[News] Tet 40 years later - From the Missing Archives of a Lost War

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Jan 24 17:46:15 EST 2008

Tom Dispatch

posted 2008-01-24 15:31:37

Tomgram: Nick Turse, From the Missing Archives of a Lost War

30-31, 1968, the Tet holiday, the North Vietnamese and the National 
Liberation Front (NLF, known to Americans as "the Vietcong") struck 
at five of the country's six largest cities, 34 provincial capitals, 
64 district capitals, and numerous military bases. NLF sappers even 
briefly captured part of the heavily fortified American embassy 
compound in the center of the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon.

Vietnamese government troops allied to the Americans were badly 
bloodied and American casualties were high. Fighting continued in 
parts of Saigon for three weeks and in Hue, the old imperial capital, 
for almost a month until, as with Fallujah in Iraq in November 2004, 
most of its buildings were destroyed. To retake major urban areas, 
air power was called in. In perhaps the most infamous phrase of the 
Vietnam War, an anonymous U.S. major said of the retaking of Ben Tre, 
"It became necessary to destroy the town to save it."

In a wave of TV images of unexpected carnage, all this broke over the 
American people, who had been assured that "progress" was being made, 
that, as American commander General William Westmoreland put it, "We 
have reached an important point when the end begins to come into 
view." (Sound familiar?)

The Tet Offensive was a home-front televisual disaster and proved a 
breaking point in terms of pubic support for the war effort (despite 
massive losses on the other side). A shocked Walter Cronkite, the 
avuncular anchorman of CBS News and an American icon, declared the 
war "mired in stalemate." President Lyndon Johnson, who was watching 
that broadcast, promptly turned to an aide and said, "It's all over." 
And yet the war, already visibly hopeless, would continue through 
another seven years of carnage as American ground troops were drawn 
down, while air power was relentlessly ratcheted up. (Again, does any 
of this sound familiar?)

Now, 40 years later, we are nearing Tet 2008 (February 7th), 
embroiled in another faraway war in another faraway land where 
Americans are dying and another people, another society is suffering 
grievous wounds, once again on an 
<http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/174882/csi_iraq>almost unimaginable 
scale. Once again, an administration is assuring Americans that 
"progress" is being made, that a corner is being turned. Once again, 
are being <http://uruknet.info/uruknet-images/secret222.jpg>brought 
in. And once again, the voices we seldom hear are those of the 
civilians who are suffering. Barely noted in our world while the war 
is ongoing, they will promptly be forgotten -- if the Vietnam 
experience is any measure -- when it's over (as someday it must be), 
while Americans focus on the "lessons" to be learned from an 
"American tragedy."

Nick Turse and photographer Tam Turse are now in Vietnam meeting with 
Vietnamese who ended up on the other end of American weaponry (and, 
in some cases, the Vietnamese versions of present-day Hadithas). 
Traveling through the distant Mekong Delta, they offer these 
unforgettable voices from the missing archives of a lost war. Tom

Two Men, Two Legs, and Too Much Suffering

America's Forgotten Vietnamese Victims
By Nick Turse

Nguyen Van Tu asks if I'm serious. Am I really willing to tell his 
story -- to tell the story of the Vietnamese who live in this rural 
corner of the Mekong Delta? Almost 40 years after guerrilla fighters 
in his country threw the limits of U.S. military power into stark 
relief -- during the 1968 Tet Offensive -- we sit in his rustic home, 
built of wood and thatch with an earthen floor, and speak of two 
hallmarks of that power: ignorance and lack of accountability. As 
awkward chicks scurry past my feet, I have the sickening feeling 
that, in decades to come, far too many Iraqis and Afghans will have 
similar stories to tell. Similar memories of American troops. Similar 
accounts of air strikes and artillery bombardments. Nightmare 
knowledge of what "America" means to far too many outside the United States.

"Do you really want to publicize this thing," Nguyen asks. "Do you 
really dare tell everyone about all the losses and sufferings of the 
Vietnamese people here?" I assure this well-weathered 60-year old 
grandfather that that's just why I've come to Vietnam for the third 
time in three years. I tell him I have every intention of reporting 
what he's told me -- decades-old memories of daily artillery 
shelling, of near constant air attacks, of farming families forced to 
live in their fields because of the constant bombardment of their 
homes, of women and children killed by bombs, of going hungry because 
U.S. troops and allied South Vietnamese forces confiscated their 
rice, lest it be used to feed guerrillas.


After hearing of the many horrors he endured, I hesitantly ask him 
about the greatest hardship he lived through during what's 
appropriately known here as the American War. I expect him to mention 
his brother, a simple farmer shot dead by America's South Vietnamese 
allies in the early years of the war, when the United States was 
engaged primarily in an "advisory" role. Or his father who was killed 
just after the war, while tending his garden, when an M-79 round -- a 
40 mm shell fired from a single-shot grenade launcher -- buried in 
the soil, exploded. Or that afternoon in 1971 when he heard outgoing 
artillery being fired and warned his family to scramble for their 
bunker by shouting, "Shelling, shelling!" They made it to safety. He 
didn't. The 105 mm artillery shell that landed near him ripped off 
most of his right leg.

But he didn't name any of these tragedies.

"During the war, the greatest difficulty was a lack of freedom," he 
tells me. "We had no freedom."

A Simple Request

Elsewhere in the Mekong Delta, Pham Van Chap, a solidly-built 52 
year-old with jet black hair tells a similar story. His was a farming 
family, but the lands they worked and lived on were regularly blasted 
by U.S. ordnance. "During the ten years of the war, there was serious 
bombing and shelling in this region -- two to three times a day," he 
recalls while sitting in front of his home, a one-story house 
surrounded by animal pens in a bucolic setting deep in the Delta 
countryside. "So many houses and trees were destroyed. There were so 
many bomb craters around here."

