It sure is hard to give peace a chance in America, as recent events with Russia and Ukraine show. The Washington consensus is all about weapons and more weapons, of economic sanctions, i.e. economic warfare, of not being seen as a pitiful helpless giant, as Richard Nixon once said during the Vietnam War. America can never stand on the sidelines, even when its national security interests aren’t even threatened. Something must be done, something forceful, something involving troops and weapons and ultimatums that could very well escalate into disaster.
Revealingly, Washington insiders always talk of “all options” being on a metaphorical table, meaning the most violent ones, including war, for the president to choose from. They lie. Because the one option that’s never on that imaginary table is peace.
Peacemakers might be the children of God, but perhaps America is more godless than it knows. Or maybe it just worships the god of war, a Pentagod. It’s discouraging to face the obstacles to peace in America, because these obstacles are not going to be removed just by singing songs and writing articles or even by protesting. What is truly needed is a mass movement against war, as we saw during the Vietnam War years, but even that mass movement took years to have an impact. And it was motivated as well by resistance to the draft, which no longer exists.
A short list of the obstacles to peace is sobering indeed:
The power of the military-industrial-congressional complex. It doesn’t want to get smaller or less powerful. It thrives off weaponry and wars. It has no interest in peace.
The mainstream media. It’s owned by major corporations and advances corporate agendas. It smears antiwar voices as naive (at best) and often as traitorous and/or weak. Antiwar voices simply aren’t heard on the MSM. Instead, retired colonels and generals, as well as senior ex-CIA officials, are put forward as unbiased voices of reason as they promote the most hawkish lines.
The absence of a draft. Let’s face it: the youth of America are much more likely to resist war if they have to risk their lives. But America has an “all volunteer force,” and if these volunteers are sent off to war, that’s what they signed up for. Right?
American culture in general is suffused with violence and misinformed about the world, especially America’s imperial role in it. Myths about American exceptionalism and beliefs about the troops as freedom-fighters serve to inhibit antiwar criticism and protests.
The difficulty of launching any kind of sustained protest nowadays. Ready to gather in the streets to march against war? Sorry, do you have a permit? Covid restrictions may prevent you from gathering. And maybe we’ll move you to a special “free speech” zone, which I assure you will be far away from media cameras. What good is protesting if you gain no traction because few people see you and the media ignores you?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it’s impossible to give peace a chance. Just that it’s very difficult, given the power structures of our society and our collective national ethos. It’s mind-boggling that America has so many agencies for “defense” and “intelligence.” We have the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security (a domestic mini-Pentagon), something like 17 intelligence agencies like the CIA and NSA, the list goes on. State and local police forces are now heavily militarized and generally unsympathetic to your right to assemble and to protest vigorously. Get a job, commie peacenik!
Meanwhile, society’s heroes are U.S. military troops, or the “thin blue line” of police that “protect and serve.” Those who are committed to peace are generally not viewed as heroes, at least not by society at large. Again, Christ may have seen peacemakers as God’s children, but in the U.S. there’s a preference (judging by gun sales) for Colt Peacemakers.
How to overcome these obstacles to truly give peace a chance is perhaps the most pressing issue of our age, given the risk of war going nuclear and ending most life on our planet. Readers, I don’t have easy answers, but I’d begin with Ike’s warning about the military-industrial complex in 1961, JFK’s peace speech in 1963, MLK’s speech against the Vietnam War on April 4th, 1967, perhaps even John Lennon’s song “Imagine.”
How do we imagine — and then create — a new reality that favors peace instead of war? How do we pursue a just and lasting peace with ourselves and with all nations that Abraham Lincoln spoke of near the end of the U.S. Civil War?
The words are there. The vision is there. Tapping the nobility of Lincoln, Ike, JFK, and MLK and their antiwar messages is possible. Isn’t it?
As JFK said in his “peace speech,” to believe that war is inevitable is a “dangerous defeatist belief.” I’m with JFK.
What is your best guess at when the following passage was written?
Under a leadership of charlatans and bullies this great Republic clumped about among the nations like a lout, feared by most, respected by none. Nor were things much better at home where a thinly disguised racism was in the saddle, the people’s worst instincts were appealed to, and the noble sentiments of patriotism were reduced to the cliche of the bigot’s bumper sticker.
A sensible guess would be roughly 2018, focusing on the Trump administration. But it was published in 1973 by Richard Dougherty in “Goodbye, Mr. Christian: A Personal Account of McGovern’s Rise and Fall.” Dougherty, of course, was writing about the Nixon administration and its infamous Southern strategy.
Well, as my wife immediately noticed, things are worse today, since many Republicans have abandoned any pretense to thin disguises when it comes to racism. Two stories caught my eye this weekend. The first was Stacey Abrams’ angry and accurate denunciation of Republican voter suppression efforts as “Jim Crow in a suit.” As a friend put it, “the vote suppressors in Georgia are at work even now trying to block their [Black churches] ‘souls to the polls’ tradition.” The second was Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson’s statement that he wasn’t afraid of largely white pro-Trump rioters in the U.S. Capitol in January since they “love this country,” but he would, he confessed, had feared them if they had been BLM (Black Lives Matter) protesters. Johnson bizarrely added that the pro-Trump protesters “truly respect law enforcement” and “would never do anything to break a law.” Assuming Johnson isn’t completely mad, he’s obviously pandering to the Trumpian base as he’s up for reelection in 2022. Or perhaps he’s a mad panderer.
Again, America is allegedly a democracy. We should be doing everything we can to increase the number of people who vote. We shouldn’t be passing laws to make it more difficult for people to vote, specifically minority voters. Such laws are not only sordid and cowardly, they’re un-American.
About Senator Johnson: Strangely, I find his brazen bigotry to be useful. Useful in reminding us that America has far to go before we put racism behind us. Politicians used to use dog whistles, so to speak, to make racist appeals to like-minded haters. Now they simply say the quiet part out loud, not caring who hears it, because they figure they can get away with it. They think it’s a winning tactic. We have to prove them wrong. Racism, whether blatantly obvious or thinly disguised, must be rejected by all Americans.
