Mar 9, 2014
How Did the Gates of Hell Open in Vietnam?
Posted on Jan 17, 2013
By Jonathan Schell, TomDispatch
In one further bitter irony, this real war came at a certain point to be partially codified at ever higher levels of command into policies that did translate into orders from the top. In effect, the generals gradually—if absurdly, in light of the supposed goals of the war—sanctioned and promoted the de facto war on the population. Enter General Ewell and his body counts.
In other words, the improvising moved up the chain of command until the soldiers were following orders when they killed civilians, though, as in the case of Ewell, those orders rarely took exactly that form. Nonetheless, the generals sometimes went quite far in formulating these new rules, even when they flagrantly contradicted official policies.
To give one example supplied by Turse, in 1965, General William Westmoreland, who was made commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam in 1964, implicitly declared war on the peasantry of South Vietnam. He said:
“Until now the war has been characterized by a substantial majority of the population remaining neutral. In the past year we have seen an escalation to a higher intensity in the war. This will bring about a moment of decision for the peasant farmer. He will have to choose if he stays alive.”
Like his underlings, Westmoreland, was improvising. This new policy of, in effect, terrorizing the peasantry into submission was utterly inconsistent with the Washington narrative of winning hearts and minds, but it was fully consistent with everything his forces were actually doing and about to do in I Corps and throughout the country.
One more level of the conflict needs to be mentioned in this context. Documents show that, as early as the mid-1960s, the key mistaken assumptions of the war—that the Vietnamese foe was a tentacle of world communism, that the war was a front in the Cold War rather than an episode in the long decolonization movement of the twentieth century, that the South Vietnamese were eager for rescue by the United States—were widely suspected to be mistaken in official Washington. But one other assumption was not found to be mistaken: that whichever administration “lost” Vietnam would likely lose the next election.
Rightly or wrongly, presidents lived in terror of losing the war and so being politically destroyed by a movement of the kind Senator Joe McCarthy launched after the American “loss” of China in 1949. Later, McGeorge Bundy, Lyndon Johnson’s national security advisor, would describe his understanding of the president’s frame of mind at the time this way:
“LBJ isn’t deeply concerned about who governs Laos, or who governs South Vietnam—he’s deeply concerned with what the average American voter is going to think about how he did in the ball game of the Cold War. The great Cold War championship gets played in the largest stadium in the United States and he, Lyndon Johnson, is the quarterback, and if he loses, how does he do in the next election? So don’t lose. Now that’s too simple, but it’s where he is. He’s living with his own political survival every time he looks at these questions.”
In this context, domestic political considerations trumped the substantive reasoning that, once the futility and horror of the enterprise had been revealed, might have led to an end to the war. More and more it was understood to be a murderous farce, but politics dictated that it must continue. As long as this remained the case, no news from Vietnam could lead to a reversal of the war policies.
This was the top floor of the skyscraper of lies that was the Vietnam War. Domestic politics was the largest and most fact-proof of the atrocity-producing situations. Do we imagine that this has changed?
Jonathan Schell is a Fellow at The Nation Institute, and the peace and disarmament correspondent for the Nation magazine. Among many other works, he is the author of The Real War, a collection of his New Yorker reportage on the Vietnam War.
[Under review in this essay: Nick Turse, Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (Metropolitan Books, 2013). Jonathan Schell’s classic Vietnam books, The Village of Ben Suc and The Military Half, are now collected in The Real War (Da Capo Press).]
Copyright 2013 Jonathan Schell
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