Perhaps the period in my life during which I experienced the greatest amount of dread were the years 1968-1969, when I was being called by my draft board to be inducted into the United States military for service in the Vietnam War. Ultimately, that never occurred and I have no dramatic stories to tell, either of suffering and heroism or criminality under fire, or of stirring anti-war resistance and subversion. But, I have vivid memories of that time and believe my dread of the Vietnam War has cast a long shadow onto my consciousness. Whenever I hear or read about people in their later years saying about the disinterest by current youth in the formative experiences of these elders “you have no idea what it was like in those times,” I now understand what they are feeling, based on my own relatively easy survival of the Vietnam War, and the ease with which I am taken as obsolete today.
War is horrible, obviously, and to be avoided at almost any cost. I say “almost” because I have reluctantly come to believe that in rare circumstances the necessity to prosecute a war can arise. The difficulty here is in choosing when a situation truly deserves to be recognized as one of those rare occasions that is worthy of justifying war. There is no formula nor algorithm for making such determinations, the justification for going to war is beyond pure logic. Such justification must not only be seen intellectually as rigorous, but emotionally as essential to the self-definition of the people going to war, both as a society and as individuals. Such a broad and deep consensus could only arise in reaction to the most dire of existential threats, which I can only imagine to be truly rare. When greed, ego, religious fanaticism and lust-for-power are denied protection by military force, then no problem of popular freedom and resource allocation is beyond negotiated settlement. We can live without war if we cast away the irrational absolutes that drive us to it.
Unfortunately in our world today, it is still possible for one group of people to face the hostility of another group of people motivated so viciously by their irrational absolutes that the effort required for a necessary defense amounts to a war. The dreadful work of prosecuting such a war inevitably falls on the young and strong members of a society, despite the fact that the policy imperatives and political disputes precipitating the war were carried out by the older, more prosperous and most secure members of that society. How can the sacrifices of war be justified to its young warriors?
I can think of only two justifications: the war is necessary for the survival and self-respect of the society, and the society is worthy enough to merit the sacrifices made by its warriors for its continuation.
I do not believe that either of these conditions were met in regard to the Vietnam War. Yes, I am not very “patriotic.”
But what about today, with crises in the Middle East, and the threat of “terrorism?” The discussion of war becomes murky when we begin considering militarized police actions in response to terrorist attacks, bombings and massacres carried out by non-state gangs operating internationally. The militarized policing forces called upon to hunt down and eliminate such gangs would be (or should be) troops of highly trained professional soldiers-agents with extensive technical support, not masses of conscript soldiers. A “people’s army” is what you call upon to save an entire society under existential threat; a group of professionals – volunteers well-trained and reasonably subsidized by society like King Louis XIII’s Musketeers – is what you call upon to counter violent threats to social peace and tranquility that rise above the level of common criminality. But even though such professional soldiers are volunteers who may be called upon to earn their socially subsidized living by occasionally confronting danger, they are still our brothers and sisters, and our society must never be hasty or casual about sending them into harm’s way.
So, the two justifications for war remain: is the situation truly such a threat to the survival of our society and our worthy concepts of ourselves that it requires an armed response?, and does our society deserve the inevitable sacrifices of our warriors?
What do I mean by “worthy concepts of ourselves?” Primarily, our vision of a free and equitable society, and a solidarity with people in other nations regarding basic human rights. Again, this is a topic that can be made as murky as one wants, but the fundamental point about solidarity here is that: “to maintain my self-respect, I see it in my interest that people elsewhere be free from threats to their lives, dignity and freedom, and I would wish that they could feel the same toward us.”
Of course, the devil-in-the-details with “solidarity” is in what practical steps one society takes in response to the problems of another. Again, the judgments here go beyond logic and rest upon who we think we are, or want to be. As one specific example consider Cuba’s military response to the threats to Angolan and Namibian independence in the 1980s, and its medical response to the threat of the Ebola epidemic in Africa in 2014-2015.
