Episode 7: The Veneer of Civilization:
The question of troop morale haunts this segment, but B/N’s picture isn’t entirely coherent. At several points it touts the morale of the US soldiers. According to B/N the soldiers love their new commander Creighton Abrams. Highly decorated Victor Okamoto exclaims “How does America produce young men like this?” Karl Marlantes (who joins the army even though he thinks the war is wrong) is full of praise for the young soldiers who charge along with him. But Tim O’Brein is certainly a reluctant warrior and Matt Harrison decries that on his second tour his company consisted of draftees who didn’t want to be there. There were over 1/2 million desertions during the war; by 1969 they had increased fourfold. Deserters in Canada had issued a “Deserters’ Manifesto’ at the end of 1968. Discharges for drug abuse were also already on the rise. By the middle of 1971, Colonel Robert D. Heinl, Jr.( briefly mentioned in a later episode) bemoaned a an army “in a near state of collapse”.
Similarly B/N emphasize one after another crushing defeat of the NLF and DRV, how many are killed along the Ho Chi Minh trail, how party propaganda avoided any discussion of defeat, and how much of the party elite kept their children out of the war. Air Force pilot McPeak does allow he “would have been proud to fight with the truck drivers on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.” That people from the North continue fighting is explained with the patronizing assertion that the poor in the countryside “were especially receptive to the slogans and promises of the revolution.” And my question is why was that in the face of all the losses that B/N document? B/N flash Ho’s slogan that “nothing is more precious than independence and freedom” to what end is unclear. To show its resonance; its evocative power; its ability to manipulate? One of the findings in the Rand Corporation’s study of the NLF and NVA’s resiliency and morale was something foreign to the American Army: the right of PLA troops to discuss and criticize battle plans.
Are we supposed to applaud Nixon’s extraordinary comeback or is this to demonstrate that even though B/N skewer Nixon, that they give credit where credit is due?
Left out of the story of Mayor Daley’s preparations for the Democratic Convention is his reaction to the uprising after MLK’s death that April. Nine Black men had been killed and reporters questioned at least 4 of the police killings; Daleys’ response was his infamous “shoot to kill arsonists” and “shoot to maim looters.” It’s plausible that this was a threat not only against Chicago’s Black community, but a warning to prospective demonstrators at the Democratic Convention. SDS leaders actually published an article discouraging people from coming to Chicago for the protests entitled “Don’tBring Your Guns to Town” fearing what Daley might do in response. Abe Peck’s Chicago Seed warned of a bloodbath. B/N do document what Walter Cronkite called a ‘police state’ with 6000 military, 6000 armed National Guard in a addition to the 12000 Chicago police on call (with mace and riot helmets). They were augmented by 1000 FBI, CIA and military intelligence agents. The protestors were denied permits, to march or sleep in the parks, and were cordoned off from the Convention. A typically military solution to a political crisis.
B/N’s estimate of 15000 protestors is the highest I’ve ever seen. Dean Johnson, a Native American hippie who had evidently come to Chicago for the convention, was shot and killed by police in Old Town on Thursday, August 22 a few days before the start of the convention which added to the tension. Typically for their coverage of the antiwar movement, no actual protestor is interviewed, just a veteran (Caputo) who became a reporter who mainly comments on his sense of the Chicago police, though Ron Ferrizzi, on R & R, in the Philippines is radicalized by watching TV coverage..
B/N’s overly sympathetic take on the Phoenix Program, perhaps influenced by one of their heroicized interviewees, Victor Okamoato, pretty much blames its profound problems on those South Vietnamese. Here B/N’s double standard shines through; imagine their take on an NLF assassination program. Instead they see an almost benign , if out of control, effort to destroy the NLF political infrastructure. A selection from Talking Points II’s take on the Phoenix program:
The Americans provided its conception, technology and data base. Why was there no accountability? In 1965, The CIA launched its Counter Terror program, an attempt to use “techniques of terror – assassination, abuses, kidnappings and intimidation – against the NLF leadership. According to the historian Alfred W. McCoy:
The program expanded in 1967, when the CIA established a centralized pacification bureaucracy, the Civil Operations and Rural Development Support (CORDS), that drew all the scattered counterinsurgency operations into a covert assassination campaign later named the “Phoenix program.” With limitless funding and unrestrained powers, Phoenix represented an application of the most advanced U.S. information technologies to the task of destroying the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI) in the villages.
