The U.S. war in Vietnam was “begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence and Cold War miscalculations.”
– Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War,” Episode One [emphasis added]
“Over the next three years, the United States would struggle to understand the complicated country it had come to save…. The new president [Kennedy] would find himself caught between the momentum of war and the desire for peace, between humility and hubris, between idealism and expediency, between the truth and a lie.”
– Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War,” Episode Two [emphases added]
U.S. President Eisenhower explaining his government’s sabotage of the planned (but never held) 1956 Vietnamese elections to reunify the briefly divided country:
“I have never talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs who did not agree that had elections been held as of the time of the fighting, possibly 80 per cent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh as their leader rather than [the South Vietnamese dictator] Bao Dai…. As one Frenchman said to me, “What Vietnam needs is another Syngman Rhee [brutal South Korean dictator, d. 1960], regardless of all the difficulties the presence of such a personality would entail.”
“In the winter of 1961-62, Kennedy initiated the full-scale bombing of those parts of South Vietnam controlled by the National Liberation Front (all but Saigon and its immediate surroundings). The justification that bombing was needed to defeat the revolution masked the indiscriminate nature of the aerial assault, which resulted in casualties that were overwhelmingly civilian. And so the tone was set for the next eleven years of war. It was also Kennedy who authorized the first use of Chemicals of Mass Destruction in Southeast Asia, with napalm the best-known and most deadly. Never had chemical warfare been used so extensively.”
– Andy Plascik, Global Research, 2013
“The only thing they told us [in basic training] about the Viet Cong was they were gooks,” said one U.S. veteran later. “They were to be killed. Nobody sits around and gives you their historical and cultural background. They’re the enemy. Kill, kill, kill. That’s what we got in practice. Kill, kill, kill.”
A U.S. pilot: “We sure were pleased with those backroom boys at Dow [chemical corporation]. The original product wasn’t so hot—if the gooks were quick they could scrape it off. So the boys started adding polystyrene—now it sticks like shit to a blanket. But then if the gooks jumped under water it stopped burning, so they started adding Willie Peter [white phosphorous] so’s to make it burn better. It’ll burn under water now. And one drop is enough; it’ll keep on burning right down to the bone so they die anyway from phosphorous poisoning.”
– Jonathan Neale, A People’s History of the Vietnam War, p. 69
When the Burns “Vietnam War” series ends, I’ll post a longer review about the documentary and about the antiwar movement within the U.S. military. The first three (of ten) episodes, though, strongly suggest that these reviewers will be hard to refute:
The core flaw of the entire project—it’s a series of stories, but not really a history of the war. That’s the Burns-Novick trademark and it’s worked for a long time, making them famous and I suspect wealthy. But it substitutes vignettes for ideas, personal anecdotes for larger structural factors, bathos for analysis. And it ends up providing a misguided view of the war, one that has politically conservative consequences (ironic because Burns himself is openly liberal) by shifting attention away from the historical, material reasons for American intervention and focusing on 79 people interviewed who were directly involved in Vietnam. Instead of an exposé of aggressive militarism, they give us sentimental stories of survival and perseverance.
Burns and Novick, despite their claims of originality, provide a pretty boilerplate liberal examination of the war. It “was begun in good faith, by decent people.”
– Bob Buzzanco
A historical documentary in search of consensus, The Vietnam War indulges in Cold War common sense. It pits East against West and the United States against Communism. It could have been made in the 1980s. More recent scholarship might have provided a fresher frame and more comprehensive account of the war….
Instead, The Vietnam War gives us a throwback to the days when fighting the Communist bogeyman justified all manner of US military intervention.
– Jeremy Lembcke, Vietnam veteran and author of an excellent book about the “spitting” myth
Burns and his collaborators, including a historian named Geoffrey Ward, have apparently not availed themselves of the research and scholarship of such leading experts as Christian Appy, Bernard Greiner, Nick Turse, and Marilyn Young, among many others. They found time to get the rights to “White Rabbit,” which none of us ever need to hear again, but not to read anything that would rattle their impossibly naïve view of their country and its innocence. I specialize in the Holocaust and anti-Nazi resistance and have managed to conduct far more historical research on this war, over the years, than the film-makers.