To return to the quotation from Dougherty: How many nations around the world respect America for its ideals and actions, and how many pretend to respect us because they fear our bullying and loutish actions? Honest answers to this question should disturb us. Division at home and fear abroad is a recipe for neither domestic tranquility nor international comity.
I wrote my latest article for TomDispatch.com (below) before the Capitol riot, adding a quick reference to it at the last minute in the first paragraph. Events at the U.S. Capitol as well as other recent violent events in America lend credence to the idea we’re all prisoners of war of a sort. Global wars may be invisible to most Americans, but domestic ones are all too plain to see. How do we make our “great escape” from a culture of incessant violence and permanent war?
“POWs Never Have A Nice Day.” That sentiment was captured on a button a friend of mine wore for our fourth grade class photo in 1972. That prisoners of war could never have such a day was reinforced by the sad face on that button. Soon after, American POWs would indeed be released by their North Vietnamese captors as the American war in Vietnam ended. They came home the next year to a much-hyped heroes’ welcome orchestrated by the administration of President Richard Nixon, but the government would never actually retire its POW/MIA (missing-in-action) flags. Today, almost half a century later, they continue to fly at federal installations, including the U.S. Capitol as it was breached and briefly besieged last week by a mob incited by this country’s lame-duck president, ostensibly to honor all U.S. veterans who were either POWs or never returned because their bodies were never recovered.
Remembering the sacrifices of our veterans is fitting and proper; it’s why we set aside Memorial Day in May and Veterans Day in November. In thinking about those POWs and the dark legacy of this country’s conflicts since World War II, however, I’ve come to a realization. In the ensuing years, we Americans have all, in some sense, become prisoners of war. We’re all part of a culture that continues to esteem war, embrace militarism, and devote more than half of federal discretionary spending to wars, weaponry, and the militarization of American culture. We live in a country that leads the world in the export of murderous munitions to the grimmest, most violent hotspots on the planet, enabling, for example, a genocidal conflict in Yemen, among other conflicts.
True, in a draft-less country, few enough Americans actually don a military uniform these days. As 2021 begins, most of us have never carried a military identification card that mentions the Geneva Convention on the proper and legal treatment of POWs, as I did when I wore a uniform long ago. So, when I say that all Americans are essentially POWs, I’m obviously using that acronym not in a legal or formal way, but in the colloquial sense of being captured by some phenomenon, held by it, subjected to it in a fashion that tends to restrict, if not eliminate, freedom of thought and action and so compromises this country’s belief in sacred individual liberties. In this colloquial sense, it seems to me that all Americans have in some fashion become prisoners of war, even those few “prisoners” among us who have worked so bravely and tirelessly to resist the phenomenon.
Ask yourself this question: During a deadly pandemic, as the American death toll approaches 400,000 while still accelerating, what unites “our” representatives in Congress? What is the only act that draws wide and fervent bipartisan support, not to speak of a unique override of a Trump presidential veto in these last four years? It certainly isn’t providing health care for all or giving struggling families checks for $2,000 to ensure that food will be on American tables or that millions of us won’t be evicted from our homes in the middle of a pandemic. No, what unites “our” representatives is funding the military-industrial complex to the tune of $740.5 billion in fiscal year 2021 (though the real amount spent on what passes for “national security” each year regularly exceeds a trillion dollars). Still, that figure of $740.5 billion in itself is already higher than the combined military spending of the next 10 countries, including Russia and China as well as U.S. allies like France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
Not only that, but Congress added language to the latest defense bill that effectively blocked efforts by President Trump before he leaves office on January 20th to mandate the withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan (and some troops from Germany). Though it’s doubtful he would have accomplished such goals anyway, given his irresolute nature, that Congress worked to block him tells you what you need to know about “our” representatives and their allegiance to the war complex.
That said, an irresolute Trump administration has been most resolute in just one area: selling advanced weaponry overseas. It’s been rushing to export American-made bombs, missiles, and jets to the Middle East before turning over government efforts to shill for America’s merchants of death to President Joe Biden and his crew of deskbound warriors.
Speaking of Biden, that he selected retired General Lloyd Austin III to be his secretary of defense sends the strongest possible signal of his own allegiance to the primacy of militarism and war in American culture. After all, upon retiring, General Austin promptly cashed in by joining the board of directors of United Technologies from which he received $1.4 million in “stock and other compensation” before it merged with giant weapons-maker Raytheon and he ended up on the board of that company. (He holds roughly $500,000 in Raytheon stock, a nice supplement to his six-figure yearly military pension.)
How better than selecting him as SecDef to ensure that the “military” and the “industrial” remain wedded in that famed complex? America’s secretary of defense is, of course, supposed to be a civilian, someone who can exercise strong and independent oversight over America’s ever-growing war complex, not a lifelong military officer and general to boot, as well as an obvious war profiteer.
War Is Peace
As Quincy Institute President Andrew Bacevich so aptly put it, “many Americans have made their peace with endless war.” Within America’s war culture, peace activists like Medea Benjamin and organizations like Veterans for Peace are seen as not just “radical,” but genuinely aberrant. Meanwhile, an unquestioning acceptance of the fact that this country is now eternally at war across significant parts of the planet is considered normal, even respectable. Certainly, not something to put real time or thought into considering.
As a result, warmongers like former Trump National Security Advisor John Bolton are touted in some quarters as hard-headed realists. In seeing the world as a hostile place that Americans need to (but somehow, almost 20 years later, can’t) dominate means their heads are screwed on straight, unlike those screwy thinkers who advocate for peace. But as Dorothy Day, the Catholic peace activist, once said: “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”
That Americans mostly refuse to see permanent war as filthy and rotten, or to think much about it or the “defense” budget that goes with it showcases the triumph of a broader war culture here. Whereas this country’s profligate and prodigal military complex has given us stunning failure after stunning failure overseas (just consider all those disastrous efforts to win “hearts and minds” from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq and on and on), it has proved stunningly successful in winning — or at least taming — hearts and minds in the homeland. How else to explain the way those trillion-dollar-plus “national security” budgets are routinely rubber-stamped by Congress with hardly a murmur of protest?