In July 1968, South Vietnamese President Thieu formally established the Phoenix program, or Phung Hoang in Vietnamese, named after a mythical Asian bird. A centralized data bank was developed that identified alleged communist leaders for interrogation or elimination. CIA program director William Colby later testified to a congressional committee, “The idea of identifying the local apparatus (communist leaders) was designed to – well, you go out and get them to surrender, or you capture or you shoot them.”. It was run by the CIA under the aegis of the United States Agency for International Development’s Office of Public Safety at a cost of between $7 million and $15 million a year, with additional funds raised through illicit off-the-books means, including drug profits.
Former CIA analyst Samuel Adams in an interview with CBC News, talked about the program as basically an assassination program that also included torture. A former Phoenix Intelligence Officer, Barton Osborn, in an interview broadcast in 1975, talked about the torture practices used by the Americans and detailed a case in which a man was dragged out of the interrogation’s hooch with a dowel protruding from his ear. The dowel had been tapped through in the course of torture to hit the brain. These were activities performed by American Marines. They would also kill people by throwing them out of helicopters to threaten those they wanted to interrogate and who were forced to watch other men being thrown out into the air.
Those who were apprehended were rarely NLF leaders. One Pentagon study of Phoenix operations in 1970-71 found that only 3% of those “killed, captured, or rallied [defected] were full or probationary party members above the district level.” In 1969 alone, according to official figures, 19,534 people were “neutralized.” That number included 8,515 captured, 6,187 killed, and 4,832 who defected (if indeed they were NLF cadre).
The CIA instructed its protégés in sophisticated interrogation techniques designed to emphasize the prisoner’s helplessness and dependence on his captor, using lie detectors, Page-Russell electroshock machines, and other gadgets. These methods led to wide-scale torture. Some Phoenix agents used their positions for revenge and extortion, threatening to kill people and count them as VC if they did not pay huge sums. Have these methods been normalized?
 Alfred W. McCoy, “Imperial Hubris: Information Infrastructure and America’s Ascent to Global Power,” pp. 18-19, https://www.upf.edu/iuhjvv/_pdf/EmpiresxMcCoy_Paper-5x26x10.pdf.
.Colby recounts his testimony in Andrew Jon Rotter, Light at the End of the Tunnel: A Vietnam War Anthology (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), p. 153. See also, Kathy Kadane, “U.S. Had Role In Massacre Of 250,000, Ex-Diplomats Say,” The Seattle Times, May 20, 1990.
 See Douglas Valentine, The Phoenix Program: America’s Use of Terror in Vietnam (New York: William & Morrow, 1991); and Alfred W. McCoy, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade (New York: Lawrence Hill Books, 1991).
 James P. Sterba, “The Controversial Operation Phoenix: How It Roots Out Vietcong Suspects,” New York Times, February 18, 1970.
B/N recount recent documentation of Nixon’s treasonous role in helping scuttle the Paris peace negotiations in late October 1968 by contacting President Thieu and promising a better deal if he’s elected President. Left out is Kissinger’s role, as well as B/N interviewee, South Vietnam’s Bui Diem.
B/N are rightly critical of General Julian Ewell’s Speedy Express: the creation of a free fire zone in the Mekong Delta. Ewell felt that “winning hearts and minds can be overdone”; so pacification lost any veneer of reform and became “kill anything that moves”; a classic case of terror from the air. Instead of a trial for war crimes, Ewell received a promotion.
