My Lai: war is an ugly thing, plenty of guilt to go around…

March 25, 2015

I just read a long piece by Seymour Hersh about the My Lai Massacre some 47 years ago this month. Several hundred unarmed civilians were killed.

Though lengthy I can boil it down by saying that U.S. soldiers murdered civilians in cold blood, men women and children, including babies. And it was not an isolated incident. It helped turn the American public against the war.

Not stressed but mentioned in the article, the enemy (and that is a question, who was the enemy? but that is a different story) committed atrocities just as savage (but of course that does not make immoral behavior right — nothing we could ever comprehend should make our own boys baby killers).

I found it interesting that the article describes My Lai of the time as a peaceful village and indicates that our intelligence mistakenly identified it as a Viet Cong base (the Viet Cong being part of the enemy). But later the article reveals that some of the men there belonged to the Viet Cong. Of course that is the problem, the United States unwisely interjected itself into a civil war, a war of insurgency, albeit one supported by the Soviet Union (to a lesser extent Red China) and its satellite then known as North Vietnam. It was not the good guys coming to the rescue of an innocent country from invading Nazis.

(Those of us who were not there were constantly informed throughout the war by journalists that it was not a war of territory and that there were no front lines actually. Many areas supposedly held by the South Vietnamese government (our ally) were controlled by the Viet Cong (some of them local villagers) by night. It was a civil war, with outside assistance, with the two world superpowers of the time, the United States and the Soviet Union, backing opposites sides in a proxy war, that was really an extension of the Cold War — and I give this background for the benefit for those younger than I or for those who just never paid attention, but then the latter probably would not bother to read this anyway.)

The article told of how our military covered the massacre up as long as it could and that once uncovered no one ever went to jail over it, although one lieutenant, guilty as he no doubt was, served as the fall guy for his superiors who surely knew what took place and in fact no doubt ordered it. (Okay some of this I am saying, in addition to what I read in the article.)

Some of those soldiers who took part claim they were directly ordered by their superior or superiors to kill everyone. And it may well be that not everyone there took part in the massacre.

I recall hearing the story of an American army  helicopter pilot who happened upon the scene and rescued civilians.

The incident occurred in March of 1968. I was in Army basic training at the time, and as luck would have it I was sent to Germany. My only connection if you can call it that was that when I was promoted to Specialist 5 or E-5 My Lai was the current events question.

And there was actually another massacre at a nearby village the same day and apparently many more, although smaller in scale, during the course of the war.

And it quotes North Vietnamese officials of that time saying that the massacre helped them eventually win the war by both supporting their own recruitment efforts within Vietnam and by turning the American people against what turned out to be a most immoral project for America.

We all know now that our leaders throughout that long war knew it was all hopeless and wrong but supported its continuance so they would not be blamed for losing. If you can make that kind of decision it seems to me you’re missing a moral compass.

Our current wars in the Middle East are by no means a carbon copy of Vietnam. But there have been atrocities committed by our soldiers and private mercenaries our government hires. And no doubt attempted cover-ups too.

Atrocities occur in all wars.

War is an ugly thing.

Why do some people love it so much?


When I was growing up and playing army I always thought only the bad guys committed outrageous acts, certainly not our side. I was naïve.

P.s. P.s.

And this was not meant as a comment on our current foreign policy which must include what to do about ISIS (and Al Qaeda), except we can’t become ISIS or terrorists or wanton murderers in the process.

p.s. p.s. p.s.

And when I write something like this I always feel obligated to say with all sincerity I have nothing but total respect for military personnel who carry out lawful duties and orders. When I was in basic we had a class in which an officer told us we must follow lawful orders. He said we were not obligated to follow unlawful orders. But if we disobeyed something because we at the time thought it to be unlawful we could be punished if the authorities found otherwise after the fact. What would you do? The answer is you don’t really know until it is too late.

(Of course the atrocity at My Lai was unlawful on its face, but you had the fog of war, youth, incompetent leadership or higher-ups in the war zone who stayed far enough away, either in helicopters or back in air-conditioned headquarters, that they could collect their combat badges for future promotion to further their careers, while claiming ignorance of what was going on at the actual scene.)

A fellow platoon member over in Germany did a tour in Vietnam as a door gunner on a helicopter. When sober he would brag about killing everything that moved, and supposedly quite legally in what were called “free fire zones”. But when he had too much to drink he would cry about the same thing.

