Monday, 31 January 2011
The greater honour
The tunnels are narrow, hot and clammy. Crawling along, even a short passage, is claustrophobic and uncomfortable. This is Chu Chi, a portion of the underground workings once used by the Vietcong during the ‘American War’, part of a sort of theme park, which I can only describe as Cong World. It’s not far from Ho Chi Minh City, the Saigon that was, where you will also find the War Remnants Museum, formerly the War Crimes Museum.
It’s all part of the mythology of the Vietnam War. Is there any conflict, I have to ask, more shrouded in mythology than Vietnam? In the midst of all of the little myths there is the big one – that America ‘lost’ the war. It did not. Such a contention is an abuse of the facts of history.
The simple truth is that the Americans won all of the major battles; that after the Tet Offensive of 1968 the Vietcong, the southern communist guerrillas, were a broken force and the North Vietnamese Army badly bruised. It was, in a sense, their Dien Bien Phu, a reverse of the defeat inflicted on the French in 1954.
If the war was ‘lost’ it was not lost by the soldiers but the politicians, by those who mismanaged the affair so dreadfully. There was also the dolchstoss - for once a meaningful expression -, the stab in the back, administered by much of the national press, ill-informed at one moment, lying at the next. Many of the reports verged on a form of treason, doing so much to undermine the morale of the nation, acting little better than a kind of communist fifth-column. I’ve met former veterans in Georgia, just boys when they returned from the war, spat on as ‘baby killers.’
I’ve been trying to build up a picture of the war from the ground, from the point of view of the ordinary American soldier. Here I have to thank Bob Mack, who served in the 1st Signal Brigade based at Nha Trang from 1967 to 1968, for sending me a copy of A Volunteer from America, a tremendous piece of work, one of the most vivid memoirs I have ever read. The pictures shown here are his also. Bob also runs his own blog, Be sure you are RIGHT, then go ahead (crockettlives.wordpress.com), a conservative delight!
Bob arrived in Vietnam from a station in Germany, immediately becoming one of the FNGs – fucking new guys. This particular FNG was sent to Nha Trang on the south central coast of what was then the Republic of Vietnam, supposedly a ‘safe’ sector. How safe the ensuing Tet Offensive was to show.
From my visit to Chu Chi I got a rough idea how the communist guerrillas used to live. I was under the mistaken expression that the Americans, when not on patrol or combat duty, were much more securely housed. Not so, not when one is also obliged to live in bunkers, places where the rats were the greater nuisance. And, oh my, what rats they were, a foot-long, burrowing endlessly, fearlessly entering ‘living’ quarters, feasting on whatever scraps they could find.
That was one enemy. The other, of course, came in a human form, also from all directions, another kind of scavenger. Conventional war is bad but at least one knows one’s opponents, one knows his dispositions and placements. In Vietnam the enemy was something of a chameleon: a fisherman at one moment could turn into a guerrilla fighter at the next. I can’t begin to understand how wearing this must have been on the nerves. Bob describes a return from a spot leave in Thailand thus;
…Dun Muang Airport…was not a happy place – too many men with guts knotted in dread of the prospect of returning to the hellholes from which they had recently been paroled. One poor soul broke down completely, crying and twitching while he babbled out his own obituary. A pair of G. I.s led him off to calm down while the rest of us looked down and pretended not to notice…
The Tet Offensive itself hit Nha Trang particularly hard. For a time the communists controlled much of the city before they were dislodged by a counter-offensive. Here and elsewhere ‘liberation’ was accompanied by murder. In Hue alone allied forces (which included units from the Republic of Korea, who had a particular loathing for the communists) discovered over 2,800 burial sites, containing the bodies of local teachers, doctors and political leaders. Just how miserable life was to be under what was effectively a form of colonial rule from the North the people of the South were to discover after 1975.
By then the Americans were long gone, the last troops leaving in March 1973. I met people in Saigon- the locals still use that name-, one-time members of the armed forces of the Republic of Vietnam, including a former officer who spent twenty years in a ‘re-education’ camp. That was his personal tragedy, one example in so many others. I can’t help but feel that the people of South Vietnam, a legally constituted state, were abandoned and betrayed. But they were not abandoned by the American military, which performed a credible service in the most trying and difficult of circumstances. Theirs is the greater honour.
