By Camillo “Mac” Bica
Dateline: November 6, 2017
Now that the smoke has cleared and the frenzy incited by Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s self-proclaimed “definitive” documentary on the Vietnam War has subsided (somewhat), there still remains many issues regarding the war, reconciliation, and healing that requires further thought, discussion, and clarification. Much has already been written critiquing and commenting upon the strengths and weaknesses of the filmmakers’ presentation of the “many truths” they believed necessary to “tell the story” of the American War in Vietnam. This essay will be less critique and more discussion of the issues and concerns that occurred to me, and I believe are shared by many veterans, as I watched, perhaps endured is better, the 18 hours of archival film, much of it gut-wrenching combat footage, and the testimony of a myriad of participants and observers. Then, as has been my practice, I will shift from a veteran’s perspective and what I can only describe as emotional overload, to that of a philosopher, my alter ego, and discuss how I processed this information. It is my hope that this discussion will motivate others to introspect and perhaps, rethink, their interpretation of the Vietnam War experience and its aftermath.
Documentary as Therapy
As I discussed in a previous article anticipating the release of the documentary, I thought it naïve or better, misguided, (I am now tempted to say “malicious”), of the filmmakers to suggest to (promise?) vulnerable veterans, as Burns and Novick did repeatedly in a myriad of pre-broadcast interviews and sneak previews, that the aim of the documentarywas reconciliation and veteran “healing.” Though I had hoped otherwise, I fear my concern and skepticism regarding this claim proved warranted. As I relived the Vietnam experience in great detail for 90-120 minutes on 10 nights with only a two-day respite midway through, other than a familiar, though sickening, release of adrenalin, I experienced no healing, no catharsis. In fact, I felt extremely overwhelmed, exploited, frustrated, outraged, and even re-traumatized. I know some will respond, that if it affected me so profoundly, why didn’t I just turn the TV off or switch the station to the “Emmys” or to “Young Sheldon.” But after being subjected to all the pre-broadcast hype selling the documentary as curative and as the “definitive” history of the American War in Vietnam, an event that in many respects defined my life, I never felt that option available to me.
As I watched and attempted to distance myself from the carnage, I listened to the testimony of John Musgrave, a United States Marine, as he spoke of fearing and hating the enemy. I would add a third response as well, anger. This triad of emotions — fear, anger, and hatred — is inevitable in war, an understandable response to the struggle for survival on the battlefield and to the programming and indoctrination warriors are subjected to in Boot Camp/Basic Training, including being conditioned to devalue and dehumanize the “other”. As made clear by Army historian General S.L.A. Marshall in his seminal study of warriors returning from battle, human beings have a natural aversion to killing members of their own species and at the moment of truth will become conscientious objectors. Young men and women are not killers by nature, Marshall concludes, not born killers. Warriors who will kill have to be created.
This triad of emotions experienced by warriors in battle is the intended response sought after by tyrants, imperialists, and war profiteers, to accomplish their ends, and for the most part, an important reason warriors continue to fight, die, and kill the “enemy.” And the more they fight, and the more they die, the more they hate . . . and the more they kill.
Because this hatred runs deep (how could it not given the horror of battle) and the lies, deception, and mythology so pervasive and continues even till today, what many fail to realize in the heat of the battle is that this hatred, while understandable, is misdirected. The warriors’ actual enemy, and the enemy of the state, is not those they face on the battlefield as they are struggling for their freedom against invaders and occupiers. Rather it is our own government, our political leaders who use warriors as instruments of conquest and oppression placing them in extreme situations where they must struggle for their survival . . . making fear, anger, and hatred inevitable.
The hoped for goals of the filmmakers, however, remain unfulfilled as healing and reconciliation require that we have the courage to face the truth about the Vietnam War not perpetuate, even insinuate, a mythology of purpose, nobility, and heroism. Healing and reconciliation require that we learn from history so as not to repeat it and sadly, thus far, we have learned nothing.
This process of creating warriors who will kill, of value manipulation and character perversion, foisted on vulnerable young men and women during Boot Camp/Basic Training and reinforced by the intense survival experiences of the battlefield, is foundational to what has recently been recognized as perhaps the signature wound of war, Moral Injury. To achieve healing, if healing is even possible, warriors must re-evaluate their experiences and ultimately realize both their own culpability and how they were, and in many cases continue to be, exploited by those who benefit and profit from their sacrifices and from the blood of innocents.
