Oliver Stone, Obama, and the War in Vietnam

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vietmap Oliver Stone’s Showtime series, Untold History of the United States, is the most radical mainstream television I have ever watched. Eye-opening scenes, shocking speech by our presidents, splendid narration by Stone, all make for a compelling series. A 700-page book by Stone and historian Peter Kuznick accompanies the ten-part program; it provides greater detail and covers more ground than the Showtime installments, allowing viewers to gain an even better understanding of our “untold history.”

Episode 7, which is mainly about the War in Vietnam (or the Second Indochina War as it is also called), riveted me to the screen. Stone atones for whatever guilt he has felt about being a soldier in Vietnam by laying out the horrors of the war, the sheer murderous violence of it, in vivid detail. I came of political age in those years, and I got angry all over again watching the bombs and defoliants falling, the victims screaming, and the politicians and generals lying. It will be a joyous day when that master liar and war criminal Henry Kissinger dies and joins his cohorts in mass slaughter, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. His name should become a synonym for murderer.

The carnage brought to Southeast Asia by the United States is mind-boggling, as Stone and Kuznick document:

*nearly four million Vietnamese killed.

*more bombs dropped on Vietnam than by all sides in all previous wars throughout history, and three times more     dropped than by all sides in the Second World War.

*19,000,000 gallons of herbicide poisoned the land.

*9,000 of 15,000 hamlets destroyed in the South of Vietnam.

*In the North, all six industrial cities devastated; 28 of 30 provincial towns and 96 of 116 district towns leveled by bombing.

*The United States threatened to use nuclear weapons thirteen times. Nixon chided Kissinger for being too squeamish about this. Nixon said he, himself, just didn’t give a damn.

*After the war, unexploded bombs and mines permeated the landscape and took an additional 42,000 lives. Millions of acres of land have still not been cleared of live ordnance.

*Agent Orange and other defoliants have caused severe health problems for millions of Vietnamese.

*Nearly all of Vietnam’s triple canopy forests were destroyed.

*3,000,000 tons of ordnance struck 100,000 sites during the “secret” war in Cambodia, causing widespread social dislocation, destruction of crops, and starvation. The U.S. bombing campaign in Cambodia was directly responsible for the rise of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot and the genocide that took place afterward (The United States actually sided with Pol Pot when Vietnamese troops finally ended his reign of terror). Stone and Kuznick quote a Khmer Rouge officer:

“Every time after there had been bombing, they would take the people to see the craters, to see how big and deep the craters were, to see how the earth had been gouged out and scorched. . . . The ordinary people sometimes literally shit in their pants when the big bombs and shells came. Their minds just froze up and they would wander around mute for three or four days. Terrified and half crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told. It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing that they kept on cooperating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children off to go with them. . . . Sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge.”

*2,756,941 tons of ordnance dropped in Laos on 113,716 sites. Much of the Laotian landscape was blown to bits.

At a news conference in 1977, in response to a reporter’s question asking if the United States had a moral obligation to help rebuild Vietnam, President Jimmy Carter infamously replied:

The destruction was mutual. We went to Vietnam without any desire to capture territory or impose American will on other people. I don’t feel that we ought to apologize or castigate ourselves or to assume the status of culpability.

Mutual? Carter’s statement reflects both the arrogance of power and a vulgar sense of imperial righteousness. There were 58,000 U.S. soldiers killed during the war, and 300,000-plus wounded, and plenty of mental and physical illness, suicides, broken families, and other kinds of distress. Stone nicely captures all of this with a statement made to a journalist by a mother whose son was at My Lai, “I gave them a good boy, and they sent me back a murderer.” But whatever happened here, it pales in comparison to what took place there. There was no mutuality whatsoever, and it is obscene to say there was. What the United States did in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos ranks with the worst atrocities of the twentieth century. If the peoples of Southeast Asia had done to us what we did to them, and the same share of our population was killed as in Vietnam, the Vietnam Memorial wall would have about 20,000,000 names on it.

