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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

What We Did In Vietnam

Reckoning with Vietnam, 50 years after My Lai…

In any attempt to explain or tell the story of “The Vietnam War” as a whole, the people who should command most of the focus are the Vietnamese. That should go without saying, really. The United States lost 58,000 soldiers in the war, while multiple millions of Vietnamese lives were lost, possibly nearly 4 million. This is 20 to 60 times as many deaths, almost half of whom may have been civilians. Yet needless to say, in America’s voluminous national literature about the war, including tens of thousands books, dozens of Hollywood films, and numerous documentaries, the Vietnamese experience is not treated as being ten times as tragic and important as the American experience. In fact, the ratio goes in the other direction: even in antiwar depictions, the story of the Vietnam War is almost always told from the perspective of American soldiers. The Vietnamese are nameless fungible extras.

I am tempted to call this “understandable.” On the face of it, it doesn’t sound crazy to say that Americans see the war through American eyes. Ken Burns said that when he worked on the epic documentary The Vietnam War (co-directed with Lynn Novick), he included a number of Vietnamese voices under pressure but wanted to “pull them back” because he was making an “American film” to honor Vietnam veterans and heal national wounds. If we actually consider what this means, though, it’s not really “understandable” at all, or at least not defensible. A documentary called The Vietnam War that isn’t mostly about Vietnamese people isn’t about The Vietnam War and it isn’t really a documentary. It might be a moving collection of anecdotes, but a deliberately “American” film is intentionally excluding most of the people affected by a historical event, solely because of their nationality. (As historian Christian Appy asks: “Is it possible to make a film for one side’s combatants and still remain neutral?”) Yet Burns’ and Novick’s film remains a drastic improvement over previous efforts, in that Vietnamese people do actually show up in it (though they are rarely humanized to the same degree).

There is a standard (infuriating) justification offered for why domestic portrayals of historical events treat other participants as scenery: the audience demands it. People don’t want to watch films about Vietnamese peasants being blown up, they want to watch films about the moral anguish of good-hearted American boys who had to blow up Vietnamese peasants. Oliver Stone made two Vietnam War films about American soldiers, which made $150 million each and won Oscars. Then he made one about a Vietnamese woman. It flopped, earning $5 million on a $33 million budget. 1978’s The Deer Hunter, a trashy melodrama in which the Vietnamese exist as sadistic racists who are there to be shot, won five Oscars including Best Picture. But the fact that it’s hard to make Americans care about Vietnamese lives is the opposite of a justification for ignoring those lives. It’s a disturbing caution that we probably have deep-rooted nationalistic and racial biases that will inhibit our ability to understand and empathize with other people’s pain, and which continue to fashion the prism through which we view our history.

The selective attention to suffering can occur unconsciously, without anyone noticing they are doing it. I am sure Ken Burns didn’t even think about the implications of dwelling mostly on U.S. policymakers, troops, their families, and antiwar activists. But this failure to afford equal status to Vietnamese people in accounts of the war has allowed the United States to avoid coming to terms with the full human cost of its actions. Comforting national myths about the Vietnam War as a “noble mistake” have let the country to make peace with what happened, without ever having to seriously probe what the war looked like from the other side. In fact, it can be very difficult to find English-language studies of the Vietnam War that prioritize Vietnamese sources. But when we do try to examine the war fairly and neutrally, and give all lives the same weight, we inevitably come to conclusions that should be highly discomforting for Americans who would like to treat the war as a well-intentioned tragedy rather than a lasting moral stain on the country and a serious challenge to the idea of America as a “force for good.”

The magnitude of devastation in Vietnam is difficult to comprehend. To watch The Vietnam War, you would get the general impression that the war largely consisted of soldiers jumping out of helicopters and tramping through rice paddies and up hills (to the tune of “Green Onions,” “Magic Carpet Ride,” and, of course, “All Along The Watchtower”). But the most damage was inflicted from the skies, in massive aerial bombing campaigns that turned significant parts of the country into moonscapes. Over a seven-year period, U.S. and South Vietnamese aircraft flew 3.4 million combat sorties. From 1965 to 1968, the United States was dropping 32 tons of bombs per hour on North Vietnam. 25 million acres of farmland were subject to saturation bombing, and 7 million tons of bombs including 400,000 tons of napalm were dropped in Southeast Asia (including Laos and Cambodia) during the conflict. This is more than three times as many tons of bombs than were dropped in all of World War II, and the combined power of the explosives amounted to more than 640 Hiroshimas. In Quang Tri province, “only 11 of the province’s 3,500 villages went unbombed,” and the province’s capital district was “saturated with 3,000 bombs per square kilometer.” When Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay promised to bomb North Vietnam “back into the Stone Age,” he was not bluffing. (Laos, however, had even more explosives dropped on it, and by the end of the U.S.’s 9 years of aerial attacks it was the most bombed country in the history of the world. And since ⅓ of the bombs failed to explode, 50,000 people were killed or maimed there in the decades after the bombing stopped.) A North Vietnamese soldier described what a U.S. bombing raid felt like from the ground:

