Learning the Lessons of Vietnam: From One Old Soldier to Another.


‘The Vietnam War’ documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick sparked great debate among those of my generation and not least of all with my former Army buddies. This Post is adapted from correspondance I had with one of my friends from Charlie Company.

Vergangenheitsbewätigung (the word the Germans use for their work on coming to terms with what they did and atoning for the sins of their fathers)SCAN0011

I’m sorry it has taken me so long to get back to you but your last mail troubled me. I needed time to think.

My partner is German. She is anti-militarist and anti-war and unforgiving of her parents and grandparents and their generations for what they did. I guess she is what the right-wing Alternativ für Deutschland Party would call the German equivalent of what is referred to as “the Jew hating Jew” or “the Nigger hating Black.” She, and those around her, called their fathers murderers their whole childhood. She believes it takes more courage to say “No!” than it does to go along with what you are told to do and for her all soldiers are murderers (we disagree on this too). She thinks “you have to be a coward or an idiot” to put up with someone yelling at you all day. But she is no pacifist.

I am not a pacifist either. And I am a patriot which is a non-starter for someone like her (although she won’t hesitate to affirm the Germans have the best Constitution in the world or to promote German ‘Kulture’). The important thing is she, like those of her generation, did Vergangenheitsbewätigung, non-stop and day-after-day, so that it may never happen again.

This brings me to the debate sparked by the Ken Burns documentary. The series begins by downplaying one of the most basic facts:  there would have been no Vietnam War had we not got involved. The 1954 Geneva Peace Accords called for elections which Ho Chi Minh would have won and he would have set up some sort of pluralistic socialist society without being forced to run to Moscow and Peking. And even if there were a civil war after that, we should not have got involved. So, for me, Vietnam was an imperialist, racist war of agression which we created and we are responsible for what happened. We were the bad guys. Or as an Air Force General, ret., said in the documentary: “We were fighting on the wrong side.”

Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American” paints a pretty good picture of how we pulled off the sabotage of the Vietnamese peace process.

Have you read Nick Turse’s 2013 book: “Kill Anything That Moves!”? It is not just another compilation of US war crimes. It demonstrates, once again, war crimes and crimes against humanity are things we committed on a daily basis. We hanged hundreds upon hundreds of Germans and Japanese after WWII and jailed thousands more for the kinds of crimes we committed in Vietnam. We dropped more bombs and killed more people in the South than the North.  “We had to destroy the village to save it.”

Because we never faced up to this, and because we have not done our Vergangenheitsbewätigung, nor brought criminals to justice, we repeat it over and over again. There is no prescription for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is not too late to go after some of these people.

Do you remember in Fort Polk those mock Vietnamese villages where we practiced ‘Search and Destroy’? After one training I asked “What if there were civilians in there?” A Black dude was outraged. “They’re just Gooks, man!” He said. The Drill Instructors approved. If he’s still alive, I am sure he is all for “Black Lives Matter” today.SCAN0010

Yes, there were Vietnamese who supported us although it is estimated, conservatively, that 50% of the South supported the NLF. Roughly three percent fled the country after the war. Thieu and Ky and all those other corrupt bastards we put in power after we had them kill Diem, ran off with the treasury. For those left behind, it was not pretty.

Once, when I was in Vietnam, one of the things that broke my heart was to see all those ARVN we left behind to miserable lives: armless, legless, homeless, jobless. One cul-de-jatte (legs amputated at the ass) tied to a board, using his hands to get down a street in Saigon, looked at me with such hate, despise and desire for vengeance and, at the same time, eyes imploring me to explain why “I” left him behind to his fate, I could not bare it. Meanwhile, those who were on the ‘right side’ were taken care of like the heroes they were, such as this double arm amputee with a pencil strapped to his stub to punch in on the cash register.

Most Vietnamese have moved on. But I spoke with many former ARVN soldiers and officers and every discussion was between the lines because they still live in fear and shame. That too is something we must answer to; that is we have to do our Vergangenheitsbewätigung.

I know Vietnam from the Chinese border to the Mekong Delta, and everywhere are massive war cemeteries and scars. In Dong Hoi, where pilots systematically dropped their unused ordinance before returning to the carriers or Da Nang, I watched every morning as men tried to dig a trench to lay pipe but had to wait at every stage for one of them to check with a metal detector to make sure there was no bomb under the surface. It is the same all over; worse in the South.  I was across the street from the Catholic Church we bombed to ruins and which they left as is; as a reminder.

