Fear of Defeat and the Vietnam War

image
General William Westmoreland in 1968 (Stars and Stripes)

W.J. Astore

Fear of defeat drives military men to folly.  Early in 1968, General William Westmoreland, America’s commanding general in Vietnam, feared that communist forces might overrun U.S. military positions at Khe Sanh.  His response, according to recently declassified cables as reported in the New York Times today, was to seek authorization to move nuclear weapons into Vietnam.  He planned to use tactical nuclear weapons against concentrations of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops.  President Lyndon Johnson cancelled Westmoreland’s plans and ordered that discussions about using nuclear weapons be kept secret (i.e. hidden from the American people), which for the last fifty years they have been.

Westmoreland and the U.S. military/government had already been lying to the American people about progress in the war.  Khe Sanh as well as the Tet Offensive of 1968 were illustrations that there was no light in sight at the end of the tunnel — no victory loomed by force of arms.  Thus the call for nuclear weapons to be deployed to Vietnam, a call that President Johnson wisely refused to countenance.

Westmoreland’s recourse to nuclear weapons would have made a limited war (“limited” for U.S. forces, not for the Vietnamese on the receiving end of U.S. firepower) unlimited.  A nuclear attack in Vietnam likely would have been catastrophic to world order, perhaps leading to a much wider war in Asia that could have led to world-ending nuclear exchanges.  But Westmoreland seems to have had only Khe Sanh in his sights: only the staving off of defeat in a position that American forces quickly abandoned after they had “won” the battle.

War, as French leader Georges Clemenceau famously said, is too important to be left to generals.  Generals often see the battlefield in narrow terms, seeking victory at any price, if only to avoid the stain of defeat.

But what price victory if the world ends as a result?

Winning the Afghan War

Saighan 05-2011 -
Can we get 10-20 million Americans to settle here?

W.J. Astore

I was jesting with a friend the other day about how the U.S. could win the Afghan War. There were two ways, I suggested.  The first is to relocate about 10 or 20 million Americans to Afghanistan and declare it the 51st state.  Then wait a generation or two.  The second was to withdraw all American forces and declare “mission accomplished.”  Half-measures that fall in between these options are doomed to fail, which is what we’ve been witnessing since the fall of 2001.

In Afghanistan today, the Taliban controls more territory than ever, the drug trade is flourishing, government corruption is endemic, yet the U.S. military/government continues to speak of progress.  This “spin it to win it” approach to the Afghan War is nothing new, of course, which is why the following article that I wrote in 2010 is still relevant.

President Trump had a sound instinct in seeking to end the Afghan War.  He was talked out of it by the military.  For all his faults, Trump knows a loser policy when he sees it.  Will he have the moxie to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan?

No More Afghanistans (originally posted in 2010)

In grappling with Afghanistan, President Obama and his team of national security advisors reveal a tendency all too common within the Washington beltway: privileging fleeting and reversible signs of local success while downplaying endemic difficulties and larger patterns of strategic failure. Our latest intelligence estimates, we are told, show signs of progress. But of what sort? The Taliban appears to be extending its hold in the countryside, corruption continues to spread in the Karzai government, and the Afghan National Army remains unreliable, all despite (or rather because of) prodigious infusions of cash courtesy of the American taxpayer.

The president and his advisors would do well to toss aside the latest “feel good” intel and pick up a good book on war. I’d recommend Summons of the Trumpet: U.S.-Vietnam in Perspective, by Colonel (later, Lieutenant General) Dave Richard Palmer. “One of the essential ingredients of [national] preparedness,” wrote then-Colonel Palmer in 1978, “is a diligent and honest study of the past, an intellectual examination of historical successes and failures.” True to his word, Palmer quoted Major G.P. Baldwin, who wrote in 1928 of the Russo-Japanese War that:

The [Russian] government, the press, and the people as a whole had no enthusiasm for the war, indeed failed to understand what the nation was fighting about … Such support is necessary in any war … Unless the people are enthusiastic about war, unless they have a strong will to win it, they will become discouraged by repeated [setbacks] … no government can go to war with hope of success unless it is assured that the people as a whole know what the war is about, that they believe in their cause, are enthusiastic for it, and possess a determination to win. If these conditions are not present the government should take steps to create them or keep the peace.

