U.S. Central Command’s latest figures on its aerial bombardment of Iraq and Syria reveal that this is the heaviest U.S. bombing campaign since President George W. Bush’s “Shock and Awe” campaign against Iraq in 2003. In the campaign’s first ten months from August 2014 to May 2015, the U.S. and its allies conducted 15,245 air strikes, or an average of 51 air strikes per day.
This is only the latest campaign in a 15-year global air war, largely ignored by U.S. media, in which the United States and its allies have conducted at least 118,000 air strikes against other countries since 2000. The 47,000 air strikes conducted in the 6 ½ years since President Barack Obama took office are only a small reduction from the 70,000 in eight years of the Bush administration, and the current campaign will easily make up that deficit if it continues at this intensity until Obama leaves office.
Afghanistan has been the most heavily bombed country, with at least 61,000 air strikes since 2001. That includes 24,000 bombs and missiles in the first year of the war and a relentless bombing campaign that struck Afghanistan with another 29,000 bombs and missiles between 2007 and 2012, a slow motion version of “Shock and Awe.” That was an average of 13 air strikes per day for six full years, two years under Bush and four under Obama. The heaviest bombardment was in October 2010, with 1,043 air strikes that month, but that total is now eclipsed every month by the new campaign in Iraq and Syria.
Iraq had already suffered about 34,000 air strikes since 2000 before the latest campaign began. There were at least 800 air strikes in the “No Fly Zone” bombing campaign to destroy Iraq’s air defenses between 2000 and 2002; 29,200 air strikes in “Shock and Awe” in 2003, a campaign whose planners compared it to a nuclear attack; and another 3,900 during the U.S. occupation, peaking with 400 strikes in January 2008 as remaining centers of armed resistance were obliterated by air strikes, Spectre gunships and heavy artillery in the climax of the “Surge.”
But until the new campaign in Iraq and Syria, the seven-month NATO-Gulf Cooperation Council bombing of Libya was the heaviest bombardment since “Shock and Awe”, with 7,700 air strikes in seven months, or 36 air strikes per day. NATO and its Arab monarchist allies plunged Libya into intractable chaos and violence, exposing “regime change” as a euphemism for “regime destruction.”
NATO’s destruction of Libya spurred Russia to finally draw the line on its 20-year acquiescence to Western aggression and military expansion. Since then, the U.S. and its allies have persisted in their “regime destruction” policy in Syria and Ukraine, threatening strategically important Russian naval bases in Tartus and Sevastopol, what has evolved from an asymmetric war on a series of relatively defenseless countries into full-blown 1950s-era nuclear brinksmanship.
None of these figures include Israeli air strikes against Palestine, the current Saudi-led bombing of Yemen, or French operations in West Africa, as I haven’t found comparable figures for those campaigns, but they must add many thousand more air strikes to the real total.
Keeping the People in the Dark
In a recent article, Gareth Porter reported that the Pentagon is seriously opposed to putting more “boots on the ground” in Iraq or Syria, but that the generals and admirals are prepared to keep bombing them more or less indefinitely as the political path of least resistance for themselves and the White House. This may indeed be the “safe” course for a politically-driven administration and a Pentagon that is always thinking of its public image and its future funding.
But it depends on keeping the public in the dark about several critical aspects of this policy. First, there is little public resistance to this policy mainly because few Americans know that it’s happening, let alone understand the full scale of the bloodshed and devastation perpetrated in our names for the past 15 years.
The second thing the Pentagon doesn’t want you to think about is the deceptive role of “precision” weapons in U.S. propaganda. Considering how accurate these weapons really are in relation to the huge numbers of them raining down on country after country, it is not surprising that they have killed or wounded millions of civilians and destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes and civilian infrastructure, as we see in photographs and video of the ruins of Fallujah, Sirte or Kobani.
A direct hit with a single 500- or 1,000-pound bomb will cause death, injury and destruction up to hundreds of feet from its point of impact, so even accurate air strikes inevitably kill and maim civilians and destroy their homes. But whatever proportion of these 118,000 bombs and missiles have actually missed their targets have wreaked completely indiscriminate death, injury and destruction.
Rob Hewson, the editor of Jane’s Air Launched Weapons, estimated that 20 to 25 percent of the “precision” weapons used in “Shock and Awe” in 2003 missed their targets. Another one third of the bombs and missiles used in “Shock and Awe” were not “precision” weapons to begin with.
Even the Pentagon has not claimed a quantum leap in its “precision” weapons technology since 2003, so it is likely that at least 15 percent are still missing their targets, adding daily to a massive and mounting toll on innocent civilians.
As Hewson told the Associated Press in 2003, “In a war that’s being fought for the benefit of the Iraqi people, you can’t afford to kill any of them. But you can’t drop bombs and not kill people. There’s a real dichotomy in all of this.”
Body Count, a recent report published by Physicians for Social Responsibility, confirmed previous estimates of well over a million people killed in America’s wars since 2000. This and previous studies document the horrific results of what Hewson and other experts understand only too well, that “you can’t drop (100,000) bombs and not kill (hundreds of thousands of) people.”
Another element in the Pentagon’s shaky propaganda house of cards is its effort to obscure what bombs and missiles actually do to their victims. Americans watch the Islamic State beheading videos on TV or YouTube but we never see videos of people decapitated or children dismembered by the bombs our taxes are paying for. But our bombs behead people too.
Apologists claim that U.S. bombing is morally superior to the “terrorism” of America’s enemies, because the U.S. killing and beheading of civilians is “unintentional” rather than “deliberate.” The late Howard Zinn, a former U.S. Air Force bombardier and later a history professor, responded to this claim in a letter to the New York Times in 2007:
“These words are misleading because they assume that an action is either ‘deliberate’ or ‘’unintentional.’ There is something in between, for which the word is ‘inevitable.’ If you engage in an action, like aerial bombing, in which you cannot possibly distinguish between combatants and civilians (as a former Air Force bombardier, I will attest to that), the deaths of civilians are inevitable, even if not ‘intentional.’
“Does that difference exonerate you morally? The terrorism of the suicide bomber and the terrorism of aerial bombardment are indeed morally equivalent. To say otherwise (as either side might) is to give one moral superiority over the other, and thus serve to perpetuate the horrors of our time.”
Millions of ‘Enemies’
In fact, U.S. armed forces are waging war on millions of people for whom becoming combatants in a war would be the last thing they would ever consider if we had not brought our war to their doorsteps. The Center for Civilians in Conflict recently interviewed hundreds of local people who have participated as combatants in conflicts in Bosnia, Libya, Gaza or Somalia. It found that their motivations were almost entirely defensive, to protect themselves, their families, their communities or their countries.
When military forces attack or invade a country, many ordinary people feel compelled to take up arms to defend themselves and their homes. When the forces that put them in this unbearable predicament in the first place treat their efforts to defend themselves as a legal “green light” to target them with force and call them “terrorists,” they are driven to join better organized armed resistance movements that offer them protection in numbers and an effective way to fight back.
The essential first step to breaking the escalating spiral of violence is to force the aggressors, in this case the United States and its allies, to cease their aggression, including their state sponsorship of armed groups or “terrorists” in the affected countries. Then legitimate diplomatic initiatives can begin the difficult work of resolving the complex political and humanitarian problems caused by U.S.-led aggression and beginning to restore peace and security.
In his 1994 masterpiece, Century of War, the late Gabriel Kolko documented that war was the catalyst for all the major political revolutions of the Twentieth Century. While the working people of the world have otherwise failed to “rise up” as Marx predicted, the one thing that has reliably driven them to do so is the horror of war.
The war that the United States is waging today is proving no different. Armed resistance is spreading throughout the affected countries, spawning new ideologies and movements that defy the conceptual frameworks and limited imagination of the U.S. officials whose actions gave birth to them.
U.S. leaders of all stripes, military or civilian, Democrat or Republican, still fail to grasp what Richard Barnet concluded in 1973 as he studied the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, “at the very moment the number one nation has perfected the science of killing, it has become an impractical instrument of political domination.”
The last 15 years of war have served to confirm Barnet’s conclusion. After 118,000 air strikes, millions of casualties, trillions of dollars squandered, and country after country plunged into chaos, the U.S. has failed to gain political control over any of them.
But our complacent leaders and their self-satisfied advisers blunder on, debating who to threaten or attack next: Russia? China? Iran? Which “threat” provides the best pretext for further U.S. military expansion?
As Gabriel Kolko observed, because of “inherent, even unavoidable institutional myopia, … options and decisions that are intrinsically dangerous and irrational become not merely plausible but the only form of reasoning about war and diplomacy that is possible in official circles.”
But U.S. war-making is not just dangerous and irrational. It is also a crime. The judges at Nuremberg defined aggression, attacking or invading other countries, as the “supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” The UN Charter goes one step further and prohibits the threat as well as the use of force.
Benjamin Ferencz, the only surviving member of the prosecution team at Nuremberg, is a fierce critic of illegal U.S. war-making. In response to U.S. war crimes in Vietnam, he dedicated the rest of his life to establishing an International Criminal Court (ICC) that could prosecute senior officials of any government who commit aggression and other war crimes.
Ferencz is hailed as the founding father of the ICC, but his vision of “Law Not War” remains unfulfilled as long as his own country, the United States, refuses to recognize the jurisdiction of either the ICC or the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
By rejecting the jurisdiction of international courts, the U.S. has carved out what Amnesty International has called an “accountability-free zone,” from which it can threaten, attack and invade other countries, torture prisoners, kill civilians and commit other war crimes with impunity.
U.S. government lawyers enjoy the privilege, unique in their profession, of issuing legally indefensible but politically creative legal cover for war crimes, secure in the knowledge that they will never be forced to defend their opinions before an impartial court.
Ben Ferencz very graciously wrote a preface to my book, Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq, and he spoke at an event with me and David Swanson in 2011, just before his 91st birthday. Ben talked about Nuremberg and the ICC, and he compared U.S. justifications for its “preemptive” illegal war-making to the defense offered by SS Gruppenfuhrer Otto Ohlendorf at Nuremberg.
As Ben explained, “That Ohlendorf argument was considered by three American judges at Nuremberg, and they sentenced him and twelve others to death by hanging. So it’s very disappointing to find that my government today is prepared to do something for which we hanged Germans as war criminals.”