Posted by Anastasia F-B at 15:27
Labels: american history, vietnam war
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A great and terrible folly.ReplyDelete
Ana, for another take on unconventional warfare, try to find some British soldiers to tell you what it was like to serve in 'bandit country' in Northern Ireland during the 70s & 80s - especially if they were covert.ReplyDelete
I had the pleasure of helping my former boss - a Huey pilot in Vietnam, scan his collection of slides from those days. "Platoon" was no exaggeration. I'm an admirer of "Apocalypse Now" as a movie, but I think "Hamburger Hill" best represented how many US soldiers and marines experienced their time in country.
Anthony, to have gone at all or to have left the place to the communists?ReplyDelete
Calvin, I've seen Apocalypse Now, the early part of which I enjoyed. I thought the scenes with Brando way over the top! I've not seen the other movies you mention. As far as conventionally unconventional warfare is concerned my grandfather served with the Fourteenth Army in WWII, fighting the Japanese in both India and Burma. He told me a few stories about enemy ambushes, really scary stuff.ReplyDelete
Excellent post, Ana. Thanks for helping to put the record straight. Just one note--only the top 2 pictures are mine. The others I obtained from the web as similar photos of mine were destroyed in a flood in the '70s. Here are a few unreported facts about the "conflict" in Vietnam:ReplyDelete
Myth: Most American soldiers were addicted to drugs, guilt-ridden about their role in the war, and deliberately used cruel and inhumane tactics. The facts are:
91% of Vietnam Veterans say they are glad they served.
74% said they would serve again even knowing the outcome.
There is no difference in drug usage between Vietnam Veterans and non veterans of the same age group (from a Veterans Administration study.
Isolated atrocities committed by American soldiers produced torrents of outrage from antiwar critics and the news media while Communist atrocities were so common that they received hardly any attention at all. The United States sought to minimize and prevent attacks on civilians while North Vietnam made attacks on civilians a centerpiece of its strategy. Americans who deliberately killed civilians received prison sentences while Communists who did so received commendations.
Myth: Most Vietnam veterans were drafted. 2/3 of the men who served in Vietnam were volunteers. 2/3 of the men who served in World War II were drafted. Approximately 70% of those killed were volunteers. Many men volunteered for the draft so even some of the draftees were actually volunteers.
Myth: A disproportionate number of blacks were killed in the Vietnam War. 86% of the men who died in Vietnam were Caucasians, 12.5% were black, 1.2% were other races.
Myth: The war was fought largely by the poor and uneducated. Servicemen who went to Vietnam from well-to-do areas had a slightly elevated risk of dying because they were more likely to be pilots or infantry officers. Vietnam Veterans were the best educated forces our nation had ever sent into combat. 79% had a high school education or better.
Myth: The fighting in Vietnam was not as intense as in World War II. The average infantryman in the South Pacific during World War II saw about 40 days of combat in four years. The average infantryman in Vietnam saw about 240 days of combat in one year thanks to the mobility of the helicopter. One out of every 10 Americans who served in Vietnam was a casualty. 58,169 were killed and 304,000 wounded out of 2.59 million who served. Although the percent who died is similar to other wars, amputations or crippling wounds were 300 percent higher than in World War II. 75,000 Vietnam veterans are severely disabled.
More statistics can be obtained from History.com, Statistics About The Vietnam War. http://www.vhfcn.org/stat.html
No, thank you, Bob, and all the others like you ...and my grandfather.ReplyDelete
great post ana! lots of history need to be re-write.ReplyDelete
ambushes might be the worst attacks during such wars. even between vietnam and china (early 70s?) i heard that chinese troops were beaten badly by ambushes (and many cases they were dressed as (or they were) civilians).
communism was born in the west, but so firmly dwell in many asian countries and did such massive damages (i know "damage" is not an accurate word here but i cannot think of a better one) on its people, it is really a very interesting historical phenomenon.
