Government Involvement in Vietnam In the late 1950s, Vietnam was divided into two distinct halves: North Vietnam, led by the Communist hero Ho Chi Minh, and South Vietnam, governed by Ngo Dinh Diem and backed by France and the United States. The fragile truce between them soon crumbled, as Communist guerrillas called the Vietcong began attacking targets in the south, including American military installations. When Diem was ousted by a coup in 1963, instability in South Vietnam led the United States to increase its military and economic support. In August 1964, North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked two U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin, and President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered the retaliatory bombing of military targets in North Vietnam. U.S. planes began regular bombing raids the following February, and by the end of 1965 conflict had begun in earnest.
By November 1967, American troop strength in Vietnam was approaching 500,000 and U.S. casualties had reached 15,058 killed and 109,527 wounded. Johnson's efforts to negotiate with the Northern Vietnamese had been rejected, as Minh refused to give up on his desire to unify Vietnam under the Communist flag. On January 31, 1968, some 70,000 North Vietnamese forces under General Vo Nguyen Giap launched the Tet Offensive (named for the lunar new year), a coordinated series of fierce attacks on more than 100 cities and towns in South Vietnam. Though most of the attacks were quickly crushed, the Tet Offensive had a devastating psychological effect. As stunned U.S. audiences watched the carnage on television in early 1968, their sense of disillusionment with the war intensified, and Johnson's approval ratings-so critical in an election year-dropped precipitously.
At the same time as Tet, a military standoff at Khesanh (to the north) occupied the greater part of U.S. General William C. Westmoreland's attention. Encouraged by General Earle Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Westmoreland put in a request for 206,000 additional American troops. In his recommendation to the White House, Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford advocated the call-up of the army reserves but rejected the larger troop request. News of Westmoreland's request-and of the accompanying dissension within the administration-broke in The New York Times on March 10, sparking widespread public outrage.
By this time, Johnson was already under enormous political pressure, with Democratic presidential hopefuls Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy threatening to draw votes away from him. On March 25, Johnson convened an advisory group of elder statesmen led by Secretary of State Dean Acheson. Without exception, they advised him to find a way out of Vietnam. Six days later, in a speech to the nation, Johnson declared a restriction of U.S. bombings in North Vietnam and called again for peace talks. He ended his speech with a startling announcement: He would not seek reelection.
The speech met with a positive response from Hanoi, and in May peace talks between the United States and North Vietnam opened in Paris. Despite the later inclusion of the South Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front (the political arm of the Vietcong) the dialogue soon reached an impasse. Meanwhile, political upheaval continued on the U.S. homefront. Robert Kennedy was assassinated on June 5, hours after winning the California primary. At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August, 10,000 antiwar protesters clashed violently with the security forces assembled by Mayor Richard Daley. Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination, but lost in November to the rabidly anti-Communist Richard M. Nixon by the slimmest of margins.
As 1968 drew to a close, some 540,000 U.S. troops were mired in bloody combat in Vietnam. The next few years would bring even more carnage--including the horrifying revelation of the massacre of hundreds of unarmed civilians by U.S. soldiers in the village of My Lai in March 1968--even as Nixon began announcing troop cuts as part of the so-called "Vietnamization" of the war. Nixon's secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, took over negotiations with the North Vietnamese, who still insisted on complete U.S. withdrawal as a condition of peace. The war would drag on for six more years, as casualties continued to mount and anger and bitterness grew ever stronger and more divisive among the American people.
The Tet Offensive The Tet Offensive was a large-scale series of battles launched by the Vietnamese Communists (or Viet Cong) against American and South Vietnamese troops during the Vietnam War that resulted in both a military failure and a psychological victory for the Communists. The multi-part campaign was known as Tet because it was scheduled to start on January 31, 1968, the Vietnamese New Year holiday known as Tet. As a diversionary tactic, North Vietnamese units attacked the Marine base at Khe Sahn shortly before Tet and approximately 50,000 U.S. and South Vietnamese forces were involved in defending the base and other sites nearby. Subsequently, the Americans and South Vietnamese were surprised by the Tet Offensive, in which over 100 cities and towns and several dozen airfields and bases throughout South Vietnam were attacked. However, the U.S. and its ally quickly fought back and the Viet Cong, who suffered massive casualties, were unable to hold most of the captured territory for long.
