Vietnam: A Retrospective

The Road to Wisdom

by Aleksandra Priestfield

May 1, 2000


Was there ever a time of innocence? Was there a starting point on the road to wisdom - and if there was, did the world miss it, driving past the signpost blindly in an armoured car, too intent on watching out for the designated ennemi du jour to care about wondering about how bumpy the good intentions paving this road to hell seemed to be?

We could start way back - way back - because war has always walked in the world. In the years of supposed peace since the end of the Second World War, minor wars have been constantly simmering across this planet, and usually, in the early days at least, people living in any other corner of the world have remained blissfully ignorant of them. The defeat of fascism on the battlefields of WW II left the arena open for the entry of a new enemy - and one stalked on, dressed in Red, insisting on calling everyone "comrade" and waving blood-red banners. The allies of the war just past broke ranks and ranged themselves implacably against each other. To America, the word "communism" became a dragon.

It was this dragon that lured the United States into the bloody confrontation which became known as the Vietnam War and which, in a few short decades, has turned into something of a national myth. Back in January 1968 North Vietnamese troops and their Viet Cong allies in the South mounted a coordinated series of attacks on a number of supposedly safe Southern cities, including Saigon, during the big Asian holiday called Tet. The so-called Tet Offensive brought severe losses (more than 50 000 men) to the Northern forces, against American losses of approximately 4000 troops over the 12 weeks that the fighting lasted. Nonetheless the offensive was portrayed as a failure for the American and South Vietnamese troops. Doug Oberdorfer, a former Washinton Post journalist and author of the book Tet!, speaks of the offensive marking a historic turning point in the war by the American "body politic" - which was "significantly influenced by events they saw on television".

Graphic film footage and photographs, while not unfamiliar in pre-Tet era, now became standard fare. Photos of executions, of the Viet Cong storming the US Embassy in Saigon, wounded and bloody bodies - it all brought home the brutal reality of the war. Protests had been going on before the Tet Offensive; but now the American public took to the streets in earnest. Tet brought more of the undecided "fence-sitters" into the anti-war fold, and even made some of the hitherto pro-Vietnam public start voicing reservations. The era of the Viet Nam protesters had arrived. "For the first time," wrote Robert Elegant, journalist of the Los Angeles Times, "the outcome of a war was determined not on a battlefield, but on the printed page and, above all, on the television screen." We will come back to this remark. Remember it.

The Tet Offensive remains famous for other things. For example, a quote which still - often misquoted and abused - remains true to this day, attributed to an anonymous U.S. officer: "we had to destroy a village in order to save it". Never was this more graphically illustrated than in the massacre at My Lai, where a number of U.S. troops went out of control and massacred unarmed Vietnamese villagers, many of them old people, women and children.

There are many papers, photographs, transcripts and (these days) websites dealing with the My Lai massacre, a blot on the honour of the U.S. military for decades. One of these websites produces a whole lesson plan. The lesson plan moves along the lines of

I. What happened at My Lai?
II. Laws of War
III. The Cover-up
IV. The Court Martial
V. Factors Contributing to the massacre

The main issues seem clear cut. But take a closer look at the subheadings of this lesson plan, and this becomes one scary history lesson - because, some thirty years later, it appears to have remained unlearned.

In a nutshell, Charlie Company, led by a Lieutenant William J. Calley Jr., attacked on March 16, 1968. Soldiers began shooting at villagers who did not return fire; Calley ordered them herded into a ditch and shot. Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, flying over the area in a helicopter, witnessed the carnage and attempted to stop it; Calley interfered. Vietnamese casualties included 500 unarmed people. Only one member of Charlie Company was wounded.

The "laws of war" quoted in the lesson plan included the Lieber Code, published by Francis Lieber on 24 April 1863: "violence of war directed only towards enemy"; the U.S.Army Field Manual, which included the dictums that murder of civilians and prisoners of war is outlawed, plunder of public property prohibited, any destruction of cities, towns or villages not justified by military necessity is outlawed, and shooting of unarmed civilians is a violation of the Geneva Convention of 12 August 1949. It is a sad reflection on human nature that we ever felt the need to write treatises codifying the waging of war; but even these rules, which were created to prevent out-of-battle carnage and mayhem, appear to have been flagrantly flouted by Charlie Company at My Lai.

A "routine investigation" of the incident was started by a Colonel Henderson, the Brigade Commander, the day after the incident. Henderson ignored vital evidence (for example, the recordings of radio traffic relevant to the incident) and Charlie Company returned to routine duty, serving out the year. Further inquiries were made, instigated by Saigon and Washinton. In these, civilian deaths were acknowledged but attributed to all sorts of extracurricular causes such as errant artillery strikes. No member of Charlie Company was interviewed. It was the helicopter door gunner, Ron Ridenhour, a witness to the incident, who pursued the matter - it was he who got the story published nationally in the United States, and it was only after this that President Nixon ordered a full investigation during which incidents of seemingly deliberate evidence mishandling - misfiling of Army data or destruction of the radio tapes - began to emerge. 25 men were finally charged with participating in the massacre or taking part in the subsequent cover-up.

