The Legacy of War
In February 1965, the United States escalated the war against South Vietnam radically, and also, on the side, began regular bombing of the North at a much lower level. That was a big public issue in the United States: Should we bomb North Vietnam? The bombing of the South was ignored. The same shows up in the internal planning, for which we now have an extremely rich record, not only from the Pentagon Papers, but from tons of declassified documents that have been released in the last couple of years. It turns out-again, one of the very few interesting revelations of the Pentagon Papers-that there was no planning for the escalated bombing of the South. There was very meticulous planning about the bombing of the North-carefully calibrated, when should we do it, and a lot of agonizing about it. The bombing of the South at triple the scale of the North is barely discussed. There are a few casual decisions here and there. The same shows up in McNamara’s recent memoirs. He discusses at great length the bombing of the North. The bombing of the South he literally doesn’t mention. He mentions what he did on January 21, 1965, a really important day: there was a big discussion about whether to bomb North Vietnam. He doesn’t mention what we know from other documents, that on that same day, he authorized for the first time the use of jet planes to escalate the bombing of South Vietnam over and above the massive bombing that had been going on for years-that’s not even mentioned.
I think the reason for that in public consciousness and in internal planning is unpleasantly obvious, but it may be worth paying attention to, if people are willing to look in the mirror. The reason is that the bombing of North Vietnam was costly to the United States. For one thing, it was costly in international opinion because it was a bombing of what was by then regarded as a state, which had embassies and so on. Besides, there was a danger that there could be a retaliation. The United States was bombing an internal Chinese railroad, which went from southwest to southeast China. It was built through the northern part of Vietnam because of the way the French built railroads. The US was bombing Russian ships; it was bombing Russian embassies. China and Russia might respond. So it was dangerous. There were potential costs to the bombing of North Vietnam. On the other hand, the bombing of South Vietnam on a vastly greater scale was costless. There was nothing the South Vietnamese could do about it. Accordingly, it was not an issue at the time. There were no protests about it. Virtually none. Protests were almost entirely about the bombing of the North, and it has essentially disappeared from history, so that it doesn’t have to be mentioned in McNamara’s memoirs or in other accounts, and, as I say, there wasn’t even any planning for it. Just a casual decision: it doesn’t cost us anything, why not just kill a lot of people? It’s an interesting incident that tells you a lot about the thinking that runs from the earliest days right to the present. We’re not talking about ancient history as when we talk about Amalek and the Frankish wars and Genghis Khan.
The war then, of course, expanded. The US expanded the war to Laos and Cambodia. As in Vietnam, and Laos and Cambodia, too, the targets were primarily civilian. The main target, however, was always South Vietnam. That included saturation bombing of the densely populated Mekong Delta and air raids south of Saigon that were specifically targeting villages and towns. They were deciding, "let’s put a B-52 raid on this town." Huge terror operations like "Speedy Express" and "Bold Mariner" and others were aimed specifically at destroying the civilian base of the resistance.
You might say that the My Lai massacre was a tiny footnote to one of these operations, insignificant in context. The Quakers had a clinic nearby, and they knew about it immediately because people were coming in wounded and telling stories. They didn’t even bother reporting it because it was just standard, it was going on all the time. Nothing special about My Lai. It gained a lot of prominence later, after a lot of suppression, and I think the reason is clear: it could be blamed on half-crazed, uneducated GIs in the field who didn’t know who was going to shoot at them next, and it deflected attention away from the commanders who were directing the atrocities far from the scene-for example, the ones plotting the B-52 raids on villages. And it also deflected attention away from the apologists at home who were promoting and defending all of this. All of them must receive immunity from criticism, but it’s okay to say a couple of half-crazed GIs did something awful. I was asked by the New York Review of Books to write an article about My Lai when it was exposed, and I did, but I scarcely mentioned it. I talked about the context, which I think is correct.
