In reports on the death of legendary Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap, while his strategic and tactical prowess were noted, much was made of the fact that his leadership resulted in the loss of life of large numbers of Vietnamese soldiers in their struggle to rid their country of invaders, first the French and then the US.
What disturbed me was the implication that this was due to the Vietnamese taking a somewhat cavalier attitude to life rather than as a consequence of the nature of asymmetrical warfare, when an invading force that is vastly superior in weaponry, is willing to use almost anything it has (including chemical weapons), and has total control of the skies tries to subdue a poor and technologically backward population that has to resist with whatever it has.
Historian and journalist Nick Turse, author of the book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, has an article following the death of Giap where he points out that the huge number of Vietnamese deaths was largely due to the invading Americans treating Vietnamese life, both its soldiers and civilians, as cheap and expendable.
OBITUARIES of Vo Nguyen Giap, the Vietnamese general who helped drive the American military from his country, noted, as The New York Times put it, that “his critics said that his victories had been rooted in a profligate disregard for the lives of his soldiers.”
The implication is that the United States lost the war in Vietnam because General Giap thought nothing of sending unconscionable numbers of Vietnamese to their deaths.
In more than a decade of analyzing long-classified military criminal investigation files, court-martial transcripts, Congressional studies, contemporaneous journalism and the testimony of United States soldiers and Vietnamese civilians, I found that Gen. William C. Westmoreland, his subordinates, superiors and successors also engaged in a profligate disregard for human life.
A major reason for these huge losses was that American strategy was to kill as many “enemies” as possible, with success measured by body count. Often, those bodies were not enemy soldiers.
To fight its war of attrition, the United States declared wide swaths of the South Vietnamese countryside to be free-fire zones where even innocent civilians could be treated as enemy forces. Artillery shelling, intended to keep the enemy in a state of constant unease, and near unrestrained bombing slaughtered noncombatants and drove hundreds of thousands of civilians into slums and refugee camps.
Soldiers and officers explained how rules of engagement permitted civilians to be shot for running away, which could be considered suspicious behavior, or for standing still when challenged, which could also be considered suspicious. Veterans I’ve interviewed, and soldiers who spoke to investigators, said they had received orders from commanders to “kill anything that moves.”
The idea that Vietnamese considered life to be cheap and expendable is typical of the colonial and neo-colonial mentality that justifies atrocities against other countries because they are somehow lesser beings. One of those who promoted it was the US commander of forces in Vietnam, general William Westmoreland, and is captured in this famous clip from the 1974 Academy Award winning documentary Hearts and Minds in this scene that begins with the funeral of a South Vietnamese soldier. I still cannot see that little boy without tears coming to my eyes.
(If you haven’t seen that superb film, it can be viewed in full on YouTube.)
Turse says that over the years he has interviewed many people in Vietnam and can say categorically that this belief is false.
Decades after the conflict ended, villagers still mourn loved ones — spouses, parents, children — slain in horrific spasms of violence. They told me, too, about what it was like to live for years under American bombs, artillery shells and helicopter gunships; about what it was like to negotiate every aspect of their lives around the “American war,” as they call it; how the war transformed the most mundane tasks — getting water from a well or relieving oneself or working in the fields or gathering vegetables for a hungry family — into life-or-death decisions; about what it was like to live under United States policies that couldn’t have been more callous or contemptuous toward human life.
Many Americans can’t seem to wrap their heads around the fact that what was done to Vietnam was a monstrous crime and still seek to find ways to absolve themselves of the blood on their hands.