Reading the NYT yesterday, I learned that a new debate is once again raging over Vietnam, as the Pentagon has decided to create a site presenting a history of the war. However, rather than an objective history, the Pentagon has set up a tribute to veterans and casualties. As a consequence, the debate over the war during the 1960s and ‘70s is being rekindled now over the war’s history.
As it happens, I was a draft dodger at the time. When I finished university in 1969, I left for Canada. I never looked back. I never returned to the US even after President Carter’s amnesty. I admit this up front, because I feel compelled to join the renewed debate over the war.
It seems strange to me that with the benefit of hindsight anyone today could view the Vietnam War as anything other than a strategic error from the most forgiving perspective possible. The domino theory of communist aggression was evidently exaggerated. We know that today with the certainty of hindsight given the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. The justification for going to war in Vietnam was the Tonkin Gulf affair, which we now know to have been a staged provocation. Other secrets of how the war was falsely justified were revealed in The Pentagon Papers thanks to Daniel Ellsberg. It also became evident following the war that the Vietnamese had always intended their struggle to be about national sovereignty. They have fought and continue to fight for their own national interests in conflict with China. So the myth of a monolithic communist plan to conquer the world was just that, a myth.
The conflict over the war domestically grew into a major confrontation over policy. President Johnson was forced to give up any intention of running for a second term in the face of opposition from Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy. Demonstrations against the war had become increasingly confrontational, culminating in the Kent State murder of four students by the National Guard. As a consequence President Nixon, after a brief escalation of the war into Laos and Cambodia, negotiated a peace settlement, which was simply a thinly disguised withdrawal in defeat. These are the bare facts of the Vietnam War together with the criminal bombing of villages in the south of the country and cities in the north. (Note that I use a small “s” and “n” to denote regions of one country. There never was a legal separation of Vietnam into two separate, sovereign states.)
One telling detail over the history of the war is the famous quote at the time from John Kerry, the current Secretary of State, “How do you ask a man to be the last man killed for a mistake?” In those days Kerry, despite being a veteran himself, was opposed to continuing the war. Of course this detail too is already evidence of a forgiving view of the war. A great deal of planning went into initiating the war, as evidenced by The Pentagon Papers. The war was not an innocent error of judgment by any means. But the important fact highlighted by the Kerry quote is that a significant portion of the political establishment had made the assessment that the US was losing both the war itself and the domestic battle for public opinion. So the only solution was to deescalate and ultimately withdraw.
We need to ask ourselves, then, how it is that the Pentagon now wishes to whitewash the history of the war. The answer quite simply must be that they wish to avoid any damning revelations of the dirty detail of the objective history. Furthermore, they want to avoid establishing a precedent through admission of past ‘errors’ that could strengthen criticism of current policies by analogy. But, then we need to ask ourselves, wouldn’t it have been wiser to simply avoid the subject altogether? Why has the Pentagon brought up the subject in the first place? Do they feel the timing is fortuitous for an effort to rewrite the history of the war in a favorable light? Is this one more strategic error by the Pentagon?
Be what it may, the Pentagon has reopened a can of worms. Personally, I feel this may offer a window whereby we can voice our indignation. We can once again publish the facts surrounding the war. The simple truth is that it will never be possible to rein in the military industrial establishment without a proper reckoning of past crimes. And let there be no mistake; the Vietnam War was a crime against humanity. What better way indeed to call into question current political and military policy than to uncover the truth about policies in the past?
The war in Iraq, too, was initiated under false pretenses. Iraq under Saddam Hussein never had weapons of mass destruction and was not a threat to the US. Hence the conduct of the war and the ensuing occupation was a crime under international law. Kofi Annan essentially said just that during a brief slip of the tongue. And the Iraq war had the consequence of establishing an unstable new regime that oppresses minority sects thus encouraging rebellion as we have seen.
Today’s war against ISIS again has no legitimacy, despite the decision of the Security Council. While I certainly have no love of the atrocities being committed by ISIS, an honest assessment of the situation in the Middle East is needed before sending in a global police force. The situation in Iraq and Syria is a civil war. There are of course many causes behind it. But, why should any nation or alliance of nations choose to intervene in a civil war? The US government made concerted efforts during the US Civil War to deter the meddling of European powers. Surely the wisest strategy would be for Western powers today to keep their hands off the Middle East during such a conflict or in any case limit their involvement to diplomacy aimed at finding a negotiated accommodation among the warring parties. Instead, the US is once again exercising its itchy trigger finger and bombing the innocent as well as the presumed guilty. What is worse, the US defense industries are arming all sides in the conflict.
As a proud draft dodger, who deplores the crimes committed by US policy and the US military in the name of national interest or global responsibility, I simply must ask: How long must this go on? When will more sober and wise minds prevail? How might we rekindle the anti-war spirit of the 60s within the US electorate?