If we do not hold American war criminals accountable for their crimes, and accept the jurisdiction of international courts to do so if we do not, how else can we serve notice on those who come after them that they must never do this again?
Argentina, Guatemala and other countries in Latin America are prosecuting and jailing mass murderers like Videla and Rios Montt who once took for granted that they could kill with impunity. America’s masters of war should not assume that we will fail to bring them to justice.
As for the collective responsibility we all share for the crimes committed by our country and our armed forces, we must be prepared to pay substantial war reparations to our millions of victims and the countries we have destroyed. We could start by paying the reparations ordered by the International Court of Justice when it convicted the United States of aggression against Nicaragua in 1986, and the $3.3 billion promised by President Nixon to repair at least some of the U.S. bomb damage in Vietnam.
These would be concrete steps to tell the rest of the world that the United States was finally ready to abandon its failed experiment in “the science of killing,” to be bound by the rule of law, and to start cooperating in good faith with the rest of humanity to solve our common problems.
Nicolas J S Davies is the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq. He also wrote the chapters on “Obama at War” in Grading the 44th President: a Report Card on Barack Obama’s First Term as a Progressive Leader.
The insidious effort to whitewash the US war on Vietnam continues. The official “Vietnam War Commemoration” run by the Pentagon refuses to recognize the war for what it was: an act of aggression that decimated three countries, killed and wounded millions of people, blocked democracy and development, littered the countryside with millions of unexploded bombs (which kill and wound people to this day), and poisoned the food supply with chemical warfare (causing deformities and birth defects).
We should not let these crimes go unheard of, or allow propagandists to spin them into events that were mere “accidents.” The US destruction of Vietnam was a deliberate act.
A healthy antidote to the silence/propaganda of US aggression against Vietnam would be to pay a visit to Vietnam’s War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), as I have recently done. Ironically accused by propagandists in the United States of being a “one-sided” museum filled with “propaganda,” the museum offers a much more accurate depiction of the US war against Vietnam than anything you’ll find in US history textbooks or popular culture.
Crucial to understanding the US war against Vietnam is knowing that it was a war against democracy and self-determination. Ho Chi Minh begged the United States to support Vietnam’s efforts to gain independence from France. An admirer of the American Revolution, Ho Chi Minh quoted the US Declaration of Independence in Vietnam’s own Declaration:
“All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence in the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.
Of course, the United States wholly backed France’s efforts to reconquer Vietnam. When France failed, the United States took up the task, engaging in a war of aggression, or what is called the “supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole,” in the words of Nuremberg Tribunal.
The United States did everything possible to block the will of the Vietnamese people. The US-backed dictator of South Vietnam blocked elections in 1956 to prevent Ho Chi Minh from coming to power (Dwight D. Eisenhower estimated that up to 80 percent of Vietnamese would have supported Ho Chi Minh in an election during the First Indochina War).
“Tiger cages” used to hold prisoners.
Since the Vietnamese continued to resist the US-imposed dictatorship in South Vietnam, the United States invaded Vietnam in the early 1960s, beginning a devastating campaign of bombings, atrocities, chemical warfare, and torture, leading to the deaths of 3.8 million people, according to a study published in the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal).
According to Nick Turse in Kill Anything That Moves:
[T]he stunning scale of civilian suffering in Vietnam is far beyond anything that can be explained as merely the work of some “bad apples,” however numerous. 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. … [T]hey were no aberration. Rather, they were the inevitable outcome of deliberate policies, dictated at the highest levels of the military.
Turse’s investigations of US war crimes (spurred by his discovery of the Pentagon’s Vietnam War Crimes Working Group) lend credence to the various displays and photographs one will find in the museum.
One example is a sewer pipe present at the Thanh Phong massacre, used by three children to hide in before being killed by future Senator Bob Kerrey and his cohorts (ten other civilians also died).
Thanh Phong sewer pipe.
More deadly than the daily atrocities, however, were the bombings. According to historian Howard Zinn, the United States dropped 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam by the end of the war. Many of these bombs did not explode, and continue to kill people today when farmers accidently plow over them, children pick them up thinking they are toys, or scrap metal hunters looking to earn a small amount of change collect them.
Perhaps the most horrifying exhibit one will encounter in the museum displays the effects of Agent Orange. The United States sprayed roughly 20 million gallons of herbicides on the Vietnamese countryside. According to the Vietnamese Red Cross in 2002, one million people have disabilities or other health problems as a result of Agent Orange, including 100,000 disabled children.
You’ll rarely see such images or hear such facts in the United States—the myth of the United States being “exceptional” must continue being shoved down US citizens’ throats, so that new wars and imperialistic campaigns can be waged. Next time a politician calls for another war or “humanitarian intervention,” just remember what the United States did to Vietnam.
Brett S. Morris is a freelance writer, journalist, photographer, and author. He has traveled the world, documenting current events and the legacy of US foreign policy. His latest book is 21 Lies They Tell You About American Foreign Policy. He can be reached on Twitter and Facebook
On April 30, 1975, Saigon fell. The last Americans fled the country. Vietnam was reunited, as it was supposed to have been twenty years earlier according to an international agreement sabotaged by Washington. The Vietnam War, which had been going on for thirty years ever since France began its attempt to reconquer its lost Indochinese colonies, finally came to an end.
For the Vietnamese who died in that war, there will be no minute of silence, no solemn commemoration, no “duty to remember”, no vows of “never again”. After all, the millions of Vietnamese who died are not considered victims of “genocide”. They were merely killed by years of massive bombing and the systematic slaughter of a people who wanted to be independent. What’s so special about that?
In old Europe we are warned every day against repeating the crimes of Nazism, a phenomenon that has been dead for over half a century. In contrast, the sources of the slaughter in Vietnam have remained alive and active, whether through U.S. policy in Central America or Southern Africa and now for several years in the Middle East. The “war against terror” has already cost over a million lives and is far from over.
What do our great European humanitarians have to say on this subject? Do those who deplore the rising number of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean see the connections? Do they realize that the same United States military drive to remake the world is the fundamental source of these ongoing disasters? How many calls do we hear to leave the sinking ship of U.S. imperialist wars? To make a real peace with Russia and Iran? To end our policy of perpetual intervention as obedient auxiliaries of the United States?
At the time of the Vietnam war, enlightened European leaders, Olaf Palme in Sweden and De Gaulle in France, openly stood up against U.S. policy. Intellectuals like Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre mobilized public opinion against war. Demonstrations took place even in countries that were far from the conflict. And today? Nothing. Public opinion was almost entirely in favor of the war that destroyed Libya, notably on “the left”.
The end of the war in Vietnam was the end of an era, the era of national liberation struggles which no doubt constituted the most important political movement of the 20th century. In the West, it marked the start of the reconstruction of imperial ideology under the cover of “human rights”. Instead of stopping liberation struggles, the emphasis would be on subverting and destroying countries that had gained independence. The media-savvy campaign to arouse “solidarity” with the plight of Vietnamese boat people and victims of the Khmer Rouge massacres in Cambodia enabled a large sector of the French and U.S. intelligentsia to drop any effort to understand the causes and effects of events. After all, the Khmer rouge would never have taken power without the combination of U.S. bombing of the Cambodian countryside and regime change in Phnom Penh. Analysis was shoved aside in favor of immediate emotional reaction to unexplained events. A moralism without context favored the invention of “the right of humanitarian intervention” in order to destroy national sovereignty, international law and the United Nations Charter.
In France, the anti-communist “new left” that emerged from May ’68, influenced by the intellectual bluff of Bernard-Henri Lévy and cohorts, completely reversed the position of the old left. Whereas the traditional left defended international peace and opposed U.S. interventionism, the “new left” welcomed every uprising regardless of political content and showed no concern for the underlying relationship of forces. All that mattered were the “human rights” as defined and highlighted by mainstream media.
Today that new left is at a dead end, whether in the Middle East or in relations with Russia or China, along with the American policy that it has helped to disguise ideologically. Forty years after Vietnam gained its freedom, it is high time for new evaluations and drastic changes. But who has the courage to meet these challenges?
Translation by Diana Johnstone.
Forty years after the Vietnam phase of our eternal war ended we might want to go back another 30 years, to Saigon in September of 1945 when it all really began. What follows is from the diary of a war correspondent in French Indochina named Germaine Krull. The full diary ends with these words:
The Annamites [Vietnamese] will win their independence because they are ready to die for it … It may be too late already. We may never regain face, but if we do, it won’t be with the assistance of machine guns.
Mme Krull saw the future way back then, but the new American president didn’t. President Roosevelt had wanted to see the French colonies freed. Ho Chi Minh had even worked for the OSS during the war, and sought our friendship as it ended. But Harry Truman saw France as an ally in the struggle against communism, and so he chose the machine guns. Millions upon millions of people have paid the price ever since, as our insane eternal wars roll on.
I’m posting below the last few pages of Mme Krull’s fascinating accounts of Saigon in September of 1945. The full text is available here as a PDF.
Nothing in particular happened; there were still fewer Annamites to be seen on the streets and almost all of them had left their former jobs and masters. For the first time, French women were forced to do all their own work themselves, which did nothing to temper their feelings toward the Annamites. This mass desertion, reducing them temporarily to the rank of domestics themselves, was the one sin they could not forgive.
A few British officers and I went for lunch at the house of some wealthy colonials. It was a magnificent repast, complete with wines and champagne, pleasant conversation’ and immaculate service. The cooks and houseboys were Chinese. “Oh, we could not dream of employing Annamites. You can’t trust them. What a relief it will be finally to leave this wretched country. If only they would let us have a good, strong reprisal, everything would be over in a few days. This same sort of thing happened in 1942, but we put a swift end to it. The leaders were sentenced and most of the followers arrested — that was all. It is the only way to deal with people like that. Force is the only thing they understand. Everything else is useless.
