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Tomgram: In Memoriam: Jonathan Schell (1943-2014)

Posted on Mar 31, 2014

    Jonathan Schell during an Occupy Wall Street event in New York City, Feb. 2012. Photo by david_shankbone (CC BY 2.0)

By Tom Engelhardt and Chris Appy, TomDispatch

(Page 3)

“Then what?” I said.

“Well, we’re going to bulldoze it and bomb it.”

So I thought, okay, I’ll just follow that particular story from start to finish. It didn’t feel like a singularly adventurous or bold thing to do. And I do recall one little act of cowardice. When they asked which of the 60 helicopters we wanted to go on, many of the journalists were clamoring to be on the first or second helicopter. I was delighted to be on helicopter number 47. You could say that the operation came off beautifully. It worked exactly as planned. The helicopters flew in, moved the people out, destroyed the village. Mission accomplished. But to what end? Most of the reporting about Operation Cedar Falls told you how many Viet Cong were captured or killed, and those may have been true facts. But they left out what I believed was fundamental—that we were destroying villages and throwing people off their land.

The unmistakable fact was that the general population despised the United States and if they hadn’t despised it before we arrived, they soon did after we destroyed their villages. Our whole goal was to build up a political system that would stand after we left, with a functioning government supported enough by its people so it could fight on its own. But our policies were destroying whatever support that government might ever have had, which was probably about zero to begin with. The more we’d win on the battlefield—and we did just about every day in just about every battle—the more we lost the political war.


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The more we “won,” the more we lost. That was the paradox of Vietnam. American soldiers went over thinking they were freeing an enslaved people from their oppressors. I do think the Communists were pretty oppressive. However, it just so happened that they were the representatives of national dignity and that seemed to trump whatever oppression they dealt out. Whatever the reason, the people by and large supported them and they were the de facto government of a very considerable part of South Vietnam. So the idea that the Viet Cong were a sort of mysterious band of people that could be rooted out and separated from the population at large just didn’t have a basis in political reality.

One thing that struck me very powerfully was the capacity of both the officer corps and the press corps to see things in terms of a story they had brought with them to Vietnam and not to see what was actually going on under their noses. For example, when I came back to Vietnam in the summer of 1967 I went up to Quang Ngai Province and saw that the place was being leveled by American bombing. But when I got home, I remember reading a story in the New York Times about how the marines had built a hospital in this area. Apparently the Hiroshima-like devastation that was around that hospital was not visible to the reporters of the New York Times because they weren’t telling about that.

And it wasn’t a subtle thing. The fire and smoke was pouring up to the heavens. You didn’t have to be a detective or do any investigative journalism. The flames were roaring around you. I mapped it all out and seventy, eighty percent of the villages were just dust—ashes and dust. But that was not the story. The story was still how we were going to help the South Vietnamese resist the attack from the North. In Vietnam I learned about the capacity of the human mind to build a model of experience that screens out even very dramatic and obvious realities.

When I first went back to Vietnam that summer I joined the journalistic pack, the “boys on the bus.” What they were covering at the time was this fraudulent election, a completely farcical election. One day we were all taken to a village for a campaign rally, but the candidates somehow didn’t make it. Apart from the journalists, the only person who showed up was an ancient guy going around with a bullhorn shouting that there was going to be an election rally. This was supposed to be democracy in action and we were the only people there.

To report on that as if it was something real would have been absolutely absurd so I just took the next helicopter out and somehow decided to begin covering the air war in the South—the air slaughter, really. People had been writing about the bombing of North Vietnam, but the air war in the South was far more devastating and not getting much attention.

So in Quang Ngai I started going up in forward air control (FAC) planes—little Cessna two-seater spotter planes that would direct the pilots to their targets. These little planes were constantly turning and twisting, in part to avoid enemy ground fire. That and the overwhelming heat made me constantly nauseous. But I had my notebook right there in the plane and the setup was unbelievably perfect for reporting. It was as if it had been designed for reporting. It gave you this fantastic perch. You could sit over the scene of the action, witness it, and you were conveniently supplied with earphones in which you heard conversations among the pilots, the forward air controller, and the ground. The quotes were coming right into the earphones and I wrote them down as if it were a lecture at Harvard. It was an amazing stroke of journalistic luck.

The idea that the U.S. military was operating under constraints in South Vietnam is ridiculous. We pulverized villages from the air if we merely imagined that we received hostile fire. I witnessed it with my own eyes and I saw the leaflets we dropped which said, “If you fire on us, we will destroy your village,” and then a follow-up leaflet that said, “You did fire on us, and we did destroy your village.” And U.S. planes were actually bombing churches. They would see the church, target it, and blow it up. I saw that happen.

And sometimes they cracked jokes about it. They were trying to imagine that the war was something like World War II. When you were in the air you could try to forget about all the paradoxes of policy that made your very successes counterproductive. But I sensed a deep uneasiness and regret among the pilots. They sometimes sang rather brutal ditties that seemed to me like confessions in a way:

“Strafe the town and kill the people,
Drop napalm in the square,
Get out early every Sunday
And catch them at their morning prayer.”

I wasn’t inclined to blame the people doing it so much as the people ordering it. I got along well with the soldiers and their officers. I liked them very much. Maybe that was a defensive thing. It would have been very uncomfortable for me to be in a position of feeling fury at the people doing it. Those are deep questions. You know, just following orders is no excuse. These were atrocities—bombing villages from the air, just pulverizing houses, attacking people on the basis of little or no information. And there was this absurd supposition that if someone ran away from your attack, they automatically belonged to the Viet Cong.

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