Palmer cited these words at the end of his probing account of America’s defeat in Vietnam. Though I don’t agree with all of Palmer’s conclusions, his book is stimulating, incisive, and compelling in its concluding vow: “There must be no more Vietnams.”

Let’s consider the points that Baldwin and Palmer raise in light of today’s situation in Afghanistan. Are the American people enthusiastic for this war? Do they have a strong will to win it (assuming the war is winnable on terms consistent with our interests)? Do they know what the war is about (this seems unlikely, since nine out of ten Americans can’t seem to locate Afghanistan on a map)?

If the answer to these fundamental questions is “no,” and I believe it is, shouldn’t our government and our troops be withdrawing now? Because I don’t see that our government will seek to mobilize the people, mobilize our national will, tell us clearly what our cause is and why it is just, and persist in that cause until it is either won or lost. And if I’m right about this, our government had best work to “keep the peace.”

Some of the reasons Palmer cites for why Vietnam was such an “incomprehensible war” for the United States bear careful consideration for President Obama’s policy review. These reasons include that few Americans knew exactly why we were fighting in Vietnam; that it was a “limited war” during which most Americans “sensed no feeling of immediate danger and certainly no spirit of total involvement”; that no “unifying element” was at work to suppress internal doubt and dissent, common elements in all wars; that the struggle was not only (or even primarily) a military one but one in which economic, political, and psychological factors often intruded; and that a cultural gap of great perplexity separated us from both our in-country allies and our enemy, a gap that “foment[ed] mistrust and misunderstanding.”

In light of these points, Afghanistan may qualify as a new “incomprehensible war.” Let’s not be distracted by the minutia of the latest intelligence reports and their uncertain metrics of “success.” Unless we can give convincing answers to General Palmer’s questions and points – and unless we can wage a war that doesn’t entail destroying the Afghan village in order to save it – our only sound course is expedient withdrawal, followed by a renewed vow: There must be no more Vietnams – or Afghanistans.

Paving Roads to Nowhere

b52
B-52 with lots of bombs on Guam during the Vietnam War

W.J. Astore

I have a simple proposition: Let’s rebuild America instead of paving roads to nowhere in Afghanistan.

The U.S. has spent nearly a trillion dollars on fighting and (mostly) losing the Afghan War over the last seventeen years.  That price tag includes paving roads that have already fallen into disrepair.  Yet as money continues to flow freely to the Pentagon and to America’s fruitless wars overseas, money for America’s infrastructure barely flows at a trickle from the federal government.  How stupid is that?

I was talking to a guy yesterday who owns a local landscaping company.  Like me, he couldn’t stomach Trump or Hillary for president in 2016, so he voted for a third-party candidate.  He got to asking about my latest writing efforts and I mentioned my recent article on the Air Force’s $100 billion stealth bomber.  He asked if I was for it or against it, and I said against.  Good, he said.  And he started talking about the 1930s and how America invested in itself by building bridges, roads, canals, dams, and other infrastructure.  Why aren’t we doing more of that today?  Sensible question.  Our infrastructure is decaying all around us, but our government would rather invest in military weaponry.

Today, I had to go to the auto dealership, and I got talking to an old buck who served as an infantry platoon leader in Vietnam in 1967.  What he recalled about the war, he said, was its enormity.  All those B-52s lined up at Guam.  All those napalm tanks in Vietnam.  He remembered pilots dropping napalm in the morning, coming back after the mission to drink (and some to get drunk), then flying the next day to drop more napalm.  (The stuff worked, he said, meaning the napalm, but he might have added the alcohol at the club as well.)  He had thought about extending his time in the Army, but a lieutenant colonel talked him out of it.  (The LTC explained that he’d be coming back to Vietnam much sooner than he thought, probably as a company commander, and so my conversational partner voted with his feet and left the Army.)

America is incredibly profligate in war.  We spend like drunken sailors (or pilots) on everything from the biggest and most destructive weapons to bubble gum and comic books for the troops.  Yet at least in the olden days our wars had some sense of closure.  Nowadays, America’s leaders talk of “long” war, “generational” war, even “infinite” war, as Tom Engelhardt and Colonel (ret.) Andrew Bacevich note at TomDispatch.com.  Infinite war — again, how stupid can we be as a people?