By the early 1970s, it was clear enough that the United States had basically won that war. It had achieved its basic war aims, which, as revealed in the documentary record, were to ensure that successful, independent development in Vietnam would not be what’s called "a virus" infecting others beyond, leading them to try the same course, perhaps leading ultimately even to a Japanese accommodation with an independent Asia, maybe as the industrial heart of a kind of new order in Asia out of US control. The US had fought World War II in the Pacific largely to prevent that outcome, and was not willing to accept it in the immediate aftermath of the war. Years later, McGeorge Bundy, who was national security advisor for Kennedy and Johnson, reflected that the United States should have pulled out of Vietnam in 1966, after the slaughter in Indonesia. It was very much like what just happened in Rwanda. The army either killed or inspired the killing of about half a million to a million people within a few months, with direct US support and encouragement. Crucially, it destroyed the only mass-based political party in the country. The slaughter was mostly of landless peasants. The slaughter was described by the CIA as comparable to those of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao. It was greeted with undisguised euphoria here, across the political spectrum, and very much in public. It has to be read to be believed. It will surely disappear from history. It’s just much too embarrassing, although it’s available in public. Bundy’s point was that with Vietnam already largely destroyed by 1966, and the surrounding territory now inoculated Indonesia-style, there was no longer any serious danger the virus would infect anyone, and the war was basically pointless for the United States.
Well, the war did go on. We left a horrifying legacy: perhaps 4 million killed in Indochina and many millions more orphaned, maimed, and made into refugees, three countries devastated-not just Vietnam. In Laos at this moment people are still dying from unexploded bomblets that are left from the most intense bombing of civilian areas in history, later exceeded by the US bombing of Cambodia.
In Vietnam, one part of the legacy of the war in the present is the continuing impact of the unprecedented campaign of chemical warfare that was initiated under the Kennedy administration. The chemical warfare has indeed received a good deal of coverage here. The reason is that US veterans were affected by it. So, you know about Agent Orange and dioxin and their effect on US soldiers; that did receive coverage. Of course, however much they were affected, that’s not a fraction of the effect on Vietnamese, and that receives virtually no attention, though there is occasionally some. I have found very few articles on this. The Wall Street Journal did have a lead story on this in February 1997. It reported that half a million children may have been born with dioxin-related deformities as a result of the millions of tons of chemicals that drenched South Vietnam during the US efforts to destroy crops and ground cover, starting with Kennedy. It also reported that Japanese scientists working together with Vietnamese scientists have found rates of birth defects four times as high in southern villages as in the north, which was spared this particular horror. That’s not to speak of the stacks of jars with aborted, still-born fetuses, sometimes destroyed by rare cancers, that fill rooms in South Vietnamese hospitals and that are occasionally reported in the foreign press or sometimes in the technical literature here, and reproductive disorders that are still very high in the south, though not the north. The Wall Street Journal report did recognize that the United States is responsible for the atrocities it recounts, which still continue to plague South Vietnam. It also reports that Vietnam has received some European and Japanese aid to try to cope with the disaster, but "the United States, emotionally spent after losing the war, paid no heed." "Losing the war" means not achieving the maximal goal of total conquest, only the basic war aims of destroying the virus and inoculating the region. But the point is that we suffered so from destroying Indochina and are so emotionally spent by this that we cannot be expected to help overcome the legacy of our aggression, let alone express some contrition about it.’
The last article I saw about it before this was a few years earlier, in 1992, in the New York Times science section, by Southeast Asia correspondent Barbara Crossette. She reported that there was a feeling among scientists that our failure to become involved in this particular aspect of the legacy of war isn’t a good idea. Our refusal to study the effects of chemical warfare, she wrote, is a mistake, and the reason is that Vietnam "furnishes an extensive control group." The point is that only southerners were sprayed-many of them with substantial exposure- while northerners were not, and, you know, they have the same genes and so on, so it’s a kind of controlled experiment, and if we would only accept the Vietnamese offers of cooperation, we might learn a lot about the effects of dioxin from this interesting experiment, and the results might be useful for us. So it’s a shame not to explore the opportunity. But nothing is our fault, and no other thoughts come to mind; we’re too emotionally spent to offer any help.
I should say that this level of moral cowardice may break some records, but the full story is still more astonishing. In what must be, I think, the most amazing propaganda achievement in history, the United States has succeeded in shifting the blame to the Vietnamese. It turns out that we were the innocent victims when we attacked and destroyed them, but furthermore, we are so saintly that we do not seek retribution for their crimes against us-we only ask that they concede guilt and apologize-that’s George Bush in a speech that was featured prominently on the front page of the New York Times. And right next to it there was another column, another one of the many stories condemning the Japanese and wondering what profound cultural inadequacy, or maybe genetic defect, makes it impossible for them to concede the crimes that they have carried out.
