August 26, 2005

Getting Vietnam History Right

Thursday's KQED Forum was about military bloggers and how they are changing the way we look at war. The program explored the article that John Hockenberry wrote for Wired (The Blogs of War) which was about the effect of the military blogs on the war. He believes that the military bloggers have helped keep the support for the Iraq war deeper than one might expect from a war that is clearly becoming a long duration war with lots of bad news.

Anyway, the program was fascinating, albeit frustrating because it once more rehashed the yawning divide between those who think George Bush's war is perfectly understandable and worth doing and those of us who wonder what would Bush have to do to have people finally wake up to see that he and his war are a disaster.

Chris Missick represented the military bloggers and has two military blogs: A Line in the Sand and Web of Support. Missick believes that those that oppose the war and the administration come dangerously close to crossing the line to opposing America. (Although He did say that he thought Cindy Sheehan had a right to her perspective and was not "over the line". It's just those nasty anti-Bush people that are traitors, I guess.)

But when Missick was asked what he thought of the Vietnam war, it was clear a history lesson was needed. He said that the Vietnam war resulted in the mass killing of Vietnamese when the Americans left and that therefore leaving was reprehensible. When a caller noted that there was no mass killing of the Vietnamese, one of the guests (I believe it was John Hockenberry) said that well, yes, but the ending of the Vietnam war did result in the massive killing of the Cambodians implying that the Cambodian massacre was caused by the ending of the war.

What the F*K? Yes, Cambodia did turn into a death camp, but it is clear that it wasn't the American troops leaving Vietnam that caused that horrific crisis. It was the bombing of Cambodia during the war that created the vacuum that allowed Pol Pot to come to power. And then when Cambodia was falling into the nightmare known as the Killing Fields, the rest of the world, including the US, turned their eyes away. The Vietnam War created the situation in Cambodia, and it is most assuredly that if the Americans had stayed and fought further in Vietnam, the horror in Cambodia would have happened anyway but morphed into something perhaps even worse. The seeds of destruction were sown by the illegal bombing by Richard Nixon of Cambodia, not the ending of the war. One wonders how many people should have died to make Vietnam worth our while.

Also, see the comments to Kevin Drum's piece on Vietnam vs Iraq concerning this peculiar right-wing fantasy.

Posted by Mary at August 26, 2005 09:37 PM | History | Technorati links |

"When a caller noted that there was no mass killing of the Vietnamese...."

Depends upon what you mean by "mass."

Here it says:

# Vietnam, post-war Communist regime (1975 et seq.): 430 000
* Jacqueline Desbarats and Karl Jackson ("Vietnam 1975-1982: The Cruel Peace", in The Washington Quarterly, Fall 1985) estimated that there had been around 65,000 executions. This number is repeated in the Sept. 1985 Dept. of State Bulletin article on Vietnam.
* Orange County Register (29 April 2001): 1 million sent to camps and 165,000 died.
* Northwest Asian Weekly (5 July 1996): 150,000-175,000 camp prisoners unaccounted for.
* Estimates for the number of Boat People who died:
o Elizabeth Becker (When the War Was Over, 1986) cites the UN High Commissioner on Refugees: 250,000 boat people died at sea; 929,600 reached asylum
o The 20 July 1986 San Diego Union-Tribune cites the UN Refugee Commission: 200,000 to 250,000 boat people had died at sea since 1975.
o The 3 Aug. 1979 Washington Post cites the Australian immigration minister's estimate that 200,000 refugees had died at sea since 1975.
+ Also: "Some estimates have said that around half of those who set out do not survive."
o The 1991 Information Please Almanac cites unspecified "US Officials" that 100,000 boat people died fleeing Vietnam.
o Encarta estimates that 0.5M fled, and 10-15% died, for a death toll of 50-75,000.
o Nayan Chanda, Brother Enemy (1986): žM Chinese refugees in two years, 30,000 to 40,000 of whom died at sea. (These numbers also repeated by Marilyn Young, The Vietnam Wars: 1945-1990 (1991))
* Rummel
o Vietnamese democide: 1,040,000 (1975-87)
+ Executions: 100,000
+ Camp Deaths: 95,000
+ Forced Labor: 48,000
+ Democides in Cambodia: 460,000
+ Democides in Laos: 87,000
+ Boat People: 500,000 deaths (50% not blamed on the Vietnamese govt.)
* ANALYSIS: I'd say the most likely total would be 430,000. That's 65,000 executions + 165,000 camp deaths + 200,000 boat people. It's unlikely that VN alone caused 460+87T democides in Cambodia + Laos since estimates of the total deaths in these conflicts only run to a half million or so.
Make of it what you will. But in general, any attempt to summarize the Vietnam War is hard to do fairly in under about one hundred thousand words.

I used to be the assistant editor on Avon Book's Vietnam War books line many years ago (mid-Eighties) -- of which there were no real "pro-war" books; I'm talking about, for instance, Michael Herr's Dispatches. The others were along similar lines.

