The Vietnam War Memorial in Vietnam Would Be 20 to 50 Times Larger Than Ours
When I was on active duty in the Air Force, I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. I was moved to tears as I encountered the names of more than 58,000 of my fellow Americans etched in stone. What a waste, I thought, but at least they died for their country, and at least we didn’t forget their sacrifice.
To be honest, I don’t recall thinking about the Vietnamese dead. The memorial, famously designed by Maya Lin, captures an American tragedy, not a Vietnamese one. But imagine, for a moment, if we could bridge the empathy gap that separates us from the Vietnamese and our war with them and against them. How might their suffering compare to ours?
America first sent ground combat units to Vietnam in March of 1965. If we count the Linebacker II air offensive against North Vietnam in December of 1972 (the infamous Christmas bombing) as the end of major combat operations, the U.S. military waged war in Vietnam for roughly 93 months. Now, let’s consider the number of Vietnamese killed, to include soldiers and civilians, regardless of their political allegiance or lack thereof. No one knows for sure how many Vietnamese died over this period; the “low” estimate is roughly one million Vietnamese, while the “high” estimate is in the vicinity of three million. Even using the low estimate, that’s more than ten thousand dead per month, for 93 months.
How can we bring meaning to such mind-numbing statistics? To imagine the impact of this war on the Vietnamese people, Americans have to think not of one tragic wall containing 58,000 names, but of twenty (or perhaps even fifty) tragic walls, adding up to millions of names, a high percentage of them being noncombatants, innocent men, women and children.
Difficult as that is to imagine, we must also recognize that the impact of the American war in Vietnam was not limited to killing. The U.S. military bombed and blasted and napalmed and defoliated the landscape as well. So along with twenty or more Maya Lin-type memorials to list all of the Vietnamese war dead, we’d have to imagine scores of “Super Fund” sites in Vietnam, land poisoned by Agent Orange and similar powerful chemicals, tortured terrain that is still occasionally deadly to the Vietnamese who live there.
How did so many Vietnamese come to die? How did Vietnam itself become a blasted and poisoned landscape? And how did the United States come largely to forget its complicity in the killing and blasting? The reasons are not easy to contemplate, but Nick Turse’s harrowing new study, Kill Anything that Moves, forces us to confront what he terms “the real American war in Vietnam.”
In A Rumor of War (1977), a classic memoir of the Vietnam War, U.S. Marine Lieutenant Philip Caputo recounts how the U.S. strategy of “search and destroy” and the obsession with enemy body count led to “orgiastic violence” in which the goal, in his words, was
“to kill Communists and to kill as many of them as possible. Stack ’em like cordwood. Victory was a high body-count … war a matter of arithmetic. The pressure [from the top] on unit commanders to produce enemy corpses was intense, and they in turn communicated it to their troops. This led to such practices as counting civilians as Viet Cong. ‘If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC,’ was a rule of thumb in the bush. It is not surprising, therefore, that some men acquired a contempt for human life and a predilection for taking it.”