Category Archives: War in Vietnam

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?

All the News (or not)


General Paul Harkins was the America head of the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam in the early 1960s. Robert Strange McNamara was an American business executive and the eighth Secretary of Defense appointed first by President Kennedy in 1961. He kept his position under President Lyndon Johnson until 1968. He was considered a brilliant thinker and was responsible for implementing what was called systems analysis and later called policy analysis. Like so many of Kennedy’s advisors he was a Harvard Graduate. Harvard has never been famous for graduating students filled with modesty. They considered themselves the best and brightest.

McNamara loved data and he constantly demanded more of it from those under his supervision, such as General Paul Harkins. As a result, Harkins, doing as he was told, provided McNamara with mountains of data. In fact, McNamara was provided with “far more data than could ever be adequately analyzed.” As a result alarming reports from field officers such as John Paul Vann were not given the attention they deserved.

General Harkins had little use for sceptical reporters such as Neil Sheehan. Sometimes he even preferred that “bad news was buried.” Why advertise your own shortcomings?

When bad news is not seen or paid sufficient attention to, military analysts like McNamara are not in the best position to make the best decisions, no matter how bright they were. Even the best and brightest need all the news–the good, the bad, and the ugly. If military leaders are not in a position to make the best decisions their soldiers suffer more than anyone else.

The current occupant of the White House at the end of 2017 is famous for treating any news he does not like as “fake news.” As a result he too can fall into the same trap that Kennedy did. In fact this is much more likely in Trump’s case, because Kennedy was not a moron. Morons, more than most, need all the bad news.


The War in Vietnam was different than World War I or World War II. Many U.S. advisors did not understand the problems of fighting an insurgency. This was not like fighting a regular army in Europe. For example, many of these advisors failed to appreciate that if you “rescued” a village by destroying it you created a village of resisters rather than a village of supporters. Force had to be used effectively against a robust insurgency. The notion that the Americans must win the hearts and minds of the people was not a joke and was not to be taken lightly. It was vital to success against an insurgency. Yet very few American advisors understood how this could and could not be done.

One of the American military advisors that did understand these issues was John Paul Vann. Vann was a U.S. soldier who understood that the United States must not alienate the people. You could not shell a place with artillery because you might kill more women and children and in the process do more harm than good. You could only send in snipers to kill snipers. This is a lesson that may have been lost over the years.

The Americans had some unfortunate biases. For example, they assumed without much evidence to support it, that people in the cities were sympathetic to them and friendly to them, while all people in the countryside were Việt Cộng. In the villages it was actually very difficult to tell who was friendly and who was not. After all, the enemy did not wear identifiable uniforms or carry signs announcing their loyalties. That is how insurgencies and guerrilla wars work. That can be very challenging for a foreign power to deal with. Americans had problems with this in Iraq and Afghanistan as well.

If the Americans saw someone in a village that was running away from them, they quickly assumed that this must be an enemy combatant. Tran Ngoc Toan put it well, “If they killed 1 enemy there would be one replacement. If they killed the wrong man there would be 10 replacements. Usually they kill the wrong man.” That is how insurgencies work and why they can be extremely successful, well beyond their apparent capacity.

Wars have to be fought with more than military might. They have to be fought with brains.


The Best and The Brightest


John F. Kennedy and all of his advisors were profoundly affected by what had happened in the Second World War. His advisors included Dean Rusk, Walter Rostow, McGeorge Bundy, General Maxwell Taylor and above all Robert McNamara. McNamara had been President of the Ford Motor Company and gave up a lucrative job to serve his country. He was a pioneer in systems analysis. These men (and interestingly now they were all men) were among those that Robert Halberstam called “The Best and the Brightest” in his book by the same name. All of Kennedy’s advisors believed, based on their experience or knowledge of World War II, a dictator had to be stopped in his tracks. Appeasement would lead to disaster they all believed. Therefore, appeasement was intolerable.

Halberstam was a journalist who wrote a book with that title in 1972 well before the war was over but long after it was realized by nearly everyone that it was a disaster. He focused his book on the foreign policy that was crafted by academics and intellectuals who were part of Kennedy’s administration. At the time some called them “whiz kids,” though few were kids. They were leaders of industry and academia that John F. Kennedy persuaded to join his administration. Halberstam referred to some of their policies as “brilliant policies that defied common sense.” Often their advice ran directly counter to advice Kennedy got from career American Department of State employees.

