The Unspeakable Brutality of the U.S. War Against Vietnam Must Never Be Forgotten

Vietnam U.S. War Crimes

With last year’s documentary series by renowned American director Ken Burns, titled The Vietnam War, having recently wrapped up airing on PBS, the Vietnam War is currently all the rage among American history buffs these days. It’s a war with a legacy that is more hotly contested than any other American war (probably more than the Civil War), thanks in no small part to propaganda put out by the Pentagon and other government agencies in the past few years which seeks to portray the war as one fought for a noble cause, if only it had not been executed the way that it was. The Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary promotes the liberal narrative that has been pieced together over the past five decades which holds that “the military conflict in Vietnam was thus a Civil War, and U.S. military involvement in support of the South was the result of a series of mistakes by American political leaders”, whereas in reality the Vietnamese people were fighting a war of liberation and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) was merely a puppet regime that was essentially created by the United States. More insidious are the multiple references in the documentary by its creator to “retaliation for the Gulf of Tonkin” incident, an incident which never actually occurred but was used as a pretext by the United States for further involvement in the war. And while The Vietnam War spends significant time detailing the notoriously horrific My Lai massacre, it’s important to empathize that this massacre was but only the tip of the iceberg when it came to the depravity of the U.S. occupying force. The Burns and Novick documentary, while not painting the U.S. in a positive light, also relies on false equivalencies to make it seem as if both sides of the conflict were equally morally reprehensible or at fault. In the words of Christopher Koch, “Every time the United States is shown doing something bad, Burns and Novick show us how the Vietnamese also did bad things.” One preposterous example Koch cites is the way in which the documentary draws an equivalency between the racist terms used by the Americans to dehumanize their Asian enemies – words like “dink” and “gook” – and the terms used by Vietnamese to refer to the U.S. occupiers, invaders and imperialists. It defies logic to equate calling American soldiers who are fighting on behalf of empire “imperialists” with those very same soldiers referring to the indigenous inhabitants of the lands they are occupying as mere “gooks” deserving of death. The documentary “doesn’t show us the makeshift hospitals with children and old people without arms and legs suffering from horrendous burns, all victims of American bombing attacks. The documentary focuses our compassion on the American pilots who dropped the bombs.” Fortunately there is a book on the market that details the many American war crimes in horrific detail. That book, Kill Anything That Moves: the real American war in Vietnam by Nick Turse, may not reach nearly as many people as the Ken Burns propaganda documentary, but what it does do is set the record straight for the 4-6 million Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians who died at the hands of the Americans and the millions more that survived without ever having their stories heard.

DestructiveAgentOrange

Ten-year-old Pham Duc Duy is cradled in the arms of his mother in their house in Hanoi
Agent Orange, a destructive chemical agent used by the United States to destroy crops and cause other damage, is still causing birth defects in Vietnam to this very day.

The crimes of the United States against the brave people of Vietnam, who up until the U.S. involvement were battling the French colonial imperialists, are so immense that they cannot be summed up in one write-up or even one book. An entire book could be written focusing only on the many different chemical agents, most notoriously Agent Orange, that were used on the civilian population and are still causing severe birth defects to this very day. What this piece will focus on however is the extreme violence that was regularly meted out on the civilian populations of both North and South Vietnam by U.S. brutes and their South Vietnamese allies, using as a source the aforementioned book by Nick Turse. The horrors wrought by chemical toxins like Agent Orange are among the many atrocities the U.S. visited upon the country for daring to chart its own path free from the dictates of imperialism. After the Viet Minh fought to liberate Vietnam from French colonial rule, the U.S. took over where France had retreated and set up a puppet regime in the country’s south led by expatriate Ngo Dinh Diem who was living in New York before being handpicked by the CIA. It was for this reason that on December 20, 1960 the National Front for the Liberation of the South was formally founded by Ho Chi Minh as a successor to the Viet Minh. Most Americans know the National Front simply as the “Viet Cong”, a term that was actually meant as slander by the Americans who coined it, short for ‘Viet Nam Cong San’ which translates to Vietnamese Communists. Out of near certitude that the Communists would emerge as the victors in the national elections that were to be held that same year, the U.S. sought to make sure the elections would never happen and that reunification would only occur with an imperialist-friendly government. Thus from the beginning of its involvement “the US opposed democracy in favor of aggression.” The Vietnamese “were patriots defending themselves against an invading army that treated both combatants and noncombatants as subhuman.”

