Dishonor by Association: A Red, White, and Blue Object Lesson

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The real hopeless victims of mental illness are to be found among those who appear to be most normal. Many of them are normal because they are so well adjusted to our mode of existence, because their human voice has been silenced so early in their lives, that they do not even struggle or suffer or develop symptoms as the neurotic does.

– Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited

Ted Osius, former US ambassador to Vietnam and, most recently, Google’s vice president for public policy and government in the Asia Pacific region, has a forthcoming book entitled Nothing is Impossible: America’s Reconciliation with Vietnam. This essay is not about the book but rather a counterpoint to the manner in which he chose to announce it on social media and the name he dropped to help him hawk it.

Rest assured, I will connect the dots leading from Aldous Huxley’s prescient observation to the mindset and moral code required to engage in what someone like Mr. Osius believes is honor by association. Note that this is a selective, not a blanket condemnation of Osius’ modus vivendi. That doesn’t make it any less damning.

Huxley goes on to say that the people he describes are only normal “in relation to a profoundly abnormal society. Their perfect adjustment to that abnormal society is a measure of their mental sickness. These millions of abnormally normal people, living without fuss in a society to which, if they were fully human beings, they ought not to be adjusted.” Hold that thought until the end.

State-Sanctioned Murder by Fiat and the Personal Touch

Ironically or maybe not, those of us who unwaveringly choose to side with the victims and tormented over the victimizers and the tormentors are often the target of scorching criticism from those who accept and support the system as is, be they people of power and influence, or the unthinking, uncaring legion of the like-minded.

This confirms what Huxley observed and George Orwell wrote about in the draft preface to the first edition of Animal Farm: “Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. …At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady.”

This infuses the debate about US-sponsored state terrorism, e.g., murdering and displacing hundreds of thousands and even millions of fellow human beings in pursuit of cold, calculating political goals. In the US, it is a phenomenon that most “right-thinking people” accept without question, based on how Madeleine Albright, George W. Bush, Henry Kissinger, Bob Kerrey, Colin Powell, and a long list of other former and current leaders, are treated and feted.

Noam Chomsky said in a 1990 speech that “If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged” – in reference to the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in 1946. That same logic applies to many of their underlings who have had a hand in policy making and implementation. Apologies and backtracking don’t count; they’re meaningless to those who are no longer among the living.

In the trenches, quite literally, representatives of the US government and people routinely get away with murder. A veteran by the name of US Army Sgt. Roy E. Bumgarner (1930-2005) liked killing with impunity so much that he spent seven years in Vietnam doing it.

Nick Turse, author of the bestselling Kill Anything That Moves – The Real American War in Vietnam, wrote how “war always exalts and elevates psychotic killers. And Vietnam became their playground.” Bumgarner reportedly had at least 1,500 “enemy” KIAs, “excessive even by the standards of Vietnam.” Many of his confirmed victims were unarmed women, children, and the elderly.

One man who was on his wildcat team told an Army criminal investigator that “only a couple of weeks ago I heard Bumgarner had killed a Vietnamese girl and two younger kids (boys), who didn’t have any weapons.” He was known to plant grenades on the bodies of his victims, including children, so they could be classified as dead enemy troops. This became known as the Mere Gook Rule: If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC.

What price did Roy pay for his war crimes? After a court-martial and conviction for unpremeditated murder, he was reduced in rank and fined. No prison time. In fact, he continued his military career and regained his old rank. Bumgarner, who died in 2005 in what was by all accounts a quiet and uneventful retirement, was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, often described by US Americans as their “Nation’s most hallowed ground.”

A more notorious fellow war criminal,  Lt. William Calley, served three years of house arrest (thanks to Nixon, who ordered him released from the stockade) for his role in the Mỹ Lai massacre of 16 March 1968 in which 504 civilians were murdered. Before their violent demise, many women were raped and forced to perform oral sex on their US Army tormentors.

Both Bumgarner and Kissinger are murderers who escaped justice, the former now mouldering in his five-star grave and the latter still alive and well, glowing tributes at the ready the moment he breathes his last. How do they differ?

Bumgarner killed up close and personal while Kissinger did it from an office in Washington, D.C. The latter issued the orders and read the reports, body counts and all. The former heard the cries and moans of his victims and was splattered with their warm blood. Kissinger has the blood of millions on his wrinkly old hands. Bumgarner is a piker by comparison.

They both aided and abetted one of the USA’s many imperial transgressions leaving behind thousands and millions of victims in their wake. Service to country included war crimes and crimes against humanity. Such is the world in which all of these servants of the US empire, in the spotlight or the shadows, operate and, indeed, prosper, especially after leaving the government’s employ.

Ted Osius: From US Ambassador to Google Vice President

Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. -Elie Wiesel

Ted Osius served as US ambassador to Vietnam from December 2014 to November 2017. (His previous Vietnam experience was as the first political officer in the US consulate in HCMC, which opened in August 1999.) He resigned shortly before then President Donald Trump’s first visit to Vietnam just short of the normal three-year term and presumably under pressure from the White House. Shortly thereafter, Osius was appointed vice president of the Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV). He lasted about six months in that position, tendering his resignation in June 2018. Next stop on the post-government service career tour was Google in Singapore, where he lasted for two and a half years.

One indication of Osius’s mindset was the manner in which he mishandled the Bob Kerrey clusterfuck. Kerrey’s appointment as chairman of the FUV board of trustees was announced by Secretary of State John Kerry during President Obama’s May 2016 visit to Vietnam. In my July 2016 article Bob Kerrey and Fulbright University – What were they thinking? one of the people “they” referred to in my G-rated rhetorical question was Ted Osius.

You may recall that Kerrey led a squad of Navy SEALS who killed up to 21 civilians with automatic weapons and knives in a Phoenix program operation in the village of Thanh Phong in the Mekong Delta in February 1969, a massacre for which he was awarded the Bronze Star. This is how Kerrey recalled that war crime in his memoir, When I Was a Young Man (Harcourt Books 2002): “I saw women and children in front of us being hit and cut to pieces. I heard their cries and other voices in the darkness as we made our retreat to the canal.” It was Kerrey who gave the order to open fire and cut the women and children to pieces.

In a 2001 CBS 60 Minutes interview, Gerhard Klann, one of the seven SEALS under Kerrey’s command, said that Kerrey kneeled on the chest of one old man, a 65-year-old grandfather, who was “putting up a fight” while Klann pulled his head back and slit his throat.

I brought up this point in a 2018 email exchange with Osius:

What did you think about Kerrey’s appointment to that position? As AMB at the time, I assume you were consulted, if not directly involved in that discussion. Did you support it? Or did you express concern?  If it was the former, why?

What I’ve discovered in all of this is how invisible the victims of that massacre are, both the dead and the living.  To be perfectly honest, that is my main motivation, not ‘sticking it’ to any individual or institution.  The tendency of most people involved with this issue to completely ignore them is both heartless and morally reprehensible.  Your thoughts?

The response I received was… silence. My guess is that he either nodded approvingly or looked the other way while Kerrey’s appointment was being discussed, finalized, and proposed to then Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama. There was no known hint of opposition. In either case, he’s complicitous in that monumental ethical and PR blunder. Where or what is his moral code, I wondered?

Enter Madeleine Albright

Lesley Stahl:  We have heard that half a million (Iraqi) children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?

Madeleine Albright:  I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.

-CBS 60 Minutes Interview, May 12, 1996

During his brief tenure at Google Asia Pacific, Ted Osius has found time write a book about US-Vietnam relations. Here are some excerpts from a social media announcement. It was no coincidence that he uploaded it to Facebook, the third most popular website and the top social media platform in Vietnam, on 30 April 2021, Reunification Day in Vietnam. I present this point-counterpoint fashion with my comments in roman type.