As always, the enemy in our minds is humanity’s various irrational absolutes. “In politics the choice is never between good and evil but between the preferable and the detestable” (Raymond Aron). Does our society deserve the sacrifices required by this war? “This war” is whatever war is now being promoted. Any call to war, on terror, drugs or whatever, should be taken as a call to thoroughly examine American society and rectify its many glaring inequities, to make this society much more deserving of the sacrifices of its potential future warriors. Americans who might be sent out to fight and die for their country in future wars must be given a justification sufficient for their sacrifices, a justification which can be experienced daily as the living reality of our society. This goes far beyond the superficiality and commercialism of our time, and which even the word “socialism” cannot illuminate sufficiently in our imaginations.
What follows are my notes about the Vietnam War, which was frothed up in my memory by several recent encounters and e-mail messages. There is nothing earth-shaking here, just my own thoughts that echo the title of Staughton Lynd’s recent fine article:
Haunted by Vietnam
by STAUGHTON LYND
Beware, there will be a great deal of hype later this spring about the 40th anniversary of the “end” of the Vietnam War, with the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. Don’t fall for the phony patriotism, instead ask for a transformative politics making this a much more deserving nation. There are still many people living with their personal consequences of the Vietnam War. The movie Same Same But Different (more below) is all about that. Not thinking about it is not an end.
My notes, referred to above, were originally sent out as e-mail, and now follow.
15 February 2015 [Presidents’ Day weekend]
I can’t help sending out this broadcast message, as I have been moved to think back to the time of the Vietnam War. I myself was not in it, by the luck of the draft lottery of December 1, 1969, and prior lucky bureaucratic congestion from early 1968.
The most important part of this message is for you to see this one hour documentary about American veterans of that war, who returned to Vietnam to work on constructive and humanitarian projects. In the documentary, they tell why they have chosen to do this. Watch, and listen carefully.
Same Same But Different
I am grateful to Louis Proyect (http://louisproyect.org/) for bringing this film to my attention. You can read his commentary about this film (see it first!) at his blog, at this webpage:
Two Documentaries on Vietnam
Louis’ blog entry has embedded trailer videos of the documentaries he comments on, and soon leads to his complete commentary article at Counterpunch, here:
The Mirror of Vietnam
The second documentary Louis comments on is “Last Days in Vietnam” by Rory Kennedy, the youngest daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, and her documentary has been nominated for Best Documentary in the upcoming Academy Awards. Don’t see this, it’s a piece of shit aimed at the head-up-the-ass stupidity that swallows garbage like “American Sniper” with reverential awe.
To see real heroes, see Same Same But Different.
My daughter, Ella, had asked me about my recollections of the times of the Vietnam War, for a high school project, and while I told her about my own slight experiences of that time, I could see that any real transmission of the living experience was impossible. Seeing Same Same But Different is perhaps the best I could offer her, now, to answer her questions most usefully (for her own future).
Another prod to my recollections of the times of the Vietnam War was a group e-mail I received last Christmas, about “remembering those [US soldiers] who served” and died. I reproduce that e-mail (names deleted) and my response to it, down below, to add to my overall comments about this topic today.
By chance, there are some other articles on the Vietnam War in this weekend’s edition of Counterpunch:
Vietnam: Some Real History
by ANDY PIASCIK
Revising the Meaning of the Vietnam War
by MICHAEL UHL
[A critical review of “Last Days in Vietnam,” by a Vietnam War veteran.]
Michael Uhl is a writer associated with Vietnam Full Disclosure, a website dedicated to publicizing truthful history about the Vietnam War (Pentagon-produced history is unreliable in this regard), and produced by a group of veterans of that war (including a woman nurse who treated combat wounded). See that site for many articles and commentaries:
Vietnam Full Disclosure
Robert S. McNamara (Kennedy and Johnson Administrations’ Secretary of Defense) had publicly estimated that 3.5 million people, from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, died as a result of the American prosecution of the war in Southeast Asia.
If any of you still enjoy reading books (as in paper), you can learn the historical background to the Vietnam War from
The Untold History of the United States
by OLIVER STONE and PETER KUZNICK
[A good library or bookstore can get a copy for you.]
Oliver Stone, the filmmaker, is a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.