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One of the millions upon millions of victims of the U.S. war on Vietnam
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Monsanto, the manufacturer of the chemical Agent Orange, is responsible for thousands of malformations like this.
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birth defect caused by Monsanto’s Agent Orange

The amount of bombs and ordnance used in Southeast Asia by the United States was something unparalleled in all of human history, including the First and Second World Wars. In fact, “A greater tonnage of bombs had been dropped on Vietnam than by all sides in World War I, World War II and the Korean War combined.” It was equal to a total of 640 Atomic Bombs being dropped on a single country! Jack Smith writes in CounterPunch that Vietnam is “a country that survived more explosive tonnage than the U.S. deployed during World War II in Europe and Asia-Pacific – 15,500,000 tons of air and ground munitions during the Vietnam War; 6,000,000 tons in WWII.” In his amazing article, Vietnam – 40th anniversary of the triumph over imperialism, Philip Ferguson writes that during the U.S.’s ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’ which began in 1965,

643,000 tons of bombs were dropped on North Vietnam… Nothing was off-limits: schools, hospitals, churches, and the homes of civilians were all routinely hit by bombs. The Americans also used anti-personnel bombs – bombs that would explode on hitting the ground and shed layer and layer of cutting edges to do as much damage to human flesh as possible…

It’s important to remember that US atrocities in Vietnam were daily, most particularly the continuous bombing of cities in North Vietnam and the bombings of villages and towns in the South, and the use of anti-personnel bombs and, in the South, napalm and Agent Orange.  This was barely 20 years after the end of World War 2 and, in many people’s eyes, right across the world, the US government seemed to be carrying war crimes as evil as those of Hitler and the Nazis.

And from Truth-Out.org:

The Pentagon detonated 15,500,000 tons of ground and air munitions on the three countries of Indochina, 12,000,000 tons on South Vietnam alone in a failed effort to smash the National Liberation Front backed by the North Vietnamese army. By comparison, the U.S. detonated only 6,000,000 tons of ground and air munitions throughout World War II in Europe and the Far East. All told, by the end of the war, 26,000,000 bomb craters pockmarked Indochina, overwhelmingly from U.S. weapons and bombers.

To this very day “Vietnam and the rest of Indochina (it’s often conveniently forgotten that the US also waged war against Laos and Cambodia) are full of unexploded ordinances that regularly cause death and injuries”, particularly to young children. There have been more than 100,000 deaths to date by unexploded landmines left over since the war ended in 1968.

Kill Anything That Moves by Nick Turse

Among the many revelations in Nick Turse’s amazing 2013 book – Kill Anything That Moves – is the reality that U.S. soldiers who operated in the country were frequently given the order before carrying out an operation to simply “kill everything that moves” by their superiors (thus the name of Turse’s book). GIs shot and killed infants using M-16 rifles. “They gunned down old men sitting in their homes and children as they ran for cover. They tossed grenades into homes without even bothering to look inside.” They “raped women and young girls, mutilated the dead, systematically burned homes, and fouled the area’s drinking water.” All of it is meticulously documented in Turse’s book. Americans who seriously believe that the horrific My Lai massacre was a one-off event and not representative of the entire U.S. invasion should seriously have a look at the many documented war crimes in that country which were encouraged and went unpunished by the military’s top brass. American interrogators were even known to engage in the practice of “cutting off body parts and slamming [Vietnamese] around during ‘interrogations,’ and then, eventually, taking them up in helicopters and just pushing them out the door to fall to their deaths.” Marine Ed Austin recorded in his diary in April of 1967 an incident in the Quang Nam province in which men in his platoon sexually humiliated young girls, and he noted that “There are more civilians killed here per day than [Viet Cong] either by accident or on purpose and that’s just plain murder. I’m not surprised that there are more VC. We make more VC than we kill by the way these people are treated. I won’t go into detail but some of the things that take place would make you ashamed of good old America.” [Turse, Nick. Kill Anything That Moves: the real American war in Vietnam. 2013. Page 120.] This was the same province in which a live woman “had an ear cut off while her baby was thrown to ground and stomped on” by U.S. jack-booted thugs. In Phu Nhuan pregnant mothers had their bellies ripped open with their babies exposed, according to survivors of the American massacres. Elderly men were thrown off mountaintops, and young boys were kidnapped and used as target practice. [Turse,  121-124.]

