vietnam war

John Marciano’s The American War in Vietnam exposes ongoing attempts to rehabilitate a war that did so much to discredit imperialist interventions, finds Kit Klarenberg


John Marciano, The American War in Vietnam: Crime or Commemoration (Monthly Review Press 2016), 196pp.

“It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.”

 - Anonymous US Major, Bến Tre, February 1968

On May 25th 2012, Barack Obama made a troubling speech at the Veterans Memorial – a 500ft stretch of granite in Washington DC, upon which the names of the 58,307 US armed forces personnel who disappeared or died during the Vietnam War are chiselled.

He spoke of the “darkness of war”, referred to the conflict as “one of the most painful chapters” in American history, stressing the importance of “setting the record straight” and the story of Vietnam being told “as it should have been told all along”.

While every critic of the war would agree with these statements, the President’s actual meaning became depressingly apparent in rapid order. He soon explained that the true, agonising legacy of the Vietnam War was those who fought in it served “honourably” and “with valour”, but were “denigrated” upon their return “when [they] should have been celebrated”. This was, he said, “a national shame, a disgrace that should have never happened” (there is in fact little suggestion it did actually happen).

He spoke of how the US would endeavour to bring still unaccounted-for missing personnel from the war (the reality, long ago established, is there are zero MIA troops left in Vietnam – this fiction was concocted by Nixon to conceal the deaths of servicemen involved in illegal offensive operations in neutral Cambodia). One of the positive consequences of the war, Obama said, was that the US now takes care of its veterans “better” (one shudders at the prospect of them being treated any worse, with a 5.8% unemployment rate, around 50,000 homeless, 1.5 million living in poverty, and twenty taking their lives every day on average presently).

As a people, Obama went on to claim, Americans “hate war”, only fighting to “protect” themselves, “because it’s necessary” (given the US has been at war for 223 of its 240 years of existence, America is evidently a nation of masochists).

He stated that Vietnam’s most infamous battles – such as Rolling Thunder and Hamburger Hill – should be venerated, mentioned in the same breath as D-Day and Iwo Jima as testaments to American bravery and resolve in the face of implacable odds. The reality is that Rolling Thunder was a three-year bombing campaign that saw over 864,000 tons of ordnance dropped on North Vietnam resulting in the destruction of schools, hospitals, housing and villages, and the deaths of as many as 182,000 civilians. Similarly, Hamburger Hill was a senselessly brutal melee fought to capture a strategically valueless hill, which was summarily abandoned days later. Not coincidentally, every battle mentioned by Obama is considered by historians to be pivotal in turning majority US opinion against the war, as they demonstrated the conflict’s innate barbarism and futility.

Obama concluded his speech by saying it was imperative the lessons of the war were never forgotten. Of course, the lessons he wished to draw were a need for a “clear mission” and “sound strategy” in war, the importance of the US military being equipped “to get the job done”, and the US population “having the troops’ backs” no matter what.

Obama’s remarks were bewildering and repulsive to those with even a rudimentary understanding of the Vietnam War; a fairly objective reading would view the conflict as senseless, morally repugnant and one of the twentieth century’s worst crimes (a highly competitive category). Statistical analysis of its impact would conclude that the US slaughtered 3.8 million Vietnamese citizens (8% of the country’s then population) and wrought untold environmental destruction through the use of chemical weapons in the conflict, leaving a refugee population of fourteen million, a countryside littered with unexploded ordnance which has slain over 100,000 Vietnamese citizens since 1975 (an average of 2,500 annually), while over 500,000 children have been born with birth defects.

Hundred Years’ War

Contemptible as the POTUS’ oratory undoubtedly was, it was neither exceptional nor without precedent; it was merely the latest instalment in a protracted, aggressive campaign to detoxify the Vietnam War, which has fluctuated in intensity ever since hostilities ceased. This particular conflict looks set to continue into the future too; the speech served to inaugurate a well-funded official initiative commemorating the war, scheduled to run all the way to the fiftieth anniversary of its conclusion in 2025.

Professor John Marciano, long-time activist, campaigner and author, has been documenting this assault on the mind for decades. The American War in Vietnam: Crime or Commemoration? is his latest work, a slim but estimable text that offers a wide-ranging history of the war, the lies told then and now to justify and palliate it, and current perceptions of the conflict.

This book truly sets the record straight, and tells the story of Vietnam as it should have been told all along – and should be forevermore. It eviscerates the tide of disinformation and privileging falsehoods constantly peddled to justify not merely the Vietnam War, but all America’s past, ongoing and future military adventurism.

In shocking but succinct detail, Marciano traces the war from its immediate post-World-War-Two origins until its end. The concision employed here is masterful – fascinating information swarms on every page, and no aspect feels underdeveloped or rushed. Readers will glean a better understanding of the Vietnam War from reading this book than virtually any mainstream textbook on the subject (as an aside, Marciano himself adeptly dissects the woeful manner in which the war is taught to students in the book’s final chapter).

