EPISODE EIGHT: April 1969 to May 1970
“THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD”
AS OF APRIL, 1969 THERE ARE 543,482 AMERICAN SOLDIERS IN COUNTRY.
40,794 DEAD AMERICAN SOLDIERS TO DATE
Silence. That’s the overriding theme of this episode although I don’t think Burns and Novick intended it that way. Silence, as in Martin Luther King, Jr’s admonition that “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Does that not perfectly frame Nixon’s so-called “brilliant” maneuver of celebrating the amoral, even cowardly, silence of the majority of Americans in the face of this war’s immorality and in response to the righteous anger of young and old who raged against it? His infamous “silent majority” speech kicks off this episode. To counter this political maneuver, one activist (I refuse to use the word “protestor,” which is like calling the NLF Viet Cong) seared our TV screen last night with this placard: “To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men —Abraham Lincoln.” Amen, brothers and sisters. That says it all.
And then there is the silence of the film makers themselves, so far, when it comes to the incredibly important GI Resistance Movement (for an insightful documentary on that front, see “Sir! No Sir!”) that began to rise up as Nixon tried to wind down the war. Where is that story? Just sticking in passing references to disgruntled veterans voicing their anger, as important as those voices are, does not do it justice. We need more. Maybe that focus is coming in the next two episodes. I suppose I may be accused here of falling into the trap of anyone critically analyzing a documentary — let’s face it, this exercise in filmmaking is indeed a zero sum game. You can’t have it all. Something needs to be left out. I’m just saying, though, that perhaps less time on the plight of POW’s and more time on the GI Resistance Movement would have been warranted. That said, I think the lead-in to Joan Furey’s frustration and the camera’s direct look into the horrors of triage and the bloody waste of American and Vietnamese youth, as she let loose her anger, is priceless. “Expected patients” — I.e., those young soldiers, mothers’ sons, determined too severely wounded to survive and, therefore, set aside by medics who are overwhelmed by the carnage coming their way — is a term that will forever be burned into my memory. “As my guitar gently weeps,” intones the Beatles throughout this section.
“Silence,” wrote Francis Bacon, “ is the virtue of fools.” The persistent, unrelenting attempts to keep the truth from the American people of the inhumane consequences of this country’s wars makes murderous fools of us all. Hats off, then, to those journalists, independent and corporate, who loaded on to choppers and dug in with the soldiers to capture their stories. In the telling of the personal, the more universal truths began to seep out. This film would not have been possible without them.
The military brass scrambling to silent voices like Ron Ridenhour’s for a year until the courageous journalist Seymour Hersch uncovered the My Lai and My Khe massacres. That kind of silence. American textbooks not celebrating the courage of Hugh Thompson and his crew as they dropped their chopper down between the murderers led by Captain Meadlo and Lieutenant Calley. That kind of silence.
Almost purposefully blanketing this eerie moral silence that has insidiously wrapped itself around our national psyche are the bombs blasting away, the M-60’s rattling on, and the American and Vietnamese cities burning in the background. Yet all is not lost. At this point in their narrative the filmmakers provide a welcomed sardonic voice to their portrayal of the war — suddenly, in late 1969 and early 1970, the Nixon crowd comes up with a marketing ploy — let’s “celebrate” the American POW’s by making hundreds of thousands of POW bracelets for kids to wear and an equal number of the POW/MIA flag to fly over all town halls across the land. One astute journalist says in the film, “It is almost as if the Vietnamese kidnapped 400 American pilots and the war is being fought to free them.” Even our so-called “terms of peace” (you know, our promise to stop the bombing and withdraw all the invading soldiers) are dependent upon the total release of all American prisoners and the return of all the remains of killed GI’s. The hubris here is staggering. What of the Vietnamese casualties of war? Should they not be accounted for as well? To this day, there are countless Vietnamese NVA and NLF soldiers whose remains are still buried under triple canopy jungle. Yet our refusal to provide reparations to the Vietnamese people after the war was one hundred percent contingent upon all American remains being found. The Vietnamese can’t find their own, let alone ours. No wonder the black POW/MIA flags still flutter.