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As is most often the case, rape and murder of defenseless women and girls on a massive scale was an everyday reality of the war. In the Xuan Ngoc hamlet in Quang Ngai American soldiers went from home to home gang-raping women and girls while forcing their husbands and fathers to watch before killing them. Then they set out to cover up their actions. [Turse, 129-131] Some in the military – such as the 1st Cavalry Division, the 1st Infantry Division and the 4th – set up and ran brothels using Vietnamese women and girls as young as 6 years of age! Vietnamese women who were gang-raped by U.S. soldiers were told by their rapists, “If you don’t fight so much it won’t be so bad for you.” Turse writes, “A soldier who served with the 25th Infantry Division admitted that, in his unit, rape was virtually standard operating procedure.” The stories of what Vietnamese women endured at the hands of these soldiers are not only horrifying, they run counter to the narrative of supposed American exceptionalism, chivalry and heroism in war. Women who were wounded, bleeding and begging for water were not spared the mortifying experience of being brutally raped. One such woman who was in this position was stabbed in both her breasts by an American soldier, “then forced into a spread-eagle position, after which the handle of an entrenching tool – essentially a short shovel – was thrust into her vagina. Other women were violated with objects ranging from soda bottles to rifles.” During the allied response to the Tet Offensive in 1968, members of one unit “singled out a teenage girl and dragged her into a home” where she was stripped naked and raped with a gun pointed to her head the entire time as she screamed. At the infamous massacre at My Lai, women “had their vaginas ripped open with knives and bayonets.” Tragically there was a pair of sisters, ages 17 and 14 years old, who were kidnapped by an entire squad of American GIs and forced to perform humiliating sexual acts on all of the men as they cried and suffered in misery. The “sergeant who began the series of rapes” testified that each of the girls “was violated some ten to twenty times” each. [Turse, 164-171] According to an eyewitness medic, Jamie Henry, in reference to company, 1st Battalion, 35th Infantry, rape and murder of civilians was “SOP – standard operating procedure.” [Turse, 238.]

Despite the U.S. insisting it was acting in the interest of the people of South Vietnam, oftentimes these were the very people who bore the brunt of American-inflicted bloodshed. According to Lyndon Johnson’s special advisor John Roche in a secret memo to the President dated May 10, 1968, more innocent civilians had “been hit in Saigon [South Vietnam] than in Hanoi and Haiphong [North Vietnam] combined.” The city of Quang Tri in the South was essentially carpet-bombed “on a daily basis… destroying up to 99 percent of all buildings in the southeastern quadrant of the province.” [Turse, 105] Turse writes:

From the start of the American War to its final years, from the countryside to the cities, Americans relentlessly pounded South Vietnam with nearly every lethal technology in their arsenal short of nuclear weapons, indiscriminately spreading death across vast swaths of territory… U.S. commanders wasted ammunition like millionaires, hoarded American lives like misers – and often treated Vietnamese lives as if they were worth nothing at all. [Turse, 106]

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utter disregard for Vietnamese life