“Colonel Cedil isn’t ruthless enough. We hear that General Gracey is worried because he doesn’t have enough troops. If so, why don’t they let us take over? We could muster enough arms and volunteers. We have ways of making them wish they had never started this. In 1942, I was in charge of re-establishing order at X. Well, we burned a few villages, jailed a few hundred natives, sentenced their leaders and that was all there was to that disturbance. Everything went back to order and the coolies went on working as before. They don’t want anything else. They expect that of us…”
An Australian journalist arrived by car from Hanoi with a permit from the Viet-Minh. He reported that: “Everything is all right in Hanoi. The people are well off and the French are safe. This movement is widespread, however, and the Annamites will fight for their freedom. Everything is in the hands of the Viet-Minh and is being well administered. There is no fighting or disorder. There are a few British there and one French correspondent who can’t do much. Ho Chi Minh is a wise and admirable old man. You should go there and see for yourself. There wasn’t a single incident on the road from Hanoi to Saigon. The whole way was clear and with a Viet-Minh permit, it was perfectly easy to get by the few Annamite posts.”
From time to time, an Annamite dwelling would burst into flame. Women and children were fleeing. That night, French soldiers strolled on the Rue Catinat, a gun on one arm, a woman on the other. I have never been so deeply ashamed as on that day of September 23rd. When I returned to the hotel the faces of the English were expressionless and conversations stopped as I went by. I remember the horror and shame I had felt in June of 1940 when Vichy was established, but never in my life had I felt such utter sadness and degradation as on this night.
These men, who were supposed to be the soldiers of France, this undisciplined horde whose laughing and singing I could hear from my window, corrupted by too many years in the tropics, too many women, too much opium and too many months of inactivity in camp, they were the ones to whom the task of re-establishing “order” I had been entrusted. That night I realized only too well what a serious mistake we had made and how grave the consequences would be. It was the beginning of a ruthless war. Instead of regaining our prestige we had lost it forever, and, worse still, we had lost the trust of the few remaining Annamites who believed in us. We had showed them that the new France was even more to be feared than the old one.
The last ten days in Saigon proved to me that the French population understood nothing of the situation and knew nothing of the outside world; that it consisted of people who would not tolerate the least infringement upon their comfort and who also were incredibly cowardly. Never have cause and effect been so closely linked. The events of the 22nd of September determined the issue of the conflict. Everything which happened thereafter can be directly traced to that date — women captured and mistreated, men and children assassinated, Dutch, English and American officers killed, shooting, burning factories, mysterious disappearances, all these and more happened. The French, terrorized by the lack of foresight and motivated by avarice, were unwilling to give up even one piaster. They are responsible for what happened.
The Annamites will win their independence because they are ready to die for it. We must recognize this inevitable fact — in a month, a year at the most, we will have to come to an agreement with them.
It may be too late already. We may never regain face, but if we do, it won’t be with the assistance of machine guns. The “good old days” are gone forever.
40 Years Later, Will the End Games in Iraq and Afghanistan Follow the Vietnam Playbook?
If our wars in the Greater Middle East ever end, it’s a pretty safe bet that they will end badly — and it won’t be the first time. The “fall of Saigon” in 1975 was the quintessential bitter end to a war. Oddly enough, however, we’ve since found ways to re-imagine that denouement which miraculously transformed a failed and brutal war of American aggression into a tragic humanitarian rescue mission. Our most popular Vietnam end-stories bury the long, ghastly history that preceded the “fall,” while managing to absolve us of our primary responsibility for creating the disaster. Think of them as silver-lining tributes to good intentions and last-ditch heroism that may come in handy in the years ahead.
The trick, it turned out, was to separate the final act from the rest of the play. To be sure, the ending in Vietnam was not a happy one, at least not for many Americans and their South Vietnamese allies. This week we mark the 40th anniversary of those final days of the war. We will once again surely see the searing images of terrified refugees, desperate evacuations, and final defeat. But even that grim tale offers a lesson to those who will someday memorialize our present round of disastrous wars: toss out the historical background and you can recast any U.S. mission as a flawed but honorable, if not noble, effort by good-guy rescuers to save innocents from the rampaging forces of aggression. In the Vietnamese case, of course, the rescue was so incomplete and the defeat so total that many Americans concluded their country had “abandoned” its cause and “betrayed” its allies. By focusing on the gloomy conclusion, however, you could at least stop dwelling on the far more incriminating tale of the war’s origins and expansion, and the ruthless way the U.S. waged it.
Here’s another way to feel better about America’s role in starting and fighting bad wars: make sure U.S. troops leave the stage for a decent interval before the final debacle. That way, in the last act, they can swoop back in with a new and less objectionable mission. Instead of once again waging brutal counterinsurgencies on behalf of despised governments, American troops can concentrate on a humanitarian effort most war-weary citizens and soldiers would welcome: evacuation and escape.
Phony Endings and Actual Ones
An American president announces an honorable end to our longest war. The last U.S. troops are headed for home. Media executives shut down their war zone bureaus. The faraway country where the war took place, once a synonym for slaughter, disappears from TV screens and public consciousness. Attention shifts to home-front scandals and sensations. So it was in the United States in 1973 and 1974, years when most Americans mistakenly believed that the Vietnam War was over.
In many ways, eerily enough, this could be a story from our own time. After all, a few years ago, we had reason to hope that our seemingly endless wars — this time in distant Iraq and Afghanistan — were finally over or soon would be. In December 2011, in front of U.S. troops at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, President Obama proclaimed an end to the American war in Iraq. “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq,” he said proudly. “This is an extraordinary achievement.” In a similar fashion, last December the president announced that in Afghanistan “the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.”
If only. Instead, warfare, strife, and suffering of every kind continue in both countries, while spreading across ever more of the Greater Middle East. American troops are still dying in Afghanistan and in Iraq the U.S. military is back, once again bombing and advising, this time against the Islamic State (or Daesh), an extremist spin-off from its predecessor al-Qaeda in Iraq, an organization that only came to life well after (and in reaction to) the U.S. invasion and occupation of that country. It now seems likely that the nightmare of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, which began decades ago, will simply drag on with no end in sight.
The Vietnam War, long as it was, did finally come to a decisive conclusion. When Vietnam screamed back into the headlines in early 1975, 14 North Vietnamese divisions were racing toward Saigon, virtually unopposed. Tens of thousands of South Vietnamese troops (shades of the Iraqi army in 2014) were stripping off their military uniforms, abandoning their American equipment, and fleeing. With the massive U.S. military presence gone, what had once been a brutal stalemate was now a rout, stunning evidence that “nation-building” by the U.S. military in South Vietnam had utterly failed (as it would in the twenty-first century in Iraq and Afghanistan).
On April 30, 1975, a Communist tank crashed through the gates of Independence Palace in the southern capital of Saigon, a dramatic and triumphant conclusion to a 30-year-long Vietnamese struggle to achieve national independence and reunification. The blood-soaked American effort to construct a permanent non-Communist nation called South Vietnam ended in humiliating defeat.
It’s hard now to imagine such a climactic conclusion in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike Vietnam, where the Communists successfully tapped a deep vein of nationalist and revolutionary fervor throughout the country, in neither Iraq nor Afghanistan has any faction, party, or government had such success or the kind of appeal that might lead it to gain full and uncontested control of the country. Yet in Iraq, there have at least been a series of mass evacuations and displacements reminiscent of the final days in Vietnam. In fact, the region, including Syria, is now engulfed in a refugee crisis of staggering proportions with millions seeking sanctuary across national boundaries and millions more homeless and displaced internally.
Last August, U.S. forces returned to Iraq (as in Vietnam four decades earlier) on the basis of a “humanitarian” mission. Some 40,000 Iraqis of the Yazidi sect, threatened with slaughter, had been stranded on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq surrounded by Islamic State militants. While most of the Yazidi were, in fact, successfully evacuated by Kurdish fighters via ground trails, small groups were flown out on helicopters by the Iraqi military with U.S. help. When one of those choppers went down wounding many of its passengers but killing only the pilot, General Majid Ahmed Saadi, New York Times reporter Alissa Rubin, injured in the crash, praised his heroism. Before his death, he had told her that the evacuation missions were “the most important thing he had done in his life, the most significant thing he had done in his 35 years of flying.”
In this way, a tortured history inconceivable without the American invasion of 2003 and almost a decade of excesses, including the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib, as well as counterinsurgency warfare, finally produced a heroic tale of American humanitarian intervention to rescue victims of murderous extremists. The model for that kind of story had been well established in 1975.
Stripping the Fall of Saigon of Historical Context
Defeat in Vietnam might have been the occasion for a full-scale reckoning on the entire horrific war, but we preferred stories that sought to salvage some faith in American virtue amid the wreckage. For the most riveting recent example, we need look no further than Rory Kennedy’s 2014 Academy Award-nominated documentary Last Days in Vietnam. The film focuses on a handful of Americans and a few Vietnamese who, in defiance of orders, helped expedite and expand a belated and inadequate evacuation of South Vietnamese who had hitched their lives to the American cause.
The film’s cast of humanitarian heroes felt obligated to carry out their ad hoc rescue missions because the U.S. ambassador in Saigon, Graham Martin, refused to believe that defeat was inevitable. Whenever aides begged him to initiate an evacuation, he responded with comments like, “It’s not so bleak. I won’t have this negative talk.” Only when North Vietnamese tanks reached the outskirts of Saigon did he order the grandiloquently titled Operation Frequent Wind — the helicopter evacuation of the city — to begin.
By that time, Army Captain Stuart Herrington and others like him had already led secret “black ops” missions to help South Vietnamese army officers and their families get aboard outgoing aircraft and ships. Prior to the official evacuation, the U.S. government explicitly forbade the evacuation of South Vietnamese military personnel who were under orders to remain in the country and continue fighting. But, as Herrington puts it in the film, “sometimes there’s an issue not of legal and illegal, but right and wrong.” Although the war itself failed to provide U.S. troops with a compelling moral cause, Last Days in Vietnam produces one. The film’s heroic rescuers are willing to risk their careers for the just cause of evacuating their allies.
The drama and danger are amped up by the film’s insistence that all Vietnamese linked to the Americans were in mortal peril. Several of the witnesses invoke the specter of a Communist “bloodbath,” a staple of pro-war propaganda since the 1960s. (President Richard Nixon, for instance, once warned that the Communists would massacre civilians “by the millions” if the U.S. pulled out.) Herrington refers to the South Vietnamese officers he helped evacuate as “dead men walking.” Another of the American rescuers, Paul Jacobs, used his Navy ship without authorization to escort dozens of South Vietnamese vessels, crammed with some 30,000 people, to the Philippines. Had he ordered the ships back to Vietnam, he claims in the film, the Communists “woulda killed ‘em all.”
