Category Archives: War

Vice

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The film Vice is the far from unbiased story of Dick Cheney the controversial former Vice President of the United States. It opens up with scenes of the horrendous aftermath of the September 11 attacks in the United States. There were scenes of disbelief, panic, and astonishment everywhere, including in the government offices. I wish they had included the video of President George W. Bush reading a story to kindergarten children in a Florida school. Bush was told of the attack by an aide, as he was reading,  but Bush did not stop reading the story. He clearly was stunned, but had no idea what to do. So he just kept reading. I think this scene would have grounded this film.

The scenes that followed showed how the United States was maneuvered into attacking Iraq in response for reasons I will never understand. There really was no connection between Iraq and the attacks in the United States. Cheney however either believed in the mythic connection or just had it in for Saddam. The war had absolutely no discernable purpose. Iraq, unlike Afghanistan had little to do with the war on terrorism.  But Cheney wanted that war. Cheney always promised that weapons of mass destruction would be found, but that promise proved flatulent.

According to the film, the war resulted in the death of 600,000 Iraqis, mainly civilians, and 3,000 to 4,000 Americans. Other estimates have varied from much less than this to even more. Actual reliable numbers are hard to find. Before the war even started credible sources estimated that as many as 500,000 people in the country died as a direct result of sanctions levied by the US led coalition forces.

The numbers vary greatly. What is true and what matters is that a lot of people died as a direct result of this war and it was a war without any logical  purpose. Many of the deaths were suffered by children and other civilians. Of course, many wars have been initiated by elites for their own purposes, too often nefarious, while the price, the awful price, has been paid by grunts and their families. This alone is a darn good reason to be sceptical when the political leaders are braying for war.

Dick Cheney was instrumental in starting the war in Iraq. Many think that he was easily able to manipulate a young and inexperienced President to enter that war for reasons that remain opaque. Cheney was a former executive with Halliburton, a private American company that benefited greatly from contracts secured during and after the war.

The disproportion between Iraqi and American deaths was stark. It was a war by the richest, most powerful, and most technologically advanced country, and its allies, against a 3rd world country led by a cruel and vicious dictator. Few people in the United States were clamoring for this war. There were some extreme right-wingers who saw the corporate opportunities as a result of the war. Some of these were cronies of Cheney. This is the background to the film. I think it is important.

The film shows  Cheney as the great manipulator hiding and really, lurking, in the shadows behind George W. Bush. Bush is shown frankly, and not entirely without justification, as a boy beside the man, Cheney. Vanity Fair reviewer Richard Lawson bluntly dismissed the basic approach of McKay, when he said McKay’s film “issues at a busy, self-satisfied blare”

I found the shotgun approach of the film too scattered for my taste. But there were some fascinating parts. For example, I really enjoyed the scene with young Cheney and his mentor Donald Rumsfeld in the US Congress. After getting introduced to the inner workings of the political machine Cheney asks Rumsfeld, “What is it that we believe in?”  Rumsfeld is stunned at the absurdity of this question and he reacts by howling uncontrollably with laughter. What a stupid question.

I was amazed at how well Christian Bale, starring as Cheney, captured his physical dimensions. He evoked well his mannerisms.  He looked liked Cheney. He sounded like Cheney. He was Cheney. Admirable as this performance though was, it is not enough to make a great film.

Near the end of the film Cheney turns away from the camera, it seems and speaks instead directly to us the viewers. He shows no remorse for what happened. Only pride. He really believes he did the right thing and he did it for our benefit. To keep us safe. Sort of like Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men. I was not convinced in that film; I was not convinced now

One o the things the film showed was how Cheney believed in the absolute power of the President. Sort of like the current President.   This of course is deeply disturbing at this particular time in which America is led by a man who is the most narcissistic man I have ever seen, and who at the same time has very little knowledge, and is entirely satisfied with that state of affairs. Now that we have a much less thoughtful President than Bush (I never thought I would say that this was even possible), we must fear for America and even, the world.  In my own life I have proved over and over again, that life is hard when you are stupid. But when the so-called leader of the Free World and most powerful man the world is stupid, we are all in deep trouble. Life will be hard.