Yun yi, thanks. I think damage is a very apt word here.ReplyDelete
Thanks Bob Mack! Very convincing statistics.ReplyDelete
It could have been avoided all together.It was The result of bad foreighn policy as Ho Chi Minh was an ally of the US in ww2 against japan.It was about the US trying to continue French colonialism with a puppet goverment.This had the same success as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars today.They can only have controll of anything as long as they have a significant physical presence,as soon as they leave the "enemy" is back in charge.The public opinion is influenced to support wars against threats real or imagined, as every administration seems to have a worst case public enemy. This is to distract the public from what is really going on behind the facade of politics.Soldiers or family of soldiers that are sent to these wars have to have a feeling of justification for their hardship and loss so they assume they are fighting for our freedom from many "Enemies" that really are not a threat at all.Sometimes these wars are orchastrated for various reasons as not all things are as they seem to be. Constraints are put on the combatants to sustain this situation as wars are profitable for industrialists and international bankers who at times have interests in both sides of a conflict.ReplyDelete
Anthony, thanks for such a full response. Yes, I agree, there were foreign policy errors and errors of political judgement. I do not agree, though, that the US was in any way attempting to continue French colonialism. Ho Chi Minh had been an ally during WW2 but so, too, had many other communists…when it suited them. Afterwards it was one act of subversion and aggression after another: Greece, Berlin, Czechoslovakia, China, Korea and South East Asia.ReplyDelete
The Republic of Vietnam, with its capital at Saigon, was a legally constituted and self-governing nation, not an American ‘colony.’ The problem here is that the history of Vietnam is too often taken in isolation. There is a pattern of hostility and conflict between the North and South going back centuries before the Vietnam War. In the end, as I said, the real colonial power was the government in Hanoi, which subjected the South to an alien rule.
The comparison between Vietnam and the Iraq and Afghanistan adventures does not seem valid. Both of the latter were invaded; the former was being defended against invasion. Besides, given your sympathies, I’m really rather surprised at your position here: it’s surprisingly close to that of C. Wright Mills, the great doyen of the left-liberal intelligentsia in America!
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Yes, it is a fascinating story.ReplyDelete
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A close friend of mine is a Vietnam vet and a prominent anti-war organizer and demonstrator. He has spent the last 30 years trying to find some sort of restitution for the deplorable neglect of the US government toward the veterans of that war. All the physical and mental casualties. He has a very different tale to tell. I agree with Adam-a sad misuse and waste of human life.ReplyDelete
@MGON: Is that actually true? What of the domino effect mentioned, that certainly did happen in Africa where never intervention occured and could well have happened in Southeast Asia without American involvement.ReplyDelete
At our high school our custodian, something I didn't learn until May or June of my senior year, was formerly a general in the Republic of Vietnam army. He had so much to share. I wish I could've heard him speak, unfortunately I only heard a few minor scraps from friends who did.ReplyDelete
He left South Vietnam for Thailand, and then slowly worked his way in to America.