The Communist victors were certainly not merciful. They imprisoned hundreds of thousands of people in “re-education camps” and subjected them to brutal treatment. The predicted bloodbath, however, was a figment of the American imagination. No program of systematic execution of significant numbers of people who had collaborated with the Americans ever happened.
Following another script that first emerged in U.S. wartime propaganda, the film implies that South Vietnam was vehemently anti-communist. To illustrate, we are shown a map in which North Vietnamese red ink floods ever downward over an all-white South — as if the war were a Communist invasion instead of a countrywide struggle that began in the South in opposition to an American-backed government.
Had the South been uniformly and fervently anti-Communist, the war might well have had a different outcome, but the Saigon regime was vulnerable primarily because many southern Vietnamese fought tooth and nail to defeat it and many others were unwilling to put their lives on the line to defend it. In truth, significant parts of the South had been “red” since the 1940s. The U.S. blocked reunification elections in 1956 exactly because it feared that southerners might vote in Communist leader Ho Chi Minh as president. Put another way, the U.S. betrayed the people of Vietnam and their right to self-determination not by pulling out of the country, but by going in.
Last Days in Vietnam may be the best silver-lining story of the fall of Saigon ever told, but it is by no means the first. Well before the end of April 1975, when crowds of terrified Vietnamese surrounded the U.S. embassy in Saigon begging for admission or trying to scale its fences, the media was on the lookout for feel-good stories that might take some of the sting out of the unremitting tableaus of fear and failure.
They thought they found just the thing in Operation Babylift. A month before ordering the final evacuation of Vietnam, Ambassador Martin approved an airlift of thousands of South Vietnamese orphans to the United States where they were to be adopted by Americans. Although he stubbornly refused to accept that the end was near, he hoped the sight of all those children embraced by their new American parents might move Congress to allocate additional funds to support the crumbling South Vietnamese government.
Commenting on Operation Babylift, pro-war political scientist Lucien Pye said, “We want to know we’re still good, we’re still decent.” It did not go as planned. The first plane full of children and aid workers crashed and 138 of its passengers died. And while thousands of children did eventually make it to the U.S., a significant portion of them were not orphans. In war-ravaged South Vietnam some parents placed their children in orphanages for protection, fully intending to reclaim them in safer times. Critics claimed the operation was tantamount to kidnapping.
Nor did Operation Babylift move Congress to send additional aid, which was hardly surprising since virtually no one in the United States wanted to continue to fight the war. Indeed, the most prevalent emotion was stunned resignation. But there did remain a pervasive need to salvage some sense of national virtue as the house of cards collapsed and the story of those “babies,” no matter how tarnished, nonetheless proved helpful in the process.
Putting the Fall of Saigon Back in Context
For most Vietnamese — in the South as well as the North — the end was not a time of fear and flight, but joy and relief. Finally, the much-reviled, American-backed government in Saigon had been overthrown and the country reunited. After three decades of turmoil and war, peace had come at last. The South was not united in accepting the Communist victory as an unambiguous “liberation,” but there did remain broad and bitter revulsion over the wreckage the Americans had brought to their land.
Indeed, throughout the South and particularly in the countryside, most people viewed the Americans not as saviors but as destroyers. And with good reason. The U.S. military dropped four million tons of bombs on South Vietnam, the very land it claimed to be saving, making it by far the most bombed country in history. Much of that bombing was indiscriminate. Though policymakers blathered on about the necessity of “winning the hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese, the ruthlessness of their war-making drove many southerners into the arms of the Viet Cong, the local revolutionaries. It wasn’t Communist hordes from the North that such Vietnamese feared, but the Americans and their South Vietnamese military allies.
The many refugees who fled Vietnam at war’s end and after, ultimately a million or more of them, not only lost a war, they lost their home, and their traumatic experiences are not to be minimized. Yet we should also remember the suffering of the far greater number of South Vietnamese who were driven off their land by U.S. wartime policies. Because many southern peasants supported the Communist-led insurgency with food, shelter, intelligence, and recruits, the U.S. military decided that it had to deprive the Viet Cong of its rural base. What followed was a long series of forced relocations designed to remove peasants en masse from their lands and relocate them to places where they could more easily be controlled and indoctrinated.
The most conservative estimate of internal refugees created by such policies (with anodyne names like the “strategic hamlet program” or “Operation Cedar Falls”) is 5 million, but the real figure may have been 10 million or more in a country of less than 20 million. Keep in mind that, in these years, the U.S. military listed “refugees generated” — that is, Vietnamese purposely forced off their lands — as a metric of “progress,” a sign of declining support for the enemy.
Our vivid collective memories are of Vietnamese refugees fleeing their homeland at war’s end. Gone is any broad awareness of how the U.S. burned down, plowed under, or bombed into oblivion thousands of Vietnamese villages, and herded survivors into refugee camps. The destroyed villages were then declared “free fire zones” where Americans claimed the right to kill anything that moved.
In 1967, Jim Soular was a flight chief on a gigantic Chinook helicopter. One of his main missions was the forced relocation of Vietnamese peasants. Here’s the sort of memory that you won’t find in Miss Saigon, Last Days in Vietnam, or much of anything else that purports to let us know about the war that ended in 1975. This is not the sort of thing you’re likely to see much of this week in any 40th anniversary media musings.
“On one mission where we were depopulating a village we packed about sixty people into my Chinook. They’d never been near this kind of machine and were really scared but they had people forcing them in with M-16s. Even at that time I felt within myself that the forced dislocation of these people was a real tragedy. I never flew refugees back in. It was always out. Quite often they would find their own way back into those free-fire zones. We didn’t understand that their ancestors were buried there, that it was very important to their culture and religion to be with their ancestors. They had no say in what was happening. I could see the terror in their faces. They were defecating and urinating and completely freaked out. It was horrible. Everything I’d been raised to believe in was contrary to what I saw in Vietnam. We might have learned so much from them instead of learning nothing and doing so much damage.”
What Will We Forget If Baghdad “Falls”?
The time may come, if it hasn’t already, when many of us will forget, Vietnam-style, that our leaders sent us to war in Iraq falsely claiming that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction he intended to use against us; that he had a “sinister nexus” with the al-Qaeda terrorists who attacked on 9/11; that the war would essentially pay for itself; that it would be over in “weeks rather than months”; that the Iraqis would greet us as liberators; or that we would build an Iraqi democracy that would be a model for the entire region. And will we also forget that in the process nearly 4,500 Americans were killed along with perhaps 500,000 Iraqis, that millions of Iraqis were displaced from their homes into internal exile or forced from the country itself, and that by almost every measure civil society has failed to return to pre-war levels of stability and security?
The picture is no less grim in Afghanistan. What silver linings can possibly emerge from our endless wars? If history is any guide, I’m sure we’ll think of something.
Christian Appy, professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, is the author of three books about the Vietnam War, including the just-published American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (Viking).
Copyright 2015 Christian Appy
Guaranteed profits—at any price
Last Tuesday, President Barack Obama told beltway bullhorn Chris Matthews that Senator Elizabeth Warren was “wrong” about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the largest trade deal in American history, linking United States and Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam in a pervasive and binding treaty. The president was referring to Warren’s claim that the trade treaty will license corporations to sue governments, and her contention that this was, to put it mildly, a bad idea.
Warren isn’t wrong, Obama is. And he knows it. The entire TPP, as understood, is based on a single overarching idea: that regulation must not hinder profiteering. This is a fundamentally anti-democratic concept that—if implemented—would effectively eliminate the power of a demos to make its own law. The final authority on any law’s validity would rest elsewhere, beyond the reach of popular sovereignty. From the TPP point-of-view, democracy is just another barrier to trade, and the corporate forces behind the draft treaty are intent on removing that barrier. Simple as that.
That’s why the entire deal has been negotiated in conclave, deliberately beyond the public purview, since the president and his trade representatives know that exposing the deal to the unforgiving light of popular scrutiny would doom it to failure. That’s why the president, like his mentor President Clinton, has lobbied hard for Trade Promotion Authority, or Fast Track, which reduces the Congressional role in the passage of the bill to a ‘yea’ or ‘nay.’
Cracks have begun to show in the formidable cloak behind which the deal has been structured. A coalition of advocacy groups advanced on the U.S. Trade Representatives office this week. Wikileaks has obtained and released chapters from the draft document. Senator Harry Reid declared his position on Fast Track as “… not only no, but hell no.” Warren has proved to be a persistent thorn in the side of White House efforts to smooth over troubling issues with the deal. But the monied interests that rule the beltway have all pressed for passage. And as a Fast Track draft makes its way through Congress, stakes are high. The TPP is, in the apt estimation of political activist Jim Hightower, a “corporate coup d’état.”
Not for the first time, the president and his Republican enemies are yoked by the bipartisan appeal of privilege against this faltering fence of protest. The marriage of convenience was described in last Friday’s sub-head to a New York Times article on TPP: “G.O.P. Is Allied With President Against His Own Party.”
All The Usual Suspects
Who else supports the TPP? Aside from this odd confection of neoliberals, the corporations that rule the beltway feverishly back the TPP. From the leak of Sony digital data we learn that it and its media peers have enthusiastically pressed for the passage of the deal. Sony is joined by major agricultural beneficiaries (Monsanto), mining companies like Infinito Gold, currently suing Costa Rica to keep an ecology-harming mine pit active, as well as pharmaceutical coalitions negotiating stiff intellectual property rights unpopular even in Congress, and various other technology and consumer goods groups. And don’t forget nicotine kingpins like Philip Morris.