As bad as war is it may be a necessary evil at times, I suppose.

The Seymour Hersh article from the New Yorker magazine is worth reading:

Comparing JFK assasination to 9/11, and have our own security concerns turned us into a police state we’ve always fought against?

November 4, 2013

I’m not sure what has been the most momentous thing to happen in current events in my lifetime, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy or the 9/11 attack on the U.S.

With the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination coming up (Nov. 22) I was thinking of those two events. In my life, perhaps, the JFK assassination has had more significance. I was a freshman in high school. I paid attention to current events and read a weekly news magazine and watched Huntley-Brinkley and Walter Cronkite newscasts on TV. I knew that not everyone loved JFK even if the hype in popular culture seemed to indicate otherwise. Still, he and his family were something different and exciting for much of the public. The president was relatively young (in his 40s), when compared to the previous presidents, and I guess JFK and wife Jackie and children Caroline and John John were the first mediagenic first family. And JFK had that strange but fun-to-listen-to Boston/Irish accent where he pronounced Cuba as “cuber”, and in his press conferences, of which he held many, he would flash that magic, magnetic smile, often along with some expression of wry humor often via innuendo, which to any guy seemed cool and probably to any girl or woman, well, whatever…

But when it came to things like the Cuban Missile Crisis when the nation was actually concerned that it might end up in nuclear war at any second with the standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, he presented himself as a steady reassuring hand as he soberly addressed the public. He just seemed to say the right thing.

They say he was not a top student at Harvard (I don’t know, maybe he kept up the “gentleman’s c”) but he was eloquent in speech and always seemed to make the well-reasoned and convincing case.

He was staunchly pro-civil rights but had to deal with the political realities of the times. It would take the older and much more seasoned congressional wheeler-dealer Lyndon Johnson, JFK’s vice president, to push the civil rights legislation through after he assumed the presidency, upon the assassination of JFK.

The assassination of JFK blew our whole world apart. While he had his detractors much of the nation seemed enthralled with him and his family. They were like royalty almost. And maybe that is what someone or ones were afraid of.

I’m not a conspiracy buff by any means. But I have to wonder if his assassination was not a CIA job. That theory has been posited before of course. I have a book by some woman who claims to have been a lover of Fidel Castro (I mean one of his lovers) and who claims that she was with the CIA and that they were mad about JFK’s abandoning the Anti-Castro forces in the ill-fated Bay of Pigs operation. I think her book is rather obscure and she may have well been just trying to make some money. You think? But still…

We know that Lee Harvey Oswald was the assassin. We also know that he did not just pop up out of nowhere. The CIA and the FBI already knew about him and yet why did they not make sure where he was that fateful day in Dallas? Well, back then maybe we did not have that much capability in tracking people? (We had a hard time finding Osama Bin Laden is nearly plain sight.)

And what made me think of all of this is the recent and ongoing revelations as to how much our own government via the National Security Agency and other intelligence branches is spying on its own citizens — eavesdropping on phone calls, emails, and other world-wide web data. It is also spying on friendly foreign leaders and in the process the president himself (which he claims not to have known about — and that is bad either way). I mean what possible reason or justification is there to spy on our allies? And is not an agency dangerous if it is spying on the president? J. Edgar Hoover, the late director of the FBI, was infamous for blackmailing high officials with the dossiers he held on them.

And then to 9/11. In the first direct attack on U.S. soil since the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, a group of terrorists pulled off the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, hijacked four airliners, and ran one into the Pentagon. And the baffling thing is that our intelligence agencies had the names of these guys and I guess their descriptions on their watch list and yet they were allowed to board airliners. Okay probably too paranoid conspiracy-centric here, but did someone want this to happen? We know that forces behind the rather dim-witted former president George W. Bush were pushing for war in the Middle East and even published a paper that opined we needed a new Pearl Harbor to wake the electorate up — and along comes 9/11 with the numbers of dead very close, close to 3,000 in each.