While the secret bombing of Cambodia is mentioned, Kissinger’s key role is not. Here’s a section from Talking Points I:
- March 18-May 26, 1970 Operation Menu – the secret bombing of Cambodia and Laos — the codename of a covert US Strategic Air Command (SAC) bombing campaign conducted in eastern Cambodia and Laos— is launched. Operation Menu was succeeded by Operation Freedom Deal, which lasted until August,1973. Operation Menu marked an illegal invasion of neutral countries which had not attacked the US and with which the US was not at war, setting a dangerous precedent for future preemptive military actions. Eventually more bombs were dropped on Laos and Cambodia than combined on Germany and Japan in World War II. Laos became the most bombed country in history. Agent Orange was also widely sprayed. The targets of these attacks were presumed sanctuaries and base areas of the (PAVN) and forces of the NLF, which Nixon and Kissinger thought, utilized them for resupply, training, and resting between campaigns across the border in(South Vietnam. The US also built up General Vang Pao’s Hmong forces in the northern and southern regions of Laos. The impact of the bombing campaign on the Khmer Rouge guerrillas, the PAVN, and Cambodian civilians in the bombed areas is disputed by historians, though undoubtedly it led to the collapse of a neutralist Cambodia.
- This bombing campaign was carried on in extreme secrecy was closely supervised by Kissinger with the help of Air Force Colonel Claude Sitton. A dual reporting system (to circumvent the Strategic Air command’s normal command and control system) wars set up to pretend that South Vietnam was the target of the Cambodia and Laos bombings. The real documentation was destroyed (in a special furnace) while false documentation was created to justify expenditures.
- The simultaneous rise of the Khmer Rouge and the increase in area and intensity of U.S. bombing between 1969 and 1973 incited speculation as to the relationship between the two events.Ben Kieran, Director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale, argues: “Apart from the large human toll, perhaps the most powerful and direct impact of the bombing was the political backlash it caused…The CIA’s Directorate of Operations, after investigations south of Pnom Penh, Cambodia, reported in May 1973 that the communists there were successfully ‘using damage caused by B-52 strikes as the main theme of their propaganda’… .The U.S. carpet bombing of Cambodia was partly responsible for the rise of what had been a small-scale Khmer Rouge insurgency, which now grew capable of overthrowing the Lon Nol government”
The episode ends with Karl Marlanates describing the visceral exhilaration in a manner that recalls Robert Bly’s mythopoetic men’s movement which urged men to recover a disappearing pre-industrial conception of masculinity. It’s as if B/N are are getting real by letting us know that we are savages after all, a way of extolling martial courage and simultaneously explaining away its problematic nature.
“THE VENEER OF CIVILIZATION”
Every episode is replete with images of the killing machine grinding away — B52’s float like geese thousands of feet above the terrain lazily letting their payload out to nonchalantly ravage the countryside as F-4’s swoop in and 155’s and 175’s pound away day after day. More ordnance than all of World War II let loose on a country the size of Massachusetts. By this time the viewer can’t be blamed for being numbed by it all. But now, in 1968, the bodies start piling up like cordwood, and we are locked into an Hieronymus Bosch painting of our own design. To break us out of our stupor Burns and company flash street scenes from all around the world of student riots and police clubbings (the Beatles’ “Revolution” screams away). Our chopper crewman from the previous episode recounts what it was like in an Australian hotel room (he was on R&R) to watch a cop who looked like his father beating on a kid who looked like him. From that moment on, he tells us, he was politicized. Note that the really bizarre part of R&R (I, too, went to Sydney) was going back. There was no excuse now — you knew full well what you were heading into. There were reports of guys deserting at this point, but not many. Meanwhile, the voices of Simon and Garfunkel singing from “What A Time It Was” wafts out of the TV screen. We are trapped. It is 1968.
