Tag Archives: Vietnam War

The Liberal Contempt for Martin Luther King’s Final Year, by Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

Martin Luther King Jr.’s Riverside speech exactly one year before his death was one of his best. It was a powerful statement against US militarism and the war in Vietnam. From Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon at antiwar.com:

The anniversary of his assassination always brings a flood of tributes to Martin Luther King Jr., and this Sunday will surely be no exception. But those tributes – including from countless organizations calling themselves progressive – are routinely evasive about the anti-militarist ideals that King passionately expressed during the final year of his life.

You could call it evasion by omission.

The standard liberal canon waxes fondly nostalgic about King’s “I have a dream” speech in 1963 and his efforts against racial segregation. But in memory lane, the Dr. King who lived his last year is persona non grata.

The pattern is positively Orwellian. King explicitly condemned what he called “the madness of militarism.” And by any reasonable standard, that madness can be diagnosed as pervading U.S. foreign policy in 2021. But today, almost all politicians and mainstream media commentators act as though King never said such things, or if he did then those observations have little to do with today.

But they have everything to do with the USA now in its twentieth year of continuous warfare. The Pentagon’s constant bombing in the Middle East and elsewhere is the scarcely noticed wallpaper in the US media’s echo chamber.

What compounds the madness of militarism in the present day is the silence that stretches eerily and lethally across almost the entire US political spectrum, including the bulk of progressive organizations doing excellent work to challenge economic injustice and institutionalized racism here at home.

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How the Soldier’s Revolt Ended the Vietnam War, by Joel Geier

It’s hard to fight a war when the soldiers don’t want to fight. From Joel Geier at anti-empire.com:

“The army reported 126 fraggings in 1969, 271 in 1970 and 333 in 1971, when they stopped keeping count”

“Of the 543,000 American troops in Vietnam in 1968, only 14 percent (or 80,000) were combat troops. These 80,000 men took the brunt of the war. …In 1968, 14,592 men–18 percent of combat troops–were killed. An additional 35,000 had serious wounds that required hospitalization.”

The hidden war

Our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and noncommissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near-mutinous. Conditions among American forces in Vietnam that have only been exceeded in this century by…the collapse of the Tsarist armies in 1916 and 1917.

Armed Forces Journal, June 19711

THE MOST neglected aspect of the Vietnam War is the soldiers’ revolt–the mass upheaval from below that unraveled the American army. It is a great reality check in an era when the U.S. touts itself as an invincible nation. For this reason, the soldiers’ revolt has been written out of official history. Yet it was a crucial part of the massive antiwar movement whose activity helped the Vietnamese people in their struggle to free Vietnam–described once by President Johnson as a “raggedy-ass little fourth-rate country”–from U.S. domination. The legacy of the soldiers’ revolt and the U.S. defeat in Vietnam–despite more recent U.S. victories over Iraq and Serbia–casts a pall on the Pentagon. They still fear the political backlash that might come if U.S. ground forces sustain heavy casualties in a future war.

The army revolt was a class struggle that pitted working-class soldiers against officers who viewed them as expendable. The fashionable attempt to revise Vietnam War history, to airbrush its horrors, to create a climate supportive of future military interventions, cannot acknowledge that American soldiers violently opposed that war, or that American capitalism casually tolerated the massacre of working-class troops. Liberal academics have added to the historical distortion by reducing the radicalism of the 1960s to middle-class concerns and activities, while ignoring working-class rebellion. But the militancy of the 1960s began with the Black working class as the motor force of the Black liberation struggle, and it reached its climax with the unity of white and Black working-class soldiers whose upsurge shook U.S. imperialism.

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Soldiers Who Fight War, by John Feffer

Just like a substantial portion of the American population, a substantial portion of the soldiers fighting in Vietnam turned against the war. From John Feffer at antiwar.com:

One of the enduring myths connected to the Vietnam War is that the U.S. military could have won the war if the politicians and protesters back in Washington didn’t somehow handicap the generals.

When George H. W. Bush launched the first Gulf War in 1990, for instance, he said that “this will not be another Vietnam. Our troops will…not be asked to fight with one hand tied behind their back.”

This myth doesn’t account for the determination of the Vietnamese to repel the US troops. It also doesn’t take into consideration the US troops themselves and how they felt about the war. If any hands were secured by any backs, it was often the GIs themselves who were doing the tying.

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“The Fight Started When He Hit Me Back”, by Jeff Thomas

Political leaders are always trying to get the citizenry to go to war by claiming provocation by the other side. From Jeff Thomas at internationalman.com:

There’s an old joke about an adult asking two boys how a fight started between them and one boy responded as stated above.