In the United States, people were stunned by the intensity and widespread nature of the attacks. Graphic images of the fighting were shown on American television and for the first time, criticism of the war mounted on a national scale. General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. military operations in Vietnam, requested over 200,000 more troops, believing it would be possible for the U.S. to finally wipe out the enemy in their weakened condition. However, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s new defense secretary, Clark Clifford, convinced the president to reject Westmoreland’s request and in March 1968, Johnson stated that the United States was committed to a de-escalation of the conflict. Johnson also announced he would not seek a second term as president. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese launched additional Tet campaigns in May and August of that same year. American combat units finally withdrew from Vietnam in 1973 and South Vietnam fell to North Vietnam in 1975.
My Lai Massacre
On March 16, 1968, a group of U.S. soldiers attacked the South Vietnamese village of My Lai, believed to be a Communist stronghold, and killed between 175 and 400 civilians as well as committing rape and other crimes. U.S. helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson and two crewmen, who were flying a reconnaissance mission over My Lai, saw the dead bodies and stopped to investigate. In the process, they managed to rescue a group of Vietnamese civilians from American troops. Although Thompson reported the incident to his superiors, the American public didn’t learn about it until over a year later, after a former soldier named Ronald L. Ridenhour wrote letters about what happened at My Lai to President Richard Nixon and other government officials. Ridenhour had found out about the events a month after they occurred from soldiers who were there.
The Army eventually launched an investigation that led to the conviction of platoon leader Lt. William L. Calley, Jr., for the murder of 22 unarmed men, women and children. In 1971, Calley was sentenced to life in prison, which was later reduced to 10 years. Ultimately, he served three years under house arrest.
The My Lai massacre left many Americans further disillusioned about the Vietnam War. People were horrified that U.S. soldiers had committed atrocities against innocent civilians and were angered at the potential military cover-up, as well as the fact that Lt. Calley was the only person convicted for the murders.
Vietnam War Protests Opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War began slowly but grew steadily throughout the second half of the 1960s, eventually becoming the largest and most powerful anti-war movement in American history. By the time U.S. planes began regular bombings of North Vietnam in February 1965, liberal public opinion had begun to question the government's assertion that it was fighting a democratic war to liberate the South Vietnamese people from Communist aggression. The anti-war movement then began in earnest, mostly on college campuses, as members of the leftist organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) began organizing "teach-ins" to express their opposition to the way in which it was being conducted.
Though the vast majority of the American population still supported the administration policy in Vietnam, a small but outspoken liberal minority was making its voice heard by the end of 1965. This minority included many students as well as prominent artists and intellectuals and members of the hippie movement, a growing number of young people who rejected authority and embraced the drug culture. By the end of 1967, the Vietnam War was costing the U.S. some $25 billion per year, and disillusionment was beginning to reach greater sections of the taxpaying public. More casualties were reported in Vietnam every day, even as U.S. commanders demanded more troops. Under the draft system, as many as 40,000 young men were called into service each month, adding fuel to the fire of the anti-war movement. Heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali was one of the more prominent Americans who resisted the draft system, declaring himself a conscientious objector and earning a prison sentence (later overturned) and a three-year ban from boxing.
On October 21, 1967, one of the most prominent anti-war demonstrations took place, as some 100,000 protesters gathered at the Lincoln Memorial; 30,000 of them continued in a march on the Pentagon later that night. After a brutal confrontation with the soldiers and U.S. Marshals protecting the building, hundreds of demonstrators were arrested. One of them was the author Norman Mailer, who chronicled the events in his famous book The Armies of the Night, published the following year to widespread acclaim.