In the twenty-first century, Americans are suffering a form of cognitive capture in which war has become the new normal. As an astute reader at my blog, Bracing Views, put it: “Our desire to live without war is held in a stockade, and every day that we wake up and walk out into the yard that understanding is being broken down by the powerful monied elites.”
In America’s collective stockade of the mind, activism for peace is an aberration, while acceptance of the war state is second nature. Small wonder that Biden’s proposed cabinet and administration features so many neocon-style policymakers who made their peace with war, whether in Iraq and Afghanistan or Libya and Syria (Antony Blinken as secretary of state; Jake Sullivan as national security advisor; retired general Lloyd Austin as secretary of defense; and Avril Haines as director of national intelligence). Biden’s hawkish picks avidly place their faith in U.S. military power. And they will be advising a new president, who once supported war in Iraq himself and talks not of reducing “defense” spending but of boosting it.
Perhaps you’ve noticed, in fact, how every president from George W. Bush in 2001 on has been proud to pose at some point as a “wartime” president. Perhaps you’ve noticed as well that this country can’t or won’t close Gitmo, the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, flooded with prisoners from the global war on terror beginning late in 2001, men who will likely be imprisoned until death does us part.
Perhaps this is why the U.S. government “tortured some folks,” as President Obama put it in 2014, and abused Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. (Avril Haines, Biden’s proposed national intelligence director, once helped suppress evidence of just such abuse and torture.) Perhaps this is why every president starting with George W. Bush has unapologetically smited evildoers around the world via robotic assassin drones. (Remember, the drone assassination of Iranian Major General Qasem Suleimani at Baghdad International Airport by one Donald J. Trump?) Perhaps this is also why U.S. bombing never seems to stop and those wars never end, even when a president comes into office promising that they will. After all, it’s so empowering to be a “wartime” president!
In his novel 1984, George Orwell put it simply enough when he coined the slogan “war is peace” for his fictional dystopian society. Randolph Bourne put it no less simply when, during World War I, he explained that “war is the health of the state.” Rosa Brooks, who worked at the Pentagon, put it bluntly when she titled her 2016 book How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. What we have in America today is warfare as welfare, a form of man-made disaster capitalism, profitable for a few at the expense of the many.
Say it again: We are all POWs now.
The Time I Met a Real POW
In the early 1990s, when I was a young captain in the U.S. Air Force, I served as an escort officer for Brigadier General Robinson Risner. It’s not too much to say that Risner is held in awe in the Air Force. A skilled fighter pilot and Korean War ace, he was a colonel and on the cover of Time magazine in 1965, just as the Vietnam War was ramping up, after which he was shot down and became a POW. He later wrote The Passing of the Night, a harrowing account of the seven years he spent as a prisoner in the “Hanoi Hilton,” the sardonic name American POWs gave North Vietnam’s Hoa Lo Prison.
What sustained Risner through torture and those years of captivity was his Christian faith and patriotism. I vividly recall a talk he gave at the Air Force Academy about his experiences and how that faith of his had sustained him. I’ve never heard a more vivid evocation of the spirit of duty, honor, and country sustained by faith in a higher power. I was proud to have a photo taken with General Risner, as we stood next to the trophy named after him and annually awarded to the top graduate of the Air Force’s Weapons School, the AF’s Top Gun, so to speak.
Risner was gracious and compelling, and I was humbled to meet a POW who’d endured and overcome as much as he had. Yet, back then (to be honest), I never gave a thought to his actions as a fighter pilot leading bombing missions during Operation Rolling Thunder in Vietnam. Since the U.S. government had chosen not to officially declare war against North Vietnam, whether his missions were even legal should have been open to question. Lacking such an official declaration, one could argue that Risner and U.S. POWs like him did not enjoy the legal protections of the Geneva Convention. Using American terminology today, Risner might then have been termed an “enemy combatant” to be held indefinitely, as the U.S. today holds captives at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, POWs who have little hope of ever being released.
To your average American captured by U.S. war culture, objections here are easy. Of course, Risner’s bombing missions were legal. Of course, he deserved to be recognized as a POW and treated decently. America never goes to war without righteous cause, in this case the containment of Communism by any means short of nuclear weapons. The North Vietnamese saw it differently, however, perhaps because it was they who were being bludgeoned and flattened by U.S. military power.
My point is neither to praise Risner nor to bury him. Rather, it’s to bury war and the culture that breeds and then feeds on it. The more Americans facilitate war (largely by ignoring it and so giving it our tacit approval), the more Washington funds it, the more other people die because of “our” wars and “our” weaponry, the more this country becomes a POW nation writ large.
My Friend’s Button Again
Remember my friend’s button, the one that insisted POWs never have a nice day? As a POW nation writ large, it should apply to all of us. America won’t have a nice day again until it extricates itself from war in all its manifestations. There will be no nice day until Congress stops funding munitions makers and starts seeking peace and helping the sick and poor. There will be no nice day until Americans hate war with all the passion now saved for “patriotic” flag waving. There will be no nice day until presidents bless peacemakers instead of beseeching God to protect the troops.
So, the next time you see a POW/MIA flag outside a federal building, don’t dismiss it as a relic of America’s past. Think about its meaning and relevance in an era of constant global warfare and colossal military spending. Then, if you dare, ask yourself if you, too, are a POW of sorts — not in the strictly legal sense that applies to formal militaries in declared wars, but in the sense of this country being captured by war in all its death, destruction, and despair. And then ask yourself, what does America have to do, collectively, to break out of the POW camp in which it’s imprisoned itself?
Upon that question hinges the future of the American republic.
Copyright 2021 William J. Astore
Many thanks to UTEJACK for the “stockade” quote and the inspiration. Many thanks to Tori LaGarde for identifying the POW button in the 4th grade photo — and for the inspiration as well.