If silence is to rule the day, then there is no means for truth to wend its way into our consciousness. This is by design, of course. As Aeschylus warned us some one hundred generations ago, “Truth is the First Casualty of War.” If Americans are convinced that their stiff upper lip brand of silence in the face of collective murder is the true face of patriotism, then we are condemned as a nation to follow the path of empires that preceded us. To break that crippling silence we must face facts. The difference between killing (as in self-defense or to rightfully defend our nation) and murder (as in slaughtering by bomb or by bullet defenseless, innocent civilians) needs to be held before us as a true measuring stick of our nation’s role in world history. As a basic fact. Thus, the importance of the veterans’ and civilians’ voices that are building to a crescendo in this film — even those who have not come to realize the difference. Look into the eyes of the young soldier who actually murdered women and children at My Lai as he looks into the eyes of his interlocutor. Listen to the voices of grieving American veterans and Vietnamese villagers who know, deep in their hearts, that they have been the players in one of history’s most grotesque “theaters of war.” If this film is to be counted as some sort of success (and I think the jury is still out on that one), then it must be measured in its contribution to breaking the sound of silence in our classrooms and town halls when old men and women try to throw away the lives of our children and grandchildren in yet another grand scheme called war. This exercise in reliving the past and calling forth old ghosts will be labelled another curious artifact if we don’t do something with it. If we don’t face our murderous ways.
A few Veterans Days ago, I met up with an old buddy from the war in Washington, DC. It was his birthday, and he was going through a divorce after years of marriage (his son was born when he was in Vietnam). I had never been in DC on Veterans Day before, so I wasn’t really prepared for the almost gaudy display of what the historian Andrew Bacevich calls “cheap grace” (the grace we bestow upon ourselves without earning it) as Americans waddled around literally wrapped in the American flag. Almost as if their willful ignorance to the real meaning of war, their silent acceptance of murder being committed in their name, was some kind of badge of honor. My buddy wore his “Vietnam Veteran” hat so was constantly barraged with “thank you for your service” remarks. My VFP t-shirt with the Eisenhower admonition that “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can” did not elicit the same response. I wrote this poem soon afterwards:
WALKING THE WALL: A SONG
for Don Evon
Note: My time in Vietnam started in early July, 1969 — Wall panel number W21– and ended in early August, 1970 — panel W7, line 29– a walk of about 25 paces past the names of the dead. I call this “walking The Wall.”
Got to tell you that you’re making me nervous
Every time you thank me for my service
I know you’re trying to be nice and kind
But you are really, truly fucking with my mind
Trust me, it’s not that I really care what you think
You who have had too much of their kool aid to drink
You who don’t know shit about what service really means
You who need to know that nothing really is as it seems
So take a walk with me down the Wall some late evening
And listen to the ghostly young soldiers keening
But don’t waste your time thanking them for their service
They may tell you the truth — all your wars are worthless
What sort of foreign policy lies beneath Nixon’s ‘madman”evocation? Does this have resonance for today? Is Vietnamization (a copy of the French more racially frank “jaunissement”) really a sign of Nixon’s political acuity or cynicism. duplicity, and racism?
How to discuss the treatment of POWs without letting each side off the hook. The treatment of all prisoner by the Americans, South Vietnamese, NLF and North Vietnamese was problematic. The Americans often, but not always, handed off prisoners to the Saigon government where they were sent to the notorious Phu Quoc or Con Son prisons (home of the tiger cages) were they were tortured. But Americans also participated wiring up prisoners, throwing them out of helicopters, and so on. Peter Martinsen (Sp/5, 542nd MI Detachment, 101st Airborne Division), among others, has testified to the violation of the Law of Land Warfare. For more information google Citizens Commission of Inquiry on U.S. War Crimes in Vietnam (CCI), VVAW’s Winter Soldier Investigation, as well as testimony at 2 sessions of the Bertrand Russell War Crimes Tribunal.