It must be remembered that Kennedy was a young President who had narrowly defeated a much more experienced political opponent, Richard M. Nixon, the former Vice-President of the United States. The first couple of months of his administration were disastrous. Kennedy had approved the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba that turned into a complete debacle. Many Americans believed that Khrushchev the Premier of the archrival Soviet Union, had bullied Kennedy at a Summit meeting. Kennedy failed to stop the Soviets from building the Berlin Wall. Kennedy also failed to intervene to stop Communist insurrection in Laos. Americans hate to think of a leader as weak. As a result Kennedy was determined not want to seem weak at all costs. Those are ominous words: “at all costs.”

Many Americans called their new President immature, weak, and unable to stop the mounting Communist threat. It did not help that he was the youngest President ever at 43 years of age. Kennedy was, as a result eager to prove that he was a tough and capable leader of the country. All of these antecedents helped to position Kennedy perfectly for disaster in Vietnam.

There were even more factors that led to the ultimate debacle that was the War in Vietnam. For one thing there was politics. The Democratic Party was still haunted by claims that it had “lost” China to the Communists, and it did not want people to say about it that it also lost Vietnam. While Kennedy was getting advice from his inner ring of the Whiz Kids instead of the State Department that was not entirely because he preferred his specifically selected inner advisors. It was also because the State Department had been decimated by the McCarthy era in which the State Department was specifically targeted as harbouring Communists. As a result of that unfair attack, the government was forced to shred experts on Vietnam its surrounding countries and this left the young and inexperienced Kennedy solely reliant on his select group of experts many of whom had no experience with diplomacy.

Again this appears to be mirrored today, as Donald Trump has shred many career diplomats at the State Department. Lets hope the current President does not lead his country into disasters as a result.

Apparently there was an early study that indicated the United States would have to commit close to one million U.S. troops to completely defeat the Viet Cong. However it was inconceivable that the administration would be able to convince Congress or the U.S. public to deploy that many soldiers. As a result the political and military leadership of the United States was in a difficult position. They may have been trying to do the impossible.

At the same the American leadership was concerned about how their actions would influence the Chinese and Russians. The Americans, like the Chinese, had recently completed a costly war in Korea and had little taste for doing that again. The Americans were also worried that any precipitous actions by them would repair the growing Sino-Soviet rift. They liked that rift and wanted to see it maintained.

Very importantly the American military in conformity to the long standing military tradition that armies should prepare to fight the last war instead of the next war, was not prepared for a long guerrilla war. And as we all know, that is precisely what they faced in Vietnam.

Apparently some of the American war games indicated that a gradual escalation by the United States could be evenly matched by North Vietnam. Every year nearly 200,000 North Vietnamese came of draft age and could be sent into the meat grinder of the war. As a result as some pundit pointed out, the Americans and their allies in the South would be “fighting the birthrate”. Johnson as well wanted to concentrate on other important issues when he came to power such as Civil Rights laws and establishment of the Great Society. He really did not want to get bogged down in a war in Vietnam that he had not started but he was stuck with. And was he ever stuck with it.

Of course as happens in wars—as always seems to happen in wars—there was the effect of inertia. Once the Americans committed to sending troops they did not want to lose the war. Better to send more troops than face the difficult task of explaining why any forces had been sent at all. Political and military leaders continually worried about being accused of throwing good money after bad, and more lives after those that had already died.

Thus were aligned the forces that encouraged more war with more soldiers.

For all of these reasons (if they can be called reasons) John F. Kennedy in 1961 confided to an aide that he could only make so many concessions and still swim. Diplomacy inevitably involved concession. But too many concessions made it certain that he would be considered weak. And that would not do. For all of these reasons, Kennedy felt that he must act in South Vietnam. He could not acquiesce with business as usual.

For all of these reasons Kennedy thought he had no choice but to commit ground forces to fight in Vietnam and stop aggression from the north despite his initial assessment that this was foolish.

This is the mistake that each President made in Vietnam. Each one of them started his first term asserting he would not do exactly what he ended up doing. With Kennedy that mistake was to commit ground troops when he had earlier correctly assessed that this would be hopeless. This is the precise mistake Barbara Tuchman referred to in her book and aptly called “The March of Folly.” It was a march of folly all right.

Kennedy had earlier said that he would refuse to send troops because sending the first troops was like taking a first drink. There would inevitably be demands for more drinks. Over and over again the American Presidents made the same mistake and paid the same horrific price and it always led to the same tragic consequences.

The English philosopher, John Gray, is a relentless pessimist. He is invariably pessimistic about wars. That was the right attitude. President Barack Obama who vowed not to do anything stupid, was right. Recently Donald Trump promised not to get involved in foreign adventures and then abandoned that position within weeks of assuming office. That is not right! When it comes to war it is difficult to be too pessimistic!