Calley was eventually found guilty, at his court martial, of "the murder of 33 oriental human beings (emphasis mine), occupants of the village of My Lai, whose names and sexes are unknown, by means of shooting them with a rifle." He was dishonorably discharged and sentenced to life in Levensworth, but President Nixon commuted that to 20 years; in 1974, after serving 3 years of his sentence, Calley received a presidential pardon.

In investigating the factors contributing to the massacre, psychiatrist William Gault produced the following "causes" - Charlie Company commited their atrocity because 1) the enemy is everywhere; 2) the enemy is not human; 3) there is no personal responsibility; 4) the pressure to act; 5) firepower. This begins to sound eerily familiar.

Thirty years after the massacre the survivors and their children are still left wondering about what doomed the village of My Lai. Tim Larimer of Time returned to My Lai and was struck with the beauty and serenity of the place of death 30 years on. He watched children playing "dead" in wargames, and comments, "Such a game might seem innocent elsewhere; here, it is chilling to watch. A few meters from the make-believe battleground, dozens of real bodies are buried in a mass grave." He goes on to say, "My Lai's place in American history is firmly entrenched, as a disturbing wake-up call that the U.S. military could be as guilty of inhumane acts as any Army." The man who stopped the massacre, Hugh Thompson, was scheduled to return to My Lai for a commemoration ceremony; the U.S. Government "talked about doing something, but decided not to". No official representative was sent. A Vietnamese war veteran whose family was wiped out in the massacre is pragmatic about it: "There were many My Lais." Another villager, now 69, survived the massacre by hiding in the rice paddies with her 6-year-old son. These days she still works in the rice fields. To get there from her house she walks past a well into which a man was thrown and shot, past a silkwood tree where 15 people, including two toddlers, were killed, and past the site of an ex-watchtower, now defunct, where 102 villagers, her friends and kin, were assembled and shot. She says she doesn't think about the killings all the time, only when she walks down this path... which she walks every day, and has done for years.

Years later, decades later, other wars have taken the place of Viet Nam. The First Gulf War, fought in a blaze of righteousness, was called the first war to have been fought on television - because all of us grew chillingly familiar with the nightly fireworks over Baghdad. The war NATO picked with Yugoslavia was more than that - it was the first war to be fought by the Nintendo generation who probably didn't see the difference between pushing a button to annihilate a computer-generated monster or a bridge in a sleeping city. It was also the first war to be fought so strongly by propaganda, and by lies, half-lies and prevarications intended solely to keep up the public support for an otherwise unsupportable war. In the words of that anonymous American officer, paraphrased, things would either go NATO's way or they would "destroy the village in order to save it". Once, the exposure of a war on the television turned a nation against it and America stood and cried ENOUGH - not this time. To a generation that grew up on Hollywood special effects, watching the planes dropping cluster bombs is surreal and distant, and something utterly beyond them. The one lesson that has been learned is not to provide any bodies - because that, still, is real enough to galvanise an opposition.

To go back briefly to the five headings of the Lesson of My Lai, we can apply them (briefly) to what happened in Yugoslavia a year ago. There is no need to go back endlessly over what triggered the war - the ultimatum-disguised-as-peace-conference in Rambouillet, where even people directly involved have admitted that the bar was set too high on purpose and that the terms were deliberately made unacceptable; the massacre-that-wasn't at Racak; the operation of "ethnic cleansing" or "genocide" - it took the name-callers an unconscionably long time to fit the name to the circumstances, which obstinately refused to cooperate - all of these are already familiar, and analysed all too many times. The Laws of War (and Peace) that were broken defy imagination. They cover the Geneva Conventions, the Helsinki Convention, the charters of the United Nations and NATO itself. The only time that the President of the United States said anything at all about the Geneva Convention was during the time that the Yugoslav armed forces held in custody three American soldiers caught within Yugoslav territory for no clear or even legal reason. In other words, it was fine to flout the Geneva Convention to bomb the stuffing out of a country that had made no hostile move towards NATO or the United States, but God help anyone who even thought about laying an impious hand on three "foreign spies" caught in the act of espionage. The cover up, as, again, we all know, has been monumental - and is still going on. We are still waiting for the court martial. As for the factors contributing to the "massacre" in Yugoslavia, we could do worse than go back to the reasons put forward by the American psychiatrist. NATO destroyed Yugoslavia because its troops and its peoples were made to believe that 1) in Yugoslavia, the enemy is everywhere 2) in Yugoslavia, the enemy (the Serbs) is not human; 3) there is no personal responsibility; 4) the pressure to act (read, the "credibility" of NATO and the oft-discussed "legacy" that the leaders of the "free world" wish to leave behind) ; and 5) firepower. An unprecedented, incredible, unbelievable superiority in firepower. 19 against 1.

"Because we can."

The village lies destroyed. The peace is elusive. The road to wisdom has long been left behind.


Vietnam: A Retrospective

Introduction - by Gilles d'Aymery
Prism And Touchstone - by Rick Rozoff
Through the Eyes of a Child - by Jan Baughman
The Trauma of Coming Home - by Doug Baughman
Reflections on the War in Vietnam - by Mac Lawrence
Making Sense out of Senselessness - by Eileen Rinde
An Uneasy Peace - by Margaret Wyles
Myths and Reality - by Antony Black
Stay Under the Radar Screen - by Milo Clark
Conclusion - by Gilles d'Aymery


Published May 1, 2000
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