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Reconsidering Vietnam

Or perhaps evil is the wrong word. Some writers quote veterans as saying “It don’t mean nothing” when they refer to the war, indicating with this phrase that they really feel the reverse. Bill Crownover worked in Saigon as a civilian doing electrical maintenance for an American contractor for a modest hourly wage. He told Maurer that he spent much of the time drunk in bars, hanging around with bar girls, and getting into fights.

You very rarely referred to the Vietnamese as Vietnamese. The zips, always the zips. Zips could mean zipper-heads, because someone unzipped his head and dumped all his brains out. Or it could mean zero, which means nothing, which is what they were. The zip mentality. Zip, zip, zip, zip, zip. It was a beautiful word.

That would make a good quote for an anti-war speech in the Sixties. But what of the views of William Broyles, Jr., who was a marine in Vietnam and later became editor in chief of Newsweek? Remembering the war, he wrote, “I had to admit that for all these years I also had loved it, and more than I knew. I hated war, too.” He has spent time with veterans and most of them, he claims,

would have to admit that somewhere inside themselves they loved it, too, loved it as much as anything that has happened to them before or since. And how do you explain that to your wife, your children, your parents, or your friends?

Or, perhaps, to Robert Lifton? It might be hard to admit such thoughts to a psychiatrist. Capps quotes Broyles as saying:

War is a brutal, deadly game, but a game, the best there is…. But if you come back whole you bring with you the knowledge that you have explored regions of your soul that in most men will always remain uncharted…. The love of war stems from the union, deep in the core of our being, between sex and destruction, beauty and horror, love and death…. One of the most troubling reasons men love war is the love of destruction, the thrill of killing…. Whenever another platoon got a higher body count, I was disappointed; it was like suiting up for the football game and then not getting to play…. I always thought napalm was greatly overrated, unless you enjoy watching tires burn. I preferred white phosphorus, which exploded with a fulsome elegance…. I loved it more—not less—because of its function: to destroy, to kill…. War is, in short, a turn-on.

The ambivalent thoughts of soldiers on both sides have no place in The Vietnam Wars: 1945–1990 by Professor Marilyn Young of New York University. She condemns the United States for its cruelty in Vietnam, and provides much information, which we must not forget, about atrocities. Near the end she says that veterans “felt spat upon, stigmatized, contaminated.” She speaks sympathetically of their postwar stress disorders, and quotes Lifton’s remark that the key fact of the Vietnam war “is that no one really believes in it.” But Young’s condemnation of the conduct of the war is so vehement that many veterans reading it would be bound to feel guilty. Unless they had deserted they must share in the responsibility which Young insists on her last page we must all feel. And what if a part of the veterans’ stress is the inability to admit, as Broyles does, that some or many of them, to some or a large degree, enjoyed themselves in Vietnam?

Young’s book is an able “synthesis” (as she puts it) of the English-language literature on the war, starting in 1945, with a brief look back to the earlier French period, and extending to the late Eighties. It is well-organized and documented, and written in the polemical, slightly sentimental style of the Sixties left.

Young wants Americans to feel bad about the war, “to accept responsibility for it,” and in her final chapters she brings in Lebanon, Libya, Grenada, Panama, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Angola—all part of what she describes as “a whole Orwellian world” projected by Washington since World War II. US policy has been heavy-handed and destructive in all these places but all the “projecting” has not been done by Americans. When Young deals with Vietnamese and Chinese aggression against their neighbors she places most of the blame on the US.

She rightly says that many Americans no longer believe that the United States is a champion of freedom and justice, and indeed many Americans, as a result of the war, believe virtually nothing their government says. But Young ignores the general loss of faith, too, in communism, not only in the West—including the Soviet Union—but in its Asian forms as well; hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese have fled to the United States, which destroyed much of their country. Young includes only a subclause on her own view of the boat people: she absurdly suggests they fled only because of the Cambodian-Vietnamese war. Perhaps she has not read any of the books based on interviews with refugees from the Vietnam People’s Republic about why they really left. Le Ly Hayslip, whose poignant essay appears in Capps’s collection, remembers how as a teenager, “I loved, labored and fought steadily for the Viet Cong against American and South Vietnamese soldiers.” Everything, she says, called her to war: her ancestors, myths and legends, parents’ teachings, Ho’s cadres: “Should an obedient child be less than an ox and refuse to do her duty?” But despite her cultural loyalties, for Hayslip the picture is less clear than for Marilyn Young.

Because we had to appease the allied forces by day and were terrorized by Viet Cong at night, we slept as little [as American GIs]. We obeyed both sides and wound up pleasing neither. We were people in the middle. We were what the war was all about.”

Eric Bergerud provides a similar but more complex picture: “It is very possible that Vann [John Paul Vann, the central figure in Neil Sheehan’s A Bright and Shining Lie] and others were right when they claimed that most peasants did not care who ruled in Saigon and just wanted to be left alone. The Party had what it needed, the support of the most politically aware and the most determined segment of the peasantry.”