The most complete detailed [and truthful] history of the Vietnam War is
Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience
by GABRIEL KOLKO
[Kolko, a Canadian and historian, interviewed leading figures in the war during its course, in the U.S., South Vietnam and North Vietnam.]
A recent book on the nature of American military operations in Vietnam (a.k.a. war crimes) is
Kill Anything That Moves
by NICK TURSE
I say more about Nick Turse’s book in the appended e-mail commentary, down below.
An incredible 1971 book of photographs of the war, which was republished in 2001 by Phaidon Press is
by PHILIP JONES GRIFFITHS
I think Philip Jones Griffiths’ book ranks with Euripides’ “Trojan Women.”
One of the most affecting books I have ever read was Noam Chomsky’s deeply moral intellectual protest of 1970, against the aggregated atrocities we now label as the Vietnam War, and is
At War With Asia
by NOAM CHOMSKY
This book is specifically about the American bombing of Laos (the country that has suffered the highest amount of bombing per capita, ever, and also subjected to defoliant chemical warfare by the U.S.). One of my best blog entries is about this book, its sources, and its effect on me.
On Reading “At War With Asia,” by Noam Chomsky
For Ella’s benefit:
The way I “remember” the Vietnam War today, and “honor those who served” is to buy you-know-who a chocolate milkshake every now and then, and to try to get us out into the country with him for a plant-identification ramble on some summer day.
I remember the story our friend told me about his time during the First Battle of Khe Sanh (the “Hill Fights” of 1967). The Marines were under such intense shelling for so long that they were starving (being cut off from resupply), and conditions in the camp were horrible because of the destruction, carnage (piles of dead) and the tropical rain turning ground into mud. He says he lost count of the barrages after about seventy-something, and the many concussions he experienced made him deaf in one ear. After a long stretch of this punishment, a brief and welcome relief came in the form of some hours of clear sunny weather without any shelling. As he sat in his spot, he noticed that a grasshopper had alighted near him, probably also seeking relief in sunshine without explosions. In an instant, he flashed out his arm, grasped the grasshopper, popped it into his mouth whole, crunched and swallowed. That was food. He told me he had done this without any thought whatever, and afterwards he realized what amazing things we can do when motivated by starvation. From what he’s told me, I have been able to identify the battle he was in as that for Hill 881, the First Battle of Khe Sanh (articles below).
Battle of Hill 881
Battle of Khe Sanh
The Hill Fights: The First Battle of Khe Sanh
by EDWARD F. MURPHY
About E. F. Murphy’s book:
“While the seventy-seven-day siege of Khe Sanh in early 1968 remains one of the most highly publicized clashes of the Vietnam War, scant attention has been paid to the first battle of Khe Sanh, also known as “the Hill Fights.” Although this harrowing combat in the spring of 1967 provided a grisly preview of the carnage to come at Khe Sanh, few are aware of the significance of the battles, or even their existence. For more than thirty years, virtually the only people who knew about the Hill Fights were the Marines who fought them. Now, for the first time, the full story has been pieced together by acclaimed Vietnam War historian Edward F. Murphy.”
My wife chides me about “old man ranting,” which is to say complaining angrily, or at all, about the political and social stupidities of our time. Who cares what I think?, nothing is going to change, and if there is any slight change it will not be because of anything I have said or written. True enough, amen. So, I don’t plan to write any more in this vein. But, every now and then I have to let out some steam, and this whole “remember the Vietnam War” meme is one, of I hope very few, such occasions. MG,Jr.
XXXXXXXX sometimes sends me items from “right wing news” sites, and the item below about the Black Wall is one such message. My response to it, on “remembering” Vietnam War veterans, is further below.
On Dec 27, 2014, XXXXXXXX wrote:
At this Christmas time, I thought we should take a bit of our time to remember those who never made it back from Vietnam, those men and women who should never be forgotten. Merry Christmas to one and all…….
A little history most people will never know.
Interesting Veterans Statistics off the Vietnam Memorial Wall.
There are 58,267 names now listed on that polished black wall, including those added in 2010.
