Drugs

Vietnam and the War on Drugs: What We Forget, We Repeat

History has shown the anti-war protesters to be on the right side of the argument.

Photo Credit: John Gomez / Shutterstock.com

I just finished watching the 18-hour documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novice on the Vietnam War. To call it an epic masterpiece is an understatement–to call it a definitive documentary on one of the most complex events in U.S. history is to commit the common sin of oversimplification. Nonetheless, I found the series extremely affecting–as a person who came of age and political consciousness during the era covered, it was a reminder of how much my worldview and life path was a response to all that was happening then.  What I will say, is that of all the documentaries I have watched on the Vietnam War era, this one was the most personal, the most human, the most balanced (despite an obvious U.S. bias) and the most accurate in providing historical facts.

When all is said and done, one is left with the ultimate futility of armed combat–aka WAR. The incredible loss of life, permanent injuries to individuals, families, and communities; the decimation of the physical environment and natural resources–just never seems worth it in the end. And I must add that the thing that pains me the most is the realization that in every war of the 20th century and continuing into the 21st century, civilian deaths outnumber military deaths by almost 10 to 1. In a war where the principal measure of success was body count, soldiers were incentivized to see every Vietnamese as a potential enemy and every dead one as an indicator of success.  As poignantly noted by the journalist, Joe Galloway, the Vietnam War "turned honorable men into liars" who felt compelled to dehumanize people so that they could kill them. As explained by Marine veteran, John Musgrave, he "wasn’t killing people, he was killing ‘gooks’. This was Racism 101: the necessity of turning people into objects to retain your sanity when you have children fighting wars."

In between my tears, I began reflecting on the parallels between the Vietnam War and the War on Drugs (which ironically was initiated just as the Vietnam War was ending). The initial U.S. involvement in Vietnam was in support of French desire to maintain it's colonial power in Vietnam. After the French army was defeated, the U.S. betrayed its agreement with Ho Chi Minh to hold democratic elections in favor of supporting the corrupt despot Diem. The U.S. public was deceived into believing Ho Chi Minh was not a nationalist seeking independence for his country, but instead solely a communist and implacable foe of America. The tens of thousands of men and women who volunteered to serve in Vietnam believed they were engaged in a fight against communism in support of freedom and democracy. Similarly, the U.S. public was deceived into believing that drug abuse was the country's biggest public safety threat and that a 'war on drugs' was the best approach, because after all, the U.S. always wins...but in declaring a ‘war on drugs’ the government was declaring war on its own citizens in much the same way the Vietnam War seemed to require the U.S. military to destroy villages in order to save them.

Yet the Vietnam War was not winnable, in much the same way as the war on drugs is not winnable. As President Lyndon Baines Johnson admitted to an aide in 1965, “there ain’t no daylight in Vietnam." Yet he couldn't admit mistakes in judgment or defeat in battle, so he and his administration engaged in a campaign of deliberate public deception. As noted in the Burns/Novick documentary, the CIA broke down the motivation behind the government's continued involvement in Vietnam: 70 percent to avoid humiliation; 20 percent to contain communism; 10 percent to help Vietnamese. I estimate much the same could be said about the federal government's motivation to retain what are admittedly disastrous drug policies, even with respect to marijuana: 70 percent to avoid humiliation (can't admit they were wrong); 20 percent to reduce drug-related crime; 10 percent to help people struggling with addiction.

The most striking parallel between the two wars is the disastrous results of the adoption of the wrong set of metrics for success. As noted by one of the Vietnam War commentators: "when you can't count what's important, you make what you can count important." In Vietnam, the principal metric was body count–how many of the enemy were killed and/or wounded in any given action, with the goal of reaching what was termed the "crossover point" where the number killed was higher than the enemy's ability to replace them. In the drug war the primary metrics are arrests and/or drugs seized, motivating police to make every arrestee a drug user and/or seller and incentivizing them to rack up large numbers of arrests by targeting vulnerable people indiscriminately or by misrepresentation–aka "juking the numbers" of arrests. In the theater of war–especially guerrilla warfare–soldiers are taught that anyone can be an enemy–any age or gender.  Consequently, in Vietnam everyone was suspect until proved otherwise.  Failure to assist in the search for the enemy made you the enemy, much the same way that drug conspiracy laws work today.  Mothers, daughters, grandmothers, and cousins were routinely arrested, tortured and sometimes killed as co-conspirators in a war they just wanted to avoid. The routine destruction of entire villages and the livelihood derived within was considered collateral damage of the war, much the same way we view as collateral damage police looting under the guise of "civil asset forfeiture laws" and denial of basic civil rights–including the right to employment–to persons convicted of drug offenses. Today entire families may find themselves targeted by prosecutors who've been instructed by this administration to aggressively use drug conspiracy laws to win convictions and impose maximum terms of imprisonment.