The spectacle continues year after year, eliciting no comment. It goes on today, in fact, continually reaching new and almost imaginable heights. It turns out that recently the Vietnamese were finally agreeing to face their guilt a little bit, and to pay us reparations for their crimes against us. There’s a front-page New York Times story reporting that Vietnam agreed to pay us the debts that were incurred by the client regime that we installed in South Vietnam as a cover for the US attack, so the Times says we can now "celebrate the end of a raw chapter in American history." At last the criminals have begun to face their guilt, and we will therefore magnanimously forgive them now that they are at least paying for what they did, as well as acknowledging it, although we can never forget what they did to us, as George Bush and others have sternly admonished them.
Well, maybe someday a new government in Afghanistan will repay Russia the debts incurred by the Soviet puppet regime in Kabul as a cover for Russia’s invasion in Afghanistan in 1979 so that Russia can celebrate the end of a raw chapter in its history, and maybe even overcome the fact that they are so emotionally exhausted; and maybe the Afghans will finally acknowledge their guilt for resisting Russian invasion that cost perhaps a million lives and left the country in ruins, becoming even worse as the US-backed terrorist forces now ravage what is left of the place. However, that is not going to happen. The reason is that Russia lost that war and, shortly afterwards, collapsed, in part as a result of that defeat. In October 1989, the Gorbachev government recognized officially that its attack on Afghanistan was illegal and immoral, and that the 13,000 Russian dead and the many who remained behind in Afghan prisons were engaged in violation of international norms of behavior and law. That acknowledgment in 1989 received front-page headlines in the United States-very self-righteous rhetoric about the evil and godless communists who are at last beginning to rejoin Western civilization, although plainly they have a long way to go.
That the United States might follow suit with regard to its far more outrageous conduct in Indochina is utterly unthinkable. How unthinkable it remains was underscored once again by the furor over McNamara’s best-selling memoir. You will recall that he was denounced as a traitor, or else praised for his courage, in admitting that the United States had made mistakes that were costly to us. He was condemned or praised for his apology, one or the other, not for his apology to victims of Indochina – no apology at all to them-but for the apology he made to Americans. He asked whether the "high costs" were justified, referring to the loss of American lives and to the damage to the US economy and the "political unity" of the United States. There were no apologies to the victims, and surely no thought of helping those who continue to suffer and die. On the contrary, it’s their responsibility to pay us reparations and to confess their guilt. It’s rather striking that among those who praise McNamara for taking this position were some of the moral leaders who strongly opposed the war in Vietnam. They praised McNamara for finally coming around to their position, which, if they’re thinking-I suspect they’re not-would mean that their position was that it’s fine to attack and destroy another country as long as it doesn’t cost us too much, no matter what the effects are, and then to make them accept the blame and indeed pay us reparations for the costs that we incurred by destroying them. I doubt if anybody would agree that that’s their own position, but it is the position that they are tacitly articulating.
The general lessons of history are clear enough. The legacy of war is faced by the losers. We have thousands of years of pretty consistent records about this. The powerful are too emotionally exhausted, or too overcome with self-adulation, to have any role or responsibility, though for them to portray themselves as suffering victims is an unusual form of moral cowardice. It’s a good step beyond the "sacralization of war" and the new forms that it has taken with the rise of the secular religions of the modem era, including our own.
Another lesson of history is that it’s very easy to see the other fellow’s crimes and to express heartfelt anguish and outrage about them, which may well be justified-it may even lead to help for the victims, which is all to the good, as, for example, when the Soviet tyranny assisted victims of American crimes, as indeed it did. But by the most elementary moral standards, that performance is not very impressive. The very minimum of moral decency would be a willingness to shine the spotlight on oneself with candor and truth. That’s the minimum. Proceeding beyond this bare minimum, elementary decency would require action for the benefit of the victims, and for the future victims who doubtless lie ahead if the causes of the crimes are not honestly and effectively addressed. Among these causes are the institutional structures that remain unchanged and from which the policies flow, and also the cultural attitudes and the doctrinal systems that support them and that lead to things of the kind that I have been talking about. These are matters that I think should concern us very deeply, and should be at the core of an educational program in a free society from early childhood and on through adult life.