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The Lessons of Hue and the Dangers of Polarization

I missed most of the Vietnam War, because I was too young to follow the news and it was too recent to be covered in my American history classes. I was thus glad to have the opportunity to read Mark Bowden’s Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam. Bowden is a superb writer and he makes the reader feel present for the house to house combat needed to take back Hue from the North Vietnamese and National Front forces during the Tet offensive. And he persuasively makes the case that a battle won by our Marines marked the beginning of decline in popular support for the war that led to America’s ultimate defeat.

The book has important lessons for today. First, the generals in charge of our troops did not understand the war because they were still fighting the battles of their youth. This retrospection led them to overestimate the importance of armor and underestimate the effectiveness of the Vietcong whose lack of advanced weaponry made less difference in the jungle and urban areas than it did the more open fields of Europe.

Similarly today, it seems that the generals have not mastered the art of war in Afghanistan, relying on tactics like the surge that succeeded in Iraq but have not beaten the Taliban.  Whether President Trump’s new more focused counter-terrorism strategy will work better is beyond my capacity to judge. But I was heartened that the President demanded to speak to non-commissioned officers who had spent a lot of time fighting in Afghanistan. Bowden shows that noncoms, platoon leaders, and company commanders had a much greater grasp of how to counter the enemy’s tactics than their commanding generals.

The other lesson is even more important: Political polarization can blind people to great evil. Bowden shows that the Vietnamese communists were ruthless murderers. They executed about 2,000 civilians and captured South Vietnamese soldiers during the battle of Hue alone. The extrajudicial killings of civilians were a failed attempt to terrorize the population into rising up in their support. And they killed in barbaric ways, after torture and by burying people alive. At an orphanage they even bashed in the skulls of toddlers of mixed Vietnamese and American birth.    To be sure, the South Vietnamese and even American soldiers were sometimes guilty of excesses, but there is no comparison between the morality with which the two sides fought.

And yet in America many in the antiwar movement  extolled the Vietcong as freedom fighters and denounced the United States as the evil power. To be sure, there were many plausible reasons to oppose the war in Vietnam. It could be argued that the war was too costly in blood and treasure for what it could achieve.  And the domino theory, which asserted that a victory by North Vietnam, would lead to a communist takeover of Southeast Asia, was of doubtful validity.   But many Americans, particularly on the left, were not content with pragmatic arguments. They instead whitewashed great wrongdoing and indicted their own society.

Political obtuseness follows from polarization: dividing the world into friends and enemies flattens the capacity for moral discrimination.   Unfortunately, American today reminds me of America in the 1960s.

Reader Discussion

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on August 28, 2017 at 15:32:34 pm

Four score and seven coups ago, America was a force for good in the world. Unless, of course, you don't count Central and South America, where we had repeatedly flexed our muscle to overthrow governments that refused to do business with our oligarchs on their terms for over a century, as Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler, USMC, explained in his 1935 book, War Is a Racket. Butler goes on to explain that even our entry into WWl was driven by economic interests.

Our list of sins is too long to recount here. Starting with Operation Ajax--overthrowing the West-friendly elected government of Sorbonne-educated Mohammed Mossadegh because he committed the unforgivable sin of trying to nationalize lran's oil industry, we have been fracking up the Middle East for over 60 years. lnstalling the brutal Shah and training his sadistic SAVAK, we caused radical lslam. Saddam Hussein, Augustus Pinochet, and Manuel Noriega were all ClA assets. And we even overthrew the government of Australia, for cry-iy! https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/23/gough-whitlam-1975-coup-ended-australian-independence

JMc: "And yet in America many in the antiwar movement extolled the Vietcong as freedom fighters and denounced the United States as the evil power"

As an actual anti-war protestor--who had my escape to Canada planned in advance--l can speak to this dark era of our history from experience. We can now speak with full knowledge about the acts of governmental fraud--the Gulf of Tonkin incident, fabricated by our own government--that got us into it, and the act of TREASON by Richard Nixon that scuttled LBJ's peace talks. (Nixon would kill anyone for power, sort of like an earlier version of HRC). And we can ask the obvious question anew:

"Why in the hell were we there?"

Technically, the VC were freedom fighters, just like lraqi insurgents after them. They were fighting for self-determination, as against an invading force of foreign fighters.

JMc: "Bowden shows that the Vietnamese communists were ruthless murderers. They executed about 2,000 civilians and captured South Vietnamese soldiers during the battle of Hue alone."

No worse than our puppets. The array of war crimes of the Shah, Pinochet, and Noriega is no less gruesome. And it's not like we haven't tortured our prisoners in Abu Ghraib, and other dark sites around the globe. Bush #43, Cheney, Obama, and HRC all deserve one-way tickets to The Hague, but heroes like Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, and Ed Snowden are beset.

