Vietnamese life was cheap – for Americans

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.


  1. coragyps says

    That was glaringly obvious to the anti-war crown back in the mid-60’s. Every day, the newspaper would report on the fatalities in ‘Nam.
    7 Americans
    112 South Vietnamese
    870 Viet Cong

    Change numbers daily. “American” count likely had to be pretty accurate. Had the “Viet Cong” count been remotely accurate, the whole country would have been empty by 1969…….
    And I had gone to high school with guys who came back and told stories of covering rice paddies with machine-gun fire and counting everything that didn’t walk away as VC dead. Yeah.

  2. colnago80 says

    What else is new. The life of Germans and Japanese during WW 2 was considered cheap. Firebombing of Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo for the purpose of killing as many of the enemy as possible. Unfortunately, that’s the nature of war. In fact, the 30 Years War was an earlier example of mass killing, via starvation. The percentage of the population of Central Europe that died in that war exceeded the percentage of the population of the same region that died in both world wars put together. If Adolphus, Tilly, and Wallenstein had had modern weapons, it is possible that the region would have been completely depopulated.

    By the way, the US military showed remarkable restraint during the bombing campaign of North Vietnam. Had we wanted to, we could have bombed Hanoi and Haiphong off the map, even without using nuclear weapons.

  3. Glenn says

    Americans claim whatever ground that lies beneath their feet as their possession by Manifest Destiny. And so whoever occupies land other than Americans are declared to be illegal aliens.

    The American Indians, although native, became illegal aliens once the European invaders moved in.

    Today the land claimed in the Mexican American War, California, etc.) is still undergoing the ethnic cleansing process of removing illegal aliens.

    The life of others is not cheap, it is not even life.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    Remarkable restraint? Nonsense.

    Aug 11, 1967:
    U.S. pilots cleared to bomb Hanoi-Haiphong area

    For the first time, U.S. pilots are authorized to bomb road and rail links in the Hanoi-Haiphong area, formerly on the prohibited target list. This permitted U.S. aircraft to bomb targets within 25 miles of the Chinese border and to engage other targets with rockets and cannon within 10 miles of the border. The original restrictions had been imposed because of Johnson’s fear of a confrontation with China and a possible expansion of the war.

  5. left0ver1under says

    The Vietnamese were fighting a last stand against an invading aggressor. It’s not as if they had anywhere to go or retreat to. It was their own land, so they were going to fight to the last regardless of their generals’ decisions.

    Even if their generals did have a “cavalier” attitude towards their own people, what were they expected to do? Give up, and live under a pro-US fascist regime (see: Indonesia, South Korea, Philippines, etc.)?

    The British used many of the same arguments, claims and insults with India. Colonialism is almost always driven by ideology, racism, greed and violence.

  6. 2up2down2furious says

    Sharknado, what a sad, simplistic world you live in– a world in which everyone is either a “good guy” or a “bad guy.” Members of the former category may have any misdeed automatically absolved simply because they are a group with which you identify. This is the same moral framework of children’s cartoons designed to sell action figures to 8-year-old boys and it boggles my mind that an adult could think this way.

  7. colnago80 says

    Actually, any targets bombed in North Vietnam had to be approved beforehand by the White House. In particular, the allowed targets in Hanoi and Haiphong were carefully limited to things like highway and rail junctions. Carpet bombing of the two cities and use of incendiaries was prohibited. Had carpet bombing and use of incendiaries been instigated, Hanoi and Haiphong would have been completely leveled.

  8. colnago80 says

    Just for your information, I was an early opponent of the Vietnam War, long before it became fashionable.

  9. mnb0 says

    This sounds way too much like a tu quoque to me. Besides the fact that the Americans did not invade Vietnam – they were invited by the government of South-Vietnam and American ground units never crossed the border between North- and South-Vietnam – it is perfectly possible that for both Westmoreland and Vo Nguyen Giap (Vietnamese) life was cheap. That wasn’t exactly the first time in the 20st Century.
    Anyhow, while Dien Bien Phu and the Tet-offensive were both strategical masterpieces (the latter one an excellent example of a military defeat turned into a political victory, similar to what happened in Indonesia in early 1949) they were only possible because VNG didn’t give shit. Pretty much like Zhukov or some generals in WW-1.
    This is a non-issue.

  10. colnago80 says

    I agree with you. The restraint shown was of the same type as shown by President Truman during the Korean War when he rejected MacArthur’s demand that targets in China be bombed. In no way was I implying that Johnson limited the types of bombing permitted in North Vietnam because of humanitarian concerns, although later on, that became a factor when domestic opposition to the war mounted.

  11. colnago80 says

    I don’t know about Dien Bien Phu but the Tet Offensive is an example of a tactical defeat for one side which turned out to be a strategic victory for that side. Other examples are the Battle of Guildford Courthouse in the American Revolutionary War, and the Battle of Jutland in WW 1.

