Vietnam and Historical Forgetting

by Henry on August 16, 2013

Tyler Cowen blogs about Nick Turse’s recent book on the US-Vietnam war, Kill Anything That Moves. I’ve been reading it too over the last couple of weeks during infrequent breaks, and have found it extraordinary and horrifying. Turse managed to get access to internal files generated by investigations into possible crimes committed by US troops in Vietnam, and combines this with interviews both with US army veterans and Vietnamese people. The record is partial (it’s clear from Turse’s account that the US archives have been weeded for embarrassing material and that he’s lucky to have found what he did) but damning. My Lai was closer to being the rule than the exception. Casual murder by US troops of women, children and old people as well as young men, torture, rape and collective reprisals were endemic, even before one gets into the more impersonal forms of slaughter.

Turse links this both to the systematic dehumanization of Vietnamese people by US troops (beginning in training) and, more importantly, to the fetishizing of kill counts. Soldiers’ leave and privileges and officers’ promotion chances depended on how many enemy troops were killed. The combination of depicting Vietnamese people as subhuman, ambiguous rules of engagement and organizational incentives to kill as many ‘enemies’ as possible often led soldiers to goose the numbers by killing defenseless civilians or prisoners (for example, one incident after Four Tet in which a US officer ordered prisoners shot in cold blood to improve the kill count). It also led a more general criminal indifference to the consequences of US action at the micro level (e.g. tossing grenades into crude home made bunkers crammed with civilians, on the off chance that there was someone dangerous in there) and the macro (devastating saturation bombing and shelling).

What’s remarkable is how little discussion there is of this. Turse has uncovered emphatic and undeniable evidence, much of it from the US military’s own archives, that US war crimes in the Vietnam war were not only endemic but systematic. If you were unfamiliar with US politics, you’d expect this to cause a major public scandal, soul searching and all of that. Similar crimes have certainly caused a scandal in the UK, which has its own vicious history of colonialism, and is now starting to confront the crimes committed by UK troops during their suppression of the Kenyan revolt (mind you that UK officers’ self-glorifying accounts of this conflict were a direct inspiration for the counter-insurgency tactics of Petraeus and others in Iraq). As far as I can see Turse’s book has inspired very little public debate. In general, the right seems committed to some mixture of denying the atrocities in Vietnam, claiming that everyone did it or the misdeeds were somehow justified by what the North Vietnamese did, and blaming the hippies. Latterday liberals acknowledge that bad things happened, but mostly don’t want to open up the can of worms, for fear that they’d be accused of being unpatriotic and hating the troops or something. The result is a strange form of historical forgetting, where there’s a general sense that bad things happened, but no understanding of how general these bad things were, nor desire to hold people accountable for them.

{ 263 comments }

1

ajay 08.16.13 at 10:34 am

mind you that UK officers’ self-glorifying accounts of this conflict were a direct inspiration for the counter-insurgency tactics of Petraeus and others in Iraq

That’s more Malaya, I think.

2

Hidari 08.16.13 at 10:57 am

May I be pretentious here and quote from Marcuse?

(silence).

I’ll take that as a ‘yes’.

Anyway Marcuse tosses off at one point what seems to me to be an incredibly important observation:

“When a magazine prints side by side a negative and a positive report on the FBI, it fulfills honestly the requirements of objectivity: however, the chances are that the positive wins because the image of the institution is deeply engraved in the mind of the people.

To repeat this seems to me to be an incredibly important observation. Nick Turse’s book has not been suppressed, he has not been arrested, no one is prevented from reading it. But it hasn’t made much headway, either. Surely at least part of the explanation for this is, simply, the context in which it is read: a context in which Americans are taught (at school) a slanted and biased version of American history (some of them get something closer to the truth at university, but one has to wonder which version makes the deeper impression), a context in which the Army is venerated and posited as the (or at least a) site of political virtue in mass culture, a context in which the mass media (especially Hollywood and the TV networks), however ‘liberal’ they may be, generally speaking, refrain from asking really hard questions about the real aims and methods of American foreign policy, either now or in the past. Not to mention of course the constant barrage of more open propaganda from talk radio, Fox news, etc. The pre-existing context within which most Americans (and British) people evaluate and interpret any new piece of news is that ‘we’ are good, that ‘our’ motives are, generally, noble, and that although we might have made ‘mistakes’, essentially ‘our’ battles were the right ones. Therefore My Lai could more or less be accepted and acted upon. What cannot be faced is, as the OP states, the idea of systematic and deliberate cruelty, sadism, racism, and terrorism. Even if the facts become available they are interpreted within a pre-existing socio-cultural context which tends to minimise them, or suppress them, or ‘contextualise’ them in a politically convenient manner.

3

Ronan(rf) 08.16.13 at 11:02 am

“Similar crimes have certainly caused a scandal in the UK, which has its own vicious history of colonialism, and is now starting to confront the crimes committed by UK troops during their suppression of the Kenyan revolt “

Interesting that a lot of this has come from the victims of the abuse taking up the case against the British personally (through the high court etc afaik) Does anybody know is this possible in the US? (IIRC Caroline Elkins book on Kenya, which brought a lot of these abuses to light, wasn’t greeted with overwhelming support initially – until she turned out to be right on pretty much all of it)

4

Foppe 08.16.13 at 11:08 am

Thanks for pointing out this book.

5

Phil 08.16.13 at 11:27 am

Well, Kitson got his MC for services in Kenya and the bar for services in Malaya; I imagine he drew on both in Low Intensity Operations (which is back in print as a Faber Find, I’ve just discovered).

6

Ken_L 08.16.13 at 11:33 am

The absence of discussion is remarkable but neither surprising nor hard to understand. The implications of the information are so incompatible with Americans’ self-image that the information is either rejected as too obviously untrue to warrant serious consideration, or ridiculed as liberal lies intended to weaken The Homeland.

One sees the same thing with regard to the invasion of Iraq – even the slightest suggestion that this was abominable behaviour that placed the USA on the same level as other nations that have waged aggressive war over the years was violently rejected as unthinkable. There is no need to make a reasoned rebuttal because the accusation is so self-evidently false. People Like Us just don’t do that sort of thing.

The frenzied reaction to Obama’s acknowledgement that America might have actually made some mistakes in its past foreign policy (“Apology tour!”) is a symptom of the same mindset, as is the refusal to concede that Islamic terrorism is anything but the irrational lashing out of a crazed religion hell-bent on murder and mayhem because jihad. When your sense of identity depends utterly on a sense of moral superiority – American exceptionalism! the last best hope of mankind! – any suggestion that really you are just like everyone else has to be met with either a furious response or ignored completely. Trying to engage with the threat in a reasoned way admits the possibility that there is some truth in it, and that opens such unthinkable consequences that it cannot be entertained.

7

marcel 08.16.13 at 11:38 am

I’m about 5 years too young to have had to worry about the draft during that era, but I recall much of the (shall I call it?) discussion about these things from that period. The anti-war movement was very aware of these issues and incidents (and their systemic nature) at the time and they drove much of the craziness of certain parts of that movement — the Weather underground comes to mind on this score. Further, mentioning them was interpreted across much of the political spectrum as impugning the honor of the troops, of American boys. The passions of that period on both sides were so pronounced that mentioning this immediately identified one’s position on nearly every issue, cultural and political, of importance.

Just as science progresses funeral by funeral, so to does modern history. I suspect that it will not be until after my (yet to be conceived) grandchildren are adults that these crimes will be appropriately acknowledged. I think it has only been during my lifetime that it has been widely admitted that the U.S. behaved similarly during our was against the Filipinos at the turn of the 20th C.

8

yabonn 08.16.13 at 11:49 am

If you were unfamiliar with US politics, you’d expect this to cause a major public scandal,

Ah, but were there any _American_ victims?

9

Zamfir 08.16.13 at 11:54 am

This reminds me of our (Dutch) memory of the Indonesian war of independence. There is a wide spread acknowledgment that the Dutch actions were horrible, and the cause unjustified, but also a continuing reluctance to deal with the details, the mass graves, the executed villages, the specific torture methods.

On the one hand, it’s supposed to be old history, part of the colonialism we Don’t Do Anymore. At the same time, it doesn’t get the more distant, impartial treatment of old history, because so many of the soldiers are still alive. And those soldiers really were mostly young recruits who didn’t ask for it, and were treated badly on return. Which serves as a nice excuse for everybody not to get involved too much.

10

Niall McAuley 08.16.13 at 11:57 am

tossing grenades into crude home made bunkers crammed with civilians

Isn’t that a scene from a movie?

[googling]

Ah, at the start of the Vietnam sequence in The Deer Hunter, an enemy fighter does this before De Niro barbecues him with a flamethrower.

11

bill benzon 08.16.13 at 12:05 pm

Quite recently one Alex Horton published a piece that’s germane: Breaking Bad‘s Moral Lesson to Civilians:
Walter, along with several of the Breaking Bad characters, exhibits a term many of us in the military and veterans community have come to understand as a moral injury, and the show profoundly explores the concept in a way previously unseen in film and television. Of course, virtually no troops or veterans have much in common with the criminals in the show, but the reaction to traumatic events is universal, be it in war or a fictional universe.

To be clear, a moral injury is not a psychiatric diagnosis. Rather, it’s an existential disintegration of how the world should or is expected to work—a compromise of the conscience when one is butted against an action (or inaction) that violates an internalized moral code. It’s different from post-traumatic stress disorder, the symptoms of which occur as a result of traumatic events. When a soldier at a checkpoint shoots at a car that doesn’t stop and kills innocents, or when Walter White allows Jesse’s troublesome addict girlfriend to die of an overdose to win him back as a partner, longstanding moral beliefs are disrupted, and an injury on the conscience occurs.

As he chokes the life from Krazy-8 with a bike lock [early in the first season], Walter enters a distorted moral universe where killing and death become the currency of his trade.

Around the corner at New Savanna I observe that “America has been inflicting such moral injury on our soldiers at least since the War in Vietnam, when many had to kill or be killed in a war that was given no compelling political rationale.” I then speculate that as long as we insist on inflicting such moral injury on our citizens, the country cannot afford to reveal that injury in its characteristic context. We cannot say: this is what war will do to you, this is what We-the-People are doing to you in the name of national security.

And so the terrible truth of moral injury is, instead, transposed into the story of a middle-aged nerd who becomes a drug lord to cover the costs of his cancer therapy and then to support his family.

12

Emma in Sydney 08.16.13 at 12:07 pm

I was inclined to wonder where are the comments demanding more and better particulars, quibbling with minor semantic issues, asking for firmer forms of proof of intent, demolishing individual instances etc. Then I realised it wasn’t a post by Belle, or Maria, and all became clear. Carry on, nothing to see here.

13

Rmj 08.16.13 at 12:11 pm

War has, since Vietnam, or maybe since WWII, become the defining characteristic of who we are as Americans.

The Pentagon was built by FDR was a government archive, not as a permanent military headquarters. The major lesson of WWII (before Brokaw decided that war created “The Greatest Generation”) was that we needed a military in order to be “free.”

Although actually we seem to have learned that lesson due to the Cold War. The warriors came home from WWII ready to be civilians again. It was the Cold War that taught us to be warriors forever.

Vietnam was, in many ways, the last event of the Cold War. And it left such a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, we preferred to forget it. My Lai and similar stories of atrocities was replaced with hippies spitting on returning soldiers (never happened, but hey….). And so Vietnam became the war where we hated “the troops.” Can’t have that, because now “the troops” are why we have “freedom.” Even if all they’re doing is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, two countries that couldn’t threaten U.S. freedom if they wanted to.

So was Vietnam full of atrocities? Who cares? It was the war we all want to forget. It was the war that made it possible for Brokaw to declare a “Greatest Generation” (although it was the Boomers who supported and ushered in the changes of the civil rights era, of whatever gains were made by feminism, of the consciousness of the gay rights movement; a much more laudable legacy than fire bombing Dresden and reducing Germany to rubble, or parts of Japan to nuclear ash. WWII had its atrocities, too; it was appalling when Hitler bombed civilians; nobody blinked when we started doing it. Collateral damage? Nagasaki? Hiroshima? Dresden? Munich?).

Vietnam is the war we’ve told ourselves was an atrocity just as a war we were involved in. Atrocities from that war gild the lily in ways we don’t want to look at. We should; but we’re not going to.

14

bob mcmanus 08.16.13 at 12:36 pm

After the war the bullets were bored so we capped the game
With cynical smiles we put them on trial to place the blame
Now what kind of beast would love such a feast
Have you no shame?
So we hung them by the feet
Oh, we shot them in the street
Oh, the victory was sweet
On victory day.
And all the high-born ladies
So lovely and so true,
Have been handed to the soldiers

15

Zamfir 08.16.13 at 12:45 pm

@Emma, you might have a point… it never feels like I would react differently, but if others appear to do, I guess I should watch myself as well.

16

Corey Robin 08.16.13 at 12:51 pm

Thinking about my own post on the vacuousness of so much of Jean Bethke Elshtain’s prose and the unreality of her realism, can’t help quoting this statement from her: “One of my persistent worries about our own time is that we may be squandering a good bit of rich heritage through processes of organized ‘forgetting,’ a climate of opinion that encourages presentism rather than a historical perspective that reminds us that we are always boats moving against the current, ‘borne back ceaselessly into the past,’ in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s memorable words from The Great Gatsby. “

Yet somehow I don’t recall her ever worrying about our forgetting about Vietnam.

17

ajay 08.16.13 at 12:56 pm

The Pentagon was built by FDR was a government archive, not as a permanent military headquarters.

Nope, it was built in 1941-3 to house the War Department, which FDR anticipated (correctly) would have to grow massively once America entered the war. Not as an archive. It’d be a terrible archive – it’s on a flood plain.

18

pedant 08.16.13 at 1:01 pm

Zamfir, I am interested to hear about Dutch experience. I have spent time in Belgium, and found the people lovely and gentle, and have wondered how they make sense out of their earlier adventures in the (then) Belgian Congo, which rival any other colonial atrocities in their savagery. How do they think about it? How are they taught about it in schools?

19

ajay 08.16.13 at 1:04 pm

Kitson got his MC for services in Kenya and the bar for services in Malaya; I imagine he drew on both in Low Intensity Operations

But Kitson wasn’t involved in BRIAM. That was under Thompson (Templer’s chief of staff in Malaya). Kitson didn’t even publish “Low Intensity Operations” until 1971.
Petraeus and the COINdinistas – people like Mattis and especially Nagl – were drawing much more heavily on Thompson, and on Malaya in general. Nagl actually wrote his thesis on Malaya and Vietnam.

This is a minor point, but I’d be interested to see a reference on Petraeus et al drawing on Kenya, rather than Malaya. I suspect Henry may just have mixed up his brush wars.

20

Steve LaBonne 08.16.13 at 1:05 pm

Bertrand Russell’s suggestion that in every country, history should only be taught to children by natives of a different country, has always struck me as very wise.

21

Ben Alpers 08.16.13 at 1:09 pm

It did take American public culture a while to achieve Vietnam forgetfulness. All the handwringing about the “Vietnam Syndrome,” which was really a demand that we forget the lessons of that war that we had (however partially) learned, culminated in the first Gulf War. Though memory of Vietnam was hardly perfect before the late ’80s and early ’90s, it was only afterward that forgetfulness entirely triumphed in American public life. Along the way, however, there had been some remembering. And cultural artifacts like The Deer Hunter might remind us how much hard work forgetting took.

22

Rmj 08.16.13 at 1:12 pm

Nope, it was built in 1941-3 to house the War Department, which FDR anticipated (correctly) would have to grow massively once America entered the war. Not as an archive. It’d be a terrible archive – it’s on a flood plain.

Sorry, but it was. That’s how it survived the plane crash on 9/11 without more serious damage.

After the war, it was to house paper records (if anyone remembers those….).

“Among the design requirements, Somervell required the structural design to accommodate floor loads of up to 150 pounds per square foot, which was done in case the building became a records storage facility at some time after the end of the current war.” (Yeah, it’s Wikipedia, but we’re on the intertoobs, and it’s an easy quote to grab.)

And if being on a flood plain makes it a terrible location for an archive, why is it still in use at all?

23

Rmj 08.16.13 at 1:14 pm

Emma–

I hope, btw, I haven’t inadvertently stumbled on the proof of your assertion.

I’d hate to be the one to do that…..

24

JW Mason 08.16.13 at 1:15 pm

Henry,

Thanks for pointing out the book.

It’s interesting, there was some discussion of US massacres in Korea a few years ago, with No Gun Ri getting front page coverage in the NYT 50+ years after the fact. It’s hard to understand how this forgetting and remembering works.

I wonder how this aspect of the war is remembered in Vietnam. Are these killings an acknowledged part of history, or just subsumed in the larger catastrophe? or is there the kind of systematic forgetting that there was in Germany of the destruction of their own cities, after the war?

I also wonder, are there any differences we can identify, between wars where this kind of thing is prevalent and wars where it’s not?

25

bob mcmanus 08.16.13 at 1:25 pm

Google the 13 and try to feel it, folks. The whole thing. Empathize and Identify. Sometimes I think only Ochs, and maybe Heller, ever got it.

The only reason I ever wanted Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld sent to the Hague was because I understood exactly how Republicans would react. America in flames from coast to coast.

We read a book, cluck our tongues, sing a sad, watch Breaking Bad, and go shopping.

This is my weapon, this is my gun, this is my army, this is my war, these are my victims, here are the ears hanging from my belt, this is my country…I deserve to die.

26

Zamfir 08.16.13 at 1:37 pm

@pedant, the Belgian and Dutch experience with respect to colonies is entirely different. The Netherlands had a wide range of colonies and outposts for centuries, really as part of the self-definition of the country. In the nineteenth century, the maritime power of the Netherlands had grown weak enough that these colonies were mostly held on conditional approval of the British navy, they were the lost glory from the days that the Netherlands were a power in themselves.

Belgium on the other hand was then a young country, and being granted a colony from the big powers was a fairly one-off, short lived experience. As far as I know, it never entered as deeply into Belgian society as it did in the Netherlands.

So basically, I can’t say much about Belgium. It’s just a few miles away, but in this respect it’s a completely different place.

27

DrDick 08.16.13 at 1:40 pm

This really has been a kind of deliberate forgetting (as well as real time denial). As someone of age during Vietnam (I was drafted, but did not serve), I remember those stories as quite common among my friends who were combat vets.

28

pedant 08.16.13 at 2:03 pm

“Belgium on the other hand was then a young country, and being granted a colony from the big powers was a fairly one-off, short lived experience.”

My, but they certainly did a lot in their short-lived experience! We should all give them a hand!

29

Rob in CT 08.16.13 at 2:04 pm

As has been pointed out “Vietnam Syndrome” meant “let’s forget about how f*cking awful that war was, so we can get into more wars.” It worked.

30

JO'N 08.16.13 at 2:21 pm

(for example, one incident after Four Tet in which a US officer ordered prisoners shot in cold blood to improve the kill count)

I didn’t realize that Kieran Hebden fought in Vietnam.

31

Henry 08.16.13 at 2:24 pm

Ajay, my source is here.

32

Akshay 08.16.13 at 2:29 pm

Pedant@17: In Brussels there are statues to the great heroes who colonized the Congo. The Congo museum there until very recently contained no reference at all to the atrocities. At the moment there is a small corner dedicated to them. A few years ago, a Belgian minister, I think it was Louis Michel, explained how the Belgians had bought civilisation to Congo. The worst colonial power seems to have the worst memory.

As for the Netherlands, Zamfir pretty much explained it. Everyone know colonisation ws bad, but the details remain vague. In the early 90’s, I asked my excellent secondary school history teacher why we were learning so little about the Indonesian war of independence. He explained that we would just have to wait until the soldiers who served there were dead, and then the curriculum would contain some good history. He might be right: recently, a Dutch newspaper carried a two page spread on a former soldier who wished to confess his participation in warcrimes before he died.

33

Torquil Macneil 08.16.13 at 2:36 pm

“more importantly, to the fetishizing of kill counts. Soldiers’ leave and privileges and officers’ promotion chances depended on how many enemy troops were killed.”

This is a shocking fact, but it doesn’t need the word ‘fetishizing’ in there, just setting up a bonus scheme based on kill rates per se would be enough.

34

Displaced Person 08.16.13 at 2:42 pm

As someone who just missed being drafted in 1972, was active in the anti-war movement beginning in 1967, and knew many people who had served in Vietnam, I am surprised that so many of the commentators were surprised by the conclusions of the book under discussion. The anti-war movement in the 60s knew in fact and in principle without all the evidence the author collects. Someone in the comments mentioned Bertrand Russell but apparently did not know of Russell’s involvement in the effort to hold war crimes trials of the US in I think Sweden in the late 60s. What is historically significant now is the sustained right wing and nationalist reaction in the late 70s and through the 80s to the military and political failure in Vietnam (along with the reaction to the Civil Rights movement) that recast the left and the anti-war movement as ‘spitting on veterans’ and as traitors e.g. ‘Hanoi Jane’. The reaction was planned and fanned by the white supremacist right, and paved the way for Reagan’s election.

I submit to the historians on this blog that the ferocious (and popular) denial of American behavior in Vietnam is deeply connected to America’s even more ferocious (and violent) denial of the facts of slavery in America (and of Jim Crow and continuing white supremacy. If you accept my premise, American denial of what we have done in Iraq and Afghanistan should not be surprising.

35

ajay 08.16.13 at 2:49 pm

Ajay, my source is here.

OK – I can’t read that article, paywall, but if it says that Petraeus et al were trying to emulate British tactics in Kenya, then fair enough. I was just surprised because I hadn’t heard that before – Malaya was much more commonly mentioned. (In FM 3-24, for example, the word “Kenya” doesn’t appear once. Malaya is mentioned frequently: Thompson provides the quotations for chapter headings.)

Rmj, sorry to keep coming back on this, but your own source says that it wasn’t built as an archive. It was built because the War Department needed more office space, not more archive space; as soon as it was partly usable they started to move WD office personnel into it, not WD archives; and it’s still an office today. It wasn’t built as an archive. Being on a flood plain is bad for archives because water makes paper all soggy. It’s still in use as an office building because being next to the capital is a good place for a big government office building.

36

Hector_St_Clare 08.16.13 at 2:51 pm

Of course, once the Dutch left the Indonesians did a pretty good job of enacting their very own homegrown atrocities against Communists and Timorese.