Unusually, as the credits were rolling,  and it appeared the movie was over, the film resumed after most of the audience had left. That was unfortunate for a short insert showed a focus group discussing the film, collapsed into a melee when a boldly opinionated right winger rejected the film as biased (which certainly could be true) and then ended up wrestling a feeble liberal on the panel. Meanwhile 2 other panellists discussed the most recent Fast and Furious movie completely ignoring the chaos beside them. You get the clear impression that this is where we are headed with our increasingly extremist society. Chaos. Thats sort of scary isn’t it?

The Darkest Hour

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I liked this film; I liked it a lot. It was so well done that it really made me believe I was listening to Churchill in the English House of Commons. Of course I admit I get sucked in by movies or television shows like those of Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Jobs, A Few Good Men etc.) that rely on words and ideas more than action. This film was like that. Frankly, I have loved action movies all my life, but my love has run its course. I am sick of the same thing over and over again. A Good Guy with a gun fights enormous numbers of Bad Guys with guns against enormous odds. No doubt filling the NRA with orgasmic delight. Of course this likely won’t make me skip the next Bond Film, but that only means I am weak.

I liked this movie. As Wendy Ide said in The Guardian, “words, rather than guns, are the main weapons. And wielded by Winston Churchill ( Gary Oldman), peering beadily from behind a fortification of quivering prosthetics and a battery of smouldering cigars), words can be every bit as persuasive as bullets.” I like movies that treat ideas like bullets. After all, ideas are much more powerful than bullets.

I also loved the images of musty old War Rooms filled with cigar chomping old men. Parliament again filled with musty old men and, very rarely, a brave woman. I loved the images of glasses of whiskey and drifting cigar smoke. I found the backroom politics and intellectual skirmishes could build excitement every bit as much as a Good Guy with a Gun fighting a Bad Guy with an AR-15.

Yet I have one major and one minor caveat. First the minor. I found the impromptu poll on the train absolutely unconvincing. With not a word of encouragement from Churchill would the entire train car erupt in patriotic zeal to fight the Huns? Perhaps, but to me it seemed ludicrously staged.

My major caveat was the stunning scene of a Parliament filled with cheering politicians after Churchill’s famous speech on the occasion of the evacuation at Dunkirk, even though I found it believable. It was a great speech and I love great speeches as I said. But I was disturbed by the mob clamouring for war. That image haunts me.

It reminded me of Bertrand Russell’s autobiography in which he described with astonishment the exuberance of the people in Trafalgar Square when England declared war on the Germans at the beginning of World War I. Remember that this was a war that made absolutely no sense. The war to end all wars. That didn’t work too well did it?

We should never forget how after the killing of a Hapsburg Prince in Serbia, the countries of Europe fell into a melee of war against each other in order to protect their right to colonize the world. All in order to support their local business interests. Then they called upon the world’s countries to send their sons and daughters to defeat the enemy. Yet in Trafalgar Square hundreds of people gathered to celebrate! They were ecstatic at the prospect of a dubious war. Few questioned the madness. In the First World War some 40 million civilians and soldiers were killed. And all for no good reason whatsoever.

I know there was more justification for World War II. I would not advocate “appeasing” a second time a political leader like Hitler who had already demonstrated his capacity to ignore international agreements. But I find it difficult to celebrate. The lust for war is not a pretty thing. It is particularly ugly after the fact when the losses are counted. After all In World War II 60 million were killed. Besides that it provided cover for Hitler and the Nazis to slaughter millions of Jews, and others.

I find it difficult to celebrate that. But everyone should see this movie.

Homeless Veterans and Hopeless Presidents

I have been thinking about Donald Trump again. It is hard to avoid in the US. He is ubiquitous. He wants to have a military parade. It will cost millions, but that does not matter. Trump wants it to celebrate his own greatness. He is the President of the greatest military power on earth. Isn’t that worth celebrating? Isn’t that worth spending millions?

This President is the same man who glibly answers a question about whether he will bomb North Korea with a shrug and, “We’ll see.” To Trump it hardly matters that if he bombed North Korea they would likely respond with an atomic bomb on South Korea and that would likely mean that millions of people would die.