The Myth of Defending Democracy
As I watched the horror of family members suffering the loss of a child, the slaughter of defenseless civilians by soldiers who have lost their humanity and moral compass, a young child running from a napalmed village shedding her clothes and her skin, I thought about the claim we hear so often (then and now) that the suffering and sacrifice was necessary to defend democracy and a small nation’s right to self-determination. As I also alluded to in the earlier article, “South Vietnam” was the product of nation-building, an illegal construct made possible by the intervention of the United States in violation of the provisions of the Geneva Accords that forbade foreign intervention during the interim period of national reconciliation following the defeat of the American funded French colonialists at Dien Bien Phu. Also required by the Accords was a democratic election to unite all of Vietnam within two years — an election that was prevented from occurring by Saigon’s puppet regime and its American overlords.
If the goal of the killing and dying was truly to defend democracy in Vietnam as was and continues to be alleged, why wasn’t the 1956 reunification election allowed to occur? The reason, of course, was that Ho Chi Minh would’ve won hands down . . . and Ho was a Communist. But democracy is a b*tch like that, the people, not the colonialists/imperialists/occupiers, get to choose who wins. You don’t truly support democracy by calling off an election for fear that your favored candidate may lose. Millions of lives and billions of dollars, not to mention the heartache and sacrifice suffered by so many on all sides, could’ve been saved and avoided had we not intervened and instead, let democracy work.
The Myth That “They” Didn’t Let Us Win
As I watched the war drag on and escalate from a handful of advisers during the early 1950s to hundreds of thousands of combat troops some twenty years later, I thought about the claim made by some Vietnam Veterans and others who still defend America’s involvement in the war, that we didn’t lose in Vietnam, “they” just didn’t let us win. Hoping to absolve themselves of the responsibility for the disastrous outcome of the war, they conjecture that had the politicians been more forthright and military leaders more competent, had there been more support for the war — no anti-war movement, no hippies disrespecting veterans upon their homecoming , no VVAW, etc. — if we had denied the VC and NVA sanctuary in Laos and Cambodia, had we bombed North Vietnam back into the “stone age,” the outcome would have been different. In 1968, Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford is quoted as telling President Lyndon Johnson, “We’re not out to win the war. We’re out to win the peace.” The implication, of course, is that we weren’t committed to victory.
At the height of the American involvement in the war, a force of almost a million and a half soldiers , including over half a million Americans, participated in the effort to achieve victory in South Vietnam. By the end of the war, some 7 million tons of bombs had been dropped on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia – more than twice the amount of bombs dropped on Europe and Asia in World War II. During Operation Ranch Hand , from 1961 to 1971, the U.S. sprayed more than 20 million gallons of various herbicides over 4.5 million acres of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to destroy the forest cover and food crops. The Defense Department reported that the overall cost of the Vietnam War was $173 billion (equivalent to over a trillion in 2017 dollars). Almost 300,000 allied troops died in the war, including 58,202 Americans. Some estimates have the Vietnamese death toll as exceeding 3 million. Until the debacle in Afghanistan, the Vietnam War was the longest in American history lasting 11 years (not including, of course, our monetary support for the French, and the advisor stage of involvement going back to at least the early 1950s).
This certainly seems a rather substantial commitment in lives, treasure, and willingness to kill and destroy. How many more lives, how much more treasure, would the they-didn’t-let-us-win proponents have us expend fighting a war acknowledged by most to be based on lies from its inception, recognized as criminal and futile even by many of its advocates, and in which as retired Air Force Chief of Staff and former POW General Merrill A. McPeak observed, we were backing the “wrong side.” Further, given the criminality of the war, was winning even a justifiable goal to be sought? Was “victory,” whatever that would mean, even possible?
The Myth that Traitorous Protestors Cost Us the WarThough I will leave it for others to elaborate, probably one of the more blatant inadequacies of the documentary was the manner in which the anti-war movement was portrayed. According to Gallup, a majority of Americans supported the war until the devastating events of the Tet and Mini-Tet Offensives in 1968 when even Walter Cronkite turned against the war. And even then opposition to the war remained steady at mid 50% until the war’s end. Law and morality are issues that should concern us all, but especially veterans dealing with moral injury and recovery. The question needs to be asked, therefore, who was acting more justly, more sensibly, even more patriotically, those of us who fought blindly and obeyed orders to kill and destroy without question or those who recognized the injustice and courageously spoke out against an immoral futile war?
Regarding the much-touted abuse veterans allegedly suffered at the hands of peace advocates as they returned from war, whether such abuse occurred and to what extent is at least controversial. In a well-researched book, Vietnam Veteran and Sociology Professor Jerry Lembcke, debunks the myth of veterans being spit upon by peace demonstrators as they return from Vietnam. Perhaps we all will be better served, most of all veterans, by focusing less on unsubstantiated claims and speculation and more on what is clear and certain, the indifference and gross negligence veterans suffered, and continue to suffer, at the hands of non-activist, apathetic civilians, inept government officials, and an ineffective bureaucracy charged with the responsibility of providing for their care.
