Vietnam Legacy: Heroes and Criminals

Revolutionary Worker #1047, March 19, 2000

It is hard to miss it. The Vietnam war is back again in official American politics. This presidential year, having fought in that war is being treated as a politician's "badge of honor."

This most directly applies to Arizona Senator John McCain who has been proclaimed (by the media, and even by electoral opponents) as a "bona fide war hero."

Not to be outdone, Vice President Al Gore runs ads showing himself in uniform, pictures from his Vietnam War days as an army reporter. The fact that Al Gore was the son of an anti-war senator, and that he was, himself, conflicted about that war, only underscores the calculated choice he made: because despite doubts about this war, he volunteered to fight in Vietnam.

The Gore ads are intended to show a contrast with the likely Republican nominee, Texas Governor George W. Bush--whose ruling class family was strongly pro-war during Vietnam. "Dub-ya" (as the younger George Bush is known) was the son of Republican oilman/congressman and soon-CIA-head George Bush. And Dub-ya--like Dan Quayle of Indiana--was able to pull family strings and get a safe duty in the Texas National Guard during the Vietnam War.

That's how it has been for the last few months: Presidential candidates polishing off their Vietnam War military records as signs of personal character, sacrifice and idealism. Meanwhile, in the wings, Minnesota's wrestler/governor Jesse Ventura brags about his covert wartime activities as a Navy SEAL in the Mekong Delta.

And for many people--especially those who resisted that war in Vietnam--all this is an outrage. It is a reversal of right and wrong.

As Mao Tsetung once said: "Reversing correct verdicts goes against the will of the people."

The Case of John McCain

John McCain was a Navy bomber pilot in 1967--part of an A-4 attack squadron based on the U.S. aircraft carrier Oriskany. Waves of these warplanes would sweep in, over northern Vietnam, from the South China Sea. The bombing campaign was called "Rolling Thunder."

Like everything else the U.S. did in the Vietnam War, "Rolling Thunder" came wrapped in lies. "Rolling Thunder" was supposedly a retaliation for unprovoked attacks on a U.S. destroyer by Vietnamese patrol boats. But, in fact, this 1994 "Gulf of Tonkin incident" was a U.S. fabrication.

President Johnson made up a fake Vietnamese attack--and then used it to justify the bombing of northern Vietnam which started in February 1965, and then the land invasion of southern Vietnam in March 1965.

As far as the public knew, "Rolling Thunder" only lasted eight weeks--but this too was a lie. The bombing campaign secretly lasted for four years, pounding targets throughout the North. After "Rolling Thunder," the U.S. bombing continued and escalated.

It was the most intense air war in world history. Seven million tons of bombs were dropped on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos-- three times as many as had been dropped in all of World War 2. Huge parts of Indochina were "carpet bombed"--killing Vietnamese civilians and liberation fighters, ruining valuable farmland and leaving the countryside pockmarked with 21 million bomb craters.

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 strongholds of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front. In Washington, strategists of the air war came up with a slogan, "Bomb them back to the stone age."

This is the air assault that pilots like McCain carried out. They formed an elite gung-ho caste inside the U.S. military. They were highly privileged, isolated from many hardships of war, and drawn from the upper classes of U.S. society. McCain himself was the son and grandson of four-star Navy admirals. His father was the top commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific during the last years of the Vietnam War.

In his memoirs, McCain describes how he and his fellow pilots hated any restrictions on their brutal work--how they thought the bombing should be unrestrained and totally ruthless. He describes how he and his fellow pilots greeted each escalation of the air war with wild celebrations.

In October 1967, John McCain was shot down during a bombing raid over the capital city of Hanoi. He had carried out 23 bombing missions. McCain was captured, his wounds were treated, and he was held in a Vietnamese prison with other captured pilots. Five years later, as the defeated U.S. withdrew from Vietnam, these prisoners were released.

Mass murder, then captivity--for that the Pentagon gave John McCain two Silver Stars, two Legions of Merit, two Flying Crosses, three Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts. Com. John McCain was a trained killer for U.S. imperialism. He carried out his orders without question. There is no discussion in his memoirs of the people he killed, or the destruction he carried out halfway around the world. He is totally unapologetic--shamelessly and repeatedly calling the Vietnamese "gooks" in media interviews over the past several months.

This is the record and these are the "ideals" that the U.S. media and political establishment now promote as "heroic."

Unjust War

The civilians who hauled McCain out of Hanoi's Truc Bach Lake in 1967 hated him for what he and the other pilots had done to their people, their city and their country. McCain mentions in his memoirs that one Vietnamese soldier guarding the U.S. prisoners would shout with great emotion, "You killed my mother!"

A war is defined by the political goals it serves. And 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.

Meanwhile, the U.S. claimed that it was defending a democratic ally, South Vietnam, from an invasion by North Vietnam. Another lie. 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. invaded to keep control by force.

