Monday, 17 March 2014

The forgotten American shame of Vietnam

It is almost 40 years since the Fall of Saigon and the end of the US war in Vietnam. Memories of that traumatic war are dimming as veterans, politicians and journalists who lived in that period die off. It is therefore easier to mythologize the war and cast the US defeat in a more positive light. Nevertheless the US psyche remains deeply scarred. A new book Kill Anything That Moves by Nick Turse picks the scab (Turse would most likely claim "lances the boil") of possibly the most shameful aspect of that conflict.

Written over a 10 year period the book is a meticulously researched exposé of systematic institutionalized abuse of Vietnamese civilians. The narrative that most Americans accept is that, while there may have been occasional excesses carried out in the blood-lust of the moment, the war was prosecuted honorably and within the rules of the Geneva Convention. Turse demonstrates that this narrative is completely fictitious. He has interviewed hundreds of US veterans and Vietnamese survivors, pored through numerous written records and built a consistent and compelling picture of the army culture in Vietnam. What he has discovered is chilling.

American troops faced a guerilla war where the enemy was a shadowy figure often indistinguishable from a civilian. This produced more endemic anxiety in the average American soldier than in a more conventional war where a small number of pitched battles are separated by long periods of tedium. Not knowing who was friend or foe cannot have been easy for the raw recruits many of whom were unwilling draftees. The army's response to this very stressful environment was very often to turn a blind eye to the over-reaction of trigger-happy soldiers. At least it perhaps started like that but very soon, as Turse demonstrates in a multitude of case histories, the ease with which troops could get away with murder bred a callousness that quickly got out of control. Very soon civilians (including women and children) were being killed for sport and their deaths were reported as the deaths of enemy combatants. Significant quarters of the army turned a blind eye to atrocity after atrocity - all that mattered was body count. A few men in a US unit could level an entire village in minutes, leaving no-one left alive, merely because they were looking for a lone sniper; that power is too corrosive to be left unchecked.

Obviously this new narrative is so explosive that one would be tempted to reject it out of hand. But Turse has amassed a mountain of supporting evidence for his claims and it is time that the United States confronts its past with honesty. It is no longer credible to believe that the US war crimes began and ended with the My Lai massacre. The truth is that there were hundreds of My Lai's.

Possibly it is too late to bring the war criminals to justice (although, of course, there is no statute of limitations of war crimes). But the guilty parties are not simply the young men who raped and murdered Vietnamese civilians, all the time demonizing them as "Gooks" or "Charlie". The guilt should be borne by those senior officers in the US army who were aware that the men on the ground were out of control but either did nothing or tacitly encouraged their behaviour.

Retribution would not only represent justice for the survivors of the indiscriminate killings but would remind the most powerful (and therefore most dangerous) nation in the world that their military might can hardly be used without being abused. Shining the torch on their Vietnamese atrocities would ignite a debate about the very society they stand for - a debate that currently is not happening because the establishment has been so successful in hiding the facts.

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