I remember last year when my friend Dave and I went to downtown Phoenix to see a college basketball game. As we dined I could not help but notice a homeless couple inhabiting a bench on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. A sign beside them indicated that both of them were veterans. Could this be true? The man was slumped over in his chair–asleep. I think his chair was a wheel chair but it was hard to tell, because it was so loaded with “stuff.” The woman sat on the bench in the small part of it not loaded with her stuff. I suspect that they kept their entire belongings with them.

Both of them looked like they had worn their clothes for a long time. The clothes were heavy winter clothes. This was appropriate for the night, which was bound to be cold. Arizona is a better place than Manitoba to be homeless but it was still not great to be homeless. Both looked like their clothes had not been washed in a long time. At one point the woman tapped the man in the head. She tapped him hard, trying to wake him up. But he did not wake up. He was “out of it.” She picked up a cigarette butt from the ground and smoked it. He did finally wake up but soon fell back asleep. I thought of cats that lived with humans. They had nothing to do, so they sleep for about 22 hours a day. Is this what he did? I had no idea.

I really don’t know what the status of the couple was. It just did not look very good. I know I should not be judgmental, but it is hard to avoid. I felt sorry for them. Their life seemed harsh, cold, and boring.

I had many questions about the couple. Were they really veterans? What did they do there all day? How long did they stay there? Did they have a better life than I imagined? Was someone helping them out? What had a brought them to this position?

I learned that at the time there were 564,708 homeless people in America on average every night. This is according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Many estimate that the real numbers are much higher than that. Nearly half of those are people in families. Homeless families in other words. I heard on the news that many college students are now homeless in the United States. How can that be? The main reason for homelessness is the cost of housing. Many people just can’t afford to rent, let alone, buy a home. The problem is that housing in the United States, like it is in Canada, is expensive. Too expensive for many people.

The number of homeless veterans is surprising. 17% of homeless people in America are veterans. Even more surprising, to me at least, the number of homeless female veterans is on the rise. In 2006 there were 150 homeless female veterans of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. By 2011 that number rose to 1,700 according to the Disabled Veterans National Foundation. In fact female veterans are 2 to 3 times more likely to be homeless than any other group in the American adult population. I found that stunning.

I also learned that veterans as a whole are 50% more likely to become homeless than other Americans due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing. The greatest risk factors for veterans are a lack of social support and isolation after discharge from the armed forces. Veterans have low marriage rates and high divorce rates. At this time 1 in 5 veterans live alone. It is also well known that social networks are vitally important for those who have a crisis or need temporary help. Without such assistance veterans are at high risk of homelessness. Added to that, many veterans suffer from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder that frequently goes undiagnosed.

Nearly half a million veterans are “severely rent burdened and pay more than 50% of their income for rent. More than half of veterans (55%) with severe housing cost burdens have fallen below the poverty line. 43% of veterans receive food stamps. Times are tough for veterans. Times are good for Donald Trump who avoided the draft 5 times.

Lets compare the President of the United States to the homeless veterans I saw today. Or as Leonard Cohen said, “let us compare mythologies.” I am assuming they were veterans as advertised since I have no reason to believe their sign did not tell the truth.

Steve Eder and Dave Phillips wrote an interesting article on Donald Trump’s military “career”. It was not just brief; it was non-existent. This is how they described that “career”,

 

Back in 1968, at the age of 22, Donald J. Trump seemed the picture of health. He stood 6 feet 2 inches with an athletic build; had played football, tennis and squash; and was taking up golf. His medical history was unblemished, aside from a routine appendectomy when he was 10.

But after he graduated from college in the spring of 1968, making him eligible to be drafted and sent to Vietnam, he received a diagnosis that would change his path: bone spurs in his heels.

The diagnosis resulted in a coveted 1-Y medical deferment that fall, exempting him from military service as the United States was undertaking huge troop deployments to Southeast Asia, inducting about 300,000 men into the military that year.

