In a letter to Vietnam War veteran Charles McDuff, Major General Franklin Davis, Jr. said, “The United States Army has never condoned wanton killing or disregard for human life.” McDuff had written a letter to President Richard Nixon in January 1971, telling him that he had witnessed U.S. soldiers abusing and killing Vietnamese civilians and informing him that many My Lais had taken place during the war. He pleaded with Nixon to bring the killing to an end. The White House sent the letter to the general, and this was his reply.
McDuff’s letter and Davis’s response are quoted in Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, the most recent book to demonstrate beyond doubt that the general’s words were a lie. Not only did the United States ravage Vietnam with unprecedented and murderous ferocity, committing war crimes in nearly every village, but this criminal conduct was official government policy. The United States prosecuted the war with a Frederick Taylor-like efficiency and an engineer’s impersonal input-output calculation, with maximum Vietnamese deaths as standard operating procedure.
In what follows, I use Turse’s work, along with several other books, articles, and films, as scaffolds from which to construct an analysis of how the war was conducted, what its consequences have been for the Vietnamese, how the nature of the war generated ferocious opposition to it (not least by a brave core of U.S. soldiers), how the war’s history has been whitewashed, and why it is important to both know what happened in Vietnam and why we should not forget it.
McNamara’s Business Model of War
Robert McNamara, President Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of defense, was the chief architect of the U.S. war strategy. A logistics expert who streamlined Allied bombing runs during the Second World War, and later president of Ford Motor Company, McNamara believed that winning a war was simply a matter of setting a goal that would result in victory and then using the managerial techniques he had mastered to get the job done. The goal was to get the “kill ratio,” the proportion between enemy and U.S. dead, as high as possible, so that a “crossover point” was reached—that is, more enemy soldiers killed than could be replaced. Then, inevitably, the Vietnamese would no longer be able to resist the U.S. war machine, surrender, and sue for peace.
A way to envision what McNamara did is to imagine the war in Vietnam in terms of a capitalist production process. Instead of the accumulation of money capital as the motor force of the system, substitute the accumulation of dead enemy bodies. The U.S. government, through its military, sought to maximize these. However, as McNamara and his superiors and generals knew, their enemy employed guerilla warfare, refusing to fight set battles, attacking and then disappearing into the rural landscape. U.S. troops could not easily distinguish soldiers from civilians. Every Vietnamese might be a soldier, even women and children. While no one would admit it, continuously increasing the kill ratio necessarily meant killing as many civilians as possible. And even if it were assumed that any given group of Vietnamese were civilians, the more of them murdered, the more enemy troops would be exposed, and the fewer replacements for those killed would be available.
As former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put it in the context of the current “War on Terror,” the best way that the United States could combat the terrorists was “to drain the swamp they live in.” Kill the noncombatants, and only the enemy soldiers will be left. They would no longer have a swamp in which to hide. From the beginning of the war, therefore, killing civilians was a U.S. policy that flowed directly from the goal of maximizing the kill ratio. Killing civilians violates the rules of engagement and is a war crime, so great pains were taken to disguise these as lives taken in battle, and Turse offers numerous examples of this. One common practice was to stage a dead civilian as a soldier by placing an enemy weapon nearby. However, this often was not necessary as commanding officers were almost always willing to simply take the word of a lieutenant or captain at the scene.
Enemy dead minus U.S. dead (the kill ratio defined as a difference) is not the same as revenue minus cost (profits); it has to be monetized to keep the accumulation juggernaut rolling along. Monetization occurred through the auspices of the U.S. government, which we can think of as a gigantic firm with huge cash reserves and an unlimited line of credit, not just at home but around the world. Taxes could be increased, bonds could be sold, money could be printed, and—given the world’s use of the dollar as the primary reserve currency—payments deficits could be run indefinitely with just about any nation. Money would be provided until the war ended in victory.
As any employer knows, the essence of management is control. Given the aim of a maximum kill ratio, every aspect of the production process had to be coordinated as finely as possible. Several kinds of control were important. First, there had to be enough workers (soldiers and support personnel). A virtually unlimited supply of soldiers was guaranteed through the draft. Young men whose families were well-situated and politically influential could avoid the draft through various means, so they would not likely be vocal opponents of the war, an assumption that later proved incorrect. Poor whites, blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians were considered economically expendable and sending them off to war was a way to contain any discontent and agitation they might have exhibited at home.
