U.S. at War: A History of Shame

The Vietnam War: Destroying the Village In Order to Save It

Revolution #027, December 19, 2005, posted at revcom.us

"It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it."

-- An American major after the destruction of the Vietnamese Village Ben Tre

On March 16, 1968, a company of U.S. soldiers went into the village of My Lai 4, in Vietnam. A soldier later testified, "The order we were given was to kill and destroy everything that was in the village. It was clearly explained that there were to be no prisoners."

"We met no resistance and I only saw three captured weapons. We had no casualties. It was just like any other Vietnamese village-old papa-sans, women and kids," a soldier said describing what they found on entering My Lai. "As a matter of fact, I don't remember seeing one military-age male in the entire place, dead or alive."

The U.S. soldiers started killing everyone in sight. A U.S. soldier later testified:

"There was an old lady in a bed and I believe there was a priest in white praying over her... [U.S. Lt.] Calley pulled the old man outside. He said a few more words to the monk. It looked like the monk was pleading for his life. Lt. Calley then took his rifle and pushed the monk into a rice paddy and shot him point-blank."

An order was given to push all the Vietnamese who had been forced into the area into a ditch. A soldier later recounted: "I began shooting them all. I guess I shot maybe 25 or 20 people in the ditch...men, women, and children. And babies." A baby crawling away from the ditch was grabbed and thrown back into the ditch and shot.

All over the village, platoons of U.S. soldiers were committing similar atrocities. The huts that the villagers lived in and their crops were burned, their livestock killed. Some of the dead were mutilated by having "C Company" carved into their chests; some were disemboweled. Women were raped. One GI would later say,

"You didn't have to look for people to kill, they were just there. I cut their throats, cut off their hands, cut out their tongues, and scalped them. I did it. A lot of people were doing it and I just followed."

The story of the American massacre at My Lai only came to light because of the persistent efforts of GIs who refused to let the story die.

Lt. Calley was the only soldier convicted of any of the atrocities that took place at My Lai. Despite being convicted of killing over 100 unarmed Vietnamese, Calley served only two days in jail! Nixon then ordered him put under house arrest at Fort Benning, where he could live in a nice apartment, cook his own food, receive guests, watch TV and go to town for supplies (accompanied by MPs). Calley was released from house arrest in just over three years and was able to make large amounts of money speaking to right-wing groups.

Unique Only in the Details

Over 400 Vietnamese were killed in the massacre at My Lai. The name of the village became a symbol of U.S. brutality and the U.S. tried to portray it as an action by rogue soldiers. But as historian Howard Zinn writes, "My Lai was unique only in its details."

In 2004, the Toledo Blade newspaper, won the Pulitzer Prize for reporting on atrocities committed more than 35 years earlier by the U.S. Tiger Force unit in the Vietnam War.

"Women and children were intentionally blown up in underground bunkers. Elderly farmers were shot as they toiled in the fields," The Blade reported. " Prisoners were tortured and executed--their ears and scalps severed for souvenirs. One soldier kicked out the teeth of executed civilians for their gold fillings."

In his book Flower of the Dragon, Richard Boyle, a journalist who went to My Lai to investigate the massacre, says:

"My Lai was not the act of one man. It was not the act of one platoon, or one company. It was the result of an ordered, planned and well-conducted campaign conceived at high command levels to teach a lesson to the villagers of Quang Ngai province. The killing, of course, is part of a definite political strategy, a strategy usually described as the 'pacification' of Vietnamese villagers."

What was this "pacification" strategy? In order to cut off support for the National Liberation Front, the U.S. strategy was to use terror to drive peasants into what were called strategic hamlets where they would be under constant surveillance of the U.S. and South Vietnamese Army forces. Atrocities like My Lai were the means to carry this out.

"Bomb them back to the stone age"

"Bomb them back to the stone age."

-- U.S. General Curtis LeMay during the Vietnam War

By the end of the Vietnam War the U.S. military had dropped more than 7 million tons of bombs-- more than twice the total tonnage dropped on Europe and Asia during all of World War 2--on a country roughly the size of New Mexico. This is almost one 500 pound bomb for every man, woman, and child in the country. Twenty million bomb craters are all over Vietnam. The craters fill with water and are breeding grounds for mosquitoes that plague the country today with malaria and dengue fever.

In South Vietnam, much of the bombing, like the "search and destroy" missions, was aimed at driving civilians out of the villages. They also defoliated large sections of the countryside to deprive the Vietnamese freedom fighters of places to hide.

The U.S. planes dropped anti-personnel bombs (containing thousands of flesh-shredding darts), white phosphorus incendiary bombs, huge "daisy cutter" bombs that turned jungle into flattened football fields, and jellied gasoline bombs called napalm. The notorious chemical Agent Orange was sprayed over tens of millions of acres--poisoning crops, forests, and human beings.

