Upon the breaking and shivering of a great state and empire, you may be sure to have wars.
- Sir Francis Bacon
William Tecumseh Sherman, the Union army general who coined the phrase "War
is Hell" got it right. Cu Chi, Vietnam during the Tét Offensive in what Stars and Stripes newspaper called America's first Rock and Roll war, was about as close to the experience of Hell as I've ever imagined it. With the first mortar and rocket attacks launched by the Vietcong on the night of January 31, 1968 and in the months that followed, fear and dread seemed to permeate the atmosphere like a toxic gas filling a room. About a week before Memorial Day 2019, memories of that time came rushing back to mind when I received a letter from Jim Hume, a flight operations NCO I served with in the 242nd Assault Support Helicopter Company in Vietnam. Was I the Stewart Whisenant he had known over fifty years ago, Hume wondered, a query that started a lengthy correspondence. After we exchanged a few e-mails, he sent a manuscript he had written about his Army experiences called Behind the Wire, along with Brushstrokes, a volume of his published poetry. Hume's literary offerings turned out to be a Pandora's Box of traumatic sufferings I thought I'd unpacked when I came home and put away for good. According to Greek mythology, Pandora opened a container left in her care containing sickness, death and many other evils which were released into the world when she opened it. Such was the effect of Hume's writings, a nightmarish flashback sparked by his vivid description of the old Vietnamese graveyard we passed through on our way to the perimeter guard bunkers at Cu Chi.
"The tombs were all above ground and in poor condition," Hume remembered. "I didn't think too much about omens--we were too busy watching out for Cobras. Not far from the cemetery a couple of GIs were burning shit. Each latrine had cut-down, fifty-five gallon drums inserted under the seats of honor. Every day or so whoever had incurred the wrath of the First Sergeant was given shit-burning detail. The containers were dragged a few feet away from the latrines and diesel fuel was added. Then the mixture was torched off. Black clouds of burning shit and the sound of helicopter-rotor blades are universal memories for Vietnam vets."
Another "universal" memory Hume noted was the relentless heat. "Daytime Vietnam was sultry," he wrote. "At night it was hot and sweaty. The only nice thing about nighttime was the absence of tropical sun boiling your brains." He also mentioned the culture shock of rice paddies fertilized with human feces, the stench of garbage-strewn streets in Bien Hoa and Saigon, the crush of people and vehicles moving through a fog of exhaust fumes and the eerie experience of feeling like a target whenever we travelled from our temporary quarters in Bien Hoa to the airfield. Hume's richly detailed account woke up the sleeping goblins of war in my memory like an alarm clock that wouldn't stop ringing, such as the aforementioned deadly Asian King Cobras, the world's longest venomous snakes that infested the terrain around our airfield and Hooches at Cu Chi. The medics warned us that bites from cobras could be fatal in less than 30 minutes. The cobras were almost as ubiquitous as the black rats, some as big as a small dog. It was all there in Hume's narrative, his personal memorial to the loneliness and longing for home and loved ones heightened by war: the stress of constant rocket and mortar attacks during the Tét Offensive; the sadness and grief when friends were killed or wounded; the frustration caused by the dysfunctional leadership of incompetent officers and NCOs; the enraging mendacity of politicians in Washington and the internecine conflicts within the ranks that sometimes led to shootings, fragging and suicides. Despite some differing details in our experiences, my old friend's story was my story too, slithering along under the surface of everyday consciousness like a hissing cobra.
Hume also documented some of the significant *SNAFUs we witnessed, such as the time an air force jet caught fire and crashed into the mess hall and a really stupid incident involving an over zealous maintenance officer we called Captain Mechanic, who insisted on firing up a new Chinook engine before a tech inspector could look it over. "There appeared to be bolt lying loose in the air intake," Hume noted, "and it was sucked clear through the engine. Bingo, one brand new engine completely ruined." He also recalled the argument that erupted during a card game that ended tragically in a fatal shooting and a big snafu a few weeks later when a brigade from the 101st Airborne Division arrived for an acclimation period with our company before launching regular combat operations. One of the units mortar squads practicing on our perimeter nearly shot down two of our helicopters. *(SNAFU is a military acronym for the sarcastic expression, Situation Normal, All Fucked Up!)
