Vietnam: The War the U.S. Lost

by Joe Allen

International Socialist Review, January/February 2004


Racism and total war

"The only thing they told us about the Viet Cong was they were gooks. They were to be killed. Nobody sits around and gives you their historical and cultural background. They're the enemy. Kill, kill, kill. That's what we got in practice. Kill, kill, kill."

A Vietnam veteran on basic training.


What was the American war like for the majority of people in South Vietnam, where the bulk of the fighting took place? While Westmoreland's war of attrition would ultimately prove unable to break the will of the Vietnamese people, it did unleash incredible destruction on them. According to antiwar critic Noam Chomsky,

In a very real sense the overall U.S. effort in South Vietnam was a huge and deliberately imposed bloodbath. Military escalation was undertaken to offset the well-understood lack of any significant social and political support for the elite military faction [the Saigon government] supported by the United States.

This "huge and deliberately imposed bloodbath" consisted first and foremost of large-scale bombing. Bombing was, and still is, one of the great sacred cows of the American way of war.' America's incredible industrial infrastructure allowed it to build a huge air force and virtually a limitless amount of ordnance during the Cold War. The B-52, which was originally designed for dropping nuclear weapons on Russia, was re-fitted for "conventional" warfare in Vietnam with devastating results. The U.S. dropped over one million tons of bombs on North Vietnam. South Vietnam, the primary battlefield of the war, had over four million tons of bombs dropped on it during the war. The amount of bombs dropped by the U.S. on South Vietnam, from the air war alone, was double the tonnage it used in all of the Second World War! Life was made unbearable in the South Vietnamese countryside. While it is probably an underestimate, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Refugees reported the civilian casualties at 400,000 dead, 900,000 wounded and 6.4 million refugees by 1971. They concluded "that there is hardly a family n South Vietnam that has not suffered a death, injury or the anguish of abandoning an ancient homestead."

The Vietnamese people were subjected to the virulent racism of the occupying American army. The Vietnamese people were regularly referred to as "gooks," "slants" and "dinks" by American troops. It's important to remember that this racism started with the top brass. General Westmoreland believed that the "oriental doesn't value life in the same way as a westerner." While this could be dismissed as the casual bigotry of a son of a rich southern family, in other cases it bordered on the genocidal. Colonel George S. Patton III, son of the notorious Second World War general and a combat commander in Vietnam, sent out Christmas cards in 1968 which read: "From Colonel and Mrs. George S. Patton III-Peace on Earth." The attached Christmas cards contained photographs of Viet Cong soldiers dismembered and stacked in a pile. This racism worked its way down to the troops through basic training. As one combat veteran recalled basic training, "The only thing they told us about the Viet Cong was they were gooks. They were to be killed."

It was during search-and-destroy missions that the most direct contact took place between American soldiers, Vietnamese civilians and NLF supporters. For historian Christian Appy, "search and destroy was the principal tactic; and the enemy body count was the primary measure of progress" in Westmoreland's war of attrition. Search and destroy was coined as a phrase in 1965 to describe missions aimed at flushing the Viet Cong out of hiding, while the body count was the measuring stick for the success of any operation. Competitions were held between units for the highest number of Vietnamese killed in action, or KIAs. Army and marine officers knew that promotions were largely based on confirmed kills. The pressure to produce confirmed kills resulted in massive fraud. One study revealed that American commanders exaggerated body counts by 100 percent.

It also resulted in atrocities. "As much as the military command might deny its significance, the widespread local support for the full-time main forces of the NLF and NVA was the central disadvantage faced by American soldiers." Villagers would supply the NLF with soldiers, food and assistance in the planting of land mines. What many U.S. soldiers feared most were

land mines and then ambushes. Soldiers would become demoralized by weeks of mundane patrolling and then they would be hit unexpectedly by the explosion of land mines or an ambush. Enraged soldiers would go back to the nearest area they had just been through and brutalize the villagers in a racist fury. The effect of fighting a total war on an entire population was to create a situation where all Vietnamese people were seen as fair game to kill. The most famous case of this (but by no means the only one) was the My Lai massacre in March 1968, where Charlie Company, led by Captain Ernest Medina and Lieutenant William Calley, murdered over 350 unarmed women and children. An army psychiatrist reported later that, "Lt. Calley states that he did not feel as if he were killing human beings rather they were animals with whom one could not speak or reason." My Lai was not an aberration-smaller, unreported My Lais happened throughout the war. James Duffy, a machinegunner on a Chinook helicopter for Company A of the 228th Aviation Battalion, 1st Airborne Division, served from February 1967 to April 1968. Testifying at the "Winter Soldier" investigation, held in Detroit in 1971, he reported one incident he was involved in:

I swung my machine gun onto this group of peasants and opened fire. Fortunately, the gun jammed after one or two rounds, which was pretty lucky, because this group of peasants turned out to be a work party hired by the government to clear the area and there was Gls guarding them about fifty meters away. But my mind was so psyched out into killing gooks that I never even paid attention to look around and see where I was. I just saw gooks and I wanted to kill them. I was pretty scared after that happened because that sort of violated the unwritten code that you can do anything you want to as long as you don't get caught. That's, I guess that's what happened with the My Lai incident. Those guys just were following the same pattern that we've been doing there for ten years, but they had the misfortune of getting caught at it.

When the Americans decided that an area could not be "pacified" they would turn it into a "free-fire zone" where anyone could be shot on sight, and which were subject to constant artillery barrages. In other areas, the Americans would literally plow the land down using huge Rome plows-giant bulldozers. The most famous case of this was the "Iron triangle." A 32-mile perimeter 22 miles north of Saigon and an NLF bastion of support, it was first flattened by B-52s and artillery fire beginning in January 1967, and then the plows moved in and bulldozed everything in sight. Despite this, the NLF built a vast area of tunnels and was operating in the area again within six months. If bombing and plowing couldn't deny an area to the NLF, the U.S. would use defoliants, such as the cancer-causing Agent Orange and other herbicides, to destroy jungle cover and food. The U.S. dropped over 100 million pounds of herbicides across Vietnam during the war with long-lasting effects on the Vietnamese and American soldiers. The U.S. simply turned whole swaths of Vietnam into dead zones. The mindset of the military command can be summed up by the slogan painted on the wall of the U.S. Army's Ninth Division helicopter headquarters during Operation Speed Express: "Death is our business and business is good."

The bitterness and demoralization among troops also encouraged a growing resistance to the war, in the form of going AWOL (Absent Without Leave), avoiding combat, "fragging" officers, and even active political resistance. This development contributed greatly to the eventual defeat of the U.S. in Vietnam.

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