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Reconsidering Vietnam

Nor, moreover, does Young mention the 428 Catholics marched away for “political orientation,” whose skeletons were not discovered for nineteen months. Oberdorfer writes that Pham Van Tuong, a part-time janitor in a government office, was called out by the Vietcong with his five-year-old son, three-year-old daughter, and two of his nephews. “There was a burst of gunfire. When the rest of the family came out, they found all five of them dead.”11 Young may feel she has dealt with such killings when she writes, “In the early days of the occupation, there were indeed summary executions.”

When something bad happens on the non-American side, Young uses words like “indeed,” and “certainly,” as if to show that she is not concealing anything. In the case of the Hue murders, she produces one of her characteristic obfuscating statements: “…it is unseemly, even obscene, to argue about the numbers.” Why it is unseemly to establish how many people were killed in cold blood by the Vietcong she never says. The killings were not indiscriminate slaughter, Young writes, but the summary execution of those on lists drawn up by the NLF of employees of the Saigon regime. Did these include foreign doctors and priests? Although she quotes from an interesting speculation by Richard Falk of Princeton that the Hue executions caused many Southerners to fear the front and eventually to become boat people, Young ends with another exonerating sentence: “What the history of Tet in the city of Hue reveals is the extraordinary harshness and brutality of a struggle that had been going on for over twenty years.” Note how brutality now becomes the villain, and not the people who committed it.

Young is right to say, however, that most of the killing in Hue and during Tet generally—and during the war as a whole—was inflicted by the Americans. In his About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior,12 Colonel David Hackworth writes that during Tet “as the Americans geared up their war machine in counterattack, close to all the civilian casualties were from US activity.”

Eric Bergerud quotes an American major in Hau Nghia province who had vainly tried to prevent American soldiers from treating all Vietnamese as if they were Vietcong: “They used to destroy in a few minutes time all that I could possibly conjure up with all the civic action programs and begging and pleading and whatever else you could think of: they would counteract what I could do in a month in three or four minutes.”

The lack of even-handedness in Young’s account is apparent as well when it comes to torture. She refers to the American-sponsored interrogation centers where torture was “routinely administered.” She supplies a poignant Magnum photograph of a captured Vietcong woman, wounded in the spine, with her hands tied behind her back, waiting for what an American officer says is rape and execution by South Vietnamese interrogators. Earlier, she includes another picture of a captured American pilot being escorted by a woman “militia fighter.” Young does not mention in her book that many American prisoners were also tortured, although evidence of this is abundant. In Strange Ground. Maurer interviews an AID employee who was captured by the Vietcong and marched North with a civilian nurse of missionary background. Both were horribly treated and neglected.

The girl began to get very weak, They’d kick her and drag her and raise hell with her…. She lay in her own goddamn shit, and they wouldn’t help me wash her…they deliberately tried to poison us so it would look like natural causes. I buried her, and I became very depressed after that for a while.

Maurer also interviewed an air force colonel who realized within twenty minutes of his first interrogation, which included being beaten with fists and rifle butts, that “I was looking at death right there.” Later the torture became more severe. “If they want something badly enough, they’re gonna to do whatever they have to to get it.”

This determination to get results even if it meant imposing great suffering was not confined to torturing captured American pilots. In Hau Nghia province, says Bergerud, “The Party was careful to direct its violence at the very worst or very best GVN [Government of Vietnam] officials. ‘Punishing’ (the Party’s euphemism for murder) a despicable official gained the Party popularity; killing good officials sowed fear. By making efficiency and anti-Communist zeal very dangerous, the Party encouraged bad and dishonest administration in GVN areas…there can be no doubt that virtually all assassinations were premediated and came by order of high Party officials.”

Young ignores both such suffering and the mentality that ordered it to take place. And when she sums up the terrible costs of the entire war, for which not only the Americans were responsible, her conclusion is bland: the millions of refugees, the hundreds of thousands who died (an underestimate), the many more who were wounded, the rural devastation, corruption (but only in the South), etc.,

were a heavy price to pay for the right of the NLF to political participation in the life of South Vietnam. Still, the American effort to create an anti-Communist state south of the 17th parallel had been deferred; perhaps defeated.

