Flashbacks: On Returning to Vietnam
Lost Victory: A Firsthand Account of America's Sixteen-Year Involvement in Vietnam
Slow Burn: The Rise and Bitter Fall of American Intelligence in Vietnam
As I Saw It
Tears Before the Rain: An Oral History of the Last Days of the Fall of Vietnam
Hearts of Sorrow: Vietnamese-American Lives
Vietnam: 'Renovation' (Doi Moi), The Law and Human Rights in the 1980s
In Saigon in 1965 I told Walter Cronkite, who was not yet known for having doubts about the war, that I had met a woman, a maid working for Americans in Saigon, who had visited her village, and found that it had just been bombed and bulldozed, and no longer existed. Her entire family had vanished. Cronkite gave me his professional opinion of her story: “Listen, these people are going to have to learn that you can’t fight a war without being hurt.”
I understand this episode better today because of Morley Safer’s recent book Flashbacks, in which he describes how in 1965 Cronkite’s usual skepticism (which Safer calls his “shit-detector”) was immobilized by his military escorts, who “saw to it that he had a chance to see and use everything, go on air strikes, be made to feel an ‘insider.’ ”
All the books about the Vietnam war under review are concerned with death, or at least concerned to show that their authors are not callous about it. Throughout his book Safer keeps asking the Vietnamese he meets if all the deaths were worth it. He describes how the North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap literally brushed the question aside, and he has much to say about the effects of showing dead young Americans on television.
William Colby of the CIA writes in Lost Victory that the Phoenix Program he presided over led to the “elimination”—deaths—of thousands of his enemies, but he wants it understood that they were properly killed, not assassinated. (One of his former employees, Orrin DeForest, casts doubt on this claim in his own book.) Colby, who describes the CIA as an institution of delicate judgment and sophistication, emphasizes that the needless killing by the US army disgusted him. He remembers seeing an American general “expounding on the need for higher body counts, stressing his point with an elongated arm and index finger strikingly evocative of the legendary skeleton Death.”
American policy makers could never decide how they felt, or should talk about, killing Vietnamese. Only a few, notably Richard Nixon, William Westmoreland, and John Paul Vann in his last years, were open in saying that killing large numbers of Vietnamese was an effective way of breaking their morale. But according to the military historian Mark Clodfelter in The Limits of Air Power, even the air force, which wanted to bomb the North very heavily, didn’t include killing civilians in its “doctrine,” and it is important to Colby to say that few civilians were killed relative to the quantity of bombs that were dropped.
Death is very important to Hanoi, too. No one knows how many Vietnamese were killed. Most experts say that at least one million North Vietnamese died and Hanoi claims that 230,000 of its soldiers are missing, compared to 2,400 Americans. Ho Chi Minh, Pham Van Dong, and General Giap spent their citizens’ lives freely to win the war—accepting one of the greatest losses of life in wartime, in relation to…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.