This unbounded cruelty was “legitimized by the explicit racism that suffused the training” of U.S. soldiers/ military personnel. (See pages 28-30 in Turse’s book for more detail on the racism that was stoked to dehumanize Vietnamese fighters and civilians alike.) According to Army Specialist Leslie Lantos (who was later killed) in a letter to his parents sent from Vietnam in late 1967/early 1968, the men of Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry killed innocent people in the Duc Pho District “simply because someone wanted to kill ‘a gook!’” [Turse, 138] Residents of cities in South Vietnam who lived near U.S. bases were regularly run over by American soldiers who showed no signs of remorse. In fact the Americans oftentimes ran over civilians purposely. According to one American medic who saw two young boys run over and killed by an American military truck, he eventually learned that the Americans had a “game” going on between them in which the winner of the game would be the first person to run over a kid whilst driving recklessly through town. They gave it the name “gook hockey.” And in the words of the son of a South Vietnamese official, U.S. military men in American GMC trucks would often reach down from their trucks while driving just to “whack a girl riding a bicycle” at random. “They would yank at her hat and she would get thrown and she would die. You would see Americans do this and feel like they can do anything in this country.” [Turse, 157-158]

Testifying before members of Congress in 1971, Major Gordon Livingston – who’d served as regimental surgeon with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment – stated without hesitation, “Above 90 percent of the Americans with whom I had contact with in Vietnam” treated the Vietnamese people – all of them – with “nearly universal contempt”, as if they were subhuman mongrels. Among this 90% was General George Patton II, son of the legendary WWII General George Patton, who carried with him as a souvenir the severed skull of a slain Vietnamese. Dismembering body parts of Vietnamese victims and keeping them as souvenirs was actually quite common within the U.S. military. (It still happens in current wars.) “Some soldiers hacked the heads off Vietnamese to keep, trade, or exchange for prizes offered by commanders.” Even more common was the cutting off of ears from both the living and the dead. Heads and ears “were presented to superiors as gifts or as proof to confirm a body count… While ears were the most common souvenirs of this type, scalps, penises, noses, breasts, teeth, and fingers were also favored.” These body parts were regularly worn by American soldiers as necklaces. Dead bodies were violated in disturbing ways and made into scrapbooks by military personnel. According to war correspondent Michael Herr, “Half the combat troops in Vietnam had these things in their packs.” [Turse, 160-163] Such gruesome practices have always been a staple of white settler colonialist culture in the former colonies, as well as in the American South in the early part of the 20th century. Just as white settlers did to Indigenous Americans in centuries prior, “some American troops hacked the heads off the dead and mounted them on pikes or poles to frighten guerillas or local Vietnamese villagers.” Even during the famous Tet Offensive launched by North Vietnamese forces, of the more than 14,000 civilians dead, the majority were killed by U.S. firepower (24,000 were also wounded and 627,000 made homeless.) [Turse, 104] Over the course of the war “more than 5 million Vietnamese were forcibly removed from their villages and compelled to live in squalid ‘Strategic Hamlets.’”

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The cages used for Vietnamese prisoners of war held by U.S. ally South Vietnam.

While much has been made of the North Vietnamese Liberation Front’s mistreatment of American prisoners of war (such as John McCain), this mistreatment pales in comparison to the grotesque practices of the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies. As noted on pages 172-173 of Turse’s book, “the Vietnamese revolutionary forces only ever held about eight hundred Americans. By contrast, U.S. and South Vietnamese military and civilian authorities arrested or imprisoned as many as several hundred thousand civilians and members of the revolutionary forces over the course of the war.” According to the assessment of the army chief of staff Gen. Harold Johnson, from 1964-1968 the abuse meted out by U.S. forces was “far worse than what was meted out by the enemy.” [Turse, 325] Torture methods applied by either the U.S. or their South Vietnamese allies included electric shocks to the nipples and vagina. According to detainees they were beaten and told that even if they were innocent they’d be beaten “until we were guilty. And if we were guilty they would beat us until we repent.” Other detainees “had their fingernails torn out or pins or bamboo slivers stuck behind them, or their fingertips crushed, or whole fingers cut off.” [Turse, 177] Of all the horrific things done to Vietnamese prisoners of war, nothing is more shocking than the medical and psychological experiments that were conducted under the CIA’s top-secret Phoenix Program, written about extensively in The Phoenix Program by Douglas Valentine. From Uncensored History:

Experiments performed on prisoners by the CIA under its Phoenix Program would’ve made Adolf Hitler incredibly proud. In one of its many experiments, CIA doctors anaesthetized 3 prisoners, opened up their skulls and implanted electrodes in their brains before reviving them. When they were revived the 3 prisoners were in a room with themselves and some knives. Unknown to the prisoners, they were being observed by CIA doctors whom they could not see. The doctors were attempting this psychological experiment so that they could implement mind control, but the experiment was ultimately deemed unsuccessful after their subjects could not be persuaded to attack each other. When they didn’t play along, the prisoners were simply shot and then burned. All of this is meticulously documented in The Phoenix Program by Douglas Valentine.

