Burning History: Symbols, Symptoms and the Derangement of Thought
Once again omissions and juxtapositions create and convey a skewed reality.
By John M. Del Vecchio
Fighting Fires: This one at the POL (petroleum, oil and lubricants) point at Camp Eagle. Photo by the author.
Early September 1970: I edge down the short, narrow ramp into the large underground bunker which serves as the 1st Brigade TOC (Tactical Operation Center) at Camp Eagle. Outside it is blistering hot; inside it is cooler, dank, abuzz. Half a dozen officers and NCOs are conferring at the Action Report board. Elements of our sister unit, the 1st ARVN Division, have discovered another mass grave on the outskirts of Hue. The estimated number of new remains, individuals murdered during the communist Tet Offensive of 1968, has now reached 1000. The significance of this will become apparent below.
Let’s take a step back in time.
Episode 6: Things Fall Apart (Jan 68 – Jul 68) begins with a brief segment on Khe Sanh, which Burns/Novick identify as a side show, a communist diversion while the NVA slips men and materiel past allied defenders and stow the arms and munitions in lowland caches in preparation for the attacks which they believe will lead to a general uprising of South Vietnamese citizens against their government. Close, but no cigar!
NVA documents reveal a dual-pronged strategy during Tet, and Mini-Tet which was based upon the winning strategy at Dien Bien Phu. We mentioned this in the last blog when we talked about the “gnat swarm” technique of many small, dispersed, simultaneous terrorist attacks. But a key component in 1954 was to overrun the large remote base and capture as many of the defenders as possible. And to film it! It was the films of the captured French soldiers which swayed French public opinion against continued operations in Indochina. That was the communist goal for Khe Sanh and later for Kham Duc. The NVA had camera teams at both battles with the intention of repeating their public opinion victory. In this they failed.
Episode 6 also treats us to the many political promises and boondoggles of LBJ and his administration. We again see pols putting positive spin on the situation in Vietnam, despite privately being uncertain and skeptical. The viewer knows the generally outcome, so watching Johnson or Westmoreland deliver these statements, one knows that they are lying. Our government has lied to us. We’ve seen this in every episode, and it is getting worse. At the time it carried over into a general dissatisfaction in America, and added to a growing polarization of the people. Riots begin in 1967. They get worse in ’68.
Then the Tet Offensive explodes upon the screen. On Day 1, 84,000 VC attack. There are attacks at Bien Hoa and Long Binh, inside Saigon, at the U.S. embassy, in large and small cities from the Delta to the DMZ, and especially at Hue. And it is a slaughter! We’re shown layers of bent, burned and broken bodies stacked up… VC and NVA bodies mostly. The narrator intones, “Everywhere the enemy was suffering terrible losses.” Not said: Nowhere did the South Vietnamese citizenry rise up against their government and support the communists. They could have. They didn’t. This is significant; a meaningful non-occurrence. It shows more clearly than any poll ever might that the population, even if it was dissatisfied with the Thieu government, far preferred to be part of an independent South Vietnamese state, than to be subjects of the North Vietnamese communists regime.
Throughout the first days, everywhere the communists attack they are repulsed and destroyed. The offensive has been a disaster for the enemy. Only in the university City of Hue have they established a foothold. Everywhere else they are losing, and losing badly.
Then, on February 1, 1968 (the second full day of the offensive) photographer Eddie Adams captures a picture of Saigon police chief, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, blowing the brains out of the captured and cuffed Viet Cong soldier Nguyen Van Lem. The picture “goes viral” or whatever the equivalent was at the time. Every media outlet carries it. It is very dramatic. Commentators and pundits talk about it being symbolic of the brutality of the allied side, and symptomatic of the repulsive and immoral leadership that America backs. There is no background story given to the events which lead to the photo, but we do see the elation of communist officials. To them the photo is more important than all the failed attacks, all the stacks of bodies of their dead and wasted comrades.