Another classic Snafu was the Buffalo story. "One of our Chinooks lifted out of a village with a dozen Vietnamese and their belongings," Hume wrote. "One of those belongings was a water buffalo weighing in at maybe 1200 pounds . . . Much to the consternation of the pilots and crew, the animal kept swinging his head back and forth and turning around in flight, apparently searching for a way out through the opening in back of the aircraft. People moving around in a Chinook causes changes in the center of gravity . . . A water buffalo walking towards the back of the helicopter causes an aft CG condition which gets a lot worse with every step. The pilots were screaming some decidedly abusive phrases into the intercom as they struggled to keep the ship flying. Meanwhile, the water buffalo walked in a determined fashion toward the rear opening . . . and stepped out . . . not expecting the ground level to be 3,500 feet below . . . The crew chief said the really sad thing about the incident, after everyone recovered from the fright, was the woeful look on the face of farmer who owned the buffalo. 'Geez, he said, 'It was like seeing his tractor, farm truck, bank account and central heating system disappear just like that.'"
Shortly after the buffalo fiasco, Hume was transferred to another unit and missed the deadly rocket attacks that killed Tommy Delaighe and Terry Gilbertson during the most infamous SNAFU of all, the Tét Offensive. He also missed the explosion that badly burned Chanski and Acheson, their bodies aflame as they ran screaming into the darkness, as well as the disastrous Sap Cong offensive just before the monsoons set in when sappers penetrated the perimeter, blew up nine aircraft, and sent another American home in a body bag.
In his indispensable book, War Is A Force That Give Us Meaning, former war correspondent Chris Hedges quotes historian Will Durant's calculation that there have "only been twenty-nine years in all of human history during which a war was not underway somewhere," making the case that the neoliberal imperative of perpetual war now bankrupting the American empire is nothing new. "The prospect of war is exciting," writes Hedges. "Many young men, schooled in the notion that war is the ultimate definition manhood, that only in war will they be tested and proven, that they can discover their worth as human beings in battle, willingly join the great enterprise." But as Hedges also makes clear, the glory of war is a bitter fiction. "The violence of war is random," he writes. "It does not make sense. And many of those who struggle with loss also struggle with the knowledge that the loss was futile and unnecessary. This leaves psychological wounds among survivors as well as veterans. Many of the soldiers who fought in Vietnam must grapple with the realization that there was no higher purpose to the war, that the sacrifice was a waste. It was easier to believe the myth that makes such loss noble and necessary, despite the glaring contradictions." Hedges also points out how "war exposes the capacity for evil that lurks not far below the surface within all of us. And that is why war is so hard to discuss once it is over."
Great journalists and combat photographers can help make the aftermath easier and even facilitate the process of healing by exposing the lies and illusions of war. In Vietnam, Time magazine photographer Tim Page and his colleagues, freelance photographer Sean Flynn, photojournalist-at-large Larry Burrows at Life magazine, and writer Michael Herr at Esquire covered the war in an honest way that doesn't often happen in the corrupt media establishment we have in America today. Page's pictures are deeply moving images infused with a clarity of perception and profound unity with the subject that have a way of revealing the futility and tragedy of war in the context of the bigger picture that's missing from a combatant's limited perspective. "Chopper Blitzkrieg," Page's famous shot of a Cobra Gunship pilot, his helmet plastered with stickers that read: "Bomb Saigon Now; Bomb Hanoi Now; Bomb Disneyland Now; Bomb Everything," summed up the whole gruesome, insane fiasco in a single image. Page's pictures also expose the tragedy of war in its most horrific details and nothing is ever slanted to mislead the public. The same goes for the work of Larry Burrows, the great Life magazine photographer who was killed in Laos in 1971. Burrows and Page succeeded in exposing truths about the war that weren't officially acknowledged until long after it was over.