Obama reinforces the corporate line: “We have the opportunity to open even more new markets to goods and services backed by three proud words: Made in America.” Perhaps he isn’t aware that our leading export is the workforce that once took pride in that moniker. We’ve exported five million manufacturing jobs since 1994, largely thanks to NAFTA, the model on which the TPP is built. The TPP will only continue that sad trend. The only jobs not being offshored are the ones that can’t be: bartenders and waitresses and health care assistants. That’s the Obama economy: a surfeit of low-wage service jobs filled by debt-saddled degree holders. As Paul Craig Roberts argued in The Failure of Laissez Faire Capitalism, between 2007 and 2014, some eight million students would graduate from American universities and likely seek jobs in the United States. A mere one million degree-requiring jobs would await them. The irony of Obama’s statement is that the TPP would actually move to strip the use of labels like, “Buy American,” since they unduly advocate for local goods.
In truth, the authors of the treaty already know all this. The bill concedes as much, with Democrats building in some throwaway provisions of unspecified aid to workers whose jobs have been offshored, and a tax credit to ostensibly help those ex-workers purchase health insurance. Cold comfort for the jobless, as they are exhorted by the gutless paladins of globalization to ‘toughen up’ and deal with the harsh realities of a globalized economy. As neoliberal stooge Thomas Friedman has said, companies in the glorious global marketplace never hire before they ask, “Can this person add value every hour, every day — more than a worker in India, a robot or a computer?” Of course, the answer is invariably no, so the job goes to Bangladesh or a robot. No moral equation ever enters the picture. Just market discipline for the vulnerable and ingenious efforts by a captive state to shelter capital from the market dynamics it would force on others.
The Investment Chapter
Despite Obama’s disingenuous clichés about “… fully enforceable protections for workers’ rights, the environment and a free and open Internet,” the trade deal makes it clear that labor law and environmental law are both barriers to profitability. We know this thanks to Wikileaks, which once again proved its inestimable value by acquiring and releasing another chapter from the cloak-and-dagger negotiations. This time it was the investment chapter, in which so much of the treaty’s raison d’etre is expressed.
As Public Citizen points out in its lengthy analysis of the chapter, any domestic policy that infringes on an investor’s “right” to a regulatory framework that conforms to their “expectations,” is grounds for a suit. Namely, the suit may be pressed to “the extent to which the government action interferes with distinct, reasonable investment-backed expectations.”
Here’s what the TPP says about such legislation as it relates to investor expectations:
For greater certainty, whether an investor’s investment-backed expectations are reasonable depends, to the extent relevant, on factors such as whether the government provided the investor with binding written assurances and the nature and extent of governmental regulation or the potential for government regulation in the relevant sector.
Try putting that tax on financial transactions. Forget it. Barrier to a reasonable return. Don’t believe it? Just read the TPP investment protocols that would ban capital controls, which is what a financial tax is considered to be by TPP proponents. Try passing that environmental legislation. Not a chance. Hindrance to maximum shareholder value. Just ask Germany how it felt when a Swiss company sued it for shutting down its nuclear industry after Fukushima. Try enacting that youth safety law banning tobacco advertising. Sorry. Needless barrier to profits. Just ask Australia, which is being sued by Philip Morris for trying to protect kids from tar and nicotine.
Public Citizen has tabulated that, “The TPP would newly empower about 9,000 foreign-owned firms in the United States to launch ISDS cases against the U.S. government, while empowering more than 18,000 additional U.S.-owned firms to launch ISDS cases against other signatory governments.” It found that “foreign investors launched at least 50 ISDS claims each year from 2011 through 2013, and another 42 claims in 2014.” If these numbers seem small, recall that for a crucial piece of labor legislation to be struck down, only one firm need win in arbitration in order to financially hamstring a government and set a precedent that would likely ice the reformist urge of future legislatures.
As noted earlier, the text also appears to suggest to ban the practice of promoting domestic goods over foreign—another hurdle to shareholder value. This would effectively prohibit a country from implementing an import-substitution economy without threat of being sued. Governments would be relieved of tools, like tariffs, historically used to protect fledgling native industries. This is exactly what IMF prescriptions often produce—agricultural reforms, for instance, that wipe out native crop production and substitute for it the production of, say, cheap Arabica coffee beans, for export to the global north. Meanwhile, that producer nation must then accept costly IMF lending regimes to pay to import food it might have grown itself.
Of course, it is rarely mentioned that protectionism is how the United States and Britain both built their industrial economies. Or that removing competitor market protections is how they’ve exploited developing economies ever since. The TPP would effectively lock in globalization. It’s a wedge that forces markets open to foreign trade—the textual equivalent of Commodore Perry sailing his gunships into Tokyo Harbor.
The bill’s backers point to language in which natural resources, human and animal life, and public welfare are all dutifully addressed in the document. The leaked chapter explicitly says that it is not intended to prevent laws relating to these core concerns from being implemented. So then, what’s the problem? The problem is that these tepid inclusions lack the teeth of sanctions or punitive fines. They are mere rhetorical asides designed to help corporate Democrats rationalize their support of the TPP. If lawmakers really cared about the public welfare, they’d move to strip the treaty of its various qualifiers that privilege trade over domestic law. By all means, implement your labor protection, but just ensure “… that such measures are not applied in an arbitrary or unjustifiable manner, or do not constitute a disguised restriction on international trade or investment.”
If lawmakers cared about national sovereignty, they wouldn’t outsource dispute settlement to unelected arbitration panels, more fittingly referred to as, “tribunals.” (Think of scrofulous democracy hunched in the dock, peppered with unanswerable legalese by a corporate lawyer, a surreal twist on the Nuremberg Trials.) Just have a glance at Section B of the investment chapter. Suits will be handled using the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) model, itself predicated on the tribunal precedent. And in the event a government lost a suit or settled one, legal costs would be picked up by taxpayers, having been fleeced by an unelected committee whose laws it has no recourse to challenge.
Perhaps investor protections like ISDS were once intended to encourage cross-border investment by affording companies a modicum of reassurance that their investments would be safeguarded by international trade law. But the ISDS has been used for far more than that. The ISDS tribunals have a lovely track record of success (first implemented in a treaty between Germany and Pakistan in 1959). Here’s Public Citizen:
Under U.S. “free trade” agreements (FTAs) alone, foreign firms have already pocketed more than $440 million in taxpayer money via investor-state cases. This includes cases against natural resource policies, environmental protections, health and safety measures and more. ISDS tribunals have ordered more than $3.6 billion in compensation to investors under all U.S. FTAs and Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs). More than $38 billion remains in pending ISDS claims under these pacts, nearly all of which relate to environmental, energy, financial regulation, public health, land use and transportation policies.
New Era, New Priorities
Now the ISDS is a chisel being used to destroy the regulatory function of governments. All of this is being negotiated by corporate trade representatives and their government lackeys, which appear to have no qualms about the deleterious effects the TPP will have on the general population. But then the corporations these suits represent have long since discarded any sense of patriotic duty to their native nation-states, and with it any obligation to regulate their activities to protect vulnerable citizenries. That loyalty has been replaced by a pitiless commitment to profits. In America, there may have been a time when “what was good for Ford was good for America,” as memorably put by Henry Ford. But not anymore. Now what’s good for shareholders is good for Ford. This was best articulated a couple of years ago by former Exxon CEO Lee Raymond, who bluntly reminded an interviewer, “I’m not a U.S. company, and I don’t make decisions based on what’s good for the U.S.” Those decisions usually include offshoring, liberalizing the labor market, practicing labor arbitrage, relocating production to “business friendly climates” with lax regulatory structures, the most vulpine forms of tax evasion, and so on—all practices that ultimately harm the American worker.
Apple says it feels no obligation to solve America’s problems nor, one would assume, any gratitude to the U.S. taxpayer for funding essential research that Apple brilliantly combined in the iPod and iPhone. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich finally admits corporations don’t want Americans to make higher wages. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce encourages shipping American jobs abroad. World Bank chiefs point to the economic logic of sending toxic waste to developing nations. Wherever you look, there seems to be little if any concern for citizenry.
The Financial Times refers to ISDS as, “investor protection.” But what it really is, is a profitability guarantee, a legal bulwark against democracy expressed as regulation. Forgive me for thinking that navigating a fluid legislative environment was a standard investment risk. Evidently the champions of free trade can’t be bothered to practice it. Still the White House croons that it has our best interests at heart. If that were true, it would release the full text, launch public charettes to debate its finer points, or perhaps just stage a referendum asking the American people to forfeit their hard-won sovereignty. No such thing will ever happen, of course. As it turns out, democracy is the price of corporate plunder. After all, the greatest risk of all is that the mob might vote the wrong way. And, as the language of the TPP makes explicitly obvious, there are some risks that should be avoided at all costs.
Jason Hirthler can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
On September 11, 2013, hundreds of thousands of Chileans solemnly marked the 40th anniversary of their nation’s 9/11 terrorist event. It was on that date in 1973 that the Chilean military, armed with a generous supply of funds and weapons from the United States, and assisted by the CIA and other operatives, overthrew the democratically-elected government of the moderate socialist Salvador Allende. Sixteen years of repression, torture and death followed under the fascist Augusto Pinochet, while the flow of hefty profits to US multinationals – IT&T, Anaconda Copper and the like – resumed. Profits, along with concern that people in other nations might get ideas about independence, were the very reason for the coup and even the partial moves toward nationalization instituted by Allende could not be tolerated by the US business class.
Henry Kissinger was national security advisor and one of the principal architects – perhaps the principal architect – of the coup in Chile. US-instigated coups were nothing new in 1973, certainly not in Latin America, and Kissinger and his boss Richard Nixon were carrying on a violent tradition that spanned the breadth of the 20th century and continues in the 21st – see, for example, Venezuela in 2002 (failed) and Honduras in 2009 (successful). Where possible, such as in Guatemala in 1954 and Brazil in 1964, coups were the preferred method for dealing with popular insurgencies. In other instances, direct invasion by US forces such as happened on numerous occasions in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and many other places, was the fallback option.
The coup in Santiago occurred as US aggression in Indochina was finally winding down after more than a decade. From 1969 through 1973, it was Kissinger again, along with Nixon, who oversaw the slaughter in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. It is impossible to know with precision how many were killed during those four years; all the victims were considered enemies, including the vast majority who were non-combatants, and the US has never been much interested in calculating the deaths of enemies. Estimates of Indochinese killed by the US for the war as a whole start at four million and are likely more, perhaps far more. It can thus be reasonably extrapolated that probably more than a million, and certainly hundreds of thousands, were killed while Kissinger and Nixon were in power.