By early February 1968, a Gallup poll showed only 35 percent of the population approved of Johnson's handling of the war and 50 percent disapproved (the rest had no opinion). Joining the anti-war demonstrations by this time were members of the organization Vietnam Veterans Against the War, many of whom were in wheelchairs and on crutches. The sight of these men on television throwing away the medals they had won during the war did much to win people over to the anti-war cause. After many New Hampshire primary voters rallied behind the anti-war Democrat Eugene McCarthy, Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection. Vice President Hubert Humphrey accepted the Democratic nomination in August in Chicago, and 10,000 anti-war demonstrators showed up outside the convention building, clashing with security forces assembled by Mayor Richard Daley.
Humphrey lost the 1968 presidential election to Richard M. Nixon, who had promised in his campaign to deal with the extreme elements of the population-namely the radicals and the hippies-more effectively than Johnson had. Nixon's war policies divided the nation still further: In December 1969, the government instituted the first U.S. draft lottery since World War II, inciting a vast amount of controversy and causing many young men to flee to Canada to avoid conscription. Tensions ran higher than ever, spurred on by mass demonstrations and incidents of official violence such those at Kent State in May 1970, when National Guard troops shot into a group of protesters demonstrating against the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, killing four students. By the time the war finally ended, after North Vietnamese troops captured Saigon in 1975, the plaintive anti-war slogan "What are we fighting for?" seemed a prophecy come true, as veterans returned home from Vietnam to find their own nation still bitterly divided.
About Tim O’Brien - Life and Career He was born in Austin, Minnesota, a town of about 9,000 people (a setting which figures prominently in his novels). When O'Brien was 10, his family, including a younger sister and brother, moved to Worthington, Minnesota, a place that once billed itself as "the turkey capital of the world." Worthington had a large influence on O’Brien’s imagination and early development as an author. The town is located on Lake Okabena in the western portion of the state and serves as the setting for some of his stories, especially those in the collection titled The Things They Carried. He earned his BA in Political Science from Macalester College in 1968. That same year he was drafted into the infantry and was sent to Vietnam, where he served from 1968 to 1970. He served in the Americal Division, a platoon of which participated in the infamous My Lai Massacre. O'Brien has said that when his unit got to the area around My Lai (referred to as "Pinkville" by the U.S. forces), "we all wondered why the place was so hostile. We did not know there had been a massacre there a year earlier. The news about that only came out later, while we were there, and then we knew."
Upon completing his tour of duty, O'Brien went on to graduate school at Harvard University and received an internship at the Washington Post. His writing career was launched in 1973 with the release of If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, about his war experiences. In this memoir, O'Brien writes: "Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories."
While O' Brien insists it is not his job or his place to discuss the politics of the Vietnam War, he does occasionally let fly. Speaking years later about his upbringing and the war, O'Brien called his hometown "a town that congratulates itself, day after day, on its own ignorance of the world: a town that got us into Vietnam. Uh, the people in that town sent me to that war, you know, couldn't spell the word 'Hanoi' if you spotted them three vowels." Contrasting the continuing American search for U.S. MIA/POWs in Vietnam with the reality of the Vietnamese war dead, he calls the American perspective "A perverse and outrageous double standard. What if things were reversed? What if the Vietnamese were to ask us, or to require us, to locate and identify each of their own M.I.A.'s ? Numbers alone make it impossible: 100,000 is a conservative estimate. Maybe double that. Maybe triple. From my own sliver of experience — one year at war, one set of eyes — I can testify to the lasting anonymity of a great many Vietnamese dead."
One attribute in O'Brien's work is the blur between fiction and reality; although labeled "fiction" his work contains actual details of the situations he experienced; while that is not unusual, his conscious, explicit, and meta-fictional approach to the distinction between fiction and fact is extraordinary: In the chapter "Good Form" in The Things They Carried, O'Brien casts a distinction between "story-truth" (the truth of fiction) and "happening-truth" (the truth of fact or occurrence), writing that "story-truth is sometimes truer than happening-truth." Certain sets of stories in The Things They Carried seem to contradict each other, and certain stories are designed to "undo" the suspension of disbelief created in previous stories; for example, "Speaking of Courage" is followed by "Notes," which explains in what ways "Speaking of Courage" is false.