Thanks to journalists of integrity the public also learned that Vietnam was the setting for chemical warfare on an unprecedented scale. The Pentagon called the most deadly weapon in its biological arsenal the "secret agent," but before the war was over, thanks to courageous reporters, the secret was out and Agent Orange's lethal effects were well publicized. Agent orange, so called because of the orange band around the 50-gallon drums it was transported in, was applied in Vietnam at 20 times the dosage recommended by the manufacturer, Dow Chemical. The Army, meanwhile, maintained with cavalier assurance that it was non-toxic to man and beast. The troops had nothing to fear, the Pentagon said, so the Air Force sprayed it all across South Vietnam to kill trees and shrubs that provided concealment to the enemy. The motto of the units that carried out the first defoliation missions was : "We Prevent Forests," and they did, with a vengeance. Over eleven million gallons of Agent Orange got dumped in country between 1962 and 1971, transforming Vietnam into the most extensive Dioxin waste site in the world.
Scientists still don't understand exactly how the defoliant works, but according to Dr. Matthew Meselson, professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Harvard University, "Root growth becomes unbalanced and cells that shouldn't divide do." This malignant effect is attributed to the Dioxin contained in the herbicide, a deadly carcinogen with long-lasting consequences. For growing numbers of American veterans and a million or more Vietnamese suffering from health issues associated with the defoliant, Agent Orange has proven to be what Dr. Meselson called "the most toxic molecule ever synthesized by man."
With John Kennedy's New Frontier and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, Americans were promised an equal opportunity to grow and prosper, but we got the waste and carnage of Vietnam instead. The betrayal was sparked with the lie about the Vietcong attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin, a ruse that marked the rise of the corporate culture of death created by neoliberal war profiteers to enhance their wealth and consolidate power against the weakened forces of democracy. NSA documents declassified in 2005 revealed that the second Gulf of Tonkin incident, which government warmongers used to justify the war, never happened. "For all I know," LBJ said at the time, "our navy was out there shooting whales."
Echoing the machinations of fascist societies in the past, the Obama administration attempted to obfuscate the truth about the Vietnam war and launched a propaganda campaign to expunge its shameful legacy from the public mind. Chris Hedges reminds us, that is what empires always do. "Historical memory is hijacked by those who carry out the war," he points out. "They seek, when memory challenges the myth, to obliterate or hide the evidence that exposes the myth as a lie." But in the minds of those who served in Vietnam and survived, such efforts are in vain. As Dispatches author Michael Herr explained in a interview, the legacy of the war in Vietnam isn't mutable. After praising Graham Greene's classic about Vietnam, The Quiet American, Herr said, "The only thing that it stops short of foreseeing is the horrible karmic wash that Vietnam left behind. 'Karma' is not a word that you hear applied to the Vietnam war, and yet it would be difficult to find a more accurate and concrete word for what it really is that left America so dispirited and frightened and violent and divided--to say nothing of Southeast Asia and the suffering that we stirred up there and then walked out of, or so we thought, because we can't shake it. I do feel that Vietnam--however it's being dealt with in America--is still the single prevailing fact of American life. All of our present anguish comes in the wake of the Vietnam war; it is the accumulations of the Vietnam war."
Included among those accumulations is the shock of investigative journalist Nick Turse's recent revelations about the systematic nature of the US military killing machine documented in his book Kill Anything That Moves. Turse makes clear that the murderous assaults committed by US troops against Vietnamese civilians were not limited to aberrant incidents such as the My Lai massacre or other isolated actions by a few "bad apples" as authorities claim. The deliberate, systematic rape, torture and killing of civilians was, in Turse's words, "a daily fact of life throughout the years of the American presence in Vietnam." The plethora of such actions documented by Turse, which would be classified as war crimes under the Nuremberg protocols, were "the inevitable outcome of deliberate policies, dictated at the highest level of the military." These policies, measured for their effect in terms of "body counts" comprised a "system of suffering" designed by the Pentagon to fulfill then Commander-in-Chief Lyndon Johnson's mandate to "nail the coonskin to the wall." Turse points out that in the American military's zeal to accomplish the mission, the number of Vietnamese bodies counted, according to an official 1995 Vietnamese government estimate, amounted to "more than three million deaths in total--including two million civilian deaths." Conservative estimates of the number of Vietnamese wounded exceeded five million.
