No, Not All Americans in Vietnam Were War Criminals
The war was more complicated than that
I recently flipped through Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by journalist Nick Turse. This isn’t a review of the book, exactly. This is more a reflection on how we as Americans have a lot of trouble, even today, dealing with the legacy of Vietnam. There’s a tendency for people on all sides of the debate to get sanctimonious, expounding on the merits or evils (depending on their point of view) of the American role in Vietnam, and then ignoring what they don’t want to hear.
Turse does, with impeccable sources, tell us things that many of us don’t want to hear about atrocities that we’d love to forget. Through extensive interviews with veterans and Vietnamese civilians and a wide array of official military documents, Turse reconstructs horrifying violence perpetrated by American GIs: massacres of unarmed civilians, dismemberment of the dead, and wanton sexual violence against Vietnamese women and girls.
He dismisses as a smoke screen the narrative of Vietnam as a noble war fought by brave men and fumbled by political elites. As Turse describes it, the U.S. military’s culture of hyper-masculinity and racism, coupled with a strategy that emphasized body counts as a metric for success, inevitably compelled American soldiers commit unspeakable acts. He also attacks the notion that crimes like the My Lai massacre were isolated, and asserts that these were everyday occurrences — and even a matter of policy.
No doubt these crimes really occurred, and almost certainly more often than we like to admit. However, a glance at the Amazon reviews for the book reveals a strong backlash from soldiers who fought in Vietnam. They accuse Turse of broad generalizations and half-truths. Many of them insist that they never witnessed war crimes even serving in intense combat zones.
And this is where things get tricky — and where I immediately have problems with this book. I believe all these people are telling the truth. Turse and the people he interviewed and the veterans who say they fought with honor.
I believe many men served honorably, never intentionally killing civilians, and harboring no hatred for most Vietnamese. I believe other men crossed the line. I believe there were Vietnamese civilians who feared the Americans. I’m sure there were many others who admired the Americans and believed they would protect them. The war in Vietnam was an ordeal lasting decades and drawing in millions of people, each with his own beliefs, motives and breaking points..
It was a messy war, and the question of what the “real war” was is far more complex than most people really want to grapple with. To be sure, most people who claim to know the answer are full of shit.
There’s more than one truth
I’ve had the good fortune to know many Vietnam veterans. Teachers I had growing up, people I’ve worked with through charities, others I’ve interviewed as a journalist.
They all had different experiences. A Marine who served in the Mekong Delta in ’69 had a much different experience than the Green Beret who fought in the highlands in ’66. The vast majority of the men I know never committed a war crime. Some of them witnessed crimes and injustices — some at the hands of communist forces, others by Americans or South Vietnamese. Some of the horrors weren’t perpetrated by soldiers at all, but were simply the day-to-day tragedies of an impoverished and besieged country.
Most of the vets I’ve known had no malice for the Vietnamese. On the contrary, many admired their resilience. A lot of Vietnam veterans are vocal about how they believe America abandoned the Vietnamese. They still get angry recalling the fall of Saigon, as our allies were left to communist purges and re-education camps.
Americans want to make it all about us
There are some high-minded academics who have approached the Vietnam War wanting to understand “both sides” or understand “the American side and the Vietnamese side.” That’s an admirable endeavor, but when you look at it that way, you’ve already missed the point.
That construct completely neglects the fact that there were two Vietnams in this fight: North and South.
Most people have seen the photo of a monk sitting in Saigon as he burns alive. Ask alot of Americans today what was happening in that photo, and many will tell you it was an act of protest against American involvement in Vietnam.
Those people would be wrong.
He was protesting the persecution of Buddhists by the American-backed regime of Pres. Ngo Diem, a Catholic. Opposition to the Saigon regime was not the same as opposition to the United States, and certainly not the same as support for the North or the communists. The Buddhist community was in fact very fearful of the North and not too keen on a communist takeover.
Instability in the South did not mean there was a lack of national identity. South Vietnamese were fighting the communists before the Americans arrived and after they left. To this day, the flag of the Republic of Vietnam is commonplace in the Vietnamese diaspora, those who fled Vietnam for a new life abroad. Many of those still old enough to remember their flight still consider themselves exiles, defiantly flying the flag of a country that no longer exists.
And this is just the ethnic Vietnamese. Consider also the Nungs, Chams, Degar (better known as Montagnards) and other minority groups in Vietnam.
When we look at the Vietnamese on both sides of the conflict solely in terms of how they relate to us, we deprive them of their agency. This history is theirs as much as it is ours.
We need to be open minded
When I consider the Vietnam War, I see a tragedy on a grand scale, in which mostly well-meaning people on all sides were drawn into a bitter and destructive conflict. The North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong wanted a Vietnam that was united, with all its people working together for the good of the collective, believing that was best. The South Vietnamese were fighting for a free market where people could pursue their own fortunes and maybe one day work toward something resembling democracy. The Americans and their allies believed that the latter was a more just cause.
Both sides had their share of heroes and cowards, saints and sinners, victims and survivors.
For us to understand the “real war” in Vietnam, we need to take into account all of this. We have to seek truth in all its forms.
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