The Atrocious Nature of the Vietnam War

The soon-to-be “fall” of Afghanistan, at least from a U.S. perspective, put me to mind of Vietnam and its fall in 1975. As we examine why U.S. military interventions (or invasions) keep ending so badly, we might consider how there are always winners to these losing wars in America. After all, the Afghan War has cost the U.S. more than a trillion dollars in twenty years, and quite a few people have prospered from it.

In the end, Vietnam and Afghanistan were never America’s to win, and our presence there, and our use of massive firepower, left behind a legacy of violence and destruction that should be a national shame.

Bracing Views

Helicopter_Poster_promoV2W.J. Astore

“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’ve now watched all ten episodes of the Burns/Novick series on the Vietnam War.  I’ve written about it twice already (here and here), and I won’t repeat those arguments.  Critical reviews by Nick Turse, Peter Van Buren, Andrew Bacevich, and Thomas Bass are also well worth reading.

I now know the main message of the series: the Vietnam war was an “irredeemable tragedy,” with American suffering being featured in the foreground. …

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26 thoughts on “The Atrocious Nature of the Vietnam War

  1. Just after posting this, I saw this article at The New Republic that takes America’s generals to task, and rightly so: https://newrepublic.com/article/162955/afghanistan-war-generals-failed-america

    Yes, the generals failed America. But they failed all those Afghan people killed as well, caught in the lies spun by these generals of “progress.”

    An excerpt from this article: Across two decades, our military leaders presented rosy pictures of the Afghanistan War and its prospects to the president, Congress, and the American people, despite clear internal debate about the validity of those assessments and real-time contradictory information from those fighting and losing the daily battle against the Taliban. Or, to put it in the words of John Sopko, the inspector general who issued a series of reports known as the Afghanistan Papers: “The American people have constantly been lied to.”

    The promise that victory was just around the corner proved intoxicating to presidents and politicians, not to mention everyday Americans, who blindly trusted anyone with four stars on his lapel. Despite the partisanship and institutional mistrust of the past two decades, the military consistently has been the most trusted institution in the country, rated highly by roughly 70 percent of Americans. Cloaked in near-universal trust, these officers repeatedly argued that an unwinnable war could be won.

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    1. “The American people have constantly been lied to.”
      One of the biggest liars amongst the
      Mis-Truth tellers …
      The American people themselves…
      They got first hand info from the war in Vietnam…. facts …nothing but the facts
      were given to them from that fiasco ….
      And….they didn’t learn a damn thing…
      They lied to themselves after drinking some patriotic kool-aid that gave them a sugar rush…put them in a diabetic coma
      that produced the national amnesia …
      When Bush the builder asked…”Can we do it?”…
      The public repeated the lie…
      ”Yes we can!” Over and over and over!
      We are deluded by our density !

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      1. I would note, however, that when the shrub (Bush II) was preparing to invade Iraq, there were massive protests in the U.S., in almost every major city. But there was no press coverage, so….they never happened.

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    2. One of the most respected branches of the federal government system…
      The United States Postal Service
      Year in and year out!
      Funny in an ironic way, that the two most respected services from our federal system have missions that are polar opposites …
      One seeks to serve the public domain and knit it together through communication…The other…
      Is trained to seek and destroy communities that are perceived as enemies to imperial power!
      Hmmmm…..Makes me wonder about our sanity??????

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Remember, though, that Ken Burns has become America’s Expert on Everything: baseball, jazz, the Civil War and, yes, Vietnam. You can trust him. I’m sure his PBS series on America’s Longest War – which is bound to roll in a couple years – will set the record straight in the minds of most Americans.

