Saturday, May 10, 2014

A Non-American's View Of The Vietnam War

War Memories
Vietnam War's End: Evacuation of CIA station personnel by Air America on the rooftop
of 22 Gia Long Street in Saigon on April 29, 1975.
[I remember this image and others, while
watching the war and its end on TV while I was a senior in high school.]
Jäntti writes: "The Vietnam war narrative, encapsulated by the statements of Carter and Cohen,
represents possibly the most disturbing case since the second world war of indifference towards
(if not approval of) an apocalyptic destruction of a country and its people. How would the
international community have reacted if the Germans had reflected on their past military
aggression in the same terms as the US has reflected on Vietnam?"

Photo Credit
Hubert van Es UPI
Source: Wikipedia

When one talks to an American of a certain age and mien about the Vietnam War, one almost gets the impression that it was the  nation of Vietnam that had invaded the United States, instead of the other way around. And if persons inside the U.S. admit the war was wrong on any level, including morally, which many Americans now do, they will refer to the Americans killed or to the Americans maimed, or to the Americans suffering mental illness as a result of battle.

But it is rare to hear about those it killed or those it wounded, the faceless Other. Or to the number of homes American bombs destroyed or to the deforestation and to farmland such bombs and other weapons of mass destruction made inhabitable.

So powerful is this narrative in America of its nobility and goodness that it is hard to convince people of the core facts, chiefly, that the war also killed the inhabitants, in so many ways, of the nation that the U.S. had willfully and callously invaded. This makes the article by Bruno Jäntti in Le Monde diplomatique all the more noteworthy. In "Four decades after Vietnam," Jäntti writes:
The American public’s ignorance of the core facts of the war (or indifference to it) may seem surprising. Take a Gallup poll in November 2000: of respondents between 18 and 29, 27% said the US was backing North Vietnam, 45% said South Vietnam and 28% expressed no opinion at all. What about support for the war among the US public at the end of the 1960s? According to a Gallup poll in July 1969, more than a year after the My Lai massacre, 53% of respondents approved of Nixon’s handling of the war.

If many Americans do not know the basic outlines of the history of the war, their knowledge of US crimes against Vietnam and the Vietnamese is not likely to be high either. Yet the US dropped more bombs in South Vietnam than the total number of bombs dropped by all sides in World War II put together — in fact more than twice the amount. Twelve million acres of Vietnam’s forest and 25 million acres of farmland, at least, were destroyed by American saturation bombing; and over 70 million litres of herbicidal agents were sprayed over the country.

The shortcomings of the conventional narrative mean that Vietnamese deaths caused by the US are debated through widely varying figures — anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions. According to Robert McNamara, 3.6 million Vietnamese were killed in the war.)

Researchers from Harvard Medical School and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, who published one of the most meticulous studies in 2008, put the Vietnamese death toll at 3.8 million. According to Nick Turse, an American historian and investigative journalist who has conducted ground-breaking research on the Vietnam war, even this “staggering figure may be an underestimate.”

The US offensive also wounded 5.3 million Vietnamese civilians, and up to 4 million Vietnamese fell victim to toxic defoliants used by the US in large swathes of the country. When the US finally withdrew, the war had created 200,000 prostitutes, 879,000 orphans, 1 million widows and 11 million refugees.

As a part of a two-day conference in 2006, “Vietnam and the Presidency”, former US president Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) gave his well-known account of the war and its effects on his presidency. Carter, one of the post-war presidents who least advocated an aggressive US foreign policy, stressed the importance of moving “beyond the Vietnam War to better things.” Carter laid special emphasis on what he called a “healing process” — for Americans, needless to say — and claimed that under his administration “that healing process made major strides forward”.

He even said that process was “complete [when] the Vietnam heroic monument, one of the most popular places in Washington” was erected, soon after the Carter presidency ended. The inscription on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial says that “[o]ur nation honors the courage, sacrifice, and devotion to duty and country of its Vietnam veterans.” Not a word about the Vietnamese.

Carter’s commentary served as an unpleasant but illustrative reminder of thinking in the US political culture. It was time to move “beyond the Vietnam war to better things”. Even more revealingly, Carter said: “I don’t feel that we ought to apologize or to castigate ourselves or to assume the status of culpability”, stressing that “the destruction was mutual”.
So says Carter, the ostensibly least-arrogant and militant of American presidents, which also makes him the least-liked and -admired modern president in the U.S. If this indeed represents the best one can expect from an American elected official on a war that had no justification or military purpose, then it says much of what dominates official thinking and of America's ability to easily deny its past culpability while at the same time manufacturing an emotional and patriotic (or nationalistic) narrative to explain it away. The sad thing is that most Americans accept this as normative and necessary in a world that they view as dangerous and hostile to U.S. interests.

This "explaining away", however, includes military actions that other nations would describe as crimes against humanity. Such is the way it is with militarily powerful nations which desire to remain so at any cost. The United States is very good at "putting things behind it" and "moving on"; in some cases this can be admirable, but not in this case, when so many lives have been lost for nothing. But with another two costly wars almost behind it (Iraq and Afghanistan), this type of serious questioning and deep soul-searching is unlikely to happen soon, if ever. It is not the American way.

You can read the rest of the article at [LeMonde]

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