Ken Burns’ 12-hour Vietnam documentary series is airing this week to great fanfare from PBS, as though the treatment of this controversial war might be finally put to bed by its treatment by the award winning documentarian. But Vietnam is not baseball, or the history of jazz in America, or even the Civil War, which everybody but stupid, recalcitrant red necks and White supremacists, knows was won by the North. Vietnam has not only lingering questions (in some minds) about who won, but a lot of lingering questions about what happened, and why. (When I visited the war museum in Saigon there was little doubt that Vietnamese consider the victory to be theirs.) There has been a lot of denial, as one might expect when there was so much lying about what was really going on there.
Vietnam was the “living room war,” and for a vastly condensed eighteen hours, it is again. Doubtless, as with the original version, it will strike viewers differently. But I think that, for those experiencing it for the first time there will be an uneasy sense of déjà vu. “Wait a minute, some of them, might say, isn’t this the same scenario we have been seeing since the end of the Vietnam War?
A reasonable answer is, Yes, of course. There was that old fallacious “domino theory” about the march of communism back in that day, and now it is the Islamic “domino theory”—same old bullshit to frighten the taxes out of the supremely gullible American public to keep that good ole military-industrial-complex well funded (at this writing $81 billion has been added, so it’s approaching a “tril”).
Americans, particularly their pols, like to boast how we are Numero Uno in just about anything. But that includes stupidity. I’ve spent a fair amount of time living, working and teaching abroad and learning that there are lot of people out there smarter than Americans. We never figured out that Vietnam, like central and South America, and elsewhere, was the death throes of the imperial era. France was our ally, so we jumped in to help them out and, of course, as we have done time and again, ended up supporting the corrupt local regimes that colonial powers installed everywhere to keep exploiting their people and cashing in. We have a knack for picking the wrong side, just because the other side has read Das Kapital (or the Quran). We do it time and again and learn nothing from the experience, not just because it suits our ideology, but our addiction to war. The other thing we can’t seem to learn is that when you make war on people who are fighting in their home country you must either completely subdue or exterminate them, because they have nowhere else to go (certainly not the as refugees to the unwelcoming US). It could be called the “you break it, you bought it theory”.
So the new Burns doc has the same contours as our current Middle East misadventures (same running time, too), the same rhetoric of fear of being overtaken by some strange, misunderstood ideology or faith. Each time we become more divided, weaker, more reviled, and more impoverished with each iteration, Americans become more “colonized” by their own government-Wall Street complex, so broken down, desperate, dissipated and frightened that they barely have any idea what is happening to them. We have become the “ugly Americans” that Lederer and Burdick prophesied years ago. Nobody has done this to us—we have done it to ourselves, calling upon our historic race, ethnic and class divisions to blame and hate our fellow citizens. We will never admit this, our pols will not let us. Finally, we have elected a president as ugly, stupid and greedy as the scumbags we have backed for decades.
So, back to Vietnam.
Him: How many Vietnam vets does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Me: I don’t know.
Him: You know why don’t know?
Me: No, why?
Him: ‘CAUSE YOU WEREN’T THERE, MAN!!! ‘CAUSE YOU WEREN’T THERE!!!
He’s right, I wasn’t there . . . Man. I went “there” much later, after the killing. But at the time “he” was “there” (probably rear echelon) I stood with Muhammad Ali, who refused to go “there” because the people “there” had never done a goddamn thing to him, or me. In fact, the people “there” had never done anything to the good ole US of A, for that matter. But we well know that is insufficient reason to be free of American boots on your ground.
But it is a joke with a kernel of truth. There is, of course, always a form of “understanding” that comes from direct experience, the “being there” form of understanding. But even of this form, one need only listen to the descriptions of bystanders at an accident to appreciate that what’s “there” can be a matter of perspective; it’s a narrow aperture of empiricism. Then, there is the form of “reality” that is “situational” when, to borrow a metaphor, one can have difficulty describing the forest when one is one of the trees.
The great age of crumbling colonial empires where hot civil proxy wars between Marx and Adam Smith in SE Asia and elsewhere threatened to thaw the US-USSR Cold War into something thermonuclear. Heedless of portraits of “Ugly Americans” [11.1] and clueless that post-colonial leftist movements had more in common with America’s war of independence and Civil war America bullied itself with fear-mongering McCarthyism into its first military loss. How quick we are to turn the other guy’s nationalism into some sinister ideological global threat that warrants of smashing.