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  3. Reading “The soon-to-be “fall” of Afghanistan, at least from a U.S. perspective, put me to mind of Vietnam and its fall in 1975″ reminded me of a comment my husband, a Vietnam vet, made the other day. He had just visited his VA psychologist and told her that, with the withdrawal from Afghanistan coming, she should likely be prepared for an uptick in veterans from that war zone to call for appointments. He evidently remembers all too well how Vietnam veterans felt after giving their blood, sweat, and tears to a war that was “cancelled” in just the same manner. Those who do not learn from history…

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      1. It is always best to begin at the beginning when trying to understand a historical event. In this case the historical event is the ‘Vietnam War’. The American – Vietnamese War was actually the fourth Vietnam War.

        The first was 1885 -89, a failed rebellion of the Vietnamese against the French.

        The Second Vietnam War was 1945 – 6, when the Vietnamese tried to regain their independence from France as soon as WWII ended.

        The Third Vietnam War was 1946 – 54 which ended with the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu. “Hồ initially chose to take a moderate stance to avoid military conflict with France, asking the French to withdraw their colonial administrators and for French professors and engineers to help build a modern independent Vietnam.[109] But the Provisional Government of the French Republic did not act on these requests, including the idea of independence, and dispatched the French Far East Expeditionary Corps to restore colonial rule. This resulted in the Việt Minh launching a guerrilla campaign against the French in late 1946.[108][109][114] ” from Wikipedia – Vietnam.

        The Fourth Vietnam War 1956 – 75 was our Vietnam War.

        During all these Vietnam Wars, at no time was an outside army fighting against France or the United States. Americans were never informed that the Vietnamese were trying to establish their own destiny after a hundred years of colonialism. All we were told was that the communists were trying to take control and that would lead to a ‘domino effect’ through out Southeast Asia.

        Just as Americans fought a colonial power in 1775 – 83, the Vietnamese did the same over the course of about 90 years. I wonder if Americans would have been so eager to get involved in Vietnam if they had known the above?

        I watched the Ken Burns film on Vietnam and as you have pointed out, it is very lacking in objectivity and comprehensiveness. Burns sold out in my opinion, and used his reputation as a competent documentarian to sell the film and sooth American’s consciences.

        Maybe its too much to expect the general public to research what I just researched. Maybe our schools need to teach that which is relevant at the time so people can decide what is true and what is right.

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        1. Truth has been the first casualty on man’s death march to this ages final dissolution. Truth is a rare entity that the false self has unsuccessfully tried to “manipulate and manufacture”; weaponizing it for ill gotten gain. Erroneously believing that the colonial master plan could be implemented by their marketed versions of this rarest of qualities truth. Then use that distortion of the real, as the tool that will get the masses to comply to their folly. This sick behavior has been mass produced by greedy ignorant leaders and what these fools don’t see… they hasten their own demise. In the end a Rolls Royce will succumb to rust… like truth, rust never sleeps. But fools are susceptible to sleep walking.

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        2. If I remember correctly, I haven’t looked it up recently, I think the Vietnamese fought a brief but bloody border war with China after the US left. And I think they also ousted the brutal Khmer Rouge from Cambodia. Please correct me if I’m wrong. It appeared to me that they are fiercely independent and will make any sacrifice to maintain that independence.

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          1. Communism and socialism are today’s verbal boogeymen that marketing majors use against any population that wants to keep destiny in their own hands, completely UN-influenced by the dominant imperialist ways of nation building. As long as mankind refuses to take into consideration every aspect of creation, from the Universal to the corporeal we will continue marching towards our destruction. Last time I bothered to calculate humanities governance structures. Every government on this planet was and is still…on a fools journey. We are neck deep in a false creation and the waters are not receding. Leadership knows not what it is doing. Welcome to the densest of times.

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    1. In 1966, this Vietnam veteran favored cancelling U.S. military meddling in Indochina before I got sucked up in it. Failing that, cancelling it before another single Vietnamese or American had to die in it — in 1975 — had to do. I have since favored the immediate cancellation of all of America’s phony imperial boondoggles wherever America launches them.