The death of JFK put LBJ in office. I have no doubt that he had good intentions, but he was perplexed over what to do about the ongoing situation in Vietnam, threatened by an ongoing insurgency that would result in a communist takeover of South Vietnam. And it was simply understood at the time that we had to stop communism anywhere we could. While JFK was trying to keep from sending actual American combat troops there, while supporting the anti-communist side nonetheless — we only had military advisers in the theatre — LBJ eventually sent as many as a half million U.S. troops there, even though he knew from almost the start that the situation was hopeless. But ever since China was lost to the communists in 1949 during a Democratic administration, Democrats had to be on guard not to lose anything else. The fear of being weak in the face of the communist threat forced President Harry Truman to send troops to save South Korea (a highly unpopular move at the time).

And the lives of so may young Americans (and the their loved ones) were forever changed by LBJ’s actions. I probably would not have gone into the Army if it were not for the Vietnam. In some kind of twisted logic I joined the Army, figuring I would be drafted soon enough anyway. The draft lottery had not been put into place at that time. But I was sent to Germany. But one of my brothers was grabbed by Uncle Sam and put into the Army and sent to Vietnam. Fortunately he did his tour and came home safe and sound. But such was not the case for nearly 60,000 American troops who died and thousands more who were gravely wounded. And besides that: all the lives torn apart. Wives who lost husbands and parents who lost children and so on.

(Even though I joined the Army I was not much of a soldier, but I am glad I served if for no other reason than I can say I served. I am proud that all the boys in my family served. My oldest brother served 20 years in the U.S. Navy.)

So, anyway, the 9/11 disaster was used as a pretext to get our nation into war in both Afghanistan and Iraq. We all know what that has wrought, nearly 7,000 dead Americans over a decade (thousands more wounded) with no discernible good to have come of it and trillions of dollars drained from our treasury. But of course we can’t afford to guarantee health care to our own citizens, the troubled Obamacare program notwithstanding, and have to cut back on aid to the poor, and we fail to invest in our infrastructure.

So, it is hard to choose as to which event was more momentous, the JFK assassination, or 9/11. There is no correct answer. It depends upon your age, really, and your own personal situation (you may have lost someone in the current wars).

And then again, with the result that intelligence agencies have been so emboldened to turn on the public they are supposed to protect, maybe 9/11 is the more momentous.

We are all so accustomed to giving out our Social Security number and our email address and we are so wired-in now with commercial interests knowing our personal tastes and information and every move, that we almost do not notice that we have become something close to a police state worthy of the old Soviet Union or East Germany or Hitler’s Germany. So far, no discernible ill effects, but overnight that all could change, the apparatus for the evil of control over all humans by a minority is already in place.

There is talk (or maybe it has already happened) of domestic use of drone aircraft by local law enforcement. We may not fear it as much when used elsewhere, but here?

We really need to pause and think about all of this.

As we celebrate our nation’s birthday, some thoughts about war…

July 4, 2010

I wanted to write about the Fourth of July. The only thing I could come up with is something I had already started to write a couple of weeks ago but never got time to finish or post. But since Fourth of July celebrations often play up the military and war, I wanted to share this:

There was mention in the news recently about the fact we reached the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War.

It got me to thinking about being in the Baby Boomer generation and my or our attitude towards war.

My introduction to war began when I was maybe five years old. My middle brother and I used to watch Saturday morning TV, and there were several weekly documentary type shows on. I think the Korean War had just ended (or technically was halted with an armistice or cease fire or whatever it is called — it has never been officially ended, we have all been reminded, and there‘s even been some recent threats that it might resume, with the recent sinking of a South Korean ship by North Korea and the accompanying South Korean casualties).

One show began with a tag line that said something about the “Korean Conflict”. At first it had been dubbed a “police action”. Politicians who for some reason are wont to commit troops to war often create euphemisms, such as “police action” or they even talk of the fantasy of “limited war”.

(There of course can be limited and temporary or even intermittent military action that does not rise to the level of what most would call war, but I am not writing about that.)

But anyway, we watched newsreel footage on TV about the Korean War. We also saw a lot of footage about World War II. We also saw a lot of movies downtown while I was growing up that were about World War II. They were always mowing down all those “Japs”. They were also killing Germans by the score.

I was learning about world events and history and politics along the way — fortunately my folks were well informed and my father was a journalist.

But it was a little too early for me to completely understand the relations among nations. I was always bemused by the fact that so many of my toys were “made in Japan” (today that would be made in China).

It further puzzled me to some extent that my last name was German, in fact the famous name of some German handguns often carried by Nazi officers — Walther.