O'Brien received the National Book Award in 1979 for his book Going After Cacciato. His most recent novel is July, July.
Book Review about The Things They Carried – New York Times March 11, 1990
Only a handful of novels and short stories have managed to clarify, in any lasting way, the meaning of the war in Vietnam for America and for the soldiers who served there. With ''The Things They Carried,'' Tim O'Brien adds his second title to the short list of essential fiction about Vietnam. As he did in his novel ''Going After Cacciato'' (1978), which won a National Book Award, he captures the war's pulsating rhythms and nerve-racking dangers. But he goes much further. By moving beyond the horror of the fighting to examine with sensitivity and insight the nature of courage and fear, by questioning the role that imagination plays in helping to form our memories and our own versions of truth, he places ''The Things They Carried'' high up on the list of best fiction about any war.
''The Things They Carried'' is a collection of interrelated stories. A few are unremittingly brutal; a couple are flawed two-page sketches. The publisher calls the book ''a work of fiction,'' but in no real sense can it be considered a novel. No matter. The stories cohere. All deal with a single platoon, one of whose members is a character named Tim O'Brien. Some stories are about the wartime experiences of this small group of grunts. Others are about a 43-year-old writer - again, the fictional character Tim O'Brien - remembering his platoon's experiences and writing war stories (and remembering writing stories) about them. This is the kind of writing about writing that makes Tom Wolfe grumble. It should not stop you from savoring a stunning performance. The overall effect of these original tales is devastating.
As might be expected, there is a lot of gore in ''The Things They Carried'' - like the account of the soldier who ties a friend's puppy to a Claymore antipersonnel mine and squeezes the firing device. And much of the powerful language cannot be quoted in a family newspaper. But let Mr. O'Brien explain why he could not spare squeamish sensibilities: ''If you don't care for obscenity, you don't care for the truth; if you don't care for the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty.''
In the title story, Mr. O'Brien juxtaposes the mundane and the deadly items that soldiers carry into battle. Can openers, pocketknives, wristwatches, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, matches, sewing kits, C rations are ''humped'' by the G.I.'s along with M-16 assault rifles, M-60 machine guns, M-79 grenade launchers. But the story is really about the other things the soldiers ''carry'': ''grief, terror, love, longing . . . shameful memories'' and, what unifies all the stories, ''the common secret of cowardice.'' These young men, Mr. O'Brien tells us, ''carried the soldier's greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to.''
Embarrassment, the author reveals in ''On the Rainy River,'' is why he, or rather the fictional version of himself, went to Vietnam. He almost went to Canada instead. What stopped him, ironically, was fear. ''All those eyes on me,'' he writes, ''and I couldn't risk the embarrassment. . . . I couldn't endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule. . . . I was a coward. I went to the war.''
So just what is courage? What is cowardice? Mr. O'Brien spends much of the book carefully dissecting every nuance of the two qualities. In several stories, he writes movingly of the death of Kiowa, the best-loved member of the platoon. In ''Speaking of Courage,'' Mr. O'Brien tells us about Norman Bowker, the platoon member who blames his own failure of nerve for Kiowa's death. Bowker ''had been braver than he ever thought possible, but . . . he had not been so brave as he wanted to be.'' In the following story, ''Notes'' (literally notes on the writing of ''Speaking of Courage''), Mr. O'Brien's fictional alter ego informs the reader that Bowker committed suicide after coming home from the war. This author also admits that he made up the part about the failure of nerve that haunted Bowker. But it's all made up, of course. And in ''The Man I Killed,'' Mr. O'Brien imagines the life of an enemy soldier at whom the character Tim O'Brien tossed a grenade, only to confess later that it wasn't ''Tim O'Brien'' who killed the Vietnamese.
