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Vietnam: the War That Won’t Go Away

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More than forty years after the end of hostilities, the War in Vietnam is still being fought. Not on the battlefield, of course, but in the political and historical arenas. In the United States, the government has never admitted, much less attempted to make amends for, the mass murder and grotesque violations of human rights its leaders, both in the political elite and the military, sponsored and committed. In fact, from President Carter on, the war has been presented as a noble cause and the soldiers as brave victims of public scorn. Among historians, the liberals argue that the carnage in a poor peasant country was a terrible mistake, while the conservatives echo the noble cause line and the perfidy of the communists. A small number of writers, such as Noam Chomsky and Gabriel Kolko, on what would be called the far left in this nation, have from the beginning told the truth—that the slaughter in Vietnam was planned and deliberate, that the United States would not tolerate, as it does not today, any efforts by people in the Global South to liberate themselves and escape the imperialist trap.

Michael Uhl is an astute commentator on every aspect of the war, and his book, The War I Survived Was Vietnam, is an exceptional collection of essays, reviews, investigative reports, and memoirs. What helps to give this work its power are Uhl’s experiences as a counter-intelligence officer in Vietnam, and more importantly his long-term participation and leadership in the veterans’ militantly successful antiwar movement. In Vietnam, he witnessed both the daily horror of that conflict and the use of torture to elicit information from enemy soldiers and civilians. These events soon turned him against the war. His tour of duty was cut short when he contracted pulmonary tuberculosis, but after his recovery, he soon became a full-time organizer—of veterans against the war and active-duty soldiers opposing it in Vietnam and on U.S. military bases.

Uhl testified in Congress about torture in interrogations of civilians (his testimony is in an appendix to this book), and as part of the Citizen’s Commission of Inquiry on U.S. War Crimes in Vietnam. He was part of the Winter Soldier Investigation. He was active in the
uhlthewarisurvivedefforts to have the government grant amnesty to exiled war resisters. He is a co-founder of Citizen Soldier, a GI and veterans’ rights advocacy group, which helped to expose the horrific effects of Agent Orange on U.S. soldiers and demand that the government take immediate remedial actions. He also has spearheaded efforts to compel the U.S. government to honor its promise, made by the Nixon administration, of billions of dollars in aid to Vietnam, which could be used to help that nation  treat the millions of its people exposed to Agent Orange, not to mention the awful ongoing death and maiming caused by unexploded ordnance.

An especially interesting subsection of the book is devoted to Agent Orange, including excerpts from the author and Tod Ensign’s impassioned and informative 1980 book, GI Guinea Pigs: How the Pentagon Exposed Our Troops to Dangers More Deadly Than War: Agent Orange and Atomic Radiation. I especially recommend “The Ranch Hands: ‘Only We Can Prevent Forest Fires,’” an exposé of the origins and implementation of the campaign to poison by defoliation the Vietnamese countryside. The program, initiated by President Kennedy, was originally named Operation Hades but was ultimately christened the less diabolical but still macabre Operation Ranch Hand. The Air Force personnel who did the flying and spraying were call Ranch Hands. Uhl spoke at length with some of them at one of their annual conventions, and here we learn not only the complicated logistics of the program but also the almost unanimous lack of remorse by the perpetrators of what can only be called chemical warfare. Given the long-lasting and devastating human and environmental damage wrought by Agent Orange, this was far worse than anything the murderous Saddam Hussein did. What is more, most of the Ranch Hands seem unconcerned about their own exposure to Agent Orange; one of them, a colonel no less, actually drank the stuff to show critics it was harmless. We can only hope that he someday suffers the torments of those who have endured its pernicious agonies.

There are several pieces on PTSD, including the author’s own suffering from one of the inevitable outcomes of war, the inability of the brains and bodies of soldiers to cope with what they have done and what they have witnessed. Again Uhl provides invaluable historical background on both the medical and political aspects of PTSD, including the hard struggle first to get it categorized as a psychological disorder and second to compel the government to pay for its treatment. Uhl gives a poignant account of his battle to understand the trauma he has undergone for so many years and how he has learned to cope with its demons. Readers may wonder, as I did, how many hundreds of millions of men, women, and children around the world have PTSD. Is it any wonder that veterans are committing suicide at record rates and sometimes taking the lives of spouses, children, and friends? Are we surprised that endless wars and their constant glorification in books, movies, and video games have created one the most violent societies on earth?

Uhl and Ensign were also active in efforts to unionize soldiers, and there are several good essays describing the unionizing attempts, including the ultimate spinelessness of the American Federation of Government Employees, which wilted under the intense pressure of political reactionaries like Strom Thurmond. Congress and the military met the threat of soldiers forming unions with hysterical cries of treason and sought to make even joining a union, the right of which is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a criminal act. In the face of such threats, the movement died. Hopefully, as the conditions of military employment worsen in the face of interminable wars, it will be someday reborn. As the author points out, unionization has done nothing to weaken the military preparedness of the Netherlands, where soldiers have been unionized for some time.

