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 was “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 a 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 than 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 shelteers, 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 surge of patriotic heroin, 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 MyLai 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 is “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 and 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 court martials 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, Jeremey Scahill, and Seymour Hirsh, 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.
© 2013, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 1.4.2014)