Vietnam: The War the U.S.
by Joe Allen
International Socialist Review,
Racism and total war
"The only thing they
told us about the Viet Cong was they were gooks. They were to
be killed. Nobody sits around and gives you their historical and
cultural background. They're the enemy. Kill, kill, kill. That's
what we got in practice. Kill, kill, kill."
A Vietnam veteran on basic
What was the American war like for the
majority of people in South Vietnam, where the bulk of the fighting
took place? While Westmoreland's war of attrition would ultimately
prove unable to break the will of the Vietnamese people, it did
unleash incredible destruction on them. According to antiwar critic
In a very real sense the overall U.S.
effort in South Vietnam was a huge and deliberately imposed bloodbath.
Military escalation was undertaken to offset the well-understood
lack of any significant social and political support for the elite
military faction [the Saigon government] supported by the United
This "huge and deliberately imposed
bloodbath" consisted first and foremost of large-scale bombing.
Bombing was, and still is, one of the great sacred cows of the
American way of war.' America's incredible industrial infrastructure
allowed it to build a huge air force and virtually a limitless
amount of ordnance during the Cold War. The B-52, which was originally
designed for dropping nuclear weapons on Russia, was re-fitted
for "conventional" warfare in Vietnam with devastating
results. The U.S. dropped over one million tons of bombs on North
Vietnam. South Vietnam, the primary battlefield of the war, had
over four million tons of bombs dropped on it during the war.
The amount of bombs dropped by the U.S. on South Vietnam, from
the air war alone, was double the tonnage it used in all of the
Second World War! Life was made unbearable in the South Vietnamese
countryside. While it is probably an underestimate, the U.S. Senate
Subcommittee on Refugees reported the civilian casualties at 400,000
dead, 900,000 wounded and 6.4 million refugees by 1971. They concluded
"that there is hardly a family n South Vietnam that has not
suffered a death, injury or the anguish of abandoning an ancient
The Vietnamese people were subjected to
the virulent racism of the occupying American army. The Vietnamese
people were regularly referred to as "gooks," "slants"
and "dinks" by American troops. It's important to remember
that this racism started with the top brass. General Westmoreland
believed that the "oriental doesn't value life in the same
way as a westerner." While this could be dismissed as the
casual bigotry of a son of a rich southern family, in other cases
it bordered on the genocidal. Colonel George S. Patton III, son
of the notorious Second World War general and a combat commander
in Vietnam, sent out Christmas cards in 1968 which read: "From
Colonel and Mrs. George S. Patton III-Peace on Earth." The
attached Christmas cards contained photographs of Viet Cong soldiers
dismembered and stacked in a pile. This racism worked its way
down to the troops through basic training. As one combat veteran
recalled basic training, "The only thing they told us about
the Viet Cong was they were gooks. They were to be killed."
It was during search-and-destroy missions
that the most direct contact took place between American soldiers,
Vietnamese civilians and NLF supporters. For historian Christian
Appy, "search and destroy was the principal tactic; and the
enemy body count was the primary measure of progress" in
Westmoreland's war of attrition. Search and destroy was coined
as a phrase in 1965 to describe missions aimed at flushing the
Viet Cong out of hiding, while the body count was the measuring
stick for the success of any operation. Competitions were held
between units for the highest number of Vietnamese killed in action,
or KIAs. Army and marine officers knew that promotions were largely
based on confirmed kills. The pressure to produce confirmed kills
resulted in massive fraud. One study revealed that American commanders
exaggerated body counts by 100 percent.
It also resulted in atrocities. "As
much as the military command might deny its significance, the
widespread local support for the full-time main forces of the
NLF and NVA was the central disadvantage faced by American soldiers."
Villagers would supply the NLF with soldiers, food and assistance
in the planting of land mines. What many U.S. soldiers feared
land mines and then ambushes. Soldiers
would become demoralized by weeks of mundane patrolling and then
they would be hit unexpectedly by the explosion of land mines
or an ambush. Enraged soldiers would go back to the nearest area
they had just been through and brutalize the villagers in a racist
fury. The effect of fighting a total war on an entire population
was to create a situation where all Vietnamese people were seen
as fair game to kill. The most famous case of this (but by no
means the only one) was the My Lai massacre in March 1968, where
Charlie Company, led by Captain Ernest Medina and Lieutenant William
Calley, murdered over 350 unarmed women and children. An army
psychiatrist reported later that, "Lt. Calley states that
he did not feel as if he were killing human beings rather they
were animals with whom one could not speak or reason." My
Lai was not an aberration-smaller, unreported My Lais happened
throughout the war. James Duffy, a machinegunner on a Chinook
helicopter for Company A of the 228th Aviation Battalion, 1st
Airborne Division, served from February 1967 to April 1968. Testifying
at the "Winter Soldier" investigation, held in Detroit
in 1971, he reported one incident he was involved in:
I swung my machine gun onto this group
of peasants and opened fire. Fortunately, the gun jammed after
one or two rounds, which was pretty lucky, because this group
of peasants turned out to be a work party hired by the government
to clear the area and there was Gls guarding them about fifty
meters away. But my mind was so psyched out into killing gooks
that I never even paid attention to look around and see where
I was. I just saw gooks and I wanted to kill them. I was pretty
scared after that happened because that sort of violated the unwritten
code that you can do anything you want to as long as you don't
get caught. That's, I guess that's what happened with the My Lai
incident. Those guys just were following the same pattern that
we've been doing there for ten years, but they had the misfortune
of getting caught at it.
When the Americans decided that an area
could not be "pacified" they would turn it into a "free-fire
zone" where anyone could be shot on sight, and which were
subject to constant artillery barrages. In other areas, the Americans
would literally plow the land down using huge Rome plows-giant
bulldozers. The most famous case of this was the "Iron triangle."
A 32-mile perimeter 22 miles north of Saigon and an NLF bastion
of support, it was first flattened by B-52s and artillery fire
beginning in January 1967, and then the plows moved in and bulldozed
everything in sight. Despite this, the NLF built a vast area of
tunnels and was operating in the area again within six months.
If bombing and plowing couldn't deny an area to the NLF, the U.S.
would use defoliants, such as the cancer-causing Agent Orange
and other herbicides, to destroy jungle cover and food. The U.S.
dropped over 100 million pounds of herbicides across Vietnam during
the war with long-lasting effects on the Vietnamese and American
soldiers. The U.S. simply turned whole swaths of Vietnam into
dead zones. The mindset of the military command can be summed
up by the slogan painted on the wall of the U.S. Army's Ninth
Division helicopter headquarters during Operation Speed Express:
"Death is our business and business is good."
The bitterness and demoralization among
troops also encouraged a growing resistance to the war, in the
form of going AWOL (Absent Without Leave), avoiding combat, "fragging"
officers, and even active political resistance. This development
contributed greatly to the eventual defeat of the U.S. in Vietnam.