ON JOHN MCCAIN AND TOM BROKAW'S SHAMEFUL VERSIONS OF THE VIETNAM WAR
Note: As John McCain's makes his Vietnam war experience central to his campaign, the true facts about the war are more relevant than ever. This is the original version of a review of Tom Brokaw's shameful book Boom! The edited version was published on www.Truthdig.com, on March 28, 2008.
-- A Review of "Boom!: Voices of the Sixties - Personal Reflections on the 60s and Today", by Tom Brokaw, Random House
"I committed the same kinds of atrocities as thousands of others in that I shot in free-fire zones, fired .50-caliber machine bullets, used harass-and-interdiction fire, joined in search-and-destroy missions, and burned villages. All of these acts are contrary to the laws of the Geneva Convention, and all were ordered as written, established policies from the top down, AND THE MEN WHO ORDERED THIS ARE WAR CRIMINALS." (Emphasis added)
nJohn Kerry, Meet The Press, April 1971
Tom Brokaw's new book bills itself as a "a virtual reunion of a cross section of the Sixties crowd, in an effort to discover what we might learn from each other, forty years later." The next 623 pages primarily consist of interviews with more than 80, mostly successful, veterans of the sixties dealing with the issues of Vietnam, civil rights, women's liberation and electoral politics. Other than Vietnam, his material is relatively unobjectionable, since America has made some progress - though not as much as he suggests - in its domestic arena. The personal stories of women leaders and courageous African-Americans, who rose from the barricades of the civil rights movement to prominence today are particularly inspiring.
One reads the Vietnam war sections of Tom Brokaw's book, a compendium of American conventional wisdom on the Sixties, with a growing sense of amazement, disbelief and, ultimately, profound sadness. For Brokaw has, incredibly, managed to write a lengthy book about the Sixties that barely mentions the central event which produced it.
Is it really possible for America to have killed hundreds of thousands of Indochinese peasants and still, 30 years later, to act as if it never happened?
Can we still be giving U.S. leaders the benefit of the doubt as we did in Indochina, leading to similar mistakes, deceptions, and crimes in Iraq, and God knows where else in the years to come?
Has Brokaw really so sabotaged his own heartfelt call to unite America by ignoring what we learned from South Africa: that true national reconciliation can only occur if hard truths are acknowledged, responsibility taken, and amends made?
Is it really possible that we baby-boomers - betrayed in our youth by the government and elders in whom we deeply believed - will end our lives amidst ongoing nightmares of government lies, murder, blood and destruction?
Will we really continue to betray our own children and grandchildren, feeding their justifiable cynicism about their nation's leadership and even depriving them of the real truth of their own history?
Is our Indochina history really to remain a nightmare from which we will never awaken?
These questions are important now because America's amnesia about Vietnam has led us to repeat many of the same mistakes today. U.S. leaders would never have been allowed to go into Iraq in the first place had America vowed never to repeat the crimes of war that characterized the Vietnam war. Top U.S. military leaders have admitted that they made many of the same mistakes in Iraq as they made in Vietnam, failing to understand counter-insurgency warfare; and it is doubtful that the media or public would have bought into the Bush Administration's deceptions on weapons of mass destruction had they remembered ten years of government lying in Vietnam, such as Eisenhower's lying to the public about his private belief that Ho Chi Minh would have won 85% of the vote in Vietnam, or Lyndon Johnson's lying about the U.S. being attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin and then using that lie as justification for sending millions of young men to South Vietnam.
If Americans remembered how mercilessly the U.S. government attacked the North Vietnamese for torturing U.S. POWs would it have constrained that same U.S. government from torturing many more people in Iraq far more mercilessly? We will never know because noone, from Members of Congress to the media to Brokaw in his new book, has even raised the issue.
Brokaw's new book occasions such melancholy musings because he is the very opposite of the crackpot ideologues like Norman Podhoretz who so corrupt our national dialogue. Brokaw has been the trusted, sincere, well-behaved, "good son" network TV anchor (in contrast to his rather [my bad] less well-behaved rival at CBS), the closest thing in American popular culture to an objective authority. He personifies the American dream: a likable, famous, handsome, rich, centrist media personality and best-selling author who, at age 67, works out, eats right, is still married to his high school sweetheart, has many friends of all political persuasions and is, by all accounts, an unusually decent guy. I still remember the incandescent light on a Latina co-worker's face as she described how much Brokaw helped her when she interned at NBC in L.A.