In addition, countless thousands of Indochinese have died in the years since from the affects of the massive doses of Agent Orange and other Chemical Weapons of Mass Destruction unleashed by the US. Many of us here know (or, sadly, knew) soldiers who suffered from exposure to such chemicals; multiply their numbers by 1,000 or 10,000 or 50,000 – again, it’s impossible to know with accuracy – and we can begin to understand the impact on those who live in and on the land that was so thoroughly poisoned as a matter of US policy.
Studies by a variety of organizations including the United Nations also indicate that at least 25,000 people have died in Indochina since war’s end from unexploded US bombs that pocket the countryside, with an equivalent number maimed. As with Agent Orange, deaths and ruined lives from such explosions continue to this day. So 40 years on, the war quite literally goes on for the people of Indochina, and it is likely it will go on for decades more.
Near the end of his time in office, Kissinger and his new boss Gerald Ford pre-approved the Indonesian dictator Suharto’s invasion of East Timor in 1975, an illegal act of aggression again carried out with weapons made in and furnished by the US. Suharto had a long history as a bagman for US business interests; he ascended to power in a 1965 coup, also with decisive support and weapons from Washington, and undertook a year-long reign of terror in which security forces and the army killed more than a million people (Amnesty International, which rarely has much to say about the crimes of US imperialism, put the number at 1.5 million).
In addition to providing the essential on-the-ground support, Kissinger and Ford blocked efforts by the global community to stop the bloodshed when the terrible scale of Indonesian violence became known, something UN ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan openly bragged about. Again, the guiding principle of empire, one that Kissinger and his kind accept as naturally as breathing, is that independence cannot be allowed. That’s true even in a country as small as East Timor where investment opportunities are slight, for independence is contagious and can spread to places where far more is at stake, like resource-rich Indonesia. By the time the Indonesian occupation finally ended in 1999, 200,000 Timorese – 30 percent of the population – had been wiped out. Such is Kissinger’s legacy and it is a legacy well understood by residents of the global South no matter the denial, ignorance or obfuscation of the intelligentsia here.
If the United States is ever to become a democratic society, and if we are ever to enter the international community as a responsible party willing to wage peace instead of war, to foster cooperation and mutual aid rather than domination, we will have to account for the crimes of those who claim to act in our names like Kissinger. Our outrage at the crimes of murderous thugs who are official enemies like Pol Pot is not enough. A cabal of American mis-leaders from Kennedy on caused far more Indochinese deaths than the Khmer Rouge, after all, and those responsible should be judged and treated accordingly.
The urgency of the task is underscored as US aggression proliferates at an alarming rate. Millions of people around the world, most notably in an invigorated Latin America, are working to end the “might makes right” ethos the US has lived by since its inception. The 99 percent of us here who have no vested interest in empire would do well to join them.
There are recent encouraging signs along those lines, with the successful prevention of a US attack on Syria particularly noteworthy. In addition, individuals from various levels of empire have had their lives disrupted to varying degrees. David Petraeus, for example, has been hounded by demonstrators since being hired by CUNY earlier this year to teach an honors course; in 2010, Dick Cheney had to cancel a planned trip to Canada because the clamor for his arrest had grown quite loud; long after his reign ended, Pinochet was arrested by order of a Spanish magistrate for human right violations and held in England for 18 months before being released because of health problems; and earlier this year, Efrain Rios Montt, one of Washington’s past henchmen in Guatemala, was convicted of genocide, though accomplices of his still in power have since intervened on his behalf to obstruct justice. And Condoleeza Rice was forced to cancel her commencement appearance at Rutgers this past spring because of student outrage over her involvement in war crimes.
More pressure is needed, and allies of the US engaged in war crimes like Paul Kagame should be dealt with as Pinochet was. More important perhaps for those of us in the US is that we hound Rumsfeld, both Clintons, Rice, Albright and Powell, to name a few, for their crimes against humanity every time they show themselves in public just as Petraeus has been. That holds especially for our two most recent War-Criminals-in-Chief, Barack Bush and George W. Obama.
Andy Piascik can be reached at email@example.com.
Today, American politicians of both major parties — conservatives, “moderates,” and so-called liberals alike — insist that the United States is an “exceptional,” even “indispensable” nation. In practice, this means that for the United States alone the rules are different. Particularly in international affairs, it — the government and its personnel — can do whatever deemed necessary to carry out its objectives, including things that would get any other government or person branded a criminal.
This is nothing new. “American exceptionalism” goes back to the founding. When American politicians set their sights on Spain’s North American possessions, they were driven by the same attitude. In their view the new “Empire of Liberty,” as Jefferson called it, was destined to replace the old, worn-out empires of Europe in its hemisphere. They had no doubt that the Old World’s colonial possessions would eventually fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. government, either formally or informally.
Acquisition through negotiation was preferred over war by a good number of presidents, secretaries of state, and members of Congress, but if war was necessary, they intended to be prepared and to let Spain and her fellow colonial powers know it. Thus the push for a global navy under James Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams before 1820. Manifest destiny! (Congress’s constitutional war power was a burr under the saddle for Adams and others, who thought war-making was properly an executive power.)
Today we see signs of the doctrine of American exceptionalism all around. U.S. foreign policy is not bound in the ways in which U.S. officials expect other countries’ foreign policies to be bound. America is special, chosen. So the rules are different.
We might say America has a James Bond complex. In the eyes of many Americans, the United States has a “Double O.” Bond said the Double O indicated “you’ve had to kill a chap in cold blood in the course of some assignment.” As Ian Fleming’s series went on, the Double O became a license to kill. Judging by how the U.S. government gets away with murder, terrorism and other horrible offenses, it apparently has a de facto license to kill. Although by the U.S. definition, nothing it does can ever qualify as murder and terrorism.
The signs can be perceived in Americans’ pronounced lack of interest in seeing the country’s governing elite held accountable for its aggressive wars, abuse of prisoners, indefinite detention, mass surveillance, sponsored genocide and occupation, and so on.
U.S. rulers have waged aggressive genocidal wars (against the Indians and Vietnamese, for example), have brutally put down colonial rebellions (against the Filipinos, for example), facilitated genocidal policies carried out by client dictators (in Indonesia, for example), underwritten repressive dictatorships and brutal occupations (in Egypt and Palestine, for example), and instigated in antidemocratic coups (in Iran and Chile, for example).
When has an American official been placed in the dock to answer for these crimes?
Instead, officials from whose hands the blood of countless innocents drips are treated like dignitaries, even royalty. When 91-year-old Henry Kissinger, a former secretary of state who presided over the deaths of countless Vietnamese and others, appears anywhere, such as a Senate hearing, he’s accorded the reverence that parishioners pay to their priests — while peace activists, who want him held responsible, are called “low-life scum” by a fawning senator. When Madeleine Albright, a former UN ambassador and secretary of state, writes a new book, talk-show hosts climb over one another to interview her — never asking how she could have thought that killing half a million Iraqi children in the 1990s was an acceptable price for the Clinton administration’s attempt to drive Saddam Hussein from office.
Will George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld face charges for their wars of aggression against Iraq and Afghanistan? For their drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia? For their torture programs? Will Barack Obama ever have to defend himself against murder counts for his drone kills? Will former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton bear consequences for the havoc she unleashed in Libya?
Of course not. The United States is the Double-O nation. Its rulers need not fear judgment. They have a license to kill.
January 18 is Martin Luther King’s birthday and will occasion another three day official national holiday with TV specials of criminal deception limiting King to having been merely a hero of the civil rights movement period. Another year’s deceitfully erasing from history King’s condemnation of his country’s government as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” and his having held himself and his fellow Americans responsible for “atrocity wars and covert violence on three continents since 1945 in order to maintain unjust predatory investments.”
For a near half-century, King’s outrage, King’s hellish description of America’s wars on innocent people in the third world, have been meticulously whisked out of existence. But not without the help of the silence of Kings own family, comrades, fellow civil rights leaders, peaceniks, and progressives, who have mounted no serious effort to expose wars-supporting corporate media’s iron tight blackout of what King said during his last year before receiving that ‘shut him up’ bullet to his brain.
To no avail, did America’s beloved peoples historian, Howard Zinn, for years, end every one of his daily radio programs with a plea to journalists and antiwar organization leaders to quote King continually in order to break the blackout of King’s powerful words and defeat the supporters of US wars.
If the prediction in the title of this article turns out to be wrong, the co-founders of the Martin Luther King Condemned US Wars International Awareness Campaign (former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark and yours truly) will of course be thankful beyond words, but astounded as well. For it is nearly forty-eight years since King shook the world, made large type bold headlines in newspapers across the planet with his blistering New York sermon, ‘Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,’ was vilified in US media, and criticized by his fellow leaders of the civil rights movement. With enthusiastic support from Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, Ramsey Clark had for some years envisioned a ‘Break the Blackout of MLKjr Condemnations’ event with speeches by luminaries like Harry Belafonte, Jessie Jackson, Andrew Young — now long Representative of Georgia, John Lewis, Cornel West, Joan Baez and others, who had been close to King, but was unable to find any interest in it. I feel it will, however, happen one day.
Since King’s assassination (within a year of King’s ‘Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence’ sermon), the silence of his closest comrades and even his own family, a silence that King had called “betrayal,” (King had even agonized over his own previous silence), has been, in effect, a noticeable collaboration with the utter and absolute blackout and erasing of King’s scathing words from popular history by criminal US media, monolithic media that has hyped and justified the US committed holocaust in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia and the dozens of subsequent US murderous invasions of dozens of equally innocent nations.