I am not a big fan of the Vietnamese. I respect them but I couldn’t live with them. But I atone for our collective fault and I have dedicated my life to trying to stop us from doing it over and over and over again. And I encourage all of us to do our Vergangenheitsbewätigung. I feel shame, as an American, for I am an American, for what we let out leaders do, Democrat or Republican, day after day.

The anti-Vietnam War movement won (so too the Vietnamese). The anti-War, or anti-Imperialist Agression movement did not win. We always speak about “the wrong war,” or “a bad war,” as if we have fought a good war these past 70 years.

I don’t think the Ken Burns’ documentary will have any effect on the younger Americans. It’s too long ago. That is sad, because had we learned the right lessons, it could have stopped us from what we have been doing non-stop ever since. For our generation, I was hoping it would help us deal collectively with our past and heal some of the wounds which have kept us divided for nearly 50 years.

I’m going to stop here.



Excelent Newsweek paper by a Vietnam Vet on why the lies and sobotage from the beginning is so important for us to learn. http://www.newsweek.com/vietnam-ken-burns-vietnam-war-doc-documentary-pbs-666582

People may support a war “in good faith” because they believe the lies. But ‘the lousy wars’ were planned and thought out before they were launched. https://theintercept.com/2017/09/24/ken-burns-vietnam-war-decent-people-good-faith-afghanistan-soviets/

This is on the Nick Turse book: http://americanempireproject.com/kill-anything-that-moves/

This is a piece I wrote during the 2016 Presidential campaign on why The Vietnam War is so important to us today. https://kazolias.com/category/war/




  1. « The experience of history indicates that Hitlers come and go, but the German people and the German state remain » ! 

    Sorry for writing back a bit late. But thought I should chime in with some remarks about « Bewältigung ». Assessment of the past shouldn’t be reduced to assessing the attitudes of past generations. Sonja’s unforgiving of her parents and grandparents ? Were those parents and grandparents fully or even sufficiently aware of what was happening ? And even if they were, were they in any position to resist seriously enough to nazism ?

    We’re talking of class society, thus class struggle. It’s the job of the exploiters-oppressors to build an ideological system that compels the exploited-oppressed to internalise (make theirs, mainly against their own interests) the view of the universe that suits the ruling class. Gunter Grass joined the Waffen SS at the age of 16, as the Soviet troops were entering Berlin. He too thought that the Germany as defined by the nazis (and a host of their ideological predecessors) should be defended. On reflection, he surely didn’t think down below the Slavs were Untermenschen, as the nazis would have it. Nor did he really think Germany should build an empire on the backs of the Soviet peoples. This is where a study of German history (or other histories for that matter) looking at things frm the standpoint of the woman or man in street or the fields would come useful. At the underdog level, the universe and its inhabitants looked way different from the conceptions cooked up by the ruling classes, pre-feudal, feudal or bourgeois – which conceptions are flogged as valid by the ideological apparatus of the feudal or bourgeois state.

    Here’s a quote from Stalin. Its from early 1942, when the nazi Blitzkrieg had failed to crush rthe Sov Union, to bring the captures of Moscow and Leningrad, among other things. Of course, the nazis were thundering right along southwards after that. A soviet (and communist) victory over the invading nazis was nowhere visible on the horizon, as yet. But Stalin did come out with « …..it would be ludicrous to identify Hitler’s clique with the German people, with the German state. The experience of history indicates that Hitlers come and go, but the German people and the German state remain ». (Order of the Day, No. 55)1.

    The masses might get bowled over by reactionary exploitative class ideologies. But usually not for long. The nazis (and other such) knew that. That’s why they devised their « Blitzkrieg » tactics. They couldn’t go for long drawn out wars of conquest. Their masses wouldn’t follow for too long. And indeed, they struck the USSR in summer 1941, but 4 years later Hitler was hiding underground with Soviet troops crawling all over the surface in Berlin. The same goes for the US. How does one explain how 250 million people in a “democracy” being sucked into the Vietnam debacle by 2500 leaders of the country- “the best and the brightest.” It has happened more than once and from all appearances « we » are being sucked into more conflicts to defend our “way of life and values.”