From a kilometer away, the sonic roar of the B-52 explosions tore eardrums, leaving many of the jungle dwellers permanently deaf. From a kilometer, the shockwaves knocked their victims senseless. Any hit within half a kilometer would collapse the walls of an unreinforced bunker, burying alive the people cowering inside. Seen up close, the bomb craters were gigantic—thirty feet across and nearly as deep… The first few times I experienced a B-52 attack it seemed… that I had been caught in the Apocalypse.

The sheer numbers of bombs dropped may be staggering, but the important fact is that they were dropped on people. Not only were countless civilians killed, but the nonstop bombing created an atmosphere of perpetual terror for large parts of the population, along with the lifelong pain and trauma that comes with being maimed, losing a loved one, or just suffering with the inevitable nightmares produced by year upon year of gigantic explosions.

In exhaustive, multi-decade research on the war ranging from examining military archives to interviewing peasants in remote Vietnamese villages, journalist Nick Turse has produced strong evidence that the Vietnam War was far worse for the country’s inhabitants than most Americans realize. Whole cities were turned to rubble, farms were obliterated, children incinerated. The United States deployed chemical weapons in the form of thousands of tons of CS tear gas. 70 million liters of toxic defoliants and herbicides, including Agent Orange and the lesser-known Agent Blue, were deployed as part of a deliberate strategy of killing Vietnamese farmers’ crops. As is by now well-known, up to 5 million Vietnamese people were sprayed with these toxic chemicals, but the crop destruction strategy itself was perverse and cruel, attempting to starve insurgents by ruining the lands of poor peasant farmers. (As the RAND corporation noted in 1967, “the civilian population seems to carry very nearly the full burden of the results of the crop destruction program.”)

Photos from the Associated Press. See note at end of article.

In South Vietnam, the United States often attempted to save peasant villages from a guerrilla insurgency by flattening the villages from the air. Turse quotes two South Vietnamese generals saying that as  a result of U.S. firepower, “Many villages were completely obliterated… Houses were reduced to rubble, innocent people were killed, untold numbers became displaced, riceland was abandoned, and as much as one half of the population of the countryside fled.” As early as 1962, villages in certain zones were “subject to random bombardment by artillery and aircraft so as to drive the inhabitants into the safety of the strategic hamlets,” according to pro-war historian Guenter Lewy. “Driving the inhabitants” into “safety” through bombing may seem oxymoronic, but it resulted from a U.S. theory that villagers in Viet Cong dominated areas could be persuaded to relocate to friendly territory if bombing made it in their self-interest to do so. As Turse writes:

To deprive their Vietnamese enemies of food, recruits, intelligence, and other support, American command policy turned large swathes of those provinces into “free fire zones,” subject to intense bombing and artillery shelling, that was expressly designed to “generate” refugees, driving people from their homes in the name of “pacification.” Houses were set ablaze, whole villages were bulldozed, and people were forced into squalid refugee camps and filthy urban slums short of water, food, and shelter.

Journalist Neil Sheehan confirms that the destruction of villages in order to intentionally create homeless refugees was policy rather than accident, sanctioned by U.S. commanding general William Westmoreland. Eventually, U.S. evaluators would conclude that “putting the people behind barbed wire against their will is not the first step towards earning their loyalty and support,” but Westmoreland publicly stated that making villagers homeless or putting them in camps would ensure that their villages could not be captured by guerrillas, claiming that “in order to thwart the communists’ designs, it is necessary to eliminate the ‘fish’ from the ‘water,’ or to dry up the ‘water’ so that the ‘fish’ cannot survive.” The “water,” he said were the villagers. By 1967 this policy had produced a million refugees. As Sheehan explains:

The Americans called it ‘generating refugees’… Driving people from their homes by bombing and shelling. I was out with Westmoreland one day and I asked him, ‘General, aren’t you disturbed by wounding all these civilians, the bombing and shelling of hamlets?’ He said ‘Yes, Neil, it’s a problem. But it does deprive the enemy of the population, doesn’t it? And I thought to myself ‘You cold-blooded bastard. You know exactly what you’re doing.’