At the 2012 unveiling and dedication ceremony of the King Monument in Washington, the wealthy white elite emoted over how they had been moved by King’s words about equality and freedom, as they pretended to have been deaf to King’s bitter denouncing of the immoral business of inhumane materialism and genocidal violence in desperate accumulation of capital and its twin evil racism. With sour stomach did one listen to the dissimulating, vibrant with emotion, eulogies of King’s daughter, sister, son, African American celebrities, and even the two men who had held the dying King in their arms (and who had gone on to successful political careers in the US war establishment). In these speeches by King’s beloved people, there was not a single world regarding King’s condemnation of Americans putting atrocity wars and covert violence on three continents since 1945. Their embarrassing calculated omission of King’s condemnation of US wars on innocent nations was an obvious collaboration with an insane wars-managing elite’s intentions in staging this despicable and farcical event. It was a collaboration, not only by the King family, civil rights leader friends and African American celebrities, who spoke at the monument, but by progressive journalists the next day, who did not rise up with a unanimous commentary of condemnation of their own for the calculated omission of King’s scathing words, poignantly stern warnings and moral demands, which King bravely intended to lead the stopping of the slaughter of the Vietnamese, just as King had led the stopping of legalized death and discrimination of African Americans at home.
It simply does not seem to be important to American dissidents, progressives, African American celebrities and even America’s best anti-imperialist journalists of the left, that citizens in militarized America, and the world audience victims of US media psyop mind control, have been tightly blocked and prevented from hearing or seeing videos of King sounding off with the truth,
The Vietnamese people proclaimed their independence in 1945, after a combined French and Japanese occupation … we decided to support France in its reconquest of her former colony.… For nine years we vigorously supported the French in their abortive effort to recolonize Vietnam…. After the French were defeated, … we supported one of the most vicious modern dictators, our chosen man.… Now they languish under our bombs and consider us, not their fellow Vietnamese, the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move on or be destroyed by our bombs.
So they go, primarily women and children and the aged. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops, as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals, children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers. … we ally ourselves with the landlords … we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land, their crops. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men. So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children.
Americans shall never hear these words of King, if the desperate managers of present society have anything to do with it. Knowledge of national hero King having preached to extend the justice he was determined to get of for his African Americans to the infinitely more deadly injustice the Vietnamese had been suffering from his fellow Americans, including forcibly drafted African America soldiers, would be dangerously confusing for tens of millions of young men and women presently participating in, supporting, or indifferent to the dozen ongoing US bombings and invasions and unnerving for older Americans who had participated in, supported, or were indifferent during to all the wars since King was taken out forty-seven years ago. Confusing and unnerving because, after all, Martin Luther King is America’s number one hero, in whose name everyone gets a day or two off work every year.
Perhaps, even more important for the war establishment is that school children now being indoctrinated to look forward to patriotically manning the high tech killing machine that insures future American world domination, be protected from the horrible truth that Martin Luther King spoke of so eloquently and convincingly.
No, not on your sweet life, are speculative investors, who own omnipresent mass media and create mega profitable genocidal wars, going to allow the American public that watches fellow Americans in uniform dispatch thousands of designated ‘bad guy’ men, women, and ‘accidentally their children, in their own beloved countries of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen while America funds goons to do it in Venezuela, Ukraine and Lebanon, Syria, Libya as well, hear King preaching a heart-rending history of the US holocaust in Vietnam and surrounding countries.
Instead this year, as for over forty years, corporate commercial TV channels will be televising King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, the ‘March on Washington’ demanding justice in America, and videos of King leading the civil rights struggle over many years. King will be made to look like someone who today would have been a close friend and supporter of Obama, a documented serial killer, and as outspoken Cornel West, Prof. Cornel West of New York’s Union Theological Seminar and
Princeton University’s Center for African American Studies has often called the President, “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats, now head of the American killing machine and proud of it.”
Our long-shot hope is that during this year’s Martin Luther King high profiled birthday celebrations, one of the various presidents or foreign ministers of nations presently threatened with US overt or covert attack, will think to praise on international media, Martin Luther Kings intensely devastating condemnations of America’s mad and genocidal foreign policy, and thereby throw a self-protecting monkey-wrench into America’s world deceiving criminal media, which projects an image of King as a loyal patriot of an America constantly at war with the world.
Prohibiting us from hearing King’s condemnations, so inconvenient to private investors, who rule society by scam and sword, will backfire in the long run. Words of wisdom have a life of their own, and King’s truthful words will one day be hear in countries on all five continents once bombed by US planes, and his words will promote prosecution of colonial and neocolonial imperialist crimes against humanity.
When that day of reckoning arrives King’s statue will be gazed upon as one of the whole meaningful Martin Luther King Jr., adorned with quotes mentioned in this article that are not there today.
For what it worth, those that know what King cried out against, and are still comfortably silent, might remember, Martin Luther King’s quoting from Inferno by the famous Italian poet Dante, “The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.”
Jay Janson can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s been nearly 40 years since what the American media called “The Fall of Saigon” and the Vietnamese referred to as the Liberation. I saw it then as the Fall of Washington.
The ghosts of Vietnam are back, thanks to two filmmakers with very different takes. The first is Rory Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy’s youngest daughter. Her one-sided account has already been nominated for an Oscar. The second is Tiana, an American of South Vietnamese origin, who made the film, From Hollywood To Hanoi, years ago to promote reconciliation between our two countries.
Tiana is finishing a movie called The General and Me, on her unlikely conversations (for someone from a virulently anti-communist family) with North Vietnam’s legendary and late General, Vo Nguyen Giap, a.k.a the “Red Napoleon,“ a.k.a the man whose military doctrines defeated the French Army, and later, the Pentagon’s brutal Vietnamization strategy.
Giap created the Vietnamese resistance Army at Ho Chi Minh’s request in 1944, and without training, became a military genius. Tiana has two other self-promoted US “geniuses” in her movie too: pathetic walk-ons by former US General William Westmoreland, and an arrogant ex-Defense Secretary, Robert MacNamara, who could not conceal his contempt for her.
Rory’s highly-hyped and well-funded movie depicts footage we have seen before of the hurried evacuation of US soldiers and some of their Vietnamese conscripts in a long and bloody war that was lost almost from its earliest days.
Rather than look at the reasons for that loss, Rory has, with support from HBO and PBS’s American Experience series, tried to present a heroic picture of Americans in their last days in Saigon, coping with a Mad Ambassador and in some cases rebelling against US policy.
(I have loved some of Rory’s work before, but this had ideological agenda written all over it.)
These two films, all these years later, mirror the cultural and political divides of the times with one film, in effect, rationalizing the war, and portraying the American military as compassionate, and the other, for one of the first times, offering views from the other side that Americans never heard.
Even if her Uncle JFK did escalate the war, despite his back and forth doubts, a member of the Kennedy Family is still treated as a cultural icon in a culture that can’t remember details of what happened yesterday, much less forty year ago. Rory’s work has been acclaimed; Tiana’s has not yet been seen. She labels the forgetting deliberate, what she calls, “Nam-Nesia.”
Gerald Perry writes in Arts Fuse:
“The mushy reviews of Last Days in Vietnam (a 94% Rotten Tomatoes approval rating) are extraordinarily similar. They praise filmmaker Rory Kennedy for documenting a forgotten moment of American history, the chaotic days in 1975 when the US raced to leave Saigon and South Vietnam steps ahead of the advancing North Vietnamese Army. And the critics are pumped up with pride at the stories Kennedy has uncovered of brave and noble American soldiers and a few anti-establishment American diplomats who helped evacuate many South Vietnamese–by boat, plane, and helicopter–who presumably would be enslaved or murdered by the Communist North Vietnamese.
What hardly anyone observed is that Kennedy, daughter of peacenik Robert Kennedy, is offering a flag-waving whitewash of the war in Vietnam. The North Vietnamese are characterized, with no exceptions, as Isis-like warriors murdering all their opposition on the way from Hanoi to Saigon. And, after entering Saigon, annihilating those who oppose them, or sending their enemies to re-education camps. The South Vietnamese? This amazed me: there is not any mention of the much-documented corruption of the various puppet governments, and of the South Vietnamese army as a coercive instrument of torture and killings. Each South Vietnamese ex-soldier who is interviewed is allowed to tell his shiny story, including a high-ranking officer. There’s no blood attached to any of them.”
This did not surprise me. In 1976, the anniversary of the American Revolution, I published a small book featuring the views of Vietnam’s top military strategists including General Vo Nguyen Giap called “How We Won The War.” It was based on articles I wrote in the aftermath of the defeat of the US–backed Saigon military in 1975. Predictably, it got no pickup. There were many post-mortems about what we did wrong but, few if any, about what they did right.
Surely, that story is historically more significant than how we cut tail and ran.
I wrote then:
“The American press was never much help in our efforts to find out more about those remarkable Vietnamese people who have now managed to out-organize, out fight, and defeat a succession of U.S. backed regimes. When the US media did recognize the other side’s existence, they did so with disdain, distortion and denigration… the U.S. never came to terms the fact it was defending a government which had no support and attempting to crush one that did.”
A group of LA-based film critics later wrote to PBS: “Rory Kennedy’s egregiously unbalanced, out-of-context, dubiously propagandistic Last Days in Vietnam is currently in theatrical release, a production of the PBS series, An American Experience. We are appalled by the extraordinarily one-sided nature of Kennedy’s rewrite of history that only shows the U.S. government’s and the Republic of Vietnam’s side of the story, and never offers the points of view of the millions of Americans who opposed the war and of those who fought on the side of the National Liberation Front and North Vietnam.”
So much for “balance!”
The protest was all for naught. Public Television retreated into its archive of knee-jerk form letters and responded to criticisms of one program with a defense that cited all the programs they ran, most decades old, while announcing that a new multi-million dollar series on Vietnam by their always well-funded doc superstar, Ken Burns, is in the works. Typical!
They avoided details like these:
- Rory focused on the story of efforts to save allied officers and their families in a Saigon (“Arvin”) Army known for its corruption and brutality.
- It cited atrocities allegedly committed by the Communists like the “Hue Massacre,” an event thoroughly investigated and exposed as false by US Vietnam Scholar Gareth Porter.
- It cited violations of the Paris Peace agreement by the North without mentioning the many more egregious and concealed violations by the US-backed South Vietnamese forces.
- It showed the madness and mania of US Ambassador Graham Martin as if he was an exception to a history of earlier US officials who escalated the war with massive casualties. It offered no historical context or background
- It implied that all the people of Saigon would be butchered or imprisoned; that was not the case.
- It referenced escaping ships racing to ConSon Island without mentioning that that Island off the coast of Saigon hosted, like Guantanamo does today, brutal prison camps filled with “tiger cages” where Vietnamese opponents of the military regime were kept, killed and tortured.
