Behind the Iron Curtain part 38- Vietnam War

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give a perfect and objective evaluation of anything but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty-eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.

This one will be very short because the regime ended shortly before the Vietnam war was covered in the school curriculum, so we were not told a lot. History lessons in that last year were a bit scattershot, as is expected during a year in which revolution happens. And what little we were told I mostly forgot, except very few things.

Those few things could be summarized thus: The USA tactics and behavior in Vietnam were shown as essentially the same as German tactics and behavior in eastern Europe (edit: in WW2). Scorched earth, civilians massacred, war crimes committed left and right. We were shown short films about how the US forces were the baddies and how their defeat was a victory of good over evil.

It got embedded in my subconscious, but I was also aware that the USA has helped to defeat the Nazis in Europe, including in my hometown. I was unable to shake off this comparison with Nazis and I felt like it should not hold water on closer scrutiny. But it did not get better when I sought information about the conflict on my own, which was still difficult in the following decade with nonexistent internet and the history books being only slowly updated.

It would be a shock if it came quickly, but it was not because the realization came slowly over the years – whether you call it education or indoctrination, what communists said was accurate. The tactics the USA used in Vietnam were those of Nazis, no matter how you try to slice it. The USA probably could not present itself in worse light if they tried and they gave communists an excellent propaganda tool – the best propaganda might not always be one that is solidly backed by facts, it must address emotions first, but it does help if the facts are on your side too.

When I was visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. in 2000, it felt quite strange. There were people there, looking up their long-dead relatives and acquaintances. As with all war memorials, It felt quite somber and I have remained quiet and respectful as one should. But I could not shake the feeling that this is a memorial to victims of an unjust war and whilst most of the fallen soldiers being remembered were innocent draftees, there were very likely quite a few nasty war criminals with the blood of innocents on their hands among them too. To this day I did not quite figure out what to think about it.


  1. Ice Swimmer says

    We here in the mixed-bag zone of Cold War were taught about the Vietnam war, but not shown any propaganda films. Afghanistan was mentioned, but not really delved into, it was an ongoing/recent war then (I went to the 7th grade in 1987 and started upper secondary school* in 1990).

    Both USA and Soviets fought a losing land war with conscripts in Asia. Americans were first, but the Soviets didn’t seem to learn from Americans’ mistakes. Both countries have veterans from these wars with mental health issues, drug problems and probably some of the more hardened criminals in both U.S., and Russia learned their brutality in these wars. I’m not saying this as any kind of whataboutism. Both superpowers were evil during Cold War, fighting wars and supplying military aid to any ally, from the street gangs of Jamaica to dictators of large countries, to fight proxy wars and to commit atrocities.

    At least Soviet help didn’t fuck up Vietnam as badly as U.S. “help” fucked up Afghanistan. German Democratic Republic helped Vietnam step up their coffee production when the GDR leadership needed to secure a supply of coffee beans that wouldn’t cost them western currency (they were afraid of civil unrest if East Germans didn’t get their coffee, which got way more expensive after 1974). Now Vietnam is world’s second largest producer of coffee. OTOH, Afghanistan is world’s leading producer of opium and hashish. Vietnam has a growing and industrializing economy (albeit on a huge environmental cost), Afghanistan has the Taliban.
    * = Corresponding to Gymnasium in Germany

  2. cartomancer says

    I was never actually taught anything about the Vietnam War, growing up in England in the 90s. Our History curriculum ended in 1939, and most of what we studied in any depth at school was the Industrial Revolution and the political upheavals of Europe in the first four decades of the Twentieth Century. America featured only as a place where slaves were taken during the Slave Trade, and Asia might as well have been another planet.

  3. Allison says

    .. whilst most of the fallen soldiers being remembered were innocent draftees, there were very likely quite a few nasty war criminals with the blood of innocents on their hands among them too.

    It’s not like there is a clear dividing line between “innocent draftees” and “nasty war criminal draftees.”

    It was a war in which, as far as US soldiers could tell, it was them against the entire population of Vietnam, because they could never tell which Vietnamese person might be about to try to kill them. And the experience of spending weeks and months in constant danger of being blown up and killed (and seeing it happen to their buddies — their primary supports) and where the only tool one has for survival is to kill the people who are apparent threats warps the mind. (Cf. PTSD) To judge people who are going through something like that by the same standards as one uses for people in civilian life is an injustice. It was the kind of war where atrocities are pretty much guarranteed (and that was known from the outset), and it has nothing to do with the basic character of the soldiers. If a car is stuck at a grade crossing and demolished by a freight train, would we judge its destruction as a defect in the car?

    Interestingly, many of us who were against the war did not condemn Lt. Calley & co. because we felt that the responsibity for atrocities such as My Lai lay not with the soldiers, but with the politicians and senior military officers who were sending them into that war, a war which we felt was inherently a war crime and an atrocity. The astonishing thing was not that atrocities happened, but that there weren’t more. (Or maybe there were, and the US army did a better job of covering them up.)

    The sad thing is that the USA, or at least the people who decide whether and where to wage war, don’t seemed to have learned anything, except maybe to have better control over what the news media see and report. And to use more or less indiscriminantly blowing up anyone who they think might be an enemy combatant as a substitute for soldiers on the ground. (The logic seems to be that because they’re doing it with bombs and air strikes or drone strikes instead of soldiers on the ground, it’s not an atrocity.)

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    As one who protested the war at the time, I had a reaction when the Vietnam War Memorial was created that I still hold today: we need another monument, displaying Vietnamese and Cambodian and Laotian names, about 50 times larger.

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