The names are arranged in the order in which they were taken from us by date and within each date the names are alphabetized. It is hard to believe it is 57 years since the first casualty.
The first known casualty was Richard B. Fitzgibbon, of North Weymouth, Mass. Listed by the U.S. Department of Defense as having been killed on June 8, 1956. His name is listed on the Wall with that of his son, Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Richard B. Fitzgibbon III, who was killed on Sept. 7, 1965.
There are three sets of fathers and sons on the Wall.
39,996 on the Wall were just 22 or younger.
8,283 were just 19 years old.
The largest age group, 33,103 were 18 years old.
12 soldiers on the Wall were 17 years old.
5 soldiers on the Wall were 16 years old.
One soldier, PFC Dan Bullock was 15 years old.
997 soldiers were killed on their first day in Vietnam
1,448 soldiers were killed on their last day in Vietnam
31 sets of brothers are on the Wall.
Thirty one sets of parents lost two of their sons.
54 soldiers attended Thomas Edison High School in Philadelphia. I wonder why so many from one school.
8 Women are on the Wall, Nursing the wounded.
244 soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War; 153 of them are on the Wall.
Beallsville, Ohio with a population of 475 lost 6 of her sons.
West Virginia had the highest casualty rate per capita in the nation. There are 711 West Virginians on the Wall.
The Marines of Morenci – They led some of the scrappiest high school football and basketball teams that the little Arizona copper town of Morenci (pop. 5,058) had ever known and cheered. They enjoyed roaring beer busts. In quieter moments, they rode horses along the Coronado Trail, stalked deer in the Apache National Forest. In the patriotic camaraderie typical of Morenci’s mining families, the nine graduates of Morenci High enlisted as a group in the Marine Corps. Their service began on Independence Day, 1966. Only 3 returned home.
The Buddies of Midvale – LeRoy Tafoya, Jimmy Martinez, Tom Gonzales – were all boyhood friends and lived on three consecutive streets in Midvale, Utah on Fifth, Sixth and Seventh avenues. They lived only a few yards apart. They played ball at the adjacent sandlot ball field. And they all went to Vietnam. In a span of 16 dark days in late 1967, all three would be killed. LeRoy was killed on Wednesday, Nov. 22, the fourth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Jimmy died less than 24 hours later on Thanksgiving Day. Tom was shot dead assaulting the enemy on Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.
The most casualty deaths for a single day was on January 31, 1968 ~ 245 deaths.
The most casualty deaths for a single month was May 1968 – 2,415 casualties were incurred.
For most Americans who read this they will only see the numbers that the Vietnam War created. To those of us who survived the war, and to the families of those who did not, we see the faces, we feel the pain that these numbers created. We are, until we too pass away, haunted with these numbers, because they were our friends, fathers, husbands, wives, sons and daughters. There are no noble wars, just noble warriors.
Please pass this on to those who served during this time, and those who DO Care.
I’ve also sent this to those I KNOW do care very much, and I thank you for caring as you do.
MG,Jr. response to XXXXXXXX
Here are 2 of my (MG,Jr.’s) articles on history, which each describe many overall facts about the Vietnam War. I registered for the draft the day after Lyndon Johnson’s “I will not run” speech, and I was drafted in late ’68 and 1A all through 1969. In December 1969, I was finally released from the call-up (because of the first draft lottery). The entire experience formed much of my thinking about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” since.
A good friend of mine here is a 1966-1968 ex-Marine, who survived 3 helicopter shoot-downs (surviving 1 was unusual), and a siege at Khe Sanh (there was more than one). He lost hearing in one ear due to concussions sustained by the constant artillery barrages he had to hunker down under (which cut off food and ammunition resupply by land, and made it infrequent, inadequate and inaccurate by air). A Puerto Rican veteran of the Vietnam War [a different Marine from the previous one], who I met in college in 1970-1971, told me how the platoon commanders would send the Puerto Ricans (or “Mexicans”) out “on point” for the patrols. By 1968, half of US casualties (ground troops) were Black and Latino (“Hispanic”). After that the US military made an effort to balance out the hazardous duty, so by the end of the war the casualties fell in close to the proportions of ethnicities/race as they occur in the general US population. In 1968 I was convinced that had I been inducted (as an 18 year old) I’d never get to be 21, and I’m still convinced that was most likely.