Once drafted, soldiers had to be taught to kill. It is not normal for one person to murder another, and there are powerful social taboos against doing so. Researchers had discovered that in nineteenth and twentieth-century wars, soldiers regularly failed to fire their rifles, or intentionally aimed to miss their targets. Military leaders responded to this by dramatically altering the methods used to train troops. They sought to forge extreme group solidarity in two ways. First, drill instructors subjected new recruits to constant torment bordering on torture. If you deprive trainees of food and sleep, force them to make long marches under adverse conditions, punish them severely for any failure to obey orders no matter how ridiculous and demeaning, you break down their defenses and make them willing to do whatever you say, in other words forging them into a homogeneous mass, a unit that will act as one. Not adhering to what any rational person would consider an insane regimen becomes unthinkable. Failure to do so marks you as a “sissy,” “fag,” “cunt,” or “girl,” and subjects you to physical and emotional torment from both superiors and comrades. Second, instructors then tied their charges’ misery to the evil intentions of subhuman foreigners, in the case of Vietnam, to the “gooks,” “slopes,” “slant eyes,” “yellow bastards,” and “the Cong.” Exhausted, angry, afraid, they gradually embrace the chants of “kill the gooks, kill the gooks.” By the time they got to the war zones, they were ready to kill, not for a noble cause but for their buddies and because those they were going to murder were no different than the animals they might have hunted back home. Is it any wonder that more than a few U.S. troops were willing to kill civilians? In a hostile country, hot, dirty, diseased from constant marches and firefights in jungle terrain, seeing their buddies blown to pieces, beginning to wonder why they were there, constantly pressured to keep their kills high and rewarded for doing so, they were not always averse to shooting people, torturing them, raping women, and generating as much violent mayhem as possible.
And lest we think that the rank-and-file soldiers were primarily to blame for the slaughter, their officers were too often bloodthirsty racist killers, seeing the war as the ticket to career advancement—Colin Powell, who helped cover up My Lai, is a case in point—and no doubt frequently believing that what they taught the grunts about the Vietnamese was true. As chief commanding officer William Westmoreland infamously said, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner…. We value life and human dignity. They don’t care about life and human dignity.” It was the officers who directed the soldiers; it was they who covered up the war crimes; it was they who devised the methods of torture employed in the field; and it was they who devised the evermore sadistic tactics that resulted in the orders to “kill anything that moves.”
In addition to its own soldiers, the United States also employed troops (mercenaries, in effect) from South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries, as well as civilian and quasi-military support personnel. It also paid for much of the military of South Vietnam, which while ostensibly independent, was in reality subject to U.S. control. All of these were onboard with the McNamara program, and some of them added their own unique talents to the killing. Psyops (psychological operations), the establishment of “strategic hamlets” to house those forced from their homes and farms, assassination campaigns, and torture techniques were employed by these personnel throughout the war.
A production process requires nonhuman inputs, what Marx calls constant capital. In Vietnam this mainly comprised weapons of mass destruction, from Claymore mines, tanks, helicopter gunships, battleships, and B-52 bombers to napalm, Agent Orange, white phosphorus, and other ingredients from the enormous U.S chemical arsenal. The United States had a virtually unlimited supply of these means of death, and it had a limitless willingness to employ them. Soldiers of all ranks were trained to utilize mass destruction machinery in every situation, even those where “collateral damage” to civilians was inevitable.
So now, we have money capital (from the enormous funds of the U.S. government) transformed into capital in the form of labor power and constant capital. These were then combined on the battlefields as efficiently as possible, with a labor process controlled through the rigorous training of the soldiers and support personnel, who would do what they were told or would act automatically to make certain that the kill ratio was high and rising.
Finally, the kill ratio had to be “sold” so that the accumulation of dead bodies could be expanded. This was not done, of course, in the traditional way of selling. Rather, it was sold through diligent and relentless propaganda, fed to the press, the general public, and the politicians who ultimately had to agree on continual funding. There was always “light at the end of the tunnel.” The United States was slowly but surely winning the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese. The puppet governments the United States put in power in South Vietnam were committed to democracy and the people were flocking to their banners.
To make these absurd claims plausible, all manner of lies had to be repeated to keep ugly truths from the light of day. The military and the state were adept at this. Few enlisted soldiers and almost no officers were prosecuted for the thousands of war crimes they committed. Those that were received minimal sentences. And no matter how dramatic the horrors that did get investigated and published, such as the mass murder at My Lai, the government was able to contain the damage by waiting for the certain waning of public interest and outrage, while trotting out the argument that such horrendous events were rare and the work of “a few bad apples.”
Thus, the capital expended in the production of corpses was repeatedly monetized and the accumulation of capital proceeded apace.