Long war or infinite war is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.  America is on a permanent war footing, at least in terms of the federal budget and societal propaganda enjoining us to “support our troops” and to be cheerleaders for whatever they do.

We need to call BS on these wars — and also on prodigal weapons like the B-21 — and start rebuilding this country. How about some new roads, bridges, dams, etc.?  Instead of paving roads to nowhere in Afghanistan, or blowing cities up in Iraq, let’s pave new roads and rebuild cities right here in the USA.

Ending Wars, Not “Winning” Them, Should Be America’s Goal

 

Củ_Chi_tunnels_entrance
Beware the tunnels you choose to go down (Wikimedia)

W.J. Astore

You can’t win wars that should never have been fought.  The U.S. should never have fought the Iraq and Afghan wars, nor should we have fought the Vietnam War.

It’s not that we need to know and master the foreign enemy.  We need to know and master the enemy within.  The domestic enemy.  For the U.S. is defeating only itself in fighting these wars.  Yet “experts” in the military and government focus on how to prosecute war more effectively; rarely do they think seriously about ending or, even better, avoiding wars.

Part of this is cultural.  Americans are obsessed with the idea of winning, defined in terms of dominance, specifically military/physical dominance, taking the fight to the enemy and never backing down.  The best defense is a good offense, as they say in the NFL.  Winning is the only thing, as Vince Lombardi said.  While those maxims may apply to football, they don’t apply to wars that should never have been fought.

Turning from football to tunnels, how about that image made popular during the Vietnam War that “We can see the light at the end of the tunnel”?  Victory, in other words, is in sight and can be reached if we “stay the course” until the tunnel’s end.  Few ask why we’re in the tunnel to begin with.  Why not just avoid the tunnel (of Vietnam, of Iraq, of Afghanistan) and bask in the light of liberty here in the USA?  Indeed, why not brighten liberty’s torch so that others can see and enjoy it?  But instead U.S. military forces are forever plunging into foreign tunnels, groping in the dark for the elusive light of victory, a light that ultimately is illusory.

Another point is that the Pentagon is often not about winning wars without; it’s about winning wars within, specifically budgetary wars.  Here the Pentagon has been amazingly successful, especially in the aftermath of the Cold War, which should have generated a major reduction in U.S. military spending (and overseas military deployments).  The other “war” the Pentagon has won is the struggle for cultural authority/hegemony in the USA.  Here again, the Pentagon has won this war, as represented by presidents from Bush to Obama to Trump boasting of the 4F military (the finest fighting force since forever), and as represented by the fact that the military remains the most trusted governmental institution in America.  Indeed, most Americans don’t even think of “our” military as being part of the federal government.  They think of it as something special, even as they profess to distrust Congress and hate “big government.”  Yet nothing screams “big” like our steroidal federal military, and few entities are more wasteful.

My point is that many military commentators and critics frame the problem wrongly.  It’s not about reforming the U.S. military so that it can win wars.  Americans must reform our culture and our government so that we can avoid wars, even as we end the ones we’re in.  For constant warfare is the enemy of democracy and the scourge of freedom.

A final point about winning that’s rarely acknowledged: America’s wars overseas are not all about us.  Winning (whatever that might mean) should be unconscionable when it comes at the price of hundreds of thousands of dead, millions of refugees, and regions blasted and destabilized.

In sum, ending wars is winning them.

On Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Bloody Irreversibility

020910astore
One war ends; another begins; nothing really changes (Image from the original article/Jared Rodriguez)

W.J. Astore

Eight years ago to this month, I wrote the following article for Truthout about America’s ongoing folly in Afghanistan.  I was inspired by an old Look magazine from the 1960s and its coverage of the Vietnam War.

Reading old articles about the Vietnam War is sobering precisely because they read like articles written yesterday. Consider just one example. On May 30, 1967, Look magazine published a comprehensive, 25-page review entitled “USA in Asia.” The subtitle gave the game away: “Our bloody commitments in Asia horrify many Americans. But like it or not, we are irreversibly involved.”

Today, more than forty years later, many say the same of our involvement in Central Asia. Our bloody commitments continue to horrify Americans. And yet again we’re told we’re irreversibly involved. Yet if Vietnam taught us anything, it’s that the “irreversible” is eminently reversible.

