The reality of the Vietnam War as a brutal, imperialist adventure has been carefully omitted from official ceremonies in the United States held to mark the 50th anniversary of the war’s beginning in 1962.
Starting this year, the government will implement “a 13-year program to honor and give thanks to a generation of proud Americans who saw our country through one of the most challenging missions we have ever faced”.
In a speech delivered in May at Arlington National Cemetery, President Barack Obama said US soldiers had “pushed through jungles and rice paddies, heat and monsoon, fighting heroically to protect the ideals we hold dear as Americans [and upholding] the highest traditions of our Armed Forces”.
Elsewhere, Obama told veterans, “let us … speak of your courage ― at Hue and Khe Sanh, at Tan Son Nhut and Saigon, from Hamburger Hill to Rolling Thunder. All too often it's forgotten that you, our troops in Vietnam, won every major battle you fought in.”
These remarks are typical of the rhetorical sanitisation that routinely accompanies official US pronouncements on the war in Vietnam. They reflect from the same delusional world view that was used to justify the war ― that the US is a chosen nation with a democratising mission to fulfil in the world.
Although US military involvement in Indochina first began in the 1940s, 1962 was a significant turning point. That year, the number of "advisers" -- combat troops in all but name -- increased from hundreds to thousands. By the end of the next year, there would be 16,000 US troops in Vietnam.
US aerial bombing also began that year. This was a campaign of indiscriminate terror from the skies that would eventually claim millions of innocent civilian victims in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
It all stemmed from one of history’s greatest betrayals. During World War II, Vietnamese nationalists under Ho Chi Minh had worked closely with US forces, helping to rescue downed US pilots from the occupying Japanese.
Encouraged by semi-official assurances from Washington, Ho believed that the US would honour its anti-imperialist rhetorical stance and help their Vietnamese allies achieve independence from France after the war.
Once Japan had been defeated, however, Washington reversed its stance and ushered the French imperialists back into Vietnam. During the First Indochina War (1948-1954), the Truman and Eisenhower administrations financed the French campaign against the pro-independence and left-wing Viet Minh.
With the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam gained a measure of independence. But at Washington’s insistence, the country was divided in two.
From the outset, the Republic of South Vietnam was an artificial construct that existed only to serve US interests in south-east Asia.
It was well understood both in Saigon and Washington that most of the south Vietnamese population desired reunification with the Viet Minh-led north. This is why the US reneged on its earlier promise to hold free elections in the south in 1956.
Having stifled the democracy it claimed to represent on the world stage, the US was soon faced with a popularly backed insurgency in its proxy-ruled South Vietnamese domains. In 1965, the Johnson administration sent combat troops. By 1968 there would be half-a-million US soldiers “in-country”.
After the National Liberation Front’s Tet Offensive, in which all of South Vietnam rose up against the US occupier, an official policy of de-escalation was implemented. US combat troops were withdrawn in 1972.
Three years later, Vietnamese re-unifcation was achieved, but at such cost that Vietnamese society has never fully recovered. An ongoing campaign of US harassment has ensured that successful Vietnamese development has been greatly hindered.
The officially sanctioned pretext for involvement: South Vietnam, a viable, legitimately governed democratic state threatened by a global communist conspiracy.
Yet the real point of the war was to terrorise and kill “gooks” until the peasant farmers of south Vietnam stopped resisting the corrupt and oppressive US-backed Saigon regime.
Colonial wars of occupation are always brutal affairs. When the entire population is classed as the enemy and dehumanised, the “pacification” tactics of the invader will inevitably take on a genocidal character.
This is what happened in the Vietnam War. The body count method of measuring military progress did not distinguish between combatant and non-combatant.
Many US veterans have publicly testified about the criminal nature of the war their country sent them to fight. At the 1971 Winter Soldier Investigation, a three-day public conference organised by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the truth about conditions on the ground was revealed in stark and often chilling detail.
One ex-Marine said, for example: “There were some Vietnamese children at the gateway of the village and they gave the old finger gesture at us. It was understandable that they picked this up from the GIs there … the guys got up, including the lieutenants, and just blew all the kids away.
“There were about five or six kids blown away and then the truck just continued down the hill. That was my first day in Vietnam.”
Another Marine recalled a typical incident: “The order that came down from the colonel that morning was to kill anything that moves. I looked toward where the supposed VCS [Vietcong suspects] were, and two men were leading a young girl, approximately 19 years old, very pretty, out of a hootch.
She had no clothes on so I assumed she had been raped, which was pretty SOP [Standard Operating Procedure], and she was thrown onto the pile of the 19 women and children, and five men, around the circle, opened up on full automatic with their M-16s. And that was the end of that.
Unlike the larger-scale My Lai event (in which 500 villagers were gunned down), this massacre has no name. It was just one of thousands that routinely occurred during the course of the war. They were called “search and destroy” operations.
Is this what Obama means when he says that the Vietnam War was fought to protect US “ideals”?
The re-writing of old crimes against humanity is an essential step in the commission of new crimes. This is why the US military and political establishment has engaged in a relentless campaign of revisionist denialism regarding Vietnam since the 1980s.
In a famous speech in which he railed against the “Vietnam Syndrome”, Ronald Reagan argued that “it is time we recognised that ours was, in truth, a noble cause”. Victory had been within grasp, but college protesters, “bleeding heart liberals”, longhairs and pot-smoking hippy traitors. were to blame for the defeat.
Subsequent administrations have echoed the same conceit, creating a US variant of the “stab-in-the-back” myth that was ruthlessly exploited by the German right in the years between World War I and II.
Unless Vietnam commemorations in the US and Australia include a serious attempt to acknowledge the devastation inflicted on Indochinese society, they amount to little more than an exercise in self-justifying nationalist propaganda.