    By the way, Giap, Haig, Joffre, and Foch were pikers compared to Zhukov.

  12. dean says

    Rob, you need to realize that there is never enough death for colnago80, as long as they are people of whom he does not approve.

    It also bears repeating that the message much of the United States during the war was that “those Vietnamese just don’t care about death the way we do: if they have children killed they simply have more”. The young men sent overseas to fight were desensitized to the humanity of “the enemy” (one of the many lessons learned from WWII, after surveys revealed large percentages of GIs did not fire their weapons during firefights), and there was a similar, less successful, effort, to do the same to the general public: partly in the hope that it would keep anti-war feelings low, partly to prepare the next wave of draftees.

    There isn’t much honor for any of the top folks of either side.

  13. colnago80 says

    Re Dean

    As stated below, I was an early opponent of the Vietnam War, long before it became fashionable to do so.

    As for there not being enough death, I’m a realist. I agree with General Sherman, war is hell and can’t be civilized; in war there is no glory, only blood and butchery. Unfortunately, sometimes there is no alternative. As a former German colleague who teaches physics at Carnegie/Mellon Un. put it, when commenting on the funeral of Winston Churchill, somebody had to stop Frankenberger.

  14. colnago80 says

    Re Colnago80

    Actually, the professor of physics in question teaches at the Un. of Pittsburgh, not Carnegie-Mellon.

  15. colnago80 says

    Well, i guess that the Pennsylvania pinhead considers being sent to a reeducation camp living.

  16. Jason F. says

    “Pennsylvania pinhead”? That’s truly “scathing” coming from a genocidal shithead like yourself.

  17. Nick Gotts says

    Besides the fact that the Americans did not invade Vietnam – they were invited by the government of South-Vietnam

    Under the Geneva accords of 1954, there were supposed to be all-Vietnam elections followed by reunification. The “Republic of Vietnam” which invited the Americans in, was set up by Ngô Đình Diệm, initially a tool of the French colonialists, then of the Eisenhower administration (although not a reliable one), following a fraudulent plebiscite in October 1955. Diệm was heavily reliant on US support in consolidating his power, so his “invitation” to the Americans was in no sense the act of an independent country. In 1963 he got his final reward when the USA backed local generals in a coup against him which ended in his murder.

    To talk of the Americans being “invited by the government of South-Vietnam” is therefore grossly misleading, and redolent of either ignorance or dishonesty.

    None of the above is to be taken as excusing the anti-democratic nature of the Vietnamese Communist Party. or the repression and barbarities it was and is responsible for.

  18. Mano Singham says

    As Noam Chomsky repeatedly pointed out, the US media for a long time refused to characterize what the US did in Vietnam as an invasion because that would make it look bad and twisted the facts in order to do so, claiming that the puppet governments it successively installed ‘invited’ them.

    But as Nick Gotts points out above, the country of Vietnam was one country artificially divided by the US to give that argument credibility.

    What the US did in Vietnam was an invasion, nothing less. Now that Vietnam is in the distant memory, more are willing to use that word.

  19. Dunc says

    Jon Schwartz has some interesting observations on this topic: It seems that the USA is almost uniquely fortunate in that all the millions of people they have killed didn’t really mind, because they didn’t value life.

    (Although in fairness I should observe that we British were very nearly as lucky, back in the “good old days” when the map of the world was almost all pink. Very few of the millions of people we killed valued life much either.)

  20. left0ver1under says

    slc is proud of his ignorance. He couldn’t rationalize his racism and genocidal desires without it.

    He whines about Vietnam’s communists while ignoring history. It was the US which backed and armed the communist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the regime which mass murdered its own people at a faster rate than the Nazis killed jews. The US used the Khmer Rouge as a proxy army in a war against the Vietnam government (see: Saddam Hussein and Iran, the Mujahadeen and the Soviets, etc.).

    How the did the Khmer Rouge’s reign of mass murder end? The Vietnamese invaded and defeated them. Under UN mandate, Cambodia was left an independent country, unmolested by Vietnam. That’s far better than the US would have done – or has done, period. South Korea and the Philippines (among others) remained pro-US fascist dictatorships for decades until the people protested and overthrew the regimes. All of Latin America would still be fascist if the US had its way.

  21. colnago80 says

    Of course, leftOverunder, as with all Communist sympathizers, neglects to mention that his asshole buddies, the Red Chinese government, also supported the Khmer Rouge.

  22. colnago80 says

    To Communist Sympathizers like Gotts, I suppose that the North Korean invasion of South Korea in 1950 was also justified and Truman’s response was aggression on the part of the US.

    I must ash I find the anti-Americanism of limeys like Gotts rather interesting. Considering that the USA twice had to intervene in a European war to pull Britain’s chestnuts out of the fire.

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