The means that the U.S. used to fight this war were as criminal as the goals: By 1969, the U.S. command was leading 1.4 million troops in this poor southeast Asian peasant country. Over 500,000 of them were U.S. troops, and the rest were Vietnamese "puppet troops"--hired and controlled by U.S. "advisers." Anyone suspected of loyalty to the revolutionary guerrillas (the National Liberation Front--NLF) faced arrest, torture and execution. Many thousands were rounded up and brutalized--including by imprisonment in infamous "tiger cages."

The U.S.-occupied zones and cities gave a sense of what a U.S. victory would mean for the people: Peasants were rounded up into concentration camps called "strategic hamlets" and held there by troops. Rape and wholesale murder of civilians became routine--as when U.S. troops massacred a village of 500 people in My Lai on March 16, 1968. Hundreds of thousands of women and young boys were forced to prostitute themselves around U.S. bases and strongholds. Corruption was rampant--the U.S. forces and their South Vietnamese allies were consumed with black marketeering and drug smuggling.

In mid-1968 the CIA launched its notorious Phoenix program--intended to crush the people's movement by executing the organized "infrastructure" of revolutionary leaders and activists. It was a countrywide death squad campaign.The Vietnamese estimated that these CIA teams killed 40,000 suspects.

There has been much disinformation about the treatment of U.S. POWs in Vietnam. But the basic truth is that the U.S.-controlled prisons in South Vietnam held 70,000 prisoners at the height of the war--under the most brutal conditions imaginable. Meanwhile the Vietnamese forces held slightly over 300 U.S. military prisoners in northern Vietnam--most of them elite pilots who had carried out mass murder from the skies. By the end of the war, two million Vietnamese had been killed by the U.S.

Senator John McCain complains that his Vietnamese captors used the name "war criminal" to describe him, other U.S. pilots, the U.S. president and the Pentagon high command. But the whole world has known for 30 years that the U.S. attacks in Vietnam were war crimes on a massive and historic scale.

Who are the Real Heroes?

The people of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos defeated the U.S. invaders. That remains the most profound and thrilling fact of this whole history.

Defeating the U.S.--in ten years of intense warfare--required incredible ingenuity, perseverance, consciousness, self-reliance and sacrifice by millions. It inspired oppressed people all over the world to see the people of Indochina--this poor, low-tech, rural, colonized region--defeat the world's biggest imperialist power. In the late '50s, in southern Vietnam, the liberation fighters started with little more than primitive crossbows, bamboo spikes and a few old weapons from the war against the French, and built a deeply rooted people's war in the south that fought the U.S. invaders. In the north, the masses of people endured tremendous hardships to support the revolutionary struggle, sending supplies and army fighters down the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail.

And now, 25 years after Vietnamese liberation forces took Saigon on April 30, 1975, who are we supposed to consider "honorable"? Who were the people who showed "character"? Who are our war heroes?

Is it an unapologetic bomber like McCain, who brought "death from above" to a people fighting for liberation? Is it a conflicted liberal careerist like Al Gore who volunteered for this war so that his patriotic loyalty would forever be on his resume? Or a pampered ruling class frat rat like George W. Bush, who cheered the invasion of Vietnam from the beer parties of the Texas National Guard?

Or are our heroes those who fought against imperialism in Vietnam and those who dared to support them?

It is a question of class perspective--of radically different class interests. And for the oppressed people, it is the liberation fighters who are the real heroes--and those all over the world who dared support them. Millions of people mobilized to oppose U.S. imperialism's attack on Vietnam War. Students organized against the war in the U.S.--and even faced guns at the infamous 1970 shootings at Kent State and Jackson State. Thousands of young men in the U.S. refused to obey the draft--and went underground, or to Canada, or to prison, rather than fight for the U.S. Armed struggles developed among the oppressed people in many countries, threatening the imperialist grip on the globe.

And within the U.S. military itself--thousands of young men dared to resist--and help disintegrate the war machine from the inside. Thousands deserted, or just refused to fight, and even staged organized actions of resistance. A famous few went over to the liberation armies and fought against imperialism. And many more veterans, who came back from Vietnam radicalized, plunged into the Black Liberation movement, the antiwar movement and the growing revolutionary currents--bringing a raw and militant urgency with them. (See sidebar.)

Let the ruling class--their media and political representatives--uphold their invasion of Vietnam. It reveals much about their system and its nature. Decades after the Vietnam war, this system is still trying to "put Vietnam behind us." They are still trying to end "the Vietnam syndrome" (by which they mean restore the eager willingness of people to kill and die for U.S. military adventures.) The fact that the political system and media drool over the "character and ideals" of a John McCain, or offer up old war photos of an Al Gore shows how hostile this system is to simple justice--how unwilling it is to back away from its own most hideous acts.

Meanwhile, the people of the world have not forgotten Vietnam, and do not intend for it to be forgotten.

People saw the world's superpower brought to its knees by the revolutionary peasant fighters in their famous black clothes and homemade sandals. And the people remember well when resisters rose up, in the belly of the beast, in the ghettos and campuses and in the military itself--to oppose this war and this system.

Let this system pick its war heroes. And we'll pick ours.

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