For humanity, war is immoral. The war waged against the Vietnamese people was even more immoral because it did not serve the interest of either of the two belligerents; its only aim was to impose the domination of one nation over another, impose the ideology (way of thinking and way of life) of one group on another. Many opportunities arose for putting a reasonable end to the war, in the interest of peace and honor for all sides, but they were not taken advantage of.”
The Vietnamese people had to suffer from callous injustice and ruthless terror during the war, just because they wanted to have an independent free and unified country. Young men from the United States and other allied countries did not shed their blood in the interest of their own people; indeed, they died fighting against a people that held no enmity whatsoever for their country.
Critics of the war might offer a different set of goals: (1) beyond thanking veterans, to discuss whether the war itself was necessary or honorable; (2) in regard to the Armed Forces, to examine the debilitating effects of U.S. aerial assaults, ground operations, and counterinsurgency doctrine, especially on civilians; (3) on the home front, to recognize the contributions of those who opposed the war as patriotic and honorable; (4) with respect to science and technology, to examine the environmental and human devastation wrought by high-tech weaponry and poisons such as Agent Orange, and to reassess the slavish dependence on statistical benchmarks that obscured the inhumanity of the war; and (5) to recognize that America’s most important allies did not support the war and that the United Nations and other nations strongly advised against it. Such goals would likely produce sobering lessons that would strengthen efforts to prevent future wars.
For too long, we have lived with the “Vietnam Syndrome.” Much of that syndrome has been created by the North Vietnamese aggressors who now threaten the peaceful people of Thailand. Over and over they told us for nearly 10 years that we were the aggressors bent on imperialistic conquests…. It is time we recognized that ours was, in truth, a noble cause. A small country newly free from colonial rule sought our help in establishing self-rule and the means of self-defense against a totalitarian neighbor bent on conquest. We dishonor the memory of 50,000 young Americans who died in that cause when we give way to feelings of guilt as if we were doing something shameful, and we have been shabby in our treatment of those who returned…. There is a lesson for all of us in Vietnam. If we are forced to fight, we must have the means and the determination to prevail or we will not have what it takes to secure the peace. And while we are at it, let us tell those who fought in that war that we will never again ask young men to fight and possibly die in a war our government is afraid to let them win.
John Kerry, 27, former navy lieutenant who was wounded three times in Vietnam, testified in Senate Foreign Relations Committee on behalf of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, April 22, 1971 (AP photo by Henry Griffin)
No one can conclude, after looking carefully at the impact of our military strategy in Southeast Asia, that we are fighting a war against an army. Instead, we are waging a war against a people and the land they live on. The enormity of our attack upon the Vietnamese environment has, for me, changed entirely the logic with which one evaluates the morality and even the efficiency of our operation there…. The central question is now a simple one: How can we claim to be acting on behalf of people when our action itself is prohibiting a future for them?
In another mission from May 10-20, 1969, U.S. and ARVN troops fought an intense, uphill battle (literally) for Hill 937, or “Hamburger Hill,” near the Laotian border. The U.S.-ARVN forces succeeded in taking the hill, with significant casualties, but since no territory in the countryside could be permanently retained without sizable forces present, the hill was quietly abandoned on June 5. Two weeks later, military intelligence reported that more than 1,000 North Vietnamese Army troops had moved back into the area. In Washington, Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts asked on the Senate floor, “How can we justify sending our boys against a hill a dozen times, finally taking it, and then withdrawing a week later?”
Whenever anyone asks me about the suffering of the war, I have a terrible nightmare that very night in which I relive these experiences. I miss my comrades very much and often see them again in my dreams. But I never felt guilty about the killing I did. It was war. Wouldn’t you shoot me if you saw me holding a weapon and pointing it at you? I think it was justified. But if I went to America and killed people there, I would feel very sorry and guilty. Since the Americans came to my country, I don’t feel guilty.
With the introduction of U.S. combat troops, efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people were eclipsed by intensified efforts to win the counterinsurgency war. Given the widespread animosity toward the GVN, if not outright support for the NLF, the American War quickly turned into a war against the rural population. The targets included not only the communist-led NLF but also any person or village that offered support to NLF cadre or failed to expel them from their villages. The idea that Americans could distinguish between communists and non-communists, and between civilians and guerrillas, in a foreign world of thatched huts, straw mats, and wooden plows was predictably illusory, with debilitating consequences. The war against the rural population entailed harsh relocation (“pacification”) programs, a clandestine assassination program against village leaders suspected of helping the NLF (Operation Phoenix), the burning of villages deemed pro-NLF, the bombing and strafing of whole regions decreed as free-fire zones, and the spraying of poisons such as Agent Orange on millions of acres of forests and cultivated fields.
Fighting in Vietnam nonetheless continued. In lieu of setting up unification elections, as stipulated in the Paris treaty, Thieu declared in November 1973 that the “Third Indochina War” had begun and went on the offensive. The NLF and NVA responded in kind, and with more success. Their final offensive to take Saigon was launched in March 1975. On April 2, Madame Nguyen Thi Binh, the Provisional Revolutionary Government representative who had signed the Paris treaty, offered to halt the NLF-NVA offensive if Thieu were replaced by a leader who would implement the terms of the Paris agreement. Thieu refused and lashed out against the NLF-NVA troops surrounding Saigon with every weapon at his command. The U.S. military, which came under the command of President Gerald Ford after Nixon was forced to resign on August 9, 1974 (due to the Watergate scandal), provided Thieu with monstrous 15,000-pound CBU-55 bombs originally intended to clear landing zones in the jungle.
Truth was not only the first casualty of war, as the Greek dramatist Aeschylus said 2,500 years ago, it was also a continuing casualty of American war plans and operations. President Johnson and his advisers engaged in numerous and elaborate deceptions in order to keep American public opinion on their side, or at least sufficiently confused so as to not interfere with their war plans. Johnson’s deceptions included misrepresenting the nature of the guerrilla war in South Vietnam, the extent of U.S. military operations in South Vietnam, covert operations against North Vietnam, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and U.S. peace proposals (which amounted to ultimatums). Added to these were continuing deceptions fostered by previous administrations concerning the Geneva Agreements, the nature of the South Vietnamese government, and the origins of the war.