History is not always written by the winners.
I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.
United States Army Oath of Enlistment
The Vietnam Memorial lists over 58,000 dead. Many more sustained serious, life-altering wounds, physical and psychological. If only we had taken off the kid gloves, goes the refrain, we wouldn’t have lost in Vietnam. We didn’t bring to bear the full weight of American firepower, and our “warriors” were hampered by senseless, politically driven rules of engagement.
In one sense the refrain is true. The US didn’t carpet bomb North and South Vietnam with nuclear weapons. That kid glove stayed on. Other than that, the assertion is complete bunk.
Between 1965 and 1972, the US and South Vietnam air forces flew 3.4 million combat sorties, the plurality over South Vietnam. Their bombing was the equivalent of 640 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs, and South Vietnam got the brunt of it. The provincial capital district of Quang Tri, the northernmost South Vietnamese province, received 3,000 bombs per square kilometer. Between 1965 and 1973, the US Strategic Air Command launched at least 126,615 B-52 bomber sorties, again the majority of them targeted to South Vietnam.
In 1969, US units fired 10 million artillery rounds, and over the course of the war they expended almost 15 billions pounds of artillery shells. By the end of the war, formerly scenic South Vietnam featured an estimated 21 million craters, which wreaked havoc on the landscape and largely destroyed its agricultural-based economy. Keep in mind South Vietnam was the US’s ally. North Vietnam, the enemy, also sustained massive casualties and destruction.
Bombs and munitions weren’t the US’s only weapons. An estimated 400,000 tons of napalm, a jellied incendiary designed to stick to clothes and skin and burn, were dropped in Southeast Asia. Thirty-five percent of victims die within fifteen to twenty minutes. White phosphorus, another incendiary, burns when exposed to air and keeps burning, often through an entire body, until oxygen is cut off. The US Air Force bought more than 3 million white phosphorus rockets during the war, and the military bought 379 million M-34 white phosphorus grenades in 1969 alone. The US also sprayed more than 70 million tons of herbicide, usually Agent Orange, further decimating indigenous agriculture and destroying the countryside.
A “pineapple” cluster bomblet was a small container filled with 250 steel pellets. One B-52 could drop 1,000 pineapples across a 400-yard area, spewing 250,000 pellets. “Guava” cluster bombs were loaded with 640 to 670 bomblets, each with 300 steel pellets, so a single guava sent over 200,000 steel fragments in all directions when it hit the ground. Pineapples and guavas were designed to maim, to tax the enemy’s medical and support systems. Between 1964 and 1971, the US military ordered 37 million pineapples. From 1966 to 1971, it ordered 285 million guavas, or seven each for every man woman and child in North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia combined.
No other conclusion is possible: the US waged unrestricted (other than not using nuclear weapons) industrial war against the far less well-armed Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army.
Most Americans think the My Lai massacre was an unfortunate anomaly. That delusion is a lingering tragedy of Vietnam. Plenty of villages were burned and leveled, farm animals and crops destroyed, and unarmed and visibly helpless women, children, and old people—generally counted as VC in the often meretricious statistics—murdered. Some of the villages contained Viet Cong, some did not, and that was often not the first concern or even a cited justification for US troops. The slaughter was frequently wanton, or indiscriminate vengeance for American troops killed or wounded, not to fight the enemy.
In 1964, 40 percent of the South Vietnamese countryside was considered under Viet Cong control or influence and was thus a free-fire zone: shoot first, ask questions later. By 1968, according to a US Senate study, an estimated 300,000 South Vietnamese, or over five times the US personnel killed during the entire war, had been killed in free-fire zones. That its rules of engagement prevented the US military from killing anyone in Vietnam is an obscene distortion of reality. My Lai was anomalous only because it was publicized and some of its perpetrators were brought before military justice.
All figures and policies cited are from Nick Turse’s meticulously documented study Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War In Vietnam (American Empire Project) (Metropolitan Books, 2013), which relies primarily on US government archives and sources, and interviews with former military personnel. It’s an excellent book that many Americans should read but few will (it should be required reading for anyone entering the US military or the State Department). Americans would rather stare at their bloodshot eyes and distorted faces in the mirror after a night of drink, debauchery, and dinner discharge than glance at Vietnam.
The war shattered many of those who fought it. There was the inevitable combat violence and horror, and the depravity of murder and destruction inflicted upon innocents. Many turned to drugs, readily available, and many worked the various rackets themselves: drugs, weapons, currencies and military scrip, pimping, and child trafficking.
Over a relatively short period of time, you begin to treat all of the Vietnamese as though they are the enemy. If you can’t tell, you shoot first and ask questions later.
W.D. Ehrhart, quoted in Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War In Vietnam
The quote frames the moral void and the intellectual paradox at the heart of Vietnam: if everyone is your enemy, for who and for what are you fighting? When the devastation and death you’ve inflicted on your ally are greater than what you’ve inflicted on the ostensible enemy, how can you pretend that your ally will not become your enemy? What are you doing there?
A few bought off sycophants within your satrapy will always spout the party line, but out there in the countryside, hamlets, villages, towns, and cities you’ve destroyed, you will be hated and your enemy succored. Common nationality and heritage—and a history of oppression by a string of imperial powers—will inevitably triumph over your money, arms, and feeble “hearts and minds” programs, all designed to cover your imperialistic designs. No one with an ounce of brains and intellectual integrity is fooled, particularly not your own soldiers in the field.
It was almost impossible for those soldiers to question the policies that required them to do what they did, much less oppose or expose them. The risks ranged from ostracism to discipline, court-martial and military prison to death by friendly fire. Any effort would almost certainly have been futile, changing nothing.
But what about the military’s upper echelon? How did it acquiesce to a war that was destroying the country it was ostensibly meant to save, killing the people it was ostensibly meant to protect, clearly and understandably turning allies into enemies, and taking the lives and souls of the soldiers in their charge who had to fight it? Where were they, and where have they been since then as the US government has repeated the same mistaken policies over and over again? Have they supported and defended “the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” bearing “true faith and allegiance” to the same?
There are more civilians killed here per day than VC either by accident or on purpose and that’s just plain murder. I’m not surprised that there are more VC. We make more VC than we kill by the way these people are treated. I won’t go into detail but some of the things that take place would make you ashamed of good old America.
From the dairy of US Marine Ed Austin as quoted in Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War In Vietnam
Next: Betrayal by the Brass: Dereliction of Duty, Part 2