B/N note that there were 40,000 NVA and NLF prisoners held by eh Saigon government along with 200,000 civilians. They don’t note the seeming contradiction to their assertion in Episode 7 that people in Saigon were free to protest government policies. And they drop this issue for the rest of the doc while paying lots of attention to the treatment of the American POWs. When an NLF prisoner spits at a nurse, how is this different from American POWs resisting their captors? When POW Harold Kushner describes the surgery performed with bamboo to bite on and an aspirin, it isn’t clear that the Vietnamese doctor had access to anything more sophisticated in the middle of South Vietnam. It is port\rayed a s needlessly cruel, though such cruelty would logically included no surgery at all.
That the brutal treatment of NLF, NVA, and civilians protestors might have provoked similar treatment of Americans is not considered. Initially, given that there was no declaration of war, in violation (not the only time) of the US Constitution, as the DRV duly noted, Americans captured–particularly pilots-were not considered POWs under the Geneva Conventions (which the DRV was not party to), but rather war criminals. B/N note that treatment of American POWs improved after he return of 3 POWs who publicized their ill treatment. They leave out the fact that their release was negotiated by antiwar activists. As Talking Points II points out: 1. The antiwar movement is set up in opposition to the support for POWs. In 1969, North Vietnam decided to release a few U.S. prisoners of war, and its leaders requested antiwar leader Dave Dellinger, among others, to travel to Hanoi to escort them back to the U.S. He and three others, including Rennie Davis, his co-defendant in the Conspiracy trial of the Chicago 8, flew to Hanoi in August and escorted the Americans back to freedom. Also in January 1970, the Committee of Liaison, chaired by Dave Dellinger and Cora Weiss, is established as an intermediary between American POWs held in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and their families. Its goal was ”to facilitate communication between American servicemen held in North Vietnam and their families” and to “try to find out if your relative is a prisoner in North Vietnam.” By midsummer, a confirmed list of 335 POWs was established along with a flow of correspondence.
Though B/N anonymously quote an observation that it was as if the “Vietnamese had kidnapped 400 Americans” and the US had gone to war to rescue them (a la, I guess, Helen of Troy), they seem to by into Nixon’s exploitation of the POW issue. See Talking Pints II, Episode *, point 4 for an in-depth exploration of Nixon’s cynical efforts. Here I will just quote the following, There was no historical precedent for the release of POWs prior to the cessation of hostilities. As Jonathan Schell once noted, that getting POWs home and accounting for MIAs became the public rationale for carrying on a war which was sure to generate more of both.
Jerry Lemcke’s Hanoi Jane: War, Sex & Fantasies of Betrayal offers an alternative to the standard POW narrative, interrogating in consistencies in POW narratives and class issues among the POWs. He does not deny brutality in POW treatment but denies the use of systematic torture as B/N imply. He seeks to understand Vietnamese motivations without resorting to Orientalist stereotypes.
As noted in my last reflection, Episode 7 is ambiguous about the state of US troop morale, but Episode 8 clearly depicts its decline. For them, if US troops were leaving because of Vietnamization, why risk one’s life for an already lost cause? They were not interested in sacrificing themselves to maintain US credibility. Also many Gi\Is were well aware of the antiwar critique.
In discussing Nixon’s honorable peace strategy, Vallely comments that this was “not a bad strategy, it was the the only strategy”? Why couldn’t the US have not invaded Cambodia and Laos, not jacked up the POW issue and reconciled to the realities of a lost war. After all, the US was not ravaged (at least physically) by the war, and insofar as it had paid a price in blood and treasure, withdrawing sooner would have lessened the price? No Asian could have outdone Nixon and Kissinger in the quest to save face. And B/N tell us that Le Duc Tho was implacable in Paris!
B/N cut back and forth between Woodstock and the war; why Woodstock and not a football game. Was it only the counterculture that sought escape from the realities of he war. Many soldiers in the war were drawn to the counter-culture.