JMc: "The other lesson is even more important: Political polarization can blind people to great evil."

You mean, like known war crimes committed by the Bush Family Crime Syndicate™? The Covenant Against Torture--as we are a signatory State, it is the supreme Law of the Land, codified at 18 U.S.C. § 2340A--requires prosecution; in refusing to prosecute, Obama has become a co-conspirator. But repeat after me: "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!" For some bizarre reason, Americans don't seem to think that their Number 2 stinks....

JMc: " But many Americans, particularly on the left, were not content with pragmatic arguments. They instead whitewashed great wrongdoing and indicted their own society."

l'm indicting our rulers, who acted without sanction in law. lt is my patriotic duty as a citizen. ln the words of Mark Twain, "the true patriotism, the only rational patriotism, is loyalty to the Nation ALL the time, loyalty to the Government when it deserves it." We who protested that for-profit war, and would have refused to fight if called, stand vindicated by history.

All l have learned from your essay, Professor, is that you have learned nothing.

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LawDog
on August 28, 2017 at 15:43:49 pm

I missed none of the Vietnam War. In 1961, Kennedy said "Pay any price, bear any burden. . . ." The same year, I began high school where Bernard Fall's "Street Without Joy" and Tom Dooley's "Deliver Us From Evil" and "The Night they Burned the Mountain" cropped up in my history and English courses. I got my draft notice in March 1966 and enlist for three years for a better MOS; single-engine, single rotor helicopter mechanic (67N20) instead of infantryman (11B20).

In mid-1967, I was an air crewman with the First Aviation Brigade going in and out of landing zones in IV Corps. Since December 1967, we'd been hearing about Khe Sanh and the LZs did seem to be getting hotter than they had been a few weeks earlier.

On the night of January 30, 1968, I pulled guard duty in the guard tower just west of my platoon's flight ramp on the air strip where my company was based. The local battalion of the VC made a heroic attempt to take the air strip. They infiltrated the base and did a neat job of taking out our hangers and the eight UH-1Ds on my platoon's flight ramp. They actually captured the perimeter bunkers on northwest and southwest sides of the air strip. Twelve hours later, a company of 11 Bs from the 9th ID in Dong Tam arrived. Things settled down by February 1 and we got to pull a couple of our houseboys off of our perimeter wire. Through the spring and summer of 1968 we kept expecting to hear that we were moving north. It never happened. We just kept going into the same LZs taking casualties. Over the year I was there, just under 15% of the men on flight status in my company were killed; that seems to have been about the average.

This war of attrition continued and I voted for Nixon over Humphrey simply because Nixon promised to end our involvement in that war. After the Cambodia incursion in April 1970, I joined the VVAW and spent three years rolling in the mud with an odd collection of Maoists, Trotskyites, Quakers and Unitarians and old Ban the Bomb and civil rights activist from the 1950s.

Why did I do that? Because I had acquired an enormous respect for Charlie and because the government of the US had no problem with getting about 500 of us killed a month FOR NO GOOD REASON except the vanity of politicians and deep thinkers like Kissinger.

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EK
on August 28, 2017 at 16:57:30 pm

Never mind that Nixon sabotaged the peace treaty that LBJ was trying to broker whilst you were getting shot at.

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LawDog
on August 28, 2017 at 17:23:27 pm

Didn't know that then and Humphrey simply would not put any distance between himself and LBJ.

You have to act on the information you have.

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EK
on August 28, 2017 at 20:41:57 pm

Can you imagine what would have happened if LBJ had gone public? He took that secret to the grave, conemnng 20,000 soldiers to their own.

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LawDog
on August 29, 2017 at 15:05:53 pm

I had my first exposure to the English civil wars and the New Model Army before I was discharged in 1969. It was a quote from "A Representation of the Army" dated June 14, 1647:

". . . [W]e were not a mere mercenary army, hired to serve any arbitrary power of state, but called forth and conjured by the several declarations of Parliament to the defense of our own and the people's just rights and liberties. . . "

It was the collective opinion of those of us who who found ourselves assigned as instructors in the Army's aviation AIT programs while waiting our discharge dates that the government had grossly abused its conscript army in the Vietnam War, just as it had done in WW I and Korea, and that it was our duty as citizens to oppose such a regime and such wars; just as the Independents who dominated the NMA went on to oppose the Presbyterians in Parliament who wanted to kick out the republican agitators and send the rest of the NMA to conquer Ireland in the summer of 1647. We became something very much like Leveller agitators.

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EK

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