Tim O’Brien, the author of what I consider to be one of the finest renditions of the “Vietnam experience” — THE THINGS THEY CARRIED — tells us what it was like for a middle-class white kid getting his draft notice. Canada beckons. His parents avoid the topic. He waivers. He finally admits to going into that immoral war out of cowardice. He did not want to embarrass his parents or have his family vilified by the townsfolk for having a son shirk his duty. He admits to “turning off a switch” in his mind — the debate has ended. He will go. As he looks into the camera from beneath his beloved Red Sox hat, he shares the haunted look of Bill Ehrhart from Episode Six. A lifetime of almost crippling remorse stares back at us. Note: I received my draft notice sitting in a boarding house just off the campus of Ohio State in the fall of 1968, where I was half-heartedly pursuing an MBA, and I, too, consumed by self-centered personal travails, caved in. I would go as well. What strikes me at this point in the film is how the auteurs have distilled hours of interviews into a few precious moments of deep truth — O’Brien connects with me almost as if an electrical charge has passed between us. I know that he knows that I know.
Khe Sanh by now has been totally decimated. And after all the blood and terror, the military packs up and leaves, deserts the landscape. Poof. Gone. A neighbor from around the block, brother of a woman whom my brother was engaged to, is on one of the first patrols leaving the encampment. He is killed. Surely, though, after all the bombing around the perimeter, the infamous “kill ratio” has to be in our favor. His death is slotted away, a digit lost in some bureaucrat’s bloodless calculus. What is left of the NLF slip away to be wasted down country in the streets of South Vietnam as the Tet Offensive gears up. Images of these poor bastards working their way down the Ho Chi Minh Trail are striking as they capture one thing that we all shared — the thousand yard stare.
Meanwhile, back home the debacle of the 1968 presidential election unfolds — with so much footage to choose from, Burns and Novick cannot be faulted for using scenes from Chicago streets, but I have to tell ya, the shot of LBJ and Ladybird laying in bed watching the returns is classic — quick! Think of John and Yoko holding their “bed-in” wearing, I swear to God, the same pajamas. Kids, it was truly bizarre being alive in 1968. And by now in the film, when the gentle music begins, and we are allowed to bear witness to clips of some young lad growing up in America, we know he is doomed. We just wait to hear of his particular fate — blown to smithereens while riding on an APC or gunned down while walking point. There are now some 37,560 American deaths in January of 1969 and, of course, who knows — in this racist war — how many Vietnamese. The camera rolls on.
Speaking of “kids,” I find Marlantes’ account of “his” war particularly grating. I recognize his honorable intentions, leaving Oxford University to be as deeply engaged in the war as the lowest grunt, and, by all accounts, fighting bravely. But he typifies for me the stupid patronizing attitude of the officer class — he is overwhelmed by the almost blind commitment of “his” 19 year olds, who, with no skin in the political game and virtually guaranteed to not reap any riches from this war, slog on under his command. I do not question his love and even allegiance to the men he fought alongside. I just remember being looked at by some “shake and bake” as if I were a piece of machinery to be used as he saw fit. Officers! Don’t get me started….
Burns and Novick packed a lot into this episode — the iniquitous Phoenix Program, General Ewell’s bloodthirsty “Speedy Express” murder campaign, the burgeoning black market, the corruption prevalent in the ARVN and the dehumanizing impulses of your average GI let loose in a “Free Fire Zone.” All there for us to see. But what to take away? An admiration for the heroism of Americans and Vietnamese caught up in a grotesque, immoral, unjust war, just trying to survive? Disgust at the venality of the old men in the background pulling the strings? A deep, abiding cynicism as we look into the future of our country? What? I dunno. Here’s a poem I wrote in 1986 after visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC for the first time:
Descending into this declivity
dug into our nation’s capital
by the cloven hoof
of yet another one of our country’s
Slipping past the names of those
refuse to heal
Slipping past the panel where
my name would have been
could have been
perhaps should have been
Down to The Wall’s greatest depth
where the beginning meets the end
Staring through my own reflection
beyond the names of those
who died so young
Knowing now that The Wall
has finally found me –
58,000 thousand-yard stares
have fixed on me
as if I were their Pole Star
as if I could guide their mute testimony
back into the world
as if I could connect all those dots
in the nighttime sky
As if I could tell them
the reason why