Ho Chi minh was revered in north and south Vietnam. And this was not Greece or central Europe and was never a threat to American security.There are conflicts all over the world that we choose not to get involved in because they are not of strategic importance or the area does not have natural resources of interest to western corporations.American colonialism was by ensuring countries were run by friendly goverments whether dictatorships or not, as long as they cooperated with American corporate interests, same as the Brits in Africa. In Iraq there was no foreign influence and now there is, in Afghanistan it is a no win situation with allies constantly turning on the coalition and safe refuge and resupply in neighbouring countries (does the picture look familiar)The terrain is unhospitable as well and it is a half hearted effort to win this "war" as it would take about 8 million troops to properly secure the Middle East once and for all by my estimations, a vastly expanded war.Do not compare the third world to the heart of western civilization that the Fuehrer was trying to safegaurd for the betterment of humanity once the negative influences were removed. Look at England now, your day of reckoning has arrived. Who aided the bolsheviks and enabled the spread of world communism in the first place? Churchill that is who. The Reich did not want war with England. England provoked Germany into two world wars and got America involved in both as England and France together could never equal the modern German nation, Ever! America went broke for its involvement in ww1 and the goverment borrowed money from the international bankers. The "Federal Reserve" (a private financial institution not goverment agency) was set up to ensure the international bankers were repaid and the internal revenue was set up to insure the taxes were collected. The international bankers (mostly Zionists) hold most of Americas gold reserves as well, as the fort Knox depository is just a showplace.The Anglo-American Freemasons have enslaved the American people to this system. The problem was that not enough people could grasp the vision that Hitler had for the world and we could not harness the full power of the Blak sun and make the western world a civilization unlike the world has ever known. And now we have become the fouth Reich a hodge podge of neo-cons. The global elite are a syndicate of Freemasons who absorbed remnants of the Nationalist-Socialists and Zionists,Illuminati,Yakuza Etc..Now the US has restarted commerce with Vietnam and is looking into helping them build a nuclear reactor.This will put them on track for nuclear armament to help curb Chinese expansion in the region. What a threat they ever were, wake up. we are all just pawns in the global chess match and quite expendable.ReplyDelete
Do you remember the bit in "Apocalypse Now" where Brando describes how the Vietcong punished a village after American medics had vaccinated the children?ReplyDelete
They punished the villagers by cutting an arm off all the kids who had been vaccinated.
Nearly thirty years ago an ex US infantryman told me that this was no fanciful MGM story but based on an real incident. He had the misfortune to see the aftermath.
At the time this atrocity received no publicity. There was little or no mileage (or money) in a Vietcong atrocity.
The press are always cynical, always ready to betray the truth for their 30 pieces of silver.
Nothing has changed. We need to remember that.
NP, all war is sad, all death in war tragic, but sometimes choices have to be made. I agree that some of the veterans appear to have been treated abominably after they came home.ReplyDelete
Jeremy, that's a pity. I'm sure his story would have been a fascinating one.ReplyDelete
I think Khe Sanh, which immediately preceded the Tet offensive, and which raised immediate comparison with Dien Bien Phu, was the turning point in US morale. Prior to that, the possibility of a US military defeat was unthinkable.ReplyDelete
Anthony, I can only speak from limited experience but I did not find much in the way of ‘reverence’ for Ho Chi Minh when I was in the South of Vietnam. Did you know as many as a million Vietnamese Catholics fled to the south after the 1954 Geneva Agreement gave control of the north to the communists?ReplyDelete
As far as the security issues are concerned it’s important to consider the context of the times, a time when communism was in the ascendant and the western interest in retreat. We think of the Third World War as something that never happened, a possible future event; but there are some, and I’m one of them, who believe that we have already been through this traumatic event. Outright war between in major powers was too dangerous because of the weaponry in their possession, because such a conflict would inevitably gone nuclear at a very early stage. Instead a series of proxy wars were fought across the globe, on every continent, involving as much death and mayhem as World War Two. Vietnam was such a proxy war.
As far as your Hitler points are concerned you know my view, I think: he was the best friend the communists ever had, bringing them right in to the heart of Europe in 1945 because of his monumental irresponsibility in 1941. His army simply did not have enough reserve power to defeat the Soviets. His racism alienated all of the Slavs who wanted rid of Stalin, an alienation that might conceivably have brought victory.
We have such different views here, Anthony, large and small. Far from bankrupting your country involvement in World War One enriched it. It might be said that that it marked the beginning of the American Century.
Bill, yes I do. I thought that was invention. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.ReplyDelete
CI, after Tet it was 'unthinkable.' Military victory was simply followed by political defeat.ReplyDelete
I'm posting the following comment on behalf of Ike Jakson.ReplyDelete
Your Posts on history sets a very high standard and I wish others would follow you.
It is always clear and elegant and in a language ordinary people can relate to; not only the language really; the presentation of ordinary people the way you presented Bob here and the overall theme.
You should be a teacher of history, or better still the Government should pay you the sort of money that you simply cannot refuse to teach teachers how to teach history to children. Maybe that way we will have at least one future generation of children who may know something.
