R. J. Del Vecchio: Vietnam War Myths ... Response to Ron Briley

Roundup: Talking About History

[R. J. Del Vecchio is a veteran activist and long-time student of the conflict in SE Asia, starting prior to joining the Marines and serving in the 1st Marine Division in 1968. He has been making presentations on the war as a guest lecturer at colleges and high schools since 1996, is active in several veteran’s organizations, and was a speaker at the 2004 Boston Conference on the Myths of Viet Nam. He is a co-author of “Whitewash/Blackwash: Myths of the Viet Nam War”, a teacher’s aid booklet commissioned at the Boston Conference.]

This posting was written in response to Ron Briley's The Vietnam War and Modern Memory (HNN, 6/26/06).

Mr. Briley has presented his views of the Vietnam War era and some of its events, as he believes those views apply to the war in Iraq today. As is too often seen in such essays, he presents opinions and perceptions, both his and those of others, as historical fact. In one instance, he refers to “the mythology that the Vietnam War was lost on the home front by an antiwar movement”. Since the memoirs of numerous North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front notables (e.g., Vo Nguyen Giap and Truong Nhu Tang) have made it crystal clear how heavily they counted on the effect of the antiwar movement in America and that the propaganda war (dich van) was as important to the North Vietnamese leaders as the military campaign, dismissing the significance of the antiwar movement in that history as “mythology” is quite invalid.

There is also the blanket statement that “many Vietnam veterans were active in questioning the war and American foreign policy”. The largest and best-known veterans’ antiwar group of the time was the Vietnam Veterans Against The War, which, at its height, could not demonstrate more than 1000 actual veterans were members. One may say that a thousand qualifies as “many”, but as a percentage of the well over 3 million US veterans of the conflict, it is not especially impressive. And a number of its members, including Al Hubbard (one of the founders) were later proven to not be war veterans at all.
Mr. Briley refers to the famous/infamous Winter Soldier Investigation, which he says, “documented how the Vietnam War led to atrocities”. The many flaws of that particular event and some of its organizers and participants have been documented, and can be readily found on the web at WinterSoldier.com. There can be no doubt that individual atrocities were committed by US troops during that war, as they were in every American war starting with our Revolution, since having large numbers of men engaged in the horrid business of war over any length of time will inevitably lead to some such incidents. (Just as any large urban police department will inevitably have some officers commit crimes.) But there has never been evidence to demonstrate the deliberate pattern of command encouragement or support of brutal behavior on the part of American troops. (A distinct contrast to the policies of assassination by the Viet Cong and the organized massacre of 4000+ people in Hue by the invading NVA/VC in 1968.)

He further states that these “facts” about terrible American actions in Viet Nam were subject to suppression by the “political right”, in the “infamous Swift Boat campaign”. Since the 250+ Swift Boat Veterans were made up of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, none of them professional politicians or activists, and all their statements about Mr. Kerry’s experience and claims related to serving in Viet Nam were factual personal testimony, no word of which has been disproved, how infamous can they be? Since they were financed primarily by small individual contributions which amounted to less than a single donation by George Soros to MoveOn.com, one has to ask if MoveOn.com and like groups should be classified as the “political left”, and a very well financed political left at that.

And of course, we have the popular claim that since Dr. Lembke could not document any publicized instances of soldiers being spat on, the entire concept is “essentially an urban myth”. Since I know personally at least four veterans who were spat on or at, and was myself the object of harassment when I wore my uniform onto the U of Maryland campus in December 1968, there can be no question that such events did occur. Whether it was one vet in 100 or one in 10,000 who was spat at or on is immaterial, what was and is important was that almost every returning vet knew about such incidents, and felt the burden of that rejection of his service, that disrespect for his experience. To pretend that since there were no front page photos in the NY Times of a veteran being spat on, nothing like it ever happened and Viet Nam veterans had no reason to feel any less accepted and honored than their fathers and uncles who had served in WW2, is utterly fatuous.

And lastly, we are told “Fonda got much closer to the front lines and military during the Vietnam War”. That presupposes that sitting in the seat of an antiaircraft gun in Hanoi when there are no planes in the sky qualifies as being near the front line. Most vets would take exception to that.

However, there is no doubt that Ms. Fonda did get close to the military, and in fact was one of the few who ever got to spend time near members of the opposing militaries in a single trip. Of course, sharing wonderful Vietnamese meals with NVA generals and making recordings to be broadcast to US troops urging them to disobey their officers was a major contrast with orchestrated visits to the Hanoi Hilton to chat, smiling, with prisoners who’d been very carefully coached on how to act with her. (Under the threat of more time spent in diversions like hanging from one’s bound elbows until shoulder dislocation occurs and one passes out from the pain. And there were those who refused to meet with her, one of whom spent 97 continuous hours standing in a small circle on a concrete floor before collapsing as a result.)
Mr. Briley is, as are all of us in this country, free to have his own thoughts and opinions about the war in Iraq, and to publish them widely. While presenting broad statements as historical fact which are actually extremely debatable is often done by columnists and commentators, here it is important to either clearly label input as opinion, or observe rigor in reporting historical events.