But I think what I really want to say here is that all the stuff we watched had the same theme. American soldiers always prevailed over the evil enemy. And we fought in the defense of liberty after being attacked without provocation and we were completely innocent.

My brother and I both told each other we wanted to be in the military when we grew up. We usually decided we wanted to be in the Navy, because our older brother was a career Navy man. But sometimes we wanted to be in the Coast Guard or the Marines or the Army — don’t recall wanting to be in the Air Force, but maybe.

We often played war or Army (or Navy).

We rooted for Navy in the Army-Navy football games.

As I went through school I learned more about our history of war — although I think I learned more from my parents or outside reading than from public school. In fact history at school seemed to stop sometime not long after the Civil War.

And I think I realized that any desire to be in the military was really a little boy thing. It did not stick with me, really.

When I was in high school what we now call the “Vietnam War” was beginning.

I have written much of our history there and will not go into all that now. But I know that although there was much debate in the government about whether we should go to war in Vietnam to prevent the communists from taking over our nominal ally, South Vietnam, the prevailing mood in the government and society at large was that surely if we did we would prevail — America always wins!

(Actually we have been reminded that we did not really “win” in Korea. It was more of a stalemate — but we did prevent the North Korean communists from latching on to South Korea, so that does seem somewhat of a victory to me, as opposed to Vietnam where we unquestionably lost or gave up before we could win.)

As a teenager, I was of mixed emotions myself. Possibly in the interest of my own self-preservation (but I am not sure about that), I tended to question whether we ought to go to war for something that did not seem to pose any direct threat to our nation (domino theory aside). On the other hand, I did not like to see the U.S. back down from a challenge.

At any rate, I too was sure the U.S. could prevail and it was not my decision to make. The voting age was still 21 at the time, so I couldn’t even express my opinion that way.

I also thought that surely that by the time I graduated from high school (I believe our direct involvement in the war began when I was a high school sophomore) it would all be over.

Lo and behold it was not. By the time I graduated from high school in 1967 we were nearly at our height of involvement in the war.

I recall going to register with the draft board, as required, and the lady telling me that if I volunteered for the draft, I could get it all out of the way, with two years’ required service.

And now I just recalled that her son was a Green Beret and with another soldier had come to my high school and talked to us in my gym class. They talked about setting up Claymore mines, a device that hurls hundreds of nails at its victims.

I think the general attitude among most of us was that was interesting or “awesome” as some kids might say today, but I don’t think most of us were focused on the reality of war; it was all like a movie or playing war as kids.

Also, I think by that time we had started realizing via the news that this Vietnam War was a different animal than our past wars. We were not always fighting a uniformed army face the face (although there were NVA uniformed soldiers in the fighting too), but more often black-pajamed guerillas hiding in the jungle who would ambush and then disappear.

Even though we had overwhelming superiority in armaments and complete control of the air, we were not prevailing over the jungle fighters (never mind that mindless claim that we won all our battles — if so, why did we lose?).

And I have been accused of having a good memory. This is something I can state for a fact and something that always frustrates me. Even though there became to be a deep divide in public opinion over the war as it continued, time and time again I heard people say that although they were not especially pro-war, they felt that if we must fight we must fight to win. But there was all this wrangling in the political and public policy establishment about whether we should fight harder. If we did, we would be guilty of “escalating” the war. Even then I saw that argument as nonsense (and I’m sure a lot of others did too). How do you escalate a war? How or why would you half fight if attacked? Apparently there was some fantasy that if you fought on a limited basis (pulled your punches), you could keep casualties to a minimum politically accepted level.

In the end in Vietnam, firepower lost to commitment on the part of the enemy who was in the thing for only one reason — to win. We also were hampered by a corrupt government in South Vietnam and a population who at the time did not share our dream of keeping them free.

Today. We face much the same situation in Afghanistan (and let’s don’t even talk of Iraq just now).

We lost nearly 60,000 and suffered thousands more of gravely wounded in Vietnam in a decade-long war. The casualties are not as high yet in Afghanistan, past 1,000 now — but give it time.

While I think the reality is that we cannot re-make Afghanistan in our own image and make everyone love us and not want to come over and blow us up (and it was Saudi-Arabians who tried that, really, but let’s don’t confuse ourselves with the facts), that is all beside the point.

At this juncture we really have no interest in Afghanistan.

