“I committed the same kinds of atrocities as thousands of others in that I shot in free-fire zones, fired .50-caliber machine bullets, used harass-and-interdiction fire, joined in search-and-destroy missions, and burned villages. All of these acts are contrary to the laws of the Geneva Convention, and all were ordered as written, established policies from the top down, and the men who ordered this are war criminals.”
—John Kerry, on “Meet the Press,” April 1971
Tom Brokaw’s best-selling book, “Boom! Voices of the Sixties—Personal Reflections on the ‘60s and Today,” bills itself as “a virtual reunion of a cross section of the Sixties crowd, in an effort to discover what we might learn from each other, forty years later.” Its 688 pages consist mainly of interviews with more than 80, mostly successful, veterans of the ‘60s, dealing with Vietnam, the civil rights and women’s movements, and electoral politics. Other than Vietnam, his material is relatively unobjectionable, since America has made some progress—though not as much as he suggests—in the domestic arena. The personal stories of women leaders and courageous African-Americans, who rose to prominence from the trenches of the burgeoning women’s movement and from the barricades of the civil rights movement, are inspiring.
By Tom Brokaw
Random House, 688 pages
But one reads the Vietnam War sections of Brokaw’s book with a growing sense of amazement, disbelief and, ultimately, profound sadness. For Brokaw has, incredibly, managed to compile a lengthy book about the 1960s that barely mentions the central event which created and shaped it. A reader of “Boom!” would have no idea that U.S. leaders pursued a war that killed enormous numbers of Indochinese civilians and that this mass murder was the single most important factor prompting the various domestic convulsions we now call “The ‘60s.”
Given Brokaw’s many years as one of network television’s main news anchors, and that his views so often reflect conventional wisdom, this omission raises troubling questions: Is it really possible for America to have killed hundreds of thousands of Indochinese peasants and still, 30 years later, act as if it never happened? Has Brokaw really so sabotaged his own heartfelt call to unite America by ignoring what we learned from South Africa: that true national reconciliation can occur only if hard truths are acknowledged, responsibility taken and amends made?
Is our Indochina history really to remain a nightmare from which we will never awaken?
Partly as a result of America’s continuing refusal to fully confront the history and legacy of its involvement in Indochina, U.S. leaders have been permitted to commit many of the same mistakes and war crimes in Iraq as they did in Vietnam. Historical analogy is, of course, debatable. But such parallels as the media buying George W. Bush’s lies about weapons of mass destruction just as it did Lyndon B. Johnson’s deceptions about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and the ways in which the U.S. has been weakened in Iraq just as it was in Indochina, are too important to be ignored.
Brokaw’s book provides a mirror reflecting the many ways America continues to live in a web of denial and deception. The key event of the 1960s was not “the Vietnam war” as Brokaw describes it—a conventional war between opposing armies—but U.S. leaders’ approval of policies that led to the mass murder of civilians. Such “collateral damage” was inherent in fighting against a native population sheltering a guerrilla force seeking to expel a foreign invader. It is a fact that Washington—whatever its declared intent or rhetorical conceits—pursued a strategy and tactics that led to the killing of tremendous numbers of Indochinese civilians, and wounded and made homeless more than 10 million people, by dropping 6.7 million tons of bombs (and firing as much ground ordnance from Army bases and giant Navy ships) on tiny Indochina, more than triple the World War II bombing of all Europe and the Pacific theater. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, a principal architect of the Vietnam War, has estimated that 3.4 million Vietnamese died in the war. A sizable number of these were civilians, as were a very large number of Laotian and Cambodian peasants who died from years of U.S. bombing of their towns and villages.
It is also a fact that this bombing and shelling resulted in the “wanton destruction of towns and villages,” “deportations” and “inhuman acts committed against any civilian population,” acts which were included in the indictment of Nazi leaders at Nuremberg, and clearly violated the laws of war meant to protect civilians. It is difficult to see how U.S. leaders would not have been similarly indicted had the Nuremberg judgment been applied to their conduct of the war.
Interviewing more than 1,000 refugees from U.S. bombing in Laos in 1969-70, I was horrified to learn of grandmothers burned alive by U.S.-manufactured napalm, and children who had suffered the most painful deaths possible as U.S. antipersonnel bomb pellets shredded their small bodies. I learned of whole families slowly suffocating to death from American 500-pound and 1,000-pound bombs. I saw tens of thousands of innocent rice farmers turned into miserable refugees—as U.S. bombers systematically destroyed their towns and villages and U.S.-supported forces deported them from the villages of their birth. The bombing mainly killed and wounded villagers, since the soldiers could survive in the forest. I was driven to near-desperation by realizing that carloads of more innocents were being murdered daily through similar U.S. bombing over vast areas of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam inhabited by millions of people. These policies were deliberate and were designed to terrorize a population into submission and capitulation.
The U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Refugees has estimated that more than 12 million Indochinese civilians were wounded or made homeless during the war, and that more than 600,000 civilians were killed. Other credible sources put the number of murdered civilians at two to three times that number. The vast majority of civilian casualties were inarguably caused by U.S. firepower.