Vietnam’s Lingering Voice

Kim Phillips-Fein

Near the end of the Vietnam War, as the antiwar movement roiled domestic politics and the Viet Cong showed no signs of giving in, a group of black soldiers formed an underground society named the Mau-Maus, in reference to a 19th-century uprising against the British in Kenya. Other soldiers, at about the same time, put up posters at Army bases reading, “Don’t Do What They Tell You, Tell What They Do,” and went on “search-and-avoid” missions—told where the enemy was, they’d march in the opposite direction. In 1971, for the Fourth of July, soldiers at one base held a peace rally, calling for “immediate and total American troop withdrawal.”

These were only a few signs of an army in revolt and a foreign policy in collapse.

At home, Nixon composed his infamous list of political enemies, and used federal agencies to harass them. The “Plumbers,” his secret agents, broke into the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist to find documents that might be used to smear him after he released the Pentagon Papers. Vietnam veterans threw away their medals in front of the White House. Early in the morning before an antiwar demonstration on the Washington Mall, Nixon wandered down without Secret Service men in attendance, and gave a rambling speech to the college-age protesters, telling them to travel and see the world.

Such stories of Vietnam-era unraveling—and many more—can be found in Christian Appy’s Patriots: An Oral History of the Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides. Appy has interviewed soldiers, generals, North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese, antiwar protestors, politicians, Cold Warriors, artists, poets, flight attendants, conscientious objectors, draft dodgers and more. Juxtaposing the narratives of the men who planned the war with those who fought in and against it, the deepest theme of Appy’s book is the self-deception and moral blindness of American leaders, and their inability to justify the war—to American soldiers, to the general public, even to themselves.

The Vietnam War, Appy suggests, was the first war fought by a major global power against a Third World country after the decline of the old European empires, in a world irrevocably shaped by the Cuban Revolution and by nationalist movements in India and Africa, in which the desire of one country to control the politics of another was no longer an adequate justification for war. What’s more, many of the working-class and black Americans who were drafted to fight in Vietnam were not persuaded by the anti-communist arguments of the State and Defense Departments. They did not see how the peasant country could possibly pose a threat to the United States, and they certainly didn’t find a people asking to be liberated.

Patriots demonstrates that the anti-Communist theories of the war’s architects blinded them to the real nature of the war in Vietnam, its horrific violence and the fact that it would not be winnable. Paul Kattenberg, a Vietnam specialist in the ’50s, tells of attending a National Security Council meeting in 1963: “What struck me more than anything else was just the abysmal ignorance around the table of the particular facts of Vietnam, their ignorance of the actual place. They didn’t know what they were talking about. It was robot thinking about Vietnam and no distinctions were being made.” James Thompson, who served as an adviser to McGeorge Bundy in the early ’60s, tells of authorizing “armed reconnaissance” missions without knowing what they were: “Armed reconnaissance planes basically flew up and down both halves of Vietnam and over Laos, taking pictures and shooting at anything they wanted to. Many months later I realized I was authorizing quite a bit of killing with no knowledge of what it was all about and it staggered me.”

Morton Halperin, a deputy assistant secretary of defense under Johnson, refused even to have a map of Vietnam in his office until the Tet Offensive. “People would come in and they’d start to tell me something about the Mekong Delta or the Ho Chi Minh Trail and they would say, ‘Where’s your map of Vietnam?’ I’d say, ‘Use that map.’ Half of them couldn’t find Vietnam on the world map and the other half would say, ‘Vietnam is too small on this map to show you what I want to show you.’ I would look at them and say, ‘That’s the point!’”

Only planners possessed by illusions and contempt could have sought to win the support of a people they were in the midst of bombing (the overwhelming majority—75 percent—of American bombs fell on South Vietnam). The U.S. military strategy sought to break the will of the Vietnamese communists, not by seizing territory but by killing as many people as possible. One adviser remembers Kissinger saying, “Every country, like every human being, has a breaking point, Vietnam included.” Yet while pursuing an inhumane strategy that could lead all too easily to the massacre of noncombatants, the Americans were supposed to be protecting the Vietnamese from the cruelties of Communism.

Almost every page in Appy’s book reveals a different contradiction in U.S. policy: Hospitals bombed instead of military installations; starvation in the strategic hamlets that were supposed to be incubators of support for the South Vietnamese government; battles waged along with supposed Vietnamese allies who turned out to be double agents. In one particularly dubious psychological-warfare operation, peasants were kidnapped and taken to an outpost of a fake Northern resistance movement, named the Sacred Sword of the Patriot League, where they were given propaganda and food and sent back to their villages. The program was never shown to have any positive results.

Many American soldiers found themselves incapable of tolerating the war’s inhumanity, and the army was collapsing by the war’s end. One journalist who lived in Vietnam in the early ’70s says, “When I hear people say we could have won the war, I always think: Where were you going to get the soldiers?” Yet while the American soldiers served one-year tours of duty, punctuated by rest-and-recuperation debauchery, often spending time in rear-area bases with televisions, slot machines, beer, hot showers and warm meals, the North Vietnamese soldiers endured vast deprivation, living in the jungle for years on end, with scant food, sickness, exhaustion and a death rate nearly 20 times that of the Americans. Why were they able to tolerate such conditions, where American soldiers crumbled under much less?

Appy suggests that the basic difference was that North Vietnamese soldiers understood themselves as fighting a political war against an occupying power.

North Vietnamese strategy, therefore, involved building support for resistance to the Americans (and before them, the French) throughout Vietnamese society. For example, Vo Nguyen Giap, a leader of the anti-colonial struggle against the French and a general in the American War (as it is called in Vietnam), remembers Ho Chi Minh telling him that as long as they had the support of the peasantry, weaponry was unimportant. Artists, entertainers, actors, singers and musicians traveled with the North Vietnamese troops.

At the same time, the North Vietnamese military planners made a deep effort (perhaps not always successful) to identify with America’s revolutionary tradition, and to blame the planners of the war, not the grunts. According to Appy’s sources, North Vietnamese soldiers read American literature, carrying books by U.S. authors among the few items in their rucksacks. In short, the North Vietnamese army endured because it sought to give its soldiers a sense of being participants in a deep struggle against injustice, arbitrary power and violence.

It is impossible to read Patriots without thinking of the ongoing war in Iraq. Despite obvious differences—no force in Iraq is comparable to the Viet Cong and Saddam Hussein was no Ho Chi Minh—there are deep similarities in the American position. The war, after all, was supposed to vanquish the “Vietnam syndrome.”

But can it? Once again the United States has entered a war on false pretenses with little knowledge of the history, culture or even language of the invaded country. American leaders now, as during the Vietnam War, seek political support among a people they just bombed, seeking to win the “hearts and minds” of Iraqis after killing 8,000 to 10,000 civilians.The soldiers, once more, are working-class men and women, many of color, quite a few of whom seem already to harbor grave doubts about the war they have been sent to fight.

The similarities may run deeper still. No matter what military superiority the United States may possess, it is not so easy to win a war. The Vietnam War was possible, in the end, because the people leading the United States were motivated by a criminal, casual sense that the world was theirs to rule. Yet as Patriots shows, they were mistaken. Ideology and politics matter in fighting wars, and a war justified by lies is unlikely to be a war that people will want to—or prove able to—fight for long.

Kim Phillips-Fein is a writer in New York City and a contributing editor to In These Times. She is working on a book about the business backlash against the New Deal.
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