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New evidence reveals John McCain and other Vietnam War POWs may have lied about being tortured

By Paul Benedikt Glatz, Jeremy Kuzmarov and Steve Brown | Covert Action Magazine | June 21, 2021

Collusion by the White House, the Pentagon, and the mainstream media resulted in disparagement, denial, and suppression of eyewitness testimony confirming that most POWs were actually well-treated by their North Vietnamese captors (in contrast to the brutal torture and death often meted out to North Vietnamese POWs by U.S. forces).

Dissenting POWs: From Vietnam's Hoa Lo Prison to America Today
[Source: amazon.com]

When numerous U.S. POWs began to understand the truth about the war they had been fighting, they spoke out against it—voluntarily—as an act of conscience. But they were cynically portrayed as traitors, turncoats and “camp rats,” their reputations and lives destroyed, driving many to despair and even suicide.

Among the few memories that most Americans still retain of the Vietnam War—now nearly 60 years in the past—one of the most vivid centers around the torture suffered by Senator John McCain at the hands of his brutal Vietnamese captors while a prisoner of war in Hanoi’s Hoa Lo prison (AKA The Hanoi Hilton).

This story has been told, retold, and continually burnished countless times by admiring media interviews and a flood of books and memoirs, including several by McCain himself.

Another memory of the war, still believed by millions of Americans, is that hundreds or even thousands of American soldiers classified as MIA (Missing in Action) are actually being held and tortured in secret North Vietnamese POW camps, callously abandoned by our government and desperately praying to be rescued—preferably in a Hollywood-style rescue by Chuck Norris or Sylvester Stallone, who starred in the spate of Commie-hating blockbuster movies inspired by their plight.

This belief is continually reinforced by POW/MIA flags which fly at every post office, and a ready supply of new books and movies, such as the 2018 release of the film M.I.A. A Greater Evil.

But both memories of the Vietnam War are false memories. However passionately believed, they were cynically manufactured fantasies implanted in all-too-willing American minds for political purposes.

How and why these counter-factual beliefs were so successfully foisted on the American public is the subject of the new myth-shattering book by Tom Wilber and Jerry Lembcke, Dissenting POWs: From Vietnam’s Hoa Lo Prison to America Today (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2021).

Wilber is the son of a dissenting POW, Walter “Gene” Wilber, who is featured in the book, and has contributed to the award-winning documentary film The Flower Pot Story by Ngọc Dũng. Lembcke is a distinguished sociologist from College of the Holy Cross who has written a number of books debunking popular myths about the Vietnam War.

The two start their book by noting that the dominant war hero image of the POW—who endured torture and resisted service to enemy propaganda—was to a large extent created by high-ranking men like McCain who were captured early in the conflict.

John McCain Was a War Hero. But He Shouldn't Have Been.
John McCain embodied the war hero image of someone who endured torture at the hands of his North Vietnamese captors while retaining loyalty to the United States. [Source: nymag.com]

McCain’s oft-told story of ill-treatment and torture is contradicted by Nguyen Tien Tran, the chief prison guard of the jail in which McCain was held. In a report by The Guardian, “[Tran] acknowledged that conditions in the prison were ‘tough, though not inhuman’. But, he added: ‘We never tortured McCain. On the contrary, we saved his life, curing him with extremely valuable medicines that at times were not available to our own wounded’. . . . [H]e denied torturing him, saying it was his mission to ensure that McCain survived. As the son of the US naval commander in Vietnam, he offered a potential valuable propaganda weapon.”

Most of the others promoting a heroized image of U.S. POW’s were graduates of service academies and came from privileged backgrounds. They included a) James Stockdale, who ran for Vice President in 1992 as the running mate of Ross Perot; b) Robinson Risner, a double recipient of the Air Force Cross, the second highest military decoration for valor; and c) Jeremiah Denton, who went on to become the first Republican Senator from the state of Alabama and a close ally of President Ronald Reagan.

John McCain fit well with this group because he was also academically privileged and his family included high-ranking military officers like his father, Jack, who was an admiral and the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command.

James Stockdale, Medal of Honor, Vietnam War | Military.com

James Stockdale while in captivity. [Source: military.com]

Jeremiah Denton featured in famous film footage from his captivity. [Source: washingtontimes.com]

After his release in 1973, Colonel Risner, right, and Maj. Gen. LeRoy J. Manor rode in a parade in San Francisco.
Robinson Risner, right, is celebrated in a parade in San Francisco in 1973 after his return following seven years in a North Vietnamese POW camp. [Source: nytimes.com]

With post-war military careers at stake, these high-ranking officers played up the alleged barbarity of the North Vietnamese, demanded resistance to interrogations from other captives, and threatened so-called deviants with disciplinary charges after release to the U.S.

The Nixon administration advanced their credibility and status in a desperate ploy to stir up support at home for an unpopular conflict abroad; and further concocted a story—announced in a press conference by Defense Secretary Melvin Laird on May 19, 1969—that 1,300 American soldiers deemed “missing in action” were believed to be prisoners of war.

Melvin Laird was first to publicize plight of POWs in Vietnam - Hartford Courant
Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird gives the opening statement of a press conference on May 19, 1969, to publicize the plight of U.S. POWs and MIAs in North Vietnam. [Source: courant.com]

The unaccounted for would now publicly be described as “POW/MIA,” implying that any serviceperson missing in Vietnam could also be a prisoner of war. This transformed the war from a political issue into a humanitarian one, trading public support for sympathy. It didn’t matter why we were there in the first place: Our boys were there, and by God were we going to do anything to get them home.

Suddenly, the public image of Vietnam looked very different. The very real footage of brutalized Vietnamese bodies, wailing children, and napalmed villages was traded for a fantasy—all of the violence that had been done in Uncle Sam’s name was now being done to him.

Kim Phuc, the napalm girl: 'Love is more powerful than any weapon'
Images like this famous one of a Vietnamese girl, Phan Thi Kim Phúc, running from a U.S. napalm strike, were supplanted by the fixation with the plight of American POW/MIAs. This was a brilliant public relations maneuver by the Nixon administration in collusion with the media. [Source: irishtimes.com]

The POW issue soon became a cause célèbre. In the early 1970s, millions of “POW bracelets” were sold by a student group called VIVA (Voices in Vital America), each branded with the name of a missing American serviceman.

Washington Memorial Park | Pow mia, My childhood memories, Baby boomers memories

POW/MIA bracelet. [Source: pinterest.com]
POW MIA Bracelet

[Source: audacy.com]

These shiny nickel bracelets were spotted on the wrists of celebrities like Sonny and Cher—who had often before dressed like hippies—and Sammy Davis, Jr, and allegedly Princess Grace of Monaco put in an order for two bracelets.

The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, Episode 42 - Cher Scholar

Sonny and Cher with returned POW John “Spike” Nasmyth on their CBS comedy hour program in March 1973 in which they announced that they wore POW bracelets with his name. [Source: cherscholar.com]

The silver bracelets could even be spotted on the fashion runway, where models with an interest in political activism took to wearing them. A New York Times profile from the day quotes a model named Astrida Woods, who said she was “dissatisfied” with her life as a model and felt the urge to give back. “I began to do some work with Ralph Nader, and now [wearing the bracelets]. It’s a way to contribute something.”

Pretty young women showcasing POW bracelets as part of PR campaign to unify the nation around support for POW/MIAs, if not the Vietnam War itself. [Source: audacy.com]

Many U.S. GIs and pilots, however, reported being humanely treated during their captivity, with access to adequate food, recreation facilities and reading material.

Wilber and Lembcke conclude that “instances of brutal treatment” were “less common than [has been] purported” and that evidence of systematic torture drawn from visitor reports, POW statements, and oral histories was scant.

Those POWs who questioned the war were dismissed by the military for their supposedly “weak personal character” and “lack of education and backgrounds in broken and poor families,” a typical case of “psychologizing the political.”

These men were in turn stigmatized and then forgotten by the public amidst the manufactured concern about POW/MIAs who were supposedly brutalized and then kept in captivity and abandoned by their government.

Camp Rats?

A person with a mustache Description automatically generated with low confidence
Edison Miller [Source: valor.militarytimes.com]

The ranks of the POW dissenters included Lt. Col. Edison Miller, a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart from California who spent six years in captivity after his fighter plane was shot down over North Vietnamese skies on October 13, 1967.

A contemporary described Miller, a Californian who flew previously over Korea, as a “first-rate pilot with a zeal for combat but an independent sort.”

John McCain falsely accused Miller of being a turncoat because he appeared in North Vietnamese propaganda.

In his 1999 best-selling book Faith of My Fathers, McCain wrote about Miller as one of two “camp rats”—the other being Tom’s father Gene, who had been executive officer of a squadron of F-4s when he was shot down over North Vietnam on June 16, 1968.

McCain said both “had lost their faith completely.”

“They not only stopped resisting but apparently crossed a line no other prisoner I knew had even approached,” McCain wrote. “They were collaborators, actively aiding the enemy.”

Miller told the Orange County Register in response to these charges that McCain had “lied about me … The attacks on my character and integrity are totally without merit or justification. I did stand up and say the war was wrong. I would speak against the war, but I never spoke against my country. And I gave up no secrets.”

A person in a suit and tie Description automatically generated with low confidence
Edison Miller holding his Marine Corps uniform in 2008. [Source: ocregister.com]

McCain accused Miller of receiving eggs, bananas and other delicacies to eat from camp guards. Miller says, however, that he never saw eggs during his internment and that McCain was never in a position to see the food brought to him.

A picture containing text, person, wearing, person Description automatically generated
Robert Schweitzer [Source: valor.militarytimes.com]

McCain further claimed that Miller turned him in to a North Vietnamese guard when McCain tried to befriend him, and that the guard then beat McCain. Miller said: “I never ratted out a fellow American. McCain has fabricated and exaggerated his experience for political advantage.”

Miller’s anti-war views had been sharpened in conversation with Navy Commander Robert Schweitzer, a captive from 1968 to 1973 who died a year after his release while still on active duty in San Francisco.

Schweitzer felt that, because the U.S. had never declared war, there could not legally be any North Vietnamese prisoners of war, only “Americans detained by a foreign power,” Miller said.

A tape of a conversation between Miller and Schweitzer was played for other prisoners, who heard not only an anti-war message but a challenge to the legality of the U.S. military action in Vietnam.

In 1970, when Miller and Gene Wilber were interviewed on national television, Wilber called for an immediate U.S. troop withdrawal “so that the Vietnamese can solve their own problems.”

U.S. journalists at the time, however, did not take their interview seriously, regarding it rather as a North Vietnamese propaganda show.

The two men along with Schweitzer continued to write protest statements and together with fellow dissenters met with American peace activists visiting North Vietnam, including actress Jane Fonda and former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark.

Jane Fonda in Nghe An, North VN 1972 | manhhai | Flickr

Jane Fonda (center) during trip to North Vietnam in 1972. [Source: flickr.com]

Mr. Clark, left, in North Vietnam in 1972. He met with Communist officials in Hanoi and publicly criticized American conduct of the Vietnam War.

Ramsey Clark (left) in North Vietnam in 1972. [Source: nytimes.com]

Empathy for the War’s Victims

Amazon.com: Black Prisoner of War: A Conscientious Objector's Vietnam Memoir (9780700610600): Daly, James A., Bergman, Lee: Books
[Source: amazon.com]

Most dissenting POWs came from a working-class background.

James A. Daly, an African-American infantryman from the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, for example, was raised in poverty by a single mother.

His 1975 book, Black Prisoner of War, describes his three years of jungle confinement after his capture by North Vietnamese soldiers and the South Vietnam-based National Liberation Front (NLF), followed by a two-month trek north to Hanoi on the Ho Chi Minh trail where he experienced what it was like to be on the receiving end of U.S. ordnance.

Bob Chenoweth, from a white working-class family in Oregon, similarly developed an empathy for the Vietnamese people and a distaste for the racist views of most Americans toward the Vietnamese.

A helicopter crew member, before he was shot down and captured, Chenoweth said he “couldn’t see how U.S. forces could possibly be helping the Vietnamese given the attitude that GIs had, viewing them as ‘subhuman’ and disparaging them as ‘gooks and dinks.’”

Chenoweth and other of his contemporaries authored anti-war statements, wrote messages to GIs asking them to follow their consciences, sent letters to politicians, and recorded tapes to be aired via Radio Hanoi.

A person standing at a podium Description automatically generated with medium confidence

Bob Chenoweth speaking at Veterans for Peace conference in Spokane, Washington, in 2019. He was active in the Vietnam era anti-war movement upon his return from the war. [Source: wagingpeaceinvietnam.com]

Higher ranking POWs responded by trying to isolate the dissenters from other American prisoners while charging them with participating in a conspiracy against the United States.

One of the dissidents, Abel Kavanaugh, committed suicide as a result of the intense pressure and prospective stigma of a dishonorable discharge only a few months after coming home from Vietnam.

 Abel Larry Kavanaugh

Abel Kavanaugh [Source: findagrave.com]

Charges against the POW dissidents were eventually dropped, Wilber and Lembcke believe, so as to not jeopardize the hero-prisoner story with too much attention on dissent and through a possible exposure of inconsistencies in the accusers’ own prison biographies.

Fear of Communist Infiltration

A critical trope in Cold War America was the fear of communist infiltration and internal subversion through brainwashing and mind control.

This trope was fortified by a CIA propaganda effort that depicted Korean War POWs who defected to the North Korean and Chinese side as having been brainwashed in interrogation.

Brainwashing by Edward Hunter

CIA propaganda tract accusing Communist China of brainwashing U.S. POWs. The stereotype of cunning and evil Oriental communists endured through the Vietnam War and beyond and impacted how Americans viewed the dissenting POWs in Vietnam. [Source: goodreads.com]

Most of these defectors were in fact African-Americans who did not want to return to the Jim Crow South, while others were attracted by communist ideals or saw the U.S. war as immoral.[1]

Clarence Adams with Korean prisoners of war and communist captors, in 1954. Photos: SCMP; Della Adams; UPI
Clarence Adams with Korean POWs and Communist captors in 1954. Adams lived in China for 12 years. He said he was well treated in captivity and stayed on in China because he was offered the chance at education there. Later he made propaganda broadcasts for Radio Hanoi, eventually returning to his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, where he ran a chain of successful Chinese restaurants. [Source: u.osu.edu]

The stereotype of the brainwashed POW of the Korean War turned collaborator and traitor because of his weak character would become the backdrop for the discrediting of the dissident POWs of the Vietnam War.

The Korean War Prisoner Who Never Came Home
POW defectors in the Korean War who stood for peace. [Source: newyorker.com]

In an appearance on CBS’s 60 Minutes, Gene Wilber was grilled on whether he had given in to the enemy to make antiwar statements. That he had acted on his own “conscience and morality” was drowned out by host Mike Wallace’s implications of collaboration and opportunism.

When he was subsequently invited to the White House POW reception, Wilber found his hotel room broken into and marked with accusations of treason when he returned from the reception.

In the summer of 1973, James Stockdale charged Wilber and Edison Miller with collaborating with the enemy, mutiny, and inciting personnel to insubordination. However, military judges found insufficient evidence to prosecute the case, and Wilber and Miller instead received letters of censure for their failure to meet the standard expected of officers.

Hollywood Revisionism

POW films starting from this time focused on returnees’ estrangement with their families and society and were told as stories of spousal infidelity, representing both individual drama as well as a sense of “home-front betrayal.”

These films were part of a post-war revisionism, which included a spate of films that contributed to the legend of American servicemen left behind in Vietnam.

In the 1980s, a new subgenre emerged focused on Vietnam veterans heroically taking on the task of returning to Indochina and liberating the left-behind POWs, who had been betrayed on the home front and abandoned by the U.S. government.

The POWs were depicted as victimized and emasculated captives who needed to be rescued by individualist heroes and whose honor as Americans was to be restored.

A picture containing text, book Description automatically generated

[Source: wikipedia.org]

This image, Wilber and Lembcke argue, fits the post-war efforts to psychologize the once political conflicts of the Vietnam War and to depict the veteran as a victim and loser.

More of a heroized image and the POWs’ endurance of torture was revived with the 1987 film, The Hanoi Hilton, which starred Michael Moriarty, Ken Wright and Paul Le Mat as U.S. POWs who defy their captors while enduring brutal treatment at Hanoi’s Hoa Lo prison (aka The Hanoi Hilton).

The Hanoi Hilton (1987) - IMDb

[Source: imdb.com]

This film meshed particularly well President’s Ronald Reagan’s characterization of the Vietnam War as a “noble cause,” fought by noble men, with the POW dissenters by implication being ignoble.

