Category Archives: Television Shows

E pluribus unum

 

 

Ken Burns has produced some magnificent television documentaries for Public Broadcasting in the US. Burns likes the traditional Latin motto of the United States E pluribus unumwhich means  “Out of many, one.” I like it too.  It appears on the Great Seal of the United Sates. Arthur Schlesinger complained that the United States suffered from too much pluralism and not enough one. It was adopted in 1782 but since then another motto has been more popular: “In God we Trust.”  I don’t like that one quite as much. In 1956 Congress adopted it as the official motto of the country. What ever happened to separation of church and state?

Ken Burns said that too often we think we connected and we are actually disconnected from each other. There are no more town greens. PBS is part of the commons. It is part of the public square. Burns says it is one place where we can have rational discourse in difficult times when the tapestry of the commons is frayed. Times like these. I think that is a pretty good motto.

The Golden Age of Television

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A few years ago a good friend of mine shocked me.  I asked him what books he had read recently. He said, “none.”  I was astonished.  How could that be? He was about the most well read guy I knew, yet he said he did not read much anymore. Instead he was watching television. I was thunderstruck. What a pitiful waste of time I thought.

He explained that this was the golden age of television and he was spending a lot of time watching television. I thought this was absurd. After all I was brought up on the value of books and the idea that most television was crap–dreck. There was very little good about anything on television, I thought.

At the time, when I did watch TV  I mainly watched the network shows or sports. ‘What shows should I watch,’ asked. He pointed me in the direction of some television shows I had hardly heard of before. Shows like, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. They were on weird channels I rarely watched. I resolved to give them a try.

I started with The Wire. This is a television show about black youth in Baltimore and their foes, the police and district attorneys. The series spanned 5 seasons. I found it very difficult to watch. I had trouble understanding what the youth were saying. Their slang was nearly impenetrable. After less than half a season I gave up on the show. I thought my friend who recommended it was nuts.  Some time later, maybe a year later, I came back to that show and tried harder “to get it.”  What was this show about? At first I could not grasp it.

After  awhile I thought I started getting an understanding of  what was going on. At least I thought I did. Then I realized that this was an extremely interesting series with some amazing writing and gritty acting. This was a police show unlike any other. Ultimately, I concluded this was the best television I had ever seen.

I also liked Mad Men, though not as much. The creators I thought were geniuses. I fell in love with Breaking Bad. The development of characters in the series and quirky stories and unlikely cinematography was outstanding. I was hooked. I started to love television. I found it hard to believe that this had happened.

I did not give up on books. Thank goodness.  I don’t really think my friend had given up either. Yet I realized some of the best writing, and most creative minds were at work in television. Since then I have come to appreciate many other fantastic television shows. Most of these were not shown on the standard networks with their formulaic approaches, but I could find them. I could find them and be amazed. This is the golden age of television.

7 Seconds: Truth is Murky

 

There has been an interesting phenomenon that has occurred in the last 10 years or so—the golden age of television. This happened while we never expected it. We were looking elsewhere and a miracle occurred. John Lennon was right about that. Often television is now better than the movies. Wonders don’t quit coming.

There have been a series of outstanding television shows, particularly series.  Series give film makers the time to do it right.  Haste makes waste. That is part of the problem with the cinema. Television sets that right.

Some of the dramatic series that I believe were outstanding include the following: Breaking Bad, Mad Men, True Detective(Season 1 only), The Killing, and above all The Wire. There were no doubt others that I missed.  I only saw some of them. Now there is one I can add to that short list—Seven Seconds. Like The Killing, 7 Seconds was produced by Veena Cabreros-Sud.She was born in Canada, if that matters.

The series follows what happens after an accident. It was not a murder of a young black man by a cop. It was an accident. A young police officer got a call that his wife was going to the hospital to give birth to a son. Earlier his wife had delivered a still born child. The police officer was getting the message as he drove his car. He was rushing to the hospital. He was distracted and he drove into something. He did not even see what he hit. It turned out to be a young black boy on a bike. The bike was the type used by a black gang. The boy had a criminal record for taking drugs.  The boy might have been a gang member. The truth as always was murky. Isn’t it always murky?