The Kennedy Administration: Camelot or Incompetence?
President John F. Kennedy is surrounded by myths, the most famous of which is Camelot. The Kennedys brought youth and glamour to the White House, a reprieve from the perceived stodginess of Ike and Mamie Eisenhower (as well as the “square” and indeed criminal Nixon White House to come). They seemed the perfect couple, John and Jackie, and it seems churlish and graceless to note how much of this was image. Kennedy was a notorious womanizer, a fact both known and suppressed by a fawning Washington Press Corps. Jackie came across as a traditional wife: loyal, unobjectionable, limited by her times but also steely in her grace and fortitude after her husband was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963 (the latest movie that captures this awful event is Jackie, starring Natalie Portman).
Kennedy’s father, Joe Sr., taught his sons a sense of winning at all costs. A sense of recklessness. Kennedy’s older brother, Joe Jr. died leading a risky bombing mission in World War II, and John F. Kennedy nearly died when he lost his PT boat in action in the Pacific. The loss of PT-109 was depicted as a heroic act, as the young JFK helped to save some of his crew, but one may question how he came to lose his boat in the first place. JFK’s perfect marriage, as already mentioned, was a sham, and despite his relative youth, he was not in the best of health, plagued by a bad back, Addison’s disease, and other health issues. His Pulitzer-prize winning book, “Profiles in Courage,” was largely ghost written. JFK’s life was often more a triumph of image than a profile in courage.
As President, Kennedy made many unwise decisions. He escalated American involvement in Laos and Vietnam, setting the stage for a major commitment of U.S. ground troops by President Lyndon Johnson early in 1965. He oversaw the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, which backfired badly on the inexperienced U.S. commander-in-chief. As Lawrence Freedman put it in his book, Kennedy’s Wars (2000), “This was exactly the sort of move—gambling on the basis of insufficient strength and then abandoning the operation before it was complete—that made [Dean] Acheson despair.” Freedman further cites Acheson as saying European leaders compared JFK’s bungling to “a gifted amateur practicing with a boomerang and suddenly knocking himself cold. They were amazed that so inexperienced a person should play with so lethal a weapon.”
Greater lethality was to come the next year with the Cuban Missile Crisis. This is often sold as JFK’s moment of steely toughness, when he made the Soviets blink and back down, but as a recent book by Daniel Ellsberg reveals, that crisis nearly resulted in nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It was yet another instance of JFK’s tendency toward taking big risks as a way of proving himself. Almost precipitating nuclear Armageddon, however, is terrifying way to prove one’s fitness for office.
Even before JFK became president, he fabricated what today might be called “alternative facts.” He invented a missile gap vis-à-vis the Soviet Union that didn’t exist. In fact, the true missile gap was the opposite of what JFK claimed, in that the U.S. had many more nuclear ICBMs than the Soviets did. When he became president, JFK embarked on a strategic policy of “Flexible Response” (suggested by General Maxwell Taylor) that activated and empowered more conventional operations by the U.S. military. In practice what this meant was that the U.S. became embroiled in conflicts that were secondary to national interests; worst of all, of course, was a major land war in Vietnam that was essentially a lost cause even before Kennedy chose to escalate it with more advisers and materiel aid.
Defenders of JFK suggest he grew in office and would have seen the folly of continuing in Vietnam, but there’s little evidence to support this narrative. The recent Ken Burns series on the Vietnam War cites Kennedy as saying the U.S. couldn’t win in Vietnam, but that he couldn’t order a withdrawal because to do so would cost him his reelection in 1964. JFK, moreover, fancied the notion of Flexible Response, his New Look military and its emphasis on special ops forces such as the Green Berets, and he saw Vietnam as a test bed for a “counterinsurgency” approach to defeating communism. What LBJ did in 1965 in escalating that conflict by committing U.S. ground troops is probably what JFK would have done if he had lived. (In his book, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam, Fredrik Logevall suggests JFK may have had the political will to resist escalation in 1965, effectively allowing South Vietnam to fall to communism, an intriguing if unprovable scenario.)
In sum, JFK set the stage for America’s disastrous war in Southeast Asia while provoking the Soviet Union into an escalatory nuclear arms race that threatened the world with extinction. Profiles in courage these are not.
It’s worth briefly comparing JFK’s record to that of Richard Nixon, who has no Camelot myths attached to him. Nixon, of course, was and is vilified as “Tricky Dick” and dismissed as one of America’s worst presidents. He deserves opprobrium for his mendacious, meretricious, and murderous policies vis-à-vis Southeast Asia, especially his well-nigh treasonous meddling in peace negotiations in 1968, before he was elected president. Nixon and Henry Kissinger saw themselves as the world’s powerbrokers, working to overthrow governments they disliked, as in Chile with the coup against Allende. But Nixon and Kissinger deserve a measure of credit for opening negotiations with communist China as well as starting a process of détente with the Soviet Union. Nixon showed a capacity for growth in office even as he permitted his own ego and paranoia to undermine his administration’s accomplishments in foreign policy.
The point here is not to praise Nixon, a man of considerable gifts but also of crippling flaws. Rather, the point is to highlight an overly fawning approach to the presidency of John F. Kennedy. His administration, rather than serving as a shining moment, a Camelot, ultimately was an exercise in imagery and incompetence.
“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.
On September 17th, a new TV documentary series on the Vietnam War by Ken Burns (famous for past series on the U.S. Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz, among others) and Lynn Novick begins its run on PBS. Airing in ten parts over 18 hours, the series promises a comprehensive look at the war from all sides, with the catchphrase “There is no single truth in war” serving as a guiding light. Initial excerpts suggest the series isn’t looking to provide definitive answers, perhaps as a way of avoiding political controversy in the Age of Trump.