The first episode included the scandalous proclamation at the top of this article (“good faith”). The second and third episodes of “The Vietnam War” (which is known by historians as “The U.S.-Vietnam War”) has much to say about “Communist atrocities” and outrages, invoking some unrelated stories from East Germany. After all, if a Commie in East Germany would torture someone, a Commie in Vietnam or Cuba would do the same.
In truth, the Vietnamese Communists and their allied forces were often less than humane. However, here is a crucial difference: They did not travel halfway around the world to kill four million people, burn down hundreds of villages, rain death and destruction from the air, and lay waste to the landscape. Thousands of American civilians are not blown up or poisoned each year – four decades later – because of Vietnamese bombing and chemical warfare. Therefore, the false equivalencies and efforts at “balance” in this documentary are quite galling.
Other things are sorely missing, which would give this documentary some coherence and value. In the span of 18 hours, the film-makers could have placed this horrible war in broader context, but this would have been far too uncomfortable: Why disturb your fellow Americans by informing them of other outrages during this time (roughly 1954 – 1975), from Guatemala to Congo to Indonesia? Outrages that fit into a long, consistent pattern?
A “good faith” effort to save the natives from communism
For little clear strategic purpose—save to uphold U.S. prestige and halt the presumed advance of communism—the United States eventually deployed more than 500,000 troops to the war in Vietnam (usually dated 1964-1975, from the time of the heavy commitment of U.S. troops to the collapse of the Republic of South Vietnam).
The U.S. military employed several tactics that targeted civilians as well as combatants and resulted in massive casualties: the creation of “free-fire zones,” in which anything moving could be bombed or strafed; the copious use of chemical warfare; internment in camps; the wholesale destruction of villages; and campaigns, coordinated with the South Vietnamese dictatorship, to wipe out perceived political enemies (such as the “Phoenix Program,” which led to the torture and murder of nearly 100,000 Vietnamese). A March 1968 massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians in the village of My Lai became emblematic of U.S. atrocities. This massacre was far from an isolated incident: In 1971, a U.S. colonel admitted that “every unit of brigade size has its My Lai hidden someplace.”
Predictably, a war of this nature corrupted many of the American soldiers, some of whom indulged in such grisly practices as the collection of body parts, a form of trophy-taking that has been chronicled in other wars dating to antiquity. The combat in Vietnam provides telling examples of the brutalization and dehumanization of war, especially those with colonial and racial overtones. “The only thing they told us [in basic training] about the Viet Cong was they were gooks,” said one U.S. veteran later. “They were to be killed. Nobody sits around and gives you their historical and cultural background. They’re the enemy. Kill, kill, kill. That’s what we got in practice. Kill, kill, kill.” Ultimately, somewhere between three and five million Vietnamese were killed during the U.S. war, which failed to prevent the victory of the nationalist and Communist forces in 1975.
A racist country commits racist crimes
A U.S. Army lieutenant in Vietnam described his unit’s desecration of enemy corpses, which were placed in “amusing” poses and arrangements. He was dimly aware, as he explained later, that he should have felt “outrage,” but “inside I was … laughing. [Pause in original.] I laughed.” An American corporal who served a tour in 1969-1970 testified “I never had a specific hatred for the Vietnamese, I just tended to ignore them. They didn’t figure in any calculations as to being human. They either got in the way or they weren’t there.”
During the long decades when lynching was widespread in the United States, photographs captured images of gleeful white men, and some women and children, posing or simply socializing alongside the charred bodies of the victims. So acceptable were these practices that perpetrators often fashioned postcards out of the photos, unabashedly celebrating their acts of racist terrorism. A witness to a lynching in Tennessee in 1915 reported that “Hundreds of kodaks clicked all morning at the scene of the lynching…. Picture card photographers installed a portable printing plant at the bridge” where Thomas Brooks was murdered; they did a thriving business. At several nearby schools “the day’s routine was delayed until boy and girl pupils could get back from viewing the lynched man.”