Are these simply tricks in the service of making good stories? Hardly. Mr. O'Brien strives to get beyond literal descriptions of what these men went through and what they felt. He makes sense of the unreality of the war - makes sense of why he has distorted that unreality even further in his fiction - by turning back to explore the workings of the imagination, by probing his memory of the terror and fearlessly confronting the way he has dealt with it as both soldier and fiction writer. In doing all this, he not only crystallizes the Vietnam experience for us, he exposes the nature of all war stories.
The character Tim O'Brien's daughter asks him why he continues to be obsessed by the Vietnam War and with writing about it. ''By telling stories,'' he says, ''you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths.'' In ''Good Form,'' he writes: ''I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again.'' You come away from this book understanding why there have been so many novels about the Vietnam War, why so many of Mr. O'Brien's fellow soldiers have turned to narrative - real and imagined - to purge their memories, to appease the ghosts.
Is it fair to readers for Mr. O'Brien to have blurred his own identity as storyteller-soldier in these stories? ''A true war story is never moral,'' he writes in ''How to Tell a True War Story.'' ''It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.'' Mr. O'Brien cuts to the heart of writing about war. And by subjecting his memory and imagination to such harsh scrutiny, he seems to have reached a reconciliation, to have made his peace - or to have made up his peace.
Robert R. Harris is an editor of The Book Review.
Article connecting Iraq and Vietnam Published on Sunday, May 1, 2005 by CommonDreams.org
The Unreported Vietnam-Iraq Parallel
by Danny Schechter
There is a word missing in most of the coverage of Iraq. It's a ghost-laden word that conjures up distressing memories that Washington and most of our media prefer to keep in that proverbial "lock box," hidden away in dusty archives and footage libraries,
The word is Vietnam.
Its absence was never more noticeable than in the coverage this past weekend of the 30th anniversary of the Vietnam war, marked in Vietnam with celebrations, but largely ignored in America where CNN led with the story of a bride who went missing when she had second thoughts.
Is this denial or is it deliberate? Just this past month, the national Smithsonian Museum of American History installed a new patriotically correct permanent war-positive exhibition, "The Price of Freedom: Americans at War."
If you want to know about the pain of the war offical America wants you to forget, you have to head a few blocks south on the mall in Washington to the Vietnam memorial with its nearly 60,000 names engraved in black marble. That's where you will see the tears of visitors every day and their lingering memories three decades later.
While American media outlets avoid any parallels--with pundits insisting that none exist---overseas some see what many of us don't or won't. A BBC story by Matt Frei reports, "Thirty years after the end of the war, Vietnam continues to divide and haunt America far more than the country that lost 50 times as many people."
His is one of few Vietnam reports that references Iran even though the Iraq connection is buried in the last paragraph, an association even the journalist seems uncomfortable with:
"Iraq is far from becoming another Vietnam. But today the ghosts of the jungle are busy getting resurrected in the sands around Baghdad."
What are those ghosts? And why do they deserve more than media burial in the jungles of Asia or the sands of Iraq?
Here are some of the largely ignored parallels:
l. Both wars were illegal acts of pre-emptive aggression unsanctioned by international law or world opinion. Earlier, U.S. interventions involved successive US administrations. JFK's CIA helped put Saddam in power, Reagan armed him to fight Iran. George Bush, 41 led the first Gulf War against him. Clinton tightened sanctions. George Bush, 43 invaded again. Five Administrations--Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford fought in Vietnam.
2. Both wars were launched with deception. In Iraq it was the now proven phony WMD threat and contrived Saddam-Osama connection. In Vietnam, it was the fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident and the elections mandated by the Geneva agreement that were canceled by Washington in l956 when the US feared Ho Chi Minh would win.
3. The government lied regularly in both wars. Back then, the lies were pronounced a "credibility gap." Today, they are considered acceptable "information warfare." In Saigon military briefers conducted discredited "5 O'Clock Follies" press conferences. In this war, the Pentagon spoon-fed info at a Hollywood style briefing center in Doha.