Michael Uhl’s activism did not stop with the end of the War in Vietnam. It has continued to this day (See, for example the essays, “Warriors for Peace” and “Antiwar Veterans Raise Their Voices.”).  While nothing has yet approached the antiwar achievements of the veterans of that era, wars have continued unabated and soldiers are still being poisoned, traumatized, and sometimes radicalized. Men and women like Uhl have courageously stood ready to help them salve the wounds of battle and become antiwar warriors themselves.

The longest section of the book is devoted to critical reviews of the works of other writers, and one filmmaker. These embody some of the author’s best writing; they encourage readers to delve into the books examined and to reflect upon what Uhl says about them. Some of the reviews savage writers who were architects of the war, apologists for it, or who believe that a muscular and imperialist U.S. military is a good thing. Uhl and his then partner, Carol Brightman, after reviewing Robert McNamara’s penitential In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, actually interviewed him. Remarkably they got him to admit that, contrary to what the U.S. government has always held, Vietnam at the time the war began was one nation. In Uhl’s review of Rory Kennedy’s shockingly superficial film, Last Days in Vietnam, he wonders what hope there is when Robert Kennedy’s daughter filmed as if she believes that the most important aspect of the war was the failure of the United States to evacuate corrupt and traitorous South Vietnamese military elite “and other collaborators” from Saigon as the revolutionaries were about to take power.

Writers hostile to the U.S. war sometimes also come in for criticism. For example, Nick Turse, author of the much-praised Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, is rightfully chastised for not only downplaying but dismissing the critical role veterans played in documenting war crimes and in bringing the carnage to an end.  To buttress his case, Uhl appends to his Turse review a useful annotated bibliography of “Veteran War Crimes Testimony, 1969-71.” Penny Lewis’s Hardhats, Hippies and Hawks: The Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory, on the other hand, receives praise for, among other things, showing that working class Americans opposed the war in large numbers, the vile and violent attacks on demonstrators by of a few union construction workers notwithstanding.

Uhl sympathetically, though not uncritically, reviews several memoirs and novels of Vietnam veterans, including books by John Kerry and Bob Kerrey. Kerrey, who went onto to achieve success as a U.S. senator and university president, has been accused, on credible evidence, of war crimes in Vietnam (See the author’s review of Greg Vistica’s The Education of Lieutenant Kerrey). There are many excellent essays to choose from, and these make us aware of authors we might not know, including Suel Jones, David Harris, W.D. Ehrhart, Michael H. Cooper, and Kevin Bowen.

Throughout The War I Survived Was Vietnam, Michael Uhl poses interesting questions, which he answers authoritatively. Why weren’t the atrocities at Abu Ghraib seen in light of those in Vietnam? Which is another way of asking why we don’t seem to be learning the lessons we should be from decades of war. Why aren’t there veterans’ movements in other nations? In fact, why does the United States seems to be almost unique in terms of former soldiers identifying themselves as a special group—veterans? Why are veterans provided with state-sponsored benefits not available to others? Do these special benefits exert strong pressures on veteran organizations to become special-interest groups, tied to the very politicians who bring us the wars that ultimately do great damage to veterans? Is the slogan “support the troops” compatible with an antiwar message? Why do soldier almost never revolt as the troops did in Vietnam?

Readers of this book will understand how important it is to keep the “Vietnam Syndrome” alive, to grasp and never forget the awful truth of that war and steadfastly oppose U.S. imperial militarism. The government and the titans of capital it supports never cease their efforts to erase critical historical memory, to rewrite the past as a heroic struggle to bring freedom and democracy to the rest of the world. Uhl notes in his essay “Heeding the Call,” that President Obama has inaugurated a thirteen-year “Commemoration” of the War in Vietnam, to last from Memorial Day 2012 until 2025. As the president’s Proclamation announcing the Commemoration makes clear, the government is indeed intent on turning the truth into a set of grotesque falsehoods, myths worthy of The Third Reich:

As we observe the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, we reflect with solemn reverence upon the valor of a generation that served with honor. We pay tribute to the more than 3 million servicemen and women who left their families to serve bravely, a world away from everything they knew and everyone they loved. From Ia Drang to Khe Sanh, from Hue to Saigon and countless villages in between, they pushed through jungles and rice paddies, heat and monsoon, fighting heroically to protect the ideals we hold dear as Americans. Through more than a decade of combat, over air, land, and sea, these proud Americans upheld the highest traditions of our Armed Forces.

Among the objectives of the Commemoration is “To highlight the advances in technology, science, and medicine related to military research conducted during the Vietnam War.” In light of Uhl’s reporting on the use of Agent Orange and other weapons of mass destruction developed by the military during the war, as well as the complete lack of a moral compass by complicit U.S. scientists from the Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service, this has to be one of the most outrageous justifications for mass killing ever made.

This is an outstanding anthology, and readers are certain to find their own gems. Study it, and honor Uhl’s work by building upon it, acting in whatever ways we can to bring into being a society that atones for the evil things it has done and does everything it can to build a peaceful, egalitarian, and prosperous world.

Michael D. Yates is the Editorial Director of Monthly Review Press. His latest book is The Great Inequality. He can be reached at mikedjyates@msn.com. He welcomes comments.

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