In January 1973, the first month of the last year U.S. troops fought 
in Vietnam, Pham heard the ubiquitous sound of artillery and started 
to run to safety. It was too late. A 105 mm shell slammed into the 
earth four meters in front of him, propelling razor-sharp shrapnel 
into both legs. When he awoke in the hospital, one leg was gone from 
the thigh down. After 40 days in the hospital, he was sent home, but 
he didn't get his first prosthetic leg until the 1990s. His new 
replacement is now eight years old and a far cry from the advanced, 
prosthetics and carbon fiber and 
artificial legs that wounded U.S. veterans of America's latest wars 
get. His wooden prosthetic instead resembles a table leg with a hoof 
at the bottom. "It has not been easy for me without my leg," he confides.


When I ask if there are any questions he'd like to ask me or anything 
he'd like to say to Americans, he has a quick response. He doesn't 
ask for money for his pain and suffering. Nor for compensation for 
living his adult life without a leg. Nor vengeance, that all-American 
urge, in the 
of George W. Bush to "kick some ass." Not even an apology. His 
request is entirely too reasonable. He simply asks for a new leg. 
Nothing more.

Ignorance Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

I ask Nguyen Van Tu the same thing. And it turns out he has a 
question of his own: "Americans caused many losses and much suffering 
for the Vietnamese during the war, do Americans now feel remorse?" I 
wish I could answer "yes." Instead, I tell him that most Americans 
are totally ignorant of the pain of the Vietnamese people, and then I 
think to myself, as I glance at the ample pile of tiny, local 
potatoes on his floor, about widespread American indifference to 
civilians killed, maimed, or suffering in other ways in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Even those Vietnamese who didn't lose a limb -- or a loved one -- 
carry memories of years of anguish, grief, and terror from the 
American War. The fall-out here is still palpable. The elderly woman 
who tells me how her home was destroyed by an incendiary bomb. The 
people who speak of utter devastation -- of villages laid waste by 
shelling and bombing, of gardens and orchards decimated by chemical 
defoliants. The older woman who, with trepidation, peeks into a home 
where I'm interviewing -- she hasn't seen a Caucasian since the war 
-- and is visibly unnerved by the memories I conjure up. Another 
begins trembling upon hearing that the Americans have arrived again, 
fearing she might be taken away, as her son was almost 40 years 
earlier. The people with memories of heavily armed American patrols 
disrupting their lives, searching their homes, killing their 
livestock. The people for whom English was only one phrase, the one 
they all seem to remember: "VC, VC" -- slang for the pejorative term 
"Viet Cong"; and those who recall model names and official 
designations of U.S. weaponry of the era -- from bombs to rifles -- 
as intimately as Americans today know their sports and celebrities.

I wish I could tell Nguyen Van Tu that most Americans know something 
of his country's torture and torment during the war. I wish I could 
tell him that most Americans care. I wish I could tell him that 
Americans feel true remorse for the terror visited upon the 
Vietnamese in their name, or that an apology is forthcoming and 
reparations on their way. But then I'd be lying. Mercifully, he 
doesn't quiz me as I've quizzed him for the better part of an hour. 
He doesn't ask how Americans can be so ignorant or hard-hearted, how 
they could allow their country to repeatedly invade other nations and 
leave them littered with corpses and filled with shattered families, 
lives, and dreams. Instead he answers calmly and methodically:

"I have two things to say. First, there have been many consequences 
due to the war and even now the Vietnamese people suffer greatly 
because of it, so I think that the American government must do 
something in response -- they caused all of these losses here in 
Vietnam, so they must take responsibility for that. Secondly, this 
interview should be an article in the press."

I sit there knowing that the chances of the former are nil. The U.S. 
government won't do it and the American people don't know, let alone 
care, enough to make it happen. But for the latter, I tell him I 
share his sentiments and I'll do my best.

Nguyen Van Tu grasps my hands in thanks as we end the interview. His 
story is part of a hidden, if not forbidden, history that few in the 
U.S. know. It's a story that was written in blood in Vietnam, 
Cambodia, and Laos during the 1960s and 1970s and now is being 
rewritten in Afghanistan and Iraq. It's a story to which new episodes 
are added each day that U.S. forces roll armored vehicles down other 
people's streets, kick down other people's doors, carry out attacks 
in other people's neighborhoods and occupy other people's countries.

It took nearly 40 years for word of Nguyen Van Tu's hardships at the 
hands of the United States to filter back to America. Perhaps a few 
more Americans will feel remorse as a result. But who will come 
forward to take responsibility for all this suffering? And who will 
give Pham Van Chap a new leg?

Nick Turse is the associate editor and research director of 
Tomdispatch.com. He has written for the 
Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Nation, the Village 
Voice, and regularly for Tomdispatch.com. His first book, 
Complex, an exploration of the new military-corporate complex in 
America, is due out in the 
<http://www.americanempireproject.com/>American Empire Project series 
by Metropolitan Books in March 2008.

Tam Turse is a freelance 
working in New York City. Her photographs have appeared most recently 
in The Progressive and at TomDispatch.com for which she is the 
official photographer. More of her photos from these interviews can 
by viewed by 
<http://www.flickr.com/photos/double_t/sets/72157603758539463/>clicking here.

Copyright 2008 Nick Turse

Freedom Archives
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San Francisco, CA 94110

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