This is not seriously contested. Guenter Lewy, whose America in Vietnam strongly defends the morality of American actions and dismisses antiwar criticisms, reports instances like a brigade that “reported evacuating 8,885 villagers and burning their houses in order to deny the use of these facilities to VC/NVA forces and to discourage the villagers from returning to their homes.” Lewy says that “the extensive use of artillery and air strikes with high explosives and napalm had helped keep down American casualties but had also resulted in large-scale destruction and the deaths of villagers and many refugees.”

In fact, while Lewy’s work is ostensibly a strong defense of American policy, it contains shocking evidence about the extent of U.S. destruction of Vietnam. He quotes an American officer’s assessment that “the unparalleled, lavish use of firepower as a substitute for manpower is an outstanding characteristic of U.S. military tactics in the Vietnam war.” (In fact, when Westmoreland was asked how he intended to win the war, he did not reply with an actual military strategy. Instead, he just said “firepower.”) This “lavish use of firepower” was an application of a maxim that Lewy says the U.S. began subscribing to after World War I: “Expend shells, not men.” This meant minimizing U.S. casualties at all costs, by maximizing the amount of destruction inflicted. But while a philosophy of “risk minimization” can sound benign, it causes horrifying results. Just as a police officer trying to “minimize risk” at all costs will open fire on anyone who could potentially be a threat, “expend shells not men” leads soldiers to blow up villages rather than risk being attacked in them. It abandons any “rules of engagement,” and concern for other lives, in favor of the constant massive use of deadly force. Having a plane drop napalm from the air, for instance, is an easy way to minimize risk to Americans and “expend shells,” but it seriously amplifies the risk of massacring civilians. As Ken Burns and Geoffrey Ward say in The Vietnam War’s accompanying book, napalm was “an effective weapon—a single 120-gallon aluminum tank could engulf in flame an area 150 feet long and 50 feet wide, and its use saved untold numbers of American and ARVN lives—but it also killed or disfigured countless Vietnamese civilians.” Lewy says the official Rules of Engagement allowed napalm attacks on villages only in cases where it was “absolutely necessary,” but admits that “in practice this rule does not appear to have restricted the use of such weapons.” Efforts to restrain firepower “ran head on against the mindset of the conventionally-trained officer” who concentrated on “zapping the Cong” and wanted to “minimize casualties among their troops.”

Lewy’s work essentially concedes that war crimes were sanctioned. “Training in the Geneva conventions and other provisions of the law of war was often perfunctory,” he says, and an inspection in May-June 1969 revealed that “almost 50 percent of all personnel had not received their required annual training in the Geneva and Hague conventions.” At that time, he says “the pressure for body count and the free use of heavy weapons in populated areas probably made this kind of instruction seem rather academic and irrelevant.” Surely it did: if official policy is to pummel populated villages with artillery shells, what good could it do to learn about the Hague’s prohibition on terrorizing civilians? There were, Lewy says, “severe problems of proper conduct toward the insurgents and the civilian populations.” Rules largely existed on paper, and the military justice system failed to deal with instances of war crimes, since enlisted men were “not anxious to expose their comrades to legal retribution for having killed Vietnamese civilians who generally were perceived as unfriendly.” Again, this is one of the war’s staunchest defenders speaking. In fact, you can often get a sense of just how much is uncontested by looking at the (often understated) admissions made by writers supposedly justifying American actions. A writer for the conservative Weekly Standard, for instance, in dismissing certain allegations of widespread atrocities, still says: “make no mistake: Americans committed war crimes in Vietnam, and officers covered them up. General William Westmoreland’s search-and-destroy policies and the profligate use of air and artillery fire put Vietnamese peasants at risk, and far too many died—though not all at our hands.” The same writer goes further elsewhere:

No serious historian of the Vietnam War disputes that the way American forces fought the war contributed to an atmosphere of atrocity. None doubt that command at all levels may have swept allegations under the rug or that incidents went unreported. Few historians argue that [the My Lai massacre], while an aberration in scale, was an aberration in practice.

This is remarkable. It essentially says “Well of course, everybody knows there was an atmosphere of atrocity in which commanders swept war crimes under the rug, and that the only thing unusual about My Lai was its scale.” That may be the consensus among serious scholars of the war, but it’s not the dominant American perception, and My Lai is often seen as a kind of “exception that proves the rule.” Here, for example, is Sam Harris, talking about My Lai as evidence that American culture has no tolerance for the “murder of innocents,” by contrast with other cultures:

[My Lai was] about as bad as human beings are capable of behaving. But what distinguishes us from many of our enemies is that this indiscriminate violence appalls us. The massacre at My Lai is remembered as a signature moment of shame for the American military. Even at the time, U.S. soldiers were dumbstruck with horror by the behavior of their comrades. One helicopter pilot who arrived on the scene ordered his subordinates to use their machine guns against their own troops if they would not stop killing villagers. As a culture, we have clearly outgrown our tolerance for the deliberate torture and murder of innocents. We would do well to realize that much of the world has not.

