The last word on the Vietnam War

By Calvin Godfrey, TN News

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US President Barack Obama (2nd, L) and first lady Michelle Obama, center, greet veterans and their families on Veterans Day, while visiting Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, the US, in November 2012

Young Americans who are curious about the Vietnam War can do all sorts of fun things to learn about it.
You can play any number of blood-soaked video games with names like Men of Valor or The Hell in Vietnam. You can watch all sorts of Academy Award-winning films that chronicle the trials and tribulations of American soldiers -- both during and after the war.
Depending on where you live, you can even go out, get dressed-up and participate in a real-life, historical re-enactments, some of which actually end in the re-enactors pantomiming war crimes.
More than thirty thousand or so books have also been written on the subject. Many are racy, drug-addled first-person accounts punctuated by action and sex. Some are just plain funny -- though darkly so.
The smartest and best-read Americans, curious about Vietnam or not, will no doubt sit through a history lesson that includes mention of the My Lai massacre, during which 100 American soldiers infamously slaughtered somewhere between three and five hundred unarmed civilians.
For a long time now, Americans have been satisfied to believe that all of this amounts to a comprehensive-enough picture of what happened here.
Mistakes were made. A lesson was learned. Everyone knows that.

During Chuck Hagel's recent cabinet nomination, editorial boards all over the country volunteered that his participation in the Vietnam War would make him a more dove-like Secretary of Defense, even as his fellow veteran, Senator John McCain, publicly bullied him to apologize for his opposition to the Iraq troop surge and pledge his enthusiasm for pre-emptive military action in Iran.
McCain offers perhaps the perfect picture of America's delusional perception of the war: a veteran who has essentially stood for nothing in the course of his mercurial political career save making war wherever and whenever the opportunity arose.
Senator John Kerry returned from Vietnam howling about rampant atrocities only to apologize later for the language he used. Despite all he saw and knows, Kerry continues to champion aerial bombardment, invasions and interventions, ostensibly as a means of bringing peace and democracy to the rest of the world.
All of this seems to be the organic result of a self-imposed amnesia about the war. There has been no truth, no reconciliation. The farther Americans get from the war, the more its leadership seems eager to recast it as an inspirational example of personal sacrifice.
Last Spring, with his re-election campaign in full swing, President Obama took the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War to "set the record straight."
He drew applause when he reminded the audience of veterans that America won every major battle it fought during the conflict.
He used the occasion to announce the Pentagon's self-aggrandizing Vietnam War Commemoration Project that will seek to honor veterans in ceremonies all over the country for the next decade.
"You're sometimes blamed for the misdeeds of the few," he said. "The honorable service of the many should have been praised; you came home and sometimes were denigrated; you should have been celebrated. It's a national shame. It's a disgrace. It should have never happened. That's why we're here today to resolve that it should never happen again.
A central part of this 50th anniversary should be to tell your story as it should have been told all along."
A few months later, someone did exactly that.
On January 25, journalist Nick Turse published a book that he has been researching for 12 years entitled Kill Anything that Moves: the Real American War in Vietnam.
The project began when Turse stumbled upon records from the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, while writing a dissertation on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in 2001.
After reviewing investigative materials related to roughly 100 rapes, murders, mutilations and other crimes against humanity that the working group looked into after My Lai -- principally to cover them up -- Turse spent three days photocopying the documents. Once he began publishing articles about them, the original documents were pulled from the shelves of the National Archives.
Turse scoured the country, interviewing over 100 veterans, most of whom agreed to talk about crimes they'd either witnessed or participated in.
A few of the veterans he interviewed made efforts to do things that were, indeed, honorable. But they were the few trying to expose the atrocities perpetrated by the many.
This became clear when Turse traveled to Vietnam in search of the massacre sites described in the investigations. "I'd thought that I was looking for a needle in a haystack," he wrote in the book's introduction. "What I found was a veritable haystack of needles."
Turse's careful work reconstructs the war as a crime above all else.
"This was the war in which the American military and successive administrations in Washington produced not a few random massacres or even discrete strings of atrocities, but something on the order of thousands of days of relentless misery -- a veritable system of suffering," he wrote. "That system, that machinery of suffering and what it meant for the Vietnamese people, is what this book is meant to explain."
Turse's work succeeds in being the first honest American examination of the Vietnam War since the 2003 Toledo Blade series that revealed the systematic war crimes perpetrated by Tiger Force in central Vietnam.
The difference is the scope and implication.
In his review of the book, War-era journalist Jonathan Schell identified the book as "a convincing inescapable portrait of this war -- a portrait that, as an American, you do not wish to see; that, having seen, you wish you could forget, but that you should not forget; and that the facts force you to see and remember and take into account when you ask yourself what the United States has done and has been [doing] in the last half century and what it still is doing."

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