Persistence of the Hero-Prisoner Story

In their quest to comprehend the persistence of the hero-prisoner story, Wilber and Lembcke take their readers back to American colonial history and the captivity narratives emerging during that time.

These stories are about a complex mix of violence against captives, temptations to stay with their captors, the ideal to remain loyal with their fellow colonists, and their Christian beliefs.

Indian Captives

Illustration of captives in the Indian Wars. [Source: legendofamerica.com]

Such tensions and correlations between the Self and the Other were critical in the making of an American identity. The wars in Korea and Vietnam and the POW experiences there can be understood as a new chapter of this identity-making process. Here, too, Americans must prove their will and ability to endure the brutality of a racialized Other.

A wrench in the story, however, is revealed in the autobiographical accounts of POW-heroes like Stockdale, Denton, and Risner. They wrote about fasting as a way of enforcing self-discipline and self-assurance, sometimes with a religious subtext.

More bizarrely, they also wrote about self-mutilation—the deliberate infliction of physical wounds on themselves that would be visible during filmed interviews.

The aim was to make it appear to other POWs (and to the U.S. public) that they had been tortured. One officer wrote of how he purposely damaged his vocal apparatus so he could not be forced to make propaganda statements.

In addition to some high-ranking officers attempting to portray themselves as heroes by means of self-mutilation, Wilber and Lembcke also noted that they tried to keep political literature and news of dissent back home away from other POWs, fearing that these would enhance critical positions on the war and against their authority within the prison population.

Moreover, these ranking officers often despised the more humane view of the Vietnamese displayed by other prisoners, including an interest in their language and culture, and an understanding of why they were fighting back against an invasion of their country by the most powerful military force in the world.

Bringing Back Forgotten Dissenters

Wilber and Lembcke’s book helps restore these forgotten POW dissenters to their rightful—and honored—place among the large and diverse Vietnam generation of dissidents, draft resisters, oppositional GIs, veteran activists, deserters, and all those who supported them.

Antiwar Resistance Within the Military During the Vietnam War
[Source: vietnampeace.org]

The book also shows that, despite all destruction and death brought by the invaders from the sky, North Vietnam maintained a moral superiority through oftentimes fair treatment of the captured Americans. This was in stark contrast to the more systematic adoption of torture methods by USAID and CIA-trained police under the Operation Phoenix and like-minded programs.

A group of people holding signs Description automatically generated with low confidence
Vietnam War protesters create mock Tiger Cage, replicating one in the USAID-run Con Son prison where Vietnamese inmates were tortured in a way American POWs claimed they had been tortured. [Source: easyyolktoofiles.wordpress.com]

The POW/MIA flag that flies today over the White House is intended to honor the men who endured captivity; however, it continues to perpetuate a distorted understanding of a war that was as abominable as it was unjust, and helps to advance a dangerous nationalist ideology that will lead to future Vietnams.


  1. See Clarence Adams, An American Dream: The Life of an African American Soldier and POW Who Spent Twelve Years in Communist China (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007). 

June 23, 2021 Posted by | Book Review, Film Review, Illegal Occupation, Timeless or most popular, War Crimes | , | 3 Comments

The First Pyrrhic Victory of the Vietnam War

Tales of the American Empire | May 27, 2021

The first major battle between the United States Army and the People’s Army of Vietnam occurred in 1965 in the Ia Drang Valley. The US Army’s 7th Cavalry helicoptered into Central Vietnam to search for enemy forces. This led to a major battle that was hailed as a great victory because far more Vietnamese were killed. This was the first in a series of Pyrrhic victories for the United States. A Pyrrhic Victory is term from Roman times that refers to battles that inflict such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat.

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Related Tale: “The Illusion Called South Vietnam”; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0B9BM…

May 31, 2021 Posted by | Film Review, Timeless or most popular, Video | , | 1 Comment

Tales of American POWs in Vietnam

Tales of the American Empire | December 24, 2020

During the Vietnam War, 766 Americans were confirmed Prisoners Of War. Of them, 114 are known to have died in captivity , but the actual number is higher because many of those listed as missing in action probably died after capture. The status of American POWs was never clear. Vietnam never attacked the United States and the United States never declared war on Vietnam. One day American warplanes began bombing Vietnam and the Vietnamese declared these criminal attacks. When American pilots were shot down many were killed by vengeful farmers and were lucky not be executed by the Vietnamese government since they had no legal status as a Prisoner Of War. They were kept alive to collect military information and as political bargaining chips.

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“The Case of Sergeant Jon M. Sweeney”; Laurel Macondray; National Archives; June 2, 2015; https://unwritten-record.blogs.archiv…

“Traitors or patriots? Eight Vietnam POWs were charged with collaborating with the enemy”; Michael Ruane; Washington Post; September 22, 2017; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/r…

“Marines and Military Law in Vietnam”; Chapter 10; United States Marine Corps; Dec 22, 2010; https://www.marines.mil/Portals/1/Pub…

“McCain’s broken marriage fractured other ties as well”; Richard Serrano; Los Angeles Times; July 11, 2008; https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-x…

December 26, 2020 Posted by | Timeless or most popular, Video | , | Leave a comment

The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On

Women and children at My Lai moments before they were killed. Photograph : Ron Haberle/WikiCommons
By Michael Uhl | Mekong Review | February, 2018 edition

Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.

— Primo Levy

On March 17th, 1968, The New York Times ran a brief front page lede headed, “G.I.s’ in Pincer Movement Kill 128 in Daylong Battle;” the action took place the previous day roughly eight miles from Quang Ngai City, a provincial capital in the northern coastal quadrant of South Vietnam. Heavy artillery and helicopter gunships had been “called in to pound the North Vietnamese soldiers.”  By three in the afternoon the battle had ceased, and “the remaining North Vietnamese had slipped out and fled.” The American side lost only two killed and several wounded.  The article, datelined Saigon, had no byline. Its source was an “American military command’s communique,” a virtual press release hurried into print and unfiltered by additional digging.

Several days later a more superficially factual telling of this seemingly crushing blow to the enemy was featured in Southern Cross, the weekly newsletter of the Americal Division in whose ‘area of operation’ the ‘day long battle’ had been fought. It was described by Army reporter Jay Roberts, who had been there, as “an attack on a Vietcong stronghold,” not an encounter with North Vietnamese regulars as the Times had misconstrued it. However, Roberts’ article tallied the same high number of enemy dead.  When leaned on by Lt. Colonel Frank Barker, who commanded the operation, to downplay the lopsided outcome, Roberts complied, noting blandly that “the assault went off like clockwork.” But certain after action particulars could not be fudged. Roberts was obliged to report that the GIs recovered only “three [enemy] weapons,” a paradox that surely warranted clarification. None was given. It was to be assumed that, either the enemy was poorly armed, or that he had removed the weapons of his fallen comrades – leaving their bodies to be counted – when he retired from the field. Neither of the news outlets cited here, nor Stars and Stripes, the semi-official newspaper of the U. S. Armed Forces which ran with Robert’s account, makes reference to any civilian casualties.

It would be nearly eighteen months later when, on September 6, 1969, a front page article in the Ledger-Enquire in Columbus, Georgia reported that the military prosecutor at nearby Ft. Benning – home of the U. S. Army Infantry – was investigating charges against a junior officer, Lieutenant William L. Calley,  of “multiple murders” of civilians during “an operation at a place called Pinkville,” GI patois for the color denoting man-made features on their topographical maps in a string of coastal hamlets near Quang Ngai.

With the story now leaked, if only in the regional papers – it would migrate as well to a daily in Montgomery, Alabama – the Ft. Benning public information officer moved to “keep the story low profile,” and “released a brief statement that The New York Times ran deep inside its September 7, 1969 issue,” limited to three terse paragraphs on a page cluttered with retail advertising. The press announcement from the Army flack had referred only to “the deaths of more than one civilian.”  In the nation’s newspaper of record, which also mentioned Calley by name, this delicate ambiguity was multiplied to “an unspecified number of civilians.” Yet, once again, the Times was enlisted to serve the agenda of a military publicist, and failed to approach the story independently.

An Army recon commando named Rod Ridenhour had taken it upon himself to do just that. While still serving with the Americal Division’s 11th Light Infantry Brigade from which Task Force Barker – named for its commander – was assembled for the attack on Pinkville, Ridenhour documented accounts of those who had witnessed or participated in a mass killing.  A year later in March 1969, now stateside and a civilian, Ridenhour sent “a five page registered letter” summarizing his findings to President Richard Nixon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and select members of the U.S. Congress urging “a widespread and public investigation.” General William Westmoreland, who had commanded U.S. forces in Vietnam until June 1968, reacted to Ridenhour’s allegations with “disbelief.”  The accusations were, he told a Congressional committee, “so out of character with American forces in Vietnam that I was quite skeptical.” Nonetheless an inquiry was launched.

The Times, although forewarned, had once again squandered a chance to scoop for its global readership what was arguably the most sensational news story of the entire Vietnam War. The two regional reporters had done their legwork, then, bereft of big city resources had nowhere else to go. But in late October, a seasoned freelance journalist in Washington named Seymour Hersh, acting on a colleague’s anonymous tip from inside the military, immediately “stopped all other work and began to chase down the story,” which by mid-November 1969 would be revealed to the American public and the world at large as the My Lai massacre.

This outline of the massacre’s initial falsification and suppression, followed by its eventual disclosure, is cobbled from My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness (Oxford, 2017), a thorough retreatment of the infamous Vietnam War atrocity by Howard Jones, a professor of history at the University of Alabama. The question is, to what end? Has the voluminous, careful study in the literature devoted to the My Lai massacre left something out? It’s not a matter of omissions, the historian argues, but that the record is replete with conflicting interpretations. To tell the “full story” required Jones to reorder events in their “proper sequence,” he says. His other reasons for taking us back to Pinkville are equally vague, and casually embedded among several floating asides in the author’s Acknowledgments. His debts are many, but foremost among them Jones recognizes his Vietnamese-American graduate assistant who “emphasized the importance of incorporating the Vietnamese side into the narrative and remaining objective in telling the story.”

I took this profession of objectivity as a signal to be on the alert for its potential subjective or editorial opposite. Jones insists that “everyone who has written… about My Lai has had an agenda.” The suspicion that a subtle revisionist agenda, nurtured perhaps by the resentments of a partisan of the losing side [his assistant], might underlie Jones’ intentions for revisiting this much examined massacre was heightened by the anecdote he tells about his wife’s emotionally fraught response when listening to his grim descriptions of the slaughter. However revolting, the atrocities must be detailed she insists. To do otherwise, the author agrees “would leave the mistaken impression that nothing extraordinary took place at My Lai.”

That My Lai was extraordinary I hold beyond dispute. But the privileged attention given to the massacre by historians and other commentators – not to mention its impact on the general public – which by far prefers vivid superlatives to cloudy comparisons – hangs like a curtain and obscures the broader and far grizzlier picture of the U.S. driven horrors of the Vietnam War that were commonplace and quotidian.  Would the historian tell that story too, I wondered, as I plunged into his text? Or was the only purpose to take up this subject again five decades on to ensure that the censorious curtain remained firmly in place?

Quang Ngai was a hot bed of resistance under the Viet Minh independence movement during French colonial rule. With the transition to the American War, resistance fighters – now reconstituted as the National Liberation Front, or Viet Cong – remained capable of striking at will throughout the province, which, until 1967, was under the jurisdiction of the South Vietnamese Army. But the American command found its native allies unreliable, without ever asking if perhaps their reluctance to challenge the local resistance rested, not on fear or cowardice, but familiarity or even kinship.  U.S. soldiers possessed no such scruples.

After “intelligence sources” targeted the area around My Lai as “an enemy bastion for mounting attacks” on Quang Ngai City and its surroundings, American forces were concentrated under Task Force Barker, “a contingent of five hundred soldiers” to bring the troublesome province under control of the government of South Vietnam.[i]

On the evening before the assault, Captain Earnest Medina – like Calley a principal target of the Army’s subsequent investigation – briefed the hundred men of Charlie Company under his command. “We’re going to Pinkville tomorrow… after the 48th Battalion,” he told them. “The landing zone will be hot. And they outnumber us two to one… expect heavy casualties.” Charlie Company had already taken “heavy casualties” in the two months they’d been humping the boonies of Quang Ngai. The local guerrilla unit, the lethal, elusive 48th, was all the more feared since the GIs had never seen the face of a single combatant behind the sniper bullets or booby traps that bloodied and killed their comrades. “By the last week of February,” Harold Jones reckons, “resentment and hostility had spread among the GI’s, aimed primarily at the villagers.”

Pinkville had been declared a free fire zone. The mission for the assault was to search and destroy. If the soldiers encountered non-combatant villagers the text book regulations dictated they be detained and interrogated as to the whereabouts of the enemy, and then moved to safety in the rear. But the various strands of intelligence-gathering that guided Task Force Barker were interpreted to suggest there would be no non-combatants, because the villagers had been warned to evacuate, or, given that the assault was on a Saturday, those residents who’d defied evacuation would be off to the market in Quang Ngai City. This was all Intel double talk. The true military objective was that the residents have no village to return to because the GIs were primed to slay all livestock, lay waste to every dwelling and defensive bunker, destroy the crops and foul the wells, that is, to ensure that My Lai and its contiguous hamlets were left uninhabitable, and thus utterly untenable as bases to support the guerrillas.

Beginning just before 8 a.m. on March 16th, the three platoons of Charlie Company were airlifted to the fringes of the Vietnamese hamlets where they expected to encounter fierce enemy resistance.  The hail of bullets from helicopter gunships that churned up the earth around them and aimed at suppressing potential enemy fire, created for many of these soldiers who had never experienced combat the impression that they’d been dropped in the midst of the “hot landing zone” Captain Medina had promised them. But as Army photographer Ron Haeberle, assigned to document the assault, would later testify, there was “no hostile fire.” The headquarters of the 48th and what remained of its fighters had taken refuge west into the mountains after being decimated during the Tet Offensive a month before. And the few VC who had been visiting their families around My Lai, hardly ignorant of American movements, had gotten out by dawn on the 16th.

In a state of confusion as to exactly what they were facing, Charlie Company’s platoons stepped off from opposing positions to sweep through the village, already partially damaged by artillery, intending to squeeze the enemy between them. Instead they soon confronted, not the guerrilla fighters they were sent to dislodge, but scores of inhabitants who weren’t supposed to be there. GIs immediately shot several villagers who panicked and attempted to flee. In this war such trigger happy killings were not far from the norm. But Lieutenant Calley “had interpreted Medina’s briefing to mean that they were to kill everyone in the village… Since it was impossible to distinguish between friend and foe, the only conclusion was to presume all Vietnamese were Viet Cong and to kill them all.” Calley, moreover, was being relentlessly spurred by Medina over the radio to quicken the pace of the 1st platoon’s forward sweep, and therefore, would later claim, he could neither evacuate the non-combatants, nor, for reasons of security, leave them to his rear.

Jones offers from the record a facsimile of the field radio transmission between Calley and his commander:

 “What are you doing now?” Medina asked.

“I’m getting ready to go.”

“Now damn it! I told you now. Get your men in position now.”

“And these people, they aren’t moving too swiftly.”

“I don’t want that crap. Now damn it, waste all those goddamn people! And get in the damn position.”

“Roger.”

The idea of questioning orders, comments Jones dryly, never crossed Calley’s mind, particularly during combat.

One brief panel of the horror show will suffice to roil the imagination toward grasping what Jones styles a ‘descent into darkness,” which, given the scale of the ensuing carnage that morning, has elevated the My Lai massacre to the extraordinary status in the Vietnam War that history has bestowed upon it.

Calley, in the grip of all his embedded demons – his mental and moral mediocrity, his cracker barrel knee jerk racism, his incompetence as a leader, his slavish kowtowing to authority which clearly disgusted his commander and his troops, everything that conspired to create the monster that was him – returned from his latest whipping by Medina to where one group of villagers sat on the ground, and demanded of two members of his platoon, “How come you ain’t killed them yet?” The men explained they understood only that they were to guard them. “No,” Calley said, “I want them dead… When I say fire… fire at them.”  Calley and, Paul Meadlo – whose name would become almost as closely associated with the massacre as Calley’s – “a bare ten feet from their terrified targets… set their M-16s on automatic… and sprayed clip after clip of deadly fire into their screaming and defenseless victims…  At this point, a few children who had somehow escaped the torrent of gunfire struggled to their feet… Calley methodically picked off the children one by one… He looks like he’s enjoying it,” one soldier remarked, who moments before had been prevented by Calley from forcing a young woman’s face into his crotch, but who now refused to shoot.