There are some very slight problematic omissions from the narrative, but overall this is the most comprehensive view of the war in a single volume I have yet come across, a startling achievement given its 160-page length, but then Marciano is synthesising the best studies of the war yet written here, as the extensive selected bibliography and footnotes attest. It’s evident too the author didn’t intend the book to be a final word on the conflict; Marciano wants readers to use this work as a primer, to equip themselves with fundamental understanding before exploring the topic more extensively.

While the history of the war is in itself shocking, Marciano also shocks when detailing how it has consistently been distorted since it began. Once over, attempts to rehabilitate the conflict in the public mind began almost immediately. Jimmy Carter, sometimes regarded (entirely erroneously) as a humanitarian President, announced in 1977 that the US would contravene Article 21 of the 1973 Paris Agreement, which obligated the country to ‘contribute to healing the wounds of war’ and reconstruct Vietnam.

Instead, Carter said the US need neither apologise nor “assume the status of culpability” for the desolation it had caused, as “the destruction was mutual”, and Vietnam had been invaded “without any desire to capture territory or impose American will on other people”. Ergo, the US owed the Vietnamese no debt, and should not be “forced to pay reparations at all”.

This theme was expanded upon by Ronald Reagan, who famously minted the notion of Vietnam syndrome, an alleged virus that made afflicted Americans less willing to commit to force. The cure, Reagan said, was to recognise the war was in fact a “noble cause”.

Marciano makes clear that the attempted sanitisation of the war isn’t conducted merely to make Americans feel better about the crimes of their government. It serves a hazardous long-term goal of making large-scale overseas military operations acceptable to the public, and potentially the wider world. In the 1950s and 60s, the US war machine had no need of idealistic fictions such as ‘humanitarian intervention’ or ‘responsibility to protect’ to justify its imperialistic conduct. When President Eisenhower committed $400 million to the First Indochina War, he made clear the purely commercial motivation for doing so; an independent Vietnam, he said, would threaten “our power, and ability to get things we need from the riches of Southeast Asia”. Likewise, when Kennedy steadily escalated American involvement in the conflict in the early 1960s, and Johnson officially started the war in 1965, there was little talk of freedom and democracy and human rights. The Vietnam War was naked, unrepentant imperialism writ large.

Fast-forward to today, and the US Empire can no longer be so brazen. Its power to act unilaterally has all but evaporated, its ability to carry out large-scale military interventions sharply truncated, due to the sheer weight of negative public opinion, both at home and abroad. Now, the Empire must rely principally on covert means to influence events, is obliged to exhibit a token regard for human rights and international law, and must employ all manner of propaganda to influence global sentiment in its favour. Even this isn’t always enough to ensure backing for proposed military actions, as the as yet aborted war in Syria demonstrates.

However, US planners undoubtedly consider major conflicts both with increasingly disobedient developing nations and emerging powers as necessary and inevitable, but if past evils cannot be effectively whitewashed and reframed in benevolent terms, the Empire cannot equip itself for these planned crusades, much less carry them out. This need has become even more pronounced in recent years, with the abject failure of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan producing an extremely war-weary Western public, increasingly sceptical and questioning of official claims of external threats, and the US’ implausibly enormous military budget.

Domino theory

As previously noted, one shortcoming of The American War in Vietnam is a narrative omission. Namely, that the roles of other countries in the conflict, such as Britain, are missing. In sketching the Vietnam War’s origins, Marciano notes the UK’s pivotal part in the initial stages of the First Indochina War; in August 1945, the entire 20th Infantry Division of the British Indian Army (around 26,000 troops) were airlifted into Vietnam, with express orders to show a ruthless disregard for civilians. They went on to slaughter large numbers of Vietnamese, and did so fighting alongside troops conscripted from the militaries of recently vanquished foe Vichy France, and not yet vanquished foe Imperial Japan.

However, Britain quickly disappears from the narrative, never to return. This is despite the UK not only continuing to play a covert role in the war long after official withdrawal, but being pressured to play an overt one by US administrations for years afterward (in December 1964, Harold Wilson informed his cabinet that Johnson was “begging us even to send a bagpipe band to Vietnam”). Britain was not unique – successive Presidents attempted to bludgeon numerous countries into committing forces to the effort – but the UK’s experience of dangled inducements and bullying threats is the best documented.

This is a component of the Vietnam War that has enormous relevance to modern-day US policy. In almost every major military engagement since, the US has been careful to cloak its imperialism with ostensibly multilateral military alliances such as NATO, or the Iraq War’s ‘Coalition of the Willing’ in 2003. The truth behind these risible, motley groupings is almost invariably that the vast majority of members make no meaningful contribution, and many merely sign up simply out of fear of reprisal. As Yemen discovered to its immense cost when it voted against the first Gulf War in the UN, the US government will not hesitate to penalise states cruelly if they dare to compromise the carefully constructed chimera of a world united behind American leadership.

Nevertheless, despite this lacuna, The American War in Vietnam remains an essential resource for activists today. It is our imperative duty to ensure the true nature and lessons of wars old and new are not disregarded or suppressed, and history is not rewritten in the interests of the US Empire, and its international war machine. The work is vital ammunition for countering the latest offensive in the incessant US war on history, an assault which could have significant implications for future conflicts if successful. The cliché that history is written by the winners only gets truer with each passing year. It’s up to us to ensure the past’s victims prevail this time.