The only reason the public puts up with us still being there is its inattention, complacency and distraction caused by the Great Recession (ironically fueled to some extent from the costly war),and most of all to the clever move by politicians and the mistake by peaceniks in creating an all-volunteer professional military and doing away with the military draft.

If all were subject to the draft, there would be no war.

I will stop here and note that if one wanted to argue the case, there is a slightly better rationale for being in Afghanistan than there was in Vietnam. We were attacked by forces that staged and were aided and abetted by some in Afghanistan. In Vietnam, we were not attacked on our homeland and we faced no such imminent threat of attack. But Osama Bin Laden, the master-mind of 9/11, has moved on, possibly to Pakistan (our nominal, but not real, ally) or possibly to the grave. Al Qaeda, the organization we are supposedly fighting, has essentially moved on to Pakistan as well. Of course it could set back up in Afghanistan or even Iraq, once we clear out of the area — but then again, with its decentralized and surreptitious nature it can set up in spots all over the globe.

But back to baby boom generation and the Vietnam War — is that what I was talking about more or less?

I first attempted to get into the Navy right out of high school, more for lack of anything else to do — I wasn’t ready for college — than anything else.

But I could not pass the test for the Navy (and there is a strange and silly story to that, which I may or may not have blogged about before — I once wrote a newspaper column about it, but I’ll skip it for now).

But several months later I decided to join the Army. And this at a time when the casualties in Vietnam were mounting. I was in this strange disconnect world where I did not really admit to myself that I was essentially volunteering to be possible cannon fodder (to borrow a term I think used a lot during World War I).

However, as it happened, I was sent to Germany, where the only thing I suffered was some near frostbite and dish pan hands from too much KP.

During my three-year enlistment I experienced the phenomenon of my middle brother being caught up in the draft between college and law school. He served his year in Vietnam, in the Army, and continued along his path to becoming a lawyer.

And now on this Fourth of July, I stop and think how much I love my country and feel proud that I did my service, such as it was.

Even though what I did was relatively inconsequential, at least I served in uniform — something a lot of the war mongers of today never did!

But let’s not be negative on this our nation’s birthday.


Lessons of My Lai just never took hold

April 27, 2010

I watched the documentary on the 1968 My Lai massacre on PBS Monday night and had the feeling that I had seen it all before, but it was compelling nonetheless.

American soldiers wantonly murdered unarmed Vietnamese women and children and old men and others — hundreds of them.

Americans are not supposed to commit such atrocities.

Of course we did this in our own country to the American Indians.

There are a lot of explanations for what happened or why it happened, but few of them hold up.

What good excuse would you have for killing obviously unarmed women and children and others?

But it seems these things happen in war — always have, always will.

The thing that disturbs me the most about such incidents, other than the human suffering itself, is the fact that the higher ups seldom if ever get in trouble. In this case no one really got into trouble over it, high or low.

The evidence seems clear that the chain of command supported what went on at My Lai and if they did not know what was going on, then that would be their fault too.

According to comments in the documentary, there was ongoing abuse of civilians even before the incident.

As to the individuals who took part, that is the soldiers on the ground, I have some sympathy or understanding for those who may have fired into the bush or at adult males in the distance before they knew they were just innocent (or at least unarmed) villagers.

From what we know now, the soldiers were basically told they were going into enemy territory and that they were not to leave anyone alive.

But when it comes to coming face to face with obviously innocents (especially women and children and old men), I just can’t go there. I don’t see how anyone can do this.

I do understand the quandary soldiers find themselves in when it comes to the idea that they do not have to follow illegal orders. While it is obviously illegal to be ordered to kill innocent people, the way the system of military justice works is that the burden of proof is on the poor soldier who chooses not to follow an illegal order. If the system gangs up against him, which would likely be the case, he would not stand a chance.

Given the fact, as brought out in the documentary, that the American public made its feelings known that it did not want one of the main culprits, one Lt. William Calley, who was accused of giving orders that resulted in the atrocity, punished, what chance would a lone soldier have if he had refused to follow the orders to shoot everything that moved?

(Of course the public support for Calley was over the fact as they saw it that he was simply an officer who had to make decisions in the confusion of war and that if you start sending officers and soldiers to jail for killing people in a war then we could never be successful in a military operation.)

Well, anyway, My Lai is ancient history almost. But what I really got from all of this is that it is futile and dangerous to impose ourselves into the internal struggles of other nations. We end up doing terrible things and make enemies in the process.