The mass killing, which Harold Jones parades scene by scene with exhaustive precision, was repeated throughout the morning until the bodies of hundreds of villagers lay scattered across the landscape. Not just those killed by Calley’s platoon, but by others throughout the rest of Charlie Company. And not just at My Lai 4, but also at My Khe 4 several miles distant by members of Bravo Company. “In not a few cases, women and girls were raped before they were killed.” Jones dutifully chronicles the accounts of the few who resolutely refused to shoot, and of one man who blasted his own foot with a .45 to escape the depravity.  “Everyone except a few of us was shooting,” Pfc. Dennis Bunning of the second platoon would later testify.

But there was another man that morning who didn’t just seek to avoid the killing, he attempted to stop it.

Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson piloted his observation helicopter, a three seater with a crewmember on each flank armed with a machine gun, several hundred feet above My Lai. Thompson’s mission was to fly low and mark with smoke grenades any source of enemy fire, which would prompt the helicopter gunships tiered above him – known as Sharks – to swoop down and dispense their massive fire power on the target. Spotting a large number of civilian bodies in a ditch, Thompson at first suspected they’d been killed by the incoming artillery. Hovering near the ground for a closer look Thompson and his crew, Gary Andreotta and Larry Colburn, were stunned to witness Captain Medina shoot a wounded woman who was lying at his feet. Banking closer to the ditch, Thompson “estimated he saw 150 dead and dying Vietnamese babies, women and children and old men… and watched in disbelief as soldiers shot survivors trying to crawl out.”

Against regulations, Thompson landed and confronted Lieutenant Calley, asking him to help the wounded and radio for their evacuation. Calley made it clear he resented the pilot’s interference and would do no such thing. Thompson stormed away furiously warning Calley “he hadn’t heard the last of this.” With Medina again at his heels, Calley ordered his sergeant “to finish off the wounded,” and just as Thompson was taking off the killing resumed.

Aloft again Thompson saw “a small group… of women and children scurrying toward a bunker just outside My Lai 4… and about ten soldiers in pursuit,” and felt “compelled… to take immediate action.” He again put his craft down, jumped out between the civilians and the oncoming members of the second platoon led by Lieutenant Stephen Brooks. When Thompson asked Brooks to help evacuate the Vietnamese from the bunker, Brooks told him he would do so with a grenade. The two men screamed at each other. Like Calley, Brooks was unyielding, and Thompson warned his two gunners, now standing outside the chopper, “to prepare for a confrontation.”

“I’m going to go over to the bunker myself and get those people out. If they [the soldiers] fire on those people or fire on me while I’m doing that. Shoot ‘em.” That moment has been cast in the My Lai literature as a classic armed standoff. But Thompson’s two gunners had not aimed their weapons at Brooks and his men who stood fifty yards away, a bit of manufactured drama several chroniclers of that confrontation, among them Sy Hersh, have chiseled into the record. Harold Jones in this instance had gone beyond the dogged task of compilation. While researching his book, he had spent many hours with Larry Colburn, and befriended him. And it was Larry who told Jones that he and Andreotta did not aim their weapons directly at the soldiers who faced them. They tried to stare then down, “while carefully pointing their weapons to the ground in case one of them accidentally went off.” This verisimilitude restores a dimension of realism to a scene imagined by those who’d never been soldiers.

Checking Brooks, but failing to get his cooperation, Thompson took another extraordinary step. He radioed Warrant Officer Danny Millians, one of the pilots of the gunships, and convinced him to also defy the protocols against landing in a free fire zone. Then, in two trips, Millians used the Shark to transport the nine rescued Vietnamese, including five children, to safety. Making one final pass over the ditch where he’d locked horns with Calley, Thompson “hovered low… searching for signs of life while flinching at the sight of headless children.” Thompson landed a third time, remaining at the controls. He watched as Colburn, from the side of the ditch, grabbed hold of a boy that Andreotta, blood spilling from his boots, had pulled from among a pile of corpses. Do Hoa, a boy of eight, had survived.

Livid and in great distress at what he had witnessed, Thompson, on returning to base, and in the company of the two gunship pilots, made their superior, Major Frederic Watke, immediately aware of “the mass murder going on out there.” From that moment, every step taken to probe and verify “the substance of Thompson’s charges almost instantly came into dispute.” Although Watke would later tell investigators he believed Thompson was “over-portraying” the killings” owing to his “limited combat experience,” the major had realized that the mere charge of war crimes obliged him “to seek an impartial inquiry at the highest level.” The Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) required that field commanders investigate “all known, suspected or alleged war crimes or atrocities… Failure to [do so] was a punishable offense.”  Having reported Thompson’s allegations to Task Force commander Barker, Watke had fulfilled this duty. But there was a Catch-22 permitting command authority to ignore the MACV directive if they “thought” a war crime had not been committed.

The trick here was for Barker and several other ranking officer in the division and brigade chain of command to assess if civilians had been killed during the assault, and if so, how many. Captain Medina – in addition to contributing to the fictional enemy body count – would supply a figure of “thirty civilians killed by artillery.” The division chaplain would characterize these deaths as “tragic… an operational mistake… in a combat operation.” For this line of argument to carry, however, it had been necessary for the commander of the Americal Division, Major General Samuel Koster, the “field commander” who alone possessed the authority to prevent the accusations from going higher, to put his own head deep into the sand.

When Colonel Orin Henderson, who commanded the 11th Infantry Brigade from which Medina’s Charlie Company had been detailed to the Task Force, ordered LTC Barker in the late afternoon of March 16th to send Charlie Company back to My Lai 4 to “make a detailed report of the number of men, women and children killed and how they died, along with another search for weapons… Medina strongly objected.” It would be too dangerous, he said, to move his men “in the dark through a heavily mined and booby trapped area… where the Vietcong could launch a surprise attack.” Monitoring the transmission between Barker and Medina, General Koster countermanded Henderson’s order. Later claiming he was “concerned for the safety of the troops,” Koster saw “no reason to go look at that mess.” Medina’s estimate of the number of civilian deaths, Koster ruled, was “about right.”

Not only had Koster’s snap judgement given Barker license to cook up the initial battlefield fantasy of 128 enemy dead, it ensured that the internal investigations into the charges of “mass murder,” notably by Henderson and other high ranking members of Koster’s staff, would not deviate from the conclusion voiced by the division commander. By navigating each twisting curve along a well camouflaged path toward the fictive end those in command were seeking, Harold Jones lays bare a virtual text book case of conspiracy, which must be read in its entirety to capture the intricate web of fabrication and self-deception the conspirators constructed to assure themselves the crypt of the cover-up had been sealed.[ii]

When discussing the massacre later at an inquiry, the Americal Division chaplain, faithful to the Army but not his higher calling, claimed that, had a massacre been common knowledge, it would have come out.  That the massacre was “common knowledge” to the Vietnamese throughout Quang Ngai Province on both sides of the conflict (not to mention among their respective leadership on up to Hanoi and Saigon) goes without saying. Indeed low ranking local South Vietnamese officials attempted to stir public outrage about the massacre (not to mention negotiate the urgent remedy of compensation for the victims), and were suppressed by the Quang Ngai Province Chief, a creature of the Saigon government who fed at the trough of U.S. materiel and did not wish to risk the good will of his American sponsors. My Lai was quickly recast as communist propaganda, pure and simple.

While this proved a viable method of suppression for South Vietnamese authorities, it could not still tales of the massacre in the scuttlebutt of the soldiers who had been there, who had carried it out. From motives said to be high minded, but not fueled by an anti-military agenda, and in the piecemeal fact-gathering manner typical of any investigation, the whistleblower Ron Ridenhour had thus resurrected the buried massacre, and bestowed on Sy Hersh the journalistic coup of a lifetime.

As the articles and newscasts about what took place at My Lai were cascaded before the public in November 1969, efforts to manage the political fallout by various levels of government were accelerated with corresponding intensity. Pushing back at the center of that storm were Richard Nixon and other members of the Executive; congressional committees in both the House and Senate; and not least, and in some cases with considerably more integrity than their civilian political masters, members of the professional military.

Not surprisingly, if one understands anything about American society, a substantial portion of the public, in fact its majority, expressed far greater sympathy for William Calley than for his victims. One could cite endemic American racism as a contributing factor for this unseemly lack of human decency. More broadly speaking, an explanation less charged by aggression would point to a level of provincialism that apparently can only afflict a nation as relatively pampered as my own. In such an arrangement, turning a blind eye for expedience sake toward the pursuit of global power, consequences be damned, is as good as a national pastime.

Despite the spontaneous public sympathy for Calley, Nixon, fretted that news of My Lai would strengthen the antiwar movement and “increase the opposition to America’s involvement in Vietnam.” Nixon, true to form, lashed out with venom at the otherness of his liberal enemies. “It’s those dirty rotten Jews in New York who are behind this,” Nixon ranted, learning that Hersh’s investigation had been subsidized by the Edgar B. Stern Family Fund, “clearly left-wing and anti-Administration.” Nixon was strongly pressed to “attack those who attack him… by dirty tricks… discredit one witness [Thompson] and highlight the atrocities committed by the Viet Cong.” Only Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird seemed to grasp that manipulation of public opinion would not perfume the stink of My Lai. The public might tolerate “a little of this,” Laird mused, “but you shouldn’t kill that many.” There was apprehension in the White House because calls for a civilian commission had begun to escalate. Habituated to work the dark side, and unbeknownst to his Secretary of Defense, Nixon formed a secret task force “that would seek to sabotage the investigative process by undermining the credibility of all those making massacre charges.”

Nixon found a staunch ally for this strategy in Mendel Rivers, the “hawkish” Mississippi Democrat who chaired the House Armed Services Committee.  As evidence from the military’s internal inquiries mounted to prove the contrary, members of River’s committee sought to establish that no massacre had occurred, and that the only legitimate targets of interest were Hugh Thompson and Larry Colburn (Gary Andreotta having been killed in an air crash soon after the massacre), who were pilloried at a closed hearing, virtually accused of treason for turning their guns on fellow Americans.

During a televised news conference on December 8th – with Calley’s court martial already under way for three weeks – Nixon announced that he had rejected calls for an independent commission to investigate what he now admitted for the first time “appears to have been a massacre.” The President would rely instead on the military’s judicial process to bring “this incident completely before the public.” The message the Administration and its pro-war allies would thenceforth steam shovel into the media mainstream wherever the topic was raised, was that My Lai was “an isolated incident,” and by no means a reflection of our “national policy” in Vietnam.

As maneuvers to re-consign the massacre to oblivion faltered, the Army was just then launching a commission of its own under a three-star general, William Peers, whose initial charge was to disentangle the elaborate cover-up within the Americal Division that had kept the massacre from exposure for almost two years. In order to reconcile the divergent testimonies among its witnesses, the scope of the Peers Commission soon necessarily expanded to gather a complete picture of the event the cover-up sought to erase. The Army’s criminal investigation by the CID, on which charges could be based, and which would guide any eventual legal proceedings, continued on a separate track and beyond the public eye as a matter of due process.

After Lieutenant General Peers had submitted the commission’s preliminary report, Secretary of the Army, Stanley Resor moved to soften the “abrupt and brutal” language. He requested that Peers not refer “to the victims as elderly men, women, children and babies,” but as “noncombatant casualties.” And might Peers “also be less graphic in describing the rapes?” Resor further edited the word “massacre” from the report, and when presenting it to the press, had the chair of his commission describe My Lai rather as “a tragedy of major proportions.” Peers was reportedly indignant, but complied. It required no such compulsion to ensure that Peers toe the line on a far more central theme. Responding to questions from the media, Peers insisted there had been no cover-up at higher levels of command beyond the Americal Division, and echoed his Commander in Chief’s mantra that My Lai was an isolated incident. When Peers was questioned about what took place at My Khe that same day, he insisted it was inseparable from what occurred at My Lai. No reporter followed up with a challenge to that assertion.

Investigators had a long list of suspects deployed at My Lai and My Khe in Task Force Barker, as well as those throughout the Americal chain of command, who they believed should be charged and tried. Some forty enlisted men were named, along with more than a dozen commissioned officers. [iii] Only six among them, two sergeants and four officers would ultimately stand trial. There would be no opportunity to enlarge the scope of the massacre through the spectacle of a mass trial that would, moreover, conjure images of Nuremburg and Tokyo where America dispensed harsh justice on its defeated enemies only two decades earlier. It was agreed upon by both Nixon and the Pentagon Chiefs that defendants would be tried separately and at a spread of different Army bases.

If the elaborate subterfuge employed to cover-up the massacre had been the work of individuals desperate to protect their professional military careers, the court martial proceedings reveal how an entire institution operates to protect itself. George Clemenceau, French Prime Minister during the First World War, is credited with the droll observation that ‘military music is to music what military justice is to justice.” Harold Jones, using the idiom of the historian, demonstrates in his summaries of the trials the disturbing reality behind Clemenseau’s quip.

First before the bar at Fort Hood, Texas in November 1969 was Calley’s platoon sergeant David Mitchell, that witnesses described as someone who carried out the lieutenant’s orders with a particular gusto. Then in January it was Sergeant Charles Hutto’s turn at Fort McPhearson, Georgia. Hutto had admitted turning his machine gun on a group of unarmed civilians. These two men were so patently guilty in the eyes of their own comrades that theirs were among the strongest cases the investigators had constructed for the prosecution. Both men were acquitted in trials that can only be described as judicial parodies.

At Mitchell’s trial the judge, ruling on a technicality, did not allow the prosecution to call witnesses with the most damning testimony, like Hugh Thompson. Hutto had declared in court that “it was murder,” but claimed “we were doing it because we had been told.” When the jury refused to convict him because Hutto had not known that some orders could be illegal, Harold Jones nails how the court was sanctioning “the major argument that had failed to win acquittal at Nuremburg.”

Shortly after Hutto’s trial, the Army dropped all charges against the remaining soldiers, fearing their claims to have been following orders would likewise find merit in the prevailing temper of the military juries.  Heeding the judicial trend, Lieutenant General Jonathan Seaman, a regional commander exercising jurisdiction over officers above the rank of captain, dropped all charges against Major General Koster. By some opaque calculation which convinced no one, Seaman had concluded that Koster was not guilty of “intentional abrogation of responsibilities.” A hue and cry followed in the press and on Capitol Hill denouncing Seaman for “a white wash of the top man.” The outcry did prod the Pentagon to take punitive action against Koster. The general had already been dismissed as the commandant of West Point, and he was now demoted to brigadier general and stripped of his highest commendation.

Seaman informed Koster through internal channels that he held him “personally responsible” for My Lai, a kind of symbolic snub among gentlemen. But in exonerating the Americal commander, Seaman had, by design it can be argued, inoculated the higher reaches of command straight up to General Westmoreland from being held responsible for the actions of their subordinates, a blatant act of duplicity in light of the ruling at the Tokyo trials following World War II where lack of knowledge of atrocities committed by his troops had not prevented General Yamaschita from being hanged.

With Calley’s court martial already in progress, only three other officers, Medina and the Task Force Barker intelligence officer, Captain Eugene Kotouc, for war crimes, and 11th Brigade commander Henderson, for the cover-up, remained to be tried. Harold Jones deftly unspools how the flawed and self-protective system of military justice enabled trial judges in each case to provide improvised instructions to their juries which had all but dictated the acquittal of all three men. Kotouc had been charged with murdering a prisoner, whom, given the available evidence, he almost certainly had; still the jury found him not guilty in less than an hour. Asked if he would stay in the military, Kotouc gushed, “Who would get out of a system like this… it’s the best damn army in the world.”[iv]

Henderson’s and Medina’s trials were media spectacles in their own right, but mere side shows compared with the main event at Fort Benning, Georgia. The Calley trial opened in November, soon after the My Lai revelation. By the middle of March when the talented young prosecutor, Captain Aubrey Daniel, began his closing argument, a great majority of Americans had been glued to the courtroom drama for four months. Calley had a courtly elderly gent, George Latimer, a former Chief Justice of the Utah Supreme Court, and later an original member of the U.S. Court of Military Appeals, to lead his defense. Clearly Latimer knew his way around the arcana of military justice; moreover as a veteran of World War II who had achieved the rank of colonel, he was of the very caste. Latimer was confident he’d prevail. As the trial progressed, the testimony of nearly one hundred witnesses so prejudiced his client that Latimer desperately veered the defense toward an insanity plea, a strategy which foundered after three Army psychiatrists judged the accused to possess “the mental capacity to premeditate.” Finally Calley took the witness stand and quickly blundered. Under a rigorous cross-examination, Captain Daniel marched Calley back across the killing fields of Pinkville, at each step recapping eyewitness accounts, including the testimony of Hugh Thompson. Before he grasped the significance of his misstep, Calley had confessed to shooting into the ditch filled with Vietnamese victims. The verdict seemed ordained.