In the North, the U.S. unleashed massive air attacks aimed at civilian targets, aiming to break the will of the people to resist. U.S. bombs fell on densely populated areas like Hanoi. Bombers deliberately targeted dikes in the North threatening to flood massive areas of the county.

U.S. war planners wrote that a major objective of the U.S. bombing raids on North Vietnam was not to kill its population but to maim them. They argued that serious injury is more disruptive than death as people have to be employed to look after the injured where they only have to bury the dead.

Today, people who flew these missions, like John McCain in the Senate, are treated as distinguished heroes. But just because their mass murder took place at a distance, is it any less of a war crime than the killings of My Lai?

An Unjust War, Wrapped in Lies

A war is defined by the political goals it serves. The U.S. invasion of Vietnam was an unjust war--a war of conquest aimed at breaking the will of an oppressed people and imposing foreign domination over them. The U.S. wanted to encircle China and prevent the Maoist revolution there from rippling outward--toppling oppressive governments "like falling dominos" in Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. U.S. imperialism wanted to preserve for itself the freedom to exploit the hundreds of millions of people in this region, by any means necessary. And increasingly as the war went on, it was part of the growing imperialist contention between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

The War in Vietnam came wrapped in lies. The U.S. claimed that it was defending a democratic ally, South Vietnam, from an invasion by North Vietnam. In fact, the Vietnamese were a single people who had long fought for liberation and unification--from the French colonialists, then the Japanese, then the French again, and in the 1960s and 1970s from the U.S.

President Eisenhower had prevented elections in southern Vietnam and created a pro-U.S. dictatorship there--openly admitting that the masses of people would have voted for the revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh if given the chance.

When the revolutionary people's war spread through the villages of southern Vietnam during the early 1960s and threatened the pro-U.S. government--the U.S. invented an incident in the Gulf of Tonkin to justify a massive escalation in order to keep control by force.

The horrible crimes committed by the U.S. in Vietnam flowed directly from the nature of the war.

How Can You Support Troops Who Kill Babies?

"I gave them a good boy, and they turned him into a murderer."

--Mother of Paul Meadlo, one of the souldiers who massacred My Lai villagers

"How can you support the troops and not support the war? What is it that the troops were doing, except waging that war?! Those soldiers who should be supported are those who are resisting--or seeking the means to resist--the war."

--Bob Avakian

Today, as the U.S. fights another unjust war in Iraq, there is debate in the anti-war movement over whether we should "support the troops." Some argue that the movement during Vietnam became too extreme when it charged U.S. troops with being baby killers.

In Vietnam there was a draft and millions were forced to serve in the imperialist armed forces. These soldiers were press-ganged into fighting and systematically lied to about the war. But, no matter what the troops subjectively feel they are fighting for, as long as these troops are fighting an unjust war of domination and exploitation, they cannot be supported in fighting that war.

How can we support or honor troops that fight in a war where baby killing is part of the strategic plan? What honor is there in dropping napalm on civilians, shooting children in a ditch, raping women or bombing dikes?

What these soldiers need is not to see that the people support them no matter what they do. They need to see people saying that the war they are fighting in is wrong and unjust.

To the degree that the "support the troops" line was taken up by forces within the anti-war movement, had a very disorienting, demoralizing, and demobilizing effect. This view is a kind of "Trojan horse" in the anti-war movement. Once you accept the logic of "supporting the troops" it will pull you to support the war that they are waging.

The only honor for U.S. troops in Vietnam was in resisting the criminal war, which tens of thousands did--from avoiding battle and deserting to joining the mass movement against the war and testifying about the crimes of the Vietnam War. It is these soldiers that deserve the support of the people.

Colin Powell and Vietnam

Colin Powell during his second tour of duty in Vietnam (his first tour was spent torching villages throughout the A Shau Valley) played a key role in covering up massacres by U.S. soldiers. Powell was assigned to investigate charges contained in a letter by a young specialist fourth class named Tom Glen, which exposed My Lai-like atrocities.

Glen's letter said that that he had seen Vietnamese civilians shot in the back by U.S. soldiers who "for mere pleasure, fire indiscriminately into Vietnamese homes and without provocation or justification shoot at the people themselves." Glens letter also exposed torture as part of soldiers interrogating "suspects."

Powell response was a complete cover up. He never questioned Glen or assigned anyone else to talk with him. Powell claimed that Glens charges couldnt be true because U.S. soldiers in Vietnam were taught to treat Vietnamese courteously and respectfully and that the soldiers had gone through an hour-long course on how to treat prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions. Powell concluded saying that, "relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent."

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