45:1 (45 Vietnamese enemy killed for each U.S. soldier lost). The series notes that an Army Inspector General investigation of “Speedy Express” concluded that at least 5000 innocent civilians were included as “enemy” in Ewell’s inflated body count—but no punishment was forthcoming. Indeed, Ewell was promoted.
Ewell was not the only U.S. leader who drove his troops to generate high body counts while punishing those “slackers” who didn’t kill enough of the enemy. Small wonder Vietnam became a breeding ground for atrocity.
Helicopters. As one soldier put it, a helicopter gave you a god’s eye view of the battlefield. It gave you distance from the enemy, enabling easier kills (If farmers are running, they’re VC, it was assumed, so shoot to kill). Helicopters facilitated a war based on mobility, firepower, and kill ratios, rather than a war based on territorial acquisition and interaction with the people. In short, U.S. troops were often in and out, flitting about the Vietnamese countryside, isolated from the land and the people—while shooting lots and lots of ammo.
What are we fighting for? For the grunt on the ground, the war made no sense. Bernard Fall noted that, after talking to many Americans in Vietnam, he hadn’t “found anyone who seems to have a clear idea of the end – of the ‘war aims’ – and if the end is not clearly defined, are we justified to use any means to attain it?”
The lack of clear and defensible war aims, aims that could have served to limit atrocities, is vitally important in understanding the Vietnam war. Consider the quotations from Presidents Kennedy and Johnson that lead this article. JFK claimed it wasn’t America’s war to win — it was South Vietnam’s. LBJ claimed he wasn’t going to send U.S. troops to Vietnam to fight; he was going to leave that to Asian boys. Yet JFK committed America to winning in South Vietnam, and LBJ sent more than half a million U.S. “boys” to wage and win that war.
Alienated as they were from the land and its peoples, U.S. troops were also alienated from their own leaders, who committed them to a war that, according to the proclamations of those same leaders, wasn’t theirs to win. They were then rewarded for producing high body counts. And when atrocities followed, massacres such as My Lai, U.S. leaders like Richard Nixon conspired to cover them up.
In short, atrocities were not aberrational. They were driven by the policy; they were a product of a war fought under false pretenses. This is not tragedy. It’s criminal.
Failing to face fully the horrific results of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia is the fatal flaw of the Burns/Novick series. To that I would add one other major flaw*: the failure to investigate war profiteering by the military-industrial complex, which President Eisenhower famously warned the American people about as he left office in 1961. Burns/Novick choose not to discuss which corporations profited from the war, even as they show how the U.S. created a massive “false” economy in Saigon, riven with corruption, crime, and profiteering.
As the U.S. pursued Vietnamization under Nixon, a policy known as “yellowing the bodies” by their French predecessors, the U.S. provided an enormous amount of weaponry to South Vietnam, including tanks, artillery pieces, APCs, and aircraft. Yet, as the series notes in passing, ARVN (the South Vietnamese army) didn’t have enough bullets and artillery shells to use their American-provided weaponry effectively, nor could they fly many of the planes provided by U.S. aid. Who profited from all these weapons deals? Burns/Novick remain silent on this question—and silent on the issue of war profiteering and the business side of war.
The Vietnam War, as Tim O’Brien notes in the series, was “senseless, purposeless, and without direction.” U.S. troops fought and died to take hills that were then quickly abandoned. They died in a war that JKF, Johnson, and Nixon admitted couldn’t be won. They were the losers, but they weren’t the biggest ones. Consider the words of North Vietnamese soldier, Bao Ninh, who says in the series that the real tragedy of the war was that the Vietnamese people killed each other. American intervention aggravated a brutal struggle for independence, one that could have been resolved way back in the 1950s after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu.
But U.S. leaders chose to intervene, raining destruction on Southeast Asia for another twenty years, leading to a murderous death toll of at least three million. That was and is something more than a tragedy.
*A Note: Another failing of the Burns/Novick series is the lack of critical examination about why the war was fought and for what reasons, i.e. the series takes at face value the Cold War dynamic of falling dominoes, containment, and the like. It doesn’t examine radical critiques, such as Noam Chomsky’s point that the U.S. did achieve its aims in the war, which was the prevention of Vietnamese socialism/communism emerging as a viable and independent model for economic development in the 1950s and 1960s. In other words, a debilitating war that devastated Vietnam delayed by several decades that people’s emergence as an economic rival to the U.S., even as it sent a message to other, smaller, powers that the U.S. would take ruthless action to sustain its economic hegemony across the world. This line of reasoning demanded a hearing in the series, but it’s contrary to the war-as-tragedy narrative adopted by Burns/Novick.
For Chomsky, America didn’t accidentally or inadvertently or ham-fistedly destroy the Vietnamese village to save it; the village was destroyed precisely to destroy it, thereby strengthening capitalism and U.S. economic hegemony throughout the developing world. Accurate or not, this critique deserves consideration.