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Reflecting on My Lai and Thanh Phong
By Stephen Sinsley
As I listen to, and read about the current revelations(?) and controversy regarding Bob Kerry's wartime experiences, I ask myself: is it true? There is a good chance it is, given Gerhard Klann's version of the events, confirmed by an almost identical independent Vietnamese account, and the almost immediate rebuttal by the other five members of the squad. I feel that Gerhard has struggled with and is trying to deal with his personal ghosts, accepting responsibility for what he had participated in. The others clearly haven't yet, be that for political or personal reasons.
The supreme issue here is not the question of whether or not he did it on purpose. Do not forget that the true victims here are the villagers at Thanh Phong. Attempts at atonement and reparations should be made to them. The other issue here is the healing of the psyche of a nation. Vietnam vets have been struggling with their personal ghosts since the first grunt in 'Nam first questioned the war. Pundits of late have been decrying the accuracy of thirty-year-old memories, and for this reason I suggest they go back and review the "Winter Soldier Investigation" sponsored by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Inc., assembled in Detroit, Michigan to give testimony on January 31 and February 1 and 2, 1971. One hundred twenty-five Vietnam veterans testified, and another hundred and fifty Vietnam veterans participated in this solemn act. [See end of article for website URL. -Ed]
These memories were not "thirty-year-old memories" . They were quite fresh in these veterans' minds and souls. This testimony was also published in the Congressional Record, "Extensions and Remarks" (April 7, 1971: 2825-2900, 2903-2936).
Following this testimony, the demonstration Operation Dewey Canyon III was held in Washington, DC from April 18 to 23, 1971. As Dewey Canyon I & II were "limited incursions" into "the country of Laos," Dewey Canyon was to be a "limited incursion" into the "country of Congress." Twenty-two hundred Vietnam vets participated (with tens of thousands of supporters) by holding memorials, meeting with anti-war senators, testifying before the Foreign Relations Committee, lobbying Congress against the war, and culminating on Friday, April 23 when twelve hundred Vietnam veterans cast down their medals and decorations on the steps of the Capitol.
Neither My Lai nor Thanh Phong were anomalies. These incidents occurred to some degree thousands of times between 1962 and 1973. What we Americans have yet to accept is the fact that we lost the war, a war in which we shouldn't have been involved in the first place, and against a people whose country was artificially divided into north and south by the United States in violation of the Geneva Accords of 1954. Win the war? Sure, we could have, but the means necessary would classify as genocide. And we came damn close.
War is dirty, war is nasty, and sometimes people do immoral things out of fear, personal hatred over the loss of a buddy, and some, those odious few, out of pure bloodlust. But hey, there was a draft on at the time, bringing into the military a cross-section of American society, which includes our psychopaths who in peacetime would end up spending their lives in prison or on death row. In war, these individuals are rewarded for the same tendencies that would make them pariahs in a peacetime society. Today they become CIA "contract employees" (read: mercenaries) in Central America, South America, or wherever "Black Ops" are needed with "deniability".
Between 1962 and 1973 three million of our finest (and some not-so-finest) were sent to Southeast Asia to fight in our cold war escapade. Atrocities in any war are inevitable. What we as a people must do is get off our moral pedestal and do what we expect other countries to do: atone for our indiscretions and atrocities, and move on, hopefully having learned something. To investigate if need be, and prosecute major war crimes practitioners and responsible government leaders, as we do to Serbian, Croatian, Rwandan, and Nazi war criminals to this day.
To keep things in better perspective:
We lost sixty thousand men and women in the Vietnam conflict. Vietnam lost three million, and more every day due to Agent Orange.
We claim 1,340 Americans MIAs. Vietnam has over three hundred thousand.
The total tonnage of bombs dropped on Vietnam was eight million more then was used in all of World War II.
Our government learned many lessons in Vietnam. One was that our ground troops would only take so much BS. Lying and rabid jingoism in 'Nam only got the word "fragging" added to "Webster's Dictionary." Ground troops started to refuse to fight. At a certain stage, Vietnam became a one-sided air war because our elite "top gun" pilots weren't subject to the sights, smells, and sounds of what they had done, of what war really is. As the Vietnam era anti-war poster proclaimed, "War is good business, invest your son." This has never been truer than under the present corporate-controlled administration. At least part of war is good business. Public reaction to loss of U.S. lives is a hot button issue today. The Pentagon must cover up losses, or exploit them to the max for congressional backing. This brings us to computer game warfare, to cruise missiles, smart bombs, and pilotless fighter planes. We can then wag the dog and show the public what we want them to see: 100% accuracy and a "clean" kill. No collateral damage - today's cutesy euphemism for women, children, civilians, schools, and hospitals - is ever shown. We are comfortably able to rain death and destruction upon a designated enemy of the day, from the comfort of our air-conditioned command and control centers at home. The end result is the same, but the public won't see it and be repulsed by it. And of course, our brothers and sisters in uniform today won't have to hear it, smell it, feel it, or see it, like our generation did.
I reflect on the cowardice and utter lack of professionalism and integrity the mainstream press has shown in kowtowing to the Pentagon's and State Department's spin doctors. Our government learned a lot from the Vietnam experience, but unfortunately not enough. It did learn that control of the news media is of primary importance to avoid the public's questioning of its actions. Starting with Granada we had total muzzling and spoon-feeding of the media so the folks back home wouldn't see or know what really went down. The destruction in Panama with over eight thousand civilian casualties was not reported by our compliant press. Nicaragua is a suspect chapter in our foreign policy hall of shame, where far too many of the nitty gritty details were hidden by the Iran/Contra pardons issued by Reagan/Bush. People who should rightfully be in federal prison today now hold elected or appointed positions in and around the beltway. That's democracy at work, I guess.
As an attempt at a catharsis of its national soul, the United States ought to at least follow the example of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Let it out into the light, and move on. It is unlikely we will ever get off our high horses and admit we screwed up. It's unlikely we will offer Vietnam reparations or reconstruction aid as we did for Germany and Japan. It's unlikely we will spend as much time removing the millions of U.S. landmines that continue to kill. It's unlikely we will send in massive medical assistance and chemical warfare cleanup personnel to limit or eliminate the genetic damage caused by the dioxin-laden Agent Orange with which we soaked their forests and rice paddies, still causing deformities and cancer at a greater scale than after Hiroshima. Highly unlikely. The boomer generation is then destined and condemned to live out its last thirty years like Lady MacBeth crying, "Out, out, damned spot." But nobody will be listening.
Stephen Sinsley is a member of VVAW.