Monday, September 25, 2017

The Viet Nam War, part 6: “Things Fall Apart”

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched the sixth episode of the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick-Geoffrey C. Ward documentary The Viet Nam War, “Things Fall Apart” (after the famous lines William Butler Yeats wrote about the original fascists, “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” which were apparently quoted by New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy in a famous anti-war op-ed he wrote for the New York Times in November 1967), dealing with the first months of 1968. “Things fell apart” in that period both in Viet Nam and in the United States: in Viet Nam the North Viet Namese army and the National Liberation Front (so-called “Viet Cong”) guerrilla fighters launched a major campaign, the Tet Offensive, which was intended to seize South Viet Nam’s six major cities (including Saigon, Da Nang and Hue) and encourage the people of South Viet Nam to rise up and rebel against the government, demanding reunification of Viet Nam under Communist rule. The North Viet Namese in general — and in particular Le Duan, the militant party secretary who ordered the offensive against the advice of his chief military commander, General Vo Nguyen Giap — were, ironically, making the same mistake the U.S. CIA had made when they planned the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1960-61: they based the plan on the idea that the local population would rebel en masse, and instead the people mobilized, all right, but to defend their country and its government, not overthrow it. 

The show includes a clip of U.S. President Lyndon Johnson giving a televised speech explaining that in the Tet Offensive “the North Viet Namese were defeated militarily, and they were defeated psychologically.” The first was correct — even in Hue, the city the North Viet Namese came closest to conquering, the North Viet Namese forces were ultimately defeated and forced to withdraw, though only after nearly a month of bitter house-to-house fighting in which two of Ken Burns’ main interviewees, U.S. Marines Bill Ehrhardt (white) and Bill Harris (Black), recalled participating — while in Saigon the North Viet Namese sent a commando unit to break into the U.S. Embassy but a South Viet Namese security detail blocked them and killed most of them. The second couldn’t have been more wrong: aided by U.S. media reporting that made the Tet offensive seem less of a debacle for the North and the Viet Cong than it actually was, Tet, more than anything else, made many Americans regard the war as a lost cause and swing from supporting to opposing it. One incident in particular came when a South Viet Namese officer ordered that a Viet Cong fighter who was approaching and wanted either to surrender or defect be shot and killed on the spot — and when the soldier he gave this order to hesitated, the officer pulled out his own Colt .45 pistol and shot the man himself. Aside from being a war crime, this was also militarily dumb; as the old intelligence saying goes, “You can’t get information out of a corpse.” Any reasonably sensible officer would have taken the man into custody and interrogated him. As it was, the South Viet Namese officer not only gave the man a summary execution but did so in front of a TV camera and a still photographer — and the still photographer managed to capture the moment right when the officer had fired and the bullet was entering the victim’s head and distending it just prior to blowing it up. This became one of the most famous media images of the Viet Nam war and a lot of the Americans who saw it began asking, “What are we doing fighting a war and losing so many of our own people just to keep these barbarians in power?” 

During the first six months of 1968 “things fell apart” in the U.S. as well: Lyndon Johnson ran in the New Hampshire Democratic Presidential primary and, though he technically defeated challenger Eugene McCarthy he did so by only seven percentage points. This provoked Robert Kennedy to enter the Presidential race (my mom and I were both staunch McCarthy supporters and thought of RFK as a man who marched onto the field to take over as quarterback after McCarthy had already got us within a few yards of the goalpost — my mom hated RFK with a passion and fervor that no doubt fueled my own rather cynical view of him and his motives; not until Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries would my mom again loathe so completely a politician who ostensibly shared many of her, and my, views) and Lyndon Johnson to withdraw from it. On March 31 he made his famous announcement that “I shall not seek, nor will I accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President” — according to the book An American Melodrama by Godfrey Hodgson, Lewis Chester and Bruce Page, the definitive history of the 1968 Presidential election, Johnson had worked out a private signal with his wife by which he would give a gesture, known only to her, to let her know just before he started speaking whether he’d announce his withdrawal from the race or not — and when he gave the gesture she became only the second person in the country to know he was going to drop out. 

Geoffrey C. Ward’s script gives a couple of conventional wisdom points that rankled me, including claiming that polls showed half of McCarthy’s voters in New Hampshire actually weren’t against the war, but wanted it prosecuted more intensely, and also saying that Robert Kennedy could well have got the Democratic Presidential nomination if he hadn’t himself been killed in June 1968, two months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the nationwide spate of racial tension and rioting (the last thing King would have wanted to see in response to his death!) that followed. The first point is an oversimplification; what Americans were almost unanimous in rejecting was the whole concept of “limited war” John F. Kennedy had put into place in Viet Nam and Lyndon Johnson had continued — the idea that by measured steps of escalation an enemy could be brought to the bargaining table — and what pollsters were actually recording in 1968 when they asked Americans about Viet Nam was a large group of people saying, “We should withdraw, but if we’re not going to withdraw we should go all out to win,” and another large group saying, “We should go all out to win, and if we’re not going to do that we should withdraw.” Even after the Korean debacle (where we had basically given up after three years and accepted the status quo ante of two Koreas) most Americans still thought of war as something that lasted a limited time and had a definite, unambiguous, we-won you-lost outcome — the terms that had applied in the U.S. Civil War, World War I and World War II. It was the whole concept of “limited war” that rankled the American people about Viet Nam — it ran against the national grain that if it was worthwhile to fight a war, you went all out to win and threw whatever you had at the enemy; and if a war wasn’t worth doing that, it wasn’t worth fighting at all. 