Not that you could tell by they way things were spun politically at home. Visit the gritty “war museum” in Saigon and everything announces that NVA beat the USA. They won. Nevermind that Paris “peace talks” bullshit; that was just a nice way of surrendering for an invasive country that bombed, murdered, defoliated, raped and ravaged a resilient people that lost millions but wouldn’t give up. Nevermind that the West gave the Nobel Peace Prize to the very war criminal, Henry Kissinger, that widened the war throughout SE Asia.
But the biggest spin on VN that the American “hawks” put on the war was “the troops.” What has morphed into the mantra of “thank you for your service” began with the propaganda that the troops were denigrated by anti-war elements, took the brunt of the anti-war sentiment, and as has been said, “never got their parade.” But America lost much more that its war with N. Vietnam—it lost itself.
By the time that 911 rolled around the Vietnam era troops were aging men in VA hospital waiting rooms and homeless shelters, or reintegrated into American society. Most of their command had died off, and some penned quasi-apologia about the “fog of war.” The draft was over, America had an all volunteer army, if you can call a large number of job desperate minorities commanded by careerists “volunteer,” and the troops were now our putative protectors not from the scourge of godless communism, but from theopathic terrorists of Islam. The new insanely arrogant triumvirate of Bush – Cheney – Rumsfeld initiated new misguided military adventures that may also be one day largely forgiven and forgotten.
Except by the dead and destroyed. And except by intrepid researchers whose important and necessary function it is to remind us the next time we see an American flag held taut over a football field while some F-18s scream overhead and some American Idol screeches the national anthem, and we feel all ebullient with a shot of patriotic morphine, and are thanking anybody wearing camouflage—even the guys who get no closer to real combat than a drone operating joystick in a basement in Las Vegas—for their “service,” that we can be pretty fucking ugly Americans.
Strap a cinch around your gorge and open up Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves and you’ll know what I mean. There have been more than 30,000 nonfiction books published on the Vietnam war since it began, but only a small fraction of them deal with the atrocities committed by American troops upon the civilians of Vietnam. If you were like me it may take you longer than usual to make your way through this meticulously researched and documented book of ten years work by the author. As he states up front: the massacre at My Lai was not an anomaly of that war, it was but one expression of a policy built of the fusion of racism and obsession with body counts that resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian victims of murder, torture, rape, and cover-up. Much of the racism was fueled in boot camp as the Vietnamese were systematically dehumanized by being referred to as “gooks,” “slopes,” and other racial slurs, to be conjoined with the fear, testosterone, and outright cruelty that results in passages such as the following. Turse reports on page 158:
On July 23, 1968, for example, artillery man Lex Gilbert and his buddies began firing their weapons as they rode through the countryside in an army truck. Gilbert gestured toward a cluster of three homes, shouted “look at that roof!” And fired a burst from his M-60 machine gun at the middle house. One of the bullets struck a 16-year-old Vietnamese girl in the head, killing her. Similarly, on July 3, 1970, Marine Sgt. Joel McElhinney was riding in a truck, when a subordinate jokingly told him that he had “no balls.” Laughing, McElhinney responded by firing three or four shots from his rifle, killing a woman walking by the side of the road. … Homes, graves, and pagodas fell prey to the same sort of casual potshots and destructive impulses, fueled by a toxic mix of youth, testosterone, racism, anger, boredom, fear, alienation, anonymity, impunity, and excitement.
Like scores of reports of similar incidents and mass atrocities, mayhem and destruction of rape murder these are meticulously documented in over one-hundred pages of notes referring to testimony court documents government reports and interviews with both former American military personnel and surviving victims in Vietnam. Despite the documentation of these incidents military courts martial rarely convicted perpetrators and almost never the officers who were promoted up the ranks for conducting operations that easily swelled body counts with children, women and elderly counted as “VC” because they fled under fire, or were “wearing black pajamas.” Movies such as Full Metal Jacket, Casualties of War and Platoon often depicted a casual brutality in American soldiers that were far more widespread than the “few bad apples” explanation. As the Haditha incident in Iraq and others have shown, the American military and its so-called code of justice are an on-going insult to the very principles our complicit leadership claims we are protecting.
With journalists like Nick Turse, Jeremy Scahill, and Seymour Hersh, among others who write the truth about the egregious misuse of American military power, at least we have someone to whom we can appropriately say “thank you for your service.” No, you don’t have to be there, Man. I don’t know how many Vietnam vets it takes to screw in a light bulb. But I got a good idea how many it takes to screw up a nation.
Yes, America has PTSD. That’s Post Terrible Shit Denial.
©2017, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 09.29.2017)