Warfare and Genocide
“All wars generate savage temptations that are more or less murderous. The bloodthirsty madness of combatants, the craving for vengeance, the distress, fear, paranoia, and feelings of abandonment, the euphoria of victories and anguish of defeats, and above all a sense of damnation after crimes have been committed—these things provoke genocidal behavior and actions.”
– Jean Hatzfeld, Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak 
Wars and occupations with pronounced colonial and racist characteristics are especially liable to generate genocidal violence. Young soldiers finding themselves in an “alien environment” and “can easily come to feel that rules of civilized behavior no longer need to apply.” In his illuminating essay about a 2009 Chinese film about the “Rape of Nanjing,” Ian Buruma referred to “the tenuous borderline between ritualized violence and the real thing” and “the danger of putting young men, locked in the cocoon of their own culture, in an alien environment, where they can easily come to feel that rules of civilized behavior no longer need to apply.”
In November 2011, U.S. Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs was convicted of organizing an Army unit that “killed Afghan civilians for sport.” Gibbs also mutilated his victims’ corpses and kept body parts as gruesome trophies. What enabled Sgt. Gibbs, who had no history of violent or cruel behavior in civilian life, to commit such depravities? He told the court “that he had ‘disassociated’ the bodies from being human, that taking the fingers” and a tooth “was like removing antlers from a deer.” In his classic memoir of the Pacific theater of World War II, veteran E.B. Sledge reflected on the atrocities committed by each side against enemy troops: “The fierce struggle for survival … eroded the veneer of civilization and made savages of us all. We existed in an environment totally incomprehensible to men behind the lines.” Sledge added, “Time had no meaning, life had no meaning.”
In his classic study of German murderers on the Eastern Front, Christopher Browning determined that “brutalization was not the cause but the effect of these men’s behavior.” After their initiation into genocidal mass murder, the “horrors … eventually became routine, and the killing became progressively easier.” Varnado Simpson killed twenty-five people, by his count, during the My Lai Massacre of 1968. Simpson admitted not only to the killings, but to “cutting off their hands and cutting out their tongue” and scalping them. “The part that’s hard is to kill,” he reminisced, “but once you kill, it becomes easier.” He found himself with “no feelings or no emotions or no nothing.”
As evidenced in Vietnam and many other theaters of war, the impersonal, bureaucratized nature of modern warfare creates various forms of emotional and physical distancing that make it easier to escape responsibility or feelings of personal guilt for one’s role in terrible violence—or even to witness the results. The language of bureaucratized warfare aids in this distancing effect.
Between 1969 and 1973 the U.S. government conducted a bombing campaign that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in Cambodia; the campaign was called “Operation Menu,” and target areas were given such mundane codenames as “Lunch,” “Dinner,” and “Snack.”
A few years later, a member of the staff of Henry Kissinger (National Security Advisor to President Nixon) described the untroubled manner in which his colleagues, including Nixon and Kissinger, bandied about euphemisms to shield themselves from the consequences. “Though they spoke of terrible human suffering,” observed the official, Roger Morris, “reality was sealed off by their trite, lifeless vernacular: ‘capabilities, ‘objectives,’ ‘our chips,’ ‘giveaway.’” With indignation, Morris added, “They were immune to the “bloodshed and suffering they administered to their stereotypes” and seemed to believe that their “cool, deliberate detachment” and “banishment of feeling” were laudable.
Throughout World War II, in all sectors, the United States dropped 2 million tons of bombs; for Indochina the total figure is 8 million tons, with an explosive power equivalent to 640 Hiroshima-size bombs…. In addition, 150,000 acres of forest were destroyed through the chemical warfare known as defoliation. For South Vietnam, the figure is 19 million gallons of defoliant dropped on an area comprising 20 percent of South Vietnam—some 6 million acres. In an even briefer period, between 1969 and 1973, 539,129 tons of bombs were dropped in Cambodia, largely by B-52s, of which 257,465 tons fell in the last six months of the war (as compared to 160,771 tons on Japan from 1942–1945).
