The recent controversy surrounding the “Swift Boat Veterans” ad challenging John Kerry’s Vietnam record and his later statements as a leader of Vietnam Veterans against the War (VVAW) have fallen into predictable partisan perspectives. Republicans and their media attack machine still insist that Kerry’s medals are suspect and his VVAW activities were treasonous. Kerry and the Democrats, in turn, have found further documentary evidence and eye-witness accounts to support his version of the Vietnam incidents. As far as Kerry’s 1971 testimony about US atrocities in Vietnam, Kerry has reiterated that he was just recounting reports from the Winter Soldier Investigations. In addition, he tried earlier to deflect criticism of his VVAW positions by claiming that some of his statements were overzealous and part of the heated rhetoric of the times. In effect, the Bush Administration and Republicans have tried to deny that atrocities took place while Kerry and the Democrats have tried to minimize or marginalize them.
For those who have studied the historical record of the US prosecution of the war in Southeast Asia, neither the Republicans nor Democrats have confronted the full measure of those atrocities and what their legacy is, especially in the war on Iraq. While most studies of the war in Southeast Asia acknowledge that 4 times the tonnage of bombs was dropped on Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos than that used by the US in all theaters of operation during World War II, only a few, such as James William Gibson’s The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam, analyze the full extent of such bombing. Not only were thousands of villages in Vietnam totally destroyed, but massive civilian deaths, numbering close to 3 million, resulted in large part from such indiscriminate bombing. Integral to the bombing strategy was the use of weapons that violated international law, such as napalm and anti-personnel fragmentation bombs. As a result of establishing free-fire zones where anything and everything could be attacked, including hospitals, US military operations led to the deliberate murder of mostly civilians.
While Rumsfeld and the Pentagon have touted the “clean” weapons used in Iraq, the fact is that aerial cluster bombs and free-fire zones have continued to be part of present day military operations. Villages throughout Iraq, from Hilla to Fallujah, have borne and are bearing US attacks that take a heavy civilian toll. Occasionally, criticisms of the type of ordnance used in Iraq found its way into the mainstream press, especially when left-over cluster bomblets looking like yellow food packages blow up in children’s hands or depleted uranium weapons are dropped inadvertently on British soldiers. However, questions about the immorality of “shock and awe” bombing strategy have been buried deeper than any of the cluster bomblets.
In Vietnam, a primary ground war tactic was the “search and destroy” mission with its over-inflated body counts. As Christian Appy has forcefully demonstrated in Working Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam, such tactics were guaranteed to produce atrocities. Any revealing personal account of the war in Vietnam, such as Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July, underscores how those atrocities took their toll on civilians and US soldiers, like Kovic. Of course, certain high-profile atrocities, such as My Lai, achieved prominent media coverage (almost, however, a year after the incident.) Nonetheless, My Lai was seen either as an aberration and not part of murderous campaigns such as the Phoenix program with its thousands of assassinations or a result of a few bad apples, like a Lt. Calley, who nonetheless received minor punishment for his command of the massacre of hundreds of women and children. Moreover, as reported in Tom Engelhardt’s The End of Victory Culture, “65% of Americans claimed not to be upset by the massacre” (224). Is it, therefore, not surprising that Noam Chomsky asserted during this period that the US had to undergo some sort of de- nazification in order to regain some moral sensitivity to what US war policy had produced in Vietnam
Of course, the racism that led the US military to see every “gook” as VC in Vietnam has also re-appeared in Iraq. According to one British commander in Iraq American troops often saw Iraqis as “undermenschen” the Nazi expression for sub-humans. Although embedded US reporters rarely provided an insight into this racist mentality, Mark Franchetti of the London Times quoted one US soldier as asserting that “Iraqis are sick people and we are the chemotherapy.” And with chemotherapy if the sick person dies it was only to help cure the person. This reminds one of the infamous pronouncement by a US officer on the destruction of a Vietnamese village during the war in that ravaged country: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”
Neither in Vietnam nor Iraq would Washington and the Pentagon admit to carrying-out war crimes. However, in the war on Iraq Rumsfeld clearly did approve violations of the Geneva Conventions in the use of torture on Iraqi prisoners, especially in the Abu Ghraib prison. But, like Vietnam, the focus is on a few “renegade” soldiers and not the actual policy-makers. Also, those who would excuse such war-crimes, like Rush Limbaugh and his ditto-heads, are an American version of holocaust-deniers, excusing the historical record of death and destruction.
Of course, it is not only reactionary elements in US society who try to use the flag as a cover to the brutal impact of imperial policy, whether in Vietnam or Iraq. The deeply embedded belief that the US is on a providential mission is not new to George W. Bush and his crackpot neo-con policymakers. The liberal Madeline Albright insisted that the US was the “indispensable” nation. This allowed her and the Clinton Administration to rationalize the deaths of hundreds of thousands Iraqis from the sanctions during the 1990’s. Until there is a full recounting of the loss of lives from such imperial policies and a commitment by a mobilized and outraged population to end the pursuit of a US empire, there will be an ugly persistence of the denial or minimization of atrocities.
Fran Shor teaches at Wayne State University and is an activist with various peace and justice organizations. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org