The Myth of Virtue in War
As a former officer of Marines in Vietnam, I can relate, at least emotionally, to the testimony of infantry company commander Vincent Okamoto extolling the merits of the soldiers under his command.
“Nineteen-year-old high school dropouts from the lowest socioeconomic rung of American society,” he remembered. “They weren’t going to be rewarded for their service in Vietnam. And yet, their infinite patience, their loyalty to each other, their courage under fire, was just phenomenal. And you would ask yourself: How does America produce young men like this?”
Intellectually, as a philosopher, I understand that the personal qualities exhibited by many soldiers in battle — patience, loyalty to comrades, and courage under fire — what has been termed the “martial” or “role specific” virtues may under very specific circumstances, be character traits to be admired but only in those whose goals and purposes are just and moral. As I noted in my earlier article anticipating the release of the documentary, it is reasonable to assume, I think, that the Nazis believed themselves to be honorably serving their Homeland and following orders, and the 9/11 attackers believed themselves to be the holy warriors of Islam, Jihadists; that both believed their cause to be just, and their actions a necessary and legitimate act of war. Consequently, at least from their perspectives and from the perspectives of others of their ilk, they acted nobly and with good intentions. I think it safe to say, however, that the patience, loyalty, and courage of a terrorist or Nazi for example, would not be considered virtues or character traits to be admired.
The answer to Mr. Okamoto’s question, “How does America produce young men like this?” is clear. It has to do with the sophistication and effectiveness of the programming and operant conditioning techniques noted above to which young men and women are subjected to in Boot Camp/Basic Training to create warriors who will kill. Perhaps the more difficult and far more important question is why. Why would reasonable men and women (or parents allow their children to) unquestioningly surrender their bodies, minds, and souls to the war machine of the state, forfeit their humanity and every moral value they held sacred in their “previous” lives, and allow themselves to be conditioned to kill. The answer to this question is far more complicated, I think, and would itself require an article if not a book to answer.
Pride in Service
In watching the warriors struggle for their own and their comrades’ survival during many horrible battles, I thought, as well, about the claim that veterans should be proud of their “service” in Vietnam. Though I can certainly understand the motivation for the claim, at least in my own case, I fail to see actions during the war for which I should be proud. What service did I perform to warrant the gratitude of a nation and for which I have so often of late been thanked?
Was it to participate in an unnecessary war based on lies and deceit? Should I be proud of following orders without question, rather than ashamed of my cowardice for “persevering” and continuing to fight and kill even after realizing the insanity, immorality, and futility of the enterprise? Should I be proud of becoming a proficient enough killer to ensure my survival and the survival of members of my unit? Or of the “body count” we amassed and the lush countryside we destroyed?
I share the disappointment, frustration and the outrage many Vietnam Veterans and family members feel (and I hope others do as well) as we come to understand our sacrifices as a profound waste of lives, bodies, and minds. But the fault isn’t of those who realize and point out the truth about the war, a truth that most veterans, in their hearts, probably already know better than most. Contra Burns and Novick, there are not many truths (alternative facts) and though they offer no indictment, make no judgments, express no anger, or hold anyone accountable, to their credit the documentary did provide crucial testimony, facts, and video evidence that makes drawing the correct conclusions and judgments inevitable, at least for those willing and capable of accepting objective truth, that is, what actually transpired in the war.
Whether the Burns and Novick documentary will prove to be the definitive history of the Vietnam War, probably only time will tell. It did certainly provoke rethinking and reliving much that I would have preferred remain, not forgotten, as war can never be forgotten, but locked away in the deepest, darkest recesses of my unconscious mind to resurface less frequently in nightmares and intrusive thoughts as the passage of the years benevolently make memories less toxic. The hoped for goals of the filmmakers, however, remain unfulfilled as healing and reconciliation require that we have the courage to face the truth about the Vietnam War not perpetuate, even insinuate, a mythology of purpose, nobility, and heroism. Healing and reconciliation require that we learn from history so as not to repeat it and sadly, thus far, we have learned nothing. After enduring 18 hours of the disaster that was the American War in Vietnam, I remain convinced that there is yet much to do and that something positive can result from this tragedy. Though we cannot change the past, we can influence the future. Let us use our experiences in war, our awareness, and the lessons we learned to educate about war, end militarism as the only recourse to conflict and disagreement, hold war criminals accountable, and make peace our legacy.
Submitters Website: http://www.camillobica.com
CAMILLO “MAC” BICA—The hoped for goals of the filmmakers, however, remain unfulfilled as healing and reconciliation require that we have the courage to face the truth about the Vietnam War not perpetuate, even insinuate, a mythology of purpose, nobility, and heroism.
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