Other methods of torture implemented on prisoners of war carried out by the CIA under the Phoenix Program with the help of their South Vietnamese puppet collaborators included “rape, gang rape, rape using eels, snakes, or hard objects, and rape followed by murder; electric shock (‘the Bell Telephone Hour’) rendered by attaching wires to the genitals or other sensitive parts of the body, like the tongue; the ‘water treatment’; the ‘airplane’ in which the prisoner’s arms were tied behind the back, and the rope looped over a hook on the ceiling, suspending the prisoner in midair, after which he or she was beaten; beatings with rubber hoses and whips; the use of police dogs to maul prisoners.” There was also “the insertion of the 6-inch dowel into the canal of my detainee’s ears, and the tapping through the brain until dead” and “the use of electronic gear such as sealed telephones attached to… both the women’s vaginas and men’s testicles [to] shock them into submission.”

The CIA organized execution squads under the Program whose sole purpose it was to eliminate “entire families.” Most baffling of all is the reality that these unspeakable tactics were not even successful in obtaining their ultimate goal, according to History News Network.

Those who suffered most under it couldn’t even be verified as National Liberation Front fighters (derisively referred to by the Americans as ‘Vietcong’) in the first place. Those who were interrogated almost never came out alive because the U.S. feared that allowing them to survive and tell of what had happened to them would only increase support for the NLF’s cause among ordinary Vietnamese in the American-occupied South.

“After being called before Congress to account for his actions, CIA Director William Colby conceded that Phoenix led to the deaths of 20,000 civilians. The South Vietnamese government placed the total at over 40,000.” Keep in mind these deaths happened within a 2 year period: 1967-1969.

Despite Vietnam’s heroic victory in the war, the U.S. did everything in its power to never accept defeat, and to punish the newly liberated nation and ensure immense suffering would last for generations to come. Ostensibly in retaliation to Vietnam’s ousting of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in 1978, “the imperialists responded with an economic blockade of Vietnam and reneged on their agreement to pay part of the cost of rebuilding the country. The Vietnamese were to suffer further punishment at Washington’s hands. In 1978, US President Jimmy Carter even claimed, ‘the damage was mutual… we owe them nothing.’” This was in spite of the fact that “American banks and oil companies were invited to Hanoi as early as 1976 to explore trade and financial relations.” The economic embargo imposed by Washington would last nearly twenty years and it would, according to some accounts, exact “suffering equal to the war itself.” (One has to wonder why the international community would allow for the U.S. to place an embargo on Vietnam in an act that was so obviously punishment for being victorious in its war for independence. If anyone should’ve been facing an embargo it should have been the United States for initiating its war of aggression in the first place.)

The exact number of casualties of the U.S.’s bloody imperialistic foray into Vietnam is difficult to determine, but no one disputes that millions upon millions of lives were lost in Indochina as a result of the carnage, and to this day the number is growing due to unexploded munitions left behind (not to mention the birth defects caused by the spraying of chemical agents.) According to CounterPunch,

More than two million Vietnamese combatants and civilians were killed during the American War, but the more than 60,000 Vietnamese killed by landmines, cluster bombs and other UXO since the war now exceeds the 58,000 American GIs killed during the war. And still the US remains one of only a handful of countries worldwide which has refused to sign on to UN treaties banning landmines and cluster bombs.

In the words of the Monthly Review:

At least 4 million Vietnamese died as a direct result of the war, which means that at least 2 million civilians perished at the hands of U.S. forces and their mercenary brethren. When the war commenced in earnest in the 1960s, Vietnam’s population was 19 million. An incredible 21 percent of this population therefore perished. In 1960 the U.S population was about 180 million. Imagine a war that killed nearly 38 million Americans.