Young also writes cursorily of one of the large population movements in modern times, the emigration of well over one million Catholics who in the summer of 1954 left North Vietnam for the South. Apparently drawing on George McTurnan Kahin’s Intervention: How America Became Involved in Vietnam,7 she devotes ten lines to the entire episode and provides no sources. But she gives the impression that the Catholics left largely because they were “encouraged by the Catholic hierarchy and organized by [the CIA’s] Lansdale and his team.” This is true as far as it goes, and Kahin makes the same point at much greater length and with substantial citations to the Pentagon Papers and other early accounts of the movement, including Bernard Fall’s The Two Vietnams.8

Nonetheless, whatever the uses of American Special Forces’ propaganda and the power of the Catholic hierarchy, more than one million Vietnamese citizens did not want to live under the Communists; this was 65 percent of the northern Catholic population. Fall also says that the Tonkin Catholics would have fled in any event because of their “long experience at the hands of their non-Catholic fellow citizens,” and observes as well that although the US-inspired psychological warfare was very effective, “there is no doubt that hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese would have fled Communist domination in any case.”9 Young says the refugees “were carried south in American ships,” while Fall says the French carried more than half of them. Most sources agree that the movement of the Catholics into the South, where they were protected by the Catholic Diem family, caused considerable resentment among Buddhist and Taoist Vietnamese, who associated the Catholics with the French occupiers. I remember Catholic villages in the South in 1965 that were heavily armed and fearful of Vietcong attacks.

Much of Young’s narrative follows the general line set out masterfully by Kahin, supplemented by other familiar and well-used sources. She fails to acknowledge the difficulties encountered by the “good” side in her account of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, omitting Giap’s own accounts of the failure of nerve among his own forces or his quarrel with his Chinese advisers about tactics. The interesting photographs she has included show the French and the Americans at their worst, while the Vietcong and North Vietnamese pictures—some of them clearly posed—show their subjects smiling and determined.

In her account of the brutal North Vietnamese land reform of the 1950s, Young writes that the Party committed, and later admitted, “abuses” but she makes the killings—she puts them at between three and fifteen thousand—sound like a series of spiteful local acts of vengeance. One of the leading authorities on the period, Carlyle Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy, has shown in War by Other Means the role of the Party in the terror, during which “many long-serving cadres with bourgeois backgrounds were denounced; landlords and rich peasants were condemned in public trials for committing crimes….” Thayer puts the number of executions at five thousand.

Thayer supplies much detail on the period in 1955 and 1956 when there was a purge of dissident North Vietnamese intellectuals who “began to express concern about a lack of freedom of expression in their respective fields of interest.” This repressive campaign, which Marilyn Young wholly ignores, began even before the well-known crushing of hundreds of thousands of similar intellectuals in China after the abrupt termination of the Hundred Flowers. Thayer does not provide hard figures on the extent of the Vietnamese crackdown, but writes, “Quite simply, Vietnam’s party leaders were unwilling to sanction criticism which raised politically sensitive issues at a time of mounting domestic unrest.”

The same situation obtains in Hanoi thirty-six years later, and for all these years it has remained part of the largely unexamined and mostly unknown history of life in North Vietnam. Except for the reference to the land reform of the mid-Fifties, Young, who rightly devotes several pages to the brutality of Diem’s repression in the South, has nothing to say about the northern regime’s crushing of political dissent. She writes,

In short, in 1956–57 the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was an exceedingly poor country, determined to achieve both social equity and prosperity for as much of its population as international politics and the limits of its own vision allowed.

What the limits were, she does not say.

In fact there were not many limits on the Party’s use of violence against its enemies, and Young, who is unrelenting in her judgments on American atrocities, slurs over the facts when confronted with Communist ones—for example, when dealing with the Hue massacre during the Tet offensive of early 1968 she puts the number of people murdered by the NLF at three to four hundred, saying this, “the most careful estimate,” was provided by Len Ackland. But she does not identify Ackland or his work or explain why this number is correct and others, such as Don Oberdorfer’s in Tet!, reaching the thousands, are not. Oberdorfer was a well-known journalist for Time and The Washington Post in Vietnam and was there during Tet. His account of what happened in Hue supplies information omitted by Young, in addition to his estimate of the number of those murdered by the Vietcong: 2,800 victims of the occupation, “shot to death, bludgeoned or buried alive in the most extensive political slaughter of the war.”10 Young writes that “all the accounts agree that NLF rather than North Vietnamese units were responsible for the executions,” but Oberdorfer points out that Hue lay in a region “under direct command and control from North Vietnam.” Nor in her account of those murdered does Young include the three German doctors working in public health in Hue, or the two French priests who were buried alive.

  1. 7

    Knopf, 1986.

  2. 8

    Praeger, 1967.

  3. 9

    Fall, The Two Vietnams, p. 153.

  4. 10

    Don Oberdorfer, Tet!: The Turning Point in the Vietnam War (Doubleday, 1971; Da Capo, 1984), p. 201.

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