The intense focus on increasing the body count and/or "kill ratio," led some soldiers to engage in atrocities and wanton acts of violence that cast a shadow on all U.S. military personnel in much the same way that the money and violence endemic with the drug trade has provided cover for bad police to hide corruption and shelter brutality against the people they're charged with protecting. In both cases, the lack of accountability for such behavior led to widespread community disdain and distrust.

Finally, the parallels in the government's response to dissent are alarming. The anti-war movement grew out of the civil rights movement. Many of the students that had traveled south to participate in the civil rights struggle began to see the relationship between racial justice and pacifism–opposing unjust wars. Many civil rights activists also understood that the cost of the ongoing Vietnam conflict threatened to undermine the government's ability to wage the domestic "war on poverty." As opposition to the war grew, the anti-war movement was increasingly demonized along with the press. LBJ claimed journalist Morley Safer had ‘defaced the American flag and given support to the enemy” when he reported accurately what was happening with the war.  Safer’s interviews with soldiers revealed their routine dehumanization of the Vietnamese people similar to the dehumanization of black men, women, and children we've witnessed by some current members of law enforcement. Johnson referred to Safer’s employer–CBS–as the Communist Broadcasting System–sound familiar? 

The Vietnam War era saw the increasing militarization of local police in response to dissent by protesters. The scenes of clashes between police and anti-war protesters outside the Democratic convention in Chicago in August, 1968 evoked recent memories of Ferguson and Baltimore. Then, as now, these clashes generate public fear and dismay over the level of anger and violence expressed and for revealing just how deep our divides are. The political divide over the Vietnam War and racial justice led directly to the election of Richard Nixon, who promised to restore "law and order" on behalf of the "silent majority" of Americans not represented by the protestors and counterculture who he defined as the “real Americans." Despite Nixon's election and promises, the war and the protests continued. Hardliners saw the protestors as subversive dissidents that had to be suppressed with maximum force–and called in the national guard. This often just inflamed emotions on both sides, most tragically on the campus of Kent State in Ohio, where four students were killed when national guardsmen opened fire on unarmed students when they refused to disperse. The level of political polarization over the war is revealed by the fact that despite the deaths of unarmed students, polls showed the majority of Americans supported the actions of police and believed the killings justified.  Middle America accepted the narrative that anti-war protesters were unpatriotic, dishonoring the country's history and legacy–ungrateful for the benefits the U.S. had given them. After all, if you're proud to be an American, you should be willing to die for the honor—"America, love it or leave it" was their rallying cry.  Many draft-eligible men responded by leaving for Canada and other parts unknown.

One of the more important aspects of the Burns/Novick Vietnam documentary is that it gave voice and honor to all sides. I cried for the young Americans that needlessly died in the war and I cried for the young Vietnamese that needlessly died in the war. I understood and appreciated the courage it took to go and fight for your country in some far off land on behalf of a principle that you believed in and I understood and appreciated the courage it took to protest your country's involvement in war on behalf of a principle you believed in. Ideally, the mark of a free society is the ability to accommodate and honor both points of view. Today, we’re engaged in a societal debate about the legitimacy of the “war on drugs." Attorney General Sessions seems to believe the major problem with the ‘war on drugs’ is that we’ve haven’t fought it hard enough. In that he resembles Gen. Westmoreland, who remained convinced the Vietnam War could be won if we committed more troops, more firepower and increased the kill ratio. Like Westmoreland, Sessions wants more drug arrests and convictions, more drug offenders imprisoned for even longer periods of time. Others believe this is a failed strategy, that we can never arrest our way out of the problem and attempting to do so causes needless harm to individuals, families, and communities.

Ultimately, history has shown the anti-war protesters to be on the right side of the argument. There was a point where the movement shifted from one protesting U.S. involvement in Vietnam to a movement committed to ending U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. I wonder if we've reached that point in the movement against the 'war on drugs'. Are we committed to more than protesting what's wrong with the drug war–pointing out all the harm it is doing to individuals and communities? Are we committed to ending drug prohibition? If so, what does that movement look like? What are its tactics and measures of success? More importantly, like those who fought to end the Vietnam War–what price are we willing to pay to win?

Deborah Peterson Small is a lawyer, public policy analyst and committed drug policy reform advocate. She writes about criminal justice, reproductive justice and human rights issues in the U.S. and internationally.

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