37

marcel 08.16.13 at 3:08 pm

In re: The Belgian Congo

My understanding is that this was not so much a colony of the country as a whole (like, say India & the UK (following the Mutiny), Indonesia & the Netherlands, and Indochina & France) as the personal plantation of the King of Belgium. Is this correct? If so, that would explain much of the difference in response and memory

38

marcel 08.16.13 at 3:09 pm

Bob McManus: I am likely older and fogier than you. What is Google the 13? I have no idea of the reference or the meaning.

39

rm 08.16.13 at 3:15 pm

The “small wars” of the 20th century before Vietnam featured this kind of systemic conduct routinely. In the first few decades white supremacy as an ideology made it acceptable for journalists to participate in the killing and brag about it in print.

By Vietnam, television news and slightly less public acceptance of white supremacy combined to make these tactics controversial.

40

Alan 08.16.13 at 3:18 pm

DP @ 33–

Yes, I was in that last lottery draft too–and missed being drafted by two birthdays. This post gave me a renewed sense that that must have been the luckiest day of my life.

It also made me think of a conversation with a fellow grad student in the late 70s who also was a protestant minister. He seemed to me to be a very gentle and kind man. We started talking about Vietnam, and his service there. I can still recall how utterly calmly he spoke of killing VC– in firefights and never seemingly at close range–and how little it seemed to trouble him.

Then again there was my father-in-law who in WWII who piloted 35 B-24 missions (Ploesti, Hamburg, etc.) and dropped hundreds of bombs, knowing he likely killed civilians as well as destroying facilities, and yet he was at peace with that.

Which now makes me think: is there any empirical work on the psychological effects of warfare as a function of the literal range of killing (close versus long-range fire)? I ‘d think there must be some data on drone-operators, even if still classified. But does killing on the battlefield demonstrably produce different reactions as a function of proximity to the “targets”? I’d think so. . .and especially if they are “non-combatants”.

Thanks for the OP. I’m just as susceptible to forgetting as anyone, and needed this kick in the ass.

41

Anarcissie 08.16.13 at 3:36 pm

Well, ‘everybody does it.’ So the interesting question is not who did it (we already know the answer), but how to get people to stop doing it.

42

bob mcmanus 08.16.13 at 3:46 pm

37: google the (text in comment) 13 is what was intended

Here

43

PatrickinIowa 08.16.13 at 3:49 pm

Yes to everything in #33. Thanks, Displaced Person.

A couple people I knew were a bit older than me, and went–the notion of “moral injury” captures what it felt like when they talked (very rarely) about killing people (including a child) at close range. Contrary to #39, I think it troubled them greatly, but they couldn’t show it, for both social and psychological reasons.

I was a CO, but still had to go to a draft physical. When the Lt. Colonel registered that I had checked “Yes” to belonging to a “subversive organization” (the NAACP and the Mobilization to End the War, IIRC), took me back to an office and gave me a pile of documents to fill out. The first one was titled, I shit you not, “Moral Waiver.” I said, “You mean I have to waive my morals to be in the US Military?” He said, “You’re the CO, aren’t you? We want you. Get back in line.” I was delighted when they stopped induction a few weeks later; I didn’t have to do alternate service.

There were US victims aplenty. Not as many as the Vietnamese, but Americans didn’t come back, some came back physically scarred and some came back spiritually and pyschologically gutted. The people who start and maintain wars should be held accountable.

44

Zamfir 08.16.13 at 3:50 pm

@Marcel, the plantation of the king was the earliest period, from 1885 to 1905 or so. Then the Belgian state took formally over, though in practice I think they didn’t do much at first except give out concessions to some companies for exploitation

Then over the decades it became a more general ‘Belgian’ effort. With a heavy retoric of a civilizing mission to the barbarians, and strong links to Catholic missionaries.

I think the truly worst atrocities were in the early period, with a gradual improvement over time to still-pretty-bad. Just as speculation, I suppose that many Belgians identified stronger with the mission than with the companies or the king. But I don’t know, i am not that much better read on this topic than Tintin in Congo.

45

Peter K. 08.16.13 at 4:02 pm

“Latterday liberals acknowledge that bad things happened, but mostly don’t want to open up the can of worms, for fear that they’d be accused of being unpatriotic and hating the troops or something.”

Who exactly are these “liberals” you’re attacking?

46

ajay 08.16.13 at 4:04 pm

Which now makes me think: is there any empirical work on the psychological effects of warfare as a function of the literal range of killing (close versus long-range fire)? I ‘d think there must be some data on drone-operators, even if still classified.

Drone operators have more psychological problems than manned aircraft pilots, but once you control for other factors (like number of deployments) it isn’t significant. And, interestingly, both have far fewer problems than other Air Force personnel like administrators, medics and ground crew…
http://nation.time.com/2013/04/02/drone-pilots-no-worse-off-than-those-who-actually-fly/

47

Omega Centauri 08.16.13 at 4:08 pm

I think only people of the left have any appetite at all to go through this. Reading the Tomdispatch reveiew was enough of the book for me. Opening up discussion, for anyone taking the leftish side is just going to lead to being severely hippie-punched. So, if we talk about it at all, it is only among ourselves.

48

bob mcmanus 08.16.13 at 4:09 pm

33: I submit to the historians on this blog that the ferocious (and popular) denial of American behavior in Vietnam is deeply connected to America’s even more ferocious (and violent) denial of the facts of slavery in America (and of Jim Crow and continuing white supremacy.

Still listing effects not causes, in order to find the bad guys. White Supremacists ain’t all that special.

Japanese Anniversary Aug 15

Japan’s prime minister sent an offering to a shrine for war dead on Thursday, the anniversary of Japan’s World War Two defeat, while cabinet members visited it in person, drawing harsh complaints from China and South Korea

The people who start and maintain wars should be held accountable.

Have we absolved the Universal Soldier already in this thread? That was quick.

Who starts wars? Who fights wars?

I blame sociality and shame, the comforts of association and the desire for approval. I think I will get picked last in the CT gender wars.

49

Britta 08.16.13 at 4:11 pm

My 5th grade social studies class had the theme of genocides committed by white people against non-white people. We started with genocide past & present against N. & S. American Indians, then the Middle Passage, then apartheid in South African, and finally the Vietnam war. I always thought it was because my teacher was a Ho Chi-minist, but looks like she was not too far off from the truth. Americans like to pretend we’re the nation represented in WW2 movies, but I think that facade is finally becoming unsustainable to hold up both to us and other white people countries the world (lots of brown people have thought us terrible for a long time, but we don’t much care what they think, unless we need oil from them.)

50

Hector_St_Clare 08.16.13 at 4:22 pm

Britta,

I don’t suppose it occurred to your teacher to mention brown people murdering other brown people in India, or such civilizational glories such as sati, the caste system, and untouchability.

51

Patrick S. O'Donnell 08.16.13 at 4:22 pm

Should anyone want a aid to historical remembrance, I have select bibliography on the Vietnam War (with sundry introductory material*) available in PDF I’ll send along to anyone interested.

* Including a short poem by Charles Bukowski (whose birthday is today), “On the Fire Suicides of the Buddhists.”

52

Patrick S. O'Donnell 08.16.13 at 4:22 pm

“an aid”

53

Uncle Kvetch 08.16.13 at 4:26 pm

I don’t suppose it occurred to your teacher to mention brown people murdering other brown people in India, or such civilizational glories such as sati, the caste system, and untouchability.

What does any of that have to do with US war in Vietnam?

54

Hector_St_Clare 08.16.13 at 4:29 pm

Uncle Kvetch,

It has to do with the fact that while the US certainly was responsible for a lot of savagery in Vietnam, it isn’t a race thing, it was an ideology thing.

The Japanese, Chinese and Cambodians killed a lot of Vietnamese too, very brutally (as did the Southern government), and none of then were white.

55

sherparick1 08.16.13 at 4:32 pm

I guess I should find it not surprising that those under 50 find this information new. Over the past 30 years when Vietnam is mentioned at all, is mentioned either as a “syndrome” that we have to get over or where “American” soldiers were martyred and left as forgotten prisoners (I guess during the Carter administration – somehow Nixon-Ford, Reagan, and the Bush administrations never get the blame in the Stallone movies). But as a 16 years old in 1971, I was aware of that this was what the Vietnam war meant (even with just a half hour a night along with prime time specials, people got far more foreign news on mass media then than what they get now.)

That these atrocities were occurring was well known and reported at the time. See the Senate hearings on Vietnam in 1971 and/or google “Winter Soldier.” en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fulbright_Hearings‎

American “history” is great at forgetting and excising. Very few now are familiar with “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” or “Bloody Bill Anderson” – which reveals the nightmare of Missouri and Kentucky in the Civil War. Both Paul Fussell and E.B. Sledge describe atrocities and massacres committed by American soldiers in WWII in their books, which for the most part went unpunished. And when American or British soldiers are held accountable for war crimes by the higher ups, there is probably for the purpose of promoting a new and greater crime.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breaker_Morant_%28film%29

War is after all state sanctioned murder, and the for those doing the murdering the fine print about who you can murder and when you can murder them can become confusing. I am not a pacifist in theory, but in practice only the Civil War and WWII would been the only wars I hope I would not have opposed the extremity of state sanctioned murder.

56

Hector_St_Clare 08.16.13 at 4:32 pm

And more generally, that Britta’s remarks are an almost perfect parody of multiculturalist silliness. History isn’t, funnily enough, all about race.

57

js. 08.16.13 at 4:40 pm

Hector,

You’re the only one that’s coming off as silly here (and that’s putting it kindly). Britta’s point is an eminently sensible one about how Americans’ self-conception doesn’t match up to historical reality. Your comments are, well, off-topic hectoring. Do you always bringing up every single atrocity in the history of the universe any time some one instance is mentioned, or is that just reserved for this case?

58

marcel 08.16.13 at 4:40 pm

Uncle Kvetch asked:

What does any of that have to do with US war in Vietnam?

It suggests that demonizing either the U.S. or European countries as unusually evil is no more useful or accurate than the “patriotic” view of the U.S. as unusually good, a light unto nations. The U.S. (and earlier the European powers) has had the power and the opportunity to commit awful crimes, and too often has. In that way, it is/they are not much different from other groups and societies that throughout history have found themselves in the same situation. Reducing the frequency and size of these crimes requires much more than condemnation, though that may be a useful first step.

So long as it is not used to excuse Vietnam (“Everybody does it”), it is useful to remind ourselves that both for good and for bad, the U.S. is not especially unusual, that much too often, humans are murderous primates. This is something to be changed. How? Beats me. People have been trying for millenia.

59

Patrick S. O'Donnell 08.16.13 at 4:41 pm

Re: 53
The ideology in question had racist components, and the widespread use of the term “gooks” during the war is a bit of evidence for this racism.

60

bob mcmanus 08.16.13 at 4:48 pm

57: Ooooh, it’s The Human Condition

The British film critic David Shipman described the trilogy in his 1983 book, The Story of Cinema, as “unquestionably the greatest film ever made.”

61

js. 08.16.13 at 4:48 pm

As far as I can see Turse’s book has inspired very little public debate.

I wanted to ask about this—do people have a sense of what kind of coverage this has gotten in the press? The Nation had an excerpt (here), and an article/review by Jonathan Schell (here), but beyond that I have little to no sense of it’s press coverage. Is it basically being ignored?

62

sherparick1 08.16.13 at 4:49 pm

I guess I should find it not surprising that those under 50 find this information new. Over the past 30 years when Vietnam is mentioned at all, is mentioned either as a “syndrome” that we have to get over or where “American” soldiers were martyred and left as forgotten prisoners (I guess during the Carter administration – somehow Nixon-Ford, Reagan, and the Bush administrations never get the blame in the Stallone movies). But as a 16 years old in 1971, I was aware of that this was what the Vietnam war meant (even with just a half hour a night along with prime time specials, people got far more foreign news on mass media then than what they get now.)

I am also interested in hearing about how the little imperial wars Britain fought in the 1950s in Kenya, Malaysia, Cyprus, Yemen, etc. were covered in the U.K. in the 1950s. Until Suez, and that was more an issue where the U.S. really put the financial squeeze on France and the U.K. to put them in their proper places as dependents, I am not sure of much domestic blowback or moral criticism occurred.

Finally, this is another point where I guess the political right has an advantage. They certainly turned half the country against the Vietnam war protestors in the 60s and 70s as “America Haters” which became “San Francisco Democrats” in the 1980s. They have almost Leninist willingness to break a few eggs to achieve their goals and I don’t think this book will make much impression on the Bill O’Reillys and Bill Kristols of the world or on their audience.
That these atrocities were occurring was well known and reported at the time. See the Senate hearings on Vietnam in 1971 and/or google “Winter Soldier.” en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fulbright_Hearings‎

American “history” is great at forgetting and excising. Very few now are familiar with “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” or “Bloody Bill Anderson” – which reveals the nightmare of Missouri and Kentucky in the Civil War. Both Paul Fussell and E.B. Sledge describe atrocities and massacres committed by American soldiers in WWII in their books, which for the most part went unpunished. And when American or British soldiers are held accountable for war crimes by the higher ups, there is probably for the purpose of promoting a new and greater crime.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breaker_Morant_%28film%29

War is after all state sanctioned murder, and the for those doing the murdering the fine print about who you can murder and when you can murder them can become confusing. I am not a pacifist in theory, but in practice only the Civil War and WWII would been the only wars I hope I would not have opposed the extremity of state sanctioned murder.

63

Marc 08.16.13 at 4:49 pm

Wars are horrific and people get slaughtered in them. There were awful atrocities committed by US troops and, yes, awful atrocities committed by the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong. Here is a brief wikipedia-level summary:

Many Viet Cong units operated at night,[43] and employed terror as a standard tactic.[44] Rice procured at gunpoint sustained the Viet Cong.[45] Squads were assigned monthly assassination quotas.[46] Government employees, especially village and district heads, were the most common targets. But there were a wide variety of targets, including clinics and medical personnel.[47] Notable Viet Cong atrocities include the massacre of over 3,000 unarmed civilians at Huế, 48 killed in the bombing of My Canh floating restaurant in Saigon in June 1965[48] and a massacre of 252 Montagnards in the village of Đắk Sơn in December 1967 using flamethrowers.[49] Viet Cong death squads assassinated at least 37,000 civilians in South Vietnam; the real figure was far higher since the data mostly cover 1967-72. They also waged a mass murder campaign against civilian hamlets and refugee camps; in the peak war years, nearly a third of all civilian deaths were the result of Viet Cong atrocities.[50] Ami Pedahzur has written that “the overall volume and lethality of Vietcong terrorism rivals or exceeds all but a handful of terrorist campaigns waged over the last third of the twentieth century”.[51]

This doesn’t excuse actions by US troops at all. But it does place them into context that is otherwise absent. I think that “War is a terrible thing to be avoided” is a deeper and more important thing to communicate than “The US is uniquely evil”, which seems to be where you land if you only pay attention to what Americans did there.

64

Uncle Kvetch 08.16.13 at 5:03 pm

It suggests that demonizing either the U.S. or European countries as unusually evil

There’s certainly not the slightest whiff of “unusually evil” in Henry’s post. Who are you referring to here?

65

Uncle Kvetch 08.16.13 at 5:04 pm

I think that “War is a terrible thing to be avoided” is a deeper and more important thing to communicate than “The US is uniquely evil”, which seems to be where you land if you only pay attention to what Americans did there.

Again, “what Americans did there” is what the post is about.

Should the Holocaust Museum have a section about the firebombing of Dresden? You know, to even things out?

Jesus.

66

Dr. Hilarius 08.16.13 at 5:09 pm

No surprise at all about the level of atrocities. I lived in Bangkok 1966-68 and had daily contact with R&R (rest and relaxation) GIs from Vietnam. Discussion of killing civilians, torture of prisoners, and taking of body parts for trophies was common.

Americans are largely incapable of self-criticism in regard to our wars. The starting premise is that we are noble and self-sacrificing. Any wrong-doing therefore has to be the exception. Americans are also narcissistic. It’s common knowledge that about 50,000 US troops died in the Vietnam War. Ask how many Vietnamese died (I do this when the topic of Vietnam comes up) and almost no one has even a guess. It didn’t matter then and it certainly doesn’t now.

It’s also no mystery about why war crimes were so common. Race was a huge factor. If there had been photos of little blond girls burned by napalm the reaction would have been very different. But they weren’t like us, they were gooks without our own fine sensibilities. The famous Westmoreland interview, in which he justifies killing Vietnamese because they don’t share our respect for human life, should be mandatory viewing in every high school history class. Individual soldiers quickly figured out that the war had no defined purpose (saving South Vietnam from communism was gravely recited by that era’s pundits but nobody on the ground took that seriously) and the only thing that mattered was surviving your tour of duty. Add in the lack of a well-defined, uniformed enemy (excluding the NV regulars) and the rule was “when in doubt, kill.” Lack of cooperation by civilians was equated with being an enemy combatant. This encouraged retaliatory killings.

I haven’t looked at a US school history text in many years but suspect that Vietnam gets at best superficial treatment. Even now (maybe more so now with the rise of right-wing lunacy) my guess is that any teacher going beyond the meme that Vietnam was a well-intentioned mistake would quickly be out of a job.

67

Ralph Hitchens 08.16.13 at 5:22 pm

RMJ, wasn’t the Pentagon originally intended to be a military hospital after the war? That’s the urban legend I heard during many visits there in the 1980s & 1990s. The most notable feature of the building was the profusion of bathrooms, far in excess of other government buildings. This was because, naturally, we had a segregated military back then and needed separate facilities for the colored soldiers.

Re. Turse’s book, I can’t comment authoritatively because, although I am a Vietnam veteran, I served in the Air Force and didn’t see any ground combat. But I’ve been on the venerable Vietnam Veterans’ Discussion List since the early 1990s, and when this book came out it was largely dismissed by the many Army & Marine Corps veterans on the list who had seen ground combat. What he wrote about didn’t describe the war these guys experienced. So from my perspective it would be nice if commenters, particularly those who accept Turse’s thesis, identify themselves as to whether they served in Vietnam or are commenting from an academic perspective.

In any event, even if we were every bit as bad as Turse alleges, it only makes it more remarkable how generous and forgiving are the Vietnamese people. Americans are welcomed over there, veterans in particular, while they detest the Chinese and Russians who helped them “liberate” their country.

68

lupita 08.16.13 at 5:27 pm

About 20 years ago, there was a total eclipse of the sun in Mexico. I remember that I became very scared, terrified really, and the thought crossed my mind, “I understand the Aztecs now”. In the hours and days following the eclipse, I heard this realization repeated over and over: Now I understand.

Though children in Mexico are not taught all the details of human sacrifice and cannibalism (children taste better than adults, conquistadors tasted so bad their body parts never made it to the markets) everybody is aware of the religious and culinary practices in Mesoamerica. They have not been forgotten. They are not denied. I think the reason is that we are all confident that there is absolutely no chance of these practices returning nor do we want them to. In contrast, the war atrocities of the Western powers are whitewashed because they are ongoing and supported by most.

I understood during that eclipse that the horror of human sacrifice is second to the horror of the sun disappearing forever. Nowadays, the horror of war atrocities is considered secondary to the sun setting on Western supremacy.

69

Rich Puchalsky 08.16.13 at 5:33 pm

“The result is a strange form of historical forgetting, where there’s a general sense that bad things happened, but no understanding of how general these bad things were, nor desire to hold people accountable for them.”

I’d gone to trying to get people to understand how bad the Iraq War was, and trying to hold people accountable for that. Forty years from now people are going to turn up additional evidence of systematic atrocities from the Iraq War in the U.S. archives. But by then we’ll have committed them in other countries more recently. I think that asking why history can never catch up don’t address that it’s current forgetting, not historical forgetting.

70

MPAVictoria 08.16.13 at 5:37 pm

” I think that “War is a terrible thing to be avoided” is a deeper and more important thing to communicate than “The US is uniquely evil”, which seems to be where you land if you only pay attention to what Americans did there.”

This is a decent point. However if we just stick to talking about broad generalities such as war is bad we will quickly run out of things to talk about. I can totally agree with you that war brings out the worst in everyone and still want to know some specifics about what American troops did in Vietnam.

71

Random Lurker 08.16.13 at 5:38 pm

@Emma 12
I can’t be sexist, because I’m italian.

72

Britta 08.16.13 at 5:51 pm

It suggests that demonizing either the U.S. or European countries as unusually evil is no more useful or accurate than the “patriotic” view of the U.S. as unusually good, a light unto nations. The U.S. (and earlier the European powers) has had the power and the opportunity to commit awful crimes, and too often has. In that way, it is/they are not much different from other groups and societies that throughout history have found themselves in the same situation. Reducing the frequency and size of these crimes requires much more than condemnation, though that may be a useful first step.

Yes, except I am an American, not an Imperial Roman or a Medieval Mongolian. I also live in the present, not the past, and am thus incapable of preventing former atrocities. The best I can do is try my best to prevent future atrocities, or make amends for the current suffering which is a direct result of past sufferings. What “my best” is and how effective it is is up for debate, but trying is better than sinking into despair-based apathy, as Zizek notes.

If there had been photos of little blond girls burned by napalm the reaction would have been very different.

I’ve always wondered what the ratio is, in terms of how much Americans (or other white people) value lives. With little blonde girls the ratio seems almost infinite. I remember after 9/11 and there was the photo plastered everywhere of a blonde woman with two blond children whose husband was killed in 9/11, and I’m pretty sure it justified, in many people’s minds both wars and the torture and human rights abuses.

73

GiT 08.16.13 at 5:54 pm

I guess it’s no surprise but the general tenor of the Marginal Revolution comments seems to be, “So what, they were commies and they were worse.”

74

Marc 08.16.13 at 5:56 pm

@64: We certainly think about the Allied firebombing campaigns differently because we were fighting against the Nazis. The French executed thousands of Nazi collaborators, for example, without anything approximating due process. You can’t separate what the troops did from the nature of the war that they were engaged in. Tit for tat is a powerful impulse.

And, no, this doesn’t excuse Dresden. But it does let you understand the world as it was when Dresden happened – and that world included things like the devastation of Coventry by indiscriminate Nazi bomb raids.

75

Uncle Kvetch 08.16.13 at 6:09 pm

I’m fully aware of all of that, Marc. My objection was to the strawman that the US is being singled out here as being “unusually” or “uniquely” evil, when no one has suggested anything of the sort.