In fact, the helicopter pilot who intervened to stop the My Lai massacre was widely vilified for turning on his fellow soldiers, and public opinion was resolutely on the side of William Calley, the lieutenant convicted of ordering the massacre. But even more importantly, America has showed an extraordinary capacity to ignore or justify “murder of innocents” that occurred throughout the rest of the war. The evidence is very clear that United States forces committed major atrocities, including the widespread use of chemical weapons on civilians, routine violations of the laws of war and the rules of engagement, and the dehumanization and terrorization of ordinary Vietnamese people. Yet there has been much less national reflection on these outrages than on My Lai, the one event that can be most easily classified as an aberration. Perversely, as Harris’s statement shows, My Lai has actually managed to make Americans feel better about themselves rather than worse, by convincing them that the massacrewas the crime rather than the war.

Understanding this fact is crucial to understanding the war. Documenting and analyzing atrocities committed in Vietnam is important, but above all else: the war itself was a crime. The United States refused to recognize Vietnamese independence after World War II, supported and then took over the French effort at colonial reconquest, and finally launched a large-scale invasion with 500,000 troops and the unrestrained use of deadly force in order to keep an unpopular, autocratic U.S.-friendly government in power. It was not a war fought out of noble motives; U.S. leaders were fully aware that they were not acting in the interests of the Vietnamese people or defending anything that could reasonably be called “democracy.” It was a war fought because the United States feared the loss of influence and the humiliation of defeat.

This is not the picture of the Vietnam War that has been passed down. Instead, even liberal critics of the war have seen it as a flawed but well-intended tragedy. As Daniel Ellsberg notes, the received picture of the war has been as a foolhardy American “intervention” in an internal conflict, rather than an aggressive American attempt to subvert a national independence movement:

It was no more a “civil war” after 1955 or 1960 than it had been during the U.S.-supported French attempt at colonial reconquest. A war in which one side was entirely equipped and paid by a foreign power—which dictated the nature of the local regime in its own interest—was not a civil war. To say that we had “interfered” in what is “really a civil war,” as most American academic writers and even liberal critics of the war do to this day, simply screened a more painful reality… In terms of the UN Charter and of our own avowed ideals, it was a war of foreign aggression, American aggression.

“War of aggression,” of course, is one of the most severe international offenses, condemned by the Nuremberg Tribunal “the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” Yet many people critical of the war have shied away from this kind of language, searching for softer descriptions that will keep America from having to do the kind of hard moral reflection required of countries that have committed historic crimes. As Ken Burns frames it, the war was “begun in good faith by decent people, out of fateful misunderstandings.” This is false. It was begun in bad faith by leaders who simply did not care about the will of the Vietnamese or the suffering they would undergo. As Ellsberg explained, the record shows that every single president lied to the public about Vietnam:

Truman lied from 1950 on, on the nature and purposes of the French involvement, the colonial re-conquest of Vietnam that we were financing, and encouraging. Eisenhower lied about the reasons for and the nature of our involvement with Diem and the fact that he was in power essentially because of American support and American money and for no other reason. Kennedy lied… about our own combat involvement, and about the recommendations that were being made to him for greater involvement [and] lied about the degree of our participation in the overthrow of Diem. Johnson of course lied and lied and lied; about the provocations against the North Vietnamese prior to and after the Tonkin Gulf incident; about the plans for bombing North Vietnam, and the nature of the buildup of American troops in Vietnam. Nixon as we now know, lied to the American public from the first months of his [term in] office, in terms of the bombing of Cambodia and Laos [and] ground operations in Laos, the reasons for our invasion of Cambodia and of Laos, and the prospects for the mining of Haiphong that finally came about in 1972 but was envisioned as early as 1969.

Nor did these lies come from good motives. Nixon, of course, sabotaged peace talks in order to get elected president, which stands out as a moral low point even in the career of Richard Nixon. But even Lyndon Johnson, who is often portrayed sympathetically for “agonizing” over the war, was often simply worried about being emasculated and seeming to “back down.” As he described his own fears:

[If we left Vietnam] there would be Robert Kennedy… telling everyone that I had betrayed John Kennedy’s commitment to South Vietnam… That I was a coward. An unmanly man. A man without a spine… Every night when I fell asleep I would see myself tied to the ground in the middle of a long, open space. In the distance, I could hear the voices of thousands of people. They were all shouting and running toward me: ‘Coward! Traitor! Weakling!’

Of course, it is too simple to say that millions of Vietnamese people died because Lyndon Johnson was afraid of being called a wuss by imaginary dream-people. But we can see that the psychological roots of U.S. decision-making went deeper than a mere rational concern about communism. Johnson didn’t want to look bad. There’s a resemblance here to the words of Reginald Dyer, the British colonel who ordered the Amritsar massacre in India. When asked if it was necessary for him to open fire on the crowd, he said “I think it quite possible that I could have dispersed the crowd without firing but they would have come back again and laughed.” As George Orwell explains in “Shooting an Elephant,” when he says that if he hadn’t shot the elephant the natives would have thought less of him, the fear of humiliation is a strong internal motivator in imperial powers.

There is another feature that the U.S. occupation of South Vietnam has in common with the ventures of prior empires: racism and the dehumanization of the native population. It is impossible to get around this. Numerous testimonies from Americans who served in Vietnam confirm that from basic training onward, “right away they told us not to call them Vietnamese. Call everybody gooks, dinks.” As for the Viet Cong themselves, “They were like animals. They wouldn’t allow you to talk about them as if they were people… They told us they’re not to be treated with any type of mercy or apprehension.”William Westmoreland, whose strategy of massive firepower and indiscriminate bombing killed countless innocent Vietnamese, was openly racist, suggesting that the “Oriental” mindset meant these killings didn’t matter very much: “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does the Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient. As the philosophy of the Orient expresses it, life is not important.”

Soliders were taught almost nothing of Vietnamese language or culture, and because the locals all bled together into a mob of “gooks,” distinctions between civilians and combatants were often made haphazardly. Nick Turse explains that the high civilian casualties in Vietnam resulted in part from an informal (sometimes spoken, sometimes not) “mere gook rule”: the rule that if corpses were “mere gooks,” nobody would be held accountable for the killings, even if the dead were civilians and the rules of engagement had been violated. Turse quotes one marine telling another: “Shouldn’t bother you at all, just some more dead gooks. The sooner they all die, the sooner we go back to the world.” “Nobody cared about the Vietnamese,” one anonymous soldier declared bluntly. Little fuss was made if civilians were killed, because they were often chalked up as enemy dead, with soldiers following the rule “if it’s dead and it’s Vietnamese, it’s VC.” (Note the “it.”) Even Lewy concedes that it is “clear that a steady percentage of those reported as VC dead were in fact villagers not carrying weapons.”

One of the most disturbing aspects of the war is the American military leadership’s strategy of prioritizing “body count” above all. Westmoreland deliberately waged a war of attrition, attempting to weaken the Viet Cong and NVA’s resolve by killing as many of them as possible. Commanders in the field were obsessively pressured to produce as many dead Vietnamese bodies as possible. “Body count was everything,”  and the “pressure to kill indiscriminately” was “practically irresistible.” There were “kill count” competitions, with soldiers being rewarded with leave or cases of beer for maximizing their kills. Superior officers would say things like “Jack up that body count or you’re gone, Colonel.” One West Point veteran remembers hearing his commander explain his strategy, which was that “he wanted to begin killing 4,000 of these little bastards a month, and then by the end of the following month wanted to kill 6,000.” Promotion in the officer corps could be dependent on body count, and “many high-level officers established ‘production quotas’ for their units.” As celebrated war memoirist Philip Caputo recounted, it often seemed as if there were no traditional strategic military objectives, such as the capture of territory. The only objective was mass killing:

Your mission is to kill VC. Period. You’re not here to capture a hill. You’re not here to capture a town. You’re not here to move from Point A to Point B to Point C. You’re here to kill Viet Cong. As many of ‘em as you can… [But] there was also the question of how you distinguish a Viet Cong from a civilian… There were, at times, very convoluted rules of engagement given to us. If we were out on an operation and see saw somebody running, that was somehow prima facie evidence that he, or even she, was the enemy. Presumably. I guess the idea was if they liked us they wouldn’t run, and I remember an officer saying ‘The rule is if he’s dead and Vietnamese, he’s VC.

We can see here a chain of logic leading almost inexorably to genocide: take a series of teenagers, hand them M-16s, and put them through a brutal basic training routine in which they are called “maggots” and have their spirits broken, and must learn to obey orders unquestioningly and kill without mercy (even chanting “Kill! Kill! Kill!”). Drop them in a country they know nothing about, and teach them no ways of distinguishing between the inhabitants, who are all nameless gooks. (And who do not value life.)  Tell them that the country is crawling with the enemy, and that even women and children may be supporters and informers of the guerrillas. Teach them nothing about the laws of war or the rules of engagement. Impose no accountability for abuses. Make them terrified. Then tell them their job is to maximize “enemy body count” and that they will be rewarded for killing and punished for failing to kill. Set them lose with more heavy firepower than any other war ever fought in human history.

Is it any wonder, given this process, that so many Vietnamese civilians died? My Lai instantly ceases to become a mystery when we understand just how the United States went about prosecuting the war. It would be shocking if My Lai were an aberration, because it’s hard to see how draftees in this situation could produce anything other than a bloodbath. The combined notions of “killing as success” and “civilians as unimportant” are recipes for mass death. Then add the euphemistic concepts of “free fire zones” (areas that had supposedly—but not actually—been cleared of anyone except the enemy, where one was free to “kill anything that moved”) and “search and destroy missions” (which were supposedly about searching a village and destroying the enemy, but quickly morphed into searching the village and then destroying it). The resulting horror was the unavoidable conclusion that followed from the U.S. military’s premises.

I am not sure how much detail to go into on how this horror unfolded on the ground. Turse’s book can be almost unreadable, because its catalog of atrocities is so stomach-churning that one can’t read more than a few pages at a time without feeling the urge to throw up. A few brief notes on various aspects of it will do. First, Vietnamese women were routinely sexually abused, and Turse cites numerous instances of female villagers being sadistically raped by U.S. soldiers, quoting one who served in the 25th Infantry Division saying that “rape was virtually standard operating procedure” in his unit. (“All three grunts grabbed the gook chick and began dragging her into the hootch… I learned to recognize the sounds of rape at great distance. Over the next two months I would hear this sound on the average of once every third day.”) Prisoners of war were often tortured and killed. This was in part the result of “body count” logic (“Damn it I don’t care about prisoners, I want a body count,” one lieutenant quoted his superior officer as saying) and partly the desire for vengeance that came after U.S. soldiers watched their friends killed by mines and heard reports of torture by North Vietnamese forces. A marine, explaining why his unit never brought in any prisoners, said: “If an enemy soldier fell into our hands he was just one sorry fucker. I don’t know how to explain it that would make sense to anyone who wasn’t there..” In Bloods: Black Veterans of the Vietnam War, specialist Richard Ford of the Army’s 25th Infantry Division sheds some more insight on what this could look like:

(Warning: this passage is incredibly disturbing.)

So at that time they had this game called Guts. Guts was where they gave the prisoner to a company and everyone would get in line and do something to him… So they took the NVA’s clothes off and tied him to a tree. Everybody in the unit got in line. At least 200 guys. The first guy took a bayonet and plucked his eye out. Put the bayonet in the corner of the eye and popped it. And I was amazed how large your eyeball was. Then he sliced his ear off. And he hit him in the mouth with his .45. Loosened the teeth, pulled them out. Then they sliced his tongue. They cut him all over. And we put that insect repellent all over him. It would just irritate his body, and his skin would turn white…. I don’t know when he died. But most of the time he was alive. He was hollering and cursing. They put water on him and shaking him and bringin’ him back. Finally they tortured him to death.

It is difficult, after the fact, for anyone to figure out just how widespread this kind of behavior was. Certainly, stories of U.S. soldiers cutting off ears recur in Vietnam memoirs, and Turse’s examination of internal U.S. war crime records reveal hundreds of incidents of abuse that went largely unpunished. But Turse’s characterization that war crimes were perpetrated throughout the armed forces has been disputed, and it is not clear how one should proceed from anecdote to data. The anecdotes alone, though, are enough to suggest that the moral culture of the U.S. armed forces in Vietnam was severely warped.

Specific people and units stand out. Roy Bumgarner, a psychopathic sergeant who killed 1,500 people, was widely known to be a mass murderer but was kept on active duty. The “Tiger Force,” an elite reconnaissance unit, racked up “scores of unarmed victims” including “two blind brothers, an elderly Buddhist monk, women, children, and old people hiding in underground shelters.” The infamous “Phoenix Program,” sponsored by the CIA, tortured and assassinated tens of thousands of people, and seems to have invented the horrendous tactic of “rape with eels.”

The burning of villages was commonplace, and villagers were baffled by the fact that U.S. soldiers would sometimes show up and hand out candy, and sometimes show up to destroy every building in town. One major general said that when troops took casualties, “the instant reaction of the troops [was] to burn the whole hamlet down.” (Many U.S. atrocities seem to have occurred because soldiers were frightened and angry after members of their units were killed.)  There were, according to a member of the First Cavalry Regiment, “numerous burnings of villages for no apparent reason.” One marine patrol received the instruction: “Burn the damn gooks out. Burn it. Burn it and they can’t ever come back.” As a soldier described the process:

The flamethrowers came in and we burnt the hamlet. Burnt up everything They had a lot of rice. We opened the bags, just throw it all over the street. Look for tunnels. Killing animals. Killing all the livestock. Guys would carry chemicals that they would put in the well. Poison the waster so they couldn’t use it… They killed some more people here. Maybe 12 or 14 or more. Old people and little kids that wouldn’t leave. I guess their grandparents. People that were old in Vietnam couldn’t leave their village.

Of course, things would go to an even greater extreme at My Lai itself, “where American troops murdered an entire village of 300–500 unarmed South Vietnamese, in addition to raping civilians, killing their livestock, mutilating corpses, burning down houses, and fouling drinking water.”

What are we to make of this catalog of evils, 50 years after a date on which U.S. soldiers executed an entire village, and the military covered it up? First, I think it’s important to deal with the “both sides” question. I am sure any list of atrocities committed by the United States in Vietnam can be met with a corresponding list of North Vietnamese atrocities, and the torture suffered by U.S. prisoners of war in North Vietnam is well-documented. A few points should be kept in mind, though. First, what was done by the United States is uniquely morally blameworthy because it was done to civilians. The U.S. civilian population never suffered, and the laws of war rightly single out unarmed people for special protection. Second, there are major differences in scale: the United States was bringing the mightiest fighting force in world history to a country full of rice-growing peasants. The colossal damage inflicted by U.S. bombing campaigns was unmatched by anything done by the other side. Finally, the United States’ objectives in the war were fundamentally indefensible. It could not win, because it did not have popular support in the country, so all it could do was inflict devastation. It is worth thinking about what our attitude would be if the war had occurred in reverse: the Vietnamese had invaded and occupied America, propping up a Vietnam-sympathetic regime and dropping hundreds of thousands of tons of napalm on all of our cities and causing tens of millions of deaths (the U.S. population equivalent to the number of deaths in Vietnam). It would not be possible for us to look at such an occupying power as having made a “tragic but well-intended mistake.” They would rightly be seen as having committed an international crime of the severest magnitude.

I understand why the United States does not want to think of the Vietnam War this way. For one thing, it seems to blame the soldiers themselves, to portray them as monsters and criminals. This seems very unfair, because we know how much they themselves suffered, and has thus contributed to the idea that the war should be conceived of as honorable. But it is possible to separate the soldiers from the conflict, the same way we do with “child soldiers” generally. (And many who served in Vietnam were essentially children.) It is difficult to keep one’s humanity in such a situation, and to see the war’s consequences as the product of individual depravity on behalf of front-line troops is a serious mistake that exonerates U.S. political and military leadership.

But there are deeper reasons why it’s difficult to acknowledge that the Vietnam War was worse than is admitted. As Christian Appy notes, it challenges American exceptionalism, “the belief that the United States is the greatest nation on earth, unrivaled not only in its wealth and power, but in the quality of its institutions and values, and the character of its people.” If we did commit a terrible crime, our treasured moral authority collapses. Nobody wants to think of themselves as a “bad person,” and no country wants to think of itself as a bad country. Hence the Ken Burns view: Vietnam was an honorable mistake, the kind a good country might reasonably be expected to make from time to time.

If we are to avoid conflicts like this in the future, though, we must understand what this one was like. Whenever we hear rumblings of some new war, we would do well to keep in mind how the lives of the civilians who will be affected by U.S. decision-making can easily be swept from view, and to recommit ourselves to valuing those lives equally. We should remember how simple and benign-sounding euphemisms can mask atrocious realities, and how easily our country can lapse into unthinkingly adopting policies like “maximizing enemy body count” without considering the murderous catastrophe this might cause. Vietnam offers a series of important lessons, ones that a country that considers itself humane and virtuous must learn. But it is yet to be seen whether we are sincere enough about our stated values to learn them, or whether we will continue to convince ourselves that the war was a sincere failure rather than an irresponsible crime against humanity. 

A NOTE ON SOURCES: With over 30,000 books on the Vietnam War in print, unless one is a serious scholar it is impossible to look at anything but a fraction of the material available. The books I drew from the most are: Ken Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward’s “The Vietnam War” (the book adaptation of the television documentary), Guenter Lewy’s “America in Vietnam,” Christian Appy’s “Patriots” and “American Reckoning,” Tim O’Brien’s “If I Die In A Combat Zone,” Karl Marlantes’ “What It Is Like To Go To War,” Michael Herr’s “Dispatches,” Wallace Terry’s “Bloods,” Deborah Nelson’s “The War Behind Me,” the Winter Soldier report, and Nick Turse’s “Kill Anything That Moves.” These sources offer a variety of perspectives on the legitimacy of the war from Lewy’s defense to Marlantes’ lament to Turse’s harsh criticism. I also recommend Noam Chomsky’s review of Lewy’s book, “On The Aggression of South Vietnamese Peasants Against The United States,” which can be found in his Towards A New Cold War and is a good example of how two people can look at the same sources and come to completely different conclusions, with Chomsky seeing barbarism where Lewy sees moral and lawful conduct. Where a factual source is not linked above, it is from one of these books.

A NOTE ON THE PHOTOGRAPHS: Often, photos are just decoration. Nobody actually looks at them, or at least not closely. Vietnam was a heavily photographed war, and has its share of highly-recognized images: the monk on fire, the Vietnamese officer shooting the prisoner, the naked girl running from her napalmed village, the My Lai bodies in a drainage ditch. Yet even though all of these are powerful and disturbing, over time they have become almost “iconic.” Anything looked at enough times will cease to have much of an emotional impact.

In presenting Vietnam visually, there is an unconscious inclination to lapse into what has been done before, or what it feels like you “should” do. That partly explains why Ken Burns has the “hits of the 60s” soundtrack: you can’t have a movie about the Vietnam war without the “something’s happening here” song. It means, though, that with Vietnam images, so often we get The Vietnam Panorama, which is dominated by soldiers jumping out of helicopters and villagers crying or dying. As I started trying to find visuals for this article, I found myself defaulting unthinkingly to the usual pictures: soldiers traipsing through rice paddies, Lyndon Johnson in consternation, a marine standing over his dead friend, looking up at the jungle canopy with an expression that asks “Why?” These images are important parts of the story of the Vietnam War. But I tried to put together a few pictures that actually convey the point: the Vietnam War is mostly about Vietnamese people, and should be imagined from their point of view.

The photos are all licensed from the Associated Press. The AP captions are as follows (starting with the featured article image at the top):

  • Young Vietnamese on motorbikes stop to look at a Viet Cong killed in the western section of Saigon, Cholon, during day-long fighting on May 5, 1968. A group of Viet Cong moved into the area following an mortar barrage on different parts of the city. The fighting which took place in Cholon was near a heavily-hit area during the Tet Offensive. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)
  • A Vietnamese mother and her children are framed by the legs of a soldier from the U.S. First Cavalry Division in Bong Son, Vietnam, September 28, 1966. (AP Photo/Henri Huet)
  • A U.S. 1st Air Cavalry Division soldier throws a rice basket into flames after a peasant woman retrieved it from the burning house in background. American troops destroyed everything of value to the enemy after overrunning the village near Tam Ky, 350 miles northeast of Saigon, during the Vietnam War on Oct. 27, 1967. (AP Photo/Dang Van Phuoc)
  • A Vietnamese mother huddles over her youngest child while her other daughter crawls on the ground during a battle between U.S. Marines and Viet Cong snipers in the village of Ngoc Kinh, 25 miles southwest of Danang, April 7, 1966. Civilians, finding themselves in the middle of fighting, took cover in shelters or huddled close to the ground. (AP Photo/George Esper)
  • A Vietnamese man carries his lightly wounded wife out of a threatened area in Southern Saigon, Vietnam on May 8, 1968. Daylong fighting in the area erupted at dawn with a daring Viet Cong attack on a police station. As they did during the Tet Offensive, residents abandoned their homes escaping to safer parts of the city. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)

Most of the photos I have selected show ordinary Vietnamese people struggling through the war. They are variously pensive, frightened, confused, and heroic. I particularly value the shot of a husband carrying his wife away from the flames, because I think it very poignantly shows love persisting under incredible pressure. I also think the view of children through the legs of a U.S. soldier is a good reminder of the “child’s eye view” of war.

I think the photograph of the American soldier may be seen as the most controversial choice. I could have presented a picture of an American soldier saving a child from a burning village rather than burning the village. One can complain that this presents a one-sided view of the war. But all selections must be selective. Bad acts are not outweighed or canceled out by good ones, and it is on the bad ones we must dwell. A murderer cannot be exonerated by having saved a life at some other point in time. Those of us who seem to talk about the U.S.’ wrongdoing much more than its virtue are not “America-haters,” but simply want to draw attention to what matters most. Even as I selected pictures designed to draw attention to Vietnamese suffering, though, I also avoided the most disturbing or graphic images. In doing so, I actually reduced exposure to the full consequences of American military force. A realistic and representative look at the human cost of war would be far more upsetting than what I have chosen to present. In fact, photos themselves inherently sanitize and soften war by necessarily portraying it in two dimensions rather than three.

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