When two children are involved, we might choose to lecture them both and possibly punish the one who instigated the fight. But when nations are guilty of the same behaviour, we tend to simply accept the rather absurd explanation as being reasonable.

Back in the 1950s, the US sought to establish a presence in Vietnam. First, “military advisors” were sent in, then armaments. But soon, US troops were added. When the US public objected to their country instigating a war halfway around the world, where it had no business being, President Johnson made the announcement that the destroyer USS Maddox had just been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin.

As it turned out, the Maddox had sailed into the North Vietnamese harbour uninvited and began firing on North Vietnamese ships. The ships returned fire. Although only one bullet actually hit the Maddox, several North Vietnamese ships were damaged and Vietnamese sailors were killed.

President Johnson used this incident to convince the American people that North Vietnam had attacked a US ship and they needed to be taught a lesson. It was at that point that the US began the Vietnam War in earnest. It ended in defeat for the US, but not before over 1.3 million deaths were totted up.

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50 Years Ago: The Day Nixon Routed the Establishment, by Patrick J. Buchanan

Well into the Nixon presidency, a substantial majority of the American people supported the Vietnam war. From Patrick J. Buchanan at buchanan.org:

What are the roots of our present disorder, of the hostilities and hatreds that so divide us? When did we become this us vs. them nation?

Who started the fire?

Many trace the roots of our uncivil social conflict to the 1960s and the Johnson years when LBJ, victorious in a 61% landslide in 1964, could not, by 1968, visit a college campus without triggering a violent protest.

The morning after his narrow presidential victory in 1968, Richard Nixon said his goal would be to “bring us together.” And in early 1969, he seemed to be succeeding.

His inaugural address extended a hand of friendship to old enemies. He withdrew 60,000 troops from Vietnam. He left the Great Society largely untouched and proposed a Family Assistance Plan for the poor and working class. He created a Western White House in San Clemente, California.

In July, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon.

America approved. Yet the elites seethed. For no political figure of his time was so reviled and hated by the establishment as was Richard Nixon.

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The New Congress Can End Wars and Constrain the ‘Deep State.’ Will It? by Harry Blain

Once upon a time Congress did things like stopping the Vietnam War. It’s been a long time, though, since it’s done anything close to that worthwhile. From Harry Blain at antiwar.com:

Congress ended the Vietnam war, exposed horrific CIA and FBI abuses, and halted them. Where’s that energy now?

The U.S. Congress has power over two very important things: money and information.

It can, in theory and practice, end a war by refusing to fund it. It can (and has!) compelled the leading architects of American foreign policy – CIA directors, national security advisors, secretaries of defense – to answer for their uses and abuses of executive power publicly and under oath.

As anyone who has served in it will tell you, Congress has never experienced a “golden age” of dispassionate bipartisanship or attachment to high principle. Yet, its recent failures seem to reflect dangerous signs of decay: the rubber-stamping of a new CIA director implicated in the worst excesses of the agency’s torture program; the inability to even moderately question wars that have comfortably outlasted Vietnam; and almost total indifference to arms deals struck by the White House.

The story of how and why we got here is a vivid illustration of our deepening political dysfunction. But it also hints at how Congress can be renewed at a time when we desperately need it.

“An Invitation to Struggle”

As with so many key questions, the US constitution gives mixed answers on the role of Congress in American foreign policy.

Countless books and articles have been written on the subject, but the basic problem is this: The president gets the imperious job title of “commander-in-chief,” while his puny legislators reserve the power to declare and fund wars.

Because the summer of 1787 was hot, and some of our saintly “framers” either stopped paying attention, got drunk, or went home as the supreme law of the land was being written, fundamental tensions like these were never resolved. Instead, an “invitation to struggle” awaited future generations.

Historically, this “struggle” has exhibited some common features: our esteemed members of Congress becoming peculiarly concerned about presidential power when the opposite party occupies the White House; war-authorizing resolutions usually passing by lopsided margins; and anything seriously restricting executive power coming only after media or publicpressure.

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The War That Never Ends (for the U.S. Military High Command), by Danny Sjursen

If you’re in the military, even though US involvement in Vietnam ended in 1975, you have to try to make sense of that conflict, if only because there are similarities between that involvement and current conflicts. From Danny Sjursen at tomdispatch.com:

Vietnam: it’s always there. Looming in the past, informing American futures.

A 50-year-old war, once labeled the longest in our history, is still alive and well and still being refought by one group of Americans: the military high command.  And almost half a century later, they’re still losing it and blaming others for doing so.