But the tetchiness itself is awfully telling…the very mention of atrocities committed by US soldiers is enough to set someone like Hector off and running, babbling about the caste system in India and the evils of multiculturalism in a desperate bid to change the subject.

76

Hidari 08.16.13 at 6:09 pm

“This doesn’t excuse actions by US troops at all. But it does place them into context that is otherwise absent. “

Yes, remind me what atrocities were committed by the Vietnamese resistance against American civilians on American soil again?

77

Omega Centauri 08.16.13 at 6:09 pm

Part of it is deference to the fact that we threw a lot of originally innocent kids into that situation. At least classical wars almost always had easily identified enemies. But these sorts of modern small wars, IFFC (Identification Friend Foe or Civilian) are different. After you’ve seen you buddy killed, because he assumed an inoocent looking kid was a civilian, I can’t imagine how I’d react.

The thing that really struck me from Turse’s book, was that the treatment of villagers varied tremendously from unit to unit. He interviews a Vietnamese who said they could never figure out the Americans. They didn’t know if the next patrol would try to win hearts and minds by giving villagers treats, or if they were coming to massacre them. I suspect getting at the truth requires hearing from all sorts of soldiers, not just from those who experienced one or the other of the behavioral extremes.

78

Hector_St_Clare 08.16.13 at 6:30 pm

Uncle Kvetch,

Nonsense. I’m very far from being a patriot or a defender of America. If you’ll note, I’ve never denied that the US intervention killed millions of Vietnamese, many of them very brutally. What I do deny is that the crimes were motivated by racism. they were motivated by anti communist hysteria.

79

Philip 08.16.13 at 6:34 pm

I don’t know how much the UK is confronting the crimes of colonialism. The recent trials of the atrocioties in Kenya don’t seem to have had a deep impact on the national psyche. If anything it’s like Wilberforce and abolitionism – aren’t we great for dealing with that without properly acknowledging what ‘that’ was.

I’ve not read Turse’s book but from the OP it seems to add detail but not change the overall narrative of the Vietnam War. From my UK perspective it is that atrocities happened, they went unpunished, and now Americans prefer not to talk about it. This is pretty much the same thing as the UK and colonialism but we don’t seem to have learnt much because, well … Iraq and Afghanistan.

80

Map Maker 08.16.13 at 6:36 pm

World War 2 would have ended differently if CNN and Wikileaks were around. Of course, it isn’t just “everyone does it”, it is “everyone has always done it”. War is bad, and bad wars are bad^2… become quaker and move on …

81

Hector_St_Clare 08.16.13 at 6:36 pm

I’m defending specifically the white European race (a race to which I do not happen to belong) from the charge of having a bigger penchant for evil then other races.

82

Rob in CT 08.16.13 at 6:42 pm

Um, Hector, there can be more than one motivation.

83

Hidari 08.16.13 at 6:47 pm

“What I do deny is that the crimes were motivated by racism. they were motivated by anti communist hysteria.”

The OP, the book, and the common knowledge that the Vietnamese were habitually referred to as ‘gooks’ and “slopes” tells you for a fact that one reason for (at least) atrocities against the Vietnamese was simple racism. If you don’t want to listen to the facts, that’s your problem.

But we get so much of this, cf many ‘liberals’ who simply do not want to hear about (say) British and American atrocities in Iraq and who like to change the subject as quickly as possible to a subject they find more congenial. How awful Muslims are, for example.

84

Hidari 08.16.13 at 6:49 pm

“The U.S. (and earlier the European powers) has had the power…..”

Remind me how they got that power again?

85

Substance McGravitas 08.16.13 at 6:52 pm

I’m defending specifically the white European race (a race to which I do not happen to belong) from the charge of having a bigger penchant for evil then other races.

No, you’re trolling. The charge was never made.

86

Uncle Kvetch 08.16.13 at 7:01 pm

OK, so now we’re up to three: “unusually evil,” “uniquely evil,” and “having a bigger penchant for evil than other races.” None of which was stated or even remotely suggested anywhere on this thread.

87

Hector_St_Clare 08.16.13 at 7:08 pm

Uncle Kvetch,

It was implied, not stated. Britta said she had a middle school history curriculum composed of a catalogue of white depravity against nonwhite people’s.

If I wrote a textbook consisting solely of cataloging Muslim atrocities against Christians, Hindus and Zoroastrians, I doubt that you folks would be sagely nodding in approval.

88

Substance McGravitas 08.16.13 at 7:18 pm

If I wrote a textbook consisting solely of cataloging Muslim atrocities against Christians, Hindus and Zoroastrians, I doubt that you folks would be sagely nodding in approval.

However if someone else wrote it maybe it would be clear and honest and useful instead of exceedingly odd and full of blind spots.

89

Hidari 08.16.13 at 7:19 pm

“you folks”?

OK, here’s morality 101 as you seem to be having a hard time understanding it (or perhaps you are indeed just a troll). Most of the commentators here are from the US, the UK, or Australia: i.e. countries which implicitly or explicitly gave support to the Vietnam War. The same is true for the Iraq war and Afghanistan etc. So obviously this is an issue of more concern to us, morally, than ‘Muslim atrocities against Christians’ because our governments (who we elect and who take taxes from us) are to blame (to a greater or lesser extent).

It is, or should be, axiomatic, that the first thing one should do, morally, is make sure your own moral record is spotless before getting up on your high horse and condemning others. Even those awful ‘Muslims’ who so many white people seem to enjoy inveighing against nowadays.

90

Uncle Kvetch 08.16.13 at 7:35 pm

If I wrote [...] I doubt that you folks

Hector, you clearly get more than enough enjoyment creating and demolishing imaginary “liberals” in your head. Why you even bother attempting to engage with real people is a mystery.

91

Shelby 08.16.13 at 7:39 pm

Speaking as an American who was barely aware of the broader world when the Vietnam War ended, and who has not read Turse’s book, it sounds like it makes a major contribution by documenting, not merely that US forces committed atrocities, but that they were endemic. I have not studied the war in any depth, but have been aware that some people claimed — generally with anecdotal data or worse — that atrocities were endemic, while others responded with skepticism in the absence of solid evidence. (I’m sure some of the latter were acting in bad faith, just as I’m sure some of the former didn’t care about the essential truth of their claims.)

I also think the argument that American racism was a substantial factor in the atrocities is poorly founded. During WWII the enemy were “Krauts” as well as “Nips,” and as has been mentioned here repeatedly, German cities got (fire)bombed rather indiscriminately, despite the obvious fact they were chock-full of blonde little girls. War is possible in part because humans de-humanize their enemies; the use of insulting and disparaging names and caricatures is one part of that. See, e.g., Dr. Seuss. So I think “racism” is neither necessary nor sufficient to explain atrocities.

92

LFC 08.16.13 at 7:52 pm

Haven’t read thread yet but would note (immodestly) that I beat Henry to a mention of Turse, albeit a brief one:
http://howlatpluto.blogspot.com/2013/03/friday-evening-linkage.html

(post includes link to Turse on Moyers’ show)

93

MPAVictoria 08.16.13 at 7:53 pm

“War is possible in part because humans de-humanize their enemies; the use of insulting and disparaging names and caricatures is one part of that. See, e.g., Dr. Seuss. So I think “racism” is neither necessary nor sufficient to explain atrocities.”

While this seems right to me I am not sure that racism didn’t add a little extra special sauce to the whole awful affair.

94

Joe Lowndes 08.16.13 at 7:58 pm

Historical forgetting was a necessary condition of the founding of the post-60s political order in the US (As Machiavelli – and later Nietzsche – pointed out, there is a tight relationship between violence, forgetting, and regime creation). This authorized the backlash thesis about differentiated class support for the war, deftly refuted by Penny Lewis’s new book,’Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks.’ It also made way for the curious renewal of populist commitments to imperialism – even AS antistatism – through the victim narrative of the POW-MIA mvmt. By the late 70s, the majority of Americans who recalled the famous photo of a South Vietnamese officer shooting a VC fighter execution-style now believed that it was a VC officer shooting a south vietnamese soldier. A national example of what Melanie Klein called persecutory anxiety.

95

Ragweed 08.16.13 at 8:05 pm

@10 – it has been a long time, but I think there is a scene in Platoon where they throw either a standard grenade or a white phosporous grenade into some sort of bunker or underground grain storage cache, and you see a flash of a little girl who was still inside. If I remember it rightly, they thought the bunker was empty (did they pull everyone out already? don’t remember) and were destroying the cache. The protagonist of the film saw the girl and yelled for them to stop, but then the soldier throwing in the grenade threw it in anyway.

96

Andrew F. 08.16.13 at 8:10 pm

I haven’t read Turse’s book. A glance at one of his articles “Who Did You Rape in the War, Daddy?” effectively cut him from my “worth the time” list.

As to American outrage about atrocities committed by American personnel in Vietnam, there was plenty. Plenty expressed in protests, hearings, prosecutions, newspaper and magazine articles, television and radio news reports, documentaries, and movies. And it’s hardly a dirty secret only recently exposed by Turse’s brave expedition into the archives. Hell, there is a book about the Son My Massacre on the US Army Chief of Staff’s recommended reading list (along with other books critical of Vietnam). I’m sure a book describing atrocities in detail makes for a grim reading experience. If there’s something new in it, though, then I haven’t seen it mentioned in the review or two I’ve read about the book.

Just imho, and emphasizing that I have not read Turse’s book, anything by Lewis Sorley, Andrew Krepinevich, H.R. McMaster, or Harry Summers, to name a few, seems likely to be far, far more enlightening on the roll of bodycounts, tactics, and attitudes towards the Vietnamese in the American war effort than Turse.

As to Kenya and American COIN doctrine, my understanding is that the inspiration is mostly Galula and Thompson as interpreted by Nagl and others. As I recall some have even criticized proponents of “population-centric” COIN as deliberately ignoring cases like Kenya, in which the tactics adopted were of a different nature (as noted in the post) than those recommended by Petraeus and others, and as expressed in US military doctrine.

97

Ragweed 08.16.13 at 8:18 pm

“War is possible in part because humans de-humanize their enemies; the use of insulting and disparaging names and caricatures is one part of that. See, e.g., Dr. Seuss. So I think “racism” is neither necessary nor sufficient to explain atrocities.”

While this seems right to me I am not sure that racism didn’t add a little extra special sauce to the whole awful affair.

Yes, and that specials sauce gives it persistence. Once racism becomes part of the equation, and the “enemy” is associated with physical features, it tends to spread far beyond the war. Few American’s complain abou

98

Jim Vandewalker 08.16.13 at 8:18 pm

Old Usenet post:

Body Count

{ G. G. Gordon wrote:
{ I remember hearing that the Vulcan was once used, briefly, in Vietnam
{ in a direct-fire mode at a firebase. Three of these guns were directed
{ at a human-wave attack…
{
{ It was discontinued not because it didn’t work, or because it was a
{ flagrant abuse of the Geneva Convention (n.b. we said we were shooting at
{ the weapons and equipment the men were carrying–not the men themselves–
{ the same dodge we use for the M-16 rifle et al); but because IT SCREWED
{ UP THE BODY COUNT. This statistic was far more important to the Pentagon.

Bird was sick. All last night’s warm beer was sloshing around in his belly
and the sun was glaring down. The paddy stank. He hated splashing through
the murky water of the paddies. He couldn’t get his pack settled on his
back. Sargeant Ott put him in middle with one of the FNGs.

“Hey, c’mon, Sarge. I’m short, man. Don’t be puttin’ me with no FNG.” Bird
pleaded.

But Ott wouldn’t listen. Bird looked at the endless paddies and dikes. “Oh,
man. I’m short, man. I don’t need this shit. Ol’ Ott he ain’t even gonna
cut me no slack.”

The FNG kept eyeballing him and that made Bird nervous. He started
switching his M-16 from shoulder to shoulder and tugged at his packstraps.
Finally Ott came splashing back down the line, just as Bird’s weapon went
off.

Ott and the rest of the squad assumed the low-crawl position right there in
the paddy, and Bird burst out laughing. Ott rose out of the muck, ready to
kill Bird. Bird’s single shot had dropped the only living thing in sight: a
mangy-looking water buffalo.

The RTO came double-timing back down the dripping line.”Sargeant Ott! It’s
Company!”

“Shit,” said Ott, taking the radiotelephone “Yeah, Tiger Six, this is
Tiger Three-Two.”

Ott listened to the phone and absently wiped paddymuck from his face. “Uh,
Tiger Six, be advised that we, uh, apparently had some hostile contact at
about map coordinates four niner one seven two eight. Uh, looks like one,
repeat one, hostile down, will recon the area to confirm body count. Tiger
Three-Two out.” He handed the phone back to the RTO and turned to Bird. “I swear
to God, I’m gonna kill your sorry ass…”

Bird stood at a mockery of attention and said, “No excuse, Sargeant!” The
FNG goggled from Bird to the water buffalo, kicking its last in the paddy’s
muddy water. Ott pulled off his helmet, swabbed the sweatband, and then
rammed the pot back on his head. He glared at the FNG, then turned back to
the direction of march. “All right you people. Git back to poundin’ RVN.
Move out!”

Two dikes away HQ Platoon had stopped and the First Sargeant was poring
over his map. He turned to the XO. “Looks like Third Squad had some
action. Ott says some charlie down about here ” He thumped the map with a
thick finger. “That’s what that shot was we heard. Ott says he’s gonna take
a look. You wanna tell the Old Man?”

The XO was a brand new 2LT named Leonard just out from Bien Hoa and eager.
He double-timed to the mudbank where Captain Malley was surveying the treeline
with his binoculars. “Sir, Second Platoon, Fire Team Three reports, uh,
hostile contact and, uh, some enemy down.”

Malley was a skinny little officer in tailored jungle fatigues with a big
cigar clamped between his teeth. “How many, Lieutenant Leonard? How many? That’s
what Battalion’s going to want to know! How many and where!”

“Two, sir! Definitely two! Maybe more.” Leonard’s hand began to wave away
from his side.

“Dammit Leonard, don’t salute me out here! I thought they taught you people
the rules before they let you out of Bien Hoa. Don’t salute. Just get on
the horn to Battalion S2 and tell ‘em B Company has made contact with a
force of hostiles and has a body count of — of four. Tell ‘em four. And
some possible hostile wounded. Uh — second platoon didn’t have any
casualties themselves did they?”

“Uh, nossir. I don’t think so sir.”

At Battalion Spec5 Lyons, the intelligence specialist, was on sick call and
Captain Brock the acting S2 was taking the action reports himself. He shared
an office tent with S1 and the Battalion XO. He scribbled B Company’s
coordinates onto an intelligence form and leaned back in his folding chair.
“Well, this is going to suit Brigade a lot better. They been on my ass
about how quiet it’s been around here. Now Malley reports he’s bumped into
a — ” He flipped the report. “A force of hostiles. And he’s
got…hmmm…” He frowned at the report. “He’s got eight dead VC. Yep.
That’s the ticket. Tell Brigade eight gone gooners.”

At Brigade HQ Major Kornstein was leaning over the teletype as the report
came in. He pulled it out of the machine himself. “At last. Something to
show the boss.”

He pulled a pen out of his fatigue pocket and scribbled a correction on the
report as he walked down the hall. “Twelve looks a lot better than eight.”
He was whistling as he opened Colonel Burton’s door.

Lieutenant Colonel Burton pushed aside the pile of quarterly fitness
reports and grabbed the intelligence digest out of Kornstein’s hand.
“Whaddaya got, Kornstein? You got anything good? Whaddaya got? What’s
this? Malley? Where’s he? Second Battalion? What’s he got? Twelve? That’s
not enough. Division’ll laugh us out of the shop if twelve dead
dinks is all we got to show for the whole dam’ Brigade.”

He smoothed the intelligence digest out on his desk and poised his pen over
it. “Now if that little sawed-off runt Malley’s got twelve slopes, that
must be like the company average, and whaddaya say Kornstein? How many
companies we got out pounding ground today?”

“Uh, four sir.”

“Four! There ya go. With twelve as a company average, that means Second
Screaming Brigade, my Second Screaming Brigade, musta got at least
forty-eight of those treacherous little charlies! Forty-eight in one day!
Not dam’ bad! Get on the horn to Division, Kornstein! Tell ‘em!”

A PFC was buffing the floor in General Orson’s conference room when Colonel
Coolidge the Division G2 arrived with the daily action report. “First and
Third don’t have any reports yet, but Burton says he’s probing a big force
up in his patch and he’s got nearly fifty enemy confirmed dead. Unknown
number of wounded. None of our people hurt.”

“Fifty! Must be NVA regulars not Cong, if there are that many. We better
let Corps know there may be a major incursion on the way.” He took the
action report and flipped pages. “You know how Corps is.” The general
snorted. “We have to do all their thinking for them. What was it that CIA
guy was saying? If we have X number of dead NVAs on the ground there must
be at least three, no make that four times that many actual casualties, so
tell ‘em we got a body count of 200. That’ll warm up those pussies at
Corps.”

At Corps HQ two Spec5s sat in the intelligence bullpen leafing through
reports. “Hey, hey, hey. This is lookin’ better and better. You know how I
was telling you that Army’s got that VIP coming in from the world and the
CG wanted some good stuff to show him? Well, those Airborne peckerheads
upcountry are reporting 200 confirmed NVA dead. I’ll just shoot this over
to Spec5 Tolbert in the COS’s office. He was bitching about how if he didn’t
come up with something he might not be able to get to the EM club until
after 1700.”

“Haw!” snorted the other enlisted man. “That’ll be the day — when Tolbert
works late. He’s never been any later than 1645 sitting tall at the EM
club with a drink in his hand. Tell you what though… nobody’s gonna
believe an even number like 200. Let’s make it 227. That sounds official,
don’t it?”

The lights burned late at USARV HQ. The general looked at his chief of
staff and his G2, deputy chief of staff for intelligence. “Well,
gentlemen, it looks as if we can take the Assistant Secretary up country
and show him how our pacification program is working. A major NVA force
repelled and 227 confirmed enemy dead.” He pulled his glasses down his nose
and peered at the report. “Nearly two hundred and fifty. When the Assistant
Secretary gets in we’ll airmobile up there and have a look at the ground.”

Bird sat on a stack of C-rations and gouged some of the mud off his boots
with a stick. Ott looked out toward the perimeter. “What’s all those
papa-sans doing outside the wire?”

“I heard some big cheese from back in the world was comin’ up from Bien Hoa
and wanted to meet some locals, hear about hearts and minds.” Bird threw
down his stick. “Sure hope they frisked those papa-sans for grenades.”

Malley came around the latrines. “All right you men. The CG seems to think
this outfit’s been doing a good job up here and I want you to look like it.
Stand up straight, soldier. Get down to the perimeter and get those
village elders up here. Find the interpreter. Move it, soldier!”

One of the papa-sans seemed pretty pissed off about something, Bird
thought. He was talking a mile a minute and waving his hands around. Bird
shooed the whole group up to the LZ as the general and the big cheese were
getting out of the Huey.

“…250 confirmed NVA killed just out in those paddies,” the general was
telling the cheese. “And these are the village locals.”

The old papa-san was still rattling off as the interpreter came up. The
civilian smiled down at her and moved toward the group of village elders.
“Wonder if he’s gonna ask ‘em to vote for him,” Bird thought. Now what the
hell? The papa-san was pointing at Bird and jabbering at the interpreter.

They finally got far enough away from the LZ so that Bird could hear what
the civilian was saying: “… think one water buffalo is a small price to
pay for cleaning this area of hundreds of enemy troops …” but the
papa-san just looked disgusted and pulled his straw hat down over his eyes.

Bird stood at attention in the hot sun. Short as he was, Ott still
wouldn’t cut him any slack.

99

marcel 08.16.13 at 8:18 pm

Hidari questioned my phrase,

“The U.S. (and earlier the European powers) has had the power…..”,

asking (me?)

Remind me how they got that power again?

I don’t believe that there is any consensus among historians. I can speculate, and it probably won’t be to well informed by the standards of this forum, but I’ll have a go since I may learn something from the response.

Europeans figured out how to use foreign technology (gunpowder) more efficiently than its inventors, and were more focused on using it for conquest and theft (I’m thinking here of the turning inwards of China following the naval expeditions of Zheng He and of Japan under the Tokugawa). This, in combination with the industrial revolution (and why did that happen in Europe? When the experts have finished duking that out, … ) made their civilization and its successor states (e.g., the US) more powerful than those anywhere else in the world.

Your turn.

100

Vlad 08.16.13 at 8:20 pm

The only thing in all of this that gives me pause is the idea, which I think is at least implicit in a lot of the comments, that US behavior during Vietnam was unique, compared either to US behavior in, say, World War II, or to other countries’ behavior during wars in the 20th century. The civilian population of Germany was not treated gently by the Americans or British during World War II, either before or after D-Day; to say nothing of how the Japanese behaved while fighting World War II in China.

This doesn’t excuse anything, at all, but I guess it makes it seem to me that trying to sift through the various causes of murderous psychopathy in war is a little bit pointless. It doesn’t matter if Americans in 1939 had racist views of the Germans or Japanese; after a few months of war, there was more than enough murderous racism on hand in the US Army to go around.

101

PatrickinIowa 08.16.13 at 8:23 pm

Bob, at 47:

Have we absolved the Universal Soldier already in this thread?

You are correct, that is a worthwhile question. It came up for me a few minutes after I posted.

Nope. Remember, there were a lot of COs, especially at the end, when it was easier for us. They took what I regarded then and what I regard now as the proper stand. (The guys in the early- to mid-sixties who went to prison, especially.) There’s no absolution. Some of broken guys know it better than we do: they live with what they did, and they can’t forgive the unforgivable.

But there should be compassion. There’s a big difference between my friend who was given a choice between jail or the Army for a pot conviction and Richard Nixon actively undermining peace negotiations in 1968. There’s a big difference between an ARVN soldier and the Diems. There’s a big difference between a VC cadre and Giap. (People voted for Nixon, and for Johnson and Kennedy, and they bear part of the blame too.)

On another topic: Anyone who was around in the US at the time knows that the war had racism wound into every strand. Not “simple” racism, to be sure, there’s no such thing, but racism was big in the mix. It wasn’t a sufficient cause, true, but it sure felt necessary at the time. Quite apart from racism that rendered Asian lives cheap, one of the reasons there’s an aggressive affirmative action program in the US military was an obvious evil: African-American and poor white draftees send into combat by white noncoms and officers, who did not give enough of a shit about their troops.