Yet, it was no slam dunk for the prosecution. The jury took eighty hours to deliberate, in the end finding Calley guilty of murder by a vote of four to two, one ballot shy of a mistrial, if not an outright acquittal. As a capital felony, Calley might have received the death penalty, but Daniel argued only for life imprisonment. On March 29, 1970 the judge agreed and passed sentence. Calley appeared shaken as he faced the court.  Surely the shrinks had gotten it wrong in not certifying a case of mental dissociation as acutely obvious as Calley’s? He seemed the perfect robotic tool of the Cold War. Hadn’t he been madly insisting all along that he had not been killing humans, but only communists, including babes at the breast who would grow up one day to be communists themselves? Then again, maybe Calley wasn’t as clueless and out of touch as he came across. In addressing the judge at sentencing, one could read in Calley’s plea, “I beg you… do not strip future soldiers of their honor” as he had been stripped of his, a message defending the common man and shrewdly aimed at a wider audience beyond the courtroom that the defendant must have known was substantially in his corner.

The polls quickly confirmed this. 79% of the public opposed the conviction. Across an ideological divide embracing both the war’s supporters and opponents, a large majority saw Calley as a scapegoat, one man custom-made to bear the blame for the entire Vietnam fiasco. Nixon played this public frustration to his advantage. There was little opposition when the President saw fit to have the prisoner removed from the stockade, where he’d spent just one night, and returned to his own Ft. Benning apartment. Calley would serve only three and a half years under house arrest before going free, but, after the trial, he quickly faded into anonymity.

At the White House, only a week after the verdict, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger reassured Nixon that “the public furor… [had] quieted down…  Let the judicial process… take its normal course,” counselled Kissinger. Liberal efforts to stir “a feeling of revulsion against the deed,” and turn the trial into a referendum against the war, had failed. “In fact the deed itself didn’t bother anybody,” Kissinger added.  “No,” Nixon agreed, picking up eagerly on his advisor’s cynical drift. “The public said, ‘Sure he was guilty but, by God, why not?’ ” Both laughed.[v]

The “deed” these two twisted political misanthropes found so amusing is memorialized at a shrine today in the My Lai township listing the names of the massacre’s 504 victims, more than half of whom were under the age of twenty, to include “forty-nine teenagers, 160 aged four to twelve, and fifty who were three years old or younger.”

In reflecting on the sordid tale he has chosen to historicize anew, and on its reduction by the U.S. political and military establishments to a judicial farce, Harold Jones explains how, “My Lai made it imperative nonetheless that the army institute major changes in training.” And further that “to understand the importance of restraint in combat, soldiers and officers must learn to disobey illegal orders… and the importance of distinguishing between ‘unarmed civilians… and the people who are shooting at us.’” Jones documents the extensive effort undertaken to incorporate this thinking by updating the rules of war, to “make them more specific, then teach, follow and enforce them.”

But in examining the next most infamous atrocity of modern memory committed by U.S. forces at Abu Ghraib during the recent Iraq War, Jones concludes that “the central problem… lies less in writing new laws and regulations than in having officers who enforce those already in effect.” That officers may not be inclined to such enforcement underscores the apparently insoluble dilemma of an autocratic institution, the military, at the heart of a civilian democracy to which it is, in principle, subordinate. But we have already been shown over a panoply of legal proceedings that, at least in its capacity to dispense justice, the military is a power unto itself.[vi] Jones does not follow that thought directly, but rather indulges in a philosophical aside which dilutes the unhappy subject of his history in the horrors that attend all wars, concluding darkly that, in the right situation, we are all “one step away from My Lai.”

It’s not that the historian entirely buys Nixon’s aberration line; Jones does refer to other reported atrocities in VN. But he does buy Peers’ “right situation” explanation for why My Lai stands out, quoting the Peers Commission report that “none of the other [investigated] crimes even remotely approached the magnitude… of My Lai.” That would depend on how one defines “magnitude.” Peers had failed to do the math, and so has Jones. The American invasion, and occupation for over a decade, left a trail of bloodshed and destruction throughout Vietnam that led elements of the antiwar movement worldwide to level the charge of genocide against the U.S.

What one pro-war historian lamented as a veritable “war crimes industry,” had sprung up within the U.S., not from the campuses of the middle class protestors, but among the ranks of returning veterans, who for roughly two years after My Lai was exposed, brought accounts of atrocities they had participated in or witnessed before the American public. Harold Jones, to demonstrate historical balance, provides a cursory account of this effort, referring to a “sizeable segment of Vietnam veterans who considered… that My Lai was not an isolated incident and that Calley had become a scapegoat for the high ranking civilian and military officials who drew up the policies responsible for the atrocities.”

Having already established that Nixon denied the link between My Lai and “national policy,” Jones does not engage the argument further. But the war veterans (including the present writer) were not suggesting that the policy of genocide was etched in a secret covenant buried in a Pentagon vault. We were saying, in effect, don’t just look at the record body count attached to the slaughter at Pinkville, and imagine you have a true picture of American crimes in that war. Count the day to day toll of Vietnamese civilian deaths that resulted from premeditated frames like “mass population transfers” – the Strategic Hamlet program, or “chemical warfare” – the saturation of the countryside with phenoxy herbicides like Agent Orange, that were already prohibited by the conventions of war to which the U.S. was a signatory.

Other strategic tools, the Air War, and the relentless, not atypically indiscriminate, bombardment by artillery and naval guns, were employed by American forces against the “unpacified” countryside with unprecedented savagery.[vii] While these displays of massive fire power are thought to have created the highest proportion of civilian casualties during the war, the battlefield tactics – search and destroy operations in free fire zones, systematic torture and murder of prisoners, the “mere gook rule,” that turned every dead Vietnamese into an enemy body count, were a close second. These are facts available to anyone who cares to know them.[viii]

In both detail and presentation Harold Jones, with My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness, has produced a work of considerable value, and it is fair to acknowledge that the work, as recently characterized in a brief note by the New York Times Book Review, must now be considered the standard reference for the massacre. As for the scale and volume of terrors inflicted on the Vietnamese people during the American War, Jones, hewing close to official doctrine in the U.S., fails to acknowledge that My Lai was just the tip of the iceberg.[ix]

Michael Uhl served with the 11th Light Infantry Brigade as leader of a combat intelligence team eight months after the My Lai massacre. On return from Vietnam he joined the antiwar movement, and organized fellow veterans to make public their personal accounts of American atrocities in Vietnam. He presents this history in the war memoir, Vietnam Awakening (McFarland, 2007).

Notes.

[i].  Heonik Kwon, in his study, After the Massacre: Commemoration and Consolation in Ha My and My Lai (University of California Press, 2006), attributed to allied forces operating in Quang Ngai Province, notably units of the ROK (Republic of Korea) Marines (p.44), “at least six large scale civilian massacres during the first three months of 1968… Two secret reports made by the district communist cells to the provincial authority recorded nineteen incidents of mass killings during this short period.  The tragedy of mass killings had already been witnessed in Quang Ngai in 1966.”

In their recent documentary film series on the Vietnam War, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick reported that no province suffered more than Quang Ngai during the war, and no place was more dangerous for operating militarily.

[ii]. The author’s account of the cover-up reads as definitive; Harold Jones here follows closely Seymour M. Hersh in Cover Up (Random House, 1972).

[iii].  This would not include Barker, himself, who had died a month after the massacre when his helicopter crashed during a combat mission.

[iv]. This quote (p. 347) is from Four Hours in My Lai, by Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim, (Penguin, 1993), the standard work on the massacre for the past twenty-five years.

[v].  Harold Jones is reporting here from what he heard on the Nixon tapes recorded on April 8, 1971.

[vi] .  One portrait of what has been called the West Point Protective Association embodying the Army’s Spartan ethic, can be found in a highly charged expose, co-authored by a former academy graduate, West Point: America’s Power Fraternity, by Bruce Calloway and Robert Bowie Johnson (Simon and Schuster, 1973).

[vii].  An extensive account of the Air War in Quang Ngai Province is found in The Real War by Jonathan Schell (Da Capo Press, 1988).

[viii]. The Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. with the names of the 58,282 American war dead is 475 feet long; a wall inscribed with the names of the Vietnamese war dead would go on for miles.

[ix]. Herbicide poisoning and unexploded ordnance are legacy issues of the war that continue to take their toll on Vietnamese victims to this day.

Michael Uhl is the author of  Vietnam Awakening

March 16, 2018 Posted by | Book Review, Deception, Mainstream Media, Warmongering, Timeless or most popular, War Crimes | , , | 1 Comment

Assault on the Embassy: The Tet Offensive Fifty Years Later

By Don North | Consortium News | January 31, 2018

Don North covering the Vietnam War

It was the eve of battle. Ngo Van Giang, known as Captain Ba Den to the Viet Cong troops he led, had spent weeks smuggling arms and ammunition into Saigon under boxes of tomatoes. Ba Den was about to lead 15 sappers, a section of the J-9 Special Action Unit, against an unknown target. Only eight of the unit were actually trained experts in explosives. The other seven were clerks and cooks who signed up for the dangerous mission mainly to escape the rigors of life in their jungle camp near Dau Tieng, 30 miles northwest of Saigon.

On the morning of January 30, 1968, Ba Den secretly met with U.S. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker’s chauffeur, Nguyen Van De, an embassy driver who was in fact an agent for the Viet Cong. De drove Ba Den in circles around the Embassy compound in an American station wagon. De revealed that Ba Den’s mission was to attack the heavily fortified Embassy. Learning the identity of his target, Ba Den was overwhelmed by the realization that he would probably not survive the attack. Pondering his likely death, and since it was the eve of Tet, Ba Den wandered into the Saigon market, had a few Ba Muoi Ba beers and bought a string of firecrackers to light as he had done for every Tet celebration since he was a child.

Ba Den and his team were about to play a small but critical role in what we now call the Tet Offensive, the coordinated attack by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops against dozens of cities, towns and military bases across South Vietnam. When the bloody fighting ended after 24 days, the Communist troops had been driven from every target and the U.S. declared a military victory. However, the attackers scored a significant political and psychological victory by demonstrating an ability to launch devastating and coordinated attacks seemingly everywhere at once, and by showing that a U.S.-South Vietnamese victory was nowhere in sight. The attack on the U.S. Embassy was a potent symbol of that success.

I’ve thought a good deal about that attack on the Embassy over the last 50 years. I was there as a television journalist – lying in the gutter outside the Embassy as automatic fire buzzed above my head. Here is what I knew then and what I know now.

Later that night of January 30, Ba Den joined the other members of the assault team at 59 Phan Than Gian Street, the home of Mrs. Nguyen Thi Phe, a veteran Communist agent who ran an auto repair shop next to her home, just four blocks from the Embassy. The 15 sappers unpacked their weapons and dressed in black pajamas with a red sash around one arm. They had trained to breach the Embassy’s outer perimeter with explosives and attack with rifle fire, satchel charges and rocket propelled grenades. They were ordered to kill anyone who resisted but to take prisoner anyone who surrendered.

The Embassy attack was to be the centerpiece of a larger Saigon offensive, backed up by 11 battalions totalling 4,000 Viet Cong troops. The operation’s other five objectives were the Presidential Palace, the national broadcasting studios, South Vietnamese Naval Headquarters, Vietnamese General Staff Headquarters at Ton Son Nut Airbase, and the Philippine Embassy. The goal was to hold these objectives for 48 hours until other Viet Cong battalions could enter the city and relieve them. North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front leaders expected (or hoped) that a nationwide uprising to overthrow the government of South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu would take place.

Of all the targets, the U.S. Embassy was perhaps the most important. The $2.6 million compound had been completed just three months earlier. The six-story Chancery building loomed over Saigon like an impregnable fortress. It was a constant reminder of the American presence, prestige and power. Other key military and political targets were slated for attack in South Vietnam, like Nha Trang, Buon Ma Thout and Bien Hoa, but most Americans couldn’t even pronounce their names, let alone understand their importance. A successful attack on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, however, would instantly convey shock and horror on an American public already weary of the war, and could turn many of them against the war.

Public Relations Blitz

President Lyndon B. Johnson conducted a massive public relations blitz at the end of 1967 to convince Americans that the Vietnam War was nearing a conclusion. General William Westmoreland, the U.S. military commander in Vietnam, was ordered to support the President’s progress campaign. In November 1967, Westmoreland told NBC’s Meet the Press that the U.S. could win the war within two years. He then told the National Press Club, “We are making progress, the end begins to come into view.” In his most memorable phrase, Westmoreland (derisively known as “Westy” to many members of the press corps) claimed to see “some light at the end of the tunnel.”

The massive public relations campaign overwhelmed voices of other experienced American observers who foresaw disaster. General Edward Landsdale had been a senior American advisor to the South Vietnamese government starting in the mid-1950s; he was an expert on unconventional warfare and still senior advisor to the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. In October 1967, Landsdale wrote to U.S. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, “Hanoi policy makers saw the defeat of French forces in Vietnam as having reached its decisive point through anti-war sentiment in France than on the field of battle in Vietnam. [The battle of] Dien Bien Phu was fought to shape opinion in Paris, a bit of drama rather than sound military strategy.”

Landsdale warned that Hanoi was about to follow a similar plan to “bleed Americans” because it believed the American public was vulnerable to psychological manipulation in 1968. It was an accurate prediction; despite Landsdale’s inability to exert influence on policy at that time, he had a better grasp on what was happening in Vietnam than Westmoreland or Bunker – or President Johnson.

Detoured to Khe Sanh

As an ABC News TV correspondent I was sent to the U.S. base at Khe Sanh, located in the northwest corner of South Vietnam, in the weeks before Tet. The base had been under siege by Communist forces and General Westmoreland was predicting a major offensive there, where the Communists would seek to repeat the French military loss at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Since 1968, a majority of U.S. military analysts have suggested the enemy attacks at Khe Sanh were part of a ruse to draw American military forces away from South Vietnam’s population centers, leaving them open to successful attacks at Tet. Khe Sanh became a metaphor for Westmoreland’s mismanagement of the war.

My cameraman and I were covering the ongoing battle at Khe Sanh. A massive attack on January 30 sent us diving into a trench for protection from incoming mortars and rockets; the effort saved our lives but broke the lens of our camera. We were forced to return to Saigon for a replacement. I thought we would miss the expected military push on Khe Sanh but flying back to Saigon on the C-130 milk run, it seemed like all of South Vietnam was under attack. As we took off from Da Nang, enemy rockets fell on the runway. Flying south along the coast, we could see almost all the seaside enclaves under attack – Hoi An, Nha Trang and Cam Ranh Bay. It was a clear night, and as we passed over the besieged cities, we could see fires burning and hear on the military radio frequencies the calls of besieged U.S. troops.

The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army battle plan for the Tet Offensive called for coordinated surprise attacks throughout the country, but their plans were seriously compromised by a misunderstanding concerning the attack date. The Communist forces in the Northern provinces mistakenly planned the attack for January 30, whereas zero hour in the Southern provinces was understood to be January 31. As a result, I was in the unique position of watching the Tet Offensive unfold from the North to the South.

Convoy to the Embassy

At 2:30 AM, the Ba Den’s sapper unit loaded into a taxi cab, a Peugeot truck and an Embassy car. Guiding them to the target was Nguyen Van De, the Embassy driver, a long-time employee who Embassy staff had nicknamed “Satchmo.” Several of the sappers hid in his trunk. Driving with their lights out, the convoy approached the Embassy night gate on Mac Dinh Chi Street and fired their AK-47 assault rifles at two American sentries guarding the gate. Specialist 4 (SP4) Charles Daniel and Private First Class (PFC) William Sebast returned fire with their M-16 assault rifles, then ran through the steel gate and locked it. At 2:47 AM they transmitted “Signal 300” over the MP radio net to alert everyone that the Embassy was under attack. The sappers placed a 15 pound satchel charge against the eight foot high embassy wall, and the explosion created a hole three feet wide. The first two sappers crawled through the breach but were immediately killed by Daniel and Sebast’s rifle fire.

Daniel shouted into his radio, “They’re coming in! They’re coming in! Help me! Help me!” as more sappers came through the hole. In an exchange of gunfire, both Daniel and Sebast were killed, the first two Americans killed in the battle for the Embassy.