How did the wars the US has engaged in sinceWorld War II, including the Vietnam war, serve to protect democratic rights as a number of B/N interviewees recite and the military and others assert ad nauseam? How does this assertion deflect attention from real causes–imperial and material– as well as brainwash young soldiers? Somehow this has served as a rationale to defend some of the world’s great human rights violators. Wars in fact generally undermine democratic rights, the right to protest, assemble and lead to expansion of police state tactics. Ellsberg, as we will see in Episode 9, was prosecuted under the World War I Espionage act.
B/N also employ normalizing rhetoric when dealing with issues of fragging or war crimes: “always been part of war”, “happened in every war” or “the history of the world”. Though they acknowledge the criminality at My Lai, they tell us that such massacres were “not policy or routine, but not aberrations either.” Not a very high bar; and where exactly does that leave us? We know that the use of napalm, fragmentation bombs, free fire zones, chemical warfare, destruction of forests, even “shoot anything that moves” were policy. There was true terror from the skies. The military is not disturbed by the criminality at My Lai as the brass (up to and including Colin Powell-not mentioned do everything in their power to cover the massacre up. As Nick Turse has shown, they saw this as a PR not a moral or even discipline problem. Only persistent grunts like Hugh Thompson and Ron Ridenhour driven by a sense of morality absent from anyone with power bring the massacre to light. Nixon, typically, blamed New York Jews for the exposure (go Seymour Hersh). There will be more in Episode 9.
Nixon aggressively asserts that he will ignore protest, and his approval rating soars after huge demonstrations; what was the antiwar movement to do? What accounts for the level of more or less spontaneous mass violence at the time (hundred of bombings and arsons mention by B/N)?
Is there a more balanced view of the relationship between the civilian antiwar movement and resistance and alienation in the military? There is no mention of the coffee house movement or other attempts by antiwar activists to veterans and active duty GIs. Why did GIs and veterans march in antiwar demonstrations? Why did the students applaud Musgrave’s appeal to support the soldiers–was it merely his personal charisma?
B/N often cite public opinion polls to demonstrate the popularity of the war or the unpopularity of the antiwar movement even as the war becomes more unpopular. Is this merely a response to the bad strategies and tactics of the antiwar movement? Was it really true that at most demos people and to pledge allegiance to Mao, as B/N uncritically quote one anonymous participant in the 1969 Moratorium? Let’s compare public resposne to the civil rights movement:
In August 1963, Gallup found considerable public opposition to the now-famous civil rights march on Washington in which King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. The poll was conducted about two weeks before the march, at which time 71% were familiar with “the proposed mass civil rights rally to be held in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28.” Of those who were familiar, only 23% said they had a favorable view of “the rally”; 42% had an unfavorable view of it (including 7% who predicted violence would occur) and 18% said it wouldn’t accomplish anything.
In May 1964, Gallup asked, “Do you think mass demonstrations by Negroes are more likely to help or more likely to hurt the Negro’s cause for racial equality?” In response, only 16% of Americans — including just 10% of whites but 55% of nonwhites — said such mass demonstrations would help the cause.
Martin Luther King’s popularity with the American people went from the mid-40s favorability in 1965 to low 30s and his negatives from mid 40s to low 60s. There was a general American dislike of protests while the protests still managed to have a positive effect.
This puts into some context the fact that 58% of Americans approved the shootings at Kent State. The stereotype of spoiled, cowardly college protestors had trumped the identification of students as American children, the hope of the future for the majority of poll respondents. This is cause for concern beyond the Vietnam antiwar movement.
Another false equation that’s hard to fathom, in this case made possible by selective use of statistics: draft evaders in Canada. 5. Jack Todd is said to be one of 30,000 Americans who deserted to Canada and we are told, 30,000 Canadians volunteered to go to Vietnam. (The Canadian Vietnam Veterans Association estimates that about 20,000 Canadians enlisted, although other historians think that number may have been as high as 40,000.) By most other estimates, over 100,000 Americans are estimated to have gone to Canada during the war. What do B/N mean by these seemingly balanced stats; that Canadian enlistment balanced US resistance to the war?