The deferment was one of five Mr. Trump received during Vietnam. The others were for education. [1]

It is well known that many wealthy people influenced their physicians to give them “favorable” (bad in other words) reports to the Draft Board. We have no proof at all that this is what Trump did. It is just that it would not have been unusual for people in his circumstances to do that. Nothing from his known character, or that of his father, makes this unlikely either.

Eder and Philipps added the following to their story about Mr. Trump,

“Mr. Trump’s public statements about his draft experience sometimes conflict with his Selective Service records, and he is often hazy in recalling details.

In an interview with The New York Times last month, Mr. Trump said the bone spurs had been “temporary” — a “minor” malady that had not had a meaningful impact on him. He said he had visited a doctor who provided him a letter for draft officials, who granted him the medical exemption. He could not remember the doctor’s name.

“I had a doctor that gave me a letter — a very strong letter on the heels,” Mr. Trump said in the interview.

Asked to provide The Times with a copy of the letter, which he had obtained after his fourth student deferment, Mr. Trump said he would have to look for it. A spokeswoman later did not respond to repeated requests for copies of it.

The Selective Service records that remain in the National Archives — many have been discarded — do not specify what medical condition exempted Mr. Trump from military service.” [2]

 

Such a report does not inspire confidence about Mr. Trump’s military deferments. What is clear from this skimpy record is that everything turned out rather conveniently for Mr. Trump. As the Times reporters said,

 

Mr. Trump said that he could not recall exactly when he was no longer bothered by the spurs, but that he had not had an operation for the problem. “Over a period of time, it healed up,” he said.

In the 2015 biography “The Truth About Trump,” the author, Michael D’Antonio, described interviewing Mr. Trump, who at one point slipped off a loafer to display a tiny bulge on his heel. And during a news conference last year, Mr. Trump could not recall which heel had been involved, prompting his campaign to release a statement saying it was both.

Mr. Trump, who has hailed his health as “perfection,” said the heel spurs were “not a big problem, but it was enough of a problem.”

“They were spurs,” he said. “You know, it was difficult from the long-term walking standpoint.”

In December, his longtime personal physician, Dr. Harold N. Bornstein, announced that Mr. Trump had “no significant medical problems” over four decades and that, if elected, he “will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” Dr. Bornstein made no mention of the bone spurs but did note the appendectomy from Mr. Trump’s childhood.

The medical deferment meant that Mr. Trump, who had just completed the undergraduate real estate program at the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at the University of Pennsylvania, could follow his father into the development business, which he was eager to do.” [3]

 

The reporters also said,

“There is absolutely no evidence anywhere that Trump actually had a medical condition resembling a heel spur, other than the “strong letter” which his doctor wrote.

For many years Trump never mentioned the medical deferment. Instead he credited his deferment to luck. His personal good luck for which he was famous. He was lucky though that is clear–he was born rich.

For many years, Mr. Trump, 70, has also asserted that it was “ultimately” the luck of a high draft lottery number — rather than the medical deferment — that kept him out of the war.

But his Selective Service records, obtained from the National Archives, suggest otherwise. Mr. Trump had been medically exempted for more than a year when the draft lottery began in December 1969, well before he received what he has described as his “phenomenal” draft number.

Because of his medical exemption, his lottery number would have been irrelevant, said Richard Flahavan, a spokesman for the Selective Service System, who has worked for the agency for three decades.

“He was already classified and determined not to be subject to the draft under the conditions in place at the time,” Mr. Flahavan said.

In a 2011 television interview, Mr. Trump described watching the draft lottery as a college student and learning then that he would not be drafted.

“I’ll never forget; that was an amazing period of time in my life,” he said in the interview, on Fox 5 New York. “I was going to the Wharton School of Finance, and I was watching as they did the draft numbers, and I got a very, very high number.”

But Mr. Trump had graduated from Wharton 18 months before the lottery — the first in the United States in 27 years — was held.