The sappers made a concerted effort to break into the Chancery firing rocket propelled grenades through the heavy wooden doors and following up with hand grenades. Several U.S. Marines were wounded by shrapnel and fell behind the Chancery door. Few of the Marine or MP guards were armed with M-16’s or other automatic weapons. One Marine fired a shotgun from the roof at the next wave of sappers entering through the hole in the wall. When the shotgun jammed, he continued to fire his .38 caliber revolver. Other American troops began to take up positions on nearby rooftops, giving them some control of the streets and the sappers inside the compound. Now trapped in the compound and being shot at from multiple directions, the attackers hunkered down behind large concrete flower pots on the Embassy lawn.

At about 3 AM, chief U.S. Embassy spokesman Barry Zorthian, at home a few blocks from the attack, started calling news bureaus; he had few details but told them the Embassy was under attack and there was heavy fire. ABC News bureau chief Dick Rosenbaum then called me around 3:30 and told me – just back from Khe Sanh – to find out what was happening. The ABC bureau, located at the Caravel Hotel, was only four blocks from the Embassy. We headed there in the ABC News jeep but did not get far. Just off Tu Do (now renamed Dong Khoi) Street, three blocks from the embassy somebody opened up on us with automatic weapons. It was impossible to tell who it was – Viet Cong, South Vietnamese Army, Saigon police, or U.S. MP’s. A couple of rounds pinged off the hood of the jeep. I killed the jeep’s lights and reversed out of range. We returned to the ABC News bureau to await dawn.

At 4:20 AM, Military Assistance Command-Vietnam (MACV) issued an order instructing the 716th Military Police Battalion to retake the compound. When the MP officer in charge arrived at the scene, he concluded that U.S. forces had the Embassy surrounded and the sappers trapped inside its walls. He was unwilling to risk lives of his men in a dangerous night assault against an enemy he knew could not escape, so he ordered his men to settle in and wait for morning.

At about 5:00 AM, a U.S. Army helicopter carrying reinforcements from the 101st Airborne Division attempted to land on the Chancery roof. As the chopper hovered before touching down, the surviving sappers opened fire. Afraid of being shot down, the helicopter chief aborted the mission and flew quickly away from the building. Lieutenant General Frederick Weyand, the Commander of III Corps (one of the four major military sectors designated by MACV), was monitoring the Embassy fight and agreed there was nothing to be gained by risking another night helicopter landing into a hot landing zone. He ordered a halt to air operations until daylight.

At first light, my cameraman and I walked to the Embassy. As we approached, I heard heavy firing and saw green and red tracer bullets cut into the pink sky. Near the Embassy, we joined a group of U.S. MPs moving toward the Embassy front gate. I started my tape recorder for ABC Radio as the MPs loudly cursed the South Vietnamese troops for running away after the first shots. Lying flat in the gutter that morning with the MPs, we didn’t know where the Viet Cong attackers were holed up or where the fire was coming from, but we knew it was the “big story.”

Several MPs rushed past, one of them carrying a Viet Cong sapper piggy-back style. The sapper was wounded and bleeding. He wore black pajamas and, strangely, had an enormous red ruby ring on his finger. I interviewed the MPs and recorded their radio conversation with colleagues inside the Embassy gates. There was no doubt they believed the Viet Cong were in the Chancery building itself. Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett crawled off to find a phone and report the MPs’ conversation to his office.

Just One Mag

Sporadic gunfire continued around the Embassy and one by one the sappers were either wounded or killed. I lay flat on the sidewalk in front of the Embassy as bullets ricocheted around. I found I was lying next to a seriously wounded sapper wearing black pajamas and a red arm band and bleeding from multiple wounds. Years later after reading declassified interrogation reports of the three prisoners, I discovered the wounded sapper lying next to me was Captain Nguyen Van Giang, alias Ba Den, who had lit firecrackers in the Saigon market the night before his mission and was one of the first through the hole blasted in the wall. Giang spent the remainder of the war as one of three prisoners of the Embassy attack in the infamous French-built prison on Con Dao Island just off the Southeast coast of South Vietnam.

Around 7:00 AM, Army assault helicopters land thirty-six heavily armed paratroopers from the 101st Airborne on the Embassy roof. The troopers quickly started to clear the building from top floor down searching each office for possible Viet Cong infiltrators. On the ground, MPs from the 716th stormed the front gate. My cameraman and I followed them onto the lawn which was littered with the bodies of dead and dying Viet Cong. I stepped over the Great Seal of the United States which had been blasted off the Embassy wall. We rushed into the once elegant Embassy garden where the battle had raged. It was, as UPI’s Kate Webb later described, “like a butcher shop in Eden.”

We paused to assess our film supply. “Okay, Peter how much film have we got left,” I shouted to my cameraman. “I’ve got one mag,” he replied. “How many do you have?” I had no mags left. “We’re on the biggest story of the war with only one can of film,” I groaned. “So it’s one take of everything including my stand-upper” – a TV reporter’s closing remarks.

VC green tracer bullets still stitched the night sky as red tracers from the U.S. weapons arced down from the Embassy roof and from across the street. The MPs took three wounded sappers prisoner and marched them off for interrogation. Nguyen Van De, the Embassy driver who had aided the sappers, lay dead on the lawn along with another armed Embassy driver. Two other Embassy drivers died as well. Orders crackled over a field radio from an officer inside the Chancery. “This is Waco, roger. Can you get in the gate now? Take a force in there and clean out the Embassy, like now. There will be choppers on the roof and troops working down. Be careful not to hit our own people. Over.”

Colonel “Jake” Jacobson, the CIA chief-of-station assigned to the Embassy occupied a small villa adjacent to the Embassy. He suddenly appeared at a window on the second floor. An MP threw him a gas mask and a .45 caliber Army pistol. Surviving sappers were believed to be on the first floor and would likely be driven upstairs by tear gas. The last VC still in action rushed up the stairs, firing blindly at Jacobson but missed. The colonel later told me, “We both saw each other at the same time. He missed me and I fired one shot at him point blank with the .45, taking him down.” The battle was over.

At 9:15 AM, the U.S. officially declared the Embassy grounds secure. Scattered about the grounds were the bodies of 12 of the original 15 sappers, two armed Embassy drivers who were considered double agents and two drivers killed by accident. Five Americans were dead, including four Army soldiers: Charles Daniel, Owen Mebust, William Sebast, Jonnie Thomas; and one U.S. Marine, James Marshall.

Westmoreland Briefs

At 9:20 AM, General Westmoreland strode through the gate in his carefully starched fatigues, flanked by MPs and Marines who had been fighting since 3 AM. Standing in the rubble, Westmoreland held a briefing for the press. “No enemy got in the Embassy building. It’s a relatively small incident. A group of sappers blew a hole in the wall and crawled in. They were all killed.” He cautioned us, “Don’t be deceived by this incident.” Westmoreland’s relentless optimism struck most of us reporters as surreal, even delusional. Most of us there had seen much of the fighting. The General was still spinning that everything was just fine. In the meantime, thousands of U.S. and South Vietnamese troops were fighting hard to take back the four other Saigon targets the VC had occupied – as well as the City of Hue and other targets of the offensive around the country.

Also, contrary to Westmoreland’s briefing, it was not correct that all of the 15 sappers were killed. Three were wounded but survived. Army photographers Don Hirst and Edgar Price, and Life Magazine’s Dick Swanson took dramatic photos of the wounded sappers being led away by 716th Battalion MPs, before being turned over to the South Vietnamese – and never heard from again during the war. No one admitted that some sappers survived, and it was a closely guarded secret that at least two of the dead Embassy drivers were Viet Cong agents.

The Embassy siege showed the effectiveness of U.S. Marines and Military Police, non-tactical troops fighting as infantry without benefit of heavy weapons or communication to overcome an enemy.

A TV Report Stand-Upper

Using our last 30 feet of film, I recorded my “stand-upper.”

“Since the Lunar New Year, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese have proved they are capable of bold and impressive military moves that Americans here never dreamed could be achieved,” I said. “But whatever turn the war now takes, the capture of the U.S. Embassy here for almost seven hours is a psychological victory that will rally and inspire the Viet Cong.”

A rush to judgement? Perhaps, but I was on an hourly deadline and ABC expected the story as well as some perspective, even in the early hours of the offensive – a first rough draft of history. Still my instant analysis never made it onto ABC News. Worried about editorializing on a sensitive story, a senior producer in New York killed the on-camera close. Ironically, my closer ended up in the Simon Grinberg library of ABC out-takes and was later discovered by director Peter Davis and used in his film “Hearts and Minds.”

The rest of our story package fared better. The film from all three networks arrived on the same plane in Tokyo for processing and editing, causing a mad scramble to be the first film on the satellite for the evening newscasts in the U.S. Because we only had 400 feet to process and cut, ABC News made the satellite in time and the story led the evening news. NBC and CBS missed the satellite deadline and had to run catch-up specials later in the evening.

An Information Curtain Falls

Our group of 50 journalists in the Embassy compound were then escorted out and the gates were locked. An information curtain descended around the Embassy for the following weeks. No interviews were allowed with Marines or MP’s who had fought the Embassy battle and won. Journalists were told the only comment on the Embassy battle would come from the State Department or White House, and that an investigation was under way and would be released in due course. That report – if there was ever such a report – has yet to be declassified. Without access to the stories of the American defenders of the Embassy, their heroism went largely unreported, thus increasing the public perception that the Tet Offensive had been a U.S. defeat instead of the military victory it actually was.

In March 1968, just two months after Tet, a Harris poll showed that the majority of Americans, 60 percent, regarded the Tet Offensive as a defeat for U.S. objectives in Vietnam. The news media was widely blamed for creating the antiwar sentiment. Research by a senior U.S. officer in Vietnam, General Douglas Kinnard, found 91 percent of U.S. Army generals expressed negative feelings about TV news coverage. However, General Kinnard concluded that the importance of the media in swaying public opinion was largely a myth. That myth was important to the U.S. Government to perpetuate, so officials could insist it was not the real war situation to which Americans reacted, but rather the media portrayal of that situation.

Embassy Demolished, Memorials Remain

The imposing U.S. Embassy that withstood the attack fifty years ago was demolished in 1998 and replaced with a modest one story Consulate. In a garden closed to the public is a small plaque in honor of the five American soldiers who died defending the Embassy that day: Charles Daniel, James Marshall, Owen Mebust, William Sebast, and Jonnie Thomas. A few steps away, on the sidewalk outside the Consulate, is a gray and red marble monument engraved with the names of Viet Cong soldiers and agents who died there on January 31, 1968.

Three Surviving Sappers Imprisoned on Con Dao Island

The fate of the three surviving Viet Cong sappers was a closely held secret by the U.S. Embassy. Following a hot dispute between U.S. Army MPs and the South Vietnamese military as to who should have custody, the POWs were turned over to the South Vietnamese and imprisoned in the infamous old French prison on Con Dao island. U.S. Army interrogators questioned them and in 2002, the reports were declassified. If the three POWs were a fair indication of the 15 sappers who conducted the siege, it would seem they were not a highly trained elite force, but rather older soldiers of low rank, some holding down clerical and cooking duties for their units.

Ba Den, 43, was the senior survivor of the attack and among the first through the hole blown in the Embassy wall. He had been born in North Vietnam and migrated south to join a Viet Cong cadre in Tay Ninh.

A second sapper prisoner was Nguyen Van Sau, alias “Chuck,” the third man through the wall hole. Shot in the face and buttocks, the 31 year-old Buddhist was captured by MPs at first light. Sau was born on a small farm near Cu Chi and was forced to join the VC when a recruiting raid entered his village in 1964 and seized 20 men. Sau’s main complaint was that he didn’t get enough to eat but remained with the VC as most of the young men from his village were also members and had endured the same hardships. With information divulged by Sau, Saigon police raided the garage where the sappers mounted their attack and arrested the owner and ten others linked to the group.

The third sapper, 44 year-old Sergeant Dang Van Son, alias “Tot,” joined the Viet Minh in North Vietnam in 1947 and was sent down the Ho Chi Minh trail. He became cook for an infantry company in Tay Ninh. During the attack, Son was wounded in the head and leg, captured by the South Vietnamese and woke up in a Saigon hospital several days later.

Ba Den was released from prison in 1975 and returned to his village North of Saigon. There was no word of Dang Van Son or Nguyen Van Sau, who are believed to have died in Con Dao prison and are buried in the vast cemetery there.

Biet Dong Committee of Ho Chi Minh City

Now that the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive and the Embassy attack is here, Vietnamese who honor the dead according to traditional custom will remember the estimated one hundred thousand Communist soldiers who died and renew their efforts to identify the burial grounds of their comrades. So it’s surprising that even top North Vietnamese field commanders had little praise for the 15 sapper martyrs of the Embassy attack.

North Vietnamese General Tran Do, in communication with the Saigon command a few days after Tet, asked, “Why did those who planned the attack on the Embassy fail to consider the ease with which helicopters and troops could be landed on the roof?” However, their boldness and bravery against such overwhelming odds has made them heroes to be remembered in Vietnam. Although in recent years there has been U.S. cooperation in identifying burial grounds of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops, there has been no recognition of a possible mass grave for the sappers killed at the Embassy.

Something Truly Stupid

Washington military analyst Anthony Cordesman has often observed, “One way to achieve decisive surprise in warfare is to do something truly stupid.” As revealed in the interrogation reports of the sapper POWs, the planning and execution of the Embassy attack was “truly stupid” and carried out by poorly trained Viet Cong, but its effects marked a turning point of the war and earned a curious entry in the annals of military history.

Another Washington military analyst, Steven Metz, explains “counterinsurgency” and why Tet became a dramatic turning point in the war. “The essence of insurgency is the psychological. It is armed theatre. You have protagonists on the stage, but they are sending messages to a wider audience. Insurgency is not won killing insurgents, not won by seizing territory; it is won by altering the psychological factors that are most relevant.”

In Vietnam, this “truly stupid” attack on the U.S. Embassy changed the course of the war. It may have been “a small incident” as General William Westmoreland claimed, but seen through the political and psychological prism of insurgency warfare, it may have indeed been the biggest incident of the war.

January 31, 2018 Posted by | Timeless or most popular | , | 1 Comment

Who Filled the Graves Of Hué?

By Wilfred Burchett | CounterPunch | November 8, 2017

Both Ken Burns and Anthony Bourdain have recently recycled the myth of National Liberation Front massacres in Hué during the Vietnam War. The real story, however, was quite different, as revealed at the time by one of the great correspondents of the era Wilfred Burchett. In order to set the record straight, we are reprinting his piece on Hué for The Guardian in 1970.

The recent attempt to equate the Son My (My Lai) massacre and scores of other similar atrocities with the so-called “Vietcong massacre at Hué” is a vain attempt to cover up what have been genocidal methods by the United States in South Vietnam since the war started.

The bodies in the mass graves of Hué — said to have been killed by the National Liberation Front — are victims of the same military machine and the same genocidal policies in operation at Son My. They are not the victims of the NLF but of American bombs, bullets and napalm.

Any discriminating reading of press reports published at the time will show what really happened in Hué. What follows is a true account of the Hue massacre.

The NLF attack on Hué was co-ordinated with an internal uprising on January 31, 1968. The main part of the city was in the hands of liberation forces within hours, practically without a shot fired.

Among the vanguard forces re-entering the city was Nguyen Chi Chanh, Hué’s former police chief who had sided with the people in the Buddhist uprising of 1966. He was a member of the Revolutionary Committee established as soon as Hué was liberated. If ever there was an example of what the South Vietnamese people really wanted, it was the manner in which the NLF took over the city of Hué.

Saigon Army Dissolved Overnight

Saigon’s power dissolved overnight. The Saigon army was incapable of even attempting its recapture. The population of Hué voted with its fists, feet and weapons — when it had them — for the NLF. No power in South Vietnam, except the American invaders, was capable of physically overthrowing the new people’s power.

The South Vietnamese army simply refused to fight. All its positions in Hue, except the headquarters of its 3rd Division, were overrun or surrendered in the first minutes. US Marines were called in to do the job the South Vietnamese refused to do — recapture Hué even at the price of its destruction. And destroyed it was.

Here is an account from the British ultraconservative Keesing’s Contemporary Archives, which prides itself on digging up the facts from the most responsible press for the historical record:

A large part of Hue was reduced to ruins by fighting and bombing. Le Monde reported ‘no large town in the Far East has been so devastated since the fighting in Seoul during the Korean war… Vast areas of the beautiful city were demolished.’

Of 145,000 inhabitants, 113,000 were homeless refugees. Bodies lay rotting in the streets for days and sanitary facilities broke down.

Artillery

This implied the city was 80 per cent destroyed. Reuters reported that more than 90 per cent was destroyed. By the NLF? No — by US planes and artillery, including the guns of the Seventh Fleet.

