During a debate over whether the country is engaging in too many wars, outspoken conservative Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) made the case that the United States was on the doorstep of victory in Vietnam but gave up.
“Vietnam was winnable, but people in Washington decided we would not win it,” Gohmert said.
Gohmert said a North Vietnamese guard told an American prisoner of war “You stupid Americans. Don’t you know if you had bombed us for one more week, we would have had to surrender unconditionally?”
“We carpet-bombed North Vietnam, and specifically Hanoi, for two weeks. They race back to the table, and we surrender in effect,” Gohmert said.
Ridiculous statements like these are no stranger to the type of ultra-conservative conventions - filled to the brim with authoritarian reactionaries - where this one found play. Exaggerated machismo is the name of the game, and if it also glorifies projecting American power overseas (against far weaker foes no less)? Well, then it's doubly celebrated. The usual suspects run around clamoring over the latest bogeymen and referring to those who dare suggest alternatives to war as "surrender-monkeys". It's that special kind of bullying rhetoric, meant to hide a whole forest of insecurities.
What makes this specific bit so vile though is not just the fact that Gohmert says that the Vietnam War could have been "won", but that he implies the way to win it would have been to continue bombing.
Back in the real world, the sheer brutality inflicted upon the Vietnamese by American forces during the war could hardly have been worse. Chris Hedges has just finished reviewing a new book by Nick Turse, "Kill Anything That Moves", which discusses the history of the Vietnam War that no one seems to want to deal with. It's graphic, it's disturbing, and it's stomach-churning. And that's just the review...
Murder is an integral part of war. And the most disturbing form of murder, because it is so intimate, is carried out by infantry troops. The god-like power that comes with the ability to destroy anything, including other human beings, along with the intoxicating firepower of industrial weapons, rapidly turns those who wield these weapons into beasts. Human beings are reduced to objects, toys to satiate a perverse desire to dominate, humiliate, control and kill. Corpses are trophies.
Many of the Vietnamese who were murdered, Turse relates, were first subjected to degrading forms of public abuse, gang rape, torture and savage beatings. They were, Turse writes, when first detained “confined to tiny barbed wire ‘cow cages’ and sometimes jabbed with sharpened bamboo sticks while inside them.” Other detainees “were placed in large drums filled with water; the containers were then struck with great force, which caused internal injuries but left no scars.” Some were “suspended by ropes for hours on end or hung upside down and beaten, a practice called ‘the plane ride.’ ” Or they “were chained with their hands over their heads, arms fully extended, so their feet could barely touch the ground—a version of an age-old torture called the strappado. Untold numbers were subjected to electric shocks from crank-operated field telephones, battery-powered devices, or even cattle prods.” Soles of feet were beaten. Fingernails were ripped out. Fingers were dismembered. Detainees were slashed with knives, “suffocated, burned by cigarettes, or beaten with truncheons, clubs, sticks, bamboo flails, baseball bats, and other objects. Many were threatened with death or even subjected to mock executions.” Turse found that “detained civilians and captured guerrillas were often used as human mine detectors and regularly died in the process.” And while soldiers and Marines were engaged in daily acts of brutality and murder, the Central Intelligence Agency “organized, coordinated, and paid for” a clandestine program of targeted assassinations “of specific individuals without any attempt to capture them alive or any thought of a legal trial.”
“All that suffering,” Turse, writes, “was more or less ignored as it happened, and then written out of history even more thoroughly in the decades since.”
The war seemed to be an excuse to commit every inhumane, disgusting act one person could possibly do to another. And given that, it's not difficult to understand why so few would be willing to even delve into the archives to try and piece together this grisly tale. In fact, one officer, after investigating war crimes charges and having been rebuked, could no longer bear the weight on his mind:
Lt. Col. Anthony Herbert reported to his superiors “descriptions of torture at the 172nd Military Intelligence Detachment compound, as well as other horrific stories.” Maj. Carl Hensley was assigned to investigate. He soon found that the charges were accurate. But, according to his wife, Dolores, the more Hensley dug and the more he prodded the military to respond to the war crimes, the more despondent and depressed he became at home. “Carl withdrew into a shell,” she is quoted as saying, “stopped eating, did not talk to the children and did not or would not talk to me.” Hensley used a shotgun to commit suicide. The Army’s official response to the Herbert charges was to produce “a fifty-three page catalog of alleged discrepancies in Herbert’s public accounts of his time in the military” to discredit him. “The scores of atrocities that the army uncovered as a result of Herbert’s charges,” Turse writes, “would remain secret for decades.”
It is exceedingly difficult to live with these images in your head. To know that humans are capable of these things - capable of defending these things - is simply unbearable. There is no fiction of the mind worse than what we see laid before our very eyes. No torturous afterlife or fantasized personification of evil could compare with the tangible pain and suffering we observe in the short time we're alive to witness it.
The almost unfathomable scale of the slaughter, the contribution of our technical, industrial and scientific apparatus to create deadlier weapon systems, implicates huge sections of our society in war crimes. The military and weapons manufacturers openly spoke of the war as a “laboratory” for new forms of killing. Turse’s book obliterates the image we have of ourselves as a good and virtuous nation. It mocks the popular belief that we have a right to impose our “virtues” on others by force. It exposes the soul of our military, which has achieved, through relentless propaganda and effective censorship, a level of public adulation that is terrifying. Turse reminds us who we are. And in an age of expanding wars in the Middle East, routine torture, murderous air and drone strikes and targeted assassinations, his book is not so much about the past as about the present. We have worked, consciously and unconsciously, to erase the terrible truth about Vietnam and ultimately about ourselves. This is a tragedy. For if we were able to remember who we were, if we knew what we were capable of doing to others, then we might be less prone to replicating the industrial slaughter of Vietnam in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
Yes, worst of all, we must come to terms with the realization that history is due to be repeated over and over again, until people are able to put aside their pride and see the crimes of the past for what they are. And while the past shows no indication of this happening, the future can still be one where information flows freely, and those who place political ambition and self-serving obfuscation above simple human dignity are shamed (at the very least) rather than granted the highest honors in society.
The problem is, as always, getting there.