4 white police officers in a prestige drug crime squad quickly decide to do nothing.  They assist the young police officer in avoiding responsibility. They also do nothing to help the poor boy lying in the ditch. They leave the scene of the accident. They don’t want to be caught. The young boy is lying on the ground in winter in a park. The real story is what happens following that.

It is often said that the police don’t tolerate a charge against one of them. Any prosecutor who launches such a charge will find that the police won’t in the future cooperate with any investigations led by that prosecutor.

One dogged police officer starts investigating the case with a surly lack of enthusiasm. As another cynical police officer told her, “Remember the dead don’t need any answers.”  True, but the family of the dead want answers. The public wants answers. And they are entitled to them. Against his own better judgement the cynical police officer comes to pursue the case with vigor, particularly after a young junkie witness is killed by the police.

Yet, the lawyer who represents the police officer says to the press, “What we are witnessing is nothing less than a witch hunt against the Jersey City Police Department. One we are accustomed to seeing in Baltimore, Chicago, and New York. The list goes on. Every police officer in America is at risk of the becoming the next scapegoat for the racial ills of our society, and political correctness run amok. It’s a sham. It’s a sham. Thank you. ” The police association hired her as hired gun to say exactly that. This is their party line.

The question of course is whether or not she is right. Many believe exactly that. Police are important. We need them. They play a vital role in keeping life safe. At the same time while some of them are scapegoats, some of them are perpetrators. Yes, the truth is murky.

When the police association lawyer meets the 4 police officers, for whom she clearly has nothing but contempt, notwithstanding her grand statements, she tells them they must stick together. She tells them, “Alone you’re just an idiot with his hands caught down his pants. Together, you’re cops. Together they have to put the entire police department on trial. And no one ever convicts the entire police force.”  Good legal advice; bad moral advice. Lawyers only get paid for legal advice.  Then she adds, “Welcome to the criminal justice system gentlemen.  No one gives a fuck about the truth.”

Since Aristotle we have known that every tragedy has a hero with a flaw.  Here everyonehas a flaw. Each character has a flaw. Each character also has some good. No one is entirely good or entirely bad. Each character is complex. Each character resists stereotypes.  This is what makes the series interesting. Each character is worth looking at. Each earns some empathy from us.

The most interesting character in the series is the young black female prosecutor. She is a drunk. She lacks confidence. She is not a shining star. She gets into an ugly bar room encounter with some police officers and shows a very ugly side of her own character. She presumes she is better than them, entirely without justification. Someone calls her “a fucking idiot with a badge.” Yet she is the tragic hero. She is all that the family of the young deceased boy have to bring justice for their dead boy.

The prosecutor appears to be a pretty weak instrument for justice. Yet somehow she at least brings the victim to life so the jury she him. She also asks us to see the officer for what he was in his 7 seconds after he realized he had killed a young boy. Maybe the officer knew he was black. Maybe not. Truth is murky. She also brought the victim to life. At least the mother and father saw that she made a real person of an impersonal victim—carelessly labelled a black boy with a criminal record, obviously having received what he deserved. She brought him to life for one shining moment.

I don’t want to give the ending away. I want you to watch the series to get that. Let me just say that it is far from clear that justice is served. We also learn that revenge is never sweet. We do learn that justice is blind. Is that a good thing? Justice is complicated. Justice is murky. So is injustice.

 

Hatred, Fear, and Sympathy in War

 

Before they went to Vietnam, none of the American soldiers had been taught very much about the people they were fighting or the people they thought they were serving. American troops called the Vietnamese gooks–words first used by US Marines about the people of Haiti and Nicaragua during the American occupation of those countries. It hardly shows respect. They also applied the word to the North Koreans during that conflict. They had called the Japanese “slopes.” The Australians called the Chinese “dinks.” Those words were used in basic training. They said the Americans would be fightin gooks. “Vietnamese might be people, but gooks are close to being animals.” Soldiers referred to older Vietnamese women as “Mamasans” a term used to describe women who ran whore-houses in occupied Japan.   It was dehumanization again.

The North Vietnamese called G.I.s “invaders.” That is exactly what they were. They also called them “imperialists” which I believe they were, and Giăc Mŷ which meant “American bandits.”