102

Ragweed 08.16.13 at 8:23 pm

posting fail – that should be “Few American’s complain about a white guy whose last name is Kurtz, but growing up I heard variations on ‘we fought a war against them and what business do they have living here’ over 2nd or 3rd generation Asians who weren’t even Japanese.

See also the attacks against Sikhs after 9/11.

103

Phil 08.16.13 at 8:30 pm

ajay – skimming the paper, it namechecks David Galula, John Nagl, Chris Short, James Corum and Wade Markel as well as Petraeus, but none of the direct quotes from them focus on Kenya; some refer to Malaya, the rest either refer to “Kenya and Malaya” or don’t specify a country.

104

Phil 08.16.13 at 8:32 pm

…David Galula being a key source on French COIN rather than one of Petraeus’s “warrior-intellectuals”.

105

Anderson 08.16.13 at 8:35 pm

97: “compared either to US behavior in, say, World War II, or to other countries’ behavior during wars in the 20th century”

The U.S. Army in Europe in WW2 did not have the “body count” mentality that it had in Vietnam. There were many instances of killing prisoners out of hand (not always in retribution for Germans’ doing the same, either), as is unfortunately common in modern war, but that wasn’t the rule – as the huge number of Germans we took prisoner demonstrates.

The Pacific in WW2 is a closer fit to Vietnam, but there, the Japanese demonstrated time and again not only a refusal to surrender, but a willingness to fake surrender in order to shoot or blow up some more enemies. I don’t fault the Japanese who did such things, necessarily, but once those stories get around, good luck to any Japanese who *do* try to surrender. The Japanese had nothing to learn from the Americans about racism.

106

PatrickinIowa 08.16.13 at 8:37 pm

“…who too often did not…” Just to be clear. Apologies to the ones who did better.

107

Marius 08.16.13 at 8:39 pm

This is puzzling. OP’s point, it seems to me, was that Turse’s book is remarkable because it’s findings are in tension with the popular historical understanding of the scale of violence (see, e.g., “What’s remarkable is how little discussion there is of this.”). As #85 suggests, OP’s point is, therefore, not an assessment of the *amount* of evil or racism expressed in Vietnam or how it compares to the expressions of evil and racism in other conflicts.

As #82 makes clear, however, one does not need a PhD in history to acknowledge that some of the violence (criminal or otherwise) visited upon the Vietnamese by American soldiers was in part motivated by racism. Perhaps #48 sought to acknowledge some measure of this racism, but failed to mention other reasons for the identified atrocities. But it seems to be that it was also an example of efforts to resist the “historical forgetting” described by OP.

I’d agree that more robust efforts are needed to prevent “historical forgetting.” In other words, it doesn’t appear to be an entirely effective strategy to merely point out that the perpetrators and forgettors are mostly white. It seems to me, however, that we should also forgo the temptation to transform OP’s point about historical forgetting into a debate about the moral force of racism merely because we acknowledge that racism played a role in our atrocities or, perhaps, in our historical forgetting.

I’d also urge that we not so easily conflate America as a country or nationality with whites as a race.

108

Michael Sullivan 08.16.13 at 8:47 pm

“Should the Holocaust Museum have a section about the firebombing of Dresden? You know, to even things out?

Jesus.”

Just when we thought an OP name representing testicles was enough to derailing the derailment…

But apparently we are hitting that third rail again, where the absolute moral rightness of Real American White People[tm] is questioned. Suddenly it becomes *VERY IMPORTANT* to remind everyone how just awful, and terrible war is, and how all countries do awful, terrible things in war, so it’s not like we’re actually evil, or even actually quite as bad as those guys over there.

And of course, God forbid we ever seriously consider the whole awfulness and terribleness of war problem when we’re thinking about whether to wage a new one, instead of just when we’re papering over the atrocities committed in the last.

109

Anderson 08.16.13 at 8:50 pm

“Should the Holocaust Museum have a section about the firebombing of Dresden?”

Best answered with another question: did the Jews bomb Dresden?

110

Marc 08.16.13 at 8:53 pm

@92: It certainly did; I doubt that we would have used the atom bomb on Germany in WW II.

111

Marc 08.16.13 at 8:55 pm

@105: As opposed to the obligatory condemnation of the US as evil? Demonization is just the mirror of worship.

112

Anderson 08.16.13 at 9:05 pm

” I doubt that we would have used the atom bomb on Germany in WW II.”

Why, why, why do people say this?

The entire reason the U.S. developed the A-bomb was to use it on Germany (before they used it on us, we feared). The Allies burned Hamburg and Dresden to the ground – why would the U.S. have hesitated to use the Bomb on Germany?

Suppose that Japan, not Germany, had surrendered in May 1945, and the Allies were struggling on the borders of Germany against fanatical resistance (this requires one to imagine Stalin’s reaching a truce, but it’s a hypo, bear with me). The U.S. was going to take the product of the most expensive research program in history and let it sit on a shelf, while American soldiers continued to die in the field?

Bullshit. Berlin would’ve been radioactive toast.

113

Marc 08.16.13 at 9:14 pm

I think that the suicide assaults in the Japanese theatre led Allied generals to believe that the people of Japan would throw themselves in waves at invaders and that the US casualty list would cross the million mark. You could cook up a hypothetical where the US could have done something like that in Germany, but the belief that the Japanese were some inhuman other was a real factor in what the US did.

114

Anderson 08.16.13 at 9:19 pm

There was next to no deliberation about *whether* to use the Bomb. It didn’t strike anyone but a few scientists, and to some degree Henry Stimson, as a big moral issue. It was a bigger bang for the buck, period. Sure, there were huge casualty estimates for Operation Olympic or whatever the invasion of Japan was called – not unreasonably (the Japanese were tough defenders) – but it’s not like anyone was “gosh, we don’t want to use this terrible weapon, but the bestial Japs leave us no choice.”

Had the Bomb been ready in late 1944, when the western offensive had petered out, there is no reason to imagine it wouldn’t have been used against Germany.

115

John Holbo 08.16.13 at 9:26 pm

Thanks for this post, Henry. Looks like a very interesting book.

116

bob mcmanus 08.16.13 at 9:33 pm

Anti-racism appears to be the Universal Get-Out-Of-Moral-Responsibility Card, doesn’t it? Even better than anti-patriarchy. We had our own back in the 60s, it was the anti-communism card. All bourgeois bullshit. You work for the school that researches electronics that guide the drones that kill the newlyweds. And you are very comfortable, and very proud of yourselves.

Chris Hedges Murdering the Wretched of the Earth. Wait, Wretched what, are we recycling the 60s?

Mblockquote>What is happening in Egypt is a precursor to a wider global war between the world’s elites** and the world’s poor, a war caused by diminishing resources, chronic unemployment and underemployment, overpopulation, declining crop yields caused by climate change, and rising food prices. Thirty-three percent of Egypt’s 80 million people are 14 or younger, and millions live under or just above the poverty line, which the World Bank sets at a daily income of $2 in that nation. The poor in Egypt spend more than half their income on food—often food that has little nutritional value. An estimated 13.7 million Egyptians, or 17 percent of the population, suffered from food insecurity in 2011, compared with 14 percent in 2009, according to a report by the U.N. World Food Program and the Egyptian Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS). Malnutrition is endemic among poor children, with 31 percent under 5 years old stunted in growth. Illiteracy runs at more than 70 percent.

In “Les Misérables” Victor Hugo described war with the poor as one between the “egoists” and the “outcasts.” The egoists, Hugo wrote, had “the bemusement of prosperity, which blunts the sense, the fear of suffering which is some cases goes so far as to hate all sufferers, and unshakable complacency, the ego so inflated that is stifles the soul.” The outcasts, who were ignored until their persecution and deprivation morphed into violence, had “greed and envy, resentment at the happiness of others, the turmoil of the human element in search of personal fulfillment, hearts filled with fog, misery, needs, and fatalism, and simple, impure ignorance.”

The belief systems the oppressed embrace can be intolerant, but these belief systems are a response to the injustice, state violence and cruelty inflicted on them by the global elites. Our enemy is not radical Islam. It is global capitalism. It is a world where the wretched of the earth are forced to bow before the dictates of the marketplace, where children go hungry as global corporate elites siphon away the world’s wealth and natural resources and where our troops and U.S.-backed militaries carry out massacres on city streets. Egypt offers a window into the coming dystopia. The wars of survival will mark the final stage of human habitation of the planet. And if you want to know what they will look like, visit any city morgue in Cairo.

**That’s y’all, folks. The elites. That’s me.

I thought it was neat to create a tension by leaving the punchline of the Ochs out. Maybe I’ll go get “Love Me, I’m a Liberal”

When in Rome, act like the Romans do.

You are Roman, you can’t run or hide, you don’t get a pass or absolution. The Vandals and Huns won’t give you a break for being a little nicer to your servants. You don’t deserve one.

117

Vlad 08.16.13 at 9:41 pm

Anderson, @102: I was actually thinking more of the American/British attitude towards strategic bombing, which was casually bloodthirsty. Bomber Harris comes off almost as a cartoon villain today; his actual policy was that every German city should be flattened before the war was over. It’s not like the firebombing of Dresden was unique, or an accident; the use of large-scale, incendiary bomb attacks to kill and terrorize civilians was explicit Allied policy during World War II. What it lacked in the horrible intimacy of Vietnam-era war crimes, it more than made up for in terms of body count.

Marc @107, 110: For the reasons I said above, I’ve really got to agree with Anderson here. The Allies had absolutely no compunction about using strategic air attacks against German civilian targets. Indeed, they developed, and used, incendiary bombing techniques that had no purpose but to cause maximum damage to German civilian targets. If they’d had the atomic bomb in 1944, they absolutely would’ve used it on Berlin.

118

Main Street Muse 08.16.13 at 9:51 pm

WWII was so much easier to swallow because the Yanks were the ones “drum, drum drummin’ over there” to save the world (sorry, just saw Yankee Doodle Dandy.) “Greatest Generation” and all…

Harry Patch, one of the last survivors of WWI who died in August 2009, once said “war is the condoned slaughter of human beings.” He was wounded at the Battle of Passchendaele, where something like 70,000 soldiers died; he knows what he’s talking about.

Like pain, we forget the details of war, the sharpness of it, the doubled-over agony of it. People are not now talking about Viet Nam; other wars have replaced it. But what happened in Viet Nam transformed this country in ways we are still reeling from today.

119

Anderson 08.16.13 at 9:52 pm

Vlad & Marc, it occurs to me I’ve been a bit too strident in my tone. My apologies.

Vlad @ 114: concur re: strategic bombing. The Brits in particular actually opposed more effective uses of their bombers, because it interfered with crossing cities off Harris’s list (tho from what you say, you’ve read the same or better books as I have & you already knew that).

It’s similar to my point that, having the Bomb, the U.S. was going to use it. The UK spent an astonishing amount on its bomber fleet. Moral considerations were not going to keep it grounded. I don’t know what studies have been done on the moral hazard of investing heavily in X, which amounts in practice to a commitment to do X.

120

RD 08.16.13 at 9:56 pm

While I have no doubt American free fire tactics and indiscriminate bombing led to large numbers of civilian casualties in Vietnam, as they also did in WWII and Korea, I’m frankly surpised that there isn’t at least some wariness fully accepting the conclusions of an author on the record as praising the Columbine killers as insurgents against the “American machine”:

http://www.49thparallel.bham.ac.uk/back/issue4/forumturse.htm

I think the response that “the evidence is the evidence” is a bit naive, given how much readers have to trust an author’s presentation of historical sources. I have zero doubt that an author expressing right wing opinions as extreme as Turse’s left wing ones would be considered untrustworthy.

121

Anderson 08.16.13 at 10:01 pm

117: well, *that* looks embarrassing.

“Approve or disapprove of their methods, vilify them as miscreants, but don’t dare disregard these modern radicals as anything less than the latest incarnation of disaffected insurgents waging the ongoing American revolution.”

122

pedant 08.16.13 at 10:16 pm

Yeah, that essay from when Turse was a grad student is pretty sophomoric, aka stupid.

The best one can say on his behalf is, “I hope he has grown up a lot in the last decade.”

It complicates the job of reading his book, but then no one was advocating that we read it as an impartial view from nowhere (were they?)

123

Mao Cheng Ji 08.16.13 at 10:31 pm

Personally, I feel that when an enemy looks just like me, it only makes him more evil, much more so. That’s evil squared. There is no White Man’s Burden component here.

124

LFC 08.16.13 at 10:48 pm

Andrew F. @94
1) in yr list of bks about US mil. conduct in Vietnam you left off the one of a yr or two ago about the so-called Tiger Squadron — appeared to be a long and heavily researched tome. I hope I’m correctly remembering the name of the squadron (of special forces engaged in a fair amt of gratuitous killing, iirc) — but I may not be.

2) Galula and Thompson as major inspirations for Petraeus’ version of COIN: that is my understanding, and accords w the one (not-so-great, imo) bk I’ve read recently on the general subject, namely G. Sitaraman’s The Counterinsurgent’s Constitution. And see also Fred Kaplan’s recent bk on Petraeus.

125

Clay 08.16.13 at 11:04 pm

I’m wondering what “Four Tet” is? Is this different from the Tet Offensive?

126

Peter Erwin 08.16.13 at 11:05 pm

LFC @ 121:
about the so-called Tiger Squadron…

Are you thinking of the Tiger Force? I remember reading the 2003 Toledo Blade articles (which received the Pulitzer Prize, apparently), and the Wikipedia article mentions a subsequent book from 2006, Tiger Force: A True Story of Men and War.

127

Salem 08.16.13 at 11:16 pm

World War 2 would have ended differently if CNN and Wikileaks were around. Of course, it isn’t just “everyone does it”, it is “everyone has always done it”. War is bad, and bad wars are bad^2… become quaker and move on …

Some might see this as an excellent argument against CNN, Wikileaks, and pacifism. Besides, many Quakers did serve their country proudly in WW2.

128

LFC 08.16.13 at 11:28 pm

Peter Erwin @122
Yes, must have been Tiger Force I was thinking of. Thanks.

129

LFC 08.17.13 at 12:04 am

rmj @13

Vietnam was, in many ways, the last event of the Cold War. And it left such a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, we preferred to forget it. My Lai and similar stories of atrocities was replaced with hippies spitting on returning soldiers (never happened, but hey….). And so Vietnam became the war where we hated “the troops.” Can’t have that, because now “the troops” are why we have “freedom.”

A somewhat minor point but perhaps worth mentioning: Karl Marlantes, a Marine in Vietnam who wrote the novel Matterhorn and after that published a non-fiction book that is largely autobiographical called What is It Like to Go to War (which I dipped into and had mixed feelings about) reports in the latter, iirc, that a woman approached him on a train when he was in uniform on a home leave and spat on him. So the spitting thing did happen, though I would guess it was a fairly rare occurrence. Indeed, it stands to reason that the spitting-on-returned-soldiers-from-Vietnam theme could not have achieved the cultural permanence it did had it not been rooted, in however small a way, in fact.

130

RD 08.17.13 at 12:08 am

119: We can’t expect a “view from nowhere” without perspective, but we can certainly question whether an author’s perspective is so extreme that it leaves him incapable of considering contradictory or qualifying evidence. If Turse has recanted or qualified his praise of the Columbine killers since 2000, I have not seen it, and I would be glad to be corrected. We would certainly dismiss out of hand a study of immigration to Europe by an author who had praised Anders Brevik as an insurgent against creeping sharia. I’m not sure why Turse isn’t a due a large share of the same suspicion. Can we really imagine the author of the Columbine essay reaching any other conclusion about Vietnam than a pervasive American strategy of atrocity, no matter what the evidence?

Here’s a link to an academic review that doesn’t mention Turse’s Columbine views but still sees some serious problems of objectivity and evidence with the book, while still giving it some praise:
http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=38666

131

Main Street Muse 08.17.13 at 12:27 am

Displaced Person @33 – “I submit to the historians on this blog that the ferocious (and popular) denial of American behavior in Vietnam is deeply connected to America’s even more ferocious (and violent) denial of the facts of slavery in America (and of Jim Crow and continuing white supremacy. If you accept my premise, American denial of what we have done in Iraq and Afghanistan should not be surprising.”

Yes! And let’s not forget the systemic extermination of the Native American population.

And kudos to Random Lurker @ 70!

132

Main Street Muse 08.17.13 at 12:49 am

“The result is a strange form of historical forgetting, where there’s a general sense that bad things happened, but no understanding of how general these bad things were, nor desire to hold people accountable for them.”

I get the feeling that the some on the Crooked Timber team are quite young. Is it news that US troops committed atrocities in Viet Nam? Are there people in America who believe that for the most part, things went well in Viet Nam, only occasional bad behavior observed? We were the Yankee Doodle Dandies of Asia? Somehow I doubt it.

The mistakes made by the US in the Viet Nam War have been a weight around American foreign policy for a half-decade. Errol Morris’ Fog of War is an outstanding resource on the “fog” surrounding this war. (NYTimes review here: http://nyti.ms/14HEqz9)

During the war, the actions of American troops were the focus of protests across the country – Kent State is one example (“four dead in Ohio…”)

And is there any war in any time in history in which a particular army does not demonize the “enemy?” If so, please let me know…

133

Tony Lynch 08.17.13 at 1:07 am

#57: “it is useful to remind ourselves that both for good and for bad, the U.S. is not especially unusual” – but that is not how the US sees itself, and this fact matters (can you not see it?). In the US “pure hypocrisy” is especially easy (I have, with a colleague written about this in a recent issue of ‘Philosophy in the Contemporary World”.)

134

LFC 08.17.13 at 1:07 am

from the OP

Latterday liberals acknowledge that bad things happened, but mostly don’t want to open up the can of worms, for fear that they’d be accused of being unpatriotic and hating the troops or something. The result is a strange form of historical forgetting, where there’s a general sense that bad things happened, but no understanding of how general these bad things were, nor desire to hold people accountable for them.

I think that’s largely right, but one partial exception to this generalization about lack of public discussion/acknowledgement of Vietnam — partial b.c not focused specifically on atrocities — was the widespread public debates that surrounded McNamara’s apologetic memoir In Retrospect. McNamara was either a war criminal or a tragic figure or both (I lean to “both”) who became increasingly uneasy with, and eventually opposed to, the massive bombing but couldn’t bring himself to leave the Johnson administration until it was too late for his departure to have much of any political (or moral) significance. (Contrast McNamara with Walt Rostow, who remained entirely unapologetic about his role to the end of his life and criticized McNamara after In Retrospect was published. On Rostow, see David Milne’s excellent America’s Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War.)

Also, as other commenters have already mentioned, publicly dealing with atrocities committed by soldiers in an unpopular war is difficult: the OP mentions that the UK is just now starting to confront the Kenya crimes. Calley and Mylai could be seen as stand-ins, as it were, for a larger category of crimes/atrocities, with the public sentiment being: ok, we dealt with that, now we don’t have to bother any more.

Omega Centauri @76

The thing that really struck me from Turse’s book, was that the treatment of villagers varied tremendously from unit to unit. He interviews a Vietnamese who said they could never figure out the Americans. They didn’t know if the next patrol would try to win hearts and minds by giving villagers treats, or if they were coming to massacre them. I suspect getting at the truth requires hearing from all sorts of soldiers, not just from those who experienced one or the other of the behavioral extremes.

This resonates with my impressions gleaned from occasional reading on the Vietnam War. (Have not read Turse’s bk.)

135

Chaz 08.17.13 at 1:11 am

I don’t know why Americans would be less reflective about Vietnam than Brits about Kenya. Vietnam was a much bigger war so you’d think it would be more remembered. Maybe that’s part of it–Vietnam had lots of conscripts, and the nation’s whole attention, while Kenya was just one of many colonial adventures (please correct me if I’m wrong). Maybe people have already discussed and thought about Vietnam all they care to, while Brits are still discovering Kenya. Dunno.

I do know that for people my age (twenties and probably thirties too) Vietnam is just history. People my age don’t know much about it or think about it or care about it. Personally I already knew the brave American soldier is typically interested in murdering random foreigners (then in Vietnam and more recently in Iraq), but I didn’t know there were kill quotas. That is much more organized and official than I am used to with war atrocities. Very Nazi-like.

It is worth keeping this type of information in mind when we consider Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. Right wingers yammer on about them as traitors, and that seems to be the mainstream view or not, but regardless of whether Manning was discriminating enough in his releases that’s got nothing to do with his and Wikileaks’ persecution. The reason is to keep the dirt buried. The few (one?) disclosures that Manning’s judge admitted were justified, because they revealed serious crimes, are exactly the ones the military and the administration want to keep buried the most. They have a culture in the military and the intelligence agencies of “do whatever you want, just don’t ever question an order or reveal misconduct.” Even the officers and officials who have not personally committed crimes treasure that system because of the feeling of power it gives them.

*I am the type of person who reads Crooked Timber, so, not typical.

136

Main Street Muse 08.17.13 at 1:17 am

Aren’t war criminals typically found among the losers? From Ebert’s review of Fog of War:

“After the war, [McNamara] says, in one of the film’s most astonishing moments, LeMay observed to him that if America had lost [WWII], they would have been tried as war criminals. Thinking of the 100,000 burned alive in Tokyo, McNamara finds lesson No. 5: ‘Proportionality should be a guideline in war.’ In other words, I suppose, kill enough of the enemy but don’t go overboard. Lesson No. 9: ‘In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.'” http://bit.ly/1bF5xki

Which war has no war criminals?

137

LFC 08.17.13 at 1:30 am

PatrickinIowa @98

There’s a big difference between my friend who was given a choice between jail or the Army for a pot conviction and [then-candidate] Richard Nixon [and Henry Kissinger] actively undermining peace negotiations in 1968. There’s a big difference between an ARVN soldier and the Diems. There’s a big difference between a VC cadre and Giap.

Yes, especially the first sentence of the quoted passage.
Or as they say on the Internet: this times one thousand.

138

Bruce Wilder 08.17.13 at 2:37 am

What we call “forgetting” is the limit of imagination, that lies behind what we sometimes call our “worldviews”. Whatever is happening in the contemporary moment illuminates the past, by relieving us of the need to imagine aspects of the past, and we experience this as a “remembering”.