Judged by the carnage, McNamara’s war by “scientific management” was a great success. Turse sums up what U.S. forces did: “Murder, torture, rape, abuse, forced displacement, home burnings, specious arrests, imprisonment without due process—such occurrences were virtually a daily fact of life throughout the years of the American presence in Vietnam.” He gives hundreds of examples, enough to convince us that these barbarous acts were official policy. Turse also made tours of the Vietnamese countryside and found that in every village, no matter how small and isolated, peasants had constructed memorials with the names of dead villagers, many victims of unreported, routine atrocities.
Turse also gives several accounts of colonels and generals who monomaniacally pursued high kill ratios by whatever means possible. In February 1968, General Julian Ewell gained command of the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam, a densely populated area of more than 5 million people. Ewell and his subordinate, Colonel Ira Hunt, proceeded to go “berserk,” directing the killing of so many civilians that he won the nickname “Butcher of the Delta.” The 9th Infantry Division he commanded had been averaging a kill ratio of about nine, that is, nine dead enemy for every U.S. soldier killed. Spurred on by the government’s Operation Speedy Express—set in motion because President Johnson and his war planners wanted the Delta under the control of the South Vietnamese government pending upcoming peace talks with North Vietnam—as well as his own psychosis, Ewell initiated a reign of terror. Fourteen months later, the kill ratio was an astonishing 134. Given the way the Vietnamese liberation forces fought, refusing to engage in large-scale battles, nearly all of the dead had to be civilians.
The Toll of the War on the Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians
While it is important to provide verifiable evidence of the war crimes the United States committed in Vietnam, it is also useful to supply data on the overall tolls of death, injury, and social and ecological ruin heaped upon the Vietnamese and their country. The following summary data, which include damage done to Cambodia and Laos, countries to which the war spread as a result of secret U.S. bombing campaigns, still have the power to shock:
- As many as 1.7 million revolutionary forces were killed.
- About a quarter-million South Vietnamese soldiers were killed.
- More than 65,000 North Vietnamese civilians died, mainly victims of U.S. bombing raids, which targeted factories, hospitals, schools, and dikes, more or less indiscriminately killing people.
- At least 4 million Vietnamese died as a direct result of the war, which means that at least 2 million civilians perished at the hands of U.S. forces and their mercenary brethren. When the war commenced in earnest in the 1960s, Vietnam’s population was 19 million. An incredible 21 percent of this population therefore perished. In 1960 the U.S. population was about 180 million. Imagine a war that killed nearly 38 million Americans.
- Turse’s sources estimate the extent of civilian wounded as follows: “A brief accounting shows 8,000 to 16,000 South Vietnamese paraplegics; 30,000 to 60,000 South Vietnamese left blind; and some 83,000 to 166,000 South Vietnamese amputees.” Total civilian wounded were at least 5.3 million.
- More bombs were dropped on Vietnam than by all sides in all previous wars throughout history, and three times more than by all sides in the Second World War.
- 19 million gallons of herbicide poisoned the land.
- 9,000 of 15,000 hamlets were destroyed in South Vietnam.
- In the North, all six industrial cities were devastated; twenty-eight of thirty provincial towns, and 96 of 116 district towns, were leveled by bombing.
- The United States threatened to use nuclear weapons thirteen times. Nixon chided his national security advisor and soon-to-be secretary of state Henry Kissinger for being too squeamish about this and the massive bombing of the North Nixon ordered in 1972. Nixon said he, himself, just did not give a damn.
- After the war, unexploded bombs and mines permeated the landscape and took an additional 42,000 lives. Millions of acres have still not been cleared of live ordnance.
- Agent Orange and other defoliants have caused severe health problems for millions of Vietnamese.
- Nearly all of Vietnam’s triple canopy forests were destroyed.
- 3 million tons of ordnance struck 100,000 sites during the “secret” war in Cambodia, causing widespread social dislocation, destruction of crops, and starvation. The U.S. bombing campaign in Cambodia was directly responsible for the rise of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot and the genocide that took place afterward (The United States actually sided with Pol Pot when Vietnamese troops finally ended his reign of terror).
- 2,756,941 tons of ordnance were dropped in Laos on 113,716 sites. Much of the Laotian landscape was blown to bits.