I’ll be watching the series, but I have ten points of my own to make about America’s war in Vietnam. As a preamble, the Vietnam War (American version) was both mistake and crime. What’s disconcerting in the U.S. media is the emphasis on the war as an American tragedy, when it was truly a horrific tragedy inflicted upon the peoples of Southeast Asia (Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians). Yes, American troops suffered and died in large numbers, yet Southeast Asian casualties were perhaps 50 times as great. Along with wanton killing came the poisoning of the environment with defoliants like Agent Orange; meanwhile, mines and unexploded ordnance from the war continue to kill people today in Southeast Asia. In a sense, the killing from that war still isn’t over.
With the caveat that we should reserve judgment until we’ve seen the series, let’s keep these ten points in mind as we watch:
1. To most Americans, Vietnam is a war. And war is a distorting and limiting lens through which to view cultures and peoples. Will Burns recognize this distortion?
2. The series talks about hearing voices from all sides of the conflict. But will the Vietnamese people, together with Laotians and Cambodians, really have as much say as Americans?
3. The U.S. suffered nearly 60,000 troops killed. But Vietnamese killed numbered in the millions. And the destruction to SE Asia — the spread of the war to Laos and Cambodia — was on a scale that rivaled or surpassed the destruction to the American South during the U.S. Civil War. Will that destruction be thoroughly documented and explained?
4. Whose point of view will prevail in the documentary? What will be the main thread of the narrative? Will the war be presented as a tragedy? A misunderstanding? A mistake? A crime? Will the “noble cause” and “stabbed in the back” myths (the ideas that the U.S. fought for freedom and democracy and against communism, and that the U.S. military could have won but was prevented from doing so by unpatriotic forces at home) be given equal time in the interests of a “fair and balanced” presentation? Will these myths be presented as alternative truths of the war?
5. Which American war in Vietnam will be presented? Even when we talk of the American part of the Vietnam War, there were at least four wars. The U.S. Army under General William Westmoreland fought a conventional, search and destroy, war. The Air Force wanted to prove that airpower alone, specifically bombing, could win the war. The Marines were more interested in counterinsurgency and pacification. The CIA and special ops types were engaged in psychological warfare, assassinations, torture, and god-knows-what-else.
6. The American presence in Vietnam became so overwhelming that by 1967-68 the Vietnamese economy was completely distorted. We brought American materialism and profligacy to a nation that was, by comparison, impoverished and “backwards” (from our perspective, of course). Material superiority bred and fed cockiness.
Consider Meredith Lair’s book, “Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War” (2011). It details the non-combat experiences of U.S. troops in Vietnam. Here’s a telling book blurb written by historian Christian Appy: “Meredith Lair’s fascinating analysis of rear-echelon life among American G.I.s dramatically challenges our most common conceptions of U.S. military experiences in Vietnam. From steaks to steambaths, swimming pools to giant PXs, the amenities provided on large bases not only belie conventional images of that war, but also stand as dramatic testimony to the desperate and unsuccessful effort of American officials to bolster flagging troop morale as the war lurched toward its final failure.”
Will this orgy of American-driven materialism be documented?
7. Anti-war protests and serious unrest within the U.S. military led to the end of the draft and the creation of an “all-volunteer” military. Has this decision contributed to a more imperial U.S. foreign policy facilitated by a much more tractable military of “volunteers”?
8. Short of nuclear weapons, the U.S. military used virtually every weapon in its arsenal in SE Asia. The region became a test/proving ground for all sorts of weapons and concepts, from “smart” weapons and electronic fences and sensors to horrendous pounding by conventional bombs to war on the environment using defoliants and massive bulldozers to … well … everything. All sorts of pacification theories were tested as well, along with COIN and “small wars” and unconventional tactics to search and destroy to Vietnamization to … well … again, everything. SE Asia became a laboratory and its peoples became lab rats. Will this reality be fully documented?
9. It’s essential that people realize President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, knew the war was a lost cause no later than 1969. (Their conversations on tape prove this.) All they were looking for was a “decent interval” between a peace treaty (“peace with honor”) and what they saw as the inevitable collapse. They got that (in)decent interval of roughly 2.5 years. The Congressional decision to cut off funding to South Vietnam was convenient for the Nixon/Kissinger acolytes, since it allowed them to shift the blame for South Vietnam’s collapse in 1975 to Congress as well as to the usual “suspect” elements in American society, i.e. the peace movement.
Will the duplicity and hypocrisy of Nixon/Kissinger be adequately documented?
10. Finally, an important aspect of the Vietnam War was the breakdown in discipline within the U.S. military, which helped to drive the eventual elimination of the draft. Part of this breakdown was driven by drugs, a trade in which the CIA was implicated. At The Intercept, Jeremy Scahill interviewed Alfred McCoy, who wrote the book on this drug trade. Here’s an excerpt from their recent interview:
Alfred McCoy: And in 1970 and ’71, there were rumors that started coming back from Vietnam, particularly 1971, that heroin was spreading rapidly in the ranks of the U.S. forces fighting in South Vietnam. And in later research, done by the White House, [it was] determined that in 1971, 34 percent, one-third of all the American combat troops fighting in South Vietnam were heavy heroin users. There were, if that statistic is accurate, more addicts in the ranks of the U.S. Army in South Vietnam than there were in the United States.
And so what I did was I set out to investigate: Where was the opium coming from? Where was the heroin coming from? Who was trafficking it? How is it getting to the troops in their barracks and bunkers across the length and breadth of South Vietnam? Nobody was asking this question. Everyone was reporting on the high level of abuse, but nobody was figuring out where and who.
So I started interviewing. I went to Paris. I interviewed the head of the French equivalent of the CIA in Indochina, who was then head of a major French helicopter manufacturing company, and he explained to me how during the French Indochina war from 1946 to 1954, they were short of money for covert operations, so the hill tribes in Laos produced the opium, the aircraft picked it up, they turned it over to the netherworld, the gangsters that controlled Saigon and secured it for the French and that paid for their covert operations. And I said, “What about now?” And he said, “Well I don’t think the pattern’s changed. I think it’s still there. You should go and look.”