It is happening in economics, as we live the Great Depression Redux, and learn that the Cliff Notes version put together by Paul Samuelson, Milton Friedman and others, 1946-1970, is wrong — as Krugman noted recently — and the Austrians, of all people economists, start to look comparatively smart, if still cruel.

And, the same thing goes on with war and atrocity. Most people don’t know much history: a few dates and headlines with little foundation, and often cockamamie counterfactuals (“slavery would have ended anyway”; “Wilson’s intervention knocking out the Kaiser created Hitler and WWII” etc.) They may learn the outline of some potted history, which serves mythic purposes, and are continually surprised by some factoid floated about by a manipulative fool with a tendentious argument.

There’s something to the idea that war, itself, is an atrocity. It is a context, in which killing, maiming, wanton destruction, and seizure by force is the general practice, so instances of killing, maiming, wanton destruction and seizure can be distinguished as atrocity only by differences, which do not touch only the killing, maiming, etc.

If you are going to make moral distinctions, and vindicate some conduct of war, as in all moral analysis, you are forced to confront purpose and intention. The clever moralist of war will say that the purpose of war is peace, that war is policy by other means, and seeks cooperation on favorable terms. War — “good war” seeks to persuade others to cooperate on terms that can be justified in the absence of war — in peace in other words.

So, a war of extermination, a war to enslave, killing, maiming, etc. for their own sake and not to bring about a peace — these form a context for moral atrocities.

Vietnam, in its “purpose” straddles the era of WWII and the era of the American Imperium.

The mass protests were not against the war; they were against the draft. Even then, in their idyll of youthful idealism, my fellow baby boomers were selfish aholes at the core. It is no accident that multiple draft exemptions bred later war mongers. It was the war, in which the military began its step-wise transformation from a foundation of popular politicians directing professionals leading citizen-soldiers into our present mode, of corrupt politicians covering for a military-industrial complex sending mercenaries.

The “body count” mentality reflected the absence of strategic purpose: peace on terms respectful of the legitimate interests of others was no longer an aim. Without an achievable strategic goal, there were no relevant strategic means, available to the generals.

We know now that it was also a war without provocation, an aggressive war, initiated by the U.S., just like GWB’s Iraq War. Many thought that they were demonstrating that they had learned the lessons of Nuremberg and appeasement. With time to regret his folly, Johnson, I’m sure, genuinely wanted to reach a peace accord in Paris. But, having started a war for no particular purpose achievable in peace, it was soon all about signaling “determination” and other such crap. Whenever a signaling argument is offered as a reason to do some irrational thing — and notice, please, that signaling arguments are always, always about rationalizing the doing of an irrational thing — common sense and moral sensibility have left the building.

You can say that the Allies were not particularly gentle with, say, the Germans, after the Second World War, and that’s true in some material senses. But, when the war was over, the war was over. For both sides. The war had been fought with distinct and achievable aims, at least by the side that won, and so, they could reach a peace on terms, however harsh in some respects, which could be accepted. Vietnam was the first war, which America fought on terms of perpetuity, that is, with the strategic aim of keeping the war going, forever if possible. It was the first war, in which peace was American defeat. That purposelessness is the mother of all atrocity in war, as the means of war are horrible in themselves, and when war becomes its own aim, it’s all atrocity all the time.

139

CRosssi 08.17.13 at 3:05 am

Here’s a critique of Turse’s book by someone who there at the creation of GI resistance to the war in Viet Nam. Turse uses US records to document things that were well documented long ago in the GI resistance movement. See Penny Lewis well done new book for more on GI protest.
http://www.inthemindfield.com/2013/04/05/an-enfant-terrible-stumbles-upon-the-vietnam-war/

140

William Timberman 08.17.13 at 3:18 am

Bruce Wilder @ 134

The mass protests were not against the war; they were against the draft. Even then, in their idyll of youthful idealism, my fellow baby boomers were selfish aholes at the core.

It may be unfair to pick on two sentences abstracted from a very thoughtful comment, but still…

Even in the service of self-deprecation, rhetorical excess can sometimes dishonor things that ought to be respected. I was there too, and I say it wasn’t always and everywhere as you’ve described it here. It probably doesn’t matter to those young enough to be in the process of fabricating their own memories, but it matters to me.

141

Ronan(rf) 08.17.13 at 3:27 am

Well if Hidari can quote Marcuse ….

….I see it all come about again, the tasselled cortege,
the clop of the tossing team
with funeral pom-poms, the sergeant major’s shout,
the stamp of boots, then the volley; there is no greater theme
than this chasm-deep surrendering of power
the whited eyes and robes of surrendering hordes,
red tunics, and the great names Sind, Turkistan, Cawnpore,
dust-dervishes and the Saharan silence afterwards.

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/01/the-lost-empire/307836/

142

Peter T 08.17.13 at 4:24 am

As someone who licked a lot of envelopes in the anti-Vietnam cause, I can say that the backbone of the movement in Australia (the ones who started the movement, the local organisers and many of the wealthier backers) were middle-aged middle class veterans of World War II.

143

Harold 08.17.13 at 4:35 am

As someone who participated in every anti-war demonstration from the early sixties on (and before that the smaller ban-the-bomb demonstrations against the arms race — when people threw stones at us), I strongly disagree with Bruce Wilder that the demonstrations were primarily against the draft. I remember reading anti-Vietnam war articles in Harper’s magazine (at that time the war was actually primarily in Laos) in our social studies room when a junior in high school (prominently left there by the teacher). Monks were setting themselves on fire. We students stood up and wore black armbands during air raid drills. Martin Luther King spoke out against the war. We went to see Senators Hatfield and Fulbright lecture against it at the Ethical Culture Society. There were teach-ins on the radio. These people were not merely selfishly against the draft.

144

Bruce Wilder 08.17.13 at 7:12 am

William Timberman @ 139: it wasn’t always and everywhere as you’ve described it

History is not describing the past as it was; it’s telling a story, that gives the past the meaning it acquires, when you find out later how the story “ends”. My sentiments at the time are not the same as my re-sentiments, now. Subsequent events, unfortunately, selected some of the less flattering aspects of antiwar (and reactionary) politics, and gave them salience and weight that they may not have seemed to have in contemporary experience.

145

Random Lurker 08.17.13 at 9:03 am

My two cents:

War in a modern sense is always annihilation war, because the main strategy is to tear down the opponent’s industrial base or the opponent’s civil support.

As a consequence, atrocities both of the Dresden kind and of the My Lai kind are perfectly rational, in fact the only way to wage a war.

But, we are not yet able to work out a totally warless society, so we tell ourselves lies about smart bombs, surgical attacks etc.

But the reality is that you win a war mostly through atrocities .

(This is an argument against war, not pro atrocities )

146

Random Lurker 08.17.13 at 10:22 am

For example, how could Hitler win the “battle of Britain” without committing mass atrocities?

147

maidhc 08.17.13 at 10:37 am

There are more parts of the Vietnam War that are often forgotten.

The South Vietnamese government on the eve of partition warning Catholics that they would be cruelly persecuted by the North Vietnamese government, prompting a mass evacuation of refugees to the South, who were never provided with any kind of aid or shelter, and some of whom became roving bands of beggars/bandits.

The South Vietnamese government persecuting ethnic Chinese. The Chinese formerly played an important part in buying the agricultural produce of the villages and supplying them with manufactured goods. Removing the Chinese caused a breakdown in the traditional economic structure that was never replaced.

The North Vietnamese military motivating its own soldiers. Soldiers who were reluctant to go into combat were shot. Orthodox Communist military tactics as developed by Trotsky. The pivotal battle of Dien Bien Phu required sending waves of soldiers against the outnumbered but much better armed French. They were motivated by being covered from the rear.

It was a nasty war. Nasty and ineffective things were done by both sides. I’ve read a number of histories, and it seems as though incompetence and corruption were rife on the Southern side. From some stories I’ve heard from people who lived through it, the Northern side was not free from corruption either.

I suspect that it’s not so much different from other wars, except in the matter of being better documented.

I’m of the age that I remember nightly news reports on TV at dinnertime featuring combat footage. That may be something unique in history. I think part of the “Vietnam syndrome” is the military resolving to never let the media have unfettered access ever again.

148

Main Street Muse 08.17.13 at 11:11 am

“I think part of the “Vietnam syndrome” is the military resolving to never let the media have unfettered access ever again.”

Yes. It also ended the draft. With a purely volunteer army, there is no need for widespread protests. Most are never going to see combat, unless they’ve signed up for this challenge.

149

Main Street Muse 08.17.13 at 11:28 am

And to Bruce Wilder, I think you stretch it a bit to say Boomers were “selfish aholes at the core” even in their protests of the war.

The 1960s were a breathtaking breakdown of modern society – a decade that saw multiple high-profile assassinations of public figures – JFK, RFK, MLK, Malcolm X, Medger Evers. If you look at tape of the TV coverage of JKF’s funeral, they cut from the cortege to show Oswald being taking somewhere – and he was shot on camera.

Civil Rights was continuing its war on segregation – we didn’t see the passage of the Voting Act until 1964. Feminists were waging war on the status quo as well – Feminine Mystique came out in 1963.

1968 Democratic National Convention brought “chaos in the streets of Chicago.”

Johnson’s reign was crippled by Viet Nam; Nixon resigned in disgrace. I was too young really to remember the “end” of the Viet Nam war, but in studying it, I remember a picture of the last helicopter leaving the US embassy (I believe it was the embassy) – with an incredibly long line of Vietnamese who were left behind.

The boomers said “no” to much of the terrible decisions of those in power. They were the first generation to say “no” en masse to a war that had no meaning. Perhaps it was ignited by self-interest, but it was also inspired by a horror and a rejection of what our war policy was doing. Much more than selfishness going on here.

150

LFC 08.17.13 at 11:55 am

B. Wilder writes:
The mass protests were not against the war; they were against the draft.

Bruce Wilder can be thoughtful but he can also be pompous, irritating, and wrong. As others have already pointed out, this statement (treated, as it must be given the way it’s phrased, as a sweeping generalization) is wrong, and BW’s mealy-mouthed response to W. Timberman, above, doesn’t help matters. Someone who inveighs against the dangers of “potted history” should be more careful.

I was born in ’57 and marched in the Vietnam Moratorium in ’69 at the age of 12 (I don’t have good memories of it but I know I was there). Obviously I had no prospect of being drafted at 12. I can assure BW that I was not primarily protesting the draft (as opposed to protesting the war).

Btw the year 1957 was the statistical peak of the baby boom, so Bruce Wilder is also wrong to imply that all his “fellow baby-boomers” were facing the draft. A great many “baby boomers” were too young to have that as a personal worry. Many people seem to think that “baby boomers” refers to those born in the relatively immediate aftermath of WW2. In fact, by conventional usage the “baby boom” runs from 1946 to 1964, with 1957 the statistical peak, so the demographic impression left by Bruce Wilder’s reference to his “fellow baby boomers” is incorrect.

151

LFC 08.17.13 at 11:58 am

should read: “refers only to those born…”

152

LFC 08.17.13 at 12:01 pm

@Main Street Muse
I remember a picture of the last helicopter leaving the US embassy (I believe it was the embassy)

In fact that famous picture, though often referred to as being taken of the embassy rooftop, was not the U.S. embassy; it was another bldg in Saigon. Btw the photographer who took that photo died quite recently — his name is escaping me at the moment.

153

Mao Cheng Ji 08.17.13 at 12:04 pm

I suspect prospect of being drafted, or your friends/relatives being drafted, will make a miracle in amplifying moral outrage at imperialism and war crimes.

154

LFC 08.17.13 at 12:14 pm

I suspect prospect of being drafted, or your friends/relatives being drafted, will make a miracle in amplifying moral outrage at imperialism and war crimes.

It will amplify outrage and no doubt the draft did motivate some or even a lot of the protest but that’s not what BW wrote. What he wrote was “The mass protests were not against the war; they were against the draft” and that statement, as a generalization to cover the motives of all participants in the anti-war mvt, is flat-out wrong. And no amount of Mao Cheng Ji’s typical [fill in the blank 'cause I can't even think of the right word right now] is going to alter that.

155

Mao Cheng Ji 08.17.13 at 12:23 pm

Semantics. I don’t think there’s much doubt that the draft was a big factor, and in its absence a lot of protestors would’ve opted for a barbecue party. And so the annoyance and indignation seem misplaced.

156

William Timberman 08.17.13 at 12:24 pm

Bruce Wilder @ 143

As long as we were honest then, and remains so now, the fact that our personal — often internal — moral wrestles can have a rubber nose put on them by the forces of history shouldn’t be a matter of shame. Regret yes, but not shame. It’s probably also worth saying that we’re no more omniscient now than we were then. That’s something we ought to take into account even when we’re convinced that we have come to the end, and that it doesn’t flatter us.

157

LFC 08.17.13 at 12:53 pm

And so the annoyance and indignation seem misplaced.

What is misplaced is your determination to belittle the uncounted hours and the enormous effort spent in the anti-war movement and the E.McCarthy, R.Kennedy and McGovern campaigns (referring to the U.S. now b.c that’s the context I’m most familiar with) by people who were motivated by, yes, altruistic motives and a sense of outrage at what their govt was doing in their name — and who had no prospect of facing the draft themselves and no close relatives who did. I know, MCJ, that you don’t believe in altruism but that’s your problem and it results in this instance in an inaccurate view of history. This is not semantics, it is a question of whether your corrosive, cynical, often stupid worldview should be allowed to infect, without opposition, every nook and cranny of every subject that arises here.

158

Mao Cheng Ji 08.17.13 at 1:09 pm

Objecting to rhetorical flourish and romanticizing, and cynicism are different things. If you are really against wars, it’s useful to understand what’s going on. But if you’re just shooting off your mouth to feel good, that’s fine too, please ignore my comments.

159

Main Street Muse 08.17.13 at 1:19 pm

Here’s a link to an NPR story looking back at the last helicopter flight out of Viet Nam – told on “Reunification Day” 2005. http://n.pr/16vVkr4

Pic of helicopter included.

Story notes that “capitalism won” in the end.

160

Harold 08.17.13 at 1:30 pm

Rebellion became commodified in the seventies and selfishness came in in the 1980s with the victory of Ronald Reagan and the “you can have it all” advertising campaigns. Before that there was:

I taught Allen Ginsberg how to write a poem
I was on the road when Kerouac lived at home
I write faster and harder than Cassady can
And like Popeye I live in a garbage can
Dook, Dook, Dook of the beatnicks,
Dook of the beatniks, yeah!

I dig Diz, and Bird, and Monk,
And I dig wine, and weed, and junk.
I got an orgone box, a blue guitar;
Not a beret, cause I’m not a cliché, hey!
Dook, Dook, Dook of the beatnicks
Dook of the beatniks, yeah!

I don’t like Ike, I don’t watch TV,
I ain’t no goddam bourgeoisie!
I ain’t no chump, I ain’t no fool,
I’m the total [??] of solid cool, you betcha!
D-O-O-K, Dook of the beatniks!
Da-da-da-da, Dook of the Beatniks!
Hey-oo, hey-oo, heyoo, heyoo
Ai-yi-ai!

I love to slip, I love to slide
From Old North Beach to the Lower East Side
I live for kicks, I live for fun,
I fought the fifties and I won!
D-O-O-K, Dook of the beatniks!
Dook of the beatniks, yea—aaaah! –Peter Stampfel

161

bob mcmanus 08.17.13 at 1:35 pm

The mass protests, if you include as you should, Detroit, Watts, Mexico City, Paris, Tokyo University, Prague ad infinitum…were about many things, or about one big thing.
Causes and motivations and inciting events are all very interesting, but we do not necessarily and probably shouldn’t have to take the contemporaneous or historical narratives as definitive. This leads to a misunderstanding of mass political action and was a problem in communicating and spreading the Occupy Movement. What do they Want?

Everything.

I will have a banner and a different slogan when the moment comes, some martyr, some specific injustice. “Burn shit down and take their stuff” is theory, not praxis or tactics.

162

bob mcmanus 08.17.13 at 1:47 pm

“Ending the Draft” or “Ending the Vietnam War” was not exactly the spirit of 1968. Not even if you add ending racism and misogyny and colonialism do you complete an explanation. As if moving 10 divisions from Vietnam to Egypt would have made us happy.

At least some of us wanted to end all wars. And a smaller portion of those understood very well what it would take.

Revolution is not reform.

163

Anderson 08.17.13 at 2:26 pm

“For example, how could Hitler win the “battle of Britain” without committing mass atrocities?”

Not the best example. The Germans should’ve focused on squadron and radar infrastructure. The turn to indiscriminate city-bombing was a mark of defeat.

164

Barry 08.17.13 at 2:41 pm

LFC: “Indeed, it stands to reason that the spitting-on-returned-soldiers-from-Vietnam theme could not have achieved the cultural permanence it did had it not been rooted, in however small a way, in fact.”

Actually, it doesn’t.

165

PatrickinIowa 08.17.13 at 2:48 pm

Bob at 161: Right. Our notions of what constitutes a revolution probably differ (you’re not a pacifist, I don’t think), but right. 1968 was about “everything,” even though the students at the universities and suburban high-school (my sample) didn’t quite understand what it meant to be genuinely anti-racist, anti-misogynist, anti-capitalist or internationalist.

I am a boomer. Like most other generations, we are and were selfish assholes. Removing the personal threat of the draft did take some of the steam out of the anti-war movement, and most middle-class-and-up white men were too privileged and too stoned (perhaps I’m projecting a little here) to join the resistance to the assault on workers rights, social safety nets, and and leftist thought that began well before Reagan, and (I hope, probably vainly) crested with G.W. Bush.

You quoted Chris Hedges on Egypt to good effect earlier. Here’s another line from the same essay, “The only way to break the hold of radical Islam is to give its followers a stake in the wider economy, the possibility of a life where the future is not dominated by grinding poverty, repression and hopelessness.” The more general version of that, domestically and internationally, is what people (including me) tend to lose sight of.

It’s humbling and depressing to think of the time and opportunities we’ve squandered.

166

PatrickinIowa 08.17.13 at 2:49 pm

Or, if you prefer, “I’ve squandered.”

167

LFC 08.17.13 at 3:45 pm

Barry @163
You’re right, I suppose, it might have been a complete myth, so my statement “it stands to reason” was too strong. But I suspect it did have some slim basis in fact. (Doesn’t really matter here one way or the other.)

168

MPAVictoria 08.17.13 at 5:07 pm

“Objecting to rhetorical flourish and romanticizing, and cynicism are different things. If you are really against wars, it’s useful to understand what’s going on. But if you’re just shooting off your mouth to feel good, that’s fine too, please ignore my comments.”

Stop being a jerk Mao.

169

heckblazer 08.17.13 at 6:09 pm

Racism was definitely a factor in brutality of the Pacific theater in WWII. American propaganda painted Nazi as the evil subhuman monsters. By contrast it showed the Japanese people as subhuman monsters. To my knowledge no GI mailed German skulls to their girlfriends back home, but they did do that with Japanese skulls. Since the Japanese were just as racist that was a recipe for some very ugly fighting.

170

Ronan(rf) 08.17.13 at 6:17 pm

On race and US FP, Paul Kramer has written a good bit, here’s some links to his work

http://paulkrameronline.com/Kramer/writing.html

171

JimV 08.17.13 at 7:05 pm

rmj @ 13 “hippies spitting on returning soldiers (never happened, but hey….)”

Following up on 128, I have also seen a different account by a different soldier who was spat on by a civilian woman as he disembarked from the airplane upon which he returned from Vietnam to the USA. (Not sure if she was a hippie or not, but hey …)

This has been another minor edition of “Someone is wrong on the Internet”, having nothing to do with the main point.

The swift-boating of John Kerry was first instigated and most passionately prosecuted by those who hated him for saying in the 1970’s that US troops committed war crimes in Vietnam, if I recall correctly.

I have one slim hope for humanity: that we invent a reliable lie-detector and use it to eliminate propaganda and face facts. Since memories are faulty, even a good lie-detector may not be enough, however.

172

Random Lurker 08.17.13 at 8:53 pm

@Anderson 162

So Hitler destroys radar infrastructure and lands soldiers in Dover.

Does the queen say: ok, let’s have a reasonable armistice ?
Does Churchill say: Ok, we were joking, now we are going to help you against Stalin?

The only two big nations that actually acted this way were France and, on the other side, Italy, and anyway both had shadow governments and “partisans”.

173

Anderson 08.17.13 at 9:40 pm

171: I’m sorry, I thought you mentioned the Battle of Britain specifically, i.e., the battle for air superiority over England and the Channel.

Read a book like Five Days in May and you will get a good feeling for who would have led the call for negotiations with the Germans, had they landed and not been repulsed.

P.S. – the monarch was a king then, Elizabeth II’s father – the stuttering fellow in that movie a few years back.

174

Ian Maitland 08.17.13 at 9:50 pm

Not so fast everyone.

I believe that Turse first published his charges in the Nation. Unless I am mistaken, that was the same journal that published Chomsky and Herman’s apologetics for Pol Pot and denial of the stories of genocide coming out of Cambodia. Talk about a “credibility gap”!

Yes, you can make this stuff up.

And if you make it up, people will come. Take one of the big lies about the Vietnam War, namely that Lyndon Johnson fabricated the second Gulf of Tonkin attack in order to stampede the Tonkin Gulf Resolution through Congress. (Predictably the charge was made by Noam Chomsky). There is no evidence that Johnson did not believe that the attack had happened when he introduced the Resolution into Congress.

I hope we will wait until critics have had a chance to scrutinize Turse’s charges before we jump to conclusions. But I guess these comments have already dashed ny hopes.

175

Main Street Muse 08.17.13 at 11:05 pm

From the LA Review of Books review that Cowen links to: “To fully appreciate the Vietnam War, we must first clear up any misperception that it was some kind of fair fight between Vietnamese, with the US helping one side and the Soviet Union and China helping the other.”

WHO ever thought the Viet Nam war was some kind of fair fight? Viet Nam was a “domino” in American foreign policy – if it fell, all of Asia would fall like so many dominoes.