But Young should know that the NLF never gained the right to participate in the life of Vietnam as a result of the war; nor was the NLF ever intended by the northern Communists to have this right, as Carlyle Thayer and Gabriel Kolko (in Anatomy of a War) have shown. Young’s own analysis of the degree of control of Hanoi over the Front is muddled. She is probably still influenced by what anti-war activists were told by both Hanoi and the Front during the war, when we were assured how independent the NLF was. She twice quotes Truong Nhu Tang, the ex-minister of justice of the Front, but never tells her readers that he fled from Vietnam after he realized that those who had joined what they imagined was an independent southern movement had been manipulated and betrayed. He wrote:

Instead of national reconciliation and independence, Ho Chi Minh’s successors have given us a country devouring its own and beholden once again to foreigners, though now it is the Soviets rather than the Americans. In the process, the lives that so many gave to create a new nation are now no more than ashes cast aside.13

Young can do no more than to refer, near the end of her book, to Hanoi’s impatience and distrust of “enemies real and anticipated” and its indifference “to local sensibilities.” Hanoi, she remarks, has acted

without paying undue attention to the mobilization of popular support…the necessities of peace, more difficult to determine, could prove harder to accept [my italics].

Undue attention” is one of Young’s more unfortunate phrases. Why weren’t the people of South Vietnam “due” the attention and the elementary civil rights that the American-supported governments denied them and that the Communists also continue to systematically deny them? But when it comes to violent repression carried out by Washington’s former adversaries, Young concludes: “Henceforth, the history of the region would be made by the countries occupying it. Nobody said this history had to be peaceful.”

Todd Gitlin, a Berkeley sociologist and once an antiwar activist, refers in A Vietnam Reader to those on the left who explain away revolutionary abominations…conjuring rationalizations for crimes committed by left-wing guerrillas. A curious partial freedom is parceled out to state-sponsored socialism, as if revolutions are responsible for their accomplishments, while their brutality, if acknowledged at all, is credited to American imperialism.

There is more than a little of this tendency in Marilyn Young’s often useful and interesting book.

General Phillip Davidson, an author of passions and biases as strong as Marilyn Young’s, is occasionally capable of more even-handed appraisals, a surprising quality in a man who was for two years the army’s chief intelligence officer in Vietnam. Vietnam at War: The History: 1946–1975 is a detailed analysis of the long struggle in which he says “the United States won every battle in and over Vietnam and yet lost the war.” Davidson has decided to concentrate on General Vo Nguyen Giap as the “connecting symbol” between the French and the American struggles. At the North’s triumphant celebrations in Saigon, Premier Pham Van Dong described Giap as “the architect of our victory.”

Davidson starts, however, by coarsely drawing a contrast between Giap and Westmoreland. Giap has “thick lips, a flattened nose, no neck, a bulging forehead and a receding hairline…this runtiness probably accounts for some of his unpleasant personality—for Vo Nguyen Giap is definitely not your ‘Mr. Nice Guy.”’ To make this point Davidson compares Giap to Hitler and Mussolini, and notes his reputation as “a peasant, a surly boor,” and as “evasive and deceitful,” because he tried to manipulate an interview with Oriana Fallaci. Is General Davidson implying that American commanders customarily tell the truth to journalists, especially those from enemy countries?

By contrast, Davidson’s old boss and hero, William Westmoreland, “is a handsome man, one of the most handsome of his generation. He is erect, well-built, about six feet tall, with a masculine face….” On hot days he never sweats. He fulfills Napoleon’s criterion for a great commander: “an equilibrium of character and intellect.” Westmoreland rarely swears or drinks, does not smoke, and banishes from his entourage those guilty of “sexual peccadillo or excessive drinking.”

One would expect after all this that Giap could hardly emerge as a brilliant commander or Westmoreland as a flawed one. But Davidson is not sure that Westmoreland’s day-by-day attrition of often elusive enemy forces was the right way to win the war. He reminds us that although such a strategy “destroyed the Indians as a guerrilla force,” it took “a century and a half.” Giap, wholly self-taught, concentrated on the American weakness of will once large numbers of American dead were being sent home. “The exploitation of this critical American vulnerability elevated Vo Nguyen Giap into the first rank of grand strategists.”

The battlefield, in Davidson’s judgment, is not where the war was lost. He insists, as all American military commanders have ever since, that while Tet was a crushing loss for the enemy, it was turned into a victory because of the reactions of the press and civilian leaders at home. Ultimately, he says, the Communists had “a superior grand strategy,” namely “the independence and unification of Vietnam and eventually of all of French Indo-china.” This is the kind of war General DePuy warned that Americans must not fight. The Americans lost, Davidson asserts, because they violated a North Vietnamese axiom: you may win battles but you will lose the war if your tactics are right but your strategy is wrong. For Giap’s forces it was just the opposite, which is why they almost invariably lost on the field but won in the end. Predictably, Davidson’s analysis, like the German generals’ “stab in the back theory” after the Great War, lets the military off the hook.

  1. 11

    Orberdorfer, Tet!. p. 229.

  2. 12

    Touchstone Press, 1990, p. 612.

  3. 13

    Truong Nhu Tang, Journal of A Vietcong (London: Jonathan Cape, 1986), p. 310; published in the US under the title A Vietcong Memoir (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986).

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