The Keesing’s account continued:

After the assault on the southern ramparts was hurled back on February 14, the United States fighter bombers dropped bombs, rockets, napalm and nausea gas on the Citadel and the following day warships of the Seventh Fleet shelled its walls, in addition to fresh United States air strikes.

In the old part of the city, South Vietnamese air craft had carried out heavy air attacks on February 3, wherein many houses were destroyed.

The city which the NLF and the Hue population liberated in a few hours took US Marines 26 days to recapture, at the price of Hue’s almost total destruction.

At a certain stage, helicopter gunships, hovering over the roofs, joined dive bombers and naval guns in shooting everything that moved in a total war against the entire population while Marine artillery tanks systematically destroyed the city block by block.

All public facilities broke down including sewage, water supply and garbage disposal. In many areas the streets were choked with bodies — limbless, headless, napalm-charred and cut into pieces by bombshell fragments. NLF sanitary services were forced to bury victims in mass graves nightly under constant air and artillery bombardment.

On April 23, two months after the destruction and reoccupation of Hue, the Saigon army — after their psychological warfare teams had done certain rearranging of the bodies — invented the “Vietcong massacre” myth, presenting the evidence of mass graves.

The US embassy in Saigon solemnly weighed the evidence and added “confirmation” later in the week. The US’s own atrocious massacre in Hue thus was attributed to the “Vietcong” and has been revived to offset the massacre at Song My.

A Western news agency estimates the civilian casualties in Hue as between 2000 and 3000, about the figure attributed to the NLF.

This fakery is totally consistent with the US “body count” fabrications, where every baby and grandfather killed by the US is listed as another “Vietcong casualty.”

Every time US propaganda services need a new diversion from increasing revelations of American atrocities, a new “Vietcong atrocity” is discovered. If the graves in Hue did not exist, US propaganda would have been forced to invent them. But they do exist — courtesy of the Pentagon.

Perhaps the Song My massacre and other instances of US atrocities will help to open the eyes of the American people as to exactly who it is which is resorting to terror in Vietnam.

An Entire People Fighting Invaders

If the American people could only understand why their soldiers are losing in Vietnam they might also understand why all the stories about “Vietcong atrocities” are not true.

This is people’s war. An entire people is fighting against American, invaders.

For the NLF and the liberation army to commit acts of terror against the people would be the same as committing an act of terror against itself.

Of course it is true that the liberation army executes some political officials of the Saigon regime and village chiefs controlled by the Saigon regime.

They consider these people traitors to Vietnam. And of course some civilians have died as an accidental result of liberation army firepower.

But anyone who understands in the slightest the meaning of people’s war also understands that the liberation armies take every conceivable precaution against harming the civilian population.

November 8, 2017 Posted by | Deception, Fake News, False Flag Terrorism, Mainstream Media, Warmongering, Timeless or most popular, War Crimes | , | 2 Comments

The Tragic Failure of Ken Burns Vietnam

By Christopher Koch | Medium | September 28, 2017

There is so much to love about this series. The uncompromising scenes of combat, the voices of both Americans and Vietnamese, the historical context, the exposure of the utter incompetence of our military leaders, the terrific music that is frequently exactly where it should be, the slowly revealed powerful still images and Peter Coyote’s wonderful narrative voice. Its tragic failure is its inability to hold anyone responsible for their actions.

Burns and Novick tell us that the war was begun “in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence and …” whatever the current threat. That’s probably true of most wars. However, as we used to teach our children, you have to be accountable for your actions. If you kill someone speeding the wrong way down a one way street you’ll get charged with manslaughter even if you’re rushing someone to the hospital.

It’s the lack of accountability, the failure to prosecute those who lied to get us into the war, who encouraged battlefield tactics that resulted in the massacre of women and children, who authorized the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets, who drenched Vietnam in chemical poisons that will cause birth defects and death for generations.

In order to maintain this central lie, Burns and Novick must establish a false balance between good and evil on both sides. Every time the United States is shown doing something bad, Burns and Novick show us how the Vietnamese also did bad things. In one absurd example, Coyote intones something like, “we called them ‘Dinks,’ ‘Gooks,’ ‘Mamasans;’ they called us ‘invaders’ and ‘imperialists.’” The GI terms are dehumanizing, but the Vietnamese terms are accurate. People who cross 3,000 miles of ocean to attack a country that has done them no harm, are accurately called ‘invaders.’ I suppose you could argue about the ‘imperialist’ charge.

Vietnamese soldiers killed some 58,000 Americans and wounded a couple of hundred thousand more. Burns and Novick put the number of Vietnamese we killed at 3 million, but most experts say it was more like 4 million and Vietnam says its 6 million, with more people continuing to die from unexploded ordinance and Agent Orange. We destroyed 60% of their villages, sprayed 21 million gallons of lethal poisons, imposed free fire zones (a euphemism for genocide) on 75% of South Vietnam. They attacked US military bases in their country and never killed an American on American soil. There are no equivalences here.

Burns and Novick do a good job of explaining that the United States worked with Ho Chi Minh during World War II and that Ho hoped to get our support after the war. They do not mention that having friendly relations with Communist countries was a successful strategy we used with Yugoslavia, because although it was Communist, Yugoslavia was also independent and a thorn in the Soviet Union’s side. Any minimal understanding of Vietnam’s history would have identified Vietnam’s fiercely independent streak. Intelligent leaders (anyone with half a brain) would have adopted the Yugoslav strategy in Vietnam.

This brings us to another central problem of the Burns and Novick series, Leslie Gelb’s smiling recollection (he looks so smug) that nobody knew anything about Vietnam and didn’t for several years. In fact, throughout the series, many people say “we should have known better.” Is ignorance really a good excuse for launching a brutal war and the war crimes that followed? Unmentioned is how easy it was to gather information on Vietnam. French historians and journalists had studied every aspect of the country and its culture during and after their defeat in the French Indo China war. Much of this material had been translated into English. That’s how I figured out in 1965 that we were going to lose the war in Vietnam.

Burns and Novick fail to mention my trip to North Vietnam in 1965 nor any of the other trips to North Vietnam by members of the American peace movement such as Tom Hayden, Staughton Lynd and Herbert Aptheker who went in January 1966 and members of Women’s Strike for Peace who went later. They only show us Jane Fonda’s trip in 1972, when she broadcast to US troops asking them to stop the bombing and was photographed sitting on an anti-aircraft gun. No one else who went to North Vietnam did either of these things.

Our earlier trips to North Vietnam were important, because we were the only Americans to witness the destruction being rained down on North Vietnam. Burns’ documentary shows lots of aerial shots of bombs and napalm going off (Mussolini’s son called them rosebuds blooming in the desert when he attack Ethiopia) but very few shots of the bomb’s effects on the ground in North Vietnam. We hear talk of precision bombing, but those of us who traveled to North Vietnam observed hospitals, schools, churches, markets, and working class neighborhoods utterly destroyed. And this was ten years before the war ended!

The Burns’ documentary doesn’t show us the makeshift hospitals with children and old people without arms and legs or suffering from horrendous burns, all victims of American bombing attacks. The documentary focuses our compassion on the American pilots who dropped the bombs.

In fact, the only heroes in Ken Burns’ Vietnam are American GI’s. Almost everyone else is their enemy: the Vietnamese they fought, the officers whose absurd strategy sent them to their deaths, and the American peace movement that struggled to end the war and bring them home. Burns and Novick portray the peace movement in the worst possible terms. In at least three places, they have moving sound bites about how returning soldiers were spit on or in other ways disrespected. It’s a false memory, at least in any general sense. They couldn’t find any visual support, no signs about baby killers, because it didn’t happen, or happened extremely rarely.

To me, this is the central flaw of Burns and Novick’s film, their failure to deal truthfully and equally with the peace movement. Six million Americans took part in the anti-war effort (only 2.7 million Americans served as soldiers). Everyone I knew in the peace movement honored the veterans and wanted justice for them. They studied books, took part in teach-ins, and watched newsreels. But Burns and Novick, with a couple of notable exceptions, characterize the peace movement as uninformed, chaotic, disrespectful, self absorbed and violent. At one point, they intercut 1969 pictures of kids at Woodstock wallowing in great music with soldiers fighting in Vietnam. What was that supposed to mean?

The kids who refused to go (many out of righteous opposition), who fled into exile in Canada or Sweden, or who, like boxer Muhammad Ali lost his right to fight for three years, or the Fort Hood 3 who went to prison, or the professors and journalists who lost their jobs, the protestors beaten by riled up construction workers, Martin Luther King who went public with his opposition in 1967, the priests who raided draft offices and burned their records, Alice Hertz and two other Americans who burned themselves to death in honor of the Buddhist monks who did the same in South Vietnam protesting our puppet regime — these are not worth profiling, all tinged by the same brush, they are the bad guys who disrespected our troops and went violent. What a wonderful authoritarian message that gives to viewers. Don’t protest an evil war or your country’s war crimes.

The only heroes in Burns and Novick’s Vietnam are American servicemen and I am thrilled to see them finally recognized for what they went through. We have moving back stories of their homes, their motives for joining, their families waiting for them.

None of the six million participants in the American peace movement gets similar treatment. The same is true, incidentally, of the Vietnamese. While the sound bites are great, there are no Vietnamese back stories either.

Without the peace movement, there is no moral center to this series. The lack of accountability is fatal. That an American general can watch from a helicopter the massacre at Mai Lai (as the films tells us) and suffer no consequences is sickening. If military courts had aggressively prosecuted violators of human rights, or even if we only had held detailed and accurate reconciliations where the truth came out, there would have been a chance that our reckless invasions of Iraq with its policy of torture and the invasion of Afghanistan would not have followed so easily. When people are held accountable for their actions, perpetrators of questionable violent acts think twice.

Last week on NPR an American general in Afghanistan announced that we are not trying to occupy territory in Afghanistan, we are simply trying to kill terrorists. Here, again, is the same rationale of the body count that led to disaster in Vietnam. We are reliving the Vietnam War because no one was ever really held responsible for its horrors.

The moral center of the Vietnam War was held by those who opposed it. Several people I’ve talked to say the series is depressing. I had the same feeling of despair at the end. Burns and Novick suggest Vietnam’s a tragedy. It’s not. In tragedy a powerful human makes a terrible mistake and suffers the consequences. No one suffered any consequences for Vietnam. Burns and Novick assure us that even if people did wrong, they didn’t mean to. America is still the shining city on the hill and we can do no wrong.

Christopher Koch, in 1965, became the first American reporter to visit North Vietnam.

October 10, 2017 Posted by | Deception, Fake News, Mainstream Media, Warmongering, Timeless or most popular, War Crimes | , , , | 9 Comments

Obfuscating the Truths of Vietnam

By S. Brian Willson | CounterPunch | September 25, 2017

I have hesitated to comment on the instructive discussion on VFP’s Full Disclosure page about the Burns-Novick Vietnam PBS series because I am not watching it. I have enjoyed reading many of the comments, and have communicated with people who have seen advance screenings.

In 2014, I heard Burns’ publicly discuss his pending PBS Vietnam series. He responded to a question about Agent Orange with a “safe” position that damage to human beings from the chemical herbicide was scientifically inconclusive. This was not surprising given that Burns is a popular, established film maker of various aspects of history from jazz, to baseball, to the Civil War. However, any deep threat to the US American basic “good guy” self-image would likely curtail his continued popularity, not likely to lend itself to corporate funding on PBS, whether from Bank of America, the Rockefeller or Koch Brothers.

Any treatment of the US War against the Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians that does not establish the historic foundation of the US criminal invasion, occupation, and destruction of an innocent country, murdering and maiming millions – profound moral issues – flunks authentic history. And, equally, if the presentation ignores the US creation of a fictional puppet government in the South that was so unpopular that the US was forced to deploy 3 million troops and massive airpower to protect it from the Vietnamese people themselves, it will fail miserably to do justice to genuine history.

Despite this history, Viet Nam is still commonly called a “Civil War” of relative “equivalencies”, a preposterous representation suggesting an “enemy” of basically poor people 8-10,000 miles distant on their own ground who for some unknown reason might threaten the wealthy US with bombs or naval and ground invasions, or….. ? And to represent that the war was “begun in good faith by decent people”, ignores the revelations of the Pentagon Papers.

Thus, Burns’s and Novick’s 18-hour “The Vietnam War” series severely obfuscates the most significant great truths of the US war – that “The Vietnam War” was and remains a Great Lie. Provoking national discussion about the war is important, but for it to be acceptable to a national PBS audience, the producers had to assure that in the framing the US remains basically the good guy against evil.

The honest portrayal of a people who wanted authentic autonomy from a stream of colonial intervenors seems outside our capacity to embrace, and certainly we were not able to comprehend the deep Vietnamese commitment to do whatever they believed necessary to rid itself of its latest occupier. Instead, the US created and funded a fictitious government with a corresponding enemy to justify our intervention against the shadowy, deceitful, evil, though tenacious “communists”. This US policy was intended to prevent a successful “Third World” post-WWII revolutionary movement that possessed the potential to spread to other restive peoples.

Without establishing this fundamental immoral foundation to the history of the US intervention, this Burns-Novick documentary history safely avoids provoking the US American people into an overdue, painful self-examination of its cultural “DNA”. Our geltanshauung was cast as a divinely guided “predestination” for goodness in 1630 when Puritan John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared “that we shall be as a city upon a hill” and “the eyes of all people are upon us”.

We are reminded of such arrogance in “Founding Father” Thomas Jefferson’s hypocritical words penned in the 1776 Declaration of Independence that claimed “all men are created equal”, yet a few words later declared the King of England using the “merciless Indian savages” to attack with “known rule of warfare” the new settlors with “undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions”.

Let’s see…. those words describe well our behavior in Viet Nam, genocidal behavior then, as in Viet Nam, off limits for US to consider.

*The US destroyed more than 60 percent of Viet Nam’s 21,000 inhabited, undefended villages, including use of unprecedented 8 million tons of bombs and 370,000 tons of napalm, murdering 4 to 5 million, leaving a decimated landscape with 26 million bomb craters and as many as 300,000 tons of unexploded ordnance that continue to kill and injure thousands every year;

*USAF manuals instructed the intentional bombings of the “psycho-social structure” of Viet Nam such as pagodas and churches (950 of them), schools (over 3,000) and hospitals and maternity wards (1,850, many with large red crosses painted on their roofs);

*US and South Vietnamese pilots were trained to “cut people down like little cloth dummies” during daytime raids;

*US employed the most intensive use of chemical warfare in human history, spraying 21 million gallons of lethal poison leaving millions deformed, sick and dead, now with third generation birth deformities;

*The US used torture in every southern province to extract confessions;

*The US imposed free fire (genocide) zones over 75 percent of the South, mass murdering villagers on the ground, etc.

In fact, our behavior was unspeakable, but similar to what our forebears did against our Indigenous inhabitants. Viet Nam was no aberration.

Yes, the PBS series will present much important history for the viewers through its artful selection of dramatic war footage and wide-ranging interviews with Vietnamese and US Americans. It will indeed educate and raise questions….as long as the storyline essentially preserves the US as the better of two basically equivalent fighting forces. It admits making terrible mistakes, but not crimes, implying or expressing justification for our intervention against evil – here the convenient Cold War Pavlovian “communist” bogeyman.

This PBS series is being aired as the US deepens its atrocious pattern of perpetual war around the globe since Viet Nam, the chess pieces continually moving from Viet Nam to almost everywhere else under a philosophy of “full spectrum dominance”. This includes use of the ultimate wholesale terror from the sky using missile-laden drones.

The nature of US behavior in Viet Nam, and in the little understood tragic Korean war more than a decade earlier, and in virtually all countries in which it intervenes, covertly or overtly, is virtually ungraspable to the majority of US Americans. In 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr delivered his anti-Vietnam War speech, declaring that “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today is my own government”. Hmm!

Without a willingness to honestly address our long pattern of immoral and criminal military and covert interventions to preserve essentially selfish, narcissistic values, utilizing deceit and grotesque barbaric techniques, when and how might the US people be awakened to discover a political consciousness of mutual respect? The Burns-Novick series will produce healthy debates about the US War in Southeast Asia, but it will tragically steer clear of revealing, while obscuring, the Grand Lie of the war itself, even as the documentary is touted by observers and viewers as monumental history. What a lost opportunity!

So, as people are glued to this intriguing PBS series, they will nonetheless continue to shop, their government will continue to bomb, and the warmakers will continue to get richer. Nothing changes.