A study published in the British Medical Journal concluded the U.S. war on Vietnam led to 3.8 million deaths, and the unexploded munitions continue wreaking havoc to this very day. According to Howard Zinn,

the United States dropped 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam by the end of the war. Many of these bombs did not explode, and continue to kill people today when farmers accidentally plow over them, children pick them up thinking they are toys, or scrap metal hunters looking to earn a small amount of change collect them.

Was the unspeakable terror that was visited upon the people of Vietnam ultimately the work of some rogue, depraved individuals looking to exact vengeance for their fallen comrades, or was this a policy of murder and intimidation of the Vietnamese people at large designed and blessed by those at the highest levels of command? The International Commission of Inquiry into United States War Crimes in Indochina believed it had the answer when it concluded “that the crimes committed in Indochina are not only the results of actions of individual soldiers and officers. Clearly, these crimes are the results of the long-term policy of the United States in Southeast Asia, and the main burden of responsibility must lie with those who have been making this policy.”

31 thoughts

  1. I just read this article and I wasn’t aware about most of the damage that happened during the Vietnam War. I was made aware of the lasting effects of agent orange when it was mentioned in passing in the documentary The Corporation and there was a whole segment of it in the environmental documentary Trashed. In the latter documentary, you see Jeremy Irons just flabbergasted by the deformities and some babies in jars before he helps comfort some of the families. Yes, the same guy who played several movie villains (Simon Gruber and Scar to name a few) showed more compassion for the Vietnamese than most people have ever done. Hearing about these rape camps was just horrifying and if some other country did that to American women, then WWIII would’ve happened yesterday. It’s just sad seeing all these uncomfortable truths.

    1. And it’s so sad that most Americans even today will not describe the Vietnam War for what it is – a war of aggression and a crime against humanity on the part of the United States against a people who were fighting for self-determination.

  2. If all this horror was actually done by The United States, there would be a lot more of it being discussed here at home but you never hardly ever hear any of this kind of anti-American stuff so I doubt that it actually happened to the extent depicted in this article. If American Troops who served in Vietnam were that damned proud of what they were doing they would be doing a lot more talking than they have been. Besides what good does it do to talk about these things now so long after the war has been over? Nobody who has any power to do anything is listening so what good does it door to rehash this kind of stuff?

    1. So the stories of the Vietnamese people who saw these things happened and survived mean nothing to you? It matters a great deal. That’s like saying WWII is over so there’s no need to learn about it and understand it. It’s absurd.

      1. Since human beings have a whole centuries-old history of senseless wars and genocides under their belt and since they never seem to learn anything from their studies about all these wars and all this death and destruction, what is the point of going over and over the details of all the death and destruction again and again and again? People do not learn — people have never learned — people will never learn — death, destruction and war is in the very dna of the human race and there is even some arguments to support the notion that war enhances sexuality and might therefore be a necessary element of human survival and propagation. How absurd is that?

    2. Nazi war criminals are still being hunted and prosecuted so long after WW2 so what good does it do to rehash that kind of stuff? and so why not American war criminals from the Vietnam war or other wars for that matter.

  3. Reblogged this on It Is What It Is and commented:
    “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing … ” And this is so true … ‘the terms used by Vietnamese to refer to the U.S. occupiers, invaders and imperialists.’ Have you really seen the world lately? SMH …

  4. On my visits to Vietnam i’ve had the opportunity to meet some of the people, now most of them quite old, who suffered unmentionable pain at the hands of the invaders. It was brutal, cruel and savage.
    Thank you, Caleb, for this fine offering

    Always

    john

    1. The survivors you have met and spoke with, I think someone should record all of their eyewitness accounts in a book before they pass if it hasn’t been done already.

      1. It is indeed a most important piece. Enough cannot be written about US hypocrisy. Without Howard Zinn, writers like you are scarce. Not likely though though that ‘they’ will be convinced by facts.

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