By the summer of 1967 Americans were fighting in every part of Vietnam. Fighting was very intense in 1 Corp in the north. The Marines bore the brunt of the fighting there. 98% of the 2&1/2 million people who lived there lived within the narrow rice-growing river valleys along the South China Sea.

John Musgrave of the Marines was serving there. His company was heavily shelled by artillery hidden away in the Demilitarized Zone (‘DMZ’). They called that “the Dead Marine Zone.” His outfit was so heavily hit that it was referred to as “the walking dead.” Musgrave said that when he went to war “he wanted to be a part of the varsity”. He wanted to fight the North Vietnamese Army (‘NVA”). He said if he lived to be 62 some day he did not want to look in the mirror and see someone who had not given his all for what he believed in. He did not want someone else to do “the harder part.” He had pride. Some days when he was being heavily shelled he thought he was nuts, but he did it anyway. He thought it was his duty.

Musgrave said that every contact with the NVA was an ambush. They would contact the Americans unless they outnumbered them and “we were fighting in their yard.” Of course, I would ask him, why did you stay in your yard? They knew the ground; we didn’t. But that wasn’t all. “They were just really good.” Obviously he respected them. Why wouldn’t he?

All soldiers had weaknesses. According to Le Van Cho of the North Vietnamese his side had a big one. They smoked American cigarettes and left a trail that they could easily follow. The NVA also seemed to carry seemingly indestructible AK–47 weapons. The Americans used newly minted M-16s that for a time had a fatal flaw–they needed constant cleaning. They also often jammed in the middle of firing. Or as John Musgrave said, “Their rifles worked; ours didn’t. The M-16 was a piece of shit. You can’t throw your bullets at the enemy and have them be effective. And that rifle malfunctioned on us repeatedly.” I always thought American had superior weapons. I never realized that. I wondered, were the guns supplied by crony capitalists?

The Americans also had another “defect,” though in this case I am not sure that is the right word. As NVA member Ho Huu Lan pointed out, “When one of their soldiers was wounded or killed, and another ran up to retrieve the body, we were able to shoot them too.”

Though Musgrave obviously respected the soldiers, he said, “My hatred for them was pure. I hated them so much. And I was so scared of them. Boy I was terrified of them. And the scareder I got, the more I hated them.” Fear and hatred are indeed twins. In fact they are Siamese Twins.

Ho Huu Lan said, sympathy and hatred were interwoven, but on the battlefield hatred was dominant. The Americans were determined to kill us. We had to kill them too.

That’s what war is like. You have to fight the other even when you respect them.

War News = Fake News

 

A decisive battle in the Vietnam War occurred on January 2, 1963. This was the Battle of Ấp Bắc and it had important consequences for the Southern forces (‘ARVN’) and their American backers. After that the ARVN 4th Mechanized Rifle Squadron was deployed to rescue the South Vietnamese soldiers that were trapped with US aircrews (more advisors of course). The commander of the Southern forces was reluctant to try the heavier equipment the Americans had supplied and it made little difference. Instead the northern National Liberation Front (‘NLF’) a coalition of northern forces led by the Communists, stood its ground and killed more than a dozen South Vietnamese M113 crew members. Even when the ARVN 8th airborne Battalion was dropped down they also got pinned down. Finally under cover of darkness the Việt Cộng withdrew from battle, having won their first major victory of the war. More importantly, they had learned that the South Vietnamese forces were far from invincible, even with substantial American support. They learned that the South Vietnamese were reluctant to attack.

Oddly, the Americans treated this battle as a victory. However John Paul Vann who had been there to observe the battle, told reporters Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam the truth. He told them that the ARVN forces would not listen or obey orders to attack. According to Vann, it was a debacle not a victory at all. The reporters and Americans were being lied to. As Vann said, “It was a miserable performance. The ARVN won’t listen, they make the same mistakes over and over again.”

Amazingly, American General Paul Harkin declared victory. He said that Việt Cộng objectives had been thwarted and suffered heavier losses than the ARVN. Halberstam and Sheehan, much to his dismay, reported that the battle was a defeat. The Pacific Commander denied it and instead urged reports to get ‘back on the team,” suggesting that reporters should be cheerleaders for the team rather than objective truth tellers. I guess he wanted fake news.

John Musgrave one of the American soldiers Burns and Novick relied on heavily to tell the story of the Vietnam War quickly lost his innocence in that war. Like most soldiers he joined when he was young. When he left the Marines he was no longer young—at least he was no longer naïve. As he said, “We were probably the last generation of American kids that thought our government would never lie to us.”

The soldiers had learned, even if the American public had not, that war news is often fake news. Many Americans made the decision to support the war in Vietnam and enlisted or encouraged their children to enlist, on the basis of fake news. That is not something to be proud of. Actually that is pretty disgusting when you think about it.

If Soldiers are reckless about harm to civilians

 

Is there any moral difference between deliberately bombing civilian residential neighborhoods and aiming for nearby military targets and missing, with the result that civilian neighborhoods are bombed instead? In my opinion the difference is as slim as cigarette paper. Zig Zag at that. If warriors are reckless about civilian casualties, if they just don’t care, they are every bit as guilty as those who deliberately bomb them.

I will give a prosaic example. Let us say that a seller of a house who lies about the condition of a house to the buyer, says that the house does not contain dangerous mould when he or she knows there is mould. That is considered fraud and the seller is liable for fraud. If the seller innocently says the house does not contain mould, because he honestly believes that, and it does contain mould, the seller is usually not liable. The seller is not liable for the misstatement if the seller believed the statement was true, but the buyer is entitled to rescind the deal if the buyer chooses to do that. But if the seller does not know if the house contains dangerous mould, but still says anyway to the buyer that there is none, then the seller is reckless about he truth of the statement and is treated exactly as if he or she knew the truth and lied. In such a case the seller is considered fraudulent because the seller did not did not care about whether the statement was true or not. The reckless seller is considered as fraudulent as if the seller deliberately lied. I think it is the same with bombing. If soldiers just don’t care if civilians are hurt by bombs or not, they should be treated just as if they deliberately targeted civilians. The actions are morally equivalent.

This has happened more than once in the Syrian war by both sides. The Americans did it and so did the Syrians. I do not accept the argument, used by President Assad in Syria and implicitly endorsed by some members of the United States forces that they could do ‘whatever it takes’ to win. Their position is that at all costs, they must win.” That is the attitude that leads to the reckless endangerment of civilian lives. That is the attitude, whether demonstrated by Americans or Syrians that is morally repugnant. There must be limits to a just war. “At all costs” is not good enough. Just because one is engaged in war does not entitle one to do anything at all to win.

I think many countries have forgotten this. I think the Americans and North Vietnamese both forgot this in the Vietnam War. That stained both sides to the conflict. As is so often the case, it is rare when one side is all right and the other all wrong. Of course, both sides always forget this, thinking truth and beauty is on their side and moral turpitude on the other.

Betting on Bad Apples

 

In January 1964 South Vietnamese General Nguyen Khanh, with U.S. encouragement and support completed another coup. Johnson told McNamara to show that he had U.S. support. Johnson told his advisors, “no more of this coup shit,” but Khanh lacked support too. Other generals continued to jockey for power thinking he had no legitimacy.

Things were far from stable, no matter what Johnson said. Johnson turned a blind eye to calls from the Buddhists for a genuinely representative government they thought they would get when Diem was overthrown. There were 8 different governments between January 1964 and June 1965. “All of the leaders were so close to the Americans they were seen as puppets.” One of Johnson’s aids suggested that the national symbol of South Vietnam should be a turnstile.

What continually amazes is the extent to which politicians in America tied themselves to the most dubious of political leaders in far off lands. Often those leaders were incompetent, corrupt or both. Yet the careers and legacies of American political leaders were irrevocably connected to those leaders and once committed those Americans felt they could never sever that connection.

Why were they not able to say, “You know we were wrong. We thought we had people to work with in Vietnam. That proved not to be the case so I am calling our soldiers home. We would like to work with the people of Vietnam to keep out the communists if that is what they really want, but we can’t carry the load alone especially when the local leaders are not worth supporting with American lives? We would love to help but just can’t do it.”

After such statements where American leaders came clean to the American public, would Americans not accept the decision of their own leaders and say to thanks for not wasting any more lives of our young soldiers? Instead political leaders like Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon all committed themselves to supporting Vietnamese leaders no matter how clearly it was evident that nothing good would come of it.

This is particularly important today for American political leaders seem to have learned nothing from past disastrous experiences. They continue to support autocratic and corrupt leaders in places like Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Somalia, Burma, the Philippines, Chile, Panama, El Salvador, Guatemala, and so on and so on. The list is damn near endless. Such a policy seems absolutely suicidal and has proved disastrous over and over again, yet American political leaders keep doing.

I am reminded of what one American leader said about Antonio Somoza a vicious and corrupt former leader of Nicaragua who said, “he is a son-of-a – bitch, but he is our son-of-a – bitch.” Why do American political leaders think they always have to support a son-of-a – bitch no matter what? Why not just abandon them at the outset or at the very least give up on them when it becomes clear what they are? They don’t really need son-of-a – bitches on their side. There is usually (always?) a better way, no matter what the masters of real politick believe.

Of course with the backbiting in Saigon, the countryside lost confidence in their leaders and the war sputtered, while lives were lost. More and more lives were lost. That is what always happened. Politicians squabbled. America supported them . And young lives were lost. For what purpose? I have no idea. None.

Does any one see a pattern here?

Why is the War in Vietnam Important?

 

The War in Vietnam is not important because it was an interesting war that captured the attention of the country and led to the amazing period of the 60s in which a lot of young people like me grew up. It was all of those things to those of us who lived through it, even on the far distant sidelines of Canada. But there was more to it than that.

The War in Vietnam is important because of what it revealed about not just America, but the so-called free world. That includes us in Canada. This was the world of the west led initially by Europe and then the United States. It was the part of the world that was accustomed to having its way. It was accustomed to telling others what to do. It is important for what happens today.

If the west thought it should be allowed to colonize countries around the world that is just the way it was. Everyone had to accept that as just and reasonable—no matter how unjust and unreasonable it was. Europe was that way and then America took over for Europe when Europe faltered. Nowhere was that shown better (really worse!) than Vietnam.

Of course those attitudes continue to this day. Look at North Korea.  The major powers of the west have nuclear weapons. One country has even used them. What gives these countries the right to tell North Korea you can’t have nuclear weapons? I would hate to see more countries get nuclear weapons, but I can see why some countries want them.  A nuclear non-proliferation treaty was negotiated years ago. In that agreement many countries agreed to refrain from getting nuclear weapons, but those countries that already had them like the United States, England, Russia etc. agreed to negotiate seriously to eliminate nuclear weapons from their arsenal. After all why should other countries agree to refrain from acquiring them when so many countries have them?  The countries that had them have reneged on the agreement. They have not negotiated seriously for their elimination. As a result they have no right to deny them to North Korea, even though I wish North Korea would not get them. I fear that might be all it takes for other countries to get them too.

During the course of the Vietnam War, that wonderful politician Wayne Morse of Oregon knew this and understood this. It did not matter that every single politician, except him and one other, supported the Tonkin Resolution to authorize the President in effect to conduct a war in a far off country in the manner of his choosing. If it was not right he would not support it. He would proudly tell the truth no matter how unpopular it was. He spoke truth to power.

When we were young we watched the Dick Cavett Show on television nearly every evening. It was a ritual. My friends and I sat in our modest rental homes with our black and white rented television set and watched Dick Cavett interview an amazing array of interesting guests. Mainly they were celebrities but Cavett managed to get the best out of them.

The War in Vietnam was a frequent topic on his show. The War in Vietnam permeated so much of society it was difficult to avoid talking about it. One of his more interesting guests was an American Senator. Probably as old as I am now come to think of it. He was wise in other words. He was an old guy.  That older politician one of only two American Senators and Congressmen and women to vote against the Tonkin Bay resolution.   He was Senator Wayne Morse. I will comment more on that resolution later, but for now just read what he said.

This is what Senator Morse said on the Dick Cavett Show on ABC TV to explain his no vote against the Tonkin Bay resolution (That resolution authorized President Johnson to do almost anything he wanted to do in Vietnam):

If the Johnson administration had told the American people 5% of the facts of the Tonkin Bay incident the resolution never would have passed. The second thing I want to express in my conversation with you is watch out for the development of government by secrecy and executive supremacy. You had it manifested in the Tonkin Bay resolution. You just were not told the facts about America’s aggression in Tonkin Bay…We are a very proud people and its good that we’re proud, but we can’t run away from the facts just because we have a false sense of pride. And the difficulty with our Vietnam policy is that we have been the outlaw in South East Asia. We have been the aggressor. We violated one section after another of the Charter of the United Nations. We practically tore up the Geneva Accords. We have to face up to the fact that we cannot conduct a unilateral military course of action around the world without the world organizing against us. We’ve got to get out of Asia.