Here’s the back story: Terrorist attacks and firefights were still active in Saigon. VC terrorists at times hit indiscriminate targets, but most often they attacked assigned, specific targets from a prepared and premeditated lists. The terrorist seen being shot had been assigned to murder the family of General Loan’s brother. Which he did! The photographs of the slaughtered family in their Saigon home —eight women, children, toddlers—are heart wrenching. The man was captured in the act of preforming these assassinations. He was brought to General Loan who was only blocks away. The battle for Saigon was still ongoing.
Years later, upon General Loan’s death, the photographer who took the picture said: "Two people died in that photograph: the recipient of the bullet and General Nguyen Ngoc Loan. The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapons in the world. People believe them; but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths.’” [Eddie Adams (1998-07-27). "Eulogy: General Nguyen Ngoc Loan". Time Magazine.]
Having “gone viral” in the free world press, it immediately became an iconic photo of the war, and it stimulated a pivoting point in American public opinion. Always cognizant of free world public opinion, Communist propaganda agents rejoiced. Burns/Novick admit Tet was an allied military victory, but also say it turned into a victory for the communists. How? Isn’t it a matter that the press narrative turned reality upside down? Once again, let’s remember that none of this happens without the North attacking the South.
Compare this event and its media coverage with the mass executions of civilians by communist troops during the battle for Hue. The battle lasted 26 days. It was often house-to-house. There was a reason for this. Hue was a university city. It’s population, prior to the battle, was politically polarized. Many students and professors were critical of the Thieu government, and their sentiments were parallel with elements of the “anti-war” movement on American campuses. Clandestine communist cadre kindled resentment and resistance, and Hue was known to be the sanctuary of many South Vietnamese draft dodgers. As the Tet offensive began, the first infiltrators were welcomed by naïve citizens unsuspecting of the violence about to be unleashed. The welcoming also meant that the clandestine-cadre were now unmasked.
The battle and the heroics of U.S. Marines crossing the Perfume River and breaching the walls of the citadel, along with the heroics of the ARVN in holding a tiny corner of the citadel against overwhelming odds, are covered [although oddly this is given about equal air time with poet Bill Ehrhart’s angst about visiting a prostitute]. What is not covered is the fact that the VC/NVA had entered Hue with a predrawn, premeditated list of men, women and families to be eliminated… just as they had in other towns and cities, and as Nguyen Van Lem had done in Saigon. To be murdered were all officials of the Saigon government, all prominent civic leaders, all doctors and teachers unless they were part of the clandestine element. The killings began on the first day of the occupation of the city, not only as the VC/NVA are being routed and decide to flee (as episode 6 indicates).
When people talk about the Hue massacre, they are usually referring to the civilians marched out of the city by the escaping communist force, and about the mass graves found within months after the battle was over. Burns/Novick put the figure at 2600. More graves were found in the ensuing year raising the number to approximately 4,000. In September of 1970 an additional 1000 bodies were found—buried alive, shot in the back of the head, executed in family groups. A full accounting, to the best of my knowledge, has never been done, however some reports add in the individuals assassinated while the communists held Hue. These reports suggest the real figure of the massacre at Hue should be 8,000.
Now here’s the rub. The dramatic photo of one assassin being shot on impulse while a battle was on has taken on more significance than the premeditated murder of up to 8000 civilians. People who tout the significance of the one photo also somehow claim the mantle of moral superiority over those who believe defending against communist attacks was right and just. Public opinion affects government policy, and elected officials dictate military policy. Deranged thoughts have severe ramifications.
Yes, we were lied to by our government and our politicians, as this and the next episode aptly show. But we were, and are being, lied to by the information branch of our society, the news media, with equal or worse consequences. Much of the lies of the latter have become part of our historical narrative. A paradigm shift is mandatory. Our current ambient cultural story and worldview has been skewed from reality and is leading us, as a nation, down a road we may find leads to a place we never intended going.
Next blog: Episodes 7 & 8.
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John M. Del Vecchio is the author of The 13th Valley and other works on Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq and veterans issues. He is currently working on: Peaking At 70: Rediscovering America and Self. www.peakingat70.com.