“Where in this documentary are the anti-war voices of those who were American soldiers in Vietnam and became disillusioned by the terrible things we did there? Who in this film speaks of our random bombing of North Vietnam? Of the massacre at My Lai? And for the CIA, where is mention of the heinous tortures of South Vietnamese under CIA director William Colby? As for Kissinger, it’s madly frustrating to see his self-serving rhetoric go completely unchallenged. Where are you, Errol Morris, when needed? Instead, the world’s number one war criminal at large (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Chile, etc.) is a welcome and honored guest to this documentary commissioned by PBS’s American Experience.”
And, on and on!
It’s been 40 years. What have we learned? The Obama Administration, aided by our Secretary of State, a Vietnamese speaker no less, named John Kerry, once the leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, had turned into an apologist for the American role in the war, and an arms salesman to Vietnam which fears the Chinese today more than the Americans.
Whose voice should we listen to? Rory Kennedy with her slick and costly archive-footage based mockumentary of history, or Tiana who is struggling to bring Vietnamese voices and a deliberately buried history to life?
Why are these Vietnam films always—“AAU—all About Us?”
Out of all the peculiarities of the political milieu in the U.S., what probably stands out the most is the discourse on the U.S. obliteration policies against Vietnam. If in any other country there exists a wider gap between the conventional portrayals and narrative on a war of aggression carried out by that country, on one hand, and the documentary record, on the other, then I have yet to come across it.
What does the general picture on U.S. aggression look like? The U.S. air force dropped more bombing tonnage solely in South Vietnam than the total bombing tonnage of every single aerial bombing campaign by all sides in WWII put together. The total amount of U.S. bombings during the Vietnam War was more than twice the size of all the bombings in WWII.
12 million acres of forest and 25 million acres of farmland, at the bare minimum, were destroyed by U.S. saturation bombing. The U.S. sprayed over 70 million liters of herbicidal agents to Vietnam.
Reflecting the fundamental defects of the conventional narrative on the matter, the death toll of the Vietnamese caused by the U.S. military onslaught is routinely debated in hundreds of thousands, sometimes in millions. According to Robert McNamara, for example, 3.6 million Vietnamese were killed in the war.
Among the most comprehensive studies on the matter was published in 2008 by Harvard Medical School and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. They put the Vietnamese death toll at 3.8 million. According to Dr. Nick Turse, an American historian and investigative journalist who has conducted pioneering research on the Vietnam War, even the “staggering figure” of 3.8 million “may be an underestimate”. Furthermore, the U.S. attack wounded 5,3 million Vietnamese civilians and up to 4 million Vietnamese fell victim to toxic defoliants used by the U.S. against large parts of the country. The U.S. assault created 200,000 prostitutes, 879,000 orphans, 1 million widows and 11 million refugees.
To enter from the realm of international law, facts and figures to what at times goes by the name of ‘internal U.S. debate’ on the matter of U.S. attack on Vietnam is tantamount to an abrupt teleportation into an unsavory twilight zone. Consider the following results of a Gallup poll conducted in November, 2000. Of respondents aged between 18 and 29, 27% said that the U.S. was backing North Vietnam, 45% said South Vietnam and 28% expressed no opinion at all.
What about support for the war among the U.S. public, say, at the end of the 1960’s? According to a Gallup poll conducted in July, 1969, more than a year after the My Lai massacre, 53% of the respondents approved of Nixon’s handling of the war.
Arguably the main trend after the termination of U.S. aggression against Indochina has been a systematic glorification of U.S. actions. During a conference in 2006 titled Vietnam and the Presidency, former U.S. head of state Jimmy Carter gave his well-known account on the war and its effects to his presidency. Carter, not regarded as an ardent advocate of aggressive U.S. foreign policy among post-WWII U.S. presidents, perhaps quite the contrary, stressed the importance of moving “beyond the Vietnam War to better things”.
Carter gave special emphasis on what he called a “healing process” – a healing process for American society, needless to say – and proclaimed that, under his administration, “that healing process made major strides forward”. Not only that, the “healing process” was no less than “complete” when “the Vietnam heroic monument, one of the most popular places in Washington” was set up, soon after the Carter presidency.
The inscription on the world-renowned Vietnam Veterans Memorial states that “[o]ur nation honors the courage, sacrifice, and devotion to duty and country of its Vietnam veterans.” Instead of having prosecuted war criminals and paid enormous compensation to Vietnam, for starters, the U.S. gave Vietnam the above sentence.
Carter’s commentary serves as an odious, yet illustrative, reminder of the standard line of thinking in the U.S. political culture. In short, when the U.S. attack on Vietnam had finally come to its end, what was of uttermost importance was a “healing process” for the United States, and reflecting the progress, if not completion, of that healing process was the erection of a monument singing the praises of the “courage” and “sacrifice” of the U.S. veterans. Now, let us move “beyond the Vietnam War to better things”.
Perhaps even more revealingly, Carter has asserted on the Vietnam War that “I don’t feel that we ought to apologize or to castigate ourselves or to assume the status of culpability”, stressing that “the destruction was mutual”.
In 2000, the then Secretary of Defence William Cohen expressed a similar approach towards the U.S. actions in the Vietnam war. “I don’t intend to go into any apologies, certainly, for the war itself” Cohen declared upon his visit to Vietnam. “Both nations were scarred by this. They have their own scars from the war. We certainly have ours.”
The tenets of the official U.S. position towards the unparalleled crimes the U.S. military committed in Vietnam remain as disturbing as ever: no apologies for U.S. conduct during the war, certainly no reparations; no intentions to prosecute U.S. government officials and military personnel for any of the countless war crimes the U.S. committed in Vietnam; romanticizing and glorifying the overall performance of the U.S. military in the war.
Indeed, in the post-WWII era, the conventional narrative in the U.S. on the Vietnam war has emerged as arguably the most disturbing case of the perpetrator’s nationalistic indifference towards, and often approval of, an apocalyptic destruction of the target of its attack. Finally, let us all bask in the shining light of American self-criticism, embodied by the following quote by the U.S. President Barak Obama at the commemoration ceremony of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War:
“Veterans, families of the Vietnam War, I know the wounds of war are slow to heal. You know that better than most. But today we take another step. The task of telling your story continues. The work of perfecting our Union goes on. And decades from now, I hope another young American will visit this place and reach out and touch a name. And she’ll learn the story of service members — people she never met, who fought a war she never knew — and in that moment of understanding and of gratitude and of grace, your legacy will endure. For you are all true heroes and you will all be remembered. May God bless you. May God bless your families. May God bless our men and women in uniform. And may God bless these United States of America.”
More than a few veterans, Veterans For Peace among them, are troubled by the way Americans observe Veterans Day on November 11th. It was originally called Armistice Day, and established by Congress in 1926 to “perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations, (and later) a day dedicated to the cause of world peace.” For years, many churches rang their bells on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – the time that the guns fell silent on the Western Front by which time 16 million had died.
To put it bluntly, in 1954 Armistice Day was hijacked by a militaristic congress, and today few Americans understand the original purpose of the occasion, or even remember it. The message of peace seeking has vanished. Now known as Veterans Day, it has devolved into a hyper-nationalistic worship ceremony for war and the putatively valiant warriors who wage it.
Here is a news flash. Most of what goes on during wartime is decidedly unheroic, and heroes in war are few and far between.
I have to tell you that when I was in Vietnam, I was no hero, and I didn’t witness any heroism during the year I spent there, first as a U.S. Army private and then as a sergeant.
Yes, there was heroism in the Vietnam War. On both sides of the conflict there were notable acts of self-sacrifice and bravery. Troops in my unit wondered how the North Vietnamese troops could persevere for years in the face of daunting U.S. firepower. U.S. medical corpsmen performed incredible acts of valor rescuing the wounded under fire.
But I also witnessed a considerable amount of bad behavior, some of it my own. There were widespread incidents of disrespect and abuse of Vietnamese civilians including many war crimes. Further, all units had, and still have, their share of criminals, con artists and thugs. Most unheroic of all were the U.S. military and civilian leaders who planned, orchestrated, and profited greatly from that utterly avoidable war.
The cold truth is that the U.S. invasion and occupation of Vietnam had nothing to do with protecting American peace and freedom. On the contrary, the Vietnam War bitterly divided the United States, and was fought to forestall Vietnamese independence, not defend it.
Unfortunately, Vietnam wasn’t an isolated example. Many American wars — including the 1846 Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War in 1898, and the Iraq War (this list is by no means exhaustive) — were waged under false pretexts against countries that didn’t threaten the United States. It’s hard to see how, if a war is unjust, it can be heroic to wage it.
But if the vast majority of wars are not fought for noble reasons, and few soldiers are heroic, have there been any actual heroes out there defending peace and freedom? And if so, who are they?
Well, there are many, from Jesus down to the present. I’d put Gandhi, Tolstoy, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the list along with many Quakers and Mennonites. And don’t forget General Smedley Butler, who wrote that “War is a Racket”, and even, sort of, Robert McNamara, who came around in the very end.
In Vietnam, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson stopped the My Lai massacre from being even worse.
Another candidate is former U.S. Army specialist Josh Stieber who sent this message to the people of Iraq: “Our heavy hearts still hold hope that we can restore inside our country the acknowledgment of your humanity, that we were taught to deny.” Ponder a million Iraqi deaths. Chelsea Manning sits behind bars for exposing those and other truths.
The real heroes are those who resist war and militarism, often at great personal cost.
Because militarism has been around for such a long time, at least since Gilgamesh came up with his protection racket in Sumeria going on 5,000 years ago, people argue that it will always be with us. But many also thought that slavery and the subjugation of women would last forever, and they’re being proven wrong. We understand that while militarism will not disappear overnight, disappear it must if we are to avoid economic as well as moral bankruptcy.
As Civil War General W.T. Sherman said at West Point, “I confess without shame that I am tired and sick of war.” We’re with you, bro.
This year on November 11th, Veterans For Peace will bring back the original Armistice Day traditions. Join them and let those bells ring out.
Arnold “Skip” Oliver is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio. A Vietnam veteran, he belongs to Veterans For Peace, and can be reached at email@example.com.