"I'm going to Saigon," said Secretary of Defense James Mattis last month before correcting himself. "Ho Chi Minh City -- former Saigon."
It was the fifth time that Mattis would meet with his Vietnamese counterpart, Minister of National Defense Ngo Xuan Lich, and it marked the defense secretary's first visit to a former U.S. military base outside of Ho Chi Minh City. In 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, Bien Hoa Air Base was home to 550 aircraft. Today, it is one of many sites heavily contaminated by America's toxic defoliant of choice, Agent Orange.
During that conflict, the United States deliberately sprayed more than 70 million liters of herbicidal agents across the Vietnamese countryside to wipe out forests providing cover for the guerrillas -- known as the Viet Cong, or "VC" -- and across rice paddies to drive civilians from their villages. A 1967 analysis by the RAND Corporation concluded that "the civilian population seems to carry very nearly the full burden of the results of the crop destruction program; it is estimated that over 500 civilians experience crop loss for every ton of rice denied the VC." Of course, toxic defoliants didn't just fall on foliage. According to hamlet census data, herbicides were sprayed on as many as 4.8 million Vietnamese. Immediate reactions to such exposure included nausea, cramps, and diarrhea. In the longer term, the defoliants have been associated with a higher incidence of stillbirths as well as cancers and birth defects like anencephaly and spina bifida that affect Vietnamese children to this day.
"USAID is about to start a major remediation project there at Bien Hoa Air Base from the old days," said Mattis, using the acronym for the United States Agency for International Development. That soil restoration project at the former base, agreed upon in 2014, will take at least several years to complete and cost U.S. taxpayers $390 million. "So, this is America keeping her promise to remediate some of the past," Mattis explained. Some indeed. So many decades later, there are countless other contaminated hotspots, as well as at least 350,000 tons of live bombs, artillery shells, rockets, and mines that could take hundreds of years to clear. There are also the surviving wounded of the conflict and those who continue to be injured by all that leftover ordnance. And then, of course, there are the still-mourning relatives of those slain then and of the victims of its lethal remains. The past, in such cases, has yet to be remediated.
"So, between our two nations, we respect the... past, or we have. But we're also looking toward the future," Mattis told reporters. "And the legacy of the war has turned into, actually, a basis for defense cooperation." If conflicts do, indeed, breed cooperation 40 years later, then the future looks blindingly bright for the U.S. military. In an era marked by armed interventions from Afghanistan to Yemen, Iraq to Niger, Libya to Somalia, Syria to Tunisia, the United States has, it seems, set itself up for a golden age of future alliances in the second half of this century or sometime in the next one. That era-to-come may also see Pentagon commemorations of America's many War-on-Terror conflicts. But if they're anything like the Defense Department's current effort to rewrite the history of the Vietnam War -- chronicled today by TomDispatch regular Arnold Issacs, who covered that conflict for the Baltimore Sun in the 1970s -- let's hope that Americans of the 22nd century view them with a jaundiced eye. Nick Turse
Making America's Wars Great Again
The Pentagon Whitewashes a Troubling Past
By Arnold R. Isaacs
Here's a paradox of the last few decades: as American military power has been less and less effective in achieving Washington's goals, the rhetoric surrounding that power has grown more and more boastful.
The cliche' that our armed forces are the best and mightiest in the world -- even if the U.S. military hasn't won any of its significant wars in the last 50 years -- resonates in President Trump's promise to make America great again. Many Americans, clearly including him, associate that slogan with military power. And we don't just want to be greater again in the future; we also want to have been greater in the past than we really were. To that end, we regularly forget some facts and invent others that will make our history more comfortable to remember.
The Vietnam War was obviously one of the most disastrous of this country's past mistakes -- and the Pentagon's "50th Vietnam War commemoration" is a near-perfect example of how both national and military leaders and a willing public have avoided facing important truths about Vietnam and American wars ever since. That's not just a matter of inaccurate storytelling. It's dangerous because refusing to recognize past mistakes makes it easier to commit future ones. For that reason, the selective history the Pentagon has been putting out on Vietnam for more than six years, and what that story tells us about the military leadership's institutional memory, is worth a critical look.
The commemoration website's historical material -- principally a set of fact sheets and an extensive "interactive timeline" -- is laced with factual mistakes, errors of both omission and commission. Its history drastically minimizes or more often completely ignores facts that reveal America's policy and moral failures, its missteps on the ground, and its complicity (along with the enemy's) in massive civilian suffering not just in Vietnam but in Laos and Cambodia, too. Opposition to the war at home is largely scrubbed out of the record as well.
Perhaps more telling than the misstatements has been the prolonged failure to correct faulty entries that have remained unchanged for years even though the site's administrators were well aware of them.
Back in 2014, following a critical TomDispatch article by Nick Turse, author of Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, and pressure from other critics, officials did revise a few items. Those included the My Lai massacre (though the site still does not use the word "massacre" for the murder by U.S. troops of more than 500 civilians, including women and children) and the naval clashes in the Tonkin Gulf that led to the first U.S. air strikes on North Vietnam. But no more corrections followed, leaving a startling range of wrong or misleading statements untouched.
In its most noticeable distortion, the site virtually ignores the domestic debate on the war and the divisions it caused in American society. As of this writing, the 30-year (1945-1975) timeline still includes only terse one-line entries for each of the massive national antiwar protests of October and November 1969. The wave of demonstrations in May 1970 following the U.S. "incursion" in Cambodia gets a somewhat more detailed entry, mentioning the deaths of protesters killed by National Guard troops at Kent State University in Ohio and by police gunfire at Jackson State College in Mississippi.
Aside from those, though, most other important moments in the peace movement are missing from the timeline altogether. The massive 1965 and 1967 protest marches outside the Pentagon are nowhere mentioned. Nor are the chaotic protests the following year outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Although the Vietnam veterans' experience is billed as the central theme of the commemoration, veterans who came to oppose the war were also blanked out of its story until just days ago, when officials at the commemoration's History and Legacy branch learned that I was working on the present article. Only then did the site managers insert a new entry on the dramatic week-long protest in April 1971, when hundreds of disillusioned vets threw away their decorations in front of the U.S. Capitol -- an event previously not mentioned in the timeline at all.
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