There is a word for this type of war
Addressing an international tribunal on U.S. war crimes in Vietnam, Jean-Paul Sartre pointed to several factors that lent a genocidal character to the American assault. Any war in the modern epoch, the French philosopher suggested—and especially a war with a colonial component—would become a “total war,” engulfing civilians as well as soldiers. All members of the “enemy” nation would inevitably be viewed as the enemy. And “against partisans backed by the entire population, colonial armies are helpless,” Sartre added, and their only hope for victory will be “to eliminate the civilian population.” Far from a “mistake” committed by well-intentioned but misguided politicians, as argued in the Burns documentary, the American war in Vietnam was among the most cruel and destructive crimes of the “century of genocide.”
Some of this blog post’s text is from my 2017 book To Kill a People: Genocide in the Twentieth Century.
 In a March 24, 1965 memo, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs John McNaughton summarized U.S. goals thus: “70% –To avoid a humiliating US defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor). 20% –To keep SVN (and then adjacent) territory from Chinese hands. 10% –To permit the people of SVN to enjoy a better, freer way of life. ALSO—To emerge from crisis without unacceptable taint from methods used. NOT—To ‘help a friend,’ although it would be hard to stay in if asked out.” The Pentagon Papers: The Senator Gravel Edition, vol. 3 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 349.
 Jerry Kuzmarov, The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009), 33. The colonel, Oran Henderson, made these comments on May 24, 1971, during a court-martial that was brought against him for serving as commanding officer of the unit. He was acquitted. Nick Turse, “A My Lai a Month,” The Nation, December 1, 2008: http://www.thenation.com/article/my-lai-month?page=full#.
 Christian Appy, Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 107.
 The most accurate estimates probably comes from a study conducted by researchers from Harvard Medical School and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. It concluded that 3.8 million Vietnamese people were killed: http://www.bmj.com/content/336/7659/1482 (accessed May 12, 2014). Historian and journalist Nick Turse, author of one of the most well-researched accounts of the conduct of the American war, wrote that even this “staggering figure may be an underestimate.”
 Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 56.
 Corporal William Hatton, who was 23 years old while serving in Vietnam, gave this testimony at the “Winter Soldier Investigations,” organized in January-February 1971 by Vietnam Veterans Against the War. With other testimonies, it was later read into the Congressional Record later that year during war-crimes hearings. It is available here: http://www.wintersoldier.com/staticpages/index.php?page=20040315221813511 (accessed September 21, 2017).
He continued, “And also, we had this habit, when we’d leave the combat base–I frequently traveled between Quang Tri and Dong Ha and contact teams and we’d take C ration crackers and put peanut butter on it and stick a trioxylene heat tab in the middle and put peanut butter around it and let the kid munch on it. Now they’re always looking for ‘Chop, Chop’ and the effect more or less of trioxylene is to eat the membranes out of your throat and if swallowed, would probably eat holes through your stomach.” Ibid.
 For an excellent, contextualized collection of such horrifying images, see James Allen, ed., Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Santa Fe, NM: Twin Palms Publishers, 2000). This book helped inspire a traveling exhibit of the same name: http://www.freedomcenter.org/without-sanctuary/ (accessed September 14, 2017).
 Unsigned, “Lynching,” The Crisis 10:2 (June 1915), 71.
 Jean Hatzfeld, Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak (New York: Picador, 2006), 105.
 Ian Buruma, “From Tenderness to Savagery in Seconds” (Review of “City of Life and Death”), New York Review of Books, October 13, 2011.
 John W. Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon, 1986), 36.
 William Yardley, “Soldier Is Convicted of Killing Afghan Civilians for Sport,” New York Times, November 10, 2011: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/11/us/calvin-gibbs-convicted-of-killing-civilians-in-afghanistan.html?_r=1&hp (accessed September 20, 2017).
 E.B. Sledge, With the Old Breed (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 121. Sledge also wrote of the moral corruption of “decent men … when reduced to a brutish existence in their fight for survival.” Ibid., 120.
 Browning, Ordinary Men, 161.
 Glover, Humanity, 55.
 Levene, The Meaning of Genocide, 53.
 John Pilger, Heroes (London: Vintage, 2001), 387.
 Glover, Humanity, 82-83.