‘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)
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.
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/