I had a recent experience to observe what children of today know about history and geography; it shocked me. Actually I am busy with a private survey to test what I found in the experience and will do a small Post on it that will shock you if my survey shows the same results as in the experience that I refer to.
Have you ever heard of the Great American depression?.Yes,History can not be changed (or made right to one's liking)grave miscalculations have been made by all parties with equally grave consequences.ReplyDelete
Ike, thanks; you are very kind. I’m not quite sure what I want to do as yet, though I think I would far rather be a writer than a teacher.ReplyDelete
I have heard some horror stories about ignorance over relatively simple historical and geographical facts. Here’s an example that might really surprise you. I have a German friend, Helga, who spent the summer before last with a family in Wisconsin. She was asked if Germany was in Asia and if Hitler was still alive. And these were people of German descent!
"NP...but choices sometimes have to be made."ReplyDelete
Choices made by whom, and for whom? War is a con game, Ana. You can fool a lot of the people a lot of the time.
The following would be a positive addition to the Cambridge history curriculum ...Mel Brooks The "History of the World "1&2.ReplyDelete
As some of the opinions I hear about the Vietnam war remind me, it ain't what we don't know that's the problem . . . it's what we think we know that ain't so.ReplyDelete
Ana - you might like to seek out Michael Herr's memoir "Dispatches."
Anthony, of course but that came in 1929 after years of irresponsible speculation. Set against the long-term it was no more than a temporary passage. WWII began a new ascent.ReplyDelete
NP, I could wish for a world without war, I could wish for a world where there was no need for war; but wishing will never make it so.ReplyDelete
Calvin, thanks, I will.ReplyDelete
Yes, of course, Ana; but that's no reason why one should close one's eyes to the duplicity and deception behind it.ReplyDelete
I actually believe in the idea of the Just War, believe that some wars have to be fought, but so far as duplicity is concerned, NP, you might care to have a look at Exit, pursued by the dead, posted on 23 January.ReplyDelete
@NP: One of the greatest mistakes peace advocates make is not realizing how tyranny makes a war between a people and its state, whichever one that may be.ReplyDelete
And yes, obviously in politics terrible and grievous things are done, but politics is a force of nature, it's not even isolated to humans! One will find politics among wolves, primates, ants (as Thoreau observed) and lions, which is actually a pretty good description of politicians come to think of it...
But back to the point and all joking aside NP, sometimes you have to rise above "is this person telling the truth or not?" to "where do I fit in all this?" and you have to do that so that you may fit anywhere, both you and your children and their children.
Got to hand it to the vietnamese though, for a small country, everyone who has tried to impose themselves on them eventually get's sent home with a bloody arse.ReplyDelete
JJ-self-deception is as lethal, perhaps even more so, than the deception of the State. That's how I categorize all this talk of Just Wars and politics being a "force of nature." Wherever wars are fought people are being conned into it, by their own self-justifications and the connivance of those in power. It's a tragic stupidity, but as Brecht said: "War is like love, it always finds a way."ReplyDelete
People are sometimes conned in to wars, and sometimes they see the need for them, but I know politics is a force of nature. Far too few people know how to rise above their waste natures, and have never learned to do so. If anything in the world was to save the world from war, it would be religion, one of the best forces that exist for bringing out true humanity, but religion is too often victimized by the same politicking it would seek to avert and often exploited to likes end. Good religious men from Christ and Moses to Luther and Williams have tried, but human fear continues to get in the way. Maybe that's why religion always does best when persecuted against, it drives away the fearful and the ignorant and those who just want to avoid the fires of 'hell.'ReplyDelete
I spent a significant part of my childhood being monstered by the threat of conscription. I and other boys in primary school were often admonished with the words, "Wait till they get you in the army!" We were eight or nine years old at the time and the war ended before our age-group could ever have been liable for conscription. Of course, a child's perception of what is plausible or imminent is not that of an adult. The war was omnipresent and had been going since before we were born; it seemed believable that the truck would come one day to collect us and take us off to the camp.ReplyDelete
Retarius, I'm sure that must have been a big worry for your parents.ReplyDelete