At BEST, it is shabby reporting to say something like this in a book review about the Viet Nam war. By the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, it was obvious that this was not a “fair fight.” If there are people today who believe the Viet Nam War was this “fair fight” – they are ignorant and perhaps should not be reviewing for the LA review of books…

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 08.17.13 at 11:35 pm

@174: The reviewer does NOT subscribe to the proposition that it was a “fair fight,” rather, he writes that, “[t]o fully appreciate the Vietnam War, we must first clear up any misperception that it was some kind of fair fight between Vietnamese, with the US helping one side and the Soviet Union and China helping the other. Turse’s book does so in many ways….” To disabuse folks of such a silly belief is a goal the reviewer wants us to endorse, so perhaps one shouldn’t comment on the qualifications of a reviewer until one is capable of comprehending what is clearly transparent in meaning.

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EWI 08.18.13 at 12:18 am

Similar crimes have certainly caused a scandal in the UK, which has its own vicious history of colonialism, and is now starting to confront the crimes committed by UK troops during their suppression of the Kenyan revolt

So, by that rate of going, maybe in a hundred years time they might have progressed as far as acknowledging what they did in the c.20 to ‘suppress’ the Irish revolts.

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LFC 08.18.13 at 12:50 am

J. Lowndes @93: very interesting re that photo.

Also meant to thank rf @140 for mentioning the Walcott poem, which I hadn’t seen — somewhat more relevant to the Kenya reference than Vietnam though(?).

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Harold 08.18.13 at 1:32 am

Being called baby killers is equivalent to being spat on in the minds of the thin skinned.

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Ronan(rf) 08.18.13 at 3:05 am

LFC, yeah I was thinking more in the context of Kenya than Vietnam..though if I was to get melodramatic I guess it could be extended..
enjoyed your comments above vis a vis the peace movement, btw

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godoggo 08.18.13 at 3:22 am

Hey, I got some Walcott here in my backpack here.

“ces mamailes-là!” Statics shouted, meaning “Children!”
Then Hector would tap his knee with: “The mike not on.”
“Shit!” said the Professor with his usual acumen.

Whatever that means. Also a CD, but that’s the other Walcott.

182

godoggo 08.18.13 at 3:24 am

I’m sorry.

183

Ronan(rf) 08.18.13 at 3:27 am

No need to be sorry godoggo. Never be sorry

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godoggo 08.18.13 at 3:41 am

Oh, OK. Sorry about that.

185

bad Jim 08.18.13 at 4:47 am

I was of draft age at Berkeley during Vietnam, and many of my older friends were veterans. The expectation was that once you graduated you’d get a draft notice, so there was no shame to having served in the military. If anyone spat on returning soldiers it was probably the other side, which despised them for being drug-addled fuckups who lost the war.
In my recollection anti-war demonstrations were responses to particular provocations like the bombing of Cambodia and persisted even after the lottery reduced the threat of the draft, dropping off after the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973 (and after Nixon’s 1972 landslide).

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Random Lurker 08.18.13 at 5:15 am

@173
oops!

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Dr. Hilarius 08.18.13 at 6:11 am

No doubt somewhere some returning vet was spit on during the 10+ years of US involvement in Vietnam. But hatred of the troops was certainly not a general feature of the anti-war movement. To the contrary, they were regarded as victims albeit ones who were still accountable for actions exceeding the Geneva accords. My opinion is based on active involvement in Student Mobilization Against the War and other vehicles of anti-war activity (including living in a radical defense collective with a bunch of Maoists and SDS members). The whole GI Coffee House movement was an effort to assist active-duty service people in their anti-war efforts.

The media did its best to ignore sober, reasoned arguments against the war, instead focusing on the most extreme hippie/freak protestors and attributing any dumb action by an individual to the entire movement. In fact, the “liberal” viewpoint on the war was largely absent until after the 1968 Chicago Convention. National reporters became more sympathetic to anti-war actions after their heads were dribbled against the pavement by cops. But the media viewpoint never moved beyond Vietnam being a well-intentioned mistake.

Bruce Wilder may have overstated the situation when he said that the anti-war movement was more anti-draft than anything else. The prospect of being sent off to die in a rice paddy on the other side of the world does cut through apathy. Protests did diminish with the “Vietnamization” of the war and the end of the draft. There were a lot more spectators to demonstrations than active participants all along. But the war did open many eyes to issues of racism, imperialism, and capitalism. Numbers of the radicalized didn’t reach critical mass and politics regressed to the mean.

For most under-40 people I encounter Vietnam is ancient history, poorly situated in time. Under 30 and it’s almost unknown. Historical amnesia isn’t particular to Vietnam, Americans just don’t have much interest in history. It’s the eternal now of the mind. End of rant. I’ll go away and get nostalgic looking at old photos of the era.

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 08.18.13 at 12:59 pm

I think Dr. Hilarius above is on target.

In lieu of my bibliography (one CT commenter did request it), I’ll proffer some titles directly related to some comments on this thread (yes, I know, the Lewis book was already mentioned).

• Foley, Michael S. Confronting the War Machine: Draft Resistance during the Vietnam War. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
• Franklin, H. Bruce. M.I.A. or Mythmaking in America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993.
• Franklin, H. Bruce. Vietnam and Other American Fantasies. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000.
• Hunt, Andrew E. The Turning: A History of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
• Lembcke, Jerry. The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
• Lewis, Penny. Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks: The Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013.
• Moser, Richard R. The New Winter Soldiers: GI and Veteran Dissent During the Vietnam Era. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996.
• Nicosia, Gerald. Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans’ Movement. New York: Crown Publishers, 2001.
• Proceedings of the Russell International War Crimes Tribunal (John Duffett, ed.). Against the Crime of Silence. New York: Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation/Flanders, NJ: O’Hare Books, 1968.
• Russell, Bertrand. War Crimes in Vietnam. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1967.
• Small, Melvin. Covering Dissent: The Media and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994.
• Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The Winter Soldier Investigation: An Inquiry into American War Crimes. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1972.

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 08.18.13 at 1:02 pm

I have a comment awaiting moderation.

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dr ngo 08.18.13 at 1:26 pm

I started teaching courses on the Vietnam War in the mid-1970s, at the University of Michigan. It was already ancient history to many of the undergraduates, who remembered it having been on TV, but had little idea of who was fighting whom and for what. Instead of beginning (as I first tried) “Here is what you think about Vietnam, and why it is wrong, or at least needs modification . . .” I found it was better to begin “Once upon a time there was a place called Vietnam . . .”

And that was before the poisonous lies of The Deer Hunter and other revisionist crap (Rambo II? Chuck Norris??) hit the screens. Those who opposed the war on principle – and there were those, along with the opportunists any movement collects – had about 48 hours after the end of the war to rejoice before the revisionists started fighting back, arguing simultaneously that (1) we never lost, only quit due to hippies, liberals in Congress, and the moral weakening of America and (2) we were Right in the first place, and still are, and always will be, because AMERICA!!

So there’s really not much new here, and I don’t have a whole lot of interest in fighting (intellectual) battles now more than a third of a century old. Although if anyone still believes the USA was blameless in Tonkin Gulf (and Noam Chomsky was wrong) . . . well, they’re probably beyond hope of redemption anyway.

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Harold 08.18.13 at 1:48 pm

Protests diminished after Kent State. I do recall that on the or one of the last big demonstrations that I attended in Washington, the troops, deployed in trucks everywhere, were giving us the peace sign in large numbers. They were on our side. Those overseas were tie-dyeing their underwear. That is what upset the powers that be. I am sure that the “spat on troops” lie was either concocted or given wide currency to prevent such shows of solidarity.

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EricD 08.18.13 at 2:14 pm

In discussions like this, responses to past horrors often swing between despair and calls for criminal prosecution of individuals. In most instances, it would seem far more productive to call for a <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truth_and_reconciliation_commission&quot; truth and reconciliation commission “tasked with discovering and revealing past wrongdoing by a government (or, depending on the circumstances, non-state actors also), in the hope of resolving conflict left over from the past.”

The advantages of the truth and reconciliation process begin with the problems of legal prosecution. For good reasons, prosecutions engage a cumbersome apparatus of law. Criminal prosecutions apply stringent rules of evidence and must attempt to establish facts (and sometimes motivations) beyond reasonable doubt. Prosecution of specific government figures is therefore hard to initiate and apt to fail, with failure to convict then widely trumpeted as proof of innocence. The very idea of prosecuting specific individuals for crimes invites the few-bad-apples excuse, drawing attention away from systemic problems.

Truth and reconciliation commissions are better suited to changing opinions and the political climate. The process itself is less cumbersome and divisive, requiring no up-front set of specific, debatable, legalistic charges and avoiding the cross-currents stirred by a focus on individuals and punishment. Results can be obtained more quickly, shades of grey can be respected, and the results amount to a narrative rather than a sentence. Unlike calls for individual prosecutions, calls for a truth and reconciliation commission can begin with a sense of a broad and profound problem, and the calls themselves raise the right kinds of questions.

Truth and reconciliation processes, both in their inception and substance, focus on what actually matters to politics, culture, and historical memory. And as for their political feasibility, factions that feel themselves wrongly accused are more likely to call for truth than for prosecuting their leaders.

Is there any net benefit to focusing on prosecutable crimes?

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Harold 08.18.13 at 2:34 pm

Another thing that upset the authorities was the reporting of widespread incidents of fragging. It was discussed in the Senate and widely reported in newspapers and periodicals.

http://www.historynet.com/the-hard-truth-about-fragging.htm/3

Excerpt: Fragging had serious consequences for the U.S. military in Vietnam far beyond the number of actual victims. The most likely targets of fragging found themselves caught in a hard place between the hostility and frustration of the men they commanded and the expectations of their superior officers. Officers and noncommissioned officers were expected to inspire their men, to be aggressive and to initiate and succeed in combat. Yet to do so in Vietnam, especially in 1969 and later, was to assume the risk of being killed by their own men.

For every actual fragging incident, there was an untold number of threats of fragging. These threats were made in various forms, such as the surreptitious placement of a grenade or grenade pin, or perhaps the detonation of a nonlethal gas or smoke grenade, in the potential victim’s quarters or work areas. According to Captain Barry Steinberg, an Army judge who presided over a number of fragging courts-martial, once an officer had been threatened with fragging, he was intimidated to the point of being “useless to the military because he can no longer carry out orders essential to the functioning of the Army.” Officers who survived fragging attempts often did not discover the identity of their attackers, and as a consequence they lived in constant fear the attacks would be repeated.

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novakant 08.18.13 at 3:39 pm

So what if some soldiers were spat on, it sure beats being napalmed and raped. It’s a bit ridiculous to lament the evils of war, but to tiptoe around those who fight them and give them victim status.

I don’t think they’re all evil or anything like that, I also find the mafia guys in the Sopranos quite likeable, but ultimately they fight the wars and when push comes to shove they will kill, and will kill civilians.

And avoiding the draft wasn’t such a big deal if you were serious about it, you just had to accept some unpleasant consequences. JFK was onto something when he, of all people, said:

“War will exist until the distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige as the warrior does today.”

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PatrickinIowa 08.18.13 at 4:14 pm

Nice rant, Dr. Hilarius. Thanks.

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Kate 08.18.13 at 7:43 pm

I’ve been reading Frank Snepp’s “Decent Interval” and Gloria Emerson’s (RIP) “Winners & Losers.” Hmmmm, Turse was born in the year Saigon fell? Maybe I’ll read him too. Gloria’s chapter on Experts is good, chilling. And how is Gen. Westmoreland these days?

197

dr ngo 08.19.13 at 3:40 am

I don’t know if Westy is lying in peace or lying on a bed of pain, but I’m sure he’s still lying.

198

Jon Cloke 08.19.13 at 11:01 am

As horrifying as all this is, the example of the UK isn’t one to hold up – think of all the empire-worship propagated by UK Prime Ministers and politicians since 2000, and the way that the UK government has had to be dragged kicking and screaming to recognise atrocities committed as a result of empire-building activities.

The US is still (more or less) at the height of its’ imperial moment; the awful recognition of what was done in empire’s name comes well after the peak and the fact of empire continues to pollute and derange domestic politics for a long time afterwards.

Above all, though, there are only two rules of empire; firstly, empires always fall and secondly, for every ten years you spend building an empire, your descendents spend a hundred regretting it…

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ajay 08.19.13 at 11:12 am

War in a modern sense is always annihilation war, because the main strategy is to tear down the opponent’s industrial base or the opponent’s civil support. As a consequence, atrocities both of the Dresden kind and of the My Lai kind are perfectly rational, in fact the only way to wage a war.

Lurker, this just isn’t true. Of the recent wars in which the UK was involved: which ones were wars of annihilation in which the main strategy was to destroy an industrial base or the enemy’s civil support? Not the Falklands. Not the 1991 invasion of Iraq. Not Bosnia, Kosovo or Sierra Leone. Not Afghanistan. Not Iraq.

200

LFC 08.19.13 at 3:43 pm

@ajay
I was going to object to that comment of R.Lurker’s too, but then decided, b.c there were so many things wrongs w it, not to bother. Given this thread’s main subject, it’s ironic (for lack of a better word) that one of the flaws of US strategy in Vietnam was the assumption that Ho Chi Minh would crumple if his industrial base (what there was of it) was targeted by intense bombing. Rostow to Rusk: “Ho has an industrial complex to protect, he is no longer a guerrilla fighter with nothing to lose.” (Memorandum quoted in Milne, America’s Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War)

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Random Lurker 08.19.13 at 4:22 pm

@ajay & LFC
Well, I admit that “always” is wrong, but I think that “often” is correct.

I think that in ajay’s examples Iraq (recent) and Serbia do qualify , but the regime lost its support soon.

I remember that, during the Iraq war, some pundits on italian TV took as an example of successful “democracy building” by the USA Italy, Germany and Japan. They went on wondering what those three examples had in common, yet none of them, AFAIR, noted that all three were destroyed quite substantially (Italy a bit less) , nor for that matter that the three regimes were anticommunist and after the war the three nations could only hope of protection by the USA against the USSR.

I think that the “regime change” wars of the recent years are all, in principle, annihilation wars.

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Donald Johnson 08.19.13 at 9:05 pm

“Not the 1991 invasion of Iraq”

aerial bombing of Iraq’s infrastructure during the Gulf War

On the main topic, someone above recommended Harry Summers and Sorley and others as better than Turse. Depends on what you want, I suppose. Did those authors write much about the suffering America inflicted on Vietnamese civilians? I’d almost say that a good litmus test for a Vietnam War book would be whether the author mentions “Operation Speedy Express” or only writes about My Lai–if it only does the latter than there it’s taking the easy way out, focusing on something that could be portrayed as an aberration by one company. That’s not always a fair litmus test, because Neil Sheehan’s “A Bright Shining Lie” is quite good about the brutality of American tactics, but doesn’t mention “Speedy Express”. But it would have been a better book if it had. What is fascinating about the whole “Speedy Express” saga is not only the campaign itself, but the struggle Buckley had to get Newsweek to publish anything at all.

Turse, btw, isn’t the first to write about Speedy Express in a book about Vietnam–Phillip Knightley wrote about it in 1975, as did Chomsky a few years later, and even Hitchens mentions it in his Kissinger-bashing book. Guenter Lewy also mentions it in his apologetics for the war “America in Vietnam”.

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ajay 08.20.13 at 9:41 am

I think that in ajay’s examples Iraq (recent) and Serbia do qualify

Iraq, not really. 2003 wasn’t aimed at destroying the Iraqi industrial base: you can tell because the allies specifically avoided hitting oil sites, and even broadcast propaganda aimed at dissuading the Iraqis from doing so themselves!

Kosovo is arguable, I suppose – you had a few things like strikes on power plants inside Serbia and bridges over the Danube – but most of the strikes were SEAD, or aimed at military targets, so I don’t think you can really say that the main strategy was to destroy Serbia’s industrial base or its civilian support. Those campaigns would have looked very different from the one that actually happened. Same applies to Desert Storm.

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Phil 08.20.13 at 10:28 am

AIUI one of the great lessons of the WWII bombing campaigns was that “morale bombing” (Harris’s preferred phrase) is a chimera – to disaffect the civilian population to the point of having an impact on the war effort you essentially have to flatten the place, go back a month later and flatten it again, and repeat. At which point what you’re doing is less about “morale” and more about the older approach of killing ‘em all and letting God sort ‘em out. So it would be surprising if contemporary warfare was all about eroding the enemy’s civilian support – actually achieving that by force of arms is awfully hard to do, except for some highly unusual cases where the enemy’s support is thin already (Grenada, parts of Iraq – but only parts, and there’s the rub).

The irony is that by the time of the big raids over Germany Britain had plenty of experience of “morale” bombing – in London and Coventry, among other places – and we knew that, in our case, morale hadn’t collapsed. Perhaps Bomber Command thought the Germans would think differently.

205

Donald Johnson 08.20.13 at 1:58 pm

“Same applies to Desert Storm.”

Uh, no. The bombing in the 91 war was intended to wreck much of Iraq’s civilian infrastructure, with the idea that it couldn’t be repaired under sanctions, thereby giving leverage over Saddam, who might face a rebellious immiserated population. Or that was the theory. See the link I provided above.

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Donald Johnson 08.20.13 at 2:01 pm

Now if you mean that the bombing in Desert Storm wasn’t intended to demolish Iraqi cities, that’s true. It was no longer acceptable to do that sort of thing, but more subtle means of inflicting great harm on a civilian population, , using sanctions and carefully targeted bombing of power plants, are still fairly easy to sell to many Westerners who like to think of themselves as civilized, but still want to put pressure on a regime this way. It requires some doublethink, but people are naturally good at that.

207

Ronan(rf) 08.20.13 at 2:05 pm

I would have thought certain operations during Iraq 2003, such as the Battle of Fallujah, were primarily waged to destroy the cities infrastructure, societal base etc..but I wouldn’t know, really

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ajay 08.20.13 at 2:49 pm

The bombing in the 91 war was intended to wreck much of Iraq’s civilian infrastructure, with the idea that it couldn’t be repaired under sanctions, thereby giving leverage over Saddam, who might face a rebellious immiserated population.

That isn’t true of most of the bombing (incidentally, that link is extremely short on sources, evidence etc). Furthermore, hitting things like electricity infrastructure and oil refineries had immediate, direct effects on the Iraqi military, which was the main target of the air and ground campaigns. A campaign whose main intention was to destroy civilian infrastructure would have looked very different from the actual Desert Storm target list.

207: Fallujah (both the Fallujahs) were 2004, not 2003, and neither were primarily waged in order to destroy infrastructure. Again, think about what an air force or army would do when given the mission “DESTROY civilian infrastructure in area of FALLUJAH in order to remove civilian support for insurgents”, and compare that with what they actually did.

209

Ragweed 08.20.13 at 2:54 pm

As I recall, the bombing in Serbia was also targeted at civilian infrastructure – power plants, water treatment, etc. The goal was to destroy the societies capacity to function, without a large body count, both to hinder the military capacity to wage war and to break the people’s will.

210

Rakesh Bhandari 08.20.13 at 3:12 pm

Re: OP
see Stanley Cohen States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering
John Tirman The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars

211

Ronan(rf) 08.20.13 at 4:02 pm

ajay @ 208, ‘Iraq 2003′ was meant to distinguish it from the first gulf war

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ajay 08.20.13 at 4:14 pm

211: ah, I see. Sorry for the nitpick, in that case.

As I recall, the bombing in Serbia was also targeted at civilian infrastructure – power plants, water treatment, etc. The goal was to destroy the societies capacity to function, without a large body count, both to hinder the military capacity to wage war and to break the people’s will.

No, the goal of the bombing wasn’t to destroy the ability of Serbian society to function. If you wanted to do that, your priority targets would be local government offices, schools, telephone exchanges, hospitals, bridges, utilities and supply routes. Essentially you’re trying to do what a nuclear weapon would do: “turn a functioning city into nothing but a sink for disaster relief”. That’s not what the NATO target set in 1999 looked like (it included some of those, but it had lots more things like tanks and military installations on it, which aren’t part of that list at all).

Using phrases like “break the people’s will” is a bit unhelpful because the essential function of any military action is to break someone’s will. A weapon is a tool for changing minds, remember? You don’t get the enemy out of your country by killing all of them. You get them out by making them decide to leave.

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LFC 08.20.13 at 4:21 pm

Phil @204
The irony is that by the time of the big raids over Germany Britain had plenty of experience of “morale” bombing – in London and Coventry, among other places – and we knew that, in our case, morale hadn’t collapsed. Perhaps Bomber Command thought the Germans would think differently.

As I understand it, the bombing campaign of German cities began at a time when it was basically the only offensive weapon that Britain had and it was seen, or at least presented to the public, as a response to German bombing of cities. The bombing campaign of cities continued after that point at least partly due to organizational/bureaucratic politics.

Re morale, the bombing did not cause German civilians to rise up en masse against the regime (which wd have been v difficult to put it mildly), but it did affect morale. From Evans’s The Third Reich at War, p.463:

Undermining civilian morale…unquestionably belonged [i.e., was] among the aims of the strategic bombing offensive, although attacks on civilians have customarily been regarded as a war crime. Even if one does not accept that the entire bombing campaign was unnecessary, then it is at least arguable that it was continued longer than was strictly necessary, and conducted, especially in the final year of the war, in a manner that was too indiscriminate to be justifiable…. What is undeniable, however, is that the bombing had a huge effect on civilian morale. The hope of some in Britain that it would inspire ordinary Germans to rise up against the Nazis and bring the war to an early end by an act of revolution was unrealistic…. [However] it did even more than the defeats at Stalingrad and North Africa to spread popular disillusion about the Nazi Party.

Whether that in turn (further) lowered morale among soldiers at the fronts and had a discernible impact on an already deteriorating military situation, I don’t know.

214

ajay 08.20.13 at 4:43 pm

It’s also worth noting that in 1940 there was a very clear and obvious example of how bombing civilians could lead a government to surrender: the Netherlands. The Germans bombed Rotterdam badly (by 1940 standards) and threatened to bomb Utrecht if the Dutch didn’t surrender: they did so the next morning.

Given that example, it wasn’t entirely ludicrous to think that a much bigger bombing offensive against Germany might have a similar effect. Wrong, as it turned out, but not entirely ludicrous.

215

geo 08.20.13 at 5:36 pm

ajay: I think you doth protest too much. Of course the US military had the physical capability to have reduced Iraq (and Serbia) to rubble, just as it probably has the capability to kidnap or assassinate Assange, Snowden, Greenwald or do any number of other thoroughly outrageous things. But the govt has to retain a certain amount of soft power, as well as public support, which sufficiently brazen thuggery makes more difficult. The damage to the civilian infrastructure of both Iraq and Serbia was both enormous and not militarily necessary — are you disputing this?