Our political rulers have continued ever since 1975, when the North Vietnamese Army and the National Liberation Front militarily liberated their country, to not just erase the horrors of Vietnam from public memory but to paint the war as what President Reagan called “a noble cause.” Since he took office, President Obama, an admirer of Reagan, has gone further than any president to do this, attempting to perpetrate another U.S. atrocity, albeit in another form than war, by proclaiming the “Vietnam War Commemoration.” The 2008 National Defense Authorization Act empowered the Secretary of Defense to organize events to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the War in Vietnam. A thirteen-year commemoration is envisioned, from Memorial Day 2012 until November 11, 2025.

In his Proclamation urging us all to participate in what amounts to an orgy of self-congratulations and forgetfulness, President Obama said,

As we observe the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, we reflect with solemn reverence upon the valor of a generation that served with honor. We pay tribute to the more than 3 million servicemen and women who left their families to serve bravely, a world away from everything they knew and everyone they loved. From Ia Drang to Khe Sanh, from Hue to Saigon and countless villages in between, they pushed through jungles and rice paddies, heat and monsoon, fighting heroically to protect the ideals we hold dear as Americans. Through more than a decade of combat, over air, land, and sea, these proud Americans upheld the highest traditions of our Armed Forces.

This made me want to cry. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese suspected of being insurgents or sympathizers assassinated in the CIA’s Phoenix Program; the forcible removal of more than five million villagers from their homes into “Strategic Hamlets”; political prisoners jailed and tortured in “tiger cages”; the intentional bombing of North Vietnamese dikes and hospitals; the murder of some 500 women, babies, children, and old people (many were first raped and later butchered) by GIs at My Lai. What kind of valorous efforts were these? What kind of grand ideals did these embody?

The Secretary of Defense is to organize all of the Commemoration’s programs to satisfy these objectives:

1. To thank and honor veterans of the Vietnam War, including personnel who were held as prisoners of war (POW), or listed as missing in action (MIA), for their service and sacrifice on behalf of the United States and to thank and honor the families of these veterans.

2. To highlight the service of the Armed Forces during the Vietnam War and the contributions of Federal agencies and governmental and non-governmental organizations that served with, or in support of, the Armed Forces.

3. To pay tribute to the contributions made on the home front by the people of the United States during the Vietnam War.

4. To highlight the advances in technology, science, and medicine related to military research conducted during the Vietnam War.

5. To recognize the contributions and sacrifices made by the allies of the United States during the Vietnam War.

These are all awful, but the fourth one would make the Nazis proud.

The current chairman of the Commemoration is former Nebraska Senator and Vietnam veteran Chuck Hagel. He is also under consideration to become the next Secretary of Defense. If he does, he’ll become the chief organizer of everything connected with it. Some progressives claim that Hagel will be a rare voice of reason and decency at the top of the U.S. killing machine. But how reasonable and decent can a man be who would agree to chair this trunkful of lies?

I hope that radicals will do what they can to counter this celebration of atrocities. Monthly Review magazine, with which I am affiliated, will be running a series of essays from our archives, as well as newly written contributions, on the war. The first of these was published in November, 2012, a wonderful review of Oliver Stone’s film, Platoon, by former Marine Leo Cawley, who was poisoned by Agent Orange and died too young from its effects. It’s a good antidote to the most recent attempt to rewrite the history of the war in Southeast Asia. The Vietnam War should never be forgotten. It was a stain on our country and on humanity itself. To glorify it is an ignominious crime. We should instead honor the Vietnamese people, who fought more valiantly and suffered more for their liberation from foreign rule than we ever did for our own.

*This essay first appeared in counterpunch:

14 Responses to Oliver Stone, Obama, and the War in Vietnam

  1. Jan Cox January 11, 2013 at 4:02 pm #

    Agent Orange exposure from the Korean War on with U.S. military veterans and their children:

    Depleted uranium exposure and it’s affects aren’t quite as well recognized by the VA:

    Can’t even imagine the toll on all the citizens of all the countries where these substances were used.

    • Michael D. Yates January 11, 2013 at 4:28 pm #

      Thanks for this, Jan. More untold or hidden history. I think some Vietnam vets are protesting Obama’s Commemoration (whitewash) of the Vietnam War. I will support their efforts however I can. Michael

  2. diane January 13, 2013 at 7:06 pm #

    These are all awful, but the fourth one would make the Nazis proud.

