Uncle Sam be Damned in 'Nam – No Country for Noble Causes
We shoot the sick, the young, the lame, We do our best to kill and maim,
Because the kills count all the same….Napalm sticks to kids….
Ox cart rolling down the road, Peasants with a heavy load,
They're all VC when the bombs explode….Napalm sticks to kids.
Song composed and sung by soldiers of the US Army's 1st Cavalry Division, the first full US Army Division deployed on September 11, 1965 to Vietnam. (Source: Jan Barry, ed., Peace Is Our Profession).
In order to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the reality of history itself and contemporary geopolitical affairs, it seems sensible to bring to the exercise both context and perspective, even if for some folks such an "exercise" may cause a measure of pain. This "pain" of course will be commensurate with the degree and type of context and perspective one is prepped to take on, which itself doubtless will be informed by one's political persuasions.
Regardless of such "persuasions", 2015 provides a timely, unique opportunity to engage in such a reflective exercise. The year marks two important anniversaries signposting pivotal points in the history of United States' military adventurism undertaken in the pursuit of the noble cause that is the national interest. These are the 50th anniversary of America's actual, official 'boots on the ground' moment in Vietnam, along with the 40th anniversary of its eventual departure a decade later.
A brief stroll down memory lane is appropriate here. It was in August 1964 then US president Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) signed the Gulf of Tonkin (GoT) Resolution that unambiguously signalled America's escalation of its hitherto hesitant military involvement there. Thus was handed LBJ the carte blanche approval for aggressive intervention in 'Nam, with the Gulf of Tonkin incident providing the president the pretext for deploying troops in large numbers allegedly to 'stop the dominoes falling'to communism in South East Asia.
In response to the perceived'provocations' by the North Vietnamese of the GoT incident – now all but officially recognised as a false-flag ploy for the escalation – Johnson immediately ordered 'retaliatory' air strikes against North Vietnam, which depending on which piece of ideological real estate you occupied, was either nationalist or communist.
Although in various forms since 1950 America's presence in Indochina – Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam – was already well established if not generally well known at the time, it was 1965 that ushered in its no-holds barred entry into what became the quagmire of the Vietnam War. This was followed by an even more rapid escalation topping out at around 200,000 by end of the year. At its peak, there would be over half a million troops serving in Vietnam.
That this decision proved to be one of American history's most significant Pandora's Box moments is now generally accepted by all but the most ideologically myopic and patriotically unrepentant. Ten years, fifty-eight thousand American lives, with around 150,000 wounded later, in 1975 it was all over bar the humbling rush to the exits and subsequent port-mortems as to how it could have gone so horribly pear shaped. The "rush" was best epitomised by the iconic, scenes atop the US Embassy in the South Vietnamese capital Saigon with hundreds of Americans and South Vietnamese alike scrambling to get on one of the few seats left on the last chopper out of town. The Vietnam War (or as referred to by the Vietnamese then and now, the "American War"), was no more.
For the majority of Americans it had come not a nanosecond too soon. The nascent American empire had endured a most humiliating, "never-again" defeat. Yet from 1965-1975, the Vietnam experience would dominate US foreign and national security policy; it would also dictate the course of the Cold War politics, virtually defining the notion of the proxy war that characterised the decades long standoff with its Cold War opponent the United Soviet Socialists' Republic (USSR).Moreover, Vietnam would change the social and political fabric of the country for generations to come, and for those looking still has implications for America's role in the world today.
That these 'bookend' milestones should prompt some serious, genuine reflection both inside and outside of America on the country's 'groundhog day' foreign policy machinations is a given. This should especially be the case given the US's more recent failed foreign policy escapades in Iraq and Afghanistan, without even considering the prospects of future military involvement in and around Syria and (again), Iraq, and possibly even in the Ukraine against nuclear-'powered' Russia.
It is not overstating the case to say that America's decision to wage war in this 'piss-ant' country - with the resultant spill-over conflagration that raged in varying degrees in neighbouring Cambodia - unleashed nothing less than a holocaust. It culminated in the deaths of millions of people (conservative estimates come in at 3-4 million, and don't include Pol Pot's Cambodian genocide of between 1.5-2.5 million), and the disablement and displacement of millions more. That much of this unleashed hell was deliberate, cold, calculating and premeditated is something that neither America nor the rest of the world has fully contemplated much less come to terms with.
For those wanting to get some idea of the truly catastrophic nature of this conflict and be able to put it all into some kind of historical perspective, it is only relatively recently we have been able to do this. Of course we have had Errol Morris' 2003 documentary Fog of War, which featured a lengthy interview with one of the War's chief architects Robert McNamara,LBJ's Secretary of Defense throughout much of the early stages.
This is an edited extract of a longer feature length article. For even more "context" and "perspective", interested readers can download the original article.
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