The Fatal Flaws in McNamara’s Business of War Model
Yet, despite the carnage, the revolutionaries continued their fight for freedom, year after year, ultimately defeating the United States as they had done the French in the years following the Second World War. What went wrong with McNamara’s invincible plan? The most important flaw in it was the failure to conceptualize his grand production scheme in terms of social relationships, not just in the “workplace” but in the larger societies of Vietnam and the United States. The Vietnamese had a thousand-year history of resisting oppression by other nations and empires; they took a long view of life and were willing to sacrifice themselves in larger numbers than the United States imagined possible to secure their independence. As Francis Fitzgerald noted in Fire in the Lake, those who prosecuted the war knew precious little about Vietnamese history, culture, and language.
No folly could have been greater than believing that kill ratios were all that mattered. The war occurred during a period of a worldwide anti-imperialist struggle, providing the revolutionaries with needed moral support, even from millions of protesters in most of the rich capitalist countries. In the United States, a majority supported the war until the late 1960s, but a vibrant antiwar movement developed, often spearheaded by the middle-class youth who had avoided the draft. The Soviet Union and some other countries gave material aid to the Vietnamese revolutionaries. The United States could not risk the possible consequences of the use of nuclear weapons, given that its Cold War foe was well-armed with them.
Inside the war “workplace,” contradictions abounded. Just as workers bear grievances against their bosses, grievances that sometimes led to collective action, rank-and-file soldiers came into conflict with their commanding officers. Black conscripts, influenced by the civil rights movement at home, including the rise of the anti-imperialist Black Panther Party—which specifically tied the imperialism underlying the war to the racism perpetrated by white America—began to question why they were fighting against non-white men and women waging a war of national liberation when they needed to free themselves from racist repression. Some soldiers recoiled at the wanton violence they saw perpetrated by a military claiming to be fighting so that the Vietnamese were free to establish democracy. GIs were not unaware of the protests at home or the hypocrisy of U.S. politicians and the corruption of the South Vietnamese military and government. The culture of the 1960s found fertile ground as well, and drug use became commonplace, if for no other reason than to escape the boredom and horror that was daily life in the field.
As the war dragged on, morale plunged, and few wanted to risk their lives for nothing, especially as they got close to the end of their one-year tour of duty. Soldiers began to refuse orders to fight, and it was not altogether uncommon for soldiers to murder (“frag”) their officers. The astounding 1971 report of Colonel Robert D. Heinl, Jr. is instructive. He said:
The morale, discipline and battle worthiness of the U.S. Armed Forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States.
By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and noncommissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near mutinous.
And he goes on to provide a remarkably large number of examples: fragging (in one division such incidents were occurring at a rate of one per week in 1971), bounties for the killing of officers, mass refusals to obey orders or even report for combat, refusal to wear uniforms, open agitation on military bases against the war, lawsuits against officers, widespread addiction to heroin, and desertion (sometimes involving joining the enemy forces). The absolute control necessary for McNamara’s strategy had become a shambles. Wars can only be won by troops on the ground fighting; if the troops will not fight, a war is lost.
The Soldiers’ Revolt
Unlike workers fired in a strike and barred from the employer’s property, dissident soldiers eventually were discharged and came back to the United States as citizens with the same formal rights as everyone else. While most veterans simply wanted to forget the war and return to normal lives, a sizeable number had become so disenchanted with it and traumatized by what they had seen and done that they felt the need to make amends. They began to seek each other out, and from there, sometimes in alliance with the burgeoning antiwar movement but mostly on their own, formed organizations aimed at making the public aware of the horrors of the war. These dealt with specific issues like the treatment of veterans in Veterans Affairs hospitals, something later made famous by the movie Born on the Fourth of July, as well as the larger matter of ending the war. The organizations established by veterans also served cathartic purposes; by talking with one another, former combatants could begin to come to grips with their often ghastly experiences. The most well-known and enduring group was the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). Founded in 1967, it was over the next decade, “a vanguard group for Maoists; a campaign headquarters for Democrats; a vehicle for activists to plan large-scale demonstrations; a meeting place for rap groups; an information center for war crimes hearings; a gathering spot for poets; a rehabilitation home for drug addicts.”
VVAW consistently agitated to increase opposition to the war, and it employed a wide array of tactics to do so: participation in antiwar demonstrations; publicly throwing away Purple Hearts and other medals of valor; circulating petitions; conducting long marches, complete with guerilla theater that mimicked war atrocities; protests at national political conventions; occupations of public buildings and monuments, including the Statue of Liberty; publishing newsletters; and the famous Winter Soldier Investigation held in Detroit in 1971 in which veterans bore witness to the war crimes and atrocities committed by U.S. troops and the U.S. government in Vietnam. Membership peaked at about 25,000, but the VVAW’s influence was much greater. It reinvigorated the antiwar movement; won adherents to the antiwar banner simply because veterans had instant credibility with much of the public, and could not be accused of elitism as most of them were solidly working class; and brought home to normally complacent Americans, including some of the veterans’ parents, exactly what their sons had done in the war. It was the first time in U.S. history that large numbers of soldiers spoke openly, honestly, and publicly about the folly of war and the costs to human beings and societies of allowing young men (and today young women) to engage in senseless murder.