Of course, the U.S. military and Washington policymakers lost the war in Vietnam in the previous century and perhaps it’s well that they did.  The United States really had no business intervening in that anti-colonial civil war in the first place, supporting a South Vietnamese government of questionable legitimacy, and stifling promised nationwide elections on both sides of that country’s artificial border.  In doing so, Washington presented an easy villain for a North Vietnamese-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) insurgency, a group known to Americans in those years as the Vietcong.

More than two decades of involvement and, at the war’s peak, half a million American troops never altered the basic weakness of the U.S.-backed regime in Saigon.  Despite millions of Asian deaths and 58,000 American ones, South Vietnam’s military could not, in the end, hold the line without American support and finally collapsed under the weight of a conventional North Vietnamese invasion in April 1975.

There’s just one thing.  Though a majority of historians (known in academia as the “orthodox” school) subscribe to the basic contours of the above narrative, the vast majority of senior American military officers do not.  Instead, they’re still refighting the Vietnam War to a far cheerier outcome through the books they read, the scholarship they publish, and (most disturbingly) the policies they continue to pursue in the Greater Middle East.

The Big Re-Write

In 1986, future general, Iraq-Afghan War commander, and CIA director David Petraeus penned an article for the military journal Parameters that summarized his Princeton doctoral dissertation on the Vietnam War.  It was a piece commensurate with then-Major Petraeus’s impressive intellect, except for its disastrous conclusions on the lessons of that war.  Though he did observe that Vietnam had “cost the military dearly” and that “the frustrations of Vietnam are deeply etched in the minds of those who lead the services,” his real fear was that the war had left the military unprepared to wage what were then called “low-intensity conflicts” and are now known as counterinsurgencies.  His takeaway: what the country needed wasn’t less Vietnams but better-fought ones.  The next time, he concluded fatefully, the military should do a far better job of implementing counterinsurgency forces, equipment, tactics, and doctrine to win such wars.

To continue reading: The War That Never Ends (for the U.S. Military High Command)

American Warfare’s Giant Open Secret, by Danny Sjursen

Congress has shirked all of the war-making responsibilities given it in the Constitution. From Danny Sjursen at thenation.com:

All of the wars waged by the United States in the last 70 years have had one thing in common.

A Vet Remembers: A Bad Mood, a Six-Pack, and a Typewriter, by Fred Reed

Fred Reed’s take on Vietnam, where he fought, from a Harper’s article written in 1980. From Reed at theburningplatform.com:

This column is on lactation and isn’t going to write a damned word until half-October. People are talking about some Vietnam series by Ken Burns, I think it is .I saw the original, so I’ll pass. But if we want opinions, I’ll contribute from long ago.

Harper’s, December, 1980

I begin to weary of the stories about veterans that are now in vogue with the newspapers, the stories that dissect the veteran’s psyche as if prying apart a laboratory frog — patronizing stories written by style-section reporters who know all there is to know about chocolate mousse, ladies’ fashions, and the wonderful desserts that can be made with simple jello. I weary of seeing veterans analyzed and diagnosed and explained by people who share nothing with veterans, by people who, one feels intuitively, would regard it as a harrowing experience to be alone in a backyard. Week after week the mousse authorities tell us what is wrong with the veteran.

The veteran is badly in need of adjustment, they say — lacks balance, needs fine tuning to whatever it is in society that one should be attuned to. What we have here, all agree, with omniscience and veiled condescension, is a victim: The press loves a victim. The veteran has bad dreams, say the jello writers, is alienated, may be hostile, doesn’t socialize well — isn’t, to be frank, quite right in the head.

But perhaps it is the veteran’s head to be right or wrong in, and maybe it makes a difference what memories are in the head. For the jello writers the war was a moral fable on Channel Four, a struggle hinging on Nixon and Joan Baez and the inequities of this or that. I can’t be sure. The veterans seem to have missed the war by having been away in Vietnam at the time and do not understand the combat as it raged in the internecine cocktail parties of Georgetown.

To continue reading: A Vet Remembers: A Bad Mood, a Six-Pack, and a Typewriter

Betrayal by the Brass: Dereliction of Duty, Part Two, by Robert Gore

Moral abdication and atrocity start at the top.

Part One

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

As the British discovered trying the quell the American rebellion, it’s difficult to fight the natives on their own territory, even when many of them are on your side. The US faced the same situation in Vietnam, its difficulty magnified because Americans were of a different racial stock than those they subjugated.

Also unlike the British, the Americans were perceived—even by their ostensible allies—as another in a long line of imperial conquerors that stretched back to Chinese domination during the first millennium. Belying US rhetoric and propaganda, industrial warfare and atrocities destroyed South Vietnam and killed or alienated many of the South Vietnamese whose freedom we were supposedly defending.