But Brokaw has arrived at his exalted status by embodying not challenging the conventional wisdom. His book, a N.Y. Times best-seller, is thus a significant reflection of America's understanding of its past and present. Millions will read it and believe that's how it really was. That so decent a man could write so misleading a book provides a mirror of the many ways America continues to live in a web of denial and deception, threatening not only its own but humanity's future.
Where Tom Brokaw has gone wrong is that he has written a 662-page book on the Sixties that completely ignores its central event. This event, more than any other, created not only the peace movement, but was key to the youth, artistic, hippie, sexual, women's, environmental and political upheavals, erosion of trust in authority, and the inter- and intra-generational divisions which lie at the heart of the extraordinary bitterness of America's public life today, a bitterness that keeps us from reaching consensus on any of the significant issues of our time.
This key event was not "the Vietnam war" as Brokaw describes it - a conventional war between opposing armies - but how U.S. leaders actually waged it. It is a matter of fact that they - whatever their intent - killed enormous numbers of Indochinese civilians, and wounded and made homeless over ten million more, by dropping 6,727,084 tons of bombs (and firing as much ground ordinance from army bases and giant navy ships) on tiny Indochina, more than triple the bombing of all Europe and the Pacific theater, inhabited by hundreds of millions, in World War II. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara has estimated that 3.4 million Vietnamese died in the war. A sizable number of these were civilians, as were the enormous number of Laotian and Cambodian peasants who died from years of U.S. bombing of their towns and villages.
It is also a matter of simple fact that this bombing and shelling resulted in the very "wanton destruction of towns and villages", "deportations," and "inhuman acts committed against any civilian population" included in the indictment of Nazi leaders at Nuremberg, and clearly violated the laws of war seeking to protect civilians in time of war. There is little doubt that U.S. leaders would also have been indicted had the Nuremberg judgement been applied to their conduct of the war.
Interviewing well over 1,000 refugees from U.S. bombing in Laos in 1969-70 I was horrified to learn of grandmothers burned alive by U.S. napalm; I saw children missing arms and legs, and one blinded, a near death-sentence in an agrarian society; it was unclear whether they were better off than the many other children who had suffered the most painful deaths possible as U.S. anti-personnel bomb pellets had shredded their small bodies; I learned of whole families slowly suffocating to death from U.S. 500 and 1000-pound bombs; and I saw tens of thousands innocent rice-farmers turned into miserable refugees - as U.S. bombers systematically and methodically destroyed their towns and villages and U.S.-supported forces deported them from the beloved villages of their birth. The bombing mainly killed and wounded villagers, since the soldiers could survive in the forest. And I was driven to near-desperation by realizing that carloads of more innocents were being murdered daily through similar U.S. bombing over vast areas of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam inhabited by millions upon millions of people.
America's attacks on millions of non-combatant villagers in Indochina, violating the laws of war, are a matter of documentable fact, and no more deniable than is the Holocaust. The U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Refugees has estimated that 12,688,000 Indochinese civilians were wounded or made homeless during the war, and that over 600,000 civilians were killed. Other credible sources put the number of civilians killed at 2 to 3 times that number. The vast majority of civilian casualties were caused by U.S. firepower, given that the NVA and guerrillas directed almost all of their far scarcer firepower against U.S. and U.S.-supported armed forces, and did not bomb from the air.
It is also of course true that the war in Indochina included sizable military combat between armies. It is certainly appropriate, when trying to understand U.S. veterans' perspectives or writing history, to describe the fighting between guerrillas and North Vietnamese Army on the one hand, and U.S. or Thieu government troops on the other. And of course communist forces killed civilians. But to present only this side of the story, as Mr. Brokaw has done, while ignoring the illegal murder, wounding and deportations of over ten million Indochinese civilians, is an insult to the history Mr. Brokaw seeks to write. One cannot pretend to seriously explore the Sixties while ignoring the single most important factor that produced its social convulsions:
-- This mass murder caused millions of idealistic young people to protest the war, at first decorously, and then with fury and despair as their protests were ignored and the killing increased, day by day, month by month, year by year, for over a decade; "Hey hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" was not merely a slogan chanted by draft-dodgers. It was a heartfelt cri de coeur from millions of humane people - of whom the draftable were but a small minority - who could not bear that their government was engaged in such wholesale slaughter of innocents.