Andrew E. Hunt ends The Turning: A History of Vietnam Veterans Against the War by stating that the VVAW “contributed significantly to ending the war in Vietnam.” Much the same can be said about all of the activities of the antiwar veterans. They participated in teach-ins, taught classes, produced vibrant art and literature, organized antiwar coffee houses near military bases, published an abundance of newspapers, pamphlets, and posters, helped on-duty soldiers form unions and fight legal battles, aided those seeking asylum in Canada and other countries, and much more. They were in the forefront of those who visited Vietnam after the war to make common cause with the Vietnamese and do what they could to aid in the rebuilding of the nation. They have been tireless reminders of what was done in the name of the United States.
Michael Uhl, a longtime veteran activist and author of Vietnam Awakening, rightly criticizes Nick Turse for both ignoring and downplaying the significance of what thousands of antiwar veterans did. First, Turse’s discoveries were not new. Much of what he tells us was made public by veterans more than forty years ago. In a recent essay, Uhl wrote:
In his [Turse’s] account antiwar veterans appear, not as a movement making history, but as a handful of individual “whistle-blowers within the ranks or recently out of the army…” whose denunciations were “marginalized and ignored.” For the rest, Turse buries our unprecedented story in a thicket of footnotes, devoid of their original contexts, and where only a disciplined scholar might be able to reassemble them into anything approximating what actually occurred. A reader may judge for herself, if the public testimonies on U.S. war crimes policies in Vietnam delivered by antiwar veterans during the final years of the conflict were, as Turse suggests, “marginalized and ignored.” She might discover that the veterans were being heard at the time, if not listened to, much more than Turse is today…. He characterizes as pitiful Movement efforts to reveal the true nature of the war through “pamphlets, small press books and underground newspapers,” that, if even glancingly noticed by empowered insiders, were dismissed as “leftist kookery.”
Uhl also chastises Turse for focusing more attention on atrocities committed by individual soldiers and not enough on the more deadly consequences of decisions made by those with power. Again, there is truth in this. While most soldiers must have observed or known about atrocities, only a small minority committed them. The major war criminals were presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, their advisors like McNamara and Kissinger, and the top military commanders, almost none of whom showed remorse—much less fought to end the war, as many veterans did. These men should all have been marched off to prison. People were executed for less during the Nuremburg trials after the Second World War. In any event, the principled response of the antiwar veterans did as much as anything to end the war, surely as much as what the rest of the movement accomplished. It is no accident that, as Hunt points out, Nixon and his warmongering staff were obsessed with the VVAW. One of the reasons why the Watergate burglary took place was to connect Nixon’s presidential election opponent George McGovern to the antiwar veterans. Those “empowered insiders” Turse references might have seen the veterans and the complete breakdown of military command as proof positive that the war was a lost cause.
Whitewashing the War from Jimmy Carter to Obama’s Vietnam War Commemoration
In his article, Uhl asks whether we will ever come to grips with Vietnam. He informs us that today a majority of young Americans, age eighteen to twenty-nine, think that sending troops to Vietnam was not a mistake. This is sad, though my long experience as a teacher, who lectured often about the war, tells me that it is not a surprise. Our political rulers, much of the mainstream media, along with some scholars, filmmakers, right-wing think tanks, and the military establishment, have continued ever since 1975, when the North Vietnamese Army and the National Liberation Front achieved final victory and liberated their country, to both extinguish the truth of the war from public memory and construct a false history in its place. First, President Jimmy Carter declared, without an ounce of shame, that the United States had nothing for which to apologize because the destruction had been “mutual.” Then, President Ronald Reagan called the war “a noble cause.”
Now President Barack Obama has proclaimed a “Vietnam War Commemoration.” The 2008 National Defense Authorization Act empowered the Secretary of Defense to organize events to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the War in Vietnam. The act envisions a thirteen-year commemoration, from Memorial Day 2012 until November 11, 2025. Obama issued a proclamation on the first day of this celebration, containing these remarkable words:
As we observe the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, we reflect with solemn reverence upon the valor of a generation that served with honor. We pay tribute to the more than 3 million servicemen and women who left their families to serve bravely, a world away from everything they knew and everyone they loved. From Ia Drang to Khe Sanh, from Hue to Saigon and countless villages in between, they pushed through jungles and rice paddies, heat and monsoon, fighting heroically to protect the ideals we hold dear as Americans. Through more than a decade of combat, over air, land, and sea, these proud Americans upheld the highest traditions of our Armed Forces.