Posted by: Gary Farber at August 26, 2005 11:38 PM

Gary Farber,

The gripe I have with pro-Viet Nam War people citing civilian deaths after 1975 is that they cite them in an attempt to justify the war, or to charge anti-Viet Nam War people with the responsibility for these deaths. This is absurd.

The US was not engaged in a humanitarian relief mission in Viet Nam. Preventing civilian deaths was not the mission. Vietnamese from both sides frequently wiped out villages believed to be working against them. The US military's hands are not clean on this either.

Let's assume the figures for civilian deaths from 1975-1982 that you quoted are accurate. No one really knows, and I've got nothing. Does anyone know the number of civilian deaths in Viet Nam, north and south, from 1965-1975? I have read the figure 3 million for the whole war, but never saw a more precise time period.

With respect to the secret bombings in Cambodia and Laos, I believe I recall reading estimates of over 500,000 civilian deaths. This was before Pol Pot took over.

These numbers are hard to get and never come from a source that can be completely trusted.

I completely agree with you that it is very hard to summarize the Viet Nam War. I have made studying one of my constant activities since the late 60s, and I would not call myself an expert.

I found the comments at Kevin Drum's to be filled with ignorance and polemic. While things like civilian death totals are hard to come by, the basic facts of the war are readily available. I find the ignorance to be deliberate and infuriating.

The current political alignments in America, and most of the issues, have their roots in events that occurred between the assassination of JFK and the resignation of Richard Nixon. We've been living with those twelve years for the last thirty.

Posted by: James E. Powell at August 27, 2005 12:10 AM

It seems for the conservatives nothing has happened between the beginning of Nixon's first term and today. They are refighting the old culture wars and now they are refighting Vietnam. I have had several recently give me the the story that Dems in Congress caused the killings of hundred of thousands by letting North VIetnam invade, that Vietnam was the right war, and that the only mistake the US made was in not invading North Vietnam, etc. If the GOP can get away with making a military hero into a wimpy fake traitor flip-flopper and make a hero out of someone who avoided Vietnam and walked away from his military duties maybe they feel history can be whatever they say it was.

Perhaps they are also refighting the past because they are afraid to take a serious look at this war.

This Iraq War will cost over $1 trillion, about $10,000 a year for the average family. The only reason they aren't screaming about their taxes now is that the GOP has learned never to pay for anything but to let the debt pile up. They also don't care about the deaths of other peoples kin.

A recent comprehensive look at all suicide bombers since WW2 shows that in Iraq we are creating more and following the wrong course. We are not safer, this has nothing to do with 9/11, or terrorists, or some holy war against Islamofascists. The Presidents plan is establishing a constitution with a council of mullahs to approve the laws. Add approving the candidates and you have Iran.

Perhaps they just scream the loudest when they know the public is turning against them.

My nephew was just informed he will be going back to Iraq for his 3rd time soon. This last time he lost his best friend. He has his first child, a daughter that was born during his last tour of duty. He says that more of his company have a very low opinion of Bush and Rumsfeld now but haven't seen any Democrat they can support yet.

They now know this war is unwinable, when will the idiots here at home learn?


Posted by: Easter Lemming Liberal News at August 27, 2005 01:10 AM

VietNam was the harbinger of the death throes of nineteenth century policies we are experiencing today. VietNam was point point where we realized that you can't just kill all the indians.

Posted by: Adam Selene at August 27, 2005 03:49 PM

"The gripe I have with pro-Viet Nam War people citing civilian deaths after 1975 is that they cite them in an attempt to justify the war, or to charge anti-Viet Nam War people with the responsibility for these deaths. This is absurd."

Relatively speaking, yes. I've never been "for" that war in my life. I was literally marching in the Moratorium in Washington in 1969, when I was 10 years old, because my parents took me, as well as to earlier demos in NYC. I haven't particularly changed my mind since, although naturally my knowledge later grew orders greater. I'll just leave it at that, since I could write many tens of thousands of words otherwise about what the problems were in each year of the War.

"Does anyone know the number of civilian deaths in Viet Nam, north and south, from 1965-1975?"

I could give you estimates just as above, sure. But just try clicking the link I gave, and then scrolling. Yup, estimates, but when you add up, in both cases, all these multiple authors and points of view and from the different political positions, I think in both cases we get somewhere in the right neighborhood.

Posted by: Gary Farber at August 27, 2005 04:33 PM

Gary, thanks for your link. It is good to have some real research into what happened in Vietnam. It was long and terrible time for the Vietnamese. One thing that is strange to me is that the Vietnamese have better made their peace with these times than Americans have. We are still living with those who believed it was a winnable war and that it was the traitorous liberals that lost the war for us. I'm still shocked by how much disinformation surrounds the discourse on what really happened and what lessons we should learn from our involvement.

Posted by: Mary at August 27, 2005 06:47 PM