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Vietnam: The Defense’s Case

America in Vietnam

by Guenter Lewy
Oxford University Press, 540 pp., $19.95

In America in Vietnam Guenter Lewy, a political scientist, attempts to exculpate American wrongdoing in Vietnam. Oddly enough, he also provides an extremely comprehensive and damning catalogue of the physical destruction, especially of civilians, caused by American firepower. Nevertheless, he provides legal absolution for most of the killing—which may be a comfort to the policy-makers who ran the war and those who would like a freer hand to plan such “interventions” in the future. Lewy’s absolution will be little comfort to the millions of victims.

Put simply, Lewy’s argument suggests that the members of the NLF were the only Vietnamese in all of Vietnam who had no home towns. Where they were born, where they grew up, and were they came from when the fighting started in earnest during the early 1960s he does not say. He seems to believe that the NLF had little or nothing whatever to do with Vietnam, or with the Vietnamese.

It first should be recognized,” he writes, “that the VC’s practice of ‘clutching the people to their breast’ and of converting hamlets into fortified strongholds was one of the main reasons for the occurrence of combat in populated areas.” Elsewhere he makes the same point. “The enemy liked to make the villages and hamlets a battlefield because in the open valleys and coastal lowlands the villages contained much natural cover and concealment,” he writes. “The hamlets also offered the VC a source of labor for the building of fortifications, their spread-out arrangement afforded avenues of escape, and, lastly, the VC knew that the Americans did not like to fire upon populated areas.”

This statement is nonsense. It suggests that the association between the NLF and the villages, hamlets, and their people was purely tactical and that it was initiated by the NLF from that strange, unnamed place where, presumably, the NLF had been lurking until the fighting started. It denies the facts that the NLF was composed of people from the villages, and that—as he recognizes elsewhere—they were often identical with the village populations. His account also denies the fact that the NLF were fighting in the villages because that was where their homes were. His discussion here brings to mind one of the slang expressions current among journalists and diplomats in Saigon in the late Sixties and early Seventies. We called the two opposing sides “us” and “the home team.” The basic truth of these words was not in dispute then and nothing Lewy says here contradicts it now.

Just as he provides much evidence of deliberate destruction by the US while trying to make a legal defense for it, he also contradicts his own claim that Americans “did not like to fire upon populated areas.” He writes:

Most military commanders during Westmoreland’s tenure as COMUSMACV felt they had no choice but to meet the enemy head-on wherever they encountered him. In a message to Washington, written on 30 December 1967 and addressing the problem of civilian war casualties, Ambassador Bunker expressed the same idea. The savage fighting in the villages was unavoidable, he wrote. We had to combat the enemy where we found him—in the houses and hamlets—the terrain which the VC had chosen for battle.

Sharpening this point, he writes that “by carrying the war into the hamlets and by failing properly to identify their combatants, the VC exposed the civilian population to grave harm.” Thus, the blame again seems to be placed on the NLF for fighting in the places where they lived, and not elsewhere.

Lewy carries this blame further when he finally makes a connection between the VC and the inhabitants of the villages. “Another source of confusion in judging the matter of civilian casualties,” he writes, “was the designation by many critics of all villagers as innocent civilians. We know that on occasion in Vietnam women and children placed mines and booby traps, and that villagers of all ages and sexes, willingly or under duress, served as porters, built fortifications, or engaged in other acts helping the communist forces.” Thus, the Vietnamese village population and the NLF, whom Lewy formerly set far apart, now begin to blend together. And, as he shows, they paid a price for this.

It is well established,” he writes, in one of his summaries of international law and the law of war, “that once civilians act as support personnel they cease to be noncombatants and are subject to attack…. Here again we see the unfortunate consequence of the fact that the VC chose to fight from within villages and hamlets which provided useful cover, avenues of escape, and a source of labor for the building of fortifications. Inevitably, the civilian population was involved in the fighting.”

They were, but not for the fanciful reasons Lewy suggests. They became involved in the fighting, especially before the intervention of American firepower, because the cohesion between them and the NLF, throughout most of the rural areas of the country, was intolerable to American policy-makers. The NLF were not an independent fighting force, as Lewy tries to portray them, who, once the large-scale fighting began—which is to say when Americans intervened—elected to go to the villages. They were the governors of vast numbers of people who supported them. Undoubtedly, they were supported with varying degrees of enthusiasm and in some places they were opposed. But those millions of people did not carry out an insurrection against the NLF government—as the NLF did against the Saigon regime. It was that political connection which was intolerable to American policy-makers. 1 For most of the rural people the NLF had acquired authority through the political process they had organized while opposing the French colonial rulers and their successors. America set about dismantling the connection between the NLF and the village populations through firepower.2

Lewy lays the groundwork for the legality of attacking Vietnamese peasants by his assertion that the law denies them a noncombatant status once they act as “support personnel”—although most citizens of most countries could be so described if they take part in their society. Lewy finds these peasants guilty. “If guerrillas live and operate among the people like fish in the water,” he writes, “then, legally, the entire school of fish may become a legitimate military target. In such a case, the moral blame, too, would appear to fall on those who have enlarged the potential area of civilian death and damage.”

