The Ugly Memory of the US War on Southeast Asia

The US war on the people of Southeast Asia sits in the national consciousness, an unerasable memory. Even though most of the architects of that conflict are dead (Henry Kissinger being a very notable exception), attempts to portray it as something other than the murderous endeavor it was continue to appear in the media. Military historians and generals, conservatives and liberals, scholars and students—all of them search for a story that would make the conflict justified and even honorable. This fact is exactly why books like The United States, Southeast Asia, and Historical Memory are invaluable. Edited by Mark Pavlick and Caroline Luft, it includes essays from Noam Chomsky, Gareth Porter, Nick Turse and others, the text examines the meaning of the war and how it is remembered.

There are essays examining the geopolitics and economics of the war, but the pieces that stand out the most are those that focus on the conflict’s victims. Indeed, the essay by Fred Branfman that opens the book enumerates the number of dead and wounded during the years of war; the numbers are in the millions. He writes, “The nation (USA) has no greater moral failing than [its] ongoing refusal to take responsibility for the countless Indochinese peasants…” its forces killed. Instead, Washington has pretended it has no responsibility for those deaths and gone on to add many thousands more such deaths to its ledger, albeit in other nations around the globe. The second piece is also by Branfman. It is an excerpt from his 1970 publication titled Voice from the Plain of Jars. I remember reading this book in 1971 at the Post Exchange bookstore in Frankfurt am Main. Although I was quite surprised to find it on the shelves in a store funded by the US Department of Defense and for its troops, I was also happy it was there. It is a testament to whoever managed that store and to the broader range of ideas published by mainstream publishers then that this text was but one of several antiwar books I purchased there. Anyhow, those voices from Laos’ Plain of Jars were telling stories about the “secret” US bombing of that country. It was a bombing campaign that forced families to live in caves and underground, destroyed their fields and poisoned the water. It was also a military campaign whose primary intent was to intimidate the civilian population.

The bombing of Laos was not the only such campaign. In fact, one could argue that much of US policy was designed to intimidate civilians. This included intentionally targeting civilian villages and hamlets, bombing them and conducting on-the-ground search and destroy missions. In southern Vietnam, the purpose of these missions was often to drive the Vietnamese into detention camps run under the aegis of the CIA’s Operation Phoenix. pavli
Other times, the purpose seemed to be mass murder. The most infamous of the latter type of operation is probably the massacre at My Lai in 1968. Another, broader and less specific operation was the use of defoliants like Agent Orange across Southeast Asia by US forces. This chemical was known to cause birth defects and cancers, but was used so universally and indiscriminately many US troops were also permanently affected after being exposed to it. As a sort of proof of Washington’s refusal to accept responsibility for its crimes in Southeast Asia, it took years and years of protests, court battles and Congressional hearings before the Veteran’s Administration acknowledged the terminal damage to its troops was often caused by the Pentagon’s use of Agent Orange.

The bulk of the articles here deal with the countries of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. However, there is one that focuses entirely on Indonesia. Written by a former Australian Army officer named Clinton Fernandez, the piece discusses the so-called domino theory and the idea that Indonesia was one such domino. That is why, writes Fernandez, the US provided lists of neutralist and left-nationalist individuals to the murderous Suharto regime. It is estimated that close to a million people were murdered by Suharto’s forces—all with the backing of the United states. Fernandez’s piece provides a history of the time that places this episode firmly in the post-World War Two drive by Washington to expand its imperial reach and curtail the growing popularity of communism as witnessed in the success of the Chinese revolution, the Korean conflict and the victory of the Vietnamese over French colonial forces.

The text Pavlick and Luft have put together is both history and forewarning. By the very nature of its subject matter, it can not be light reading. It barely touches the catalog of horrors that the US war on the people of Southeast Asia was. At the same time, it is a useful and potent introduction to a history too few US residents truly know and one that most US leaders would like to hide. There is no respite from the true nature of the war on Southeast Asia in these pages. Indeed, the only relief can be found in the knowledge that all proceeds from the book’s sale will go to humanitarian assistance in Indochina.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: