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Will America Ever Grapple with the Atrocities It Committed in Vietnam?

There has been one connecting thread in Washington’s foreign wars of the last half century -- misery for local nationals.

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After natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy or Katrina, small numbers of Americans briefly experience something like what millions of war victims -- Vietnamese, Iraqis, Afghans, and others -- have often had to endure for significant parts of their lives.  But for those in America’s war zones, there will be no telethons, benefit concerts, or texting fund drives

Pham To and Pham Thang had to bury the bodies of their family members, friends, and neighbors after they were massacred by American troops passing through their village on patrol.  They had to rebuild their homes and their lives after the war with remarkably little help.  One thing was as certain for them as it has been for war-traumatized Iraqis and Afghans of our moment: no Hollywood luminaries lined up to help raise funds for them or their village.  And they never will.

“We lost so many people and so much else.  And this land was affected by Agent Orange, too.  You’ve come to write about the war, but you could never know the whole story,” Pham Thang told me.  Then he became circumspect.  “Now, our two governments, our two countries, live in peace and harmony.  And we just want to restore life to what it once was here.  We suffered great losses.  The U.S. government should offer assistance to help increase the local standard of living, provide better healthcare, and build infrastructure like better roads.” 

No doubt -- despite the last decade of U.S. nation-building debacles in its war zones -- many Iraqis and Afghans would express similar sentiments.  Perhaps they will even be saying the same sort of thing to an American reporter decades from now. 

Over these last years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of war victims like Pham Thang, and he’s right: I’ll probably never come close to knowing what life was like for those whose worlds were upended by America’s foreign wars.  And I’m far from alone.  Most Americans never make it to a war zone, and even U.S. military personnel arrive only for finite tours of duty, while for combat correspondents and aid workers an exit door generally remains open.  Civilians like Pham To, however, are in it for the duration. 

In the Vietnam years, there was at least an antiwar movement in this country that included many Vietnam veterans who made genuine efforts to highlight the civilian suffering they knew was going on at almost unimaginable levels.  In contrast, in the decade-plus since 9/11, with the rarest of exceptions, Americans have remained remarkably detached from their distant wars, thoroughly ignoring what can be known about the suffering that has been caused in their name. 

As I was wrapping up my interview, Pham Thang asked me about the purpose of the last hour and a half of questions I’d asked him.  Through my interpreter, I explained that most Americans knew next to nothing about Vietnamese suffering during the war and that most books written in my country on the war years ignored it.  I wanted, I told him, to offer Americans the chance to hear about the experiences of ordinary Vietnamese for the first time.

“If the American people know about these incidents, if they learn about the wartime suffering of people in Vietnam, do you think they will sympathize?” he asked me. 

Soon enough, I should finally know the answer to his question.


Nick Turse is the managing editor of and a fellow at the Nation Institute.  An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in theLos Angeles Timesthe Nationand regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author/editor of several books, including the just published The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Spies, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare  (Haymarket Books). This piece is the final article in hisseries on the changing face of American empire, which is being underwritten by Lannan Foundation. You can follow him on Tumblr.

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Copyright 2012 Nick Turse

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