We began preparing for a visit by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright – her first trip to Vietnam – just six weeks after Ambassador Pete Peterson’s May 1997 arrival. This trip was important in its own right but also because we knew it could be paving the way for a visit by President Bill Clinton. Secretary Albright had personally sworn in Pete as ambassador, recognizing his integrity, ability to overcome tragedy, and steady focus on the future. Pete knew I had served as Madeleine’s staff aide and political officer when she was Ambassador to the United Nations, and he asked me to take responsibility for planning her visit. I admired Madeleine greatly, and I enjoyed this challenge. Once we had the actual dates, there were only ten days to organize the trip, and I threw myself into every detail.

Osius presents his Albright bona fides with great pride and carves out a solid niche as Albright’s loyal protégé and devoted follower. He basks in the glow of Albright’s star power, at least in his imagination.

It’s worth noting that one of Albright’s mentors was Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser. He was a man cut from the same ideological cloth as Henry Kissinger to whom Harvard awarded an associate professorship instead of him in 1959.

After Brzezinski’s death in 2017, Albright, who referred to him as her “professor, mentor, and dear friend,” said she was “captivated by his brilliance, his originality, and his sophisticated understanding of international politics and grand strategy. I was fortunate to be able to learn from him as a graduate student at Columbia University, to work for him when he served as National Security Advisor in the Carter Administration, and to collaborate with him on many different projects in the years that followed. Zbig did more to shape my understanding of international relations than anyone apart from my father, and I was grateful when I served in government to be able to call upon him for advice and counsel.”

Osius continues:

Madeleine was enchanted by Vietnam, and she enjoyed traveling around the country with Pete. On all of her trips, she tried to carve out a little time for shopping. She knew that Hanoi had a vibrant local art scene, and after official meetings, she and Pete visited a gallery where she admired a painting. Madeleine was not carrying any local currency, but Pete stepped up and said, ‘I’m the man with the đồng (Vietnamese currency).’ This provoked a lot of laughter. It was fun being with Madeleine again and seeing that she was the same smart and gracious, funny, and charismatic person she was when she served as UN ambassador. She took time in the middle of a wildly hectic schedule to see me and renew our ties.

Ambassador Peterson’s crude little double entendre aside, which Osius assumes will elicit a chuckle on the part of his readers, he would have been better served – for the purposes of selling his book and posterity – by associating himself with the ambassador and not Albright. Peterson does not have the checkered public service history that Albright has and certainly doesn’t have the blood of innocents on his hands like she does, if you exclude those he may have killed as a F-4 Phantom II fighter pilot before he was shot down in September 1966, followed by six years in Hỏa Lò Prison. (It won’t surprise you to learn that Peterson is a senior adviser for Albright’s international strategic consulting firm, Albright Stonebridge Group, one of the many places retired public servants go to monetize their careers and reputations. Osius was appointed to the same position in November 2018 and may very well end up back there.)

The Secretary’s visit wasn’t all celebration though. She met the Communist Party’s eighty-year-old General Secretary, Đỗ Mười, in Independence Palace, once the home of South Vietnam’s presidents. As note-taker, I appreciated Madeleine’s direct and forthright manner as she pressed the old war leader on his country’s miserable human rights record. Đỗ Mười wasn’t accustomed to being challenged in this way, but he knew he had to engage with her if Vietnam hoped to have a relationship with the United States.

This is the pot calling the kettle black. While Vietnam has its issues, it can’t hold a candle to the government that Albright and Osius represented, one of the world’s most prolific and egregious human rights violators and the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” when Martin Luther King, Jr. uttered those words and 54 years later. The entire war, in which the lives of 3.8 million Vietnamese were snuffed out, countless others tortured, traumatized, and displaced, was a human rights violation of the nth degree.