    Similar pitches were invented to muster the masses for nearly all the invasion wars in history. Especially since around 19th. Century, the wars became bigger and dirtier, many more were killed and maimed. Bourgeois rulers even recruited psychologists to figure out how to fling the French peasant against the German. The French kings, Louis XIV mainly, recruited mercenaries to slash and burn in Germany, offering to pay them with the loot they could gather. Napoleon’s forces killed and raped in Moscow, with the backing of their leaders, in the name of spreading revolution or something of that sort.The nazis struck the Sovs calling them subhuman and treating them as such in nazi-occupied areas in the USSR. The US elites did about the same with the Indochinese. Iraq was devastated while the New York Times, Wash Post et al crooned on about bringing peace and progress to west Asia.

    Did ordinary folks in the US accept that deep down ? They did, like the German and others before them. But the element of doubt and resistance was there. The ruling class aim was to flatten the doubts and counter the resistance. Hitler came to power early in 1933. By March that year, around 30,000 communists were rounded up. KPD chairman Ernst Thaelmann was locked up in solitary until 1944 when, in Buchenwald, he was taken out and shot, while Soviet troops were closing in. After the war, the KPD won a few seats in west German parliament. But was banned there in 1956. Fear of its influence gathering steam ?

    To come back to the « Bewältigung », the general « western » media myth is that Germany has done a hell of a job dealing with its past. Really ? They have a giant, if ugly, memorial in Berlin for massacred Jews. They have a barely visible plaque on the ground for the Gypsies. Hey, what happened to the 27 million Soviets who were killed between 1941 and 45 ? Most Germans, particularly westerners, and even Brits and USamericans, among others, are barely aware of the realities of WW2. Take a look at this : « The extraordinarily brutal Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, codenamed Operation Barbarossa, began on June 22, 1941. Of the roughly 5,700,000 Soviet soldiers taken as prisoners of war by the Nazis from June 1941 until February 1945, some 3,300,000 perished. Incredibly, over 2,000,000 of these deaths occurred within the first nine months of the war on the eastern front, from June 1941 through April 1942. The unprecedented brutality of the Nazi campaign against the Soviet Union was driven by the extreme ideological fervor of National Socialism. During preparations for the invasion, Adolf Hitler emphasized that the war was more than a battle of weapons, but was an existential conflict between two utterly irreconcilable worldviews. Nearly two decade’s worth of racist, right-wing propaganda had painted a picture of Asiatic Judeo-Bolsheviks threatening to destroy a Western civilization led by the Aryan race. This axiomatic worldview generally infused the entire German war machine, from the Nazi leadership and army commanders, to the ordinary men fighting in the Wehrmacht (the German army), and it ultimately justified the extraordinary depredations against the Soviet POWs. ……..The Nazi leadership cadre planned for genocide against the Soviet Red Army well before the invasion. In March 1941, Hitler addressed Wehrmacht commanders and declared that the impending war would not be fought according to customary military principles but rather as a war of extermination (Vernichtungskrieg)2.

    Bewältigung ? How wide and deep does it go ? To prevent that sort of thing happening again, self-flagellation is not helpful. Ideological struggle against inhumanity, against oppression-cume-exploitation that gives rise to such inhumanity, is what’s required. Europe may have come with human rights etc. Many of its prominent thinkers also devised pseudo-theories on racial, genetic, civilisational superiority of one part of mankind over another. Aristotle thought that was a race of masters and a race of slaves. Hegel thought his bunch and those close to his bunch had entered history, not the Africans, not even the Chinese. Here in France, the day after his inauguration as president on May 15 2012, Francois Hollande went and paid hommage to Jules Ferry, prominent 19th century French political figure who justified colonial savagery saying superior races have a right to civilise the inferior races3.

    Hollande never thought of saluting Robespierre ? « L’homme est né pour le bonheur et pour la liberté et partout il est esclave et malheureux ! La société a pour but la conservation de ses droits et la perfection de son être ; et partout la société le dégrade et l’opprime ! Le temps est arrivé de le rappeler à ses véritables destinées. » Robespierre, 10 mai 17934.

    Maximilien de Robespierre ! Over 200 years ago !!

    1 He said it>>February 23, 1942….https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1942/02/23.htm
    2 https://www.ncas.rutgers.edu/center-study-genocide-conflict-resolution-and-human-rights/soviet-pows-eastern-front-1941-1942
    3 http://www.lepoint.fr/histoire/personnages/ferry-jules-1832-1893-22-08-2013-1716224_1617.php
    4 https://www.legrandsoir.info/robespierre-l-homme-est-ne-pour-le-bonheur.html



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