We went into Afghanistan supposedly to go after forces that attacked us on 9/11 and now nearly a decade later we have imposed ourselves into an internal struggle and are killing civilians in the process.

We just never learn, do we?


Anyone who has been in the military, or even in a big organization, can probably tell you that the way things often run is that higher ups tell you to do something but at the same time let you know that if things go wrong they will swear they never had anything to do with it, but you have to go along with the program or face the consequences — you lose either way.

When we intervene in others’ business murder can result…

April 26, 2010

Just saw on the New York Times website that PBS is supposed to run a documentary entitled “My Lai”, about the massacre by American soldiers of hundreds of unarmed villagers in 1968 during the Vietnam War.

It’s supposed to be on tonight (Monday) — check your local listings. I certainly plan to watch if I can.

To some it may seem like just a terrible aberration or something that just happens in the fog of war.

Well, it does happen. We are doing it today in Afghanistan and have done it in Iraq, although perhaps not on such a grand scale (unless you count the totals).

My Lai, from all accounts, was rather up close and personal — troops mowing down women and children (babies) and others with automatic weapons fire.

There were too many soldiers involved in the My Lai incident for it to be simply blamed on a deviant or two.

The Nazis did such things in World War II out of pure hatred and some terrible programmed group-think thing.

From what I have read over the years, My Lai was kind of the result of fear and frustration out of losing fellow soldiers to booby traps and a largely unseen enemy firing out of the jungle and the reasonable suspicion that villagers were either Viet Cong guerillas themselves (although the babies could not have been) or were aiding and abetting the enemy. And their command also instilled a mentality to kill first and ask questions later (and right or wrong, in the interest of survival that was probably necessary to some extent — killing women and children and other innocents still not excusable though).

When soldiers are sent to a strange land to intervene in an internal struggle (notwithstanding outside involvement of other belligerents or wider world implications) terrible things result.

That’s a good reason not to commit our troops to fight internal struggles that should be left up to the locals.

It’s kind of like the local cops going out on a domestic disturbance call. The husband is beating the wife (or visa versa), but when it’s all said and done the unhappy couple both beat up on the cops.

Message from McNamara’s book: it’s not too late to rethink our war policy…

July 13, 2009

With the war in Afghanistan getting more serious and the indication that Iraq’s ongoing civil war might be heating up with the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the cities, it seems a good time to look into not-so-distant history – the Vietnam War – and see if something can be learned from it.

I have now finished reading the late Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara’s book, some would say his mea culpa, on Vietnam: “In Retrospect, the Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam”, published in 1995. McNamara died a week ago at the age of 93. He lived with the fact that many had called Vietnam “McNamara’s War”. Having left President Lyndon Johnson’s administration in 1968, he apparently kept all that bottled up until he published his book.

After reading it, I would sum up his position this way:

I was wrong. I was not the only one. We should have analyzed the situation better, but the mood of the times (Zeitgeist?), the Cold War philosophy, precluded that, and we were supported by the public up until we had gone too far. And the reason we conducted a limited war (instead of doing anything and everything to win) is that we feared getting Communist China and the Soviet Union directly involved and pushing events to a nuclear confrontation. And we eventually realized that due to the ineffective government in South Vietnam and the ambivalence of the population there really was never a chance to save that nation from the communists.

One portion of the book dealt with the fact that at one time there seemed to be a direct and public confrontation between the military chiefs and McNamara. They accused him of micro-managing the war and not letting them do their jobs. They, the military chiefs, wanted to be more aggressive, especially in the air war, and go after all targets, no matter their geographical location, such as Haiphong Harbor and on the border of China.

And I have blogged before, and nothing in this book told me anything different, that the mood of the public at the time was this: first the nation was truly divided on the war. Nonetheless, I think even among those who did not like it, most of them agreed with war supporters that if we must fight then the only way was fight to win and get it over with. By doing that, we would achieve our goal of saving South Vietnam from the communists and we would save American lives by not needlessly prolonging the conflict. I lived through this entire history and I heard people, so many, say things like: “I don’t really believe in this war, but if we’re going to risk American lives then why don’t we fight to win?”