To defeat a local population when much of it wages guerrilla war or covertly supports those who do, the invading power has to kill most and terrorize the rest.

The aim was described by Colonel Edward Lansdale, the famous CIA man on whom Graham Greene based his central character in The Quiet American.

Quoting Robert Taber’s The War of the Flea, Lansdale said, “There is only one means of defeating an insurgent people who will not surrender, and that is extermination. There is only one way to control a territory that harbours resistance, and that is to turn it into a desert.

The Killing of History,” John Pilger, Information Clearing House

The population subjugated, the invading power must maintain a satrap and garrison state. The invasion is usually easy compared to the occupation, as the imposed order fights continuing resistance. Garrison states are inherently unstable and the subjugated often outlast their conquerors.

None of this was news in the 1960s. America had its own Revolutionary War plus its and Europe’s experiences with imperialism and colonialism to draw on. By the mid-1960s, it was clear the US political leadership wouldn’t allow the military to completely subjugate either North or South Vietnam. North Vietnam was off-limits because a full-scale invasion might draw in the Chinese and memories of the Korean War were still fresh. South Vietnam was the US’s ostensible ally, but complete subjugation would have exposed US “protecting freedom” rhetoric as a lie. It would have provoked widespread revulsion among the US populace—seeing the war through the eyes of TV and print media already hostile to it—further stoking protest and resistance.

The US military leadership faced a situation where it could neither win nor withdraw. When did it have the duty to tell the civilian leadership that as fought, a war could not be won and continuing would only waste more blood and treasure? The question goes far beyond Vietnam.

After Vietnam, the US was supposedly beset by the Vietnam Syndrome: the public’s aversion to quagmires and refusal to endorse military interventions. That syndrome dissipated after 9/11 and the military has intervened repeatedly in a number of conflicts that have or threaten to become quagmires.

The military and political leadership have gotten clever about the public relations aspects of war. The media is never given the virtually free rein it had in Vietnam. The mainstream media is more docile now, rarely challenging official stories, explanations, and rationales. The alternative media doesn’t have the resources, personnel, and geographic reach to consistently do so.

The draft has been suspended; there are no campus war protests. The number of troops deployed in today’s conflicts are small fractions of what was deployed in Vietnam. Drones, long-range missiles, and other technologies equipped with sophisticated electronics allow the military to inflict destruction and death at long-range with minimal risk to US personnel.

Yet the Vietnam quandary persists: as fought today’s conflicts are not won, but spill blood and waste treasure. The mountains of Afghanistan are not the jungles of Vietnam, but just as in Vietnam, a substantial part of the population engages in guerrilla resistance against the US and its puppet regime. As in Vietnam, the war has bounteously funded the military and its contractors and fueled widespread corruption. It has gone on for sixteen years, making it America’s longest war. A war of complete subjugation and a garrison state would require many times the 11,000 troops the Pentagon officially acknowledges are now in Afghanistan.

With winning off the table, the US wages wars with all downside and no upside. There are the dead and wounded, and the burden of caring for the latter. The ambiguities of war goals, fighting guerrillas, and waging war on non-combatants takes a moral and psychological toll long after the soldiers return home. Hypocrisy and corruption in the military, its contractors, and allied governments embitter US personnel, the subjugated population, and the rest of the world. Wars and weapons make a significant contribution to the $20 trillion national debt. Even regime change wars like Iraq and Libya, ostensibly won, pose the challenges and costs of garrison states amidst insurgencies and sectarian warfare.

Given the costs and preclusion of winning, isn’t a general’s duty to present to the civilian leadership an appraisal and a choice? To state that a war as fought will be never be won; tell them that what it would take—“extermination” that turns the territory into a “desert”—and present the choice: that kind of war or no war at all? Isn’t that what the military leadership owes to the Constitution, to the political leadership, to the men and women they command, and to all Americans, instead of mindless drivel about “generational wars”?

If the political leadership presses wars that will never be won, for political reasons, for venal considerations of personal prestige, careerism, and financial gain, for any reason that senselessly prolongs those wars, shouldn’t an officer resign and publicly state his reasons for doing so? Isn’t that the duty owed to the dead and wounded—an individual effort to stop the carnage so that no more will be slaughtered and maimed, no more treasure wasted?

The Army Oath of Enlistment qualifies the duty to follow orders. It’s subject to the Constitution and to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. If it weren’t, the oath would be a Nuremberg defense, a defense the US and its allies rejected after World War II. No one can abandon the requirements of morality simply because they’ve been ordered to do so. Yet that is what the military leadership has done these many years, with disastrous consequences for the country they’ve sworn to defend.

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