Throughout the decades of the War in Vietnam America was led by political and military leaders who felt no shame about lying to Americans or the world. They could do that because they were the good guys. Good guys lie but they do that for the good of all.

That was bad when the Americans had Presidents like Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, but it is many times worse when America is led by a President who has brought lying to an astonishing new level, like their current President. It was dangerous then; it is absolutely terrifying now.

It is like political leaders such as Judge Roy Moore of Alabama who is a good “Conservative Christian.” Because he is such a good conservative Christian it does not matter to many of his supporters that he may be a serial child molester in the Malls of Alabama. Because he is a good Christian whatever he does must be right.

Now we know, because of the War in Vietnam, that our leaders are not always good. Sometimes they are the bad guys. The War in Vietnam is important because it teaches us things about today. We should not forget the lessons that were learned the hard way. The very hard way.

I wonder if there is anyone around in the Republican Party to speak the truth to President Donald Trump. Perhaps John McCain, but he is not well He spoke up against Nixon. I don’ t see too many around of that quality today. That’s a pity

Do Good Guys commit Atrocities?

Dennis Stout,  a member of theAmerican  First Brigade of the 101st Airborne during the Vietnam War, was asked on the Ken Burns Television series if he had seen any atrocities on the part of American soldiers. He admitted he had. Stout was from Phoenix Arizona and had served 9 months in combat from 1966 to September 1967, but he had been there for a year. He spent most of his time with a small handpicked group of soldiers called Tiger Force. They spent weeks at a time in the jungle. They were “intended to out guerilla the guerillas.”

Tiger Force fought in 6 different provinces of Vietnam, repeatedly suffering heavy losses. As Rion Causey told it, “If you suffer losses and you lost your best friend it’s the officers who say no you can’t do that. If you do it then there’s consequences. But if the officers include a platoon leader and the Battalion commander are telling you that this is what you are supposed to do then it gets completely out of hand.”

Some at McV, an important base camp for American and South Vietnamese forces, realized that such a freewheeling outfit would be difficult to control. “But General Westmoreland and commanders in the field admired Tiger Force for its reliable ferocity.”

In the summer of 1967 Tiger Force was sent to the Song Ve Valley. The entire population had already been herded from their homes and crowded into a refugee camp. Some had come back to resume their farming life that they had traditionally done. “The valley had been officially declared a ‘Free-fire zone’ and Tiger Force’s officers took that literally. “There are no friendlies,” one lieutenant told us, “shoot anything that moves.” With a license like that from officers it is hardly surprising that atrocities occurred. How could they not?

“Over several months they killed scores of unarmed civilians. Among them were two blind brothers, an elderly Buddhist monk, women, children, and old people hiding in underground shelters, and 3 farmers trying to plant rice. All were reported as enemy killed in action.” These were atrocities, pure and simple.

Tiger Force was not the only platoon Dennis Stout witnesses that crossed the line. He also discovered a case where a Vietnamese girl was kept for 2 days and raped, and then on the 3rd day killed. She was raped by everyone in the platoon except for a medic, Dennis Stout, and possibly one other member. Every other member of that platoon raped her. According to the U.S. Army website a platoon contains between 16 and 40 soldiers. That is a lot of rapes even on the low end of the scale.

Stout complained to the Battalion Sergeant Major about the rape (he should really say rapes), but he explained that these things happened in wars all the time. He was told not to mention it and that it was a common occurrence. Stout also complained to the Chaplain who made an independent investigation. He found that this was true. The two of them then went to see the Sergeant Major who told the Chaplain to stick to religion and told Stout that he did not have to return for the next engagement.

Years later another soldier came forward with allegations of war crimes. An Army investigation found probable cause to try 18 members of Tiger Force for murder or assault. They found that soldiers had cut the throat of a woman and killed her. They also cut off the ears and killed 10 farmers before they stopped shooting. They also scalped a soldier. “But no charges were ever brought. The official records were buried in the archives.”

