I’ll be glad if I never hear John McCain’s name again, but his death made me look back and try once more to understand the US War with the Vietnamese People’s Army, whose anti-aircraft gunners shot him out of the sky during his 23 bombing raids over North Vietnam. On the “KPFA Radio “Sunday Show,” Kevin Alexander Gray said, “The national mourning for John McCain is almost a referendum or a recasting of the Vietnam War, where every soldier is a hero even though they were fighting in wars they had no business fighting in. Everybody’s a hero.”
I don’t think “everybody’s a hero,” least of all Bomb- Bomb-Iran John McCain, but I hugely admire the soldiers who ended the Vietnam War by refusing to fight and even fragging—shooting or throwing grenades at the commanders urging them on. The antiwar movement at home supported those heroes, but they were the ones who made it impossible to continue the war. They told their story in the documentary film Sir, No Sir.
I felt for the wounded foot soldiers writhing in agony in the final moments of Emile de Antonio’s brilliant Vietnam War documentary In the Year of the Pig, and I felt angry at the politicians and anti-communist ruling class who sent them off to suffer and die. I hadn’t watched In the Year of the Pig for nearly 20 years, but it’s one of the most profound films I’ve seen about the USA’s Vietnam War, so I watched it again, and I recommend it to anyone reading this. Emile de Antonio doesn’t narrate the film; it’s simply his composition of documentary footage. It’s also one of the few documentaries made while the war was still going on.
In the Year of the Pig was released in 1968, though the 20thCentury Years of the Pig in the Zodiac Calendar were 1935, 1959, 1971, 1983, and 1995, so there’s no doubt that the pig in the film is the US in Vietnam.
Most of the footage exposes the presidents, military officers and congressmen—and they were all men—who championed the war until the foot soldiers refused to fight. Its other subjects are the Vietnamese they knew next to nothing about.
Articulate opponents of the war also appear—an Oregon senator, Father Daniel Berrigan, a University of Missouri college professor of Southeast Asian Studies, and a few more. The most remarkable, to my mind, is Senator Thruston Ballard Morton, a Republican from Kentucky whom I’d never heard of before. His first words in the film, spoken with a southern drawl, are:
“Now, the thing that I think we fail to recognize is that Ho Chi Minh, communist or what not, is considered by the people of Vietnam, and I’m speaking now of millions in South Vietnam, as the George Washington of his country. He’s the man that they think threw off the French, the colonialists. Just as we had our 1776, they had theirs in the 1940s. He also led an underground movement against the Japanese who had occupied Vietnam and the whole Indochina Peninsula during World War II.
And whether we like him or not, whether we like the particular economic system or social system that he might develop or not, we must remember that he is indeed considered by many—the peasants, the small people, the little people in South Vietnam and North Vietnam—as the George Washington of his country.”
From one empire to another
The film includes footage of British Major General Douglas Gracy sent to oversee the Japanese surrender in French Indochina south of the 16thparallel. When he went to Saigon, he realized that the French lacked the means to recapture it, so he transferred all the weaponry taken from the Japanese to the French. This enabled them to remain and fight the First Indochina War that ended in French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
In mid-60s footage of President Lyndon Johnson, he says, “Every day someone jumps up and shouts and says, ‘Tell us what is happening in Vietnam, and why are we in Vietnam, and how did you get us into Vietnam?’ Well, I didn’t get you into Vietnam. You’ve been in Vietnam 10 years [since the French defeat].”
More footage is full of the bloodlust, racism, jingoism, ignorance, and imperial arrogance behind the Vietnam War. It had me asking myself what has changed, and I had to conclude not much, not the imperial essentials. The weaponry is more deadly, the racism less overt, and the press far more obedient.
Most significantly, those who run the war machine know that they can’t reinstitute the draft or put American troops on the ground without backlash at home, so they fight drone wars and proxy wars—including jihadist wars—with the help of US equipment, financing, and Special Forces.
The US elites who were so intent on destroying the will of the Vietnamese seemed to have no idea who they were. Again, Senator Thruston Bundy was a rare exception:
“We’ve put about three million of ‘em into what I would call a concentration camp. They call it a refugee center. It’s got barbed wire around it. You can’t get out of it. We’ve taken these people from the graves of their ancestors, from their rice paddies. And we say, ‘Oh well, we’ve pacified X million people.’ Yeah, we pacified some more people by puttin’ em in these camps.”
The greatest Vietnam War heroes
The greatest Vietnam War heroes were of course the Vietnamese people and their leader Ho Chi Minh—Uncle Ho—the lifelong nationalist, anti-colonialist, and communist who wore cheap cotton clothing and lived in humble circumstances as they did. The North Vietnamese told Western visitors that the revolution meant they finally had enough to eat despite the empire’s best efforts to destroy them.
They were armed, men and women, in cities and in the countryside. Many of those handling the anti-aircraft weapons used to shoot down John McCain’s plane were women. The revolutionary government had consciously armed them so well that they could have taken it down in a day. That, they said, was the greatest testament to their belief that the government spoke for them.
Emile de Antonio’s “In the Year of the Pig” is available in its entirety on the Internet Archive.