Burning History: Slogging Through…
Twilight Zones, Alternative Dimensions, Truth, Justice and The American Way.
By John M. Del Vecchio
Firebase Whip: On the southern edge of the A Shau Valley October 1970. Photo by the author.
Perhaps I live in an alternate dimension, or perhaps the film makers of this series (and many of those they have chosen to interview) live in the twilight zone. Of the 60 or more events portrayed in episodes 7 and 8, I’ve opted to address three using passages written years ago. I believe they’re pertinent. They also demonstrate the duration of divergence of thoughts on issues and narratives. With all the scholarship that followed the “end of the war,” the repetition and reinforcement of disproven narratives is disturbing. Worse, it opens old wounds.
Before we jump into some nit and grit, I wish here to openly thank leaders and commanders of 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) units from platoons to brigades for their leadership which was so vastly superior to what I’ve seen portrayed by Mr. Burns and Ms. Novick. Surely I was blessed to soldier under such NCOs and officers. Then again, perhaps others, in other units, had experiences like mine. The video at this link (made in 2012 for the 30th Anniversary edition of The 13th Valley) explains my education in this regard: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dUxlt_-qEhI . Note, when I first wrote The 13th Valley I was writing strictly about the 101st. I had been appalled by news reports I’d read describing American troop activity in Vietnam, and I was out to set the record straight for the 101st. After publication I received thousands of letters… well, watch the video. It’s about two minutes.
Hamburger Hill, The Truong Son Corridor and Ted Kennedy: The below passage is from the Author’s Note to the 1988 edition of The 13th Valley. Please note the last line (emphasized). Burns/Novick have been beating the drum continuously that the war was unwinnable. It is true that some politicians believed this theory, or were at least skeptical about the chances for success. Others were more realistic, and less fatalistic. Success or failure were not predetermined but would hinge upon definitive actions of the various parties. American actions were affected (and finally perverted) by the building false narrative.
The strategic importance of the battle at Khe Ta Laou along with all the other battles fought in that expansive area of operation beginning in 1962—Ta Bat, A Shau, Lang Vei, Khe Sanh, Dong Ap Bai (Hamburger Hill), Ripcord, and so many others—lies in blocking and/or cutting the enemy’s logistical lifeline to communist units fighting in South Vietnam. Americans who fought there understand, but politicians of the time had different agendas. In 1969 Senator Ted Kennedy (D, Mass) criticized battles in this region in a speech before Congress: “I feel it is both senseless and irresponsible to continue to send our young men to their deaths to capture hills and positions that have no relationship to ending this conflict.” (my emphasis)
Contrary to Kennedy’s assessment, these battles had everything to do with potentially ending the conflict. Disrupting the flow of men and materiel through the Truong Son Corridor from North Vietnam meant the enemy was harder pressed to threaten security and tranquility within South Vietnam. With the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the corridor, and the ensuing withdrawal of U.S. economic support for the South Vietnamese Army, the NVA moved unchallenged and unobstructed into the South—extending gasoline and oil pipelines down from Lang Vei, through the A Shau Valley (past Khe Ta Laou and beneath Hamburger Hill), south through Kham Duc and Dak To, all the way to Loc Ninh. This gave them a super highway with no cops and no speed limits along the way.
Mobility along this western corridor… gave the PAVN the ability to mass forces against comparatively sparsely defended points. In late ’74 and early ’75 the northern army stormed southward down this road, using hundreds of Soviet-supplied tanks and artillery pieces, and 18,000 military trucks transporting arms, ammo and supplies for 400,000 troops. This represented a logistical operation larger than most Axis movements of World War II, and it paved the way for North Vietnam’s Final Offensive in 1975. Without that corridor a PAVN victory was impossible; with it, conquest was inevitable.
My Lai, American atrocities, and the making of a narrative: Nothing in the passage below should be construed as an excuse for the actions of the Americans who perpetrated the crimes at My Lai, or those who covered up those crimes. The following passage is from Chapter 32 of my novel Carry Me Home. In this chapter the veterans at High Meadow have staged a mock trial as an educational exercise. The chapter is titled: Opening and Closing Arguments and Highlights of The Great Media Trial. It was written in 1991.
After the break the Myth Busters altered their tactics. “Americans were animals at My Lai but that incident was minor in the scope of the war. Yet of a total of 9,447 network evening news stories about the war that were aired between 1963 and 1977,” Al Palanzo testified, “473 dealt with the atrocity at My Lai. The media focused and fixated on this single incident which represented three of every one hundred thousand war deaths. The NVA assassinated six thousand Saigon government civilian personnel in 1970. That did not receive one minute of American television air time. Not one minute!
“The ramifications of this reportage are the labeling of allied soldiers as baby killers, and the dissolution of the moral rightness of the cause. By the way,” Al added, “these media figures have never been made public, and are not now in the public record. They have been derived from an internal network report.”
That caught Sherrick and the defense off balance. He questioned Palanzo at length about the source and how the information had been obtained. Then he requested that the evidence be declared inadmissible.