This is a lie from beginning to end. We would never know from this that, in addition to the carnage enumerated above,
- The CIA in its Phoenix Program assassinated tens of thousands of Vietnamese suspected of being insurgents or sympathizers. U.S. social scientists, engineers, and scientists participated in this.
- More than 5 million Vietnamese were forcibly removed from their villages and compelled to live in squalid “Strategic Hamlets.”
- Thousands of Vietnamese political prisoners were jailed and tortured in “tiger cages,” left either to die or to suffer debilitating physical and mental illnesses.
What kind of valorous efforts were these? What kind of grand ideals did these embody?
The Commemoration website tells us that the secretary of defense is to organize all of the Commemoration’s programs to satisfy these objectives:
- To thank and honor veterans of the Vietnam War, including personnel who were held as prisoners of war (POW), or listed as missing in action (MIA), for their service and sacrifice on behalf of the United States and to thank and honor the families of these veterans.
- To highlight the service of the Armed Forces during the Vietnam War and the contributions of Federal agencies and governmental and non-governmental organizations that served with, or in support of, the Armed Forces.
- To pay tribute to the contributions made on the home front by the people of the United States during the Vietnam War.
- To highlight the advances in technology, science, and medicine related to military research conducted during the Vietnam War.
- To recognize the contributions and sacrifices made by the allies of the United States during the Vietnam War.
These are all awful, but the fourth one would make the Nazis proud. Someday, no doubt, there will be a commemoration of the War on Terror (if it ever ends), and we will learn how this war gave us the marvel of drones.
Protests against this celebration of the war have been mounted, especially as we approach the beginning of events on Memorial Day this year (2015) when, according to Lieutenant General Claude M. Kicklighter, “we will begin to recruit the nation to get behind this effort in a very big way.” Famed antiwar protester Tom Hayden has spearheaded a petition drive to compel the government to give an accurate account of what happened during the war and to provide room in the remembrance for those who opposed it and to correct the egregious errors and omissions on the website’s timeline of the war. The My Lai massacre was initially called an “incident”; as a result of protest, this has been changed but the word “massacre” was not added. Historians have been critical as well, especially of the turmoil the war caused in the United States. Some antiwar veterans have called for an “alternative commemoration.”
Other than the plans for separate oppositional events, these protests seem tepid, especially in light of the efforts to end the war noted in this essay. Hayden, for example, is not opposed to honoring the valor of U.S. soldiers, and he worries mainly that the military that got the country into the war is now in charge of memorializing it. But why should the valor of veterans be honored? Only the courage of those who opposed it, including the soldiers who did so at great risk, should be respected. And it is not true that the military got the United States into the war. Our political, economic, and intellectual elites did that. The qualms of the academics mirror those of Hayden; they seem nitpicky. The timeline, indeed the entire celebration, are exercises in imperial propaganda. What did anyone expect? Do not forget that President Carter quipped that “the destruction was mutual.” Why worry overmuch that these materials are, as the web site suggests, suitable for schools? Our kids are fed daily doses of falsehoods by their teachers, including those who teach in colleges. I will be heartened when as school districts accept materials prepared by those in charge of the commemoration, teachers and their unions refuse, en masse, to use them. I may have a long wait.
It would be wonderful if the war were critically studied and its glorification subjected to massive public opposition combined with teach-ins, multimedia presentations, marches, and demonstrations. These could be directly tied to the interminable and deadly war on terror and the ongoing conversion of the United States into a police state. They would serve as an estimable example of critical education, a counter to the hegemony, the pervasive influence of our political economy on all aspects of our lives. As Henry Giroux reminds us, one of the major functions of critical education is to keep historical memory alive, to give witness to the truth of the past so that the politics of today is vibrantly democratic. We must always be suspicious of what the powerful tell us and supportive of all that is egalitarian and liberating. Historical memory in this instance functions as a form of public pedagogy that challenges not only the dominant narratives of “America’s disimagination machine” and its glorification of war but also attempts to change the way in which the American public thinks about the horrors committed in Vietnam and the scourge of state violence and militarism. However, as we take Giroux’s arguments to heart, we should stress foremost what the United States did to the Vietnamese and how these valiant people resisted and defeated the most powerful military on earth. Great damage was done to U.S. soldiers, and those who survived still suffer the agony of that long ago war. However, these pale by comparison to the brutality suffered by the Vietnamese, a violence still very much alive in the daily lives of the people in that much tried nation. It is they we should honor, commemorate, remember. They fought more valiantly and suffered more for their liberation from foreign rule than we ever did for our own. What they suffered and what they did should inspire us to redouble our efforts to combat U.S. war-making and imperialism and to educate, agitate, and build new organizations aimed at the construction of an egalitarian society worthy of human beings.