So I did. I went to Saigon. I got some top sources in the Vietnamese military. I went to Laos. I hiked into the mountains. I was ambushed by CIA mercenaries and what I discovered was that the CIA’s contract airline, Air America, was flying into the villages of the Hmong people in Northern Laos, whose main cash crop was opium and they were picking up the opium and flying it out of the hills and there were heroin labs — one of the heroin labs, the biggest heroin lab in the world, was run by the commander-in-chief of the Royal Laotian Army, a man whose military budget came entirely from the United States. And they were transforming, in those labs, the opium into heroin. It was being smuggled into South Vietnam by three cliques controlled by the president, the vice president, and the premier of South Vietnam, and their military allies and distributed to U.S. forces in South Vietnam.
And the CIA wasn’t directly involved, but they turned a blind eye to the role of their allies’ involvement in the traffic. And so this heroin epidemic swept the U.S. Army in Vietnam. The Defense Department invented mass urine analysis testing, so when those troops left they were tested and given treatment. And what I discovered was the complexities, the complicity, of the CIA in this traffic and that was a pattern that was repeated in Central America when the Contras became involved in the traffic.
These ten items highlight just some of the complexities of the Vietnam War and its effects throughout Southeast Asia. How many of these will be tackled honestly in Ken Burns’s new series? We shall see, beginning in two weeks.
In November 1971, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt published “Lying in Politics: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers” in the New York Review of Books. Earlier that year, Daniel Ellsberg had shared those highly classified government papers with the U.S. media. They revealed a persistent and systematic pattern of lying and deception by the government about U.S. progress in the Vietnam War. By undermining the people’s trust in government, lies and deception were destabilizing democracy in America, Arendt said. Furthermore, America was witnessing two new and related categories of lying. The first was lying as public relations, the creation and distribution of images substituting for facts and premised in human manipulability (a Madison Avenue approach to war and foreign policy). The second was lying tied to a country’s reputation as embraced by professional “problem-solvers” as the basis for political action. Both categories of lying constituted a crisis to the republic.
Widespread lying during the Vietnam War, Arendt explained, had not been aimed at the enemy, as lies often are in war. Rather, governmental lying had targeted Americans. The enemy could hardly be fooled, but most Americans could – at least for a time. Throughout the war, Arendt noted, senior U.S. government and military officials made decisions about Vietnam with the firm knowledge they could not be carried out, a form of self-deception facilitated by constant goal-shifting. As goals changed and chaos mounted, U.S. officials then became driven by concerns about saving face. Image-making and image-saving took precedence over reality. The truth about Vietnam – that the U.S. was losing the war – hurt, therefore it was denied, especially in public discourse.
Official lies can fool even the officials themselves, a fact Pulitzer prize-winning reporter David Halberstam noted in his prescient book, “The Making of a Quagmire,” published in 1965. With respect to the Kennedy Administration’s support of the corrupt Diem/Nhu government of South Vietnam, Halberstam wrote that:
Having failed to get [the Diem/Nhu regime to make needed] reforms, our officials said that these reforms were taking place; having failed to improve the demoralized state of the [South] Vietnamese Army, the Americans talked about a new enthusiasm in the Army; having failed to change the tactics of the [South Vietnamese] military, they talked about bold new tactics which were allegedly driving the Communists back. For the essence of our policy was: There is no place else to go.
When reporters began to file stories which tended to show that the [U.S.] policy was not working, its authors, President Kennedy and General [Maxwell] Taylor, clung to it stubbornly. At least part of the explanation for this apparent blindness is that although they knew things were going wrong, they felt that the alternatives were worse.
This “blindness,” a sustained willingness to deny harsh truths about the Vietnam War, persisted throughout the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations. U.S. leaders continued to package and sell a losing effort as a winning product. It helped, in Arendt’s words, that U.S. officials had “a truly amazing and entirely honest ignorance of the historically pertinent background” when it came to Vietnam. Their ignorance was “honest” in the sense they did not believe facts were all that important to success. What was needed, U.S. officials concluded, were not incontestable facts but the right premises, hypotheses, and theories (such as the infamous Domino Theory) to fit Vietnam within prevailing Cold War orthodoxies. Overwhelming applications of U.S. military power would serve to actuate these premises, facts be damned.
Upon taking power in 1969, the Nixon Administration, which had promised a quick and honorable end to the war, continued the lies of previous administrations. Even as Nixon and Henry Kissinger spoke publicly of peace with honor, they talked privately of a lost war. To shift the blame for defeat, they cast about for scapegoats (as corroborated recently in the HBO documentary, “Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words”). Kissinger settled on South Vietnamese “incompetence” as the primary scapegoat. He reassured Nixon that, after a “decent interval” between U.S. withdrawal and the inevitable South Vietnamese collapse, most Americans would come to see Vietnam as a regrettable (and forgettable) “backwater.” Naturally, harsh facts such as these were ones Nixon and Kissinger refused to share with the American people.
For Hannah Arendt, truth as represented by verifiable facts is the chief stabilizing factor in politics. Lacking truths held in common, action is compromised, judgment is flawed, reality is denied. Deception feeds self-deception until politics is poisoned and collective action for the common good is disrupted. Yet lies cannot be eliminated simply by moral outrage, Arendt noted. Rather, truth must be fought for even as humility before truth must be cultivated.
The American people must fight for the truth: that is the lesson of Arendt’s essay.
Next Week: Part II: More Lies and Deception in the Iraq War of 2003
And Nixon said, “Let there be tapes.” And there was surveillance — and knowledge of good and evil — and a multitude of dirty tricks. And Nixon thought it was good. And American democracy was fallen, forevermore.
And after Nixon slew democracy, the Founders asked him where it was. And Nixon replied, “I know not. Am I democracy’s keeper?” And so he was banished, somewhere east of San Bernardino.
In his powerful introduction to Tim Weiner’s new book, Tom Engelhardt argues that Richard Nixon was in a sense the progenitor of today’s national security and surveillance state. That state seeks to sweep up everything, to know everything, because it mistrusts everyone, and because it seeks power over everyone, just as Nixon sought nearly half a century ago. If today’s surveillance state has a Bible (highly secret, no doubt, so how would I know?), Nixon contributed some of the earliest passages to its Book of Genesis.
