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Taken from Noam Chomsky's "Turning the Tide", available at fine libraries.

Although a longtime defender of the US intervention in Vietnam, Guenter Lewy pretends here to be above the battle, bringing “light, rather than heat to an experience more complex than ideologues on either side would allow.” He also believes that his portrayal of the war is “novel and occasionally startling in both fact and significance.” This work rests, however, on a foundation of unexamined chauvinist premises capable of rationalizing virtually any form of aggression and violence, and its scholarly façade crumbles at almost random scrutiny. The novelty of Lewy’s book is the combining in a single volume of a review of factual materials that others have presented in condemnation of the war with the standard conclusions of state propaganda. To achieve this marriage, Lewy is compelled to misuse and misrepresent documentary material, ignore critical evidence, and descend to a quite “startling” moral level.

“ By May 1955,” Lewy tells us, “France was out of Vietnam and the US had assumed responsibility for large-scale economic and military aid.” It took over what Lewy implies was the equally legitimate “responsibility of the French.” The subsequent war, Lewy explains, was “not of an international character, and the US was not an occupying power but a cobelligerent, there with the approval of the GVN,” namely, the government it installed and defended from its population by violence. Lewy adopts the imperial premise as easily as a Soviet Lewy would swallow a parallel argument on the Soviet right to define the “legitimate” government of Czechoslovakia or Afghanistan.


After page upon page of such descriptions, the rational reader would conclude that the United States was guilty not only of aggression but also of unspeakable barbarism. Lewy, however, does not draw such conclusions. The reason is that the villagers were not “innocent”—they were supporting the South Vietnamese revolutionary forces that were resisting the US and the client regime it had installed, what Lewy calls their “legitimate government.” Legitimacy does not derive from the consent of the governed, but rather from the will of a foreign power. As Lewy concedes, the “legitimate government was the work of a privileged elite supported mainly by the military officer corps” and unable to win the loyalty of the people, while the South Vietnamese enemy “had a strong political apparatus and gradually and skillfully drew villagers into the NLF village organization by such means as redistributing wealth and status, while the government relied for its survival on force alone.” In fact, Lewy ignores substantial evidence bearing on this crucial matter from US government sources, but even without it, the real situation is sufficiently evident from his own brief remarks.


Evidently, the question does not arise in the pre-1954 period. After Geneva, Lewy notes, “The Viet Minh, defending the interests of the peasants and basking in the glory of having defeated the French, not only were popular and in effective control of large parts of the south, but they also had a highly efficient organization ready to take advantage of the democratic liberties proclaimed in the final declaration of the Geneva conference.” For this reason, it was “justifiable” for the US-imposed regime temporarily to institute “dictatorial measures”; obviously, democratic procedures are unfeasible if the wrong people will win.


For Lewy, then, an “innocent villager” is one who accepts the rule of a foreign force and its local client. If a villager is not “innocent,” he may legitimately be blasted by US bombs, his villages may be burned to the ground, and he may be forcefully moved behind barbed wire, where he is granted what Lewy calls “security and protection” by his “legitimate government.” By revealing with such utter clarity the levels of moral degradation to which it is necessary to sink to justify the US war, Lewy has unwittingly provided one of the most devastating critiques yet to appear in print.


In discussing the treatment of prisoners, Lewy shows his reasonableness by acknowledging “several cases of US maltreatment and torture.” These are treated with antiseptic brevity, and Lewy takes pains to put them into a context of the “frustration resulting from fighting an often unseen enemy, the resentments created by casualties,” etc. In dealing with Communist inhumaneness, however, he gives a plenitude of detail, with an unconcealed moral indignation totally absent from his grudging admission of US-Saigon torture, and factors that might explain such acts by the enemy are treated with sarcasm. He even matter-of-factly explains Saigon torture: “The police were not highly professional, prison guards were underpaid, and South Vietnamese have a low regard for human life.” Lewy makes no explicit comparison of numbers and modes of tortures, concentrating instead on the details of North Vietnamese treatment of US pilots, avoiding the massive evidence that Saigon-US torture and killing of prisoners was systematic and large-scale. Another methodological dichotomy: He suggests that the damage to tiger-cage victims was simulated as part of a propaganda conspiracy among highly organized and politicized prisoners; whereas the debriefed testimony of the US pilots is accepted at face value and without question. Lewy does not report the comparisons offered by journalists, for example, in the Far Eastern Economic Review (March 26, 1973), where it was noted of US POWs: “Interestingly, too, the men who talked of oriental tortures were all able to stand up and speak into microphones, showing scars here and there; none showed evidence of irreversible malnutrition. Another set of prisoners was not so lucky. These were the men and women released from South Vietnam’s ‘tiger cages.’ Only a handful of them have been seen in public, and then briefly. They had been held in tiny cages for so long that they could no longer stand up; they had to shuffle about in crouching positions. They were all incurably crippled while prolonged malnutrition had turned them into grotesque parodies of humanity.” Lewy also makes a sharp distinction between the nasty ARVN and the constraining US forces: “The success achieved by American intervention against the abuse and torture of VC suspects is difficult to assess, but on the whole, American influence helped somewhat to mitigate the cruelties to be encountered in any civil war.” This is based on no evidence, merely self-serving statements of US officials. It also flies in the face of such facts as US sponsorship of the Phoenix program, US supply and training functions, funding of prisons and interrogation equipment and centers, and the replication of similar operations in Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, the Philippines, etc.