      Veterans of military service have many views about what their experiences meant to them, depending upon when they did their time, where they found themselves deployed, whether they held the rank of officer or enlisted, which “war” (or euphemistic “Police Action”) they took part in, whether they functioned in non-combat/rear-echelon support roles, etc., etc. No single veteran speaks for all veterans. However, the current collapse of the never-viable, U.S. installed proxy government in Afghanistan does parallel — with striking similarities — the collapse of the musical-chairs Saigon regimes installed and supported by the U.S. government for an equally meaningless two decades fifty years ago. I recently caught an interview about Iraq and Afghanistan conducted by Scott Horton with retired U.S. Army Major Danny Sjursen who expressed some of the thoughts I had watching the debacle of America in Vietnam unfold three years after I returned from my own extended 18-month deployment to what I considered the Asshole of the Universe and Bottom of the Barrel both in the same place. So here we have a veteran who thinks now (in 2021) what I thought then (in 1975) and still do:

      Scott Horton: “What do you think about the rest of the guys who fought over there and how do they feel about this now? You cite some polls, but you mention that Congressman, too, and he’s not alone. You can’t ever leave anywhere because then you lose. Does that not then matter to you?”

      Major Danny Sjursen (retired): “It doesn’t to me. I’m really at a point where I look at this whole thing with a bit more sorrow, confusion, and fatalism. I’m at peace with just getting out. I don’t spend a lot of time anymore, and haven’t for some time, really, worrying about what the sacrifice was for in terms of my soldiers. I mean, I’m sorry about it because I don’t believe it was for anything. I think it was really in vain. That upsets people when you say that. That doesn’t take away from the bravery of my kids who literally saddled up every day and never refused no matter how bad it got. I will love them forever. One could call them my blind spot, in fact. But I think it’s a bit of an insult, as I see it — and not everyone agrees with me, by the way, maybe most don’t — I think it’s a bit of an insult to, like, to feel that you have to sanitize what they did, or say: “It has to have been for something. You can’t say it’s in vain. Isn’t this horrible that what they fought for is being thrown to hell here with the Taliban taking over?” Honestly, I just don’t want anyone else to die. I don’t want the next bunch of veterans to be made of a war. Why? Sunken Cost Fallacy? The idea because we gave a lot of blood the only way to wash away that wasted blood is with more expended, hopeless blood. That’s illogical. I will say that talking to my Afghan vet buddies the last few weeks, especially the past few days, most fall in one of two categories that you’ve kind of described. It’s either, some of them are very much upset. “This is ridiculous. The places we used to travel are now under the control of the Taliban. Biden is cutting and running. We put so much effort into that. We made it a little bit better for a little while, and this is awful.” Some of them are like that. I reject that for the obvious sort of rational reasons, the logical fallacies of it. But I think most of my buddies, enlisted and officer, there’s a lot of apathy about it. There’s a lot of apathy and fatalism. It’s not apathy like they don’t care. It’s just resignation, that’s a better word. Frustration. Alienation. Like we did all this and what was this all for? Nobody really cared. Nobody cares now. I cite a poll from last year: 12% of civilian, non-veteran Americans say they’re closely following Afghan War-related news — frankly, I’m surprised it’s that high, which is crazy — but there is a sense of alienation and frustration among our veterans to keep an eye on. You know, you get rid of the draft, you make this Praetorian Guard, people don’t really care what’s going on over there. The whole thing is a fruitless failure. Now we’re getting out and everyone is arguing the politics of it. And there is a certain sense that I’ve gotten from among my former soldiers and colleagues that they don’t even want to hear people talking about it. That’s one really big subsection. Maybe 50% feel that way.”

      Just some thoughts that some veterans have about what they did and the utter meaninglessness of it all.

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  4. The USA once it committed to bombing and then combat troops to South Vietnam the politics entered. This quote by Nixon may probably have lingered in the minds of JFK and LBJ:

    “Mr. Stevenson has a degree alright–a PhD from the Acheson College of Cowardly Communist Containment.”—Vice President Richard Nixon, attacking the Democratic presidential nominee, Adlai Stevenson, during the 1952 election.