The fact that a candidate seeking the presidency received military deferments or otherwise avoided fighting in Vietnam is not unusual. Voters have shown themselves willing to look past such controversies, electing George W. Bush, who served stateside in the Air National Guard during the Vietnam era, and Bill Clinton, who wrote to an Army R.O.T.C. officer in 1969 thanking him for “saving me from the draft.” [4]

Trump’s attitude to veterans is itself deeply troubling. I am surprised it is not more troubling to conservatives who always claim to be such avid supporters of the military. Of course, I am frequently surprised at how little support American veterans get even while political and business leaders wear their claims of supporting “our” vets on their sleeves. Words are cheap; actions not so much. I was dismayed last summer when he made derogatory statements about a real veteran, John McCain, the current Republican senator from Arizona that I met personally in Arizona 4 years ago. Trump said McCain was not a war hero because “I like people who weren’t captured.” Really he prefers people who did not serve at all.

In the 1990s in an interview by Howard Stern Donald Trump said, “Avoiding sexually transmitted diseases while dating “is my personal Vietnam.” [5]

So Mr. Trump avoided the draft. We can’t say that he dodged (illegally evaded) the draft. We might suspect it, but we have to admit we can’t prove it. But the fact is he did avoid the draft and instead went into business with help from his rich Daddy and he did very well. Had he not got the “strong letter” as he called it, from his doctor, he would very likely have been drafted. As Eder and Phillips reported,

“On the day of Mr. Trump’s graduation, 40 Americans were killed in Vietnam. The Pentagon was preparing to call up more troops.

With his schooling behind him, there would have been little to prevent someone in Mr. Trump’s situation from being drafted, if not for the diagnosis of his bone spurs.” [6]

There was also an interesting issue that arose at the Democrats Convention last year. It arose because Trump made disparaging remarks about another genuine veteran and war hero who happened to be Muslim. That veteran’s father, publicly addressed Trump by saying he did not understand the Constitution and had, unlike his son made no sacrifices for his country. Trump’s response was interesting. Trump said,

“I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices,” Mr. Trump said to Mr. Stephanopoulos. “I work very, very hard. I’ve created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures. I’ve had tremendous success. I think I’ve done a lot.” [7]

The important thing here is that Trump believes this. He believes he has made sacrifices by making a lot of money and creating jobs. Since when is having worked hard a sacrifice, particularly when it is work that was extremely well paid? Since when is having “tremendous success” a sacrifice? Mr. Trump’s views of what constitutes a sacrifice is odd to say the very least one can say.

All that is certain in this history is that Donald Trump the son of a very rich man who was not averse to using his power to his own advantage or that of his family, got 5 very convenient deferments. The two veterans (if they were that, but there are many others who certainly are) were not so fortunate. Many veterans have not been so fortunate.

I could not help but believe that this couple on a public sidewalk in Phoenix represented the sick underbelly of the richest country in the world. America is a place where many people are homeless. Many young people in the US suffer from mental illness before attaining the age of 21 years. At the same time, funds are often not available to help the mentally ill. People in gated communities, like Johnson Ranch where we are living here in Arizona for 3 months (though it is not even gated just ‘wanna be’ gated), pay little attention to people like this. I really paid little attention either I had to admit. People are more concerned about cutting taxes than avoiding the cutting of social services. His current budget also proposes to cut the State Department budget by 30%. The State Department uses much of its money on diplomacy with the object of avoiding wars in which members of the Armed Forces often die or get hurt.

Then what does President Trump now suggest we do for our veterans? Have a costly military parade where the country boasts about its weapons. Is that the best this country can do for its veterans?

All of this is found in the richest country in the world. We have to ask, ‘Is America great?’

[1]Steve Eder and Dave Philipps, “Donald Trump’s Draft Deferments: Four to College, One to Bad Feet,” New York Times (August 1, 2016)

[2] Steve Eder and Dave Philipps, “Donald Trump’s Draft Deferments: Four to College, One to Bad Feet,” New York Times (August 1, 2016)

[3] Steve Eder and Dave Philipps, “Donald Trump’s Draft Deferments: Four to College, One to Bad Feet,” New York Times (August 1, 2016)

[4] Steve Eder and Dave Philipps, “Donald Trump’s Draft Deferments: Four to College, One to Bad Feet,” New York Times (August 1, 2016)