Historians and pundits alike can cite dozens of well-informed reasons why today’s Afghanistan is not like yesterday’s Vietnam. And they’re right — and wrong. For what remains the same is us, especially the power of our own self-regard, as well as that of our overly militarized vision, both of which must be overcome if we are ever to succeed in Asia.

Consider how Look in 1967 labeled Vietnam as “our albatross.” Yet those Americans who dared to question our country’s immense military commitment to this “albatross” were labeled as leftist isolationists, “more upset about the billions diverted to Asia than the $22 billion being spent to put a man on the moon,” a non sequitur if ever there was one. Meanwhile, comparing Vietnam to landlocked Laos, an unnamed US official gushed that Vietnam has “the ocean, and we’re great on the ocean. It’s the right place.”

So, Look portrayed “our” Vietnam either as an albatross weighing us down or as the “right place” for American power projection. That the real Vietnam was something different from a vexatious burden for us or an ideal showcase for our military prowess doesn’t seem to have occurred to an Amero-centric Look staff.

Consider as well Look’s précis of the Vietnam War in 1967 and its relevance to our approach to fighting in Afghanistan today:

“The crux is winning the loyalty of the people. We have spent billions … [on] ‘strategic hamlets’ to ‘Revolutionary Development,’ and have failed to make much progress. We have had to reoccupy villages as many as eight times. There is no front and no sanctuary.”

“Our latest ploy has been to turn ‘pacification’ over to the South Vietnamese Army … Unfortunately, most of the ARVN is badly trained and led, shows little energy and is reputedly penetrated by the Vietcong …. Whether such an undisciplined army can move into villages and win over the people is dubious.

“We are trying harsher measures. We have even organized ‘counter-terror’ teams to turn Vietcong tactics against their own terrorist leaders. ‘The real cancer is the terrorist inner circle,’ says one U.S. leader. ‘These terrorists are very tough people. We haven’t scratched the surface yet.’

“We can really win in Vietnam only if we achieve the ‘pacification’ that now seems almost impossible.”

Note the continuities between past and present: the emphasis on winning hearts and minds, the unreliability and corruption of indigenous allied forces, the use of counter-terror against a “very tough” terrorist foe (with barely suppressed disgust that “our” friendly allies lack this same toughness, for reasons that are not exposed in bright sunlight), the sense of mounting futility.

Counterinsurgency combined with counter-terror, escalating US combat forces while simultaneously seeking to “Vietnamize” (today’s “Afghanize”) the war to facilitate an American withdrawal: An approach that failed so miserably forty years ago does not magically improve with age.

Look’s Asian tour concluded on a somber, even fatalistic, note: “The wind blows not of triumphs but of struggle, at a high price, from which there is no escape and with which we have to learn to live…. Men who bomb; men who are killed. Men who booby-trap; men who are maimed. And children who are maimed and who die. They are the price of our bloody involvements in Asia.”

Bloody inevitability — but was it inevitable? Was it irreversible?

So it seems, even today. Why? Precisely because we continue to look so unreflectively and so exclusively through military field glasses for solutions. As Look noted in 1967: “Our massive military presence dominates our involvement in Asia,” words that ring as true today as they did then. And as Secretary of State Dean Rusk opined back then, “It’s going to be useful for some time to come for American power to be able to control every wave of the Pacific, if necessary.”

Again, the sentiment of “full spectrum dominance” rings ever true.

But one thing has changed. Back then, Look described our “massive” commitment to Asia as a byproduct of our “might and wealth,” evidence of our “fat.” We wouldn’t be there, Look suggested, “if we were poor or powerless.”

Today, a slimmer America (at least in terms of budgetary strength) nevertheless persists in making massive military commitments to Asia. Again, we say we’re irreversibly involved, and that blood is the price of our involvement.

But is Central Asia truly today’s new “right place” to project American power? In arresting the spread of a “very tough” terrorist foe, must we see Afghanistan as a truly irreversible — even irresistible — theater for war?

Our persistence in squinting at Asia through blood-stained military goggles suggests that we still have much to learn from old articles about Vietnam.

The Kennedy Administration: Camelot or Incompetence?

jackie-and-john-jackie-kennedy-3856502-816-800
They seemed perfect …

The Kennedy Administration: Camelot or Incompetence?

W.J. Astore

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.

The Atrocious Nature of the Vietnam War

Helicopter_Poster_promoV2

W.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.  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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.