Review of Professor Christian G. Appy's American Reckoning, THE VIETNAM WAR AND OUR NATIONAL IDENTITY by Daniel C. Lavery

Written for VVAW's “The Veteran”

Unarmed Vietnamese Hide from US My Lai Assault

Unarmed Vietnamese Hide from US My Lai Assault

Christian Appy’s American Reckoning is one of only a few histories of the Vietnam War that describes how it ended America’s exceptionalism-the broad faith that the U.S. is a unique force for good in the world-for most people and had a profound effect on our national identity. Although I have read more than fifty books on Vietnam this is by far my favorite because it is the most comprehensive and unique. His astounding research provides striking quotations from LBJ, Nixon, military commanders, their advisers, our troops, that they knew we could not prevail, the South Vietnamese Government was corrupt and unpopular, their troops would not fight at night and often ran from combat, and for us to accept these realities and seek a peaceful solution would be unpatriotic, unacceptable, and unmanly. He draws from movies, songs, memoirs, media, Pentagon studies, government propaganda, speeches, scholars, and journalists to demonstrