A lot has been made of Donald Trump’s refusal to serve in the military during the Vietnam War. As a wealthy young man, he probably knew much better than we Grunts did, what that war was all about. At the same time, when Muhammad Ali died this year, little was made in the mainstream media about his refusal to serve when he said: “I got nothing against the Viet Cong. No Vietnamese ever called me nigger.” 1 The major reason for this is the US has never drawn the right conclusions on that war even though the military did.
The military understood you could no longer fight an unjust war with a citizen’s army and so they did away with the draft. At the same time, a major effort was made to rehabilitate the veteran in the public’s eye as if he could somehow be disassociated from the war he fought. The ‘Warrior’ became a hero, no matter what it was he was asked to do. And we veterans hold a lot of responsibility for this.
The generation of German youth following World War Two called their fathers “murderers.” There was no value in being a veteran. A major education program was undertaken to explain exactly what the Wehrmacht did during the war. It was demonized. This allowed the Germans to create a civilian army based on the principles of human rights. It also helped that Hitler ‘democratized’ the German Army by breaking down the power of the aristocratic Juncker class. In Hitlers army, you rose in the ranks through loyalty and bravery and, yes, savagery. After the war, the Germans built a defensive army not allowed to deploy outside its borders until Bill Clinton forced them to change their Constitution so they could send troops to the Balkans.
Yet, Vietnam was no less racist and savage than the behavior of the Wehrmacht in Poland and Russia. Studies have shown that we killed at least 3.8 million Vietnamese and wounded 5.3 million others, deliberately targeted civilians, bombed hospitals and schools, poisoned forests and farms…2
The battle for the history of Vietnam is still going on but those who would make heroes of ‘we the killers’ won enough of the propaganda war to make new wars of agression and regime change possible. The soldiers are not held accountable for what they do in a war they are asked to fight.
Under President George W. Bush, the military was able to ‘privatize’ war by using mercenary companies like Blackwater, euphemistically referred to as “Civilian Contractors.” 3 At one point, there were as many ‘civilian contractors’ in Iraq as GIs. The officers also learned not to use ‘body counts’ which could turn off the population back home. By some estimates, the invasion of Iraq led to over 600,000 dead in the first six years. 4 That figure is now put at over a million.
If the Nuremberg trials taught us anything, it is soldiers are accountable for the ‘illegal orders’ they carry out. That the US military has become a killing machine without accountability, where the government signs off on ‘assassination’ by drone, special ops or mercenaries is well documented. In his scathing indictment of the industrial-political-military complex, retired Colonel Andrew J. Bacevich also lays the blame on the US civilian population. “Americans themselves appear oblivious to what is occurring…Reliance on a professional military places the burden of service and sacrifice onto a very small percentage of citizens and lets everyone else off the hook.” 5
This can clearly be traced back to our failure to draw the right conclusions from the war in Vietnam even though many are still fighting for that history. We convinced ‘murderers’ they were heroes and those ‘heroes’ in turn, created an atmosphere where criticizing the war ended up criticizing the veteran which is very “un-American.”
During all of World War Two, it is my understanding that there were only some 10,000 desertions from the German Army which shows that the German soldier was committed (many more if you add the proxy armies). The German soldier believed in what he was doing and he fought with unit cohesion up to the end. A phenomenon the US military studied in detail. 6. From 1965 to 1975, there were from 500,000 to over 700,000 desertions in the US military, according to sources. We must add to this the number of people who avoided the draft to get a clear picture that this was in fact a war of choice where many people chose not to fight. 7
President Obama doubled the number of drone strikes in his first year in office and is today bombing Libya, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen and sending special ops teams into many more countries. The next president will take over America’s wars around the world and if that president is Hillary Clinton, then we will see much more of the same. Unless, of course, we can convince public opinion it is wrong to go to other countries and kill their people, as so many Americans thought during the Vietnam War.
I am not a pacifist. I believed very strongly in my country when I went into the Army in 1971. But I discovered something very sick which provoked questioning, refusal and resistance. Every human being must be made accountable for their actions in all circumstances. And when the actions are courageous and worthy, they should be recognized as such. But most prefer to turn a blind eye in favor of a comfortable life. Nobody should be “left off the hook” as Becevich states.
In 2014, Austria unveiled the first monument to the World War Two Wehrmacht deserters in Vienna. It is a strong message 70 years after the fact. Short of building a monument to those in the US who refused to serve in an unjust war which targeted civilians even more than it did combattants, we should at least be able to draw the right conclusions and say: “No. Being a veteran does not automatically make you a hero.” Then, perhaps, we can create a mentality of questioning where we can stop the US government from further unjust wars and disastrous regime changes.
Or are there still people who think Vietnam was right?
- Muhammed Ali: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. … I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”
- Nick Turse, Kill anything that Moves – The Real American War in Vietnam, p.13, New York, 2013.
- For more on the use of private mercenaries by the US government see Jeremy Scahill, Dirty Wars – The World Is A Battlefield, New York, 2013 and his book Blackwater – The Rise of the World’s most powerful mercenary army, 2007.
- The New England Journal of Medicine, January 31, 2008, http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa0707782#t=articleTop and John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health http://www.jhsph.edu/news/news-releases/2006/burnham-iraq-2006.html .
- Andrew J. Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East, p. 369, Random House, 2016. Bacevich destroys the hero aura painted around Generals Patreus and McCrystal, showing their feats of massive killings only turned more people against the US. Also Bacevitch, Breach of Trust – How Americans Failed their Soldiers and Their Country, New York, 2013; and for his analysis on the wrong thinking of maintaining a permanent military presence around the world: Washington Rules – America’s Path to Permanent War, New York, 2010.
- See Edward A. Shils and Morris Janowitz, Cohesion and Disintegration in the Wehrmacht in World War II, Oxford Journals, Oxford University Press, Summer, 1948.
- There are references everywhere but check out Andy Mager, Draft and Military Resistance to the Vietnam War – We Ain’t Marching Anymore, Nonviolent Magazine, March – April 2000. https://www.warresisters.org/nva/nva0300-3.htm
- Also Dexter Filkins, The Forever War, Knoff, 2008, for an in depth analysis of how the US got it wrong in Iraq.