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War Crimes and Forgetting

Forty years after the long Vietnamese struggle for independence concluded with the capture of Saigon, the mythologies surrounding the war on the other side of the Pacific Ocean have not loosened their grip. The “debate” surrounding the war is a textbook example of corporate media obfuscation.

A strong debate played out in the corporate media outlets of the United States concerning the Vietnam War at the end of the 1990s, and that same debate, with the same parameters, continues today. This debate, however, is only between two “acceptable” viewpoints — an honorable effort that tragically failed or a well-intentioned but flawed effort that should not have been undertaken if the U.S. was not going to be “serious” about fighting.

Left out are the widely held views that the war should never have been fought because it was a war to extend U.S. hegemony or that the U.S. simply had no business fighting in another country’s civil war. Further, the first “acceptable” viewpoint implies, and the second explicitly states, that the U.S. didn’t really fight hard to win the war, ignoring the actual intensive level of the U.S. war effort in which most of North Vietnam’s larger cities were reduced to rubble, much of the farming lands were destroyed and three million Vietnamese were killed.

Thus there was all the appearance of a free and open media at the same time that the media obscured.

Elections only when you do as we say

What were some of the messy things going on in Southeast Asia at the time? (Most of the following is taken from Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, Pantheon Books, 1988.) The U.S. sabotaged the scheduled 1956 all-Vietnam election that was a cornerstone of the 1954 agreement that ended the French intervention; an election that was not allowed to occur precisely because Ho Chi Minh would have won. The U.S. set up South Vietnam as an artificial puppet state, overthrew and killed South Vietnam’s “leaders” and installed new “leaders,” who were invariably military thugs.

The U.S. invented the Gulf of Tonkin attack, a deliberate lie to create a cover for increasing the U.S. military role. By the time of the U.S. land intervention in 1965, American aerial bombing, napalming and gassing had already killed 15,000 Vietnamese. The U.S. carried out a policy of rural and urban terror. The military forced peasants in wide parts of the country off their land and into “strategic hamlets” — in reality, rural concentration camps — and killed peasants who refused to leave their homes. Tens of thousands were swept from their homes and sent to camps in single ground operations.

A writer in Foreign Affairs wrote that destroying the countryside and forcing rural residents into cities was necessary because the Viet Cong were “a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist.” The U.S. systematically destroyed by force any South Vietnamese grouping opposed to the installed military dictators, even non-Communist groups such as organized Buddhists.

The U.S. leveled major cities — 77% of the buildings in Hue, one of Vietnam’s biggest cities, were completely destroyed. Dams were blasted away, allowing salt water from the South China Sea to flood farmland, making the growing of food impossible. When North Vietnam agreed to the Paris Peace Agreements in 1972, Henry Kissinger decided not to accept the pact, began demanding major changes to an agreed-upon document, then launched the Christmas bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong when the North Vietnamese government insisted the agreement be signed.

In South Vietnam, 9,000 of 15,000 hamlets were damaged or destroyed, as were 25 million acres (100,000 square kilometers) of farmland and 12 million acres of forest. Killed were 1.5 million cattle. One million widows and 800,000 orphans were left behind.

In North Vietnam, 34 of the largest 36 cities suffered significant damage, with 15 completely razed, while 4,000 of about 5,800 communes were damaged. More than one million acres of farmland and 400,000 cattle were destroyed in the North. The Central Intelligence Agency admitted that at least 30,000 North Vietnamese were killed per year by 1967 by U.S. bombing, with these deaths primarily civilian. The total tonnage of bombs dropped by the U.S. in Vietnam exceeded that of all bombing by all countries during World War II. Reports of the countryside at the end of the war spoke of entire regions as “bare, gray and lifeless.”

No mercy in neighboring countries

Next door, in Laos, following a 1958 election in which a two-party Left coalition won 13 of 21 legislative seats, the U.S. swiftly overthrew the government, with the new government seated by the U.S. vowing to disband the Pathet Lao, which had won the most seats. Two years later, that new government was overthrown by the U.S., which installed a CIA-backed extreme Right-wing general.

In rural Laos, entire districts were wiped out by bombing. A series of articles in Le Monde reported on a district capital that had been deserted for three years because of repeated bombings. This capital was a portion of a 20-mile area stretching into the countryside in which not a single building was left standing and in which were found the remnants of American fragmentation bombs, which are dropped to maximize civilian casualties.

There were areas of Laos where villagers hid in nearby mountains, in caves or in ditches during daytime because of the ceaseless bombardment and who could conduct life only at night. Craters so saturated some areas that it was impossible to distinguish them, and all vegetation was destroyed. More than 350,000 Laotians — more than 10% of the country’s population — were killed and a similar number left homeless.

In Cambodia, bombing by the U.S. during the period 1969 to April 1975 resulted in 600,000 deaths and two million refugees, according to the same Finnish Inquiry Commission that concluded one million people died during the subsequent Khmer Rouge régime. As the bombing was ending in 1975, the U.S. government estimated that deaths from starvation in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, were near 100,000 per year.

This horrific bombing is believed to have played a role in the rise of the Khmer Rouge, which the U.S. covertly sided with during its murderous four-year reign. A U.S. government report in 1975 said 75 percent of Cambodia’s draft animals had died and that it would likely be three years before the country could regain rice self-sufficiency.

The carnage inflicted on Vietnam reverberates still. An estimated 19 million tons of toxic herbicides were applied that has resulted in more than half a century of damage to health and birth defects.

Such is the price of empire, paid by those on the receiving end. If these are not war crimes, then what would be?

Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog. He has been an activist with several groups.

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Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog and has been an activist with several groups. His book, It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, is available from Zero Books.

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