Ho Chi Minh was a brilliant political leader. He had demonstrated that in the fight with France after 1945. He knew how to work with the people and the people loved him. This was very different from President Diem of South Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh grew a long beard in order to look older and wiser. He used simple language that the people could easily understand. Unlike Diem, he was not aloof from the people he led. He was also a shrewd politician. As a result he was not in a hurry. He realized that a successful battle against the well-supported forces from the South might take 10 or 20 years or even longer. He was prepared to wait if necessary.

One of the wonderful things about the Burns/Novick television series is the fact that they interviewed people with many different points of view. For example, they interviewed veterans not just from the United States but from both South and North Vietnam. It was great to hear their points of view.

Huy Duc a veteran of the North Vietnam forces said, “Clearly South Vietnamese was more democratic, but in such a violent struggle the side whose soldiers had the fewest doubts and asked the fewest questions would win.”

Duong Van Mai Elliot realized that things were different in the south where its political leaders were not revered like Ho Chi Minh. As she said, “On our side (the south) we were not as committed and our leaders were corrupt and incompetent, so deep down we always had this fear and suspicion that in the end it would be the Communists who would win.”

Right from the outset, acute observers thought that the Americans might have bet all their wealth and power on the losing side.

President Kennedy of course, thought he had assembled the best and brightest of Americans elite universities and business leaders. How could the Americans possibly lose? Of course, Ho thought that he had also assembled the best and brightest of the Vietnamese who had been so successful against the French. How could they lose? When both sides of a struggle believe they have the best on their side you can bet that intransigence will surely follow. As Bob Dylan said, “You don’t count the dead with God on your side.

The American strategy would never work out very well and the more deeply one looked at it, the more you thought about it, the more you realized this hard cold fact. People who are the best and brightest, or believe that they are, seldom go in much for modesty, restraint or pessimism. They are gung ho. Voters often like political leaders who are gung ho and optimistic. I am more sceptical.




The Music of the Vietnam Years


The 1960s were a time of music. Music was the background to everything. The War in Vietnam was no exception. Neither is the series The War in Vietnam  produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and shown on PBS. The series is worth watching to listen to the music alone. Its worth the trip.

The television series is worth seeing for many reasons. It is definitely worth watching to hear the songs of the sixties. The music of the sixties is really the backdrop to the War. Most of the American portion of the war was fought during that decade.

Obviously a lot of time was spent by the producers getting the music right. The 10 part series features more than 120 popular songs many of them iconic. Many I would not have thought of as war songs. Of course what is a war song?

The series includes tracks from The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Buffalo Springfield. The Byrds, Crosby, Still, Nash & Young, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and in particular Janis Joplin, Barry McGuire, Pete Singer, Jimi Hendrix Experience. Simon & Garfunkel and many more. The music is outstanding. Of course it was the music of the 60s who would expect anything less.

Episode 1 displays a classic: Bob Dylan singing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” Here are the words to that classic song:



“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
And where have you been my darling young one?
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, what did you see, my blue eyed son?
And what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder that roared out a warnin’
I heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
I heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’
I heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’
I heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, what did you meet my blue-eyed son ?
Who did you meet, my darling young one?
I met a young child beside a dead pony
I met a white man who walked a black dog
I met a young woman whose body was burning
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded in hatred
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

And what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
And what’ll you do now my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are a many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
And the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell and speak it and think it and breathe it
And reflect from the mountain so all souls can see it
And I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singing
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall


Many classics are played in the series. I will never forget Barry McGuire’s “On the Even of Destruction.” That song was a hit in the summer between my 11th and 12 Grades. I remember we had a group of exchange students over to visit us from Windsor Ontario. We played this song over and over again at Johnny’s Grill in Steinbach. The restaurant was owned and operated by my “Uncle” John Vogt. It was the first “protest song” I can remember. Here are the lyrics:


On the Eve of Destruction The eastern world, it is explodingViolence flarin’, bullets loadin’You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin’And even the Jordan River has bodies floatin’ But you tell meOver and over and over again, my friendAh, you don’t believeWe’re on the eveof destruction. Don’t you understand what I’m tryin’ to sayCan’t you feel the fears I’m feelin’ today?If the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ awayThere’ll be no one to save, with the world in a grave[Take a look around ya boy, it’s bound to scare ya boy] And you tell meOver and over and over again, my friendAh, you don’t believeWe’re on the eveof destruction. Yeah, my blood’s so mad feels like coagulatin’I’m sitting here just contemplatin’I can’t twist the truth, it knows no regulation.Handful of senators don’t pass legislationAnd marches alone can’t bring integrationWhen human respect is disintegratin’This whole crazy world is just too frustratin’ And you tell meOver and over and over again, my friendAh, you don’t believeWe’re on the eveof destruction. Think of all the hate there is in Red ChinaThen take a look around to Selma, AlabamaYou may leave here for 4 days in spaceBut when you return, it’s the same old placeThe poundin’ of the drums, the pride and disgraceYou can bury your dead, but don’t leave a traceHate your next-door neighbor, but don’t forget to say graceAnd… tell me over and over and over and over again, my friendYou don’t believeWe’re on the eveOf destructionMm, no no, you don’t believeWe’re on the eveof destruction.