    LBJ’s advisors and the military totally underestimated the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong’s will to resist. It seemed the fanatic determination of the Germans to resist even after Hitler’s death was forgotten, along with the Japanese resistance until the A-Bombs and the entry of the Soviet Union into the Pacific War ended WW 2.
    With the exception of the Korean War, the USA had become accustomed to bullying, coups and a demonstration of military power sometimes even with the Marines to get our way. The expectation it seemed was the North Vietnamese and VC would give in in the face of bombing and a division of Marines. The history of the Vietnamese to rebel against foreign invaders if it was considered was dismissed. Hubris dominated – We were Americans with vastly more power to use than the French.

    How strange it all is Vietnam is now Communist, yet they produce in the factories consumer goods for Americans. I guess this what that old Cold War Doctrine of “Peaceful Coexistence” is all about.

    Imagine if you could time travel back to the mid 1960’s and assemble a group of Reactionary Cold War Warriors in a large hall and telling them that by 2021 Communist China would dominate our economy and we would also lose a war in Vietnam to the North Vietnamese and VC.

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  5. Here is a very interesting article concerning Afghanistan, substitute some place names and people and it sounds remarkably like the media in 1975 concerning South Vietnam.

    Afghanistan stunned by scale and speed of security forces’ collapse.

    More than 1,000 have fled across the border, and hundreds more have handed over weapons to the Taliban.
    In the fog of confusion, fear and blame that has settled over government-controlled parts of Afghanistan, there is perhaps just one thing that the entire political spectrum can agree on: no one foresaw the scale or speed of the collapse of the Afghan security forces in recent weeks, even those who wanted a strategic retreat.
    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jul/13/afghanistan-stunned-by-scale-and-speed-of-security-forces-collapse

    Actually, I think a lot of us predicted the collapse of the USA’s puppet government in Kabul, once the US made it’s exit.

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    1. All those rosy reports of progress in training, equipping, and fielding Afghan Security Forces. All those billions of dollars. All those warrior corporations paid for by the American taxpayer for their efforts. All for nought.

      It was all predictable because we predicted it — it had happened before in Vietnam, in Iraq, and elsewhere. U.S.-created and funded forces that stayed in the field only as long as the U.S. military was there as paymasters and watch-guards. Once we leave, the illusion all comes crashing down …

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  6. Going forward, I think the Rule of Thumb should be if a country has “security forces” instead of a standing army, stay away. Security forces sound like mall cops or “Special Event Staff.”

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  7. The only effective protest will be the one that lasts as long as the troops are offshoring. When they depart the protesters need to deploy!
    I’ve written about the Vet from Vietnam that maintained a big billboard in his front yard on my walking route and it kept the grizzly casualty score for all to see. I also was at a training seminar in Tampa and they kept up a street vigil that I found after dinner one evening and got in on the spirit until they closed up for the evening. It was a good group that kept meeting every evening coordinated by vets. They’d been out there from the start!!!

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  8. It’s been a long time since I watched the 1980s “Vietnam: A Television History” but my memory says that it was actually a more critical documentary that asked harder questions and went into greater detail than the Burns documentary. Even at that the earlier series was still criticized by anti-war writers for being too oriented towards the “it was done for noble reasons” line. Of course it still got hammered by more right wing people to the point that they demanded and got rebuttal time on PBS! Normally I think that histories become more detached and even handed as time passes so the Burns series should have surprised me but the change in American culture and particularly media and journalism over the intervening decades since the 1980s documentary meant that I was half expecting the new one to be what it turned out to be. It’s honestly terrifying to me how automatically and seemingly unthinkingly pro war the mainstream media, the think tanks and and the “serious” members of both the U.S. political parties have become over the past couple of decades. It seems like bombing, droning and invading have become as natural unquestioned and necessary as breathing for them.

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