In one brief passage in the book, McNamara notes that in the process of trying to save South Vietnam we indiscriminately killed a large number of civilians and did much damage to the country. I would add that it seemed like we were doing more damage to South Vietnam, our ally, than North Vietnam. We bombed North Vietnam, but with many restrictions. And we never invaded North Vietnam, even though North Vietnam invaded the south with both regular army forces and the Viet Cong guerillas they supported (and McNamara referred to other types of forces, such as militias, I was never aware of).

I’m not going to go back through the book and quote things. But I would suggest if you have not read it to read it. It’s kind of self-serving, and I got the impression that he slyly took the blame while spreading it around and went to great lengths to say that he at some point knew along with many others who supported the war that they were all wrong and that he tried to tell other insiders, thus trying to lessen his own blame (I would blame LBJ and then Richard Nixon; they were the commanders in chief through the all-out part of the war).

But here is something important that I think the book brings out: Public opinion means everything. You can’t fight to win a war without full public support. And unless you level with the public early on, you will not get it or be able to keep it. The Johnson administration withheld their own studies that demonstrated the cause was probably hopeless (and they knew this early on).

We fought the Vietnam War on the premise that we had to hold the line against the expansion of communism. But once we withdrew and once South Vietnam fell, while that nation became one nation under communist rule, the communists did not expand. Their own system worked against them and does today.

Also, reading the book has only served to confirm my already-held belief that the United States should only fight wars in true self defense. Sometimes it is hard to decide what that actually means, but that should be the rule to guide decision making on whether to fight a war, nonetheless.

(Also before I forget, I have more than once blogged that really we could have won the Vietnam War, kind of Korea style, but I am not so sure of that now, but that is moot anyway.)

So, using history as a guide, the U.S. needs to reassess what it is trying to do now in Iraq and Afghanistan and whether we can prevail and whether it is all worth it (and is it ever too late to save American lives?).

My take on what the Obama administration’s position seems to be is that we need to exit Iraq gracefully, but we need to press on in Afghanistan because that is where the 9/11 forces staged and where Al Qaeda leaders got refuge (so they seem to be in Pakistan now – so do we invade Pakistan?). The administration has also decided that we should protect the Afghan villagers to get their support, kind of like the pacification program in Vietnam (which was a failure).

But my question is: given our economy at home, whose living conditions should we be working on, those of Afghan residents or U.S. residents? (And there is a direct parallel here with the guns and butter approach of the LBJ administration – fight Vietnam, improve things at home at the same time, and that did great damage to our economy – but as often is the case, I digress.)

We did manage to install a government, however effective or ineffective, in Kabul, Afghanistan. Maybe we should simply tell it, handle it, and don’t harbor enemies of the U.S. We can come back by air or land or both.

And I think that if the Obama policy makers came to the conclusion in private that winning the hearts and minds of the Afghans cannot be done, they would face the same dilemma as McNamara said he and others did. They were afraid that the U.S. would lose face and would become weak. Decisions are tough. But do you continue to commit others’ lives to save face?

In my previous blog I wrote that the U.S. still today needs to come up with a clear policy on how the nation gets into war. I think we ought to follow the Constitution, which indicates that declaring war is the responsibility of congress. While the president always has to have the authority to deal with emergencies, a war is a much more involved process with such dire ramifications that it needs deliberation and support from elected representatives. And don’t play games with the definition of war by calling it something else (police action, conflict), everyone knows one when they see it.

The U.S. has not fought a constitutionally-declared war since World War Two. And I don’t think it is a coincidence that we have not had a clear-cut victory since then. Korea was a stalemate (although we did save South Korea), Vietnam a failure, the first Gulf War indecisive in that we found ourselves going back into Iraq years later, Kosovo, well you have me on that one, I don’t even know why we felt we had a dog in that hunt (and that was not an all-out war on our part), and the current wars – don’t know, still in progress.

But without taking a position on the current wars, I can only say, let’s learn from history and think this thing out and do what is actually best for our own defense and realize we cannot nor should not remake the world in our own image.

And to paraphrase a famous quote: who wants to be the last person to die for a lost cause?

Oh. But I feel self-conscious now, for some would contend I am not supporting the troops. To the contrary, I support them one hundred percent. I am only saying we need to clearly have goals spelled out and be in agreement that they are just and we need to make an honest assessment as to whether our efforts are practicable. If we have checked all the boxes in support – throw everything at it and fight to win.

I do not believe in the concept of “limited war”. Seems like if you limit your actions but the other side does not, you lose. And if you both agreed to limit your war, you would both be morally wrong — wasting lives for a game. 