[5] Steve Eder and Dave Philipps, “Donald Trump’s Draft Deferments: Four to College, One to Bad Feet,” New York Times (August 1, 2016)

[6] Steve Eder and Dave Philipps, “Donald Trump’s Draft Deferments: Four to College, One to Bad Feet,” New York Times (August 1, 2016)

[7] Steve Eder and Dave Philipps, “Donald Trump’s Draft Deferments: Four to College, One to Bad Feet,” New York Times (August 1, 2016)

The Return of History

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One of the best things about an extended stay vacation is that it offers time for things it is harder to do at home–such as reading.  Reading is one of my greatest pleasures.  I will comment on a few of the books I have read on this vacation. Here is the first

Today I am recommending not just a book, but a series of books. I am talking about the Massey Lectures a series of outstanding books by great thinkers co-sponsored by CBC, House of Anansi Press, and Massey College at the University of Toronto. Oddly, I have actually brought the two most recent books in this series on this trip.

The book I just finished is The Return of History by Jennifer Welsh. Welsh’s book is a rethink of an earlier very famous article by American political commentator Frances Fukuyama entitled “The End of History,” in which he argued that the demise of confrontation of East and West epitomized by the apparent end of the Cold War in 1989, was actually much more than that. Fukuyama argued this was the end of humanity’s ideological evolution as it entailed the “universalization of Western liberal democracy.” In other words it was the final form of government and this would lead to a waning of traditional power politics and large-scale conflict and the emergence of a much more peaceful world. Optimistic wasn’t he? Welsh definitively puts an end to this thesis, based on historical events that occurred since then.

What I really liked about the book (and there were many things) was the way she knitted together a broad collection of international historical events into a rational narrative without over-simplifying them. She makes sense of history in other words.

Too many of us (me clearly included) catch only a glimpse of current events, particularly on the international stage, by reading newspapers and magazines, or watching news stories on television, or, horrors, listening to our opinionated buddies at the coffee shop. Naturally we miss parts of each story. Often we miss large parts of the story without realizing it. It is difficult to understand what is going on in the world that way.

It is really nice for someone like Welsh to put them together in a comprehensive and rational way and look at them that way. It makes us feel briefly smarter. Sadly, that feeling soon passes with each new overtaking event.

When we look at places like Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, Afghanistan, and closer to home like the United States Germany and Great Britain, among many others, complacency is hardly justified by the facts. Dread is a much more rational response. It is not the triumph of the west that we can reasonably look forward to, the decline of the west seems much more likely.

Welsh points out that liberal democracy has overcome many crises in its short history during which it has flourished, but this has lulled both its leaders and its citizens into a false sense of complacency that is rapidly crumbling. As she says, “Our relative success in the past has created blind spots that now threaten to take us into a decade or more of great political, as well as economic turmoil. History is back with a vengeance.”[1]

This is a very good book.

[1] Jennifer Welsh, The Return of History, (2016) p. 46

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

Sand Box Diplomacy

While we live in Arizona, everyday we wakeup in the morning and wonder what crazy things Donald Trump will say or do. Pretty well everyday there is something.

Recently, like almost every day, we have been “blessed” with stories about tweets from the so-called ‘Leader of the Free World.’ I don’t consider him that, but he does. The latest brings tweeting to a whole new level. The tweet was part of an exchange of sorts with Kim Jong-un the leader of North Korea i.e. the leader of the unfree world. Kim had reported earlier that at his desk was a button that he could press to launch nuclear weapons that could reach the United States. That did not sit well with Trump of course.

Trump responded with a tweet that said, “Will someone from his depleted and food starving regime please inform him that I too have a nuclear button, but it is a much bigger one and more powerful one than his, and it works.” It is  almost inconceivable that two grown men would act this way. What is even more inconceivable is that both of them have control of nuclear weapons that could kill millions of people. We see childish schoolboys with nuclear weapons threatening each other and risking the lives of millions of people, both with very limited intelligence. This is what the world has come to. How did it happen? At least North Korea had no choice in a leader. That is their excuse. What is America’s excuse?