-- This mass murder created massive resistance to the draft as those subject to it, horrified by the killing, vociferously objected to being forced to fight a war in which they did not believe.
-- This mass murder turned children against parents, a massive "inter-generation gap" as these idealistic young people felt betrayed by, and then rebelled against, the elders of "the greatest generation" they had grown up believing in; sought to create alternative institutions; and ultimately failed because they were too young, psychologically unaware, inexperienced, angry, confused and undone by the drugs they had partly embraced to kill their pain.
-- This mass murder ripped a generation apart from within, creating a massive "intra-generation gap" as many who believed in their elders and government, and either fought in Vietnam and/or joined conservative movements at home, were infuriated that their courage, sacrifice, morality and belief in nation were denigrated by the protestors;
-- This mass murder tore apart the entire nation as a "Silent Majority" of Americans who had "other priorities" than actively opposing the war in Vietnam, became furious at being regarded as immoral by people whom they saw as arrogant, self-righteous, filthy, narcissistic, anti-American and violent.
Tom Brokaw does not deny U.S. leaders' murder of the innocent in Indochina, and all that flowed from it. He, like his nation, simply ignores it.
A reader of his book would never know that U.S. leaders both lied their way into the war, and then lied for over a decade about their criminal conduct of it. It is as if he were writing a history of World War II without mentioning the role of German leaders or the Holocaust, or the Algerian war without mentioning French violence and torture.
Brokaw's book mainly consists of over 80 interviews with veterans of the sixties, most of whom are famous and/or successful. His biases are thus primarily revealed through his interviewees.
Democratic Party activist and businessman Sam Brown is cited twice in the book, seminal '60s figures like Tom Hayden and Ramparts editor Robert Scheer are ignored. Senator James Webb's portrayal of the war as solely a military battle, and of antiwar protestors as cowardly and unpatriotic, receives 5 or 6 times as much space as anyone else interviewed. The experiences of anti-draft leaders like David Harris, who courageously went to jail out of moral opposition to the war, and people like former volunteer chief Don Luce, who risked his life for years to bring the suffering of the Vietnamese people to public attention, including exposing the Tiger Cages and other torture of tens of thousands of political prisoners, are not included.
Veterans like Bob Kerrey, Colin Powell, Wayne Downing and John McCain, who do not mention U.S. murder of civilians, are interviewed at length. The views of equally well-known veterans who bravely exposed and opposed the murder - like John Kerry, Bobby Muller (whose organization won a Nobel Prize for the landmines treaty) and Ron Kovic (author of Born On The Fourth of July), are written out of Brokaw's history. Pentagon Papers author Les Gelb is interviewed, his co-author Dan Ellsberg - without whom we would never have known of the deceit and crimes the Papers revealed - is not even mentioned. War opponents like George McGovern, Gary Hart and Bill Clinton are only quoted about the war's aftermath - not the crimes that led them to oppose it.
Such selective interviews leads to selective history. Brokaw omits or trivializes many of the driving events of the decade, including the Port Huron Statement, Students For A Democratic Society and its early efforts to organize against poverty in the north, the split between the Moratorium and Mobilization (which he mistakenly calls Sam Brown's organization), Woodstock (his focus is on Tim Russert's beer-drinking), the issues that led to the Black Power movement and Black Panthers, and a host of other key events and forces.
Brokaw's refusal to even interview John Kerry about his charge that U.S. leaders were war criminals, the issue that goes to the heart of what triggered the 60s upheavals, is particularly symbolic. If a hero like Kerry had the enormous courage to tell the truth, jeopardizing his political career and potentially angering millions of Americans and fellow vets, why is a Tom Brokaw so afraid today to even raise the issue? Only he can answer that question, but nothing more reveals his book's failure as history or even an honest forum for discussing the real issues of the Sixties.
The bland filler Brokaw supplies to connect the interviews that make up the bulk of his book is not particularly noteworthy, with two exceptions:
(1) He constantly criticizes the excesses of the antiwar movement, speaking for example of "the nature of the resistance to Vietnam -- which included burning the American flag, cheering on North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, welcoming an enemy victory, and disparaging military service ...". His attacks stand out both because they are untrue - the "nature" of the antiwar movement were the millions of Americans who peacefully demonstrated year after year, his criticisms apply to a small minority - and because he makes no similar criticisms of the far more egregious behavior of the U.S. leaders who bear the primary responsibility for the 1960s (there would have obviously been no peace movement "extremists" to criticize had there been no war); of conservatives who actively supported the killing; of liberals, like Mr. Brokaw himself, who criticized the conduct of the war but had "other priorities" than actually trying to stop it; or of the Silent Majority didn't even care enough to support or oppose it.