Senator Hiram Warren Johnson said in 1918, "The first casualty when war comes is truth." Such was the case with the war in Vietnam from beginning to end. As Pulitzer prize winning journalist Richard Aregood notes in a South Florida Sun Sentinel opinion piece, "The politicians lied. The generals lied. Both lied to keep their jobs, not for any nobler reason. Others lied to make a bloodstained buck. War can be very profitable, for those who provide the makings and for those self-dealing crooks we backed in the despised and corrupt South Vietnames government." A few individuals of integrity in Congress dared to challenge the lies manufactured by the propaganda mills of the dishonorable Washington establishment, but to no avail. One prescient voice was Senator George McGovern's (D-SD) who stated on April 25, 1967, "We seem bent upon saving the Vietnamese from Ho Chi Minh, even if we have to kill them and demolish their country to do it. I do not intend to remain silent in the face of what I regard as a policy of madness which, sooner or later, will envelop my son and American youth by the millions for years to come."
The madness continued as McGovern predicted and enveloped us all, a predicament that brings to mind Alexis de Tocqueville's prophecy from Democracy in America: "The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money . . . When a nation has reached this point it must either change its laws and mores or perish, for the well of public virtue has run dry; in such a place one no longer finds citizens but only subjects." That's where we are now. The egregious corruption and polarization that defines national politics in this country has brought us to the brink of tyranny and We the People, reduced from a status as citizens to corporate subjects, must rise up and speak truth to power or else lose the precious Republic that Benjamin Franklin challenged us to keep.
"A vibrant democracy requires a full airing of all points of view," said once independent congressman Bernie Sanders of Vermont during the Iraq war. "Increasingly, this is not the case. With few exceptions, the mass media now presents to the American people the perspective of the wealthy and powerful while largely ignoring the needs of the middle class, working families and the poor." Sander's words speak truth to the powerful cabal of corrupt neoliberal elites who have usurped the law of the land and pursued a policy of perpetual war in the interests of the corporate sector. Voices like Sander's remind us that America has a rich tradition of political activism enabling citizens to challenge the status quo. Since the revolutionary times of Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine, America has been a nation of grass roots, progressive movements that have kept the heart of democracy beating. As the great activist Howard Zinn once said, "It is the citizenry, rather than the government that is the ultimate of source of power and the locomotive that pulls the train of government in the direction of equality and justice."
But with a government in place that serves oligarchs and war mongers instead of the people, "The whiff of Weimar" is in the air again, to borrow Gore Vidal's apt phrase. Let us be blunt. The kleptocracy now assembled in Washington is the antithesis of the Jeffersonian ideal; it manifests in every action its favor of corporate control, benefits for the wealthy and its indifference to the public good. Quoting Byung-Chul Han, professor Henry A. Giroux notes that the "signature affliction of our age is an unprecedented corporate takeover of the US government and the reemergence of elements of totalitarianism in new forms," driven by what Thomas Jefferson viewed as "the selfish spirit of commerce that knows no country and feels no passion or principle but that of gain." The late Gore Vidal, writing in Book Week, November 3, 1963, described the consequences for the Republic. "In public services, we lag behind all the industrialized nations of the West," he wrote, "preferring that the public money go not to the people, but to big business. The result is a unique society in which we have free enterprise for the poor and socialism for the rich."
If we are to resurrect our democracy under such circumstances, we must take to the streets as we did during the war in Vietnam and remind the powers that be that their crusade to silence the voices of the people is doomed to fail. In order to preserve what's left of our democracy and the US Constitution we took an oath to protect and defend, we must rise up as a united people, protest America's moral and political direction, restore our ruined civic realm, and speak truth to these malignant forces of power before it's too late.