Lewy concedes the popularity of the Viet Minh after the 1954 Geneva accords, but stresses that the United States did not sign the final declaration calling for unifying elections and was therefore not bound by it. How this refusal to accept the terms of a political settlement gave the United States the right to impose its will on the people of South Vietnam Lewy never explains. He passes in silence over the actual US government response to the 1954 accords, specifically, the recommendation of the National Security Council to use force in explicit violation of law to defeat “local Communist subversion or rebellion not constituting armed attack,” a recommendation that was implemented by installing a regime that launched a reign of terror, then joining it in expanding violence when its terrorism evoked a response that it could not contain. Essentially, then, Lewy merely assumes imperial prerogatives, noting that “American leaders did consider it vital not to lose Vietnam to a Communist-led insurgency directed and supported by North Vietnam.”


Lewy had access to substantial new documentation from US government sources. What he has culled from it is by and large insignificant , although occasionally he provides some new evidence of interest. To cite one case, Lewy reports a military analysis of “air operations in the populated Delta area” in January 1963 involving “indiscriminate killing which took a heavy toll of essentially innocent men, women and children.” Elsewhere, he notes that “during the year 1962 American planes flew 2,048 attack sorties” and that “villages in open zones were subjected to random bombardment by artillery and aircraft so as to drive the inhabitants into the safety of the strategic hamlets.” A serious historian would ask how this early and extensive US participation in an assault on the rural population of South Vietnam bears on the question of the legitimacy of the US presence and the locus of aggression. But Lewy never raises these issues. His only comment is that the “indiscriminate killing was counterproductive.”


Lewy’s concept of innocence deserves careful attention. He comments on the “difficult question of who should be considered innocent” as villages were destroyed by napalm and “the lavish use of American firepower.” He recognizes that “in large measure the war was a revolution which started in the hamlets and that therefore the Viet Cong were already among the people when we went to the hills.” It was necessary to remove the fish from the water. Therefore, “until late 1968 the prevalent but uncodified policy was that of compulsory relocations and displacement by military pressure through combat operations, crop destruction and the creation of specified strike zones.” This too was counterproductive since, as US advisers discovered, “Putting the people behind barbed wire against their will is not the first step towards earning their loyalty and support.” Other studies found that “our unobserved fire alienates the local peasants in most cases, thus harming our efforts to break down their loyalty to and support for the Viet Cong.” Operation Cedar Falls removed thousands of people “presumed to be either members of VC families or VC laborers,” then demolishing their villages and destroying the land with Rome Plows. In Operation Malheur thousands of villagers were evacuated and their houses burned and “the extensive use of artillery and air strikes with high explosives and napalm resulted in large-scale destruction and the deaths of villagers and many refugees.”


Only admittedly pointless killing would be criminal, something that no state ever admits. Lewy quotes critics of the US war who wrote that the United States was committing war crimes “in the layman’s sense of the term,” failing to understand the reason for the qualification: namely, that every state has its Guenter Lewy’s who will stretch an elastic legal code to accommodate whatever atrocities “military necessity” and available military technology find convenient. On his principles, it would take very little effort to justify gas chambers—for example, as part of a “manpower resource-denial program” if an entire rural population is “guilty” and “general devastation” is therefore justified in any case. Even an internal minority could be handled in this manner with little adjustment to the principles involved if, for example, social theorists and the state sincerely believed that this “race” was a cancerous evil, contaminating healthy genes and plotting subversion. The efficient surgical excision of such a group by “general devastation” or other modes of disposal would be, in Lewyesque terms, a “socio-military necessity,” that should be evaluated in terms of efficiency in pursuing the state objective. It might conceivably be counterproductive.