1. On March 16, 1968, U.S. Army soldiers slaughtered perhaps as many as 500 unarmed civilians in two Vietnamese hamlets, one of which the Army had on its maps as My Lai. Hence the name “My Lai massacre.”
2. Nick Turse, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2013).
3. Turse’s book took shape by accident. While researching post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among Vietnam veterans, Turse was asked by an archivist at the National Archives if PTSD could be triggered by witnessing war crimes. He led Turse to a trove of old files describing investigations into such transgressions by a secret Pentagon task force, charged with investigating them so that the military would be prepared for the next My Lai massacre. With this as the foundation for what would become his book, the author began a search for war crimes in Vietnam. This led him to other public archives, private archives and letters, scores of interviews with public officials, more than one hundred interviews with U.S. war veterans, trips to Vietnam where he interviewed Vietnamese who suffered grave personal mistreatment and family losses and where he visited many village war memorials, and all of the relevant secondary literature. The result is a searing indictment of the U.S. government and its top military officers, and descriptions of torture, murder, and the ruination of the Vietnamese landscape that are difficult to read.
4. McNamara was also President Kennedy’s secretary of defense. While there are those who believe that Kennedy would never have sent in the troops that Johnson did, Kennedy was a committed Cold Warrior. The fact that McNamara did what he did under Johnson suggests that Kennedy, by choosing him, was hardly a dove on Vietnam.
5. Kathleen T. Rhem, “Rumsfeld on Terrorists: Drain the Swamp They Live In,” September 18, 2001, https://defense.gov.
7. The training of soldiers has much in common with the training of torturers, that is, the conversion of ordinary human beings into people willing to commit horrendous acts of violence. See Janice T. Gibson and Mika Haritos-Fatouros, “The Education of a Torturer,” Psychology Today 20, no. 6 (November 1986): 246–51.
8. According to Turse, incentives for producing dead bodies “ranged from ‘R& R’ (rest and recreation) passes, which might allow a soldier several days of fun in the sun at a beach resort, to medals, badges, extra food, extra beer, permission to wear nonregulation gear, and light duty at base camp.” Turse, Kill Anything That Moves, Kindle Edition, 44.
9. Westmoreland made this statement in the film Hearts and Minds (1974).
10. As Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American, makes clear, “support personnel” had been in Vietnam for many years before the major troop buildup in the mid-1960s. Graham Greene, The Quiet American (London: Penguin Classics, 2004), originally published in 1955.
11. Turse, Kill Anything That Moves, Kindle Edition, 6.
12. Ibid, 11–13; Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States (New York: Gallery Books, 2012), chapter 10.
13. Turse, Kill Anything That Moves, Kindle Edition, 13.
14. Stone and Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States, Kindle Edition, Location 8714-8729.
15. Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake: The Americans and Vietnamese in Vietnam (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1972).
16. Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin, Black Against Empire: the History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013). As Muhammad Ali said in explaining his refusal to be inducted into the army in 1967: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” “Muhammad Ali Explains His Refusal to Fight in Vietnam (1967),”https://alphahistory.com.
17. A few brave soldiers reported atrocities to superiors. This was dangerous to do; the person who did it risked retribution from superiors and fellow soldiers, including violence, even death. The film Casualties of War (1989), based on actual events, gives a frightening depiction of this.
19. Andrew E. Hunt, The Turning: A History of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (New York: NYU Press, 1999), Kindle Locations 4005-4007.
20. Ibid, Kindle Locations 4160-4161.
21. Good accounts of the work of the antiwar veterans can be found in the films, Sir! No Sir! (2005) and Winter Soldier Investigation (1972), as well as the Hunt book cited above, and James Simon Kunen, Standard Operating Procedure: Notes of a Draft-age American (New York: Avon, 1971). The two films were generously sent to me by David Sladky. The documentary film Same, Same but Different tells the moving story of veterans who have returned to Vietnam to aid in the rebuilding of the country.
22. Uhl provides a link here to Michael Uhl, “A Clipping File of Veteran War Crimes Testimony Circa 1969–1971,” April 5, 2013, https://inthemindfield.com.