4. The US press was initially an enthusiastic cheerleader in both wars. When Vietnam protest grew and the war seen as a lost cause, the media frame changed. In Iraq today most of the media is trapped in hotel rooms. Only one side is covered now whereas in Vietnam, there was more reporting occasionally from the other. In Vietnam, the accent was on progress and "turned corners." The same is true in Iraq.
5. In both wars, prisoners were abused. In South Vietnam, thousands of captives were tortured in what were the called "tiger cages." Vietnamese POWs were often killed; In North Vietnam, some US POWs were abused after bombing civilians. In Iraq, POWs on both sides were also mistreated. It was US soldiers that first leaked major war crimes and abuses. In Vietnam, Ron Ridenour disclosed the My Lai Massacre. In Iraq, it was a soldier who first told investigators about the torture in Abu Ghraib prison. (Seymour Hersh the reporter who exposed My-Lai in Vietnam later exposed illegal abuses in Iraq.)
6. Illegal weapons were "deployed" in both wars. The US dropped napalm, used cluster bombs against civilians and sprayed toxic agent orange in Vietnam. Cluster bombs and updated Mark 77 napalm-like firebombs were dropped on Iraqis. Depleted uranium was added to the arsenal of prohibited weapons in Iraq.
7. Both wars claimed to be about promoting democracy. Vietnam staged elections and saw a succession of governments controlled by the US. come and go. Iraq has had one election so far in which most voters say they were casting ballots primarily to get the US to leave. The US has stage-managed Iraq's interim government. Exiles were brought back and put in power. Vietnam's Diem came from New Jersey, Iraq's Allawi from Britain.
8. Both wars claimed to be about noble international goals. Vietnam was pictured as a crusade against aggressive communism and falling dominos. Iraq was sold as a front in a global war on terrorism. Neither claim proved true.
9. An imperial drive for resource control and markets helped drive both interventions. Vietnam had rubber and manganese and rare minerals. Iraq has oil. In both wars, any economic agenda was officially denied and ignored by most media outlets.
10. Both wars took place in countries with cultures we never understood or spoke the language, Both involved "insurgents" whose military prowess was underestimated and misrepresented. In Vietnam, we called the "enemy" communists; in Iraq we call them foreign terrorists. (Soldiers had their own terms, "gooks" in Vietnam, "ragheads" in Iraq) In both counties, they was in fact an indigenous resistance that enjoyed popular support. (Both targeted and brutalized people they considered collaborators with the invaders just as our own Revolution went after Americans who backed the British.) In both wars, as in all wars, innocent civilians died in droves.
11. In both countries the US promised to help rebuild the damages caused by US bombing. In Vietnam, a $2 Billion presidential reconstruction pledge was not honored. In Iraq, the electricity and other services are still out in many areas. In both wars US companies and suppliers have profited handsomely; Brown &Root in Vietnam; Halliburton in Iraq, to cite but two.
12. In Vietnam, the Pentagon's counter-insurgency effort failed to "pacify" the countryside even with a half a million US soldiers "in country." The insurgency in Iraq is growing despite the best efforts of US soldiers. More have died since President Bush proclaimed "mission accomplished" than during the invasion.
The Vietnamese forced the US into negotiations for the Paris Peace Agreement. When the agreement was continually violated, they brilliantly staged a final offensive that surprised and routed a superior million-man Saigon Army. Can the Iraqi resistance do the same?
The BBC is wondering too, reminding us, "As the casualties mounted so did the questions about how much a threat the Vietcong could really pose. Today another pre-emptive war against an enemy far from home has posed similar questions."
As the insurgency in Iraq escalates and continues to seize the initiative with the capacity to attack where and when it wants, is it unthinkable to suspect that another April 30th campaign of the kind that "liberated" Saigon is possible in Baghdad?
We have already seen "the fall" of Baghdad. Can it "fall" again?
Of course not!
Repeat after me. We are winning.
Democracy is on the march.