On matters of international law, Lewy always searches for the interpretation that will rationalize anything that the United States did. He cites a RAND Corporation study of the crop destruction program which indicated that it was seriously damaging the civilian population, causing intense hatred of the United States and Saigon, and not even serving to deprive the insurgents of food. The program violated the army’s own code and was therefore “disguised as South Vietnamese activity.” Lewy defends it on the ground that the military thought and claimed that it was useful. It contributed to “the overall resource-denial program, and forced civilians into refugee camps so that as a result, the VC suffered manpower shortages for support purposes.” Furthermore, Lauterpacht “even grants the right of general devastation in order to deprive guerillas of their sustenance.” Thus Lewy disposes of international law on two levels. First, he assumes the right of the United States to impose its will by force on the people of South Vietnam, an act regarded as aggression when performed by hostile states; and having accorded this unique right to the United States, he concludes that military necessity may justify annihilation. Thus, “If guerillas live and operate among the people like fish in the water, then, legally, the entire school of fish may become a legitimate military target,” in which case moral blame falls on the guerillas “who have enlarged the potential area of civilian death and damage.” If the guerillas continue to live in their villages, they are morally culpable and they and their families may be incinerated.


Recall that Lewy is not writing just military history but a moral tract. He writes that “the reasoned conclusion of this study is that the sense of guilt created by the Vietnam war in the minds of many Americans is not warranted.” Lewy is concerned over “the impairment of national pride and self-confidence that has beset this country since the fall of Vietnam,” based on the belief that it is immoral to destroy a rural society and to drive its people to concentration camps where they are “protected” from the local groups they willingly support. This error can be rectified once we recognize that the millions of people treated in this manner by the United States were not “innocent.” “The only problem raised by the damage done to Vietnamese society by allied military operations is that it was a handicap to pacification.” (It has nothing to do with the 4 million people killed, and millions more affected throughout life from the devastating poisoning of the farms and water supply).


The foreign press is not so reserved. In its commentary on the American held POWs. The Far Easter Economic Review points out that “the Nixon administration has had nothing to say about the atrocities which have been going on for many years in these prisons and which still go on, often under the direct supervision of former American police officers.” (March 26, 1973) T.J.S. George notes “America’s continuing capacity to sustain an air of injured innocence” with regard to Hanoi’s “ungrateful leaders, who still exhibit no appreciation of the need for carpet-bombing, fragmentation blasting, blockades and protective reaction strikes on behalf of the Free World.” (F.E.E.R., April 9, 1973)


It is a fair generalization that the mass media have operated, virtually without exception, within the framework of state propaganda. The war is described as aggression by North Vietnam against the South, with the United States coming to the aid of the beleaguered South Vietnamese—unwisely, since the exercise in magnanimity was too costly and the means were inappropriate to the just ends sought. Long forgotten is the plain fact that the United States invaded, occupied, and virtually demolished South Vietnam, expanding the war all over Indochina, after its failure to impose the dictatorship of its choice in the South.


By adopting the framework of government propaganda in the early stages of the US intervention, the press contributed materially to the violence of subsequent years. Any state, democratic or totalitarian, must mobilize public support for dangerous, costly, and vicious policies. By misrepresenting the American intervention as a defense of freedom, the mass media helped mobilize that public support, creating political pressures that would have made it difficult for US policymakers to extricate themselves short of all-out war even if they had so desired.


One of the few reporters still working seriously in South Vietnam, Daniel Southerland, concluded from his extensive investigations that “the Saigon government has been guilty in by far the greatest number of cases of launching offensive operations into territory held by the other side. Quite a few Saigon troop casualties seem to be attributable to Saigon attempts to build outposts in zones which have been recognized for years as NLF base areas. The Thieu government also seems to feel that it has the right, despite the cease-fire, to take back territory which it lost during last year’s big Communist offensives.” (Christian Science Monitor, March 30, 1973)


Other reports from South Vietnam confirm this assessment. Southerland had earlier reported from Long Khanh Province that a few days after the cease-fire, “government forces did not hesitate to use the heaviest weapons at their disposal, including bombs, artillery shells, and helicopter rockets. The brutal manner in which the government forces blasted their way back into the hamlets has hardly won friends.” (CSM, February 8, 1973)


A western cameraman who spent twenty-four hours in a “Vietcong-controlled zone” reported that “a South Vietnamese helicopter gunship sprayed a village in a raid lasting more than a half an hour” and that villagers predicted, to within five minutes, the onset of the regular evening artillery bombardment. (N.Y. Times, February 9, 1973)

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