Here is what Secretary Albright wrote about Nothing Is Impossible, ‘America’s reconciliation with Vietnam is one of the most remarkable diplomatic stories of the past three decades, and Ambassador Ted Osius was at the center of it all. In his new book, Ambassador Osius takes readers behind the scenes of this initiative, helping them understand how two old enemies came together to forge a better future for their people. Nothing is Impossible is an absorbing memoir from one of America’s finest diplomats.’ — Madeleine K. Albright 

This ringing endorsement is a benefit of being a member of a mutual admiration society. It’s a textbook case of cognitive dissonance in that Osius can – as he did with self-confessed war criminal Bob Kerrey – once again look the other way and not concern himself with Albright’s statements and actions that resulted in the deaths of over a million human beings. The icing on the cake is that John Kerry wrote the foreword. Both, no doubt, count themselves among “America’s finest diplomats” and are in fact if you apply Huxley’s definition of people who are only normal “in relation to a profoundly abnormal society.” To be “normal” in this dysfunctional context is to be a loyal soldier and a respected statesman or -woman.

The Whole Package

When you enthusiastically endorse someone, as Osius has done with his mentor and former boss, you don’t get to pick and choose which parts to embrace. You get the whole package, warts and all. His  association with Albright, a US nationalist (“We are exceptional,” indeed) and alleged war criminal, is a deal with the devil. Think Iraq in 1996 and Rwanda, among other unsavory examples, including Iraq in 2003. In a September 2003 interview, Albright had this to say about the invasion, occupation, and destruction of that country, all of which were based on bald-faced lies: I personally felt the war was justified on the basis of Saddam’s decade-long refusal to comply with UN Security Council resolutions on WMD.

This is the same Madeleine (Jana Korbel) Albright who lost more than a dozen relatives, including three grandparents, in the Holocaust. Apparently, she learned the wrong lessons from her family’s disruptive and fatal experience with Nazism and was left barely a thimble of empathy or compassion.

A friend shared this observation: Even if you start out with noble intentions, the ‘system’ is set up to co-opt you and trap you in the club with all its enticements and benefits. While true, this is no excuse for remaining a card-carrying member of the “club,” unless you’ve never “moved” and “noticed your chains”, to paraphrase Rosa Luxemburg.

The fact of the matter is that you can reject this particular pillar of the system, opt out, and turn against it with every fiber of your being, as people like Daniel Ellsberg, Daniel Hale, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Ann Wright, and many others have done. It’s not easy and is often dangerous but at least you leave with your integrity intact. Osuis has instead chosen to cast his lot with Albright and the system that have both represented with distinction and misplaced pride.

A quote from the late Fred Branfman (1942-2014), a US anti-war activist best known for exposing the covert bombing of Laos by the US, comes to mind. Referring to the war in Southeast Asia, he said, “US leaders have never acknowledged their responsibility for ruining so many lives, let alone apologized or made proper amends to the survivors. Those responsible have not been punished but rewarded. The memory of it has been erased from national consciousness, as US leaders endlessly declare their nation’s, and their own, goodness. Millions of civilian lives swept under the rug, forgotten, as if this mass murder and maiming, the destruction of countless homes and villages, this epic violation of basic human decency—and laws protecting civilians in time of war which US leaders have promised to observe—never happened.”

So, it is with Madeleine Albright, the United States’ first female secretary of state, frequently referred to as one of the world’s top diplomats, who continues to advocate for democracy and human rights. (For whom, I wonder.)

As for Ted Osius, his close affiliation with the likes of Albright is a blood-red stain on his personal and professional reputation, not the feather in the cap he thinks it is. While America’s reconciliation with Vietnam was not impossible, the ability to decipher the objective truth about his country’s history and its role in the world, and to care about the implications, appear to be beyond his grasp. To paraphrase a quote from a 2020 Tweet about Trumpism, Ted and I don’t have a difference of opinion; we have a difference in morality.

The moral degree of separation between an oppressor and her (or his) sycophants is perilously close. Osius’ self-serving connection to Albright is an appalling example of dishonor and disgrace by association. Sadly, he’s not alone, one of “millions of abnormally normal people, living without fuss in a society to which, if they were fully human beings, they ought not to be adjusted.”

Mark A. Ashwill is an international educator who has lived in Vietnam since 2005. He is an associate member of Veterans for Peace Chapter 160. Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam and can be reached at markashwill@hotmail.com.

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