May 1, 2000
I am of that generation that grew up watching the Vietnam War on television. The first television war. I remember eating my TV dinner and rooting nightly as the body counts for the 'Vietcong' were scored at the top, right-hand side of the screen, and then smoldering indignant as the much lower body counts for the US troops were sorrowfully posted. Not very different, when I reflect upon it, than the way many youngsters reacted to the Gulf War or the war on Yugoslavia, and with about as much grasp on the truth.
For the truth about Vietnam is that the United States of America, armed with the most powerful military machine that had ever existed on the face of the Earth, attacked a helpless, peasant society - that sought nothing more than the simple right to national self-determination - and visited upon it a conflagration of such savagery that it left upwards of 4 million of its people dead.
Not then content with having left an entire nation in ruins, the military 'losers', agonizing all the while through every cultural medium from press to book to film, ostensibly over the error of their ways but in reality over the error of their failure, vindictively waged a follow-up economic war for the next twenty years to punish the 'winners' for having had the audacity to defend themselves.
But this is only part of the fabric of the truth of Vietnam. Woven into the quilt of the mayhem are myths worth addressing.
There is the myth that: the war was an aberration of U.S. foreign policy; a dark yet complex tale of good intentions gone awry.
That anyone can consider this thesis seriously is tantamount to the fact that, as they say in the popular idiom, "you haven't been paying attention". If, in other words, Vietnam was an 'aberration', then so in this well-nigh bottomless category must we include the results of U.S. foreign policy on practically all of Latin America. We must include, for instance, the U.S. backed coup in Guatemala in 1954 which led to the murder of 200,000 people. We must include the U.S. proxy terrorist war against Sandanista Nicaragua between 1979 and 1989 that killed 40,000 of its citizens. We must include, during the same era, the Reagan administration's intimate responsibility for the murder of 80,000 El Salvadorians. We must include the U.S. backed right-wing military coup in Brazil in 1964, of the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965, of the overthrow (and liquidation) of the democratically elected Chilean government in 1973, of......But the list goes on virtually ad infinitum....and not just in Latin America but world wide, right up until the present.
While at the heart of Rome the citizens busy themselves with fine thoughts, noble aspirations, and moral niceties, on the borders of Empire the legions continue their steady work of murder and mayhem.
Another myth which fits the dominant pacifist ideology of North American social activism is that: the domestic, non-violent, anti-war movement was instrumental in helping to bring the war to a close.
Despite its appealing simplicity, this dogma does not pass muster. It is, in my opinion, a child of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, both of whose pacifist careers were integrally dependent upon the existence of peripheral armed struggles for their success (namely, the exhaustion, following two world wars, of British imperial power on the one hand, and the birth of the Black Panther movement on the other).
Indeed, what brought the Vietnam war to a close was nothing more than the successful armed struggle of the Vietnamese people themselves. In particular, the Tet Offensive of 1968, more than anything else, convinced American rulers that the war was lost. It was only then that the United States seriously began to consider the prospect of suing for peace. In fact, the anti-war movement, after it received its first real casualties at Kent State, essentially fell apart. When Nixon then finally ended the draft in 1973, the so called 'principled (domestic) opposition' to the war evaporated like so many freak snowflakes dusting the Sahara. Subsequently, as Nixon continued to prosecute the war (for no other reason than so that America could 'save face'), several hundred thousand more Vietnamese were killed. There was by this time no 'opposition' to mourn, let alone protest, their passing.
Yet another potent myth revolves around the claim that: the post-war Vietnamese played some sort of dirty pool with respect to America's 'missing in action'.
Of all the point-specific pieces of popular American political mythology, this ludicrous tune made its way up the charts to become the longest playing single at the top of the country's propaganda hit parade. Hardly a month would go by, for decades on end, but that some variant or other of the MIA 'story' would not claw its way back into the headlines. How many books, movies, press releases and scholarly reports were spawned by this fanciful narrative? We shall never know. How many stars are there in the sky?
The bald facts, however, are these: As a percentage of the confirmed dead, the United States suffered a MIA rate in the 2nd World War and Korea respectively, of 20 and 15%. For Vietnam, the figure was 4%, or roughly 2300 men. So while in post-war Vietnam tens of thousands of Vietnamese, many of them children, were being killed by previously unexploded ordnance, and hundreds of thousands more were falling victim to the remains of the prior chemical warfare, while the hospitals were brimming with the crippled, the maimed and those suffering birth defects - back in the United States, the MIA soap opera continued its earnest, multi-decade serial run. A more macabre spectacle can hardly be imagined.
Finally, there is the myth that: Cambodia's 'Killing Fields' was solely the responsibility of the Khmer Rouge.
Though the 'Killing Fields' were not strictly a part of the Vietnam War, they were a direct offspring of this conflict and were tied to it by what's known as the 'Secret Bombing' of Cambodia. The scale of the U.S. bombing was simply staggering. Continuing from 1969 to 1975 it killed an estimated 600,000 Cambodians, and the resultant decimation of the entire agrarian economy led to the starvation of perhaps a million more. These figures were then just lumped together by American propagandists onto the Khmer Rouge scorecard.
Though it is fair to say that the Vietnam War sensitized the American public with respect to further military commitments abroad (the so-called, 'Vietnam Syndrome'), and drove U.S. hegemonic strategy away from open aggression towards the use of covert subversion and proxy forces, it is equally fair to say that, today (following Panama, Somalia, Iraq and Yugoslavia), these ideological 'setbacks' have been essentially overcome. The Vietnam War, 25 years later then, represents nothing so much as the triumph of revisionist history, in the service of future revisionist needs to come.
Vietnam: A Retrospective
Introduction - by Gilles d'Aymery
Prism And Touchstone - by Rick Rozoff
The Road to Wisdom - by Aleksandra Priestfield
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
Stay Under the Radar Screen - by Milo Clark
Conclusion - by Gilles d'Aymery