Much of the reason the Nixon Administration decided to pull the US ground troops out of the Vietnam War was that by 1969 mutinies were routine (disregard of orders, such as to go out on patrol, and massive drug use, even though the military did give pilots amphetamines to pump them up for missions; also “fragging” was frequent). There were major mutinies of career military officers – whole squadrons of Navy fighter pilots (launching off carriers), and B-52 (Air Force pilots) – in 1972, and entire operations had to be scrubbed as an alternative to mass courts martial. Books have been written about that, as well as the “Winter Soldier” movie (where veterans share their stories, mainly about seeing and participating in atrocities).
A very recent book on the war is Kill Anything That Moves (by Nick Turse) and it draws its material from the “war crimes” files from the US military (which kept track of such things to quash potential prosecutions — Colin Powell was largely responsible for limiting the exposure of the My Lai story — saving the asses of Lt. Calley’s superiors right up to the Pentagon — and its much larger potential fallout: most operations were similar), which are stored at the US Archives (Wash. DC). Nick Turse (researching other history) was shown the material by an archivist, who noted that few people (historians) had bothered to look into it since the ‘60s; every effort had been made by the US military to bury it, and that effort has been a success.
People of my time and age, who were drawn into the War to one degree or another, knew about the things described in Turse’s book, but such stories were not widely reported by the mainstream media; and official government policy coupled with much popular sentiment was to bury the truth. My buddy, the ex-Marine (helicopter gunner) even had to fight to get his veteran’s benefits. A records center in Kansas City had burned and the paperwork about many vets’ service records was destroyed. The government had hired people to interview veterans claiming benefits, but those interviewers were charged with doing their utmost to deny such benefits. My pal had to point out names on the Black Wall and describe in detail where those individuals had been “in country” and how they had actually died (the reports made to families back home were often sanitized). My buddy obviously knew too many “classified” details not to be who he said he was, and to have experienced what he said he had. He told me these interviewers would try to “mess with your mind” to make you hysterical and go away, like “you just killed people, don’t you feel guilty?” My buddy’s wife (who was present as she herself told me, and is part American Indian) screamed at this interviewer and showed sufficient intent to “escalate” her intervention that the guy gave in and approved my buddy’s status as a veteran. My pal had described missions and deployments of specific units at specific times and places that were still officially denied by the USG. So, the combination of factual (and officially embarrassing) testimony, as well as the interviewer’s fear of probably being scalped otherwise, got my buddy recognized as a vet of the unit he had served in (during the years 1966-1968).
My own articles are straightforward history taken from public sources; though I remember the events very well as “news” and “current events” from those times, which I was focused on.
The U.S. may have lost the Vietnam War, but its war criminals got away with it.
My ex-Marine buddy is (now) recognized by the Marine Corps as a member on permanent disability. He spends some of his time helping out other old guys who are on downhill slides to their final exits. He saw many of his contemporaries (including best friends) fall in the war, and numerous others survive the war to get “screwed by the system” and then disappear in one way or another from the good life “back home” (saving tax dollars, I guess). Like my godfather, who was a veteran of the Normandy landings of June 6, 1944, my ex-Marine buddy does not tell war stories, nor does he see “war” and “action” movies, nor go to museums with “Vietnam War” exhibits. It’s best not to trigger dreams. He’s a happy fun-loving guy (like my godfather) because he’s happy to be alive, every day. He’s also a peacenik, and since the war has become an expert botanist. He has lots of metal plates, bolts and rivets in his body, as well a many healed fractures (including spinal) and replacement joints, and a permanent set of aches and pains.
Fifty-Year Look Back 1963-2013, Part I: 1963-1968
18 November 2013
Fifty-Year Look Back 1963-2013, Part II: 1968-2013
4 December 2013
22 February 2015, George Washington’s 283rd birthday.
ADDENDUM, 17 March 2015
The My Lai massacre occurred 47 years ago, on March 16, 1968.