"Such a struggle will not be easy and will not come through momentary demonstrations, or through elections," writes Henry Giroux. "What is needed is a massive, unified movement that takes as its major weapon the general strike, using it to shut down the fascist state in all of its registers. Only then can power be used to rethink and restructure American society through forms of collective power, in which democracy and its radical ideals of liberty, freedom and equality can breath once again."
The neoliberal oligarchy that hijacked American democracy is, in any case, doomed. As Lewis Lapham points out, "Oligarchies bear an unhappy resemblance to cheese, and over time even the best of them turn rancid." Such is the case in America today and the remedy for a regime that stinks as badly as what we have in place is clearly stated in the Declaration of Independence, a document upon which the founding fathers pledged nothing less than their lives, fortunes and sacred honor. If the government in Washington doesn't match the one specified therein, it is not only the right, but also the duty of the people to revolt.
Visiting the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in Washington, DC one hot August afternoon in 1995, while recovering from painful prostate cancer surgery, as I walked past the names of fallen friends and others utterly unknown to me inscribed in the black stone wall, I noticed a zip-lock plastic bag placed at the base of a section of the monument listing those who had died in 1968, the year I came home. It contained a First Infantry Division combat patch, a tattered, black number one, and a note scrawled on a scrap of paper that summed up the whole betrayal in a line: "To the many, many good men who died because of poor leadership and greedy careers."
"We, the American public, have two great powers. First, we have the ability to learn from experience and see through the current propaganda barrage. Second, we have the political machinery bequeathed us by the Founders. While idle, it requires only our energy to set it in motion--and retake the reins of America."
- Larry Kummer, Editor,
What Must We Do? Class struggle defines most of human history," writes Chris Hedges in his October 21, 2013, Truthdig column. "Marx got this right. The sooner we realize that we are locked in deadly warfare with our ruling elites, the sooner we will realize that these elites must be overthrown. The corporate oligarchs have now seized all institutional systems of power in the United States. Electoral politics, internal security, the judiciary, our universities, the arts and finance, along with nearly all forms of communication are in corporate hands. Our democracy, with faux debates between two corporate parties, is meaningless political theatre. There is no way within the system to defy the demands of Wall Street, the fossil fuel industry or war profiteers. The only route left to us, as Aristotle knew, is revolt."
Chris Hedges at the University of Delaware
Veterans for Peace, Justice and Democracy
It is essential in a democracy for the people to express their will and if that can't be accomplished through existing processes of government, then civil disobedience is necessary. In America today the social injustices perpetrated by wealthy plutocrats now manipulating the levers of power have made it imperative for the people to rise up in mass and challenge the status quo. Standing on a public street holding a sign may seem like a puny gesture compared to the power of the president to deploy whole armies anywhere in the world, but when the foundations of democracy have been corrupted by greed and special interests as they have in America today, public demonstration is the only means for the people to express their moral outrage.
The courageous social activist Howard Zinn called such acts of dissent "fugitive moments of compassion" that peacefully challenge the status quo and enable citizens to release pent-up indignation over unjust and oppressive government policies. One of the great challenges of our time, Zinn believed, is to achieve social justice through non-violent protest instead of war. The nature of all wars is economic expansion and profits for big business and is always accompanied by the lies and deceptions that are the real sources of terrorism in the world. To speak out and express this truth is especially important in the face of America's current policy of "forever wars" waged solely for the investor class. The great labor leader Eugene V. Debs got a ten-year prison sentence for proclaiming this salient truth in public during World War One.
The greatest weapon in the struggle against injustice is truth in the minds of the people joined together. The power of the people is ultimately greater than the power of all the money and guns and armies of the corporate state. Organized people have a power that no government can suppress and the oligarchs know it. The people united in non-violent action for peace, justice and democracy are the most awesome power on earth.
"I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country." - Thomas Jefferson, 1816
"We are a country of the corporation, by the corporation and for the corporation. Let them know what you think of this plutocracy, and break the chains."
- Artist/Activist Eleanor Goldfield