How did our government come to implement on a macro scale what Nixon implemented on a micro (and microphone) scale? How did “dirty tricks” become legion — for they are many — in our government? Read on! W.J. Astore
Nixon’s Genesis of the Paranoid National Security State
Let me give you a reason that’s anything but historical for reading Tim Weiner’s remarkable new book, One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon. Mind you, with the last of the secret Nixon White House tapes finally made public some 40 years after the first of them were turned over to courts, prosecutors, and Congress, this will undoubtedly be the ultimate book on that president’s reign of illegality.
Still, think about the illegal break-in (or black-bag job) at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist committed by a group of Nixon White House operatives dubbed “the Plumbers”; the breaking into and bugging of the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate office complex; the bugging, using warrantless wiretaps, of the phones of administration aides and prominent media figures distrusted by the president and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger; the slush funds Nixon and his cronies created for his reelection campaign; the favors, including ambassadorships, they sold for “donations” to secure a second term in office; the privatized crew of contractors they hired to do their dirty work; the endemic lying, deceit, and ever more elaborate cover-ups of illegalities at home and of extra-constitutional acts in other countries, including secret bombing campaigns, as well as an attempt to use the CIA to quash an FBI investigation of White House activities on “national security grounds.” Put it all together and you have something like a White House-centered, first-draft version of the way the national security state works quite “legally” in the twenty-first century.
As a bonus, you also get a preview of the kinds of money machinations that, with the backing of the Supreme Court four decades later, would produce our present 1% democracy. The secret political funds Nixon and his cronies finagled from the wealthy outside the law have now been translated into perfectly legal billionaire-funded super PACs that do everything from launching candidate ad blitzes to running ground campaigns for election 2016.
Read Weiner’s new book — he’s also the author of a classic history of the CIA and another on the FBI — and it turns out that the president who resigned from office in disgrace in August 1974 provided a blueprint for the world that Washington would construct after the 9/11 attacks. If Weiner’s vision of Nixon is on the mark, then we never got rid of him. We still live in a Nixonian world. And if you need proof of that, just think about his infamous urge to listen in on and tape everyone. Does that sound faintly familiar?
Nixon had the Secret Service turn the Oval Office (five microphones in his desk, two at a sitting area), its telephones, the Cabinet Room (two mics), and his “hideaway” in the Executive Office Building into recording studios. He bugged his own life, ensuring that anything you said to the president of the United States would be recorded, thousands and thousands of hours of it. He was theoretically going to use those recordings for a post-presidential memoir (from which he hoped to make millions) and as a defense against whatever Henry Kissinger might someday write about him.
But whatever the initial impulse may have been, the point was to miss nothing. No one was to be exempted, including Nixon’s closest companions in office, no one but the president himself. He would know what others wouldn’t and act accordingly (though in the end he didn’t). What was one man’s mania for bugging and recording his world has become, in the twenty-first century, the NSA’s mania for bugging and recording the whole planet; a president’s mad vision, that is, somehow morphed into the modern surveillance state. The scale is staggeringly different, but conceptually it’s surprising how little has changed.
After all, the NSA’s global surveillance network was set up on the Nixonian principle of sweeping it all up — the words, in whatever form, of everyone who was anyone (and lots of people who weren’t). A generation of German politicians, Brazilians galore, terror suspects as well as just about anyone with a cell phone in the tribal backlands of the planet, twopresidents of Mexico, three German chancellors, three French presidents, at least 35 heads of state, the secretary general of the U.N., and so on. The list was unending. As with Nixon, only officials of the national security state were to know that all our communications were being logged and stored. Only they were to be exempt from potential scrutiny. (Hence their utter outrage when Edward Snowden revealed their racket to the world.) Like Nixon, they would, in the end, be left with the same hopeless, incriminating overload of words. They would sweep it all up and yet, drowning in data, they wouldn’t hear a thing.
So pick up Tim Weiner’s new book and don’t for a second imagine that it’s ancient history. Think of it as the book of Genesis for the American national security state’s Bible. In the meantime, thanks to the kindness of Weiner’s publisher, Henry Holt, TomDispatch offers a little taste of the lead-up to the last days of Richard Nixon from One Man Against the World — of the moment when his system began to cave in and threatened to bury him alive. Someday, we can only hope, the same thing will happen to those responsible for similar acts on an unimaginably larger scale in our own time.
On 30 April 1970, 45 years ago this month, President Richard M. Nixon ordered an invasion into Cambodia. Explaining his reasoning for widening the war in Southeast Asia, Nixon declared:
If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions.” [Emphasis added]
So much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, then and now, is frightfully worried about appearing weak, helpless, impotent. The solution, then and now, is military action. They all want to be Caesars, if only in their own besotted minds. As Shakespeare had Cassius say about Caesar:
he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a colossus, and we petty men/Walk under his huge legs and peep about/To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
America, to its image-conscious imperators like Nixon, must bestride the world like a well-hung giant, while little foreigners gasp in awe at the shadow cast, especially when aroused.
Think about John McCain’s fervent desire to bomb Iran, as Dan White deconstructed here. Think about George W. Bush’s transparent desire to play the conquering hero in the Middle East, ending Saddam Hussein’s reign once and for all in Iraq in 2003. Recall here the words of Henry Kissinger when he was asked about why he supported the invasion of Iraq, when it was clear that country bore no responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. “Because [attacks on] Afghanistan wasn’t enough,” Kissinger replied. Radical Islam had humiliated the U.S. at 9/11, and now it was our turn to strike back harder and to humiliate them. That simple.
As America’s foreign policy establishment continues to struggle with radical Islam and instability in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere, don’t expect any strategic retreats or retrenchment. Don’t expect wisdom. Don’t expect a containment policy that might allow radical Islam to burn itself out. No. Expect more military strikes, more troops, more weapons, more impassioned speeches about holding the line against barbarians determined to end our way of life.