My Lai (massacre)
Hugh Thompson, Jr., 47 years ago
Hugh Thompson, Jr., with the help of his crewmen Glenn Andreotta and Lawrence Colburn, were responsible for limiting the extent of the massacre (to 504) by landing their helicopter between advancing US troops and fleeing Vietnamese villagers, with Thompson ordering Andreotta and Colburn (manning the helicopter’s machine gun) to shoot the advancing Americans if they attempted to kill any of the fleeing civilians.
“Initially, three U.S. servicemen who had tried to halt the massacre and rescue the hiding civilians were shunned, and even denounced as traitors by several U.S. Congressmen, including Mendel Rivers, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Only after thirty years were they recognized and decorated, one posthumously, by the U.S. Army for shielding non-combatants from harm in a war zone.”
I still cry when I read the wikipedia article on Hugh Thompson. I did just now, again.
Hugh Thompson, Jr.
Ron Ridenhour, a US soldier in Vietnam, heard about the massacre from his acquaintances who participated in it, investigated it on his own while still on active duty, and on being discharged from the Army began a letter-writing campaign in 1969 to have the US Congress open an investigation. It was through Ridenhour’s efforts that independent investigative journalist Seymour Hersh learned of the event, and eventually broke the Mỹ Lai story to the public on November 12, 1969.
Ron Ridenhour’s letter
to congressional representatives, begging for an investigation of “Pinkville.”
Four Hours in My Lai (1989)
This one hour documentary by Kevin Sim and Michael Bilton can be seen as a sequence of seven video segments, listed below. Note that in segment 4 Hugh Thompson, Jr. and Lawrence Colburn describe their actions to stop the My Lai massacre by aiming their own weapons at the rampaging American troops of Charlie Company, to protect a group of Vietnamese villagers. In segment 6, Ron Ridenhour (1946-1998) describes his own discovery of the event, months later, and his subsequent letter to Congress as an act of moral outrage.
The Hugh Thompson, Jr. (1943-2006) and Lawrence Colburn seen in this documentary were men who had yet to receive any public recognition of a positive nature for their actions on March 16, 1968, and subsequently. This documentary, which went on to win a British Academy Award and an International Emmy in 1989, began to change that. Sim and Bilton continued researching the story and conducted further interviews with Thompson and Colburn. They published a book in 1992, “Four Hours in My Lai,” based on the totality of the documentary material they had gathered. It was this book that sparked both public and official interest in honoring Thompson and Colburn. The third member of Thompson’s helicopter crew, Glenn Andreotta had died during military action in Vietnam in 1968. “Exactly 30 years after the massacre, Thompson, Andreotta, and Colburn were awarded the Soldier’s Medal (Andreotta posthumously), the United States Army’s highest award for bravery not involving direct contact with the enemy.”
Four Hours in My Lai 1/7
(60 minute video in 7 segments)
Four Hours in My Lai 2/7
Four Hours in My Lai 3/7
Four Hours in My Lai 4/7
(Hugh Thompson, Jr.)
Four Hours in My Lai 5/7
Four Hours in My Lai 6/7
Four Hours in My Lai 7/7
Hugh Thompson, Jr. (1943-2006)
(hughthompson.org is the foundation organized by Larry Colburn to honor the memory of Hugh Thompson by addressing his chief concerns.)
“Hugh Thompson’s courage and integrity brought the My Lai massacre to a halt. Today he remains a true inspiration for young people everywhere but especially those in the military. Hugh was living proof that doing what is right, without weighing up the personal cost, is the hallmark of great nobility.” – Michael Bilton, author of Four Hours in My Lai
To Swing Wide the Gates of Mercy (~2002)
(Hugh Thompson, Jr. and Lawrence Colburn, together before students)
BBC interviews Hugh Thompson Jr.
American Experience My Lai PBS Documentary (2010)
(Good presentation of the Army’s coverup and Nixon’s political undermining of justice.)
The Scene of the Crime
A reporter’s journey to My Lai and the secrets of the past.
By Seymour M. Hersh
March 30, 2015 issue of The New Yorker