The Real Cost of Vietnam

04/28/2015 08:32 am ET | Updated Jun 28, 2015
ASSOCIATED PRESS

The commemoration of the end of the Vietnam War this week in 1975 will be lost on many Americans who are too young to recall the tumultuous events of the Indochina wars. (We also bombed Laos and Cambodia mercilessly in the same period.) The iconic photographs of the U.S. helicopter about to lift off from the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, with desperate Vietnamese scrambling to board, as the final reckoning are symbolic but also misleading. The image of the "pitiful, helpless giant" misleads because the U.S. military had almost completely withdrawn many months before after having laid waste to Vietnam, north and south, for nearly a decade.

What we will hear this week is heartbreaking: 56,000 American soldiers and marines killed in the war, tens of thousands more permanently scarred. They were young men, boys really, some pressed into service by the draft, but many misled into enlisting in a morally bankrupt war. Even then, so many gave, in Lincoln's words, the last full measure of devotion. It is the deepest tragedy and sadness of my generation.

What we won't hear so much this week is the story of the Vietnamese, the burned out villages, the bombed dams, the five million people displaced, the promiscuous use of napalm and Agent Orange (which still ravages Vietnamese), the three million dead.

I wrote about this in The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America's Wars. Here I adapt a small part of one chapter to convey what happened to the natives of Vietnam at the hands of the U.S. military and its allies. It was, like all wars, an orgy of psychotic violence. We have yet to learn the lessons of Indochina. But we need to try.

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The air war within South Vietnam accounts for a large number of the civilians killed there. Jonathan Schell, one of the most insightful independent journalists in the war, described a mid-1967 tour of the province of Quang Ngai, along the coast and highlands north of Saigon, with a spotter plane, a small Cessna. In each village, 50 to 90 percent of the houses in the province had been destroyed, unless used as a friendly outpost. Some were bombed, some were burned to the ground by marines or army units, some were bulldozed. "Although most of the villages in the province had been destroyed," he wrote in 1967 in The Real War, "the destruction of villages in large areas was not ordinarily an objective of the military operations but was viewed as, in the words of one official, a 'side effect' of hunting the enemy."

Once evacuations were completed in a certain area, it could be designated a "free fire zone" under the assumption that anyone remaining was Viet Cong (VC). It could then be hit by long-range artillery or bombing, or if ground troops were involved, with armored vehicles, helicopter gunships, or by patrolling infantry. The bombardment seemed to be random and without any refined military purpose. Harassment and interdiction fire, as it was called, "went unobserved -- no U.S. observers were there to see who or what was hit," according to one account; but it was enormous in scale, from half to two-thirds of all such ordnance used. Artillery fires, said one captain, "did nothing but kill a lot of innocents and alienate us from those we were supposedly trying to help." The shooting from helicopters (some with rockets) was carried out in a fury or with a sense of "sport" that unnerved those who witnessed it, but the larger share of casualties resulting from the air and artillery were random or routine -- napalm strikes and other bombing; shelling; strafing where the enemy, or its supporters, were purported to be. Often, fighter-jets were used for "prep work" -- clearing an area with their weapons in advance of an infantry operation.

The ground operations were possibly more ghastly, given the proximity of the killing. One massacre, typical of many others, was recalled by a girl who survived a 1968 incident in Vinh Cuong Hamlet No. 3, when, following artillery shelling, U.S. troops arrived and ordered everyone out to the center of town. As Deborah Nelson reported in The War Behind Me: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth about U.S. War Crimes, her mother told her to crawl through the high reeds in back of their hut and hide. She met an uncle near a river and "heard the crack of weapons firing. That evening, another uncle brought her back to the hamlet. As they emerged from the tall grass, they saw a pile of bodies outside the bunker. 'It was raining. Under the rain, they lay dead in cramped positions, some on top of each other. Dead bodies scattered all around.'" Two siblings and her mother had been shot dead; a three-year-old sister had been crushed to death by the falling bodies. A tablet now at the site says that the Americans "barbarously opened fire to massacre 37 of our compatriots, among which were 16 elderly and 21 children."

The attitude toward destruction seemed cavalier. "When we went out, I would say about 50 percent of the villages we passed through would be burned to the ground," said a marine. "There would be no difference between the ones we burned and the ones we didn't burn, it was just if we had the time we burned them."

"We would go through a village before dawn, rousting everybody out of bed and kicking down doors and dragging them out," recalled a marine. "They all had underground bunkers inside their huts to protect themselves against bombing and shelling. But to us the bunkers were Viet Cong hiding places, and we'd blow them up with dynamite -- and blow up the huts, too." The peasant would be "herded like cattle" into a prison-like holding area to sit in the hot sun; some would be interrogated, often harshly, and the others would be released, perhaps, to return to their demolished village. "If they weren't pro-Viet Cong before we got there, they sure as hell were by the time we left."

One study -- a U.S. government survey of Vietnam veterans interviewed in the late 1970s -- found that one in eleven U.S. soldiers committed "an act of abusive violence, such as torturing prisoners, raping civilians, or mutilating a corpse," and one-third of all soldiers said they witnessed such crimes. Nearly four in five were committed by Americans, the remaining one-fifth by U.S. allies or Viet Cong. Since the number of Americans in combat was nearly one million, and a total of 3.4 million served in Southeast Asia, this adds up to a very high number of these incidents, particularly since some witnesses must have seen more than one Vietnamese abused.

At war's end, the count of civilians slain in the South was said to be 415,000, a number that fails to account for the pervasive habit of labeling Vietnamese casualties as enemy kills when many -- an unknown number -- were civilians. The South Vietnamese military sustained more than 200,000 dead. North Vietnam said that more than one million combatants died, including Viet Cong, and two million civilians perished. Some estimates are lower and some are higher. McNamara estimated total war dead at 2,358,000, including 1,200,000 million civilians. And studies since the war have ranged widely, from 1,000,000 to 3,800,000 total war deaths. Like the causes and conduct of the war, the casualties remain mired in embittered controversy.

One story among many sticks with me. Seymour Hersh, who revealed the massacre at My Lai where 400 Vietnamese were slaughtered by American soldiers led by Lt. William Calley, was interviewing another perpetrator, Paul Meadlo, on his family's farm in New Goshen, Indiana. Meadlo told Hersh: "The women huddled against their children and took it. They brought their kids real close to their stomachs and hugged them, and put their bodies over them trying to save them. It didn't do much good." Meadlo's mother, sitting nearby, growled, "I gave them a good boy, and they sent me back a murderer."

Hersh thought to himself, "The bottom line is, this is what war is."

Indeed.