Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Ghosts of Vietnam

As you may recall, I belong to several email discussion groups and am Facebook friends with a number of my fellow Vietnam veterans, and one thread that keeps reappearing on a regular basis is this: Many of them so desperately want to believe that we could have "won" the Vietnam War, but were prevented from that because we were hamstrung by the "politicians" who wouldn't let us, because we were "sold out" by the anti-war movement and "traitors" like Jane Fonda and John Kerry, because we were ambushed by the "liberal" media, etc. etc.

When I got back from Vietnam and tried to go to the American Legion and the VFW, both of my local organizations were populated by a bunch of crusty old embittered alcoholic WWII veterans who were, to put it mildly, less than welcoming of recently returned Vietnam veterans. Their attitude was that they had won their war, and we were a bunch of maggot-infested hippie longhairs who had "lost" ours.

Reading these posts I am struck -- and dismayed -- by the fact that many of my fellow vets have now turned into those guys.

News flash, guys: There was -- and remains -- NO WAY that the war was "winnable" in any real sense of the word. The US went in originally to prop up a failed dictatorship consisting of a Catholic "leader" and his corrupt and authoritarian family, who ruled with an iron fist over a population the vast majority of whom were Buddhists and Confucianist. The so-called "communists", because they had booted out the hated French colonialists and their puppets, had the hearts and the minds of that population, in a way and to an extent that our own puppet boy could never achieve on his own.

It is both foolish and naive, from a historical, a sociological, a psychological point of view, to think that the Vietnam War could have been "won" by the US or the South Vietnamese government in any real sense of the word. If you doubt that, why don't you tell me how it could have been "won", except in the timeless words of the Roman historian Tacitus in 98 AD, "They plunder, they slaughter, and they steal: this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace."

Yes we could have dropped a nuke on Hanoi, but that's just one city. Vietnam was -- and remains -- a largely rural country. We could have sprayed the entire Indochina area with napalm (as we tried to do with Agent Orange), we could have engaged in an all-out war of genocide, but in the end we still would not have "won". You can't suppress an indigenous population forever, as we found out -- but didn't learn -- in the Philippines in 1899-1904. Unlike Korea, which has the name, this really was the "forgotten war" -- ithas been assiduously scrubbed from the national memory. You could look it up, however, and you will find that we committed genocidal atrocity after atrocity against the people of that country and still didn't end up "winning", as a look at the historical events there over the last century will tell you. See Phillippine American War for an overview and here for examples of contemporary letters home from American soldiers describing the atrocities that they had seen or committed themselves.

The anger that Vietnam vets feel over the Vietnam war is valid, but it is misplaced. The anger really ought to be aimed at the US corporations that were behind the war, at the obscene profits reaped by the military-industrial complex, notably and significantly Brown and Root from LBJ's home state of Texas (no, nothing suspicious there), which got untold millions of dollars in military contracts and which later became part of the notorious Halliburton. Those profits were reaped at the expense of the lives of the thousands of Americans and the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who were victimized by that profit-driven consortium. And send some of that anger towards the politicians who, encouraged by millions of dollars in "campaign contributions", enabled those corporations while simultaneously enriching themselves.

In 2008 I returned to Vietnam, and one of the striking images that has stuck with me from that trip is this one: I spent a night in a beachfront hotel on the South China Sea, at the resort town of Vung Tau. You couldn't see them in the daylight, but at night the horizon was lit up from side to side with a necklace of lights from offshore oil drilling platforms. Back in the day, we were told by the "authorities", in response to the Marxist-leaning critics of the Vietnam War who held that all wars are at their base economic, that Vietnam had no natural resources to exploit (even at time, that baldly discounted the vast rubber plantations that Michelin owned and operated in SE Asia), but no one knew about the offshore oil deposits. Not true, that NO ONE knew about them; they were known to Big Oil, and now those resources are being exploited by that same Big Oil.

It's awfully convenient to call Vietnam "communist". They even call themselves that, but it's pretty hard to see the communism in a society that has its own stock market, a plethora of advertising billboards littering the sides of the main highways, and whose only road from the airport to the capital is lined with eye-catching advertising banners for LG Electronics. Multinational corporations run sweatshop factories which exploit workers willing to work for the US equivalent of less than $200 per month.

Karl Marx must be rolling in his grave. The only thing that Vietnam shares with real communism is its name.


Anonymous said...

I shared your Oly veterans organiztion experience in the early 70's. I still consider them a joke.
Almost bought some Michelin tires last week, then I thought naaw...I'll take the Goodyears. Why ruin a run of committed abstainance. LOL
Often, I have been asked "what do or did you think of the Vietnam War? For at least 35 years, my reply has been the same. It was the greatest adventure that I have ever been on!
You and Tacitus keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

Have they forgotten how almost all young men were doing everything they could to avoid being drafted? Going to college? check. Getting married? check Having a child? check. Joining the navy or other branch which didn't see as much action? check

Want to know what REALLY killed that war? The draft lottery, which would have resulted in more sons from elite families getting getting drafted to the meat grinder. It wasn't the liberals, it was the lottery.