It is certainly valid to criticize the behavior of "extremists" as the war dragged on, including alienating the larger population with their anger, violence, dress, arrogance, narcissism, and romanticization of the other side; making themselves the issue rather than the war, leading to long-term conservative political gains; and minimizing the plight of Vietnam's boat people and those sent to reeducation centers after the war ended.
But to focus all criticism on peace movement excesses, and to also claim that it entirely failed in its key objectives, is both bad history and silly. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon clearly state on White House tapes that the movement checked even more widespread mass murder. And the peace movement also achieved its goals of ending the draft and restraining further U.S. war-making for decades following the war. (Brokaw's only regret should be that the "Vietnam Syndrome" did not last long enough to prevent a U.S. invasion of Iraq which has so harmed America's national security). A reasonable judgment would be that the peace movement achieved its short-term goals of limiting U.S. war-making and ending the draft, but at a considerable cost to itself and its broader and longer-term political objectives.
(2) Brokaw passionately believes that Americans need to come together. He correctly writes that "the failure of goodwill, and of a willingness to find common ground in a country that in election after election is so evenly divided, is a disgrace."
He fails to understand, however, that healing the extraordinary divisions in American political life today, which prevent reaching consensus on anything significant, require far more than platitudinous calls to civic duty. If America's problems were primarily political, U.S. politics would resemble European democracies, where "conservative" and "liberal" politics are comparatively civil and capable of compromise. But America's political differences are only the tip of an iceberg of primal emotions unleashed by the war in Indochina that continue to roil the national unconscious, and can only be resolved through a serious attempt at national healing.
Nations that have understood this phenomenon include post-war Germany, which acknowledged its World War II crimes and paid enormous reparations to Israel, saying this was necessary so that its youth would know the truth of their history and not repeat it; South Africa, whose Truth and Reconciliation Commissions provided the basis for national healing; and France, which engaged in considerable national postwar soul-searching about its murder and torture in Indochina and Algeria.
If Tom Brokaw, who is in a position to do so, was serious about helping Americans find "common ground", he would need to support efforts to:
(1) Acknowledge The Truth - The U.S. Government has spent enormous sums searching for the remains of U.S. soldiers in Indochina, and remembering the Holocaust. It needs now to invest in determining how many civilians it killed, wounded and made homeless in Indochina.
(2) Admit Responsibility, Seek Forgiveness and Make Amends -Any American alive from 1965-1975 bears a measure of responsibility for the killing of Indochinese civilians. It is possible to still see the war as a justified effort to fight communism, and yet acknowledge our deep shame as a people at the innocent villagers we killed. This profound stain upon our national soul can only be removed if all Americans take responsibility for it:
-- The U.S. Government would need to express its regret that its actions, whatever their intent, in fact harmed so many civilians; and it would need to make amends to the people of Indochina through some sort of reparations, beginning with cleaning up the millions of anti-personnel bombs that continue to kill hundreds of Indochinese yearly;
-- Antiwar protestors would need to acknowledge the mistakes listed above, issue, particularly apologizing to veterans for not appreciating their patriotism and courage in battle;
-- Pro-war veterans would need to express their remorse for the civilian killing, as a separate issue from their combat experience, and also acknowledge the sincere moral feelings of most of those who opposed the killing, often at the expense of careers and families.
-- Those who actively supported the war at home would need to acknowledge their failures to oppose illegal U.S. killing in Indochina, as would those who silently opposed the killing but failed to actively try and end it.
If all involved could find it within themselves to take similar attitudes seeking to find points of reconciliation, we might not only unite America at home and restore the faith of our young in their leadership. Instead of remaining despised and hated around the world, a newer, humbler America might find itself in a position to help forge the new, collective global leadership that will be so desperately required for the 21st century crises to come.
Fred Branfman exposed the U.S. Secret Air War in Laos while living there from 1967-71, developed solar, educational, and Information Age initiatives for the Governor or California and national policy-makers, and has since 1990 been on a spiritual and psychological journey described at www.trulyalive.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.