The numbers, indeed, are exact, and were derived from an internal report produced by ABC, NBC and CBS which listed and graded every story aired on evening news broadcasts from 1963 to 1977 that in any way involved the war in Vietnam. Important, but not said in the novel, the revelation regarding My Lai do not break until November 12th, 1969, approximately six years from the first story listed in the report, and less than six years from the fall of Saigon. Those 473 stories about My Lai represented approximately 10% of all TV evening news coverage from the moment of revelation to the final collapse. There are other major communist offensives, communist atrocities which dwarf the numbers at My Lai, Paris Peace Talks, POWs, communist offensives in Cambodia which lead to over 40,000 civilians being locked in gulag-camps that were precursors to the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian Holocaust, yet ABC, NBC and CBS continued to focus on My Lai. Story builds narrative. My Lai became a plank in our national narrative far beyond its actual significance, and it is still a plank with extensive personal, social and political ramifications.
Cambodia prior to the Menu Bombings: The following passages are from Historical Summation, Part 1, in the novel For The Sake of All Living Things. The title of the work was derived from the Buddhist vow: I will become enlightened for the sake of all living things.These paragraphs were first written in 1986.
Sihanouk also controlled the national “Buddhist-oriented system of voluntary contributions”—that is, taxes. To earn merit and achieve a better station in the next life, a Buddhist must be charitable. Sihanouk argued that because the rich were all devout Buddhists their contributions would support the poor and the state. In reality, the rich gave little to the poor and almost nothing to the state. The merchant or middle class, though taxed, was tiny, and state income from it amounted to little. This left only farmers to support the state, and they were heavily taxed, even though farmers as a percentage of the population had shrunk from nearly 80 percent to about 50 percent. Payment from them was usually in rice, which the government sold on the export market. By 1966, two thirds of the peasants were burdened by indebtedness, loans which carried interest rates of 12 percent per month. New population pressures, the tax-caused indebtedness, and the feudal order combined to create unstable land tenure conditions. In 1950, only one in twenty-five Khmer farmers rented his land; by 1968 the figure was one in five.
Without broad-based taxes the government had no money with which to modernize the state, to improve or maintain the transportation and telephone systems, or to raise, equip and train a viable national army. Cambodia, from 1954, was an ever-increasing low-pressure area—a power vacuum—a nation unable to ensure domestic tranquility, much less the integrity of its borders…
There were four major Communist factions operating in Cambodia in the late 1960s—the Viet Cong… the North Viet Namese, the Khmer Viet Minh, and the Khmer Krahom. … By 1968 the NVA, by far the strongest force in Cambodia, had transformed the Northeast—Ratanakiri, Mondolkiri and portions of Stung Treng and Kratie provinces—into their own uncontested base area. In a different manner, they also controlled large portions of the South and Southeast. They were entrenched—through bribery, through corruption, through threat of force, and through assassination—in every area along the Sihanouk Trail from Kompong Som (Sihanoukville) northward to Phnom Penh and eastward along coastal Highway 3 through Bokor and Kampot, to the border regions. Indeed, in many of the villages in Svay Rieng, Prey Veng, Kandal, Kompong Speu, Takeo and Kampot provinces the North Viet Namese maintained at least a parallel governing administration to that of Sihanouk’s government. In portions of the southeastern provinces, especially along the border, they controlled the economy so completely they printed their own currency and forced local inhabitants to us it instead of the Cambodian riel. In addition, the NVA had established a (military) front headquarters just outside Angor Wat in Siem Reap Province in the Northwest.
These were the conditions in South Vietnam’s neighboring state—conditions brought on by the launch of Hanoi’s War of Hegemony over all of Indochina. That war, as mentioned in an earlier essay, was initiated in the late 1940s and reinforced every year in Laos, Cambodia and beyond. Without Vietnamese communist tutelage there is no Khmer Viet Minh, no reactionary Khmer Rouge, no Cambodian Holocaust. Declarations of neutrality were at best ripples in a vast lake. We heard less about this from Burns than I had anticipated. Treating the topic of the war as if it only involved North and South Vietnam and not all of Southeast Asia leads to many misunderstandings. The reaction on college campuses to the Cambodian Incursion occur in a knowledge vacuum, not unlike the power-vacuum created by Prince Sihanouk. Nothing good came from either.
I feel compelled to return to my opening thoughts. I recognize all the America troops—soldiers, Marines, airmen, etc.—interviewed for this series by Mr. Burns and Ms. Novick. I don’t mean individually. I mean I knew men like them in Vietnam. And I’ve known vets like them in the years after the war. But it seems to me, in general, this is not who we were in Vietnam. This is a small and skewed fraction. So who were we? In so many ways we were the best of the generation, the ones willing to meet the challenge, to repulse an enemy, and to secure the land of a people we barely knew. Many of us, even if we didn’t wear this on our sleeve, were willing to “bear any burden… oppose any foe…” in support of liberty… willing to die in support of the right to peace, to freedoms and to self-determination free of communist tyranny. Believing we were betrayed, angry at the government or the command, or believing in the cause, our discipline differed from many of those portrayed in the documentary. That’s just who we were. The most basic characteristic of the American soldier was his unexpressed support for Truth, Justice and The American Way.
[Corrections to essay #6: The family assassinated in Saigon on 1 Feb 68 identified as that of Gen. Loan’s brother should have read a friend of Loan’s; the woman visited by Bill Ehrhart at Hue may not have been a professional, but more tragically a young mother pushed by circumstances to trade sex for c-rations.]
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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.