Why? In part because it’s far easier for insecure men to lash out as a way of compensating for their impotence and growing irrelevance. Acting tough is the easier path. Having patience, demonstrating forbearance, knowing when to sheath the sword, requires a quieter strength and a more confident sense of self.
You would think the “most powerful nation on the planet” with “the world’s best military in all of history” would have such quiet strength and confidence. But remember that Nixon quote: No matter how big and strong we are, we can’t afford to look tiny and weak.
Christian G. Appy, professor of history at U-Mass Amherst, has written a new and telling book on the Vietnam War: American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (New York, Viking Press). Reading his book made me realize a key reason why the U.S. lost the war: for U.S. leaders it was never about Vietnam and the Vietnamese people. Rather, for these men the war was always about something else, a “something else” that constantly shifted and changed. Whereas for North Vietnam and its leaders, the goal was simple and unchanging: expel the foreign intruder, whether it was the Japanese or the French or the Americans, and unify Vietnam, no matter the cost.
Appy’s account is outstanding in showing the shifting goals of U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis Vietnam. In the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. first supported the French in their attempts to reassert control over their former colony. When the French failed, the U.S. saw Vietnam through a thoroughly red-tinted lens. The “fall” of a newly created South Vietnam was seen as the first domino in a series of potential Communist victories in Asia. Vietnam itself meant little economically to American interests, but U.S. leaders were concerned about Malaysia and Indonesia and their resources. So to stop that first domino from falling, the U.S. intervened to prop up a “democratic” government in South Vietnam that was never democratic, a client state whose staying power rested entirely on U.S. “advisers” (troops) and weapons and aid.
Again, as Appy convincingly demonstrates, for U.S. leaders the war was never about Vietnam. Under Eisenhower, it was about stopping the first domino from falling; under Kennedy, it was a test case for U.S. military counterinsurgency tactics and Flexible Response; under Johnson, it was a test of American resolve and credibility and “balls”; and under Nixon, it was the pursuit of “peace with honor” (honor, that is, for the Nixon Administration). And this remained true even after South Vietnam collapsed in 1975. Then the Vietnam War, as Appy shows, was reinterpreted as a uniquely American tragedy. Rather than a full accounting of the war and America’s mistakes and crimes in it, the focus was on recovering American pride, to be accomplished in part by righting an alleged betrayal of America’s Vietnam veterans.
In the Reagan years, as Appy writes, American veterans, not the Vietnamese people, were:
portrayed as the primary victims of the Vietnam War. The long, complex history of the war was typically reduced to a set of stock images that highlighted the hardships faced by U.S. combat soldiers—snake-infested jungles, terrifying ambushes, elusive guerrillas, inscrutable civilians, invisible booby traps, hostile antiwar activists. Few reports informed readers that at least four of five American troops in Vietnam carried out noncombat duties on large bases far away from those snake-infested jungles. Nor did they focus sustained attention on the Vietnamese victims of U.S. warfare. By the 1980s, mainstream culture and politics promoted the idea that the deepest shame related to the Vietnam War was not the war itself, but America’s failure to embrace its military veterans.” (p. 241)
Again, the Vietnam War for U.S. leaders was never truly about Vietnam. It was about them. This is powerfully shown by LBJ’s crude comments and gestures about the war. Johnson acted to protect his Great Society initiatives; he didn’t want to suffer the political consequences of having been seen as having “lost” Vietnam to communism; but he also saw Vietnam as a straightforward test of his manhood. When asked by reporters why he continued to wage war in Vietnam, what it was really all about, LBJ unzipped his pants, pulled out his penis, and declared, “This is why!” (p. 82).
Withdrawal, of course, was never an option. As Appy insightfully notes,
LBJ and most of the other key Vietnam policymakers never imagined that withdrawal from Vietnam would be an act of courage. In one sense this moral blindness is baffling because these same men prided themselves on their pragmatic, hardheaded realism, their ability to cut through sentiment and softhearted idealism to face the most difficult realities of foreign affairs. They could see that the war was failing. But they could not pull out. A deeper set of values trumped their most coherent understandings of the war. They simply could not accept being viewed as losers. A ‘manly man’ must always keep fighting.” (p. 84)
A few pages later, Appy cites Nixon’s speech on the bombing of Cambodia, when Nixon insisted the U.S. must not stand by “like a pitiful, helpless giant,” as further evidence of this “primal” fear of presidential impotence and defeat.
Even when defeat stared American leaders in the face, they blinked, then closed their eyes and denied what they had seen. Beginning with Gerald Ford in 1975, America shifted the blame for defeat onto the South Vietnamese, with some responsibility being assigned to allegedly traitorous elements on the homefront, such as “Hanoi Jane” (Fonda). As Appy writes, “Instead of calling for a great national reckoning of U.S. responsibility in Vietnam, Ford called for a ‘great national reconciliation.’ It was really a call for a national forgetting, a willful amnesia.” (p. 224)
As a result of this “willful amnesia,” most Americans never fully faced the murderous legacies of the Vietnam War, especially the cost to the peoples of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Instead, our leaders and government encouraged us to focus on America’s suffering. They told us to look forward, not backward, while keeping faith in America as the exceptional nation.
Appy notes in his introduction that America needs “an honest accounting of our history” if we are “to reject—fully and finally—the stubborn insistence that our nation has been a unique and unrivaled force for good in the world.” (p. xix) American Reckoning provides such an honest accounting. But are Americans truly ready and willing to put aside national pride, nurtured by a willed amnesia and government propaganda, to confront the limits as well as the horrors of American power as it is exercised in foreign lands?
Evidence from recent wars and military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere still suggests that Americans prefer amnesia, or to see other peoples through a tightly restricted field of view. Far too often, that field of view is a thoroughly militarized one, most recently captured in the crosshairs of an American sniper’s scope. Appy challenges us to broaden that view while removing those crosshairs.