I did not mention the involvement of the UN or NATO in Korea or Kosovo, respectively, or coalitions, because it is my observation that the U.S. always uses those organizations as cover for its own policy. On that subject I fear one day it could come back to bite us. Sure it works when we run the show, but what if we were outnumbered? And in no case should the U.S. ever give over its sovereignty to another nation or entity (I think it has been done to some small extent, but it should not be done).

McNamara at least apologized for acting on false assumptions…

July 7, 2009

Upon reading that Robert S. McNamara, an architect of the Vietnam War, died at the age of 93 Monday, I went to the library and checked out his book “In Retrospect, the Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam”.

McNamara served as Secretary of Defense for both Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and was so closely connected with the Vietnam War policy that it was sometimes derisively called “McNamara’s War”.

Nearly 60,000 Americans died and thousands more were gravely wounded in an effort that was eventually abandoned after nearly a decade of all-out war.

I remember so many kept saying through the years of struggle that we could not quit because then all the sacrifice would have been in vain.

(To be fair, some have credited our effort with helping to force the eventual end to the Soviet empire, but I think McNamara rejects that in his book – and I would ask: and that made all of that worth the sacrifice?)

I’ve only begun reading it, but it is fascinating from the beginning, to me at least. I think in the book he pretty much says something like – the Vietnam War was all my fault and I’m sorry.

It’s history, but it has lessons for today.

Like I say, I’ve only just begun reading the book, but already I have picked up on the notion that no one involved in making foreign policy can really know what the consequences of actions might be, but one should really think a lot about a situation and ask questions rather than going on blind assumption.

We got bogged down in a seemingly unwinnable war in Southeast Asia largely because so many in government assumed that the “domino theory” that stated that if one country falls they all will fall like a row of dominoes to the communists was true on its face without need to reassess it. Much of the public fell for that line too.

All Vietnam went communist, but the rest of the dominoes did not fall, and Vietnam today is a solid trading partner trying to transform its economy to be more in line with the capitalist model (and of course suffering from the same malady now that all capitalist economies are afflicted with at this time. It still has a communist government).

And then since the 9/11 attacks were inflicted by persons from the Persian Gulf area (most natives of Saudi Arabia) and we as a nation seem to just lump all the peoples from that area together, the nation became jingoistic and you heard things like “better off to fight them over there than here”. And since we lumped them altogether we blindly let the former president put our forces in Iraq even though the 9/11 attacks came from elsewhere. And so many fell for the notion that the Iraqis suffering under a cruel dictator (and they were) would greet our troops with open arms and throw flowers as if they were the allies marching into Paris to liberate the city from the Nazis. But it was only upon pulling our troops out of the cities years later (just last week) that there was any jumping for joy. We’ve lost some 5,000 troops (in Iraq and Afghanistan) and thousands more gravely wounded. You’re welcome Iraq (sorry we killed so many of you and bombed out your houses, but it was like Vietnam, we had to destroy you to save you). The troubles in Iraq are not over yet – it’s still open ended.

And now under a new president we have finally turned our full attention back to Afghanistan from where the 9/11 attackers command was headquartered, harbored by the Taliban.

We assume that if only we can win over the people there we can destroy the safe haven they provide for Al Qaeda (the force behind 9/11) and the Taliban (who support or work with or are the same as Al Qaeda, take your pick).

We are back to winning the hearts and minds Vietnam style. Have enough questions been asked? Are we making false assumptions? What has been the history of foreign armies winning in Afghanistan? (Not good from what I have read, neither in recent nor ancient history.)

I keep hearing during Memorial Day and Fourth of July celebrations that our armed forces are fighting for our freedom. I’m sure they think so and I’m sure we want to believe that. But is it better to really think about and discuss things or do we just act impulsively? And here’s another question, do the different levels of policy makers just tell the next level higher up what they think they want to hear? (I think we know what the answer to that last question was in the previous administration.)

So many people probably don’t feel they have the time and probably don’t have the interest to read histories such as the McNamara book I mentioned. It’s too bad, though. If the public would only read them more, it might learn something that would save a lot of lives and forestall a lot of misery.


I have mentioned books I am reading or planned to read before and said I would write more about them, only to not do so. But I make the claim once again. I plan to review it more fully once I’m done.