S. Brian Willson, USAF Combat Security Police Officer, Viet Nam, 1969.

S. Brian Willson, as a 1st lieutenant, served as commander of a US Air Force combat security police unit in Viet Nam’s Mekong Delta in 1969. He is a trained lawyer who has been an anti-war, peace and justice activist for more than forty years. His psychohistorical memoir, “Blood On The Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson” was published in 2011 by PM Press. A long time member of Veterans For Peace, he currently resides in Portland, Oregon

September 25, 2017 Posted by | Film Review, Mainstream Media, Warmongering, Timeless or most popular | , , | Leave a comment

The Killing of History

By John Pilger | Consortium News | September 21, 2017

One of the most hyped “events” of American television, “The Vietnam War,” has started on the PBS network. The directors are Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Acclaimed for his documentaries on the Civil War, the Great Depression and the history of jazz, Burns says of his Vietnam films, “They will inspire our country to begin to talk and think about the Vietnam War in an entirely new way.”

An American soldier walks by a burning Vietnamese home
(From the PBS’ series, “The Vietnam War.”)

In a society often bereft of historical memory and in thrall to the propaganda of its “exceptionalism,” Burns’s “entirely new” Vietnam War is presented as an “epic, historic work.” Its lavish advertising campaign promotes its biggest backer, Bank of America, which in 1971 was burned down by students in Santa Barbara, California, as a symbol of the hated war in Vietnam.

Burns says he is grateful to “the entire Bank of America family” which “has long supported our country’s veterans.” Bank of America was a corporate prop to an invasion that killed perhaps as many as four million Vietnamese and ravaged and poisoned a once bountiful land. More than 58,000 American soldiers were killed, and around the same number are estimated to have taken their own lives.

I watched the first episode in New York. It leaves you in no doubt of its intentions right from the start. The narrator says the war “was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence and Cold War misunderstandings.”

The dishonesty of this statement is not surprising. The cynical fabrication of “false flags” that led to the invasion of Vietnam is a matter of record – the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” in 1964, which Burns promotes as true, was just one. The lies litter a multitude of official documents, notably the Pentagon Papers, which the great whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg released in 1971.

There was no good faith. The faith was rotten and cancerous. For me – as it must be for many Americans – it is difficult to watch the film’s jumble of “red peril” maps, unexplained interviewees, ineptly cut archive and maudlin American battlefield sequences. In the series’ press release in Britain — the BBC will show it — there is no mention of Vietnamese dead, only Americans.

“We are all searching for some meaning in this terrible tragedy,” Novick is quoted as saying. How very post-modern.

All this will be familiar to those who have observed how the American media and popular culture behemoth has revised and served up the great crime of the second half of the Twentieth Century: from “The Green Berets” and “The Deer Hunter” to “Rambo” and, in so doing, has legitimized subsequent wars of aggression. The revisionism never stops and the blood never dries. The invader is pitied and purged of guilt, while “searching for some meaning in this terrible tragedy.” Cue Bob Dylan: “Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?”

What ‘Decency’ and ‘Good Faith’?

I thought about the “decency” and “good faith” when recalling my own first experiences as a young reporter in Vietnam: watching hypnotically as the skin fell off napalmed peasant children like old parchment, and the ladders of bombs that left trees petrified and festooned with human flesh. General William Westmoreland, the American commander, referred to people as “termites.”

General William C. Westmoreland. (Wikipedia)

In the early 1970s, I went to Quang Ngai province, where in the village of My Lai, between 347 and 500 men, women and infants were murdered by American troops (Burns prefers “killings”). At the time, this was presented as an aberration: an “American tragedy” (Newsweek). In this one province, it was estimated that 50,000 people had been slaughtered during the era of American “free fire zones.” Mass homicide. This was not news.

To the north, in Quang Tri province, more bombs were dropped than in all of Germany during the Second World War. Since 1975, unexploded ordnance has caused more than 40,000 deaths in mostly “South Vietnam,” the country America claimed to “save” and, with France, conceived as a singularly imperial ruse.

The “meaning” of the Vietnam War is no different from the meaning of the genocidal campaign against the Native Americans, the colonial massacres in the Philippines, the atomic bombings of Japan, the leveling of every city in North Korea. The aim was described by Colonel Edward Lansdale, the famous CIA man on whom Graham Greene based his central character in The Quiet American.

Quoting Robert Taber’s The War of the Flea, Lansdale said, “There is only one means of defeating an insurgent people who will not surrender, and that is extermination. There is only one way to control a territory that harbours resistance, and that is to turn it into a desert.”

Nothing has changed. When Donald Trump addressed the United Nations on Sept. 19 – a body established to spare humanity the “scourge of war” – he declared he was “ready, willing and able” to “totally destroy” North Korea and its 25 million people. His audience gasped, but Trump’s language was not unusual. His rival for the presidency, Hillary Clinton, had boasted she was prepared to “totally obliterate” Iran, a nation of more than 80 million people. This is the American Way; only the euphemisms are missing now.

Returning to the U.S., I am struck by the silence and the absence of an opposition – on the streets, in journalism and the arts, as if dissent once tolerated in the “mainstream” has regressed to a dissidence: a metaphoric underground.

Missing What Trump Means

There is plenty of sound and fury at Trump the odious one, the “fascist,” but almost none at Trump as the symptom and caricature of an enduring system of conquest and extremism. Where are the ghosts of the great anti-war demonstrations that took over Washington in the 1970s? Where is the equivalent of the Freeze Movement that filled the streets of Manhattan in the 1980s, demanding that President Reagan withdraw battlefield nuclear weapons from Europe?

The sheer energy and moral persistence of these great movements largely succeeded; by 1987 Reagan had negotiated with Mikhail Gorbachev an Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) that effectively ended the Cold War.

Today, according to secret NATO documents obtained by the German newspaper, Suddeutsche Zetung, this vital treaty is likely to be abandoned as “nuclear targeting planning is increased.” The German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has warned against “repeating the worst mistakes of the Cold War. … All the good treaties on disarmament and arms control from Gorbachev and Reagan are in acute peril. Europe is threatened again with becoming a military training ground for nuclear weapons. We must raise our voice against this.”

But not in America. The thousands who turned out for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s “revolution” in last year’s presidential campaign are collectively mute on these dangers. That most of America’s violence across the world has been perpetrated not by Republicans, or mutants like Trump, but by liberal Democrats, remains a taboo.

Barack Obama provided the apotheosis, with seven simultaneous wars, a presidential record, including the destruction of Libya as a modern state. Obama’s overthrow of Ukraine’s elected government has had the desired effect: the massing of American-led NATO forces on Russia’s western borderland through which the Nazis invaded in 1941.

Obama’s “pivot to Asia” in 2011 signaled the transfer of the majority of America’s naval and air forces to Asia and the Pacific for no purpose other than to confront and provoke China. The Nobel Peace Laureate’s worldwide campaign of assassinations is arguably the most extensive campaign of terrorism since 9/11.

What is known in the U.S. as “the Left” has effectively allied with the darkest recesses of institutional power, notably the Pentagon and the CIA, to prevent a peace deal between Trump and Vladimir Putin and to reinstate Russia as an enemy, on the basis of no evidence of its alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The true scandal is the insidious assumption of power by sinister war-making vested interests for which no American voted. The rapid ascendancy of the Pentagon and the surveillance agencies under Obama represented an historic shift of power in Washington. Daniel Ellsberg rightly called it a coup. The three generals running Trump are its witness.

All of this fails to penetrate those “liberal brains pickled in the formaldehyde of identity politics,” as Luciana Bohne noted memorably. Commodified and market-tested, “diversity” is the new liberal brand, not the class people serve regardless of their gender and skin color: not the responsibility of all to stop a barbaric war to end all wars.

“How did it fucking come to this?” says Michael Moore in his Broadway show, Terms of My Surrender, a vaudeville for the disaffected set against a backdrop of Trump as Big Brother.

I admired Moore’s film, Roger & Me, about the economic and social devastation of his hometown of Flint, Michigan, and Sicko, his investigation into the corruption of healthcare in America.

Filmmaker Michael Moore

The night I saw his show, his happy-clappy audience cheered his reassurance that “we are the majority!” and calls to “impeach Trump, a liar and a fascist!” His message seemed to be that had you held your nose and voted for Hillary Clinton, life would be predictable again.

He may be right. Instead of merely abusing the world, as Trump does, Clinton, the Great Obliterator, might have attacked Iran and lobbed missiles at Putin, whom she likened to Hitler: a particular profanity given the 27 million Russians who died in Hitler’s invasion.

“Listen up,” said Moore, “putting aside what our governments do, Americans are really loved by the world!”

There was a silence.

September 22, 2017 Posted by | Deception, Mainstream Media, Warmongering, Timeless or most popular, War Crimes | , | 5 Comments

Hué Back When: Vietnam’s Pivotal Battle Reconsidered

Photo by Raymond Depardon | CC BY 2.0
By Michael Uhl | CounterPunch | September 20, 2017

For Mark Bowden, author of Hué 1968, the pivotal battle of the War in Vietnam did not follow the script most Americans were used to scanning in their newspapers or visualizing on the evening news.  The war Americans followed at home was like a humongous hunting expedition. U.S. forces seemed engaged in an endless chase over a lush boondocks inhabited by peasants and dotted with rice paddies or trailing the rugged forested highlands in search of the Viet Cong, a cunning and elusive enemy whose tactics were hit and run, not stand and fight.

When an atypical fixed battle developed, it was typically well-removed from the population centers that hugged the coastline off the South China Sea. Vietnam was, after all, a guerrilla war, or more broadly understood, a people’s war fought to reunite a nation, artificially divided into North and South by fiat of the United States in the service of geopolitical brinksmanship. Accused of fermenting the southern insurgency, North Vietnam was mercilessly bombed, but spared the carnage of a ground war. Not so the south where, by whatever foul means, the idea was “to isolate the population from the Viet Cong,” notwithstanding that, as Mark Bowden readily concedes, “in most instances they were one in the same.” The resistance was popular and widespread, and its idea was to drive the American invader out, and overthrow a despised ruling clique of Vietnamese compradors which survived only because the invader had committed hundreds of thousands of its own troops and billions of its taxpayers’ dollars to sustain it.

Americans were consistently assured that bit by bit the tumultuous countryside was being pacified, and the guerillas attrited, both politically and as a fighting force.  In late 1967 Americans were told they were winning the war. When Tet – the Luna New Year – dawned on January 31, 1968, that illusion was irreparably shattered.  The vastly superior forces of the United States and its southern catspaw, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), were caught virtually flat footed when thousands of regular troops of the People’s Army of North Vietnam seemingly materialized from thin air, and in coordination with local units of the southern resistance, launched up and down the length and breath of South Vietnam what was quickly branded the Tet Offensive. The most stunning blow for Americans, war managers and citizens alike, was an assault on the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon taken right to the walls of the American Embassy.

For several weeks thereafter, media attention in the U.S. and throughout the world focused primarily on the shock of Saigon’s vulnerability, overplaying its significance. A thousand kilometers north, at first scarcely noticed, even by the Commander of U.S. forces, General William Westmoreland, a battle had commenced that would become the “longest and bloodiest” of the war, not waged over the – till then – familiar rural topography, but house to house, street by street, culminating in one of the most intense chapters of urban warfare in the annals of American military history. Observers today might liken it to a more recent urban free-for-all entangling American troops in Fallujah, Iraq. Or, better yet, recall a U.S. military fiasco in downtown Mogadishu that Mark Bowden had crafted into an earlier best seller. To the extent comparisons hold, the Battle of Hue was like Black Hawk Down on steroids.

Hue 1968 is a comprehensive account of that battle written in the page-turning style of popular narrative non-fiction. The author has assembled a cast of eyewitnesses who participated in the action, Vietnamese and Americans, and the battle unfolds in recollections mined from their interviews, and, for the departed, from other primary sources at his disposal, such as lengthy wartime correspondences. Bowden has properly set the strategic stage for his action in the context of the war’s two most relevant contemporaneous developments.  There was the very fact of Tet, simultaneous attacks with varying degrees of effectiveness on virtually every population center and military base in the South. The Year of the Monkey came in like Armageddon, catching General Westmoreland, for one, completely off guard even though he later claimed he knew those crafty commies were planning something.

To draw attention away from their true intentions, the North Vietnamese had executed a feint, keeping a remote Marine encampment under heavy bombardment at Khe Sanh near the border with Laos, and just below the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).  Taking the bait, and just two weeks before Tet, Westmoreland weakened his coastal enclaves by detaching troops to reinforce the beleaguered camp. The American general believed he was luring the North Vietnamese into a repeat of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, which in 1954 brought French colonial control of Vietnam to an end but inadvertently opened the door to an American invasion. This time, Westmoreland fantasized, “he was determined to prevent history from repeating itself.” That battle never developed, and several months later, Khe Sanh was abandoned by the Americans.

Westmoreland’s obsession with Khe Sanh apparently prevented him from fully grasping that Hue, South Vietnam’s third largest city, and former Imperial capital, had fallen to the Liberation Front in less than twenty-four hours. This pattern of disbelief was moreover pervasive up and down the American chain of command. At Phu Bai, a Marine base less than fifteen miles south of Hue, the commanding general, with improbable symmetry named Forster LaHue, repeatedly ignored reports on the size of the force his counterattack would face, and insisted that, instead of thousands, their number couldn’t possibly exceed more than a few hundred. Could a force as large as the one being reported enter and occupy the entire city that quickly and virtually undetected? Through some of his most original reporting Bowden reconstructs exactly how that occurred.

Shifting the action in his account from one adversary to the other, Bowden begins with the attack, describing how four regiments totaling roughly four thousand uniformed NVA soldiers managed to infiltrate the border between North and South Vietnam, rendezvous with local guerrillas in a force of equal size, and ultimately bivouac on the outskirts of Hue. “It was the kind of troop movement,” comments Bowden, “that could remain secret only if the citizenry supported it, or didn’t care enough to sound the alarm.”

Certainly in Hue there were many Catholics who, in general, were partisans of the Saigon regime, not to mention a contingent of elite ARVN soldiers stationed there, who would have sounded the alarm if they’d been aware of any imminent threat. On another side was a strong current of anti-Americanism among the Buddhists and the student body at Vietnam’s prestigious Hue University, who two years earlier had combined and rioted against the repressive South Vietnamese government, and burned the library of the United States Information Service. But by early 1968, Hue was being little frequented by the war’s violence, and hopes were stoked that the city’s rich stock of architectural treasures, not least the palace of Vietnam’s last royal dynasty, might avoid destruction. Compared with the rest of the country, life in Hue was reasonably good, and reasonably safe. A degree of political complacency had set into what remained a functional commercial entrepot where trade and traffic on Hue’s iconic Perfume River remained brisk.

Even though a majority of Hue’s population of 140,000 could not be considered pillars of the revolution, an underground resistance network was well-entrenched in the city and highly motivated.  And Bowden, having tracked down a small cast of survivors, gives us affecting  sketches of, among others, the Village Girl who guided the troops through the darkness and pointed them toward their targets; the VC commander who stood up to the hero of Dien Bien Phu, General Vo Nguyen Giap, and revised the battle plan; the college boy who worked with his fisherman landlord to smuggle arms into the city by sampan; the Buddhist poet turned what we would call ‘information officer,’ and Bowden – who holds many conventional opinions– calls “propagandist;” but my favorite was the balsy little guy who was given the task to create a giant new flag for the victors to raise once they’d taken the city.

The flag detail merits a special nod to illustrate the contrast between the high tech m.o. of the Empire’s war machine, and the endless improvisation of those in the Front who used gumption, imagination and stealth to their advantage in the face of overwhelming fire power from air, land and sea. The task to create a flag to be seen, not as “an invasion or occupation, but rather as a liberation,” fell to Sargent Cao Van Sen, an old war horse who’d fought with the Viet Minh against the French, joined the northern Army, and was then ordered back to his native Hue to organize among the Viet Cong. The idea of the flag, Bowden says “was to recognize real political differences between North and South,” with a design that represented, not only the liberation forces, but also “the intelligentsia and the city’s religious factions – Buddhists and Catholics.” Hanoi’s political objective at that stage was transitional, “to establish a neutral, independent South Vietnam,” leaving reunification to future negotiations.” Sgt. Sen’s job was to line up the material, a sewing machine and a seamstress to produce a single flag, which, when completed, required two men to carry it.  After being “run up the 123-foot flagpole… that stood just outside the royal palace before the Citadel’s southern wall… it was visible all over Hue” when the city’s denizens awoke January 31st on the first morning of Tet.

