One of the enduring myths connected to the Vietnam War is that the U.S. military could have won the war if the politicians and protesters back in Washington didn’t somehow handicap the generals.
When George H. W. Bush launched the first Gulf War in 1990, for instance, he said that “this will not be another Vietnam. Our troops will…not be asked to fight with one hand tied behind their back.”
This myth doesn’t account for the determination of the Vietnamese to repel the US troops. It also doesn’t take into consideration the US troops themselves and how they felt about the war. If any hands were secured by any backs, it was often the GIs themselves who were doing the tying.
As David Cortright writes in his contribution to the important new book, Waging Peace in Vietnam, which he edited with Ron Carver and Barbara Doherty, the US military by the early 1970s was in no condition to fight a war much less win one. By 1971, he points out, the AWOL rate had hit an all-time high of 17 percent. One in six soldiers were not showing up at their job.
Also by 1971, the military recorded nearly 500 acts of attempted damage to military equipment by the soldiers themselves. Then there was all the “fragging” that was taking place, 500 of them by 1972, in which soldiers rolled fragmentation grenades into the quarters of their superiors – either to send a warning or to outright kill them. Many veterans and even some active-duty soldiers were involved in protesting the war.
The US army, particularly by the early 1970s, was a house divided.
By this time, too, many Americans had turned against the war. Mass street protests were taking place in Washington. Respected figures like TV newscaster Walter Cronkite were urging the US government to negotiate and pull out troops.
Opposition from the soldiers themselves occasionally made it into the headlines, for instance when John Kerry, representing the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971. In that year, too, 700 veterans threw their medals over the fence in front of the White House, which merited a small article in The New York Times.
These acts of resistance, however, are largely ignored in the official narrative about the Vietnam War, which allows the “hand behind the back” myth to endure. Waging Peace in Vietnam provides a corrective. By assembling the accounts of dozens of veterans and activists, the book paints a much fuller picture of the resistance to the Vietnam War by GIs and their supporters. It documents the extensive antiwar newspapers published by soldiers in the United States, Europe, Asia, and even Iceland. It includes interviews with the people who set up GI coffeehouses on or near bases, which then became centers of resistance. It covers the uprisings by African American soldiers disgusted with the racism that permeated the armed forces. It provides snapshots of several of the 30,000 draft resisters who left for Canada at that time.
In one particularly poignant episode in the book, helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson recounts how he saw from the air the bodies of dead Vietnamese women, old men, and children in what would later become known as the My Lai massacre. He landed his copter and managed to rescue nine civilians from certain death at the hands of his fellow soldiers. Even more remarkably, Thompson told his crew to shoot at his compatriots in order to force them to stand down. “I’m not going to let these GIs kill any more of these people,” he radioed his friends in a nearby gunship.
When Thompson testified before Congress at the end of 1969, the then-chairman of the House Armed Services Committee argued that the pilot, for trying to stop the massacre, should be the only soldier punished for what happened at My Lai.
Thompson would eventually return to Vietnam, part of a wave of veterans who sought some form of reconciliation with the people they fought against. These veterans, including both the antiwar John Kerry and the pro-war John McCain, played an important role in effecting a remarkable rapprochement between what had once been two implacable enemies.
Given the myths about why the United States didn’t win in Vietnam, it’s no surprise that Washington has never learned the right lessons from the conflict. It would blunder into even more challenging quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq. The war in Afghanistan is now 18 years old, nearly twice as long as US involvement in Vietnam.
And just as there’s a terrible continuity between these wars, there is also a hopeful parallel in the efforts of active duty soldiers and veterans to put an end to America’s endless wars in the Middle East. Waging Peace in Vietnam includes a chapter on the resistance waged by the latest generation of antiwar vets. It’s a useful reminder that those who know war best can be the most effective antiwar activists.