Not sure to make of your comment in 214. Germany’s bombing of Rotterdam sounds like a war crime, which had the desired intimidating effect. Are you suggesting that war crimes on an even larger scale were justified because they might also have had the desired effect?

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Donald Johnson 08.20.13 at 6:27 pm

“(incidentally, that link is extremely short on sources, evidence etc)”

Yeah, probably because most of the military sources Barton Gellman interviewed didn’t want to go on record–I’m not sure what you’d expect. If the idea was to hurt the civilian population of Iraq (and btw, did you miss the entire sanctions debate of the 90’s, because this is when it started), and also to maintain plausible deniability, a smart Western government doesn’t come right out and announce it. I’m actually surprised he got at least one to say what he says–

“Pentagon officials declined two written requests for a review of the 28 electrical targets and explanations of their specific military relevance.

“People say, ‘You didn’t recognize that it was going to have an effect on water or sewage,’ ” said the planning officer. “Well, what were we trying to do with [United Nations-approved economic] sanctions — help out the Iraqi people? No. What we were doing with the attacks on infrastructure was to accelerate the effect of the sanctions.”

Col. John A. Warden III, deputy director of strategy, doctrine and plans for the Air Force, agreed that one purpose of destroying Iraq’s electrical grid was that “you have imposed a long-term problem on the leadership that it has to deal with sometime.”

“Saddam Hussein cannot restore his own electricity,” he said. “He needs help. If there are political objectives that the U.N. coalition has, it can say, ‘Saddam, when you agree to do these things, we will allow people to come in and fix your electricity.’ It gives us long-term leverage.”

Said another Air Force planner: “Big picture, we wanted to let people know, ‘Get rid of this guy and we’ll be more than happy to assist in rebuilding. We’re not going to tolerate Saddam Hussein or his regime. Fix that, and we’ll fix your electricity.’ “

Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner, who had overall command of the air campaign, said in an interview that a “side benefit” was the psychological effect on ordinary Iraqi citizens of having their lights go out.”

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Donald Johnson 08.20.13 at 6:31 pm

Human Rights Watch (at that time Middle East Watch) did a study of the air war in 1991, which you can find here–

HRW link

Chapter 4 (I think) is about the attacks on civilian infrastructure.

218

Donald Johnson 08.20.13 at 6:32 pm

My link didn’t work. I’ll just paste the web address here–

http://www.hrw.org/reports/1991/gulfwar/

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Andrew F. 08.20.13 at 7:00 pm

Well, w/r/t to the Persian Gulf War, I’d say that both ajay and Donald Johnson are correct. Donald is correct afaik that the air campaign did seek, in part, to damage Iraq’s economy in an effort to pressure the regime to withdraw from Kuwait and to encourage the formation/action of opposition to Hussein in Iraq. In this respect, though, the pressure sought was little different than that of broad economic sanctions. It was – and in this respect ajay is correct – not an application of lethal force against civilians in an effort to extinguish their morale by killing, maiming, and “dehousing” them. There are some stark differences between the air power theory of John Warden and that of Arthur Harris.

The assertion that the air campaign was focused primarily upon the civilian population, even if indirectly, isn’t true. I recommend reading about John Warden’s “Five Rings” if anyone wants a good understanding of the objectives of the strategic air campaign in the Persian Gulf War.

220

geo 08.20.13 at 7:26 pm

AF@219: little different than that of broad economic sanctions

For an eye-opening essay on the lethality of economic sanctions, and their dismayingly large scope in contemporary American foreign policy, see Andrew Cockburn in the latest Harper’s.

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hardheaded liberal 08.20.13 at 9:36 pm

@120 “praising” the violence at Columbine? That’s not what Turse’s post — when he was a graduate student or doctoral candidate — did. He compared school shootings, attacking an institution that had failed the shooters, to the anti-institutional actions of disaffected youth in the 1960s, in an effort “to understand them” — in a social science analytical sense — instead of reacting simply with revulsion to their deeds. I have no idea what Turse’s attitude today, 14 years later, is toward Columbine, nor can I tell very clearly what his attitude was in 1999, based on the post cited. But he really did not “praise” the massacre, and the ad hominem attack dismissing his work for allegedly “praising” the shooters of Columbine was not fair play. Based on the post alone, it appeared he was trying out a rather outrageous “outside-the-box” interpretation on the relatively new innovation — the internet. Maybe the post reflects strong ideology and impaired judgment, but it is at least as likely to me that the 1999 post was mostly a young scholar trying out his wings, to see how high he could soar in flights of theoretical creative insight.

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Donald Johnson 08.20.13 at 9:52 pm

“to encourage the formation/action of opposition to Hussein in Iraq. In this respect, though, the pressure sought was little different than that of broad economic sanctions”

It set the stage for them–the idea was, as Warden said in the Gellman piece, that Saddam couldn’t fix the electricity without outside help. The air war “accelerated the effect of the sanctions” as an unnamed planner put it.

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Ronan(rf) 08.20.13 at 10:06 pm

Just to add to geo above, Joy Gordons Invisible War is a pretty convincing case for the devastation sanctions caused in Iraq
A lot of her articles during her research are kept here

http://www.invisiblewar.net/other-publications

From the blurb

“The economic sanctions imposed on Iraq from 1990 to 2003 were the most comprehensive and devastating of any established in the name of international governance. The sanctions, coupled with the bombing campaign of 1991, brought about the near collapse of Iraq’s infrastructure and profoundly compromised basic conditions necessary to sustain life.”

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Chris Williams 08.21.13 at 9:30 am

Ajay, are you sure about the timing of the Dutch surrender relative to the Rotterdam raid? I thought that the Dutch govt agreed to (most) German terms while the raid was in the air, with the result that some of it was ordered back. That doesn’t invalidate the wider point about the perceived effectiveness, among British elite circles, of unopposed terror bombing: but I think that it remained more theoretical than practical at that point.

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ajay 08.21.13 at 10:45 am

Chris: The timeline looks like this:
MAY 14 0900: Germans deliver ultimatum to commander of Dutch troops in Rotterdam, threatening bombardment unless the city surrenders by 1100.
1215: Dutch commander in Rotterdam, after consulting with Dutch supreme command, agrees to negotiations. Germans order bombers (which have already taken off) called off.
1320: Some German bombers, having failed to hear the recall signal, begin bombing Rotterdam.
1550: Rotterdam surrenders.
Also on the 14th: German aircraft drop leaflets on Utrecht, threatening it with bombardment unless it too surrenders. This is reported to Henri Winkelman, supreme commander of the Dutch armed forces, by OC Dutch garrison Utrecht.
1650: Winkelman, given what has happened to Rotterdam and what he has heard from Utrecht, concludes that the Germans plan to destroy any city that doesn’t immediately surrender, and decides to surrender.

The Dutch had agreed to negotiate over Rotterdam, but not to surrender – in fact it’s probable that Winkelman wanted to buy time to retreat behind water barriers.

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Ralph Hitchens 08.21.13 at 1:24 pm

For a sharply critical reading of Turse’s book, by an actual Vietnam veteran who has written extensively about the war, see: http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/apocryphal-now_716295.html?page=1
As with every war, Vietnam had a messy and sometimes horrifying underside. But an historian owes readers a balanced account — the facts can speak for themselves.

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Doctor Slack 08.21.13 at 1:40 pm

Not very impressed by that “sharply critical reading” so far:

“Moreover, there was no “massacre.” A squad of Marines, patrolling at night amidst a series of bunkers—immediately after a booby trap had claimed the life of a fellow Marine—heard movement in the bunkers and responded as they had been trained. What happened that night was ugly and tragic—women and children died in those bunkers—but the Marines who did the killing had no way of knowing who was there.”

See, that actually sounds exactly like a massacre to me. When you open fire on a bunch of people without knowing if they’re the enemy, and it turns out they weren’t, then what you’ve done is commit a massacre. If that was their training, then they were in fact being trained to commit atrocities just as Turse claims. (This in fact looks like an early version of the force protection doctrine that would later wreak havoc on civilian populations in Iraq.) It’s rather amazing that this fellow is blind to that, but it’s no refutation of Turse.

(A substandard article in The Weekly Standard? Say it ain’t so!!)

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Marc 08.21.13 at 3:21 pm

@227: But very different from the idea that it was a deliberate slaughter, no? The end of that piece seems very reasonable to me:

“War brings out the best and the worst in us. Former Marine commandant Peter Pace told a Citadel audience in 2006 that, as a young platoon leader in Vietnam, he called in an artillery strike on a village from which a sniper had killed a young Marine—the first man he lost. Pace’s platoon sergeant “didn’t say a word, he just looked at me.” The look was sufficient. Pace called off the strike and ordered a sweep through the village, finding only women and children. Pace’s story, as the literature of Vietnam memoirs makes clear, could be told many times over. Any fair and balanced account of American war crimes demands attention to those stories, too.

Nick Turse, however, has no interest in such stories. His unmeasured effort at exposé—relentless, indiscriminate, and cocksure in its judgment that American military policy made the killing of innocents inevitable—exacts a high moral price.

If it was all policy, the war as an “atrocity–producing situation,” as Robert Jay Lifton famously put it, then we lose the ability to make moral distinctions, to recognize both evil and honor. If we’re all guilty, then no one is guilty. If every atrocity story is to be believed, then it is all noise—and we lose the ability to mourn for that woman in Quang Tri, shot in the back by a young Marine who did not know the difference between a legal and an illegal order. “

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Jerry Vinokurov 08.21.13 at 3:33 pm

I didn’t realize that “not committing atrocities” was something we should spend a lot of time commending, rather than, you know, being the default. Exposing actual atrocities that actually occurred is the whole damn point because those are the things that aren’t supposed to happen. Sorry if that “exacts a high moral price” on some asshole at the Weekly Standard.

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dr ngo 08.21.13 at 4:22 pm

I thought that on the whole Gary Kulik’s review of Turse’s book was balanced. He certainly shows that Turse was always willing to believe the worst (of American soldiers), even when the evidence was slim or contradictory; on the other hand he’s quite clear in asserting that atrocities did in fact occur.

I think he stumbles over this, however: There were around 300 allegations of war crimes brought by Army prosecutors in 77 cases. Each case typically contained multiple allegations. The Army convened Article 32 hearings, roughly the equivalent of civilian grand jury hearings, for each case, a measure of the seriousness with which the Army took the allegations. (You won’t learn that from either Nelson or Turse, though, who have no interest in the process of military justice.)

The fact that the Army convened hearings on cases brought by Army prosecutors proves next to nothing about the “seriousness with which” they took the allegations. These allegations, perhaps, but the thrust of the criticism, from long before Turse’s time, is that evidence for most atrocities never rose to the level of proof that prosecutors would require; in fact many went totally unreported. One comparison might be to rape; no one but the most legalistic observer would conclude that the incidence of rape can be measured by the number of cases brought to prosecution, ignoring those not reported or those reported which the prosecutors decided – for better or worse reasons – not to take to court.

Having said that, the burden is on Turse to show that unreported/unprosecuted atrocities were so extensive as to be systemic, and Kulik’s review suggests that Turse only achieved this by taking every allegation at face value, which is hardly a scholarly approach. The “Winter Soldiers” who released much of this evidence while the war was going on had at least the excuses that (1) they made no claim to be scholars and (2) they were trying to stop something still ongoing. Some exaggerations might be forgiven. Forty years after the fact, by a scholar: not so much.

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Andrew F. 08.21.13 at 4:34 pm

Donald, “it set the stage for them” – I agree that this was a component of the air campaign. You would agree, though, that there is an important moral difference between firebombing a city in an effort to punish the civilian population and break morale (Dresden, Tokyo), and disabling electrical and transportation grids with minimum loss of life (Baghdad) that are as important to a regime’s ongoing power as they are to the civilian population? I think what motivated the disagreement between ajay and others above was the question of whether the manner in which the US uses airpower has changed since WW2.*

Geo, Ronan, I appreciate the links – I haven’t read it yet, but I have no doubt as to the debilitating effects of long-term sanctions on the most vulnerable in the targeted nation.

To tie all this back to Vietnam – Westmoreland’s strategy in Vietnam was one of attrition of course, using aggressive patrols to provoke the enemy into engaging, and relying where possible on heavy indirect fires and aerial bombing to kill the enemy (this isn’t to deny other aspects, but attrition was primary for at least 65-69) at a rate that Westmoreland hoped would exceed the enemy’s ability to replenish.

To bring it back to Turse, everyone agrees that atrocities occurred during Vietnam. The files he has contain 300 allegations of criminal acts, according to the article referenced by Ralph Hitchens. Okay. Turse argues, apparently, that Westmoreland’s strategy led to a high number of civilian deaths. Okay.

What I don’t see is the connecting logical step that gets him to the conclusion that war crimes like the Son My massacre were both frequent and systematic. I can certainly find instances of horrific crimes committed by some American personnel in Europe during WW2. I can also say that Allied tactics and some of their strategy led to a high number of civilian deaths. But that doesn’t get me to the conclusion that the horrific crimes I recount were frequent or systematic.

Turse apparently writes about the incentive to inflate body counts as an explanatory factor, but this doesn’t quite do the work he needs. The NVA and the VC would carry off their dead when possible, strip weapons off their dead when possible, and were sometimes simply obliterated by artillery or aerial bombing; to inflate the body count, you don’t need to massacre villages – it’s much easier to just lie.

Because of those factors, it’s also easy to claim that almost any body found was VC or NVA, and no doubt that happened as well. It’s also true that the average age of a soldier in Vietnam was 19 (compared to 26 for WW2); that the units conducting those aggressive patrols, often simply acting as bait for the enemy to engage, were fighting in a war without apparent fronts, with an adversary that could and would blend into and use the civilian population, primarily in the jungle, without a clear sense of what constitutes progress or victory (other than staying alive and killing the enemy), and with procedures that encouraged the heavy use of indirect fire and aerial bombardment. And so – no doubt civilian casualties were quite high, and no doubt some of those deaths were counted as enemy killed.

Gruesome, horrible. Plenty of criticism has been written about the strategy and tactics used, and about the costs of those mistakes.

But it doesn’t get us to Turse’s sensationalist conclusions about widespread Son My massacres, frequent and systematic mass executions, torture, and rapes.

Does Turse ever actually fill in that missing logical step? Or does he simply hope that the sense of horror evinced from his descriptions will compel agreement with his broader conclusions?

*although the preference of the planning group in the US Army Air Corps Tactical School was at first, I think, precision bombing on focused industrial targets, rejecting the broad civilian targeting urged by some airpower theorists such as Douhet.

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geo 08.21.13 at 7:39 pm

AF@231: Plenty of criticism has been written about the strategy and tactics used, and about the costs of those mistakes.

There is something between “mistakes” and Nazi-like deliberate massacres. We might call it “criminal negligence and indifference to civilian casualties on so massive a scale that it shocks the moral sense and makes utter nonsense of perennial American claims to ‘exceptionalism’ in respect of human rights and international law, and should compel, even at this late date, a national reckoning.”

Marc, Ralph, Andrew: would you accept this formulation?

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Donald Johnson 08.21.13 at 8:03 pm

“You would agree, though, that there is an important moral difference between firebombing a city in an effort to punish the civilian population and break morale (Dresden, Tokyo), and disabling electrical and transportation grids with minimum loss of life (Baghdad) that are as important to a regime’s ongoing power as they are to the civilian population? I think what motivated the disagreement between ajay and others above was the question of whether the manner in which the US uses airpower has changed since WW2″

There’s a moral difference, but it can easily be exaggerated, and if the intent is to cause civilian suffering, knowing full well that this also means an increased death rate, then the moral distinction becomes small. Not zero, because hypocrisy really is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, and also because a carpet bombing campaign would have killed even more. But the hypocrisy is there– defenders of the Iraqi sanctions always tried to claim that the US was in no way responsible for any Iraqi suffering–that it was all Saddam’s fault and yet obviously the sanctions were meant to hurt people. And I never saw any of the apologists for sanctions make reference to the bombing campaign and how it was designed to work with the sanctions. There’s a lot of bad faith in the United States on this subject. It wasn’t a surprise to me that Joy Gordon’s book sank without a trace as far as the mainstream press was concerned, whereas a superficial fundamentally self-flattering work like Samantha Power’s “A Problem from Hell” got rave reviews and massive coverage. You have to tell the American elite that they are just too naive to understand evil (Power actually said something like that in the opening pages of her book) to be treated as some sort of secular human rights Pope.

So yes, there is a difference between the aerial bombing campaigns in WWII and Korea (which was just as bad for the North Koreans) and even Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and what happened in the Gulf War and it’s because after Vietnam there’s less acceptance of the notion that we can deliberately target civilians. I think it was starting to change in the Vietnam era even–that’s why there were so many lies told about the careful targeting in that war, when Western reporters who visited the North found that outside of Hanoi and Haiphong, where the foreign diplomats were, North Vietnam was a moonscape. Nonetheless we still target civilians, just in sneakier not very plausibly deniable ways. (We also support death squad regimes and so farm out the targeting to others–that’s not acceptable either, so what happens is that our government lies about the human rights record of the people we support.)

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Jerry Vinokurov 08.21.13 at 8:03 pm

There is something between “mistakes” and Nazi-like deliberate massacres. We might call it “criminal negligence and indifference to civilian casualties on so massive a scale that it shocks the moral sense and makes utter nonsense of perennial American claims to ‘exceptionalism’ in respect of human rights and international law, and should compel, even at this late date, a national reckoning.”

But this, of course, is why we’ll never have a proper conversation about Vietnam, or about anything else, really. It’s cognitive dissonance on a national scale: we’re good people who don’t do bad things, so a) bad things were not done, b) if they were done, they weren’t done by us, and c) if we did do them (and we didn’t!) it was absolutely necessary because the alternative was a million times worse and you’d better trust the steely-eyed lantern-jawed generals if you know what’s good for you. Just like, in America, it’s worse to be accused of racism than to actually do racist things, so it is worse to be accused of committing systematic war crimes than it is to actually have committed them.

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novakant 08.21.13 at 9:42 pm

The US have punishing the population of Iran for decades now – some people die, some get sick and starve, but the lives of those who don’t are made very miserable as well – nobody gives a flying f@ck, instead politicians are talking on TV about “tightening the screws”.

I really feel like disabling the US electrical and transport grid to affect regime change.

236

Hanoi Jane 08.22.13 at 4:31 pm

To: Henry

If you wish to learn about the Vietnam War I suggest you visit the “Vietnam Center and Archive”, at Texas Tech University. The Vietnam Center and Archive collects and preserves the documentary records of the Vietnam War. The Center is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive collection of information on the Vietnam War.

http://www.vietnam.ttu.edu

Can you answer the questions and challenge the facts?

1. Question: Did you participate in an atrocity, witness an atrocity, or did you hear rumor of an atrocity?

2. Question: Can you PROVIDE DETAILS (location, date, persons involved, crime, etc.)?

3. Fact: Turse starts “cooking the facts” on page 10 and continues “cooking the facts” throughout the entire book.

ENEMY TROOP STRENGTH IS JUST ONE EXAMPLE.

- On page 10, Turse says ” By 1968 the US Forces and their allies in the South were opposed by an estimated 50,000 North Vietnamese troops plus 60,000 PLAF soldiers, while the revolutionaries’ paramilitary forces- part time local guerrillas- likely reached into the hundreds of thousands.” (25)

- CIA Document: “CIA now believed the figure to be somewhere between 450,000 and 600,000. Helms added that, of those totals, CIA accepted some 90,000 to 140,000 enemy irregulars, whereas MACV and CINCPAC still maintained that such forces could not and should not be quantified.” (185) Helms, Memorandum for Walt W. Rostow, Special Assistant to the President, “Estimates of Enemy Strength in South Vietnam” 2 May 1968, (S/Compartmented). CIA files, Job No. 78T02095R, O/DDI, Box 1, Folder 2.

https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/books-and-monographs/cia-and-the-vietnam-policymakers-three-episodes-1962-1968/epis3.html

- Also, infiltration down the Ho Chi Minh Trail exceeded 20,000 North Vietnamese per month.

- Also, North Vietnam had a significant military presence in NEUTRAL Laos and Cambodia.

SUGGEST YOU LOOK AT REVIEWS UNDER “THE WAR BEHIND ME: VIETNAM VETERANS CONFRONT THE TRUTH ABOUT U.S. WAR CRIMES” BE DEBORAH NELSON, PUBLICATION DATE: OCTOBER 28, 2008.

http://www.amazon.com/The-War-Behind-Me-Veterans/dp/B002NPCTIG

One reviewer had this to say:
“You can read original documents created by the Army CID investigators who interviewed the Winter Soldier participants here:

http://www.wintersoldier.com/staticpages/index.php?page=WSI_CID

When Nelson and Nick Turse published the basis for this book in the LA Times, I was left to wonder, “Where’s the rest of the story?” They had access to the same CID documents I did, yet they totally forgot to mention that 11 of the Army Winter Soldier witnesses repudiated their testimony when questioned by CID and virtually all the rest stonewalled the investigators, some in outrageously arraogant, if not ridiculously comical, terms. And, the Army only investigated about half of the witnesses from the Winter Soldier Investigation in the first place, because half of them made no substantive allegations of criminal wrong doing at all, just badmouthed the military and the country, and several could not be found at all – which does not prove that those several were frauds, but does make you wonder.

Only one of the Winter Soldier stories investiagted by the Army CID in the 1970s proved to be based in fact – that of Jamie Henry. So, when reading this book, keep in mind what you read with your own eyes in these CID documents.

What happened at the Winter Soldier Investigation had nothing to do with whatever happened, or did not happen, in Vietnam. It was a stand alone propaganda exercise, having little to do with facts or the truth.

To extrapolate, from the several hundred crimes committed over a dozen years during a conflict involving three million U.S. soldiers during a viscious unconventional war, to this blanket libel against the United States, is a crime in itself against both history and our country. But propagandists don’t have scruples about the truth. Their pre-set agenda determines all.”

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Donald Johnson 08.22.13 at 10:20 pm

“To extrapolate, from the several hundred crimes committed over a dozen years during a conflict involving three million U.S. soldiers …”

Only a fraction of them would have been infantry. I did have a problem with Turse’s book on that score–it’s important to point out that you’d only need a small fraction of those 3 million to make the Vietnam War into one vast war crime. Incidentally, how many Soviets served in Afghanistan and how many of them personally committed war crimes? I have no idea, but I don’t really have to know in order to think that the Soviet war was a gigantic atrocity. From what little I know about that war, much of the destruction was caused by Soviet bombing of Afghan villages, which would be much like Vietnam, and yet it was common in the US to talk about the war there as near-genocidal and not everyone would have qualified the word “genocidal” with “near”.