In the television series not every song is played in its entirety. Some are played as subtle background music. It is all evocative of those times: the Sixties and the War in Vietnam. I will never forget those times.

One of the important commentators in the series was Merril McPeak who served as a fighter and bomber pilot in the war. He flew more than 200missions. He as a special advisor to the producers of the series. This is what he said about the music, that he felt like my friends and I felt that rock & roll music was becoming of age. It spoke our language and said what we thought of the war and life in the sixties. In fact we felt the music was revolutionary because it spoke of permanent dynamic change. This is what he said about the music:

The late Sixties were a kind of confluence of several rivulets, There was the anti-war movement itself, the whole movement towards racial equality, the environment, the role of women. And the anthems for that counterculture were provided by the most brilliant rock & roll music that you can imagine. I don’t know how we could exist today as a country without that experience, with all of its warts and ups and downs. That produced the America we have today, and we are better for it…

And I felt that way in Vietnam. I turned up the volume on all that stuff. That, for me, represented what I was trying to defend.

The Classic Vietnam war song was sung by Neil Young. It was called simply “Ohio”. It was written after 4 unarmed students were shot by young inexperienced but trigger-happy American National Guard soldiers at a peaceful anti-war protest on Kent State University. The Guards feared that the demonstration would turn violent as some of them had that summer. 2 of the students that were shot were not even involved in the protest. They were just innocent bystanders. Of course wars never respect innocent bystanders. But it shocked the world when 4 American students were shot by fellow Americans at a peaceful demonstration in the US.

Here are the words to that song:


Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.


Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young recorded the song in 1970 the year of the shooting. That was also the summer I met Christiane Calvez who later became my bride.

Those were amazing times. As Charles Dickens said about a different revolution,


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the Season of Light, it was the Season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.


Did he write that in 1970? It sure sounds that way. Watch the series; listen to the music. Enjoy. Remember. Think.

The soundtrack ends with 4 classics: Ray Charles gospel version of “America the Beautiful,” Marvin Gaye’s 1971 song “What’s Going On,” that was inspired by his brother’s 3 year term in Vietnam and 2 songs I never thought of as Vietnam songs, but they did arise during that time. One was Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water” which I thought was what the series tried to be. In my mind it succeeded but I realized there are as many different views of the war as there are people who experienced those times. The finally that magnificent Beatle’s song sung by Paul McCartney “Let it Be.” That song I suppose was meant to bring perhaps not closure as one of the vets in the last episode said, but at least peace. That song is close enough to a hymn to do. Whisper words of wisdom. Let it be.





Karl Marlantes, was the author of Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War published in 2010 that was called by Sebastian Junger “one of the most profound and devastating novels ever to come out of Vietnam.” The novel is based on his combat experience in the war. He was a frequent commentator in the television series. He was a significant contributor to the television series The War in Vietnam shown recently on PBS and produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novice.

After the war he experienced, like to many other soldiers, post traumatic stress disorder. He 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. People talk a lot about how the military turns kids into killing machines and I will always argue that it is just finishing.

Gwynne Dyer, who was not a commentator in the series, but he had some things to say that I think are relevant and interesting. He pointed out that what sets soldiers apart from other groups of was that they have to be willing to kill. Yet as Dyer said, comparing soldiers to gangs:


But it is not a willingness that comes easily to most men—even young men who have been provided with uniform, guns, and official approval to kill those whom their government has designated as enemies. They will, it is true, fall very readily into the stereotypes of the tribal warrior group. Indeed most of them have had at least some glancing acquaintance in their early teens with gangs (more or less violent, depending on, among other things, the neighborhood), the modern relic of that ancient institution.

And in many ways what basic training produces is the uniformed equivalent of a modern street gang: a bunch of tough, confident kids full of bloodthirsty talk But gangs don’t actually kill each other in large numbers. If they behaved the way armies do, you’d need trucks to clean the bodies off the streets every morning. They’re held back by the civilian belief—the normal human belief—that killing another person is an awesome act with huge consequences. [1]


So people as a rule have to be taught to kill. They have to be taught to ignore their “normal” instincts not to kill people. Armies expect that when the times come, their soldiers will not hesitate to kill the designated enemy. That is not as simple as it might sound.