James Willbanks of the U.S. Army opined that all of them should have been charged with murder. “They should have all gone to jail. They were all guilty of murder. At the same time, I felt that incident was an aberration, not the norm, tarred all veterans, and there are 100s of thousands of veterans who went and did their duty as honorable as they possibly could and they are tarred with the same brush.”

Some people learned some important things about war. As one Vietnam veteran, Karl Marlantes, said,

 

One of the things I learned in the war is that we are not the top species on the planet because we are nice. We are a very aggressive species. It is in us. And people talk a lot about the military turns kids into killing machines and stuff. I have always argued it is just finishing school. What we do in civilisation is that we learn to inhibit and rope in these aggressive tendencies. And we have to recognize them. I worry about a whole country that doesn’t recognize it, because I think of how many times we get ourselves in scrapes as a nation because we are always the good guys. Sometimes I think that if we thought we weren’t always the good guys we might actually get in less wars.

 

Sometimes we have to take a hard look at ourselves. We owe it to ourselves; we owe to those who come after us.

 

Are we always the good guys?

 

The American Ambassador to Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, demanded that the President of South Vietnam Diêm (Our son-of-a-bitch) dismiss his brother who had been responsible for the raids on monks that disturbed people from around the world, but particularly Americans who were supporting the South Vietnamese regime.

Lodge also began to explore the possibility of a coup. The Americans were not shy about sponsoring coups in allied countries. They have done it in Iran, Guatemala, the Congo, and many other countries. Why not Vietnam too? While John F. Kennedy was on vacation, the American Under Secretary authorized a cable to Lodge approving a coup.

Kennedy actually had not wanted a coup. He thought his advisors had opposed a coup. It turned out they had supported it without his knowledge. As a result the Americans supported a coup against their own ally. When Kennedy was interviewed by Walter Cronkite and told him, unless Diêm changes his ways or “there is a change in personnel there is little chance in wining the war in Vietnam,” that certainly could have been interpreted as support for a coup.

Many of Kennedy’s advisors, including his Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, General Maxwell Taylor, and the head of the CIA all counseled Kennedy against a coup. None of them liked Diêm, but they saw no realistic alternative. That is a lesson American Presidents have forgotten in many countries including Iraq and Libya. Disposing of an unattractive leader serves no useful purpose if the replacement is just as bad or even worse.

Former American Ambassador to Vietnam, Fritz Nolting, who had served in that capacity from 1961 to 1963 warned that if Ngô Dinh Diêm and his brother were gone there was no one in South Vietnam capable of taking over from them. He said, if we got rid of them we would be saddled with a descending cycle of mediocre generals. Was he ever right!

Other advisors on the other hand thought it would be impossible for the South Vietnamese government to last under Ngô Dinh Diêm’s leadership. Kennedy told Lodge, as a result that the Generals of South Vietnam should be warned that the United States did not want to stimulate a coup but would not thwart one either. In other words, the Americans would acquiesce in a coup, but did not want to be held responsible for it. That’s the way it is usually done–they act like weasels. The Generals took this as a blessing to plan a coup.

Kennedy later confided in his personal notes, that the almost inadvertent authorization of a coup was a mistake. He should have had a full round table discussion on the subject.

As a result, on November 1, 1963 the plotting South Vietnamese Generals led a coup in South Vietnam against President Ngô Dinh Diêm and his brother.   According to Lodge, that day every South Vietnamese he saw had a big smile on his wife. No one supported Diêm. He had burned too many bridges (or should I say too many monks?). Lodge believed that after the coup the chances of winning the war had greatly improved. Kennedy was not so sure. That might have been true, if the replacement for Ngô Dinh Diêm was much better. Sadly, Nolting was right, the General that replaced him was also incompetent. Kennedy was also appalled that the coup led to the assassination of Diêm and his brother.

The brutal murder of the South Vietnamese President Ngô Dinh Diêm and his equally corrupt brother Ngo Dinh Nhu on November 2, 1963 was a major turning point in the war in Vietnam. Until that time the Americans had been mainly “advising” the government of Vietnam in its war against the Việt Cộng and the North Vietnamese Army. At that time the U.S. had “only” 16,000 troops in Vietnam. Those troops helped to train the ARVN (South Vietnamese Army) but also accompanied them on actual helicopter raids deep into enemy territory. It really was more than advising. It was engaging in battle, but it was done covertly.