So yeah, Turse’s book might give an unfair impression, but then maybe we shouldn’t be focusing on just how many Vietnam vets were personally responsible, but more on how many civilians we killed.

And one other point–some months back I read some of the critical Amazon comments about Turse (and at other places about Vietnam in general) and I guess what struck me is this–what about Operation Speedy Express? That’s a far more damning indictment of the war than what happened at My Lai, because the direct responsibility for that goes up to at least the two star general level, it involved an entire division and it lasted for months. Have there been vets who’ve come forward to talk about that? Wouldn’t thousands know what was going on?

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LFC 08.22.13 at 11:05 pm

D Johnson@233
Your remark re A Problem from Hell is interesting. I haven’t read it, but iirc it received not only glowing reviews but at least one major prize (Pulitzer? something like that).

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dr ngo 08.22.13 at 11:18 pm

Hanoi Jane @ 236: Turse may well have exaggerated, but you’ll never prove it by your own imbalanced responses. Citing the CIA and Army investigators as if they provided the final answer to questions raised just won’t do it, unless you are predisposed to believe that the US government never misleads the public. I was in the US Army 1968-9; I do not have this predisposition. (“Oh, someone says the US screwed up, but an official spokesman denies it? That settles it. Move along.”)

20,000 NVA a month down the Ho Chi Minh Trail?! I don’t know where this figure comes from – no citation or link is provided – but it’s more than twice as high as the highest estimate I’ve seen.

To quote from the negative reviews of Deborah Nelson’s book and not the positive ones – also on Amazon.com – is hardly dispassionate analysis. Of course some people didn’t like a book that criticizes the behavior of American troops: this is hardly newsworthy. Others did.

So I conclude by quoting your favored reviewer: “Propagandists don’t have scruples about the truth. Their pre-set agenda determines all.”

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Hanoi Jane 08.23.13 at 2:21 pm

To: dr ngo

YOUR QUESTION: 20,000 NVA a month down the Ho Chi Minh Trail?! I don’t know where this figure comes from – no citation or link is provided – but it’s more than twice as high as the highest estimate I’ve seen.

The information is available from MANY SOURCES including these links:
1. Mike Wallace discusses “The Uncounted Enemy a Vietnam Deception http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lOaexO6EaZU
2. THE UNCOUNTED ENEMY: A VIETNAM DECEPTION (cBS & Gen Wm Westmoreland libel lawsuit)
http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1220895/posts

Please let me know if you need additional reference material.

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dr ngo 08.23.13 at 3:34 pm

Thanks for these links. The Mike Wallace interview is fascinating, but though he says that more were infiltrating than Westmoreland admitted, he doesn’t (in this piece) actually supply the number. The “Freerepublic” essay is a somewhat more suspect source, in my eyes, certainly to judge by its general tenor and partisan comments. But I assume they’re correctly reporting the “20,000” figure, in passing.

If you have a more direct source, I’d appreciate it. Thanks.

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Donald Johnson 08.23.13 at 4:36 pm

LFC–My problem (and the problem of many other people) with “A Problem From Hell” is the selective choice of topics. She spends a volume agonizing over America’s sins of omission, when we didn’t intervene to stop genocide, when the obvious problem goes virtually unmentioned–what about the cases where the US actively aided mass murder and genocide or even, arguably, engaged in it? (Some would argue the sanctions on Iraq were genocidal.) If I were wondering why the US didn’t stop genocide in various places, it seems to me relevant that the US was allies with Suharto when he killed 500,000 or so alleged commies (Power, btw, says that lobbying by Stalin is the reason why the mass killing of political opponents isn’t part of the definition of genocide) or later when Indonesia invaded East Timor and caused the death of between 100-200,000 out of 700,000 people. Or when we supported Rios Montt in Guatemala (his mass killing has been called genocide) or the death squads in El Salvador or Savimbi’s guerillas in Angola. Etc…

I’m cynical enough to think that Power pulled her punches because she wanted a career in government–if she’d written a truly honest book on her topic she’d have no better chance of that then, say, Noam Chomsky or Joy Gordon. I think she was pals with Richard Holbrooke, who was the one responsible for policy on East Timor during Carter’s term. She has about three sentences on the subject of East Timor in her book.

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Barry 08.23.13 at 5:13 pm

“I’m cynical enough to think that Power pulled her punches because she wanted a career in government–if she’d written a truly honest book on her topic she’d have no better chance of that then, say, Noam Chomsky or Joy Gordon. I think she was pals with Richard Holbrooke, who was the one responsible for policy on East Timor during Carter’s term. She has about three sentences on the subject of East Timor in her book.”

I agree, and note that when Bahrain had a recent spot of mass murder mass bio-terminations through kinetic physioalteration ‘unrest’, I don’t recall a single [CURSING REDACTED] one of these ‘R2P’ people saying a single word in support.

And with Bahrain, we had a fleet right there; it’s a itty bitty country, and the Marines probably would have won before they even broke a sweat.

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Hanoi Jane 08.23.13 at 6:09 pm

To: dr ngo

The “Freerepublic” essay is a somewhat more suspect source, in my eyes, certainly to judge by its general tenor and partisan comments. But I assume they’re correctly reporting the “20,000″ figure, in passing.

If you have a more direct source, I’d appreciate it. Thanks.

SEE “The Communist Road To Power In Vietnam”, Published 1981, William J Duiker page 275

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dr ngo 08.23.13 at 7:06 pm

Thanks again. I only have the 2d edition of Duiker (1996), so it took me a while to find this passage, but there it is (p292). Since I trust Duiker’s scholarship, I consider the matter settled. You were right; I stand (well, sit, actually) corrected.

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geo 08.23.13 at 7:19 pm

Donald J @242: she pulled her punches

I wonder. I may be naive, but I generally find deliberate misrepresentation, even by omission, a little hard to credit. I suspect that people like Power simply have large, ideologically convenient blind spots, a result of long and intensive socialization in the international affairs community. The US makes mistakes, even tragic mistakes, but they are always, as Anthony Lewis wrote, “blundering efforts to do good.” The US has good intentions; it doesn’t commit or abet crimes, much less genocide — this is axiomatic. If you believe otherwise, that’s bound to come out in the course of your apprenticeship — to suppress powerful convictions indefinitely is very hard — and you simply don’t get to Harvard or publish a well-received book. You lack “balance,” “judgment,” “maturity.” I’d say Powers, like her mentor Michael Ignatieff, is a perfectly sincere hack, an attractive and articulate mediocrity.

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LFC 08.23.13 at 10:16 pm

D.Johnson @242
Thanks. The bk might still be worth reading, I suppose, *if* one approached it discounting for her skewed selection of topics, blind spots (to use geo’s phrase), etc. (Not that it’s esp. high on my reading list.)

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Tim Wilkinson 08.23.13 at 11:18 pm

geo – Well I think there’s a whole range of phenomena that, in different cases, underly VSPism. Simplifying so as to arrange various phenomena along a one-dimensional spectrum, maybe we have sociopathic, self-serving hackery with eyes fully open at one end, then rationalised lying/noble cause corruption, then bullshit, then ‘self-deception’ about the subject matter, and finally full true-believer dogmatism of the kind you describe.

There are, I suppose, strengths and weaknesses to all of these: taking just two stylised extremes, the fully self-aware dissembler may have a tough job preventing the mask from slipping, while the dogmatist is going to encounter some problems in functioning properly given that various true beliefs and valid evidence has to be rejected in order to protect the axiomatic core. I guess the really effective operators are somewhere in the middle, and perhaps to some extent adept at doublethink and compartmentalisation.

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Ronan(rf) 08.23.13 at 11:51 pm

I think a lot of Powers perspective, and by extension the books argument, is also tied up in the way she wants the US to approach the world, which is as a defender of human rights (more or less, to simplify) and it cant really be removed from her experiences as a journalist in the Balkans and then as someone who wanted to influence policy in the US. So it suits that position to underplay when the US was actually responsible for HR abuses, and to instead stress ‘when they could have done more’ to prevent abuses by other people

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geo 08.24.13 at 1:20 am

Well put, Tim.

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Mao Cheng Ji 08.24.13 at 2:59 am

Yeah? I think I disagree that “the dogmatist is going to encounter some problems in functioning properly”. Once you become convinced that your country/ideology/religion is The Force for Good, everything falls in place and you won’t encounter any problems in justifying anything, be it a genocide, or nuclear war, or whatever. That’s what dogmatism is all about.

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Tim Wilkinson 08.24.13 at 11:07 am

But this is supposed to be a person who is otherwise rational – not making use of doublethink to finesse contradictions – so an incorrigible delusion like that is going to have effects which propagate out through their web of beliefs, and sooner or later that’s likely to give rise to actually damaging mistakes.

That’s probably too abstract a description of what I’m getting at. When I have time I might try and come up with some worked examples. Actually one, still fairly programmatic, illustration would concern ‘why do they hate us?’ bafflement. If one is committed to the proposition that the US is a force for good, so that all countervailing evidence has to be assumed to be misleading, then you are going to come up with some fairly barking mad explanations for hostility to the US, while discounting the obvious one. And such a fundamental misunderstanding of the world is surely going to give rise to some fairly serious mistakes.

Concrete examples are generally less clear cut, but perhaps Joe McCarthy could be an example. He may have started out by adopting Red Scare rhetoric for fairly opportunistic electoral reasons (with, broadly speaking, the support of his party while in opposition), but he then seems at least to some extent to have got carried away and unlike HUAC which was aimed at left wing opinion-formers and organisers, started attacking the Army and State dept for harbouring spies, even after his own party got control of them. He didn;t seem to understand that no-one in power really wanted anything like that to be aired in public, because the war was basically phoney. So he got squelched. In fact USians might even owe him a debt of gratitude for inadvertently bringing an end to HUACism (or ‘Hooverism’) – though I think by then its work was largely done anyway, so maybe not.

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Andrew F. 08.24.13 at 12:13 pm

Donald Johnson @237: Well, re Speedy Express, Bernd Greiner’s War Without Fronts makes many of the same arguments that Turse does. Indeed, I believe that Greiner relied on the same documents, and the book does include a section on “Speedy Express.”

The English translation of the book itself was taken apart in reviews by Andrew Bacevich and Edwin Moise.

I believe that Julian Ewell’s own book about operations he commanded is available online for free.

And of course Turse himself published an article about Speedy Express in 2008. Even within that article, though, some important contradictions are in evidence. He quotes approvingly from one veteran that there were no restrictions on the use of artillery near villages, but then quotes another veteran a few paragraphs later who states that he clashed with Ewell because he thought some artillery fire violated the restrictions in place on the use of artillery near villages.

It’s true that most of those who served in Vietnam weren’t in the infantry – but some 10% of them were. In any event, the accounts Turse uses as his basis for sweeping claims about US conduct aren’t limited to the infantry.

Regarding Samantha Power and A Problem from Hell, my recollection of the book isn’t that she whitewashes US foreign policy – she almost certainly notes that the US has supported regimes, such as Saddam Hussein, who committed atrocities.

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Ronan(rf) 08.24.13 at 1:52 pm

“Regarding Samantha Power and A Problem from Hell, my recollection of the book isn’t that she whitewashes US foreign policy – she almost certainly notes that the US has supported regimes, such as Saddam Hussein, who committed atrocities.”

Afaicr she does does take a strong stance against the US in a lot of ways, but the argument against her is that she emphasises *when the US didnt do anything to prevent human rights abuses* rather than when they actively supported/facilitated abuses, to fit her own political preferences (ie greater intervention, even unilaterally)
I’m personally more sceptical than her on that agenda but don’t know if I’d be so critical of her perspective, particularly considering it was born out of witnessing what happened in the Balkans first hand, and the fact that shes genuinely committed to trying to prevent human rights abuses

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Mao Cheng Ji 08.24.13 at 2:15 pm

“If one is committed to the proposition that the US is a force for good, so that all countervailing evidence has to be assumed to be misleading, then you are going to come up with some fairly barking mad explanations for hostility to the US, while discounting the obvious one.”

The explanation is the usual, millennia old dualism. Always. The eternal struggle of Light and Darkness, Good and Evil. That’s the obvious one. The one you think is obvious is not even considered. There is no countervailing evidence, only the struggle of Good vs Evil. Just a few years ago this – again, millennia old – scheme surfaced quite openly, directly, with few, if any, intellectual bells and whistles. And it worked. It still works. Something inside our brains finds it very appealing.

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Donald Johnson 08.24.13 at 6:26 pm

“It’s true that most of those who served in Vietnam weren’t in the infantry – but some 10% of them were. In any event, the accounts Turse uses as his basis for sweeping claims about US conduct aren’t limited to the infantry.”

The point others have made–in fact, I think Turse himself has made–is that the bulk of the civilian casualties were caused by bombs and artillery shells.

I might look up Ewell’s version of events, but are you suggesting I take his version of Speedy Express seriously? Or just mentioning it as a point of information?

“. Even within that article, though, some important contradictions are in evidence. He quotes approvingly from one veteran that there were no restrictions on the use of artillery near villages, but then quotes another veteran a few paragraphs later who states that he clashed with Ewell because he thought some artillery fire violated the restrictions in place on the use of artillery near villages.”

I’m not sure that’s a contradiction. There might have been (possibly theoretical) restrictions on the use of artillery in Vietnam that were lifted by Ewell. In fact, that’s how it sounds. Anyway, the main point is that this operation seems to have been conducted with exceptional callousness even by Vietnam standards, and yet AFAIK there hasn’t been a flood of veterans coming forward to detail the results of the callous policies they witnessed. I wouldn’t expect there would be, but this is why I take some of the criticism of Turse with a grain of salt. The most important issue here is whether there were massive war crimes committed in Vietnam by the US, not the fraction of US soldiers in Vietnam (or Russian soldiers in Afghanistan) who personally did something wrong. Americans all understand this when discussing the Russian war in Afghanistan, but not with Vietnam.

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Donald Johnson 08.24.13 at 6:38 pm

“Regarding Samantha Power and A Problem from Hell, my recollection of the book isn’t that she whitewashes US foreign policy – she almost certainly notes that the US has supported regimes, such as Saddam Hussein, who committed atrocities.”

The emphasis is on our sins of omission, not our sins of commission. If she’d focused on the latter she’d have sounded like Noam Chomsky and she certainly wouldn’t have gotten the attention and praise she got. The point of the book was in part that US officials are just too naive to understand the full depth of evil that is out there in the world until it is too late. Lots of breast-beating. The mainstream loves this kind of moral posturing, where members of the elite pretend to examine their consciences. They can invite panels and have deep discussions about our responsibility to fight evil, or alternatively, why it is so hard to fight evil. All so polite, without any rude person like Chomsky there to upset everyone.

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Hidari 08.24.13 at 7:33 pm

This is how a right-leaning intellectual interprets Power:

“Samantha Power, in her excellent book Genocide: A Problem from Hell, reached a conclusion she didn’t want to reach*, as the best analytical books so often do. After showing that no genocidal government in the twentieth century had ever been stopped except by armed intervention, she reluctantly concluded that the armed intervention usually had to be supplied by the United States.”.

So there you have it. In the middle of a review that faults Karl Kraus (!) for failing to understand the nature of totalitarianism.

http://www.clivejames.com/karl-kraus

*Yeah I’m sure she was just appalled to reach that conclusion. Her moral anguish in supporting American aggression must have nearly torn her apart.

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Andrew F. 08.24.13 at 10:00 pm

Donald, I referred to Ewell’s book simply as point of information. However, at least one key assertion of Turse is contradicted by the numbers contained in Ewell’s book.

Turse claims in his Nation article A My Lai a Month that Many, if not most, kills were logged by helicopters and occurred at night.

This turns out to be misleading, if not false (to parallel Turse’s flat-out deceptive “many, if not most” formulation). According to the KIA numbers Ewell uses in his book (at the time Ewell would have no reason to be deceptive about these numbers):

EKIA Dec 68 to May 69: 12,773
Due to Night Operations: 5,024
Due to Night Air Cav: 1,769

Night operations account for 39%. Night air cavalry operations account for 14%. Moreover, the majority of the total – whether day or night – were caused by infantry, not helicopters. See Table 21 of this part of Ewell’s monograph.

Based on a very quick skim of Ewell’s analysis, it does appear that he attempted to increase dramatically night operations (along with increasing the use of helicopters) and snipers, and tried various tactical innovations at the same time. At a minimum, I would imagine that night operations would increase the potential for civilian casualties. If we assume that the area in which the 9th ID was operating was fairly populated, as I believe it was, and relatively well used by the VC, as I also believe it was, then an increase in civilian casualties probably did occur, and perhaps in greater proportion than elsewhere. But at this point I’m really just guessing.

Some of Turse’s sources are questionable – at one point he uses the notes of a reporter from 1975 of an unpublished interview of an aide to a colonel involved in Speedy Express, in which Turse claims that the reporter’s notes claim that the aide claims that the colonel told the aide that no attempt was made at night to distinguish between civilians and VC. Is the claim true? Maybe. Fourth-hand statements are tough to evaluate.

Turse claims elsewhere that B-52 strikes were liberally used. Ewell doesn’t quote any numbers on the subject, but FWIW he states in Chapter 10: As a matter of historical interest, the use of ARC LIGHTS in the 9th Division area in the delta was almost nil. The populated areas were almost automatically excluded and suitable targets elsewhere were quite infrequent. In the II Field Force Vietnam area in 1969-1970, practically all strikes were way out in deep jungle. However, one can assume the strikes were bothering the North Vietnamese, as their propaganda campaign had as a primary theme the concocted idea that tremendous damage was being done to the South Vietnamese people by indiscriminate use of ARC LIGHTS.

I don’t know what “almost nil” really means there, though.

There’s also no question that he used enemy killed or captured as a key metric of success, and no doubt put pressure on units to produce those metrics (or else give good explanations as to why they did not).

So, while I think the overall circumstances here may support the assertion that civilian casualties were higher in Speedy Express than in other operations, it also seems likely that Turse is carelessly using sources to tell one of the more extreme versions of the possible truths.

I think we’ll have to wait for a more careful analysis of Speedy Express before we can draw any firm conclusions about it.

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timr 08.25.13 at 5:33 pm

Sorry but I never saw that, in Vietnam for 2 years(69-70) what we always did, and I am quite sure that most other units did also, was simply make up numbers. I have friends who fought during Tet and a couple who fought in Hue. They said that while civs got killed in free fire zones-everyone who was there was already declared an enemy by high command-the fact is that we simply made up numbers. We called in CAS on empty areas, then said they had killed x number of enemy when no one had been there.
It was a game, we all played it. But to claim we were all like the Mei Lai group of idiots is quite simply wrong.
So, are we going to return to the days when we were all baby killers?
BTW, the ROE were quite clear. While I was there we could not fire at anyone until we were fired upon
I read this book and quite frankly it made me sick. I am however going to pass it on to guys that were also there who can then respond to this far better than I.

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Donald Johnson 08.26.13 at 3:48 pm

Turse is very late in the game on Speedy Express–Kevin Buckley got there first. Turse’s version of events lines up with what others have said–it’s not extreme, because everyone who as examined or written about Speedy Express notices the very high dead to captured weapons ratio and the pressure to rack up a high body count and the tactics used. Even Guenter Lewy, who does almost everything he can to minimize American responsibility for Vietnamese suffering, seems uneasy about Speedy Express. According to him, btw, about half of the casualties were made by air borne helicopter units. Lewy also says this–

“The division’s after action report attributed the low weapons count to such factors as the high percentage of kills made at night and by air cavalry and Army aviation units and to the fact that “many individuals in the VC and guerilla units were not armed with weapons.” This was another way of acknowledging that many of those killed were not really combatants.” Page 142 “America in Vietnam”

And that’s from a book by an author bent on showing that the US war in Vietnam really wasn’t all that bad.

On the “babykiller” meme, I would recommend that someone write a book about the suffering of the Vietnamese at the hands of the American military, solely from the Vietnamese point of view, only using American sources to shed light on what happened to the Vietnamese. Just skip entirely the question of what fraction of the American troops did something wrong, just as we tend to do in other wars where American troops aren’t involved.

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Andrew F. 08.26.13 at 10:07 pm

-Donald, remember Turse’s assertion though is that “many, if not most” of those killed were caused by helicopter attacks at night. That assertion remains misleading at best, even using Lewy’s claim that “about half” of the claimed enemy killed were caused by air strikes.

-I disagree with Lewy’s interpretation of the division’s after-action report explanation for the low weapons-recovered:enemy-killed ratio. That a significant number of claimed enemy killed occurred at night, or as a result of helicopter and artillery strikes, does not imply that those killed were not combatants; it implies that recovery of weapons was impractical or impossible.

However, I don’t disagree entirely with Lewy’s interpretation of one part of that explanation, concerning unarmed VC personnel. It’s a reasonable one.

-Lewy goes on to note on page 143 that “another reason for the spectacular enemy casualty reports” was that “[u]nable to satisfy Ewell’s expectations, commanders apparently falsified body counts,” citing an Air Force report as support.

-So in sum Lewy provides three reasons for the disproportionate weapons recovered/ekia numbers: (1) the use of night attacks, air strikes, and artillery in a populated area, leading to an actually elevated number of civilian casualties, (2) incentive on the part of commanders to claim a fatality as an enemy killed rather than a civilian killed, (3) incentive on the part of commanders to lie about the numbers killed. Lewy misses a fourth reason, (4) that the tactics used more frequently by Ewell may also have more frequently rendered weapons recovery impossible or impractical.

But that’s quite different from Turse’s claims, which imply that the 9th ID deliberately slaughtered civilians as a matter of routine to inflate their body count.

A military operation that causes an excessive number of civilian casualties relative to the military significance of the operational objectives may violate the principle of proportionality; that’s a tougher, more complex case to make. Turse’s account, by contrast, is simple in accusing the 9th ID of routinely murdering civilians to achieve certain metrics, and seems to me an extreme version of events by comparison.

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Tim Wilkinson 08.26.13 at 10:52 pm

Turse’s assertion though is that “many, if not most” of those killed were caused by helicopter attacks at night.

No it’s not.

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