Armies actually contain fairly normal ordinary men and women. Such people find it difficult to kill in most circumstances. They have to be persuaded to kill. Armies always assumed their soldiers would kill when they had to.

The Americans decided to check in the Second World War. Were their soldiers actually killing as required? US Army Colonel S. L.A. Marshall actually looked into it and what he found surprised him and many others. He found that in 1943-1945 on average only 15% of trained combat riflemen actually fired their weapons during battle! The rest of the soldiers by and large did not flee or desert. They just did not fire their guns even when their own position was under attack and their own lives and that of their comrades were in danger! This was true whether the action was spread over a day, or a few days. In very aggressive companies the percentage rarely exceeded 25%. Another interesting fact, according to Dyer’s reading of the Marshall’s research, each man (they were mainly men) thought he was the only one not firing. Soldiers did fire if they were with other soldiers because they did not want to be seen holding back, but when alone most did not fire.

There is no similar problem with artillery soldiers or bomber crews. It is thought that this is because they are far enough away that they cannot see their victim. The victim is not real to them. According to Dyer, “they can pretend they are not killing human beings.”[2]

After that, the Americans stepped up their training to get more to kill. As a result it was found in a similar test in the Korean War that 50% of such soldiers fired their weapons. I don’t have the figures for the War in Vietnam. Ye tit is clear indoctrinating soldiers to kill helps “improve” the odds that they will kill.

In the end in the Vietnam War there was plenty of killing. Before the war was over more than 58,000 Americans would be dead, at least 250,000 South Vietnamese troops died, in the conflict as well. So did over a million North Vietnamese soldiers and Vietcong guerillas.”[3] Added to that, 2,000,000 Vietnamese civilians are thought to have died as well as tens of thousands in neighboring states such as Laos and Cambodia. Vietnam actually lost 10% of its population in the war. That is a lot of killing.

[1] Gwynne Dyer, War (1985) p. 116

[2] Gwynne Dyer, War (1985) p. 118

[3] Geoffrey Ward, The Vietnam War (2017) produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, PBS



I am not anti-American. I love almost all Americans that I have met. I visited the US for extended visits for 5 or 6 years in a row. But I do not want to hesitate to criticize them when necessary. I know Canadians have problems too. Our impact is just so much less than our neighbours to the south because we are so much smaller.

The US as the richest and most powerful country in the world has to be able to take criticism. I ask no more of them than to uphold their own ideals enshrined in their own public documents and public statements. They constantly claim to be the best country in the world. So understandably we tend to expect they act accordingly.

John Musgrave, an 18-year old American soldier did not know what to expect when he came to Vietnam. As a result he was scared to death of the Vietnamese. As Musgrave said, “I hated them so much I was terrified of them. The scarder I got, the more I hated them. I was so scared I thought I was hanging on to my honor by my fingernails the entire time I was there.”

I found this surprising. Soldiers from the richest most powerful country in the world were scared of the Vietnamese! How could that be? I think this fear is central to America’s role in Vietnam and also in the world. They seem so strong and secure and certain, yet they are filled with wild fears. I think that is why they spend more on their military than the next 9 countries ranked in military expenditures, put together! That is why they have more guns per capita than almost any other country in the world. That is why they want to build walls to keep out the rapists and murderers.

Fear is corrosive. It can destroy the best of motives, the best of intentions, and the best of people. In the case of Americans I have found, as Musgrave hinted, that their own ideals however are often corroded by fear. It is very difficult to be your best when you are scared.

As a result when Americans go to war they have to go in to the fullest. No half measures. They have go in with what Colin Powell later called “overwhelming force.” That was the Powell doctrine in a nutshell. Some have always felt the US failed to do that in Vietnam. They had too many rules about what they could and could not do. For example, General Curtis Lemay was said that the U.S. should have “bombed the North Vietnamese into the stone age.” He denied that he said that, but certainly some did believe that.

I was surprised to learn from this television series that one of the reasons Americans held back from using overwhelming force was fear of what Russia and China would do in response. American political leaders did not want another war like the one they had just finished in Korea. As a result, they got drawn into an even worse war in Vietnam. That’s what fear does. It shreds reason.

John Musgrave proudly became a Marine in 1967 but that experience changed him forever. When interviewed nearly 490 years later for the show, he said he was still scared of the dark and still has a night-light on when he goes to sleep. 50 years later he is still scared.