Related Links

  • John Prados: The Winter Soldier Investigation Was Never Discredited Interview with Richard Moser: Was Kerry Right About Vietnam Atrocities?

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    More Comments:

    RJ Vecchio - 4/19/2007

    I suppose it's really pointless to try to get anyone to think differently about some subjects than they have chosed to think, but I will pose just a few questions anyhow for the two commentors above-
    1- Has there ever been a single statement made by the Swift Boat vets that has been demonstrated to be untrue? Like, for instance, spending Christmas in Cambodia when you never got there, or hearing about the MLK assassination while in Vietnam when in fact you were back stateside by then.
    2- If any part of their testimonies or the book Unfit For Command was demonstrably or even probably untrue, why has there not been any lawsuit filed for libel? Kerry certainly has to money and would have enormous support for legal action.
    3- Are we to believe the specific writings of major N. Vietnamese figures like Bui Tin (the colonel who took the surrender of Saigon) detailing the enormous importance Hanoi placed on the US antiwar movement are lies made up just to make aging antiwar activists feel good?
    4- The recent mention by a news columnist of the "myth" of returning vet mistreatment brought forth not only many dozens of first hand accounts from vets, but ultimately led to researchers finding accounts in newspapers and TV articles of the time which dealt with spitting incidents. Are we to believe all these men are liars and those historical articles were made up after the fact and inserted into the records by a right wing cabal?

    Joseph Nagarya - 7/25/2006

    The US military has never been encouraged, "from above," to engage in atrocities? Aside from the fact that the first to "investigate" -- and cover up -- the My Lai Massacre was a Lieutenant name Colin Powell, we have the memoranda, signed by Gonzales, Rumsfeld, and Bush authorizing the torture imposed upon Iraqis in such as Abu Ghraib.

    Torture is a war crime, even when the US does it. It may rise to treason when it is authorized and ordered from the hgihest levels, as it violates domestic Federal law and Constitution.

    As for the "Swift Boat Veterans," many of whom -- like John O'Neill -- weren't in Viet Nam when Kerry was: their smears against Kerry were, detail by detail, wholly refuted. Further: one of those who smeared Kerry during 2004 was the officer who dcommended Kerry for heroism, and recommended him for medals. Was that person lying then? Or was he lying when he said the exact opposite in 2004?

    US involvement in Viet Nam was illegal. And it could not have been won -- the enormous disparity in population numbers is sufficient to show that fact. It is not, therefore, the fault of the "Left," or of the anti-war movement -- most of which members had friends and relatives in the military deployed to Viet Nam -- that the US lost that disaster. Nor is it the fault of the Constitution which -- not the politicians -- "tied the hands" of the military against being out-of-control mass-murder machine.

    "Spat upon"? Didn't happen; and those who make up such self-serving lies should stop the whining and be instead the "men" they claim to be.

    Jeffery Ewener - 7/15/2006

    1) Just because the Vietnamese considered the anti-war movement important to their campaign does not, in itself, mean that the Americans could have won the war in its absence. It doesn't even mean the anti-war campaign played a role in the outcome, only that it was a consideration in the development of Vietnamese strategy. Of course it was the Vietnamese strategy that won the war, but this may well have been in spite of the perceptions of its architects and executors. Dialectical materialism was another, even more key, consideration in the construction of the successful Vietnamese strategy. Are we then to accept this too as historically true?

    2) The fact, if it is one, that VVAW, as an organization, could not get more than 1,000 participants out to a demonstration is very feeble evidence about the support for the war among veterans, pro or con. At the time, I recall, what was shocking was that even one veteran could be against the war, since the psychological commitment of a veteran to the experience of combat was considered impregnable.

    3) I checked out the website wintersoldier.com. It is about the least convincing aggregation of whacko political polemics this side of the Larouchies. Historically worthless.

    4) No evidence of a deliberate pattern of command encouragement or support of brutal behaviour? This assertion leaves wide open a gaping loophole called "Willful Ignorance" or perhaps "Criminal Negligence", not to mention, when facts presented themselves, as after My Lai, "Active Cover-up". It also ignores the well-documented Phoenix Program of mass assassinations, which was run from the highest levels. There was also considerable brutality committed by the Saigon regime, for instance in the Tiger Cages. All of this points to the character of the war as it was fought, whether or not deniability was successfully maintained at this or that level.

    5) Describing the Swift Boat fiasco as in any way "factual" is preposterous.

    6) Because the author was harrassed in his uniform on campus, therefore other claims of having been spit on are factual? This is not an argument, this is mindless personal resentment. If there was a picture on the front page of the NYT, what was the date of publication?

    7) Jane Fonda was right. The war was wrong. It should never have been started. It should have been ended in 1968, as Nixon promised to do, as Johnson tried to do. It was a ghastly waste of human life on both sides, but obviously more so on the Vietnamese side, since they were merely defending their country from criminal aggression. And it has perverted the course of political development and social psychology in the United States ever since, particularly through the "Stab in the Back" lie, as modelled on the German militarist slogan in the 1920s and ’30s, and perpetrated in articles liie this one.