It would appear that it is only a question of degree who was more to blame for their own deaths—the NLF military forces or the Vietnamese people themselves who lived in those parts of South Vietnam, once most of the country, where the NLF was the only government. But one wonders if Lewy considers that question to have been of great concern to the victims or the maimed survivors. Earlier, when discussing the mistreatment of prisoners, he writes, “the South Vietnamese generally were reputed to have a low regard for human life and suffering.”

Perhaps one should be grateful to Lewy for providing so much evidence to prove that the target of American firepower was in fact a large part of Vietnamese society. His claims are strong ones. “It is incontrovertible,” he writes, “that the allied military effort in Vietnam was characterized by the lavish use of firepower and caused much destruction of property and a large number of civilian casualties.” And he goes on:

The fact that the discrepancy between the number of weapons captured and the number of VC/NVA reported killed was generally most pronounced in areas of combat with a high population density such as the coastal provinces and the Delta suggests that the number of villagers included in the body count was indeed substantial.

Other examples show not only how much damage was done but how aware of it prominent American leaders were. Lewy quotes a statement made in 1972, the year of his death, by John Paul Vann, the legendary US expert on “counter-insurgency.”

In the last decade, I have walked through hundreds of hamlets that have been destroyed in the course of a battle, the majority as the result of the heavier friendly fires. The overwhelming majority of hamlets thus destroyed failed to yield sufficient evidence of damage to the enemy to justify the destruction of the hamlet. Indeed, it has not been unusual to have a hamlet destroyed and find absolutely no evidence of damage to the enemy. I recall in May 1969 the destruction and burning by air strike of 900 houses in a hamlet in Chau Doc Province without evidence of a single enemy being killed…. The destruction of a hamlet by friendly firepower is an event that will always be remembered and practically never forgiven by those members of the population who lost their homes.

Elsewhere, after quoting several admonitions from commanders to exercise care in firing on populated areas, Lewy writes: “Indeed, the constantly repeated expressions of intense concern of MACV with the question of civilian casualties can be read as an acknowledgment that rules aimed at protecting civilian life and property were, for a variety of reasons, not applied and enforced as they should have been.”

Much of the violence had a specific purpose—as Lewy makes clear. If the problem was the political connection between the people in the villages and the NLF, then military force was applied to destroy that connection and separate these people from the NLF. The best way of separating the people from their society was to force them to flee—to make them refugees. Lewy himself explains how this was a deliberate policy of the American policy-makers: “…the largest single factor explaining the influx of refugees was the stepped-up tempo and intensity of the war.” Contrary to the claims of embassy officials at the time, these people were not “voting with their feet.” Lewy cites a study done by the army chief of staff in 1966 which said that “US-RVNAF bombing and artillery fire, in conjunction with ground operations, are the immediate and prime causes of refugee movement into GVN-controlled urban and coastal areas.” He also quotes a suggestion made to Lyndon Johnson in April, 1967, by Robert Komer, when Komer was about to depart for Saigon to manage the “pacification” program. Komer wanted the command “to step up refugee programs deliberately aimed at depriving the VC of a recruiting base.”

Komer’s suggestion only reflected a policy that was already established. Lewy quotes a 1966 cable from the State Department to the Saigon embassy urging that military operations and refugee flow be coordinated.

This helps deny recruits, food producers, porters, etc. to VC, and clears battlefield of innocent civilians. Indeed, in some cases we might suggest military operations specifically designed to generate refugees—very temporary or longer term depending on local weighing of our interests and capacity to handle them well. Measures to encourage refugee flow might be targeted where they hurt the VC most and embitter people toward US/GVN forces least [emphasis added].

  1. 1

    It was a political connection of long standing. Discussing why the 1956 elections called for by the Geneva Agreement of 1954 were never held in South Vietnam, Ho Thong Minh, a former minister of defense under Ngo Dinh Diem, and predictably critical of the NLF, said, “In the main, though, the population was probably going to vote in favor of the Communists.” His statement appears in a collection of interviews compiled by Michael Charlton and Anthony Moncrieff of the BBC, to be published as Many Reasons Why by Hill and Wang in January, 1979.

  2. 2

    For a firsthand account of how the NLF governed with popular support in the rural areas, see Reaching the Other Side (Crown, 1978), by Earl Martin, a Mennonite missionary who spent five years in Quang Ngai province.

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