Metropolitan Hue spread over both sides of the Perfume River, and the Front’s objective was to occupy the zone on the south bank called the Triangle, and, on the north, the Citadel, an “enormous fortress that enclosed nearly two square miles… its walls twenty-six feet high and impenetrably thick,” and enclosing the neighborhoods of Hue’s most affluent residents. Primary targets, included the air strip inside the Citadel, the province headquarters, the treasury, the post office, the prison, the radio station and “the sole American base, the [Military Assistance Command, Vietnam] MACV compound.”

The Commander of the Front, General Dang Kinh watched from high ground to the west, anxiously awaiting the assault to begin. Finally, “throughout the city arose the sound of gunfire… scattered at first, and then as if touched off by a fuse, it rose rapidly to a din.” By the time the shooting stopped, the attacking force, having “suffered only a few casualties, had dealt Hue’s defenders a crushing surprise blow.” The only major targets not overrun were a fortified redoubt occupied by the 1st ARVN Division inside the Citadel, and the MACV compound on the opposite side of the river, both heavily under siege.

Notwithstanding the loud cheerleading from Hanoi for Tet to unleash a “popular uprising,” it was General Kinh’s opinion, according to Bowden, that no such uprising would occur, not even in subdued and occupied Hue, given the certainty of an overpowering American counter-attack.  Kinh knew his forces “could take the city, but… not hold it for long. Achievable goals… were to destroy the ARVN division, and… round up… those who represented the Saigon regime… who were marked for arrest and punishment.”

The subsequent executions of many of these Saigon officials is thematic in Bowden’s text, an overly eager retailing of the ex post facto justification among the war’s apologists for the American decision to rescue their allies by destroying their city.  More informed observers might counter that for an American writer of Bowden’s stature to lay charges of mass murder at the Vietnamese resistance– in this instance taking blood retaliation on enemies considered legitimate military targets – demonstrates a highly hometown cast of mind, and a failure to do the math on the infinitely less selective assassination orgy of the U.S. Phoenix Program, not to mention the war’s vastly unbalanced human death toll perpetrated upon the Vietnamese population by the invader.

Kinh’s prediction proved correct. And much of what Bowden encapsulates in Hue 1968 is devoted to a ground level view on just how the city was retaken. Bowden fully examines first January 31st, the day Hue fell, from a variety of vantage points including civilians and combatants on both sides, then moves the battle forward in week long blocks until the Front, faced with annihilation, is forced to withdraw. Had the U.S. command acted more swiftly, the lives of many marines might have been spared, but the city faced devastation in every scenario as long as the occupiers remained. The initial counter-thrust came from the nearby Marine base at Phu Bai when General LaHue, still doubting his adversary’s vast numerical superiority, initially dispatched so few marines that, on one of few occasions during the war, the U.S. was seriously out-gunned. When a marine captain already in Hue called for air and artillery strikes to dislodge the entrenched enemy, General LaHue told him “rather strikingly that he was overreacting.“ LaHue “saw no reason on earth why the more than four hundred men in the [MACV] compound, reinforced with well over three hundred U.S. marines,” assorted tanks and heavy weaponized vehicles, “should not be able to flatten anything between them and the fucking Citadel.”  Bowden aptly titles this episode An Idiotic Mission.

Three hundred men represented one understrength marine battalion, but only a single unit, Alpha Company of the 1st Battalion of the 1st Marine Division was dispatched at first to test the enemy strength. This proved a disaster, and the best account of the action on the ground I’ve found was not Bowden’s, but in Vietnam-Perkasie, a memoir by W.D. (Bill) Ehrhart. When Alpha Company left Phu Bai just as the sun was coming up, Bill Ehrhart was given the option of staying behind. He was short, meaning only a few days remained on what had already been a harrowing thirteen month tour.  But since the unit was just going to check things out, and were told they’d be back by evening, Bill threw caution to the wind.

Alpha Company, moving to relieve the assault on the MACV compound passed a gas station on the city outskirts, and then, Ehrhart writes, “all hell broke loose… The shock of the ambush caught the whole column completely by surprise… We knew the compound lay straight up the road… seven blocks ahead… We fought our way up the [first] block. And the one after that. All day long we inched up the street. Casualties were appalling.  Wounded and dead Marines lay everywhere.”  Ehrhart, wounded in action, was in the thick of it the whole time. His memoir is a compelling, heart wrenching read.

From there Bowden covers the fighting chapter and verse. And if battle action is your genre, it’s a read that’s hair raising enough to fix your attention. The killing went on for 26 days, and by the end, 80% of the city lay in rubble. Bowden devotes a last chapter to Hue’s human toll. “Two-hundred and fifty American marines and soldiers were killed, and 1,554 wounded… The Front’s losses are estimated at between 2,400 and 5000…. A conservative guess at those executed would be two thousand… [which] brings us to a combined civilian death toll of about eight thousand… not an exact figure, but to the degree it’s off, it’s off by being too low.”

That the civilian death toll was enormous, cannot be doubted, and is by most accounts I’ve read over the years attributed to the terrible pounding the city took from naval off-shore guns, and from American and ARVN air power and artillery intent on expelling the Front whatever the human cost. As for “those executed,” it appears as if Bowden may have that figure “off” by a factor of ten. Writing in The New York Times in October 1972, Richard Barnet, a former State Department official and co-founder of the Institute for Policy Studies, quotes what the Hué Police Chief told a correspondent of The Times of London in March 1968 just days after the battle. The Chief, “Doan Cong Lap estimated the total number of executions at 200.“ Moreover, “the local Catholic priest reported that none of his clergy or parishioners were harmed by the N.L.F. [National Liberation Front],” who had been given instructions to be on their best behavior.  Even if these two eyewitnesses under-counted the reprisal deaths, it’s still unlikely that Bowden’s figure holds water, given his reliance on official U.S. sources.

Richard Barnet took up this topic at a time when voices in the Nixon administration were claiming that mass executions at Hué were proof there would be a bloodbath if the U.S. withdrew and the communists came to power. When questioned on this in Hanoi, Premier Pham Van Dong retorted, “There is nothing in recent Vietnamese history to suggest that a government bent on killing hundreds of thousands of people in South Vietnam can keep peace.” In any case the bloodbath was us. As Barnet dryly quipped, “In the Orwellian age, the daily saturation bombings of Indochina are defended as missions of mercy.”

Mark Bowden seems to bend over backwards throughout this voluminous and valuable book to provide a two-sided perspective on a particularly tragic moment in the Vietnam War. But there’s something distastefully familiar in his throwaway rhetoric of the Cold War bias that got us into Vietnam in the first place. Bowden demonstrates how truth is betrayed by the words he chooses, for example, that “antiwar activists in the States romanticized Ho Chi Minh, and his cause, emphasizing his nationalist character… [but] Hanoi was Communist, authoritarian to the core… ruthless and doctrinaire.” Yet even this phobic reflex to honor the thought police in the mainstream where he prospers doesn’t cause Bowden to ignore that it was the Stalinists who hoped to come to power though the ballot box and the Americans who made war to prevent that.

By consensus in the school of conventional wisdom the Tet Offensive of 1968 was the turning point of the Vietnam War, after which the American war aim was not to win, but how to get out. Mark Bowden makes an excellent case that the fulcrum of that turning point was the Battle of Hue. But what if there was no turning point?  In Vietnam the protracted war to expel a powerful foreign invader had its roots in millennia past; the American invasion was just another bump in the road.

Michael Uhl is the author of  Vietnam Awakening

September 20, 2017 Posted by | Book Review, Illegal Occupation, Timeless or most popular, War Crimes | , | 1 Comment

Grim Lessons from a Faraway War

By Don North | Consortium News | July 4, 2017

The Battle of Hue in 1968 – the climactic clash of the Tet Offensive, which itself was the turning point of the Vietnam War – exploded the official lies from U.S. commanders about progress toward victory but also delivered a warning about the future costs if the conflict were continued indefinitely.

In that sense, the Battle of Hue has resonance to America’s current “endless war” in Afghanistan and other military interventions in the nearly 16 years since 9/11, conflicts marked by bravery of soldiers on opposite sides as well as the arrogance and careerism of the top brass and feckless politicians.

As author Mark Bowden writes in his epilogue to his new book, Hue 1968, “Alternative history enthusiasts promote the preposterous idea that the U.S. might have won the war if it had thrown itself more heartily into the conflict. As some of the nation’s more recent wars have helped illustrate, ‘victory’ in Vietnam would have been neither possible nor desirable. It would have required a massive and sustained military presence, and a state of permanent war. Hue illustrates just how bitter that war would have been.”

Bowden, author of Blackhawk Down and 12 other books, was a 16-year-old high school student in Philadelphia on Jan. 3l, 1968, when the battle of Hue began. The attack was part of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) assault across South Vietnam at the start of the Tet holiday by an estimated 80,000 fighters. They achieved nearly total surprise in most areas, as they did in Hue, one of the most venerated places in Vietnam.

Hue’s population of 140,000 made it South Vietnam’s third largest city, with two-thirds of the population living within the walls of the old city known as the Citadel, three-square-miles surrounded by walls 20 feet high and 30 feet thick. Within the walls was yet another fortified enclave, the historic Imperial Palace, home of the Vietnamese emperors before the French took control in 1883.

A giant Viet Cong flag was raised over Hue’s Citadel and flew for 25 days while battalions of NVA occupied the Emperors Palace and other positions in the Citadel. Yet, this reality was denied and obscured by the top U.S. commander, General William Westmoreland, whom Bowden describes as inept and dishonest:

“General Westmoreland continually and falsely assured political leaders in Washington and the American public that the city had not fallen into enemy hands. This refusal to face facts had tragic consequences for many of the marines and soldiers who fought there. ‘Westy’ denied that his official casualty estimates [of enemy troops] were inflated and said the enemy’s offensive was a sign of desperation.

“He also wrote that many NVA and VC had fought ‘halfheartedly.’ To a man, American veterans I interviewed told me they had faced a disciplined, highly motivated, skilled and determined enemy. To characterize them otherwise is to diminish the accomplishment of those who drove them out of Hue.”

First-Person Account

As an ABC News correspondent in Vietnam, I was personally aware of General Westmoreland’s fabrications starting with his announcement at a Saigon news conference on Jan. 31, that Hue had been recaptured and NVA soldiers forced out.

Later in February, I joined the U.S. Marines of 1st of the 5th battalion as they fought for ten days to advance the last 1,000 yards along the south wall of the Citadel. Bowden’s clear and vivid descriptions of the desperate daily combat brought back painful memories for me.

“The Battle of Hue is a microcosm of the entire conflict,” writes Bowden. “With nearly half a century of hindsight, Hue deserves to be widely remembered as the single bloodiest battle of the war, one of its defining events, and one of the most intense urban battles in American history.”

Despite Westmoreland’s spin, the Battle of Hue and the broader Tet Offensive had a powerful impact on President Lyndon Johnson and some of his top advisers. The intensity of the fighting exposed Westmoreland as an untrustworthy source of information, not just to the press and public but even in his secret communications with the White House.

Westmoreland’s analysis that the enemy attack on Hue was simply a feint to deflect from the fighting at Khe Sahn destroyed his reputation for accurate foresight. Washington lawyer Clark Clifford, replacing Robert McNamara as Secretary of Defense, was ready to reject Westmoreland’s unfailingly upbeat view of the war.

After the first two weeks of Hue fighting Clifford told President Johnson, “On one hand the military has said we had quite a victory out there … on the other hand, they now say it was such a big victory that we need one hundred and twenty thousand more men.”

Shortly after Clifford’s assignment to be Secretary of Defense, Westmoreland’s request for over 100,000 more troops was denied and the General was relieved of command.

“Both sides miscalculated,” writes Bowden. “Hanoi counted on a popular uprising that didn’t come, while Washington, blindsided, refused to believe the truth. The armies on both sides played their roles courageously and to terrible effect. The battle’s clearest losers were the citizens of Hue. The systematic executions of Hue citizens suspected of Saigon sympathies are today denied and are an inconvenient memory for the ruling Communist party of Vietnam.”

Bowden quotes civilian casualty estimates of 4,856 by the Saigon government. He cites the American scholar Douglas Pike who studied the mass graves immediately after the fighting, as being likely closest to the truth with a count of 2,800. Total number of Hue civilians killed by U.S. bombing, crossfire between the two forces, and the executions is recognized as 5,800.

An estimated 80 percent of Hue structures were either destroyed or heavily damaged. A total of 250 American soldiers and Marines were killed and 1,554 wounded. South Vietnamese government troop casualties were put at 458 killed and 2,700 wounded. The Vietcong losses were estimated at between 2,400 and 5,000. The final toll of 25 days of fighting numbers well over 10,000 making it the bloodiest battle of the Vietnam War.

Pro-War Propaganda

Another consequence of the Tet Offensive was the growing hostility among pro-war Americans toward on-scene journalists who described the U.S. military setbacks and contradicted the upbeat assessments from Westmoreland and the military brass, leading to a narrative blaming the press corps for losing Vietnam.

But Bowden disagrees with this complaint, writing: “Journalism has long been blamed for losing the war, but the American reporting from Hue was more accurate than official accounts, deeply respectful, and uniformly sympathetic to US fighting men.”

Instead, Bowden is critical of U.S. military leadership in Hue and documents many examples of bad tactics and particularly misjudging the efficiency of the NVA by sending under-strength units to engage large and entrenched enemy forces.

Bowden’s disdain for senior officers in the battle is at odds with his admiration for the “grunts” on both sides.

“I was moved by the heroism and dedication of those who fought on both sides of the battle,” writes Bowden. “In the worst days of this fight, facing the near certainty of death or severe bodily harm, those caught up in the Battle of Hue repeatedly advanced. Many of those who survived are still paying for it. To me the way they were used, particularly the way their idealism and loyalty was exploited by leaders who themselves had lost faith in the effort, is a stunning betrayal. It is a lasting American tragedy and disgrace.”

Many other books and analyses of the battle have celebrated the valor of U.S. troops while showing little interest in how they were used.

“The conspiracy of denial also explains why this terrible battle has remained, for most Americans, so little known,” writes Bowden. “It has been conscientiously remembered by the US Marine Corps, albeit with more emphasis on the glory than on the leadership blunders that cost so many lives.”

Bowden’s book also may have put to rest fears that history must be written by those who experienced it. In five years of diligent in-depth research, thousands of interviews on both sides of the battle and an ability to analyze his research in terms of what each day’s events meant for the entire war, Bowden has produced a book critics say is the best understanding of the Battle of Hue and its effect on the war.

Some historians say the sweet spot for understanding an historical event is about 50 years – enough time for a measure of perspective, yet while there are still living eyewitnesses. Since the now-unified Vietnam is welcoming Americans, it also was possible for Bowden for the first time to report the battle from both sides.

“Most American veterans were pleased to share their experiences with me,” says Bowden. “The sheer number of interviews gave me multiple perspectives on nearly every event described. I am indebted to previous accounts, Battle for Hue by Keith Nolan; Fire in the Streets by Eric Hammel; The Lost Battalion by Charles Krohn; The Siege of Hue by George Smith; and The Cat from Hue by Jack Lawrence.”

Bowden says he learned a great deal from journalist’s reports written at the time and even more from talking to reporters and photographers who produced them, particularly Gene Roberts, John Olson, and Mike Morrow.

Bowden lists several viewpoints shared by the hundreds of American veterans he interviewed: most were proud of having served; nearly all were angry over the betrayal of their youthful idealism, mostly at American leaders who sent them to fight a war that was judged unwinnable from the start; all felt sorrow for the friends they lost and the horror the war inflicted on everyone involved; many described their difficulties in adjusting to normal life after returning home.

There are also lessons for the present and the future. Urban warfare has become more common since the Battle of Hue as more of the world’s population leaves rural areas. Although untrained in urban warfare, the U.S. Marines — dispatched to reclaim Hue — soon adapted from the jungles and paddies they were used to in Vietnam.

Bowden describes in graphic detail the tactics of avoiding booby-trapped doors and instead smashing through the sides of buildings, clearing room to room, staying off the streets and open areas, hard lessons of the fighting in Hue that the U.S. Marines brought to Iraq in 2004 when they assaulted the city of Fallujah twice.

Today, with U.S.-backed forces battling ISIS militants in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqah, Syria, the bloody lessons of Hue — and memories of the severe civilian casualties — are relevant again.

Don North is a veteran war correspondent who covered the Vietnam War and many other conflicts around the world. He is the author of Inappropriate Conduct, the story of a World War II correspondent whose career was crushed by the intrigue he uncovered.

July 4, 2017 Posted by | Book Review, Deception, Illegal Occupation, Timeless or most popular, War Crimes | , | 1 Comment