    Thank you so much Michael, and thank you so much for your latest comment at Stop Me Before I Vote Again (I would have thanked you there, but I have a nit about registering, with a valid email address, I never use email so I always provide a fake one. It’s not personal, I would place phone calls if I could, I’ve just always despised email, and have never trusted the existent, unbridled MilTech Oligarchy, to which so much private data has insanely been entrusted, to bring anything but violation and mass misery).

    I met with a group of people today where some relayed their thoughts. One mother had brought her daughter, who had just lost her best friend to the Railroad Tracks, she couldn’t have been much more, if that, than twenty …

  3. Ben January 14, 2013 at 11:06 am #

    Oliver Stone really surprised me. While this series doesn’t seem to have any exceptional revelations, it does show the context and that really helps to understand where we keep going wrong. Unless one is a full time historian, it’s difficult to get the big picture, and it’s easy to forget that we only get one side of things.

  4. Mike B) January 14, 2013 at 9:41 pm #

    Stone’s series hasn’t hit Australian shores yet.

    Having been part of the anti-war movement from the time I left the Marines in 1967 until the end of the war in ’75, I remember a lot of events which put me in the streets and into tears. I remember being overwhelmed with sadness at a report of Cambodian children picking up some sort of foil like item being dropped from U.S. aircraft and dying as a result. Now, decades later, I can’t remember what the destructive devices were, just my anger, sadness and resolve to, “Macht kaputt was Euch kaputt macht.”

  5. diane January 14, 2013 at 10:02 pm #

    can you translate that, Michael B?

    My knee jerk was: a resolve to survive what was venally done, using the labor and lives of those who would never have done it, had they known what was actually being done.

    So very glad that you survived it to tell your truth.

  6. Michael D. Yates January 15, 2013 at 4:40 am #

    Thanks, Diane, Ben, and Mike. Mike, people like yourself who bore witness and demanded and end to the war did a great service to both the antiwar movement and to humanity itself. I remember celebrating when Johnson said he wouldn’t run for president in 1968. I was so naive. Much worse in the war was yet to come. Mike, is there going to be any sort of memorializing of the war in Australia?

    In the song “Waltzing Matilda” by Eric Bogle, an old Australian man who has lost his legs at Gallipoli in WW1, is sitting on his porch watching the old veterans marching in a parade. A young man says, “What are they marching for?” and the old man says, “And I ask myself the same question?”

  7. diane January 15, 2013 at 7:45 pm #

    thank you, Michael. I was drawn by your comment, at Stop Me Before I Vote Again¸ regarding the young – and quite vulnerable, given their youth – amongst us.

    to me, there seems to be a gentleness about you (not to be ….should never ….ever … …mistaken for absence of courage; …. in my thoughts, …quite to the contrary, ……. gentleness is the highest of virtues).

  8. emmryss January 22, 2013 at 8:23 pm #

    Sounds like a perfect visual complement to Nick Turse’s new book, “Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.” In his online review, Jonathan Schell describes the book as the first “comprehensive picture of what American forces were actually doing in Vietnam.” These findings, Schell adds, “disclose an almost unspeakable truth … episodes of devastation, murder, massacre, rape, and torture once considered isolated atrocities were in fact the norm, adding up to a continuous stream of atrocity, unfolding, year after year, throughout that country.” Schell points out that “… from its inception the war’s structure was shaped by an attempt to superimpose a false official narrative on a reality of a wholly different character.” And now they’re going to spend 13 years shoring up the same false official narrative? It is to weep.

    • Michael D. Yates January 22, 2013 at 8:39 pm #

      emmryss, thanks for this. I am reading Turse’s book now. It is an eye-opener for certain. He provides lots of data but many real life examples as well. Turse did his homework. It will be hard to deny what he says. I am planning to review it. Yes, it is to weep. Michael

  9. sumwunyumaynotno June 4, 2013 at 7:18 pm #

    I haven’t seen any of the series. But I would like to know how you would respond to the critique offered at:


    • Michael D. Yates June 4, 2013 at 7:53 pm #

      Dear friend, The series has its really good points and flaws as well. But the main thing, I think, is that it is popular, mainstream television. One can only imagine what the ICFI would have done. However, the reviewer does make some useful criticisms, most of which I cannot fault.


  1. Honor the Vietnamese, Not Those Who Killed Them | Michael D. Yates | Monthly Review - May 1, 2015

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