Deliberate DistortionsStill Obscure Understanding

Viet Nam

By Col. Harry G. Summers

Reprinted fromAugust 1989 issue of Vietnam magazine

One of the great ironies of the Vietnam War is that those still sufferingmost from conflict are the ones who never served there. While the overwhelmingmajority of Vietnamveterans have long since returned to civilian life and got on with their livesand careers, many of the draft dodgers and war evaders still struggle withtheir consciences. Torn by guilt, they continue to try to explain away theirevasion by deliberately distorting what war wasall about.

Most Vietnamveterans could care less about their posturings, butthere is one fact that cannot be ignored. In trying to make themselveslook good, these shirkers must of necessity make those who did serve look bad.

Perpetuated by such “documentaries” as Hearts and Minds (toHollywood’s everlasting discredit, an Oscar-winning propaganda film glorifyingthe totalitarian regime of Ho Chi much like thesimilar “documentaries” of Nazi filmmaker Riefenstahl in the 1930s which glorified the totalitarian regime of Adolf Hitler), one of the most pernicious myths is theircontention that the war in Vietnam was uniquely horrendous—the most heinous, themost brutal, and the most inhumane war in the history of mankind.

Designed to explain why they refused to serve there, this myth is nonsense,as anyone with even a rudimentary sense of history could attest. While all warsare terrible, the Vietnam War was hardly unique. Critics of the war oftenfasten on “free-fire zones” (areas where artillery could be fired orbombs dropped without obtaining clearance) as an example of the brutality ofthe Vietnam War. Perspective would have told them there was nothing uniqueabout that practice. In World War II, with some small exceptions for “opencities,” the entire continent of Europe was afree-fire zone.

One of the great moral dilemmas that British Prime Minister WinstonChurchill and General Dwight D. Eisenhower had to face prior to the invasion ofEurope was whether the road and rail transport lines of our French ally on theContinent (whose territory was then under German occupation) should betargeted. The decision was reluctantly made to bring these lines of communicationand supply under attack, and many French citizens were killed as a result. Andonce the invasion began, cities like St. and were leveled by Alliedartillery and airstrikes. The same was true in theKorean War, where everything forward of the front lines was fair game. Seoulwas leveled several times, and villages in no-man’s-land were routinely shelledwith white phosphorous to provide battlefield illumination.

Although you wouldn’t know it from the rhetoric, free-fire zones in Vietnam(officially “specified strike zones”) were, in fact, attempts tolimit such indiscriminate use of firepower, for outside those zones permissionhad to be obtained from Vietnamese province and district chiefs beforeartillery or airstrikes could be made. Interestingly,those complaining about “free-fire zones” never mention theindiscriminate use of rockets by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong against Saigonand and Hueand and other towns and cities to terrorize the local civilian population, a tacticthey continued to use until the very last days of the war.

Allied with the free-fire zone mythology are the outright lies about the”carpet bombing” of Hanoi.For example, CBS news correspondent Alexander Kendrick’s The Wound Within(arguable the most twisted and distorted book written on the Vietnam War)compares the Air Force’s “carpet bombing” of Hanoi to the Nazi Luftwaffe‘sterror bombing of cities in World War II. But there really was no suchcomparison.

In 1974, on my first journey to Hanoi,I fully expected to see what I had seen in Yokohamain 1947, or in Berlin in 1953,cities that had indeed been carpet bombed. But as ournegotiating team traveled from the airport and across the Paul Doumer Bridgeinto the city itself, I was truly shocked at how thoroughly I had beendeceived. Instead of a city flattened to the ground, I saw a city whichevidenced no sign of bomb damage whatsoever. Old French colonial housing, notrubble, stretched in all directions.

The city undoubtedly had been hit during the bombing attacks. But anyfair-minded observer could clearly see that it had never been carpet bombed. When journalist Stanley Karnowfirst visited Hanoi, he, too,expected to find extensive damage from supposed carpetbombing in the 1972 “Christmas bombing” raids. Instead, as hereported in his 1983 masterwork, Vietnam: History,he found a city “almost completely unscathed.”

He also found that such misrepresentation had not been unintentional.”American antiwar activists visiting the city during the attacks urged themayor to claim a death toll of 10,000. He refused, saying that his government’scredibility was at stake. The official North Vietnamese figure for fatalities…was 1,318 in Hanoi.”

The perfidy of these American traitors aside, these figures were alsotelling. As Karnow points out, during the March 1945raids on Tokyo, a genuine carpet bombing campaign, “nearly 84,000 people werekilled in a single night.”

Another particularly pernicious myth spawned by the antiwarmovement is their charge that atrocities were not only commonplace in Vietnamthey were also aided and abetted by the military establishment. Unfortunately,this attempt to portray Vietnam veterans as monsters so that the evaders couldmasquerade as angels has gotten an assist from a handful of self-proclaimedVietnam combat veterans who continue to smear their fellow vets by milkingpublic sympathy (as in a recent CBS News Special) with lurid tales of how manybabies they have killed.

I found this out first hand when I confronted one such “veteran”during a lecture at the University of Washington and found that theclosest he had been to Vietnamwas Seattle, Wash.Most of those making such charges are phonies. In his landmark 1978 book, Americain Vietnam, the first book to directly refute the slander of the antiwarmovement, Professor Guenter argued persuasively that while, as in any war, atrocities did occur in Vietnam,they were neither encouraged nor condoned. From 1965 to 1973, 201 Armypersonnel and 77 Marines were court-martialed for serious crimes againstVietnamese civilians.