When American casualties increased, and images of those dead were regularly seen on American television it became increasingly difficult to sell the American public on the idea that these were just advisors. After the assassination of the Diêm brothers, American policy in Vietnam took a dramatic turn. President Kennedy was also assassinated 3 weeks later and Lyndon Johnson became the new President. Johnson tried to follow Kennedy’s low-key approach to Vietnam until 1964 when American participation in the war increased sharply.

After the coup the question the Americans had to ask was whether or not the Generals would be able to create a stable democracy. Kennedy asked that question, but because he died 18 days later, he never really got an answer. Lyndon Johnson would have to deal with the issue.

Neil Sheehan, a New York Times reporter, was a perceptive commentator on the War in Vietnam. He pointed out that Americans thought they were an exception to history. They could never back the wrong side in a war. Americans are the good guys. They are always the good guys, Americans thought. Yet Sheehan said, “But the War in Vietnam proved we were not an exception to history.”

Johnson had opposed the coup that deposed Diem, thinking it would make a bad situation worse. That is exactly what it did. As Le Quan Cong, a VC soldier said, when Diem was killed the Vietcong was very excited. They thought they were about to liberate the whole country. They attacked night and day. As he said, “More and more puppet soldiers surrendered. More and more young people joined our forces.”

By then, “40% of the countryside and 50% of the people were effectively in the hands of the Vietcong.” Meanwhile the Generals that had overthrown Diem were bickering among themselves rather than concentrating on the war effort. As Robert Rheault of the American Special Forces said, “The assassination of Diem set in motion a series of coups each government was less effective than the one before it.” It was just as Nolting had predicted.

In January 1964 General Nguyen Khanh, with U.S. encouragement and support, completed another coup. Johnson told McNamara to show that he had U.S. support. Johnson told his advisors, “no more of this coup shit,” but Khanh lacked support too. Other generals continued to jockey for power thinking he had no legitimacy.

Things were far from stable, no matter what Johnson said. Johnson turned a blind eye to calls from the Buddhists for a genuinely representative government they thought they would get when Diem was overthrown. There were 8 different governments between January 1964 and June 1965. “All of the leaders were so close to the Americans they were seen as puppets.” That immediately destroyed their credibility. One of Johnson’s aids suggested that the national symbol of South Vietnam should be a turnstile.

What continually amazes is the extent to which politicians in America tied themselves to the most dubious of political leaders in far off lands. Often those leaders were incompetent, corrupt or both. Yet the careers and legacies of American political leaders were irrevocably connected to those leaders and once committed those American felt they could never sever that connection. Why were they not able to say, “you know we were wrong. We thought we had people to work with in Vietnam. That proved not to be the case so I am calling our soldiers home. We would like to work with the people of Vietnam to keep out the communists if that is what they really want but we can’t carry the load alone especially when the local leaders are not worth supporting with American lives. We would love to help but just can’t do it.” After such statements where American leaders came clean to the American public, would Americans not accept the decision of their own leaders and say thanks for not wasting any more lives of their young soldiers? Instead political leaders like Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon committing themselves to supporting Vietnamese leaders no matter how clearly it was evident that nothing good would come of it. Inertia is a powerful force.

This is particularly important today for American political leaders seem to have learned nothing from past disastrous experiences. They continue to support autocratic and corrupt leaders in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Somalia, Burma, the Philippines, Chile, Panama, El Salvador, Guatemala, and so on and so on. The list is nearly endless. Such a policy seems absolutely suicidal and has proved disastrous over and over again, yet American political leaders keep doing it.

I am reminded of what one American leader said about Antonio Somoza a vicious and corrupt former leader of Nicaragua who said, “he is a son-of-a – bitch, but he is our son-of-a – bitch.” Why do American political leaders think they always have to support a son-of-a – bitch no matter what? Why not just abandon them at the outset or at the very least give up on them when it becomes clear what they are? They don’t really need son-of-a – bitches on their side. There is usually (always?) a better way, no matter what the masters of real politick believe.

Sadly the answer is clear–we are not always the good guys. In fact we often not the good guys.