23. Michael Uhl, “An Enfant Terrible Stumbles Upon the Vietnam War,” April 9, 2013, https://counterpunch.org. See also Michael Uhl, Vietnam Awakening: My Journey from Combat to the Citizens’ Commission of Inquiry on U.S. War Crimes in Vietnam (Jefferson, NC: McFarland Publishing, 2007).
24. Hunt, The Turning, Kindle Location 4136-4144.
26. The information in the next three paragraphs, unless otherwise noted, is taken from the Commemoration’s web site: https://vietnamwar50th.com/. I first reported on this in 2013; see Michael D. Yates, “Oliver Stone, Obama, and the War in Vietnam,” January 11, 2013, https://cheapmotelsandahotplate.org.
27. President of the United States of America, “Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War,” May 25, 2012,
28. https://vietnamwar50th.com. This is the opening paragraph. It gets worse: “As a grateful Nation, we honor more than 58,000 patriots–their names etched in black granite–who sacrificed all they had and all they would ever know. We draw inspiration from the heroes who suffered unspeakably as prisoners of war, yet who returned home with their heads held high. We pledge to keep faith with those who were wounded and still carry the scars of war, seen and unseen. With more than 1,600 of our service members still among the missing, we pledge as a Nation to do everything in our power to bring these patriots home. In the reflection of The Wall, we see the military family members and veterans who carry a pain that may never fade. May they find peace in knowing their loved ones endure, not only in medals and memories, but in the hearts of all Americans, who are forever grateful for their service, valor, and sacrifice.”
29. Douglas Valentine, The Phoenix Program (Bloomington, IN: iUnivererse: 2000).
30. Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Paying Respects, Pentagon Revives Vietnam, and War Over Truth,” New York Times, October 9, 2014, https://nytimes.com.
31. The film The Kill Team shows that the same kind of training and the same killing of civilians as in Vietnam is still standard operating procedure in Iraq and Afghanistan. For more on the war on terror and the incipient U.S. police state, see Henry A. Giroux, Zombie Politics in the Age of Casino Capitalism, 2nd edition (New York: Peter Lang, 2014).
32. Current government expenditures, excluding interest on government debt, are less than tax revenues. There can be a primary surplus but an overall deficit if total government spending, including interest payments, is more than tax revenues.
In preparing this essay, I was aided by the following works:
- Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin, Black Against Empire: the History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).
- Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War (New York: Macmillan, 1977).
- Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake: The Americans and Vietnamese in Vietnam (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1972).
- Võ Nguyên Giáp, The Military Art of People’s War (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970).
- Graham Greene, The Quiet American (London: Penguin Classics, 2004 Reprint Edition; originally published in 1955).
- David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (New York: Random House, 1972).
- Michael Herr, Dispatches (New York: Knopf, 1977).
- Andrew E. Hunt, The Turning: A History of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (New York: NYU Press, 1999).
- James Simon Kunen, Standard Operating Procedure: Notes of a Draft-age American (New York: Avon, 1971).
- Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990).
- Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States (New York: Gallery Books, 2012)
- Nick Turse, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2013).
- Michael Uhl, Vietnam Awakening: My Journey from Combat to the Citizens’ Commission of Inquiry on U.S. War Crimes in Vietnam (Jefferson, NC: McFarland Publishing, 2007).
- Douglas Valentine, The Phoenix Program (Bloomington, IN: iUnivererse: 2000).
- Leo Cawley, “An Ex-Marine Sees Platoon,” Monthly Review 39, no. 2 (June 1987): 6–18.
- Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr., “The Collapse of the Armed Forces,” Armed Forces Journal, June 7, 1971, https://msuweb.montclair.edu.
- Neil Sheehan, “Should We Have War Crimes Trials?,” New York Times Book Review, March 28, 1971, https://msuweb.montclair.edu.
- Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Paying Respects, Pentagon Revives Vietnam, and War Over Truth,” New York Times, October 9, 2014, https://nytimes.com.
Anderson Platoon, The (1967)
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Berkeley in the Sixties (1990)
Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Casualties of War (1989)
Deer Hunter, The (1978)
Fog of War, The (2003)
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Hearts and Minds (1974)
Kill Team, The (2013)
Most Dangerous Man in America, The (2009)
Quiet American, The (1958 and 2002)
Same, Same But Different (2012)
Sir! No Sir! (2005)
Untold History of the United States, The, Showtime Television series (2012)
Vietnam: American Holocaust (2008)
Winter Soldier Investigation (1972)