Even Oliver Stone’s ostensibly antiwar movie Platoon makes thatclear. When Sergeant Barnes (Tom Beringer) murdersthe Vietnamese woman during a village search, he is told by the company commanderthat the incident will be investigated and, if warranted, criminalcourt-martial charges will be filed.

That impending court-martial sets up the tension between Sergeant Barnes andSergeant Elias (Willam Dafoe) and leads to Elias’murder to keep him from testifying. If atrocities were (as the antiwar movementclaimed) aided and abetted by the military, no court-martial would have beennecessary, no tension would have existed, and the movie would have been leftwithout a plot. In the matter of atrocities at least, Platoon gave anaccurate portrayal of the war.

Another put-down of the Vietnamveterans is the charge that they lost the war through battlefield incompetenceand were driven from Vietnamin defeat by the “revolutionary ardor” of the Viet Cong guerrillas.Again it is a charge that cannot survive the truth.

“You know you never beat us on the battlefield,” I told my NorthVietnamese Army (NVA) counterpart, Colonel , duringa meeting in Hanoi a week beforethe fall of Saigon. “That may be so,” hereplied, “but it is also irrelevant.”

These victories were irrelevant when it came to winning the war because theywere not part of a coherent overall strategy. But they were not irrelevant injudging the fighting qualities of the American fighting man. Although there arereports that Colonel has recently recanted histoo-candid comments about American battlefield superiority, other sourcescorroborate his remark. As the eminent historian Douglas Pike points out in hisexcellent analysis, PAVN: People’s Army of Vietnam, U.S.forces never lost a significant battlefield engagement.

The same cannot be said of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. In 1969,NVA General Nguyen admitted that from 1964 to 1969 alone, he had lost over 500,000 soldiers killedon the battlefield, and an untold number wounded or missing. As the NorthVietnamese now freely admit, the Viet Cong guerrillas virtually destroyedthemselves during their abortive 1968 uprising.From then on, until the war ended seven years later, the war was almostentirely a North Vietnamese Army affair.

In his book Great Spring Victory, his account of the final 1975campaign, NVA General Van Dung scarcely mentionsthe actions of the Viet Cong. And when Viet Cong General Tran Van , in his book Ending the Thirty Year War,attempted to claim some of the credit, he was put under house arrest and hispublisher was executed.

Not only were U.S.forces not defeated by a guerrilla enemy, neither were they driven from Vietnamby military force. In 1969, six years before the end of the war, the 3d MarineDivision and most of the Army’s 9th Infantry Division left Vietnam.Their withdrawal was prompted by political considerations at home, notbattlefield conditions in Vietnam.These withdrawals continued apace, and by mid-1972, almost three years beforethe end of the war, all U.S.ground forces had left country. U.S.air and naval forces were also phased down, and in January 1973 (over two yearsbefore the fall of Saigon) all U.S.military forces were completely withdrawn.

As earlier articles in this magazine have emphasized, the American militarywas not defeated by North Vietnam’sfinal 1975 blitzkrieg for the simple reason that there were no Americanmilitary forces there to be defeated. They had left country years earlier.Ironically that irrefutable historical fact does not seem to have registered onmany Americans who still talk about America’smilitary defeat in Vietnam.They are entitled to their own set of opinions but, as former Secretary of DefenseJames Schlesinger once observed, they are not entitled to their own set offacts.

When it comes to shooting down Vietnam War myths, facts are the bestammunition. Take for example the notion perpetuated by veterans of earlier warsthat the Vietnam War, in comparison with World War II or the Korean War, wasnot really a war at all, but a “conflict,” a “walk in thewoods,” where the action was comparatively tame and the dangers relativelyslight.

Battlefield casualty figures tell another story. As I found in compilingdata for my Vietnam War Almanac, the facts are that the 1st and 3dMarine Divisions took some 101,571 casualties in Vietnam, almost 20 percentmore than that 86,940 casualties the entire Marine Corps took in World War IIand over three times as many as the 30,544 casualties the Marines suffered inKorea.

The same is true with Army forces. For example, the 173d Airborne Brigadetook some 10,041 casualties in Vietnam, five times the losses the 187thAirborne Regimental Combat Team took in Korea, four times as many as the entire11th Airborne Division took in the Pacific in World War II and more than eitherthe 82d Airborne Division or 101st airborne Division suffered in their WorldWar II campaigns in Europe. The 25th Infantry Division took 34,484 casualtiesin Vietnam,almost twice as many as the 5,532 casualties it suffered in World War II andthe 13,685 casualties it suffered in Koreacombined. The casualty figures for other combat units in Vietnamare equally stark. For those actually fighting the war, Vietnamwas as intense as any war in which American forces have ever been engaged.

Vietnamveterans have every right to be proud of their service. And they have everyright to insist that those who over the years have deliberately perpetuated themyths that demean that service be challenged and brought to account. It’s a jobfor every American, veteran or not, who cares about the truth.

Colonel Harry Summers Jr., the founding editor of Vietnammagazine and the author of several books on the military, died in 1999. Summerswent to Vietnamin 1966 with a combat infantry unit as a battalion operations officer. He waswounded twice in Vietnamand was the second to last Army serviceman to leave Vietnam,flying out from the roof of the U.S.Embassy. He received the Silver Star and two Purple Hearts. 

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