The second — the idea that Robert Kennedy could have won the Democratic nomination if he had lived — is frankly nonsense: at the time the process was too totally controlled by party bosses for the will of the people, as expressed by the significant votes Kennedy and McCarthy had received in primaries (in the 14 states that had them, much fewer than there are now at least partly because the parties changed the rules after 1968), to matter. Hubert Humphrey would have still been installed as the Democrats’ nominee even though he hadn’t competed in a single primary, though it’s possible the party bosses would have made the unity gesture of asking RFK to be Humphrey’s running mate — which, if he’d accepted, would probably have left a lot of anti-war Democrats feeling as betrayed as they did for real. In short, even with a living RFK the 1968 Presidential election would probably have turned out the way it actually did, with Richard Nixon and George Wallace racking up a combined 57 percent of the vote to the Democrats’ 43 percent, ushering in the Right-wing age that has persisted, with some temporary reversals, to our own time, when Donald Trump won the White House frankly running as much or more against liberalism, progressivism, counter-culturalism and anti-racism as Nixon and Wallace did in 1968 and Ronald Reagan did in 1980 and 1984. It’s also fascinating to be reminded that hostility between the President and the U.S. media is nothing new; The Viet Nam War is studded with surviving tapes of private phone calls (every president from Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon recorded at least some of his White House conversations, though Nixon was unique in setting up a system that recorded all of them — the earlier Presidents who recorded had switches on their desks and their phones so they could decide, case-by-case, whether a particular meeting or phone call should be recorded) in which President Johnson lambasted the “lying media” and said they were deliberately hurting the war effort — not that different from what we’ve been hearing from Trump, except Trump is willing to say it publicly.  

The Viet Nam War at its midpoint is getting into the political and social conflicts the war engendered here at home, which are becoming more interesting (in a way) than the story of the actual fighting “in country” — though one good thing about this program is it outlines that the North Viet Namese leaders had as much hubris as ours did. Before I watched this I’d always thought of Tet as a brilliant strategic calculation by the North Viet Namese to end the war by wiping out the U.S. people’s confidence in their leaders; I’d had no idea they had actually expected this series of pitched battles on enemy turf, which violated every principle of how you win a guerrilla war, to result in the fall of the South Viet Namese regime and the North’s military conquest of all Viet Nam. Another good thing about the series is that it’s an important counterweight to the romanticization of the North Viet Namese and their cause a lot of us in the peace movement indulged in as the war dragged on; we assumed that the North Viet Namese had the support of virtually the entire Viet Namese population, which they didn’t (though they probably could have won a nationwide election if one had been held as the original Geneva Accords of 1954 had promised); and we assumed they weren’t committing war crimes — which they were, as were we. One of the most chilling sequences came in a scene detailing the discovery of a mass grave in which the North Viet Namese and National Liberation Front forces had buried over 2,000 people they had summarily executed, a few because they were soldiers in the South Viet Namese army or officials in the government, but some people innocent of government ties who were simply swept up in the pogrom. The message was pretty well summed up in the title of the episode just preceding this one, “This is what we do” — this is what war is. 

It was intriguing that of all the things Bill Ehrhardt did during the war, the one he feels most guilty about — far more than he does over anyone he actually killed — was when his company came upon a Viet Namese woman who was willing to have sex with everyone in the unit in exchange for C-rations. At first he balked at participating in what amounted to a mass rape, but eventually — as much as a show of solidarity with the others in his unit as anything else — he did. That, he said, made him feel guilty because “my mother is a woman, my wife is a woman, and my daughter is a woman,” and he could imagine any or all of them being similarly exploited sexually if a military force came through and conquered the town where they were living. I’ve noted before in my comments on The Viet Nam War that ever since men have been fighting wars, they’ve regarded rape as one of the spoils of victory — which is another reason, besides the obvious ones, to be against war, period — and Ehrhardt’s anecdote also reminded me of a similar story I heard from a Gay man who had served with the U.S. armed forces in the Philippines. His unit, too, had encountered a young woman who was willing to have sex with them all for money or food, and though he was Gay and hadn’t the slightest sexual interest in any woman, the combination of peer pressure and the threat of exposure at a time (even before “don’t ask, don’t tell”) when the U.S. military banned Queers from serving altogether led him to compromise: he dropped his pants and pantomimed having sex with the woman, convincingly enough that the other guys in his unit assumed he had.