Vietnam: Our Unfinished War
Copyright © 2004 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.
In an article published this year in the March 22 issue of The Nation, anti-war activist turned California politician Tom Hayden reflected on the enmity still engendered by his ex Jane Fonda, who — though now retired into born-again matronhood — remains the favorite target of the Right’s Vietnam Syndrome. Before the article’s end, Hayden suggested sanguinely that, since the decorated Vietnam warrior turned anti-warrior John Kerry had emerged as the likely Democratic nominee, we might finally openly and honestly discuss the Vietnam legacy.
When John Kerry’s Vietnam history did emerge as an issue last August, the discussion was dominated by the attempt to destroy his war record, spearheaded by the group with the Orwellian-named Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The fact that they were lying was of course ignored by the right-wing echo chambers of Fox News, talk radio, the loony Weekly Standard and the Moonie Washington Times, and nearly missed by the ironically named “liberal” media.
In case you have forgotten, the gist of the charges was that Purple Hearts were meaningless since they could be easily earned without shedding blood — an assertion which certainly depreciates a huge number of Purple Hearts, the medal most commonly awarded in wartime. We were also told that Kerry’s Bronze and Silver Stars were handed over on the basis of reports he wrote himself, casting shoddy aspersions on U.S. military practices then and now. Indeed, if a junior naval officer could receive medals solely on his own say-so, the Vietnam-era military comes right out of the Vietnam-era novel Catch-22.
Now, two weeks before the election, Kerry — and the rest of us, for that matter — must endure another Vietnam assault: the Propaganda-Stück “Stolen Honor” to be aired by the bent-right Sinclair Broadcasting Group on 62 stations in battleground states. Its central argument spins Kerry’s role as spokesman for the “Winter Soldier” campaign of 1971, launched by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Since this summer anti-Kerry websites have featured transcripts of his testimony before a sympathetic congressional committee chaired by Senator William Fulbright — who like the overwhelming majority of his fellows voted for the Tonkin Gulf resolution that officially kicked off the bloodbath, but who soon regretted his vote and led the congressional opposition to the war.
Most often singled out by Kerry’s attackers is his testimony on that occasion that American troops had “cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam.” Kerry’s detractors quote these words as “lies” that testify to his disrespect for the troops and his lack of patriotism.
But of course they aren’t lies.
For anyone interested enough in the truth to peruse the historical record, literally dozens of books — not to mention hundreds of articles and stories, many of them the eloquent accounts of veterans — confirm episodes such as those Kerry cites. In his hallucinatory account Dispatches, war journalist Michael Herr presents a reservedly sympathetic but chilling portrait of the American marines and soldiers in Vietnam, especially the young recruits he refers to as “killer babies.” He writes of prisoners being dropped from helicopters, of guys who collected body parts from enemies dead or nearly dead — “trying to assemble their own Viet Cong,” as the joke went. He leaves the reader with a picture of reckless and meaningless horror, of long pointless waiting periods punctuated by random death and violence, of purposeless missions that led to the slaughter of comrades and Vietnamese alike, of free fire zones where troops were encouraged to shoot everything that moved — fighters and civilians, men and women, the very old and the very young, cows and chickens.
In his study The Unfinished War: Vietnam and the American Conscience, Walter Capp quotes a number of Vietnam survivors who express horror and regret over what they experienced in the war. Among them is the recollection of Lee Childress, a sergeant in the 206th Assault Helicopter Company, who remembers seeing a fellow soldier shoot an old woman merely for taking his chewing gum: “He shot her point-blank through the chest and killed her . . . for a fucking piece of gum. We got in more trouble for killing water buffalo than we did for killing people. That was something I could never adjust to.”
While some in uniform clearly enjoyed this kind of freedom from moral restraints, many others came back traumatized by what they had witnessed others do or had done themselves. “A man saw the heights and depths of human behavior in Vietnam,” writes veteran Philip Caputo in his own A Rumor of War, “all manner of violence and horrors so grotesque that they evoked more fascination than disgust.”
It was such veterans, emerging from their war experiences determined to re-affirm their moral natures as human beings, who formed the core of the veterans’ antiwar movement. According to Shad Meshad, a psychology officer in Vietnam who worked extensively with veterans after the war,
I think that much of the guilt the Vietnam veteran feels is due to the fact that he went in, like I did, and was used and manipulated. He had to abuse the culture to stay alive. Since coming back, he has mourned the fact that he never even understood. And the moment he did begin to understand, he perceived that the American involvement was wrong.
As former military intelligence expert turned author Chalmers Johnson remarks in a recent review of A. J. Langguth’s book Our Vietnam, “The U.S. government deceived its own people and committed many war crimes in Vietnam.” The 27-year-old John Kerry echoed this conclusion, again in 1971, during an appearance on Meet the Press: “from the top down . . . the men who ordered us . . . were war criminals.”
Kerry’s critics rant as though My Lai never happened. Even many who do remember it insist on treating it as a wholly unique aberration, like the prisoner abuse caught on film at Abu Ghraib. It must be said that even during the atrocities of My Lai, there were acts of outstanding moral courage, like those of Ronald Ridenhour and Hugh Thompson, who not only intervened to stop the slaughter but testified against it to the military and the press. Just like Joseph Darby, the Abu Ghraib guard who broke open the story of the abuses, these heroes endured verbal attacks and even death threats from some fellow soldiers who believed they had broken ranks.
It is this sort of emnity we see directed at John Kerry. On the other hand, he has yet to address Vietnam in this campaign with the same forthrightness he showed in 1971. Either the courage of youth has given way to the cautiousness of middle age, or his handlers have advised him he cannot do so without jeopardizing his political future.
The sad fact is that the majority of Americans have not themselves come to terms with our mistakes in Vietnam, which is why we are repeating so many of them in Iraq. As a nation we have inconveniently forgotten what we almost learned thirty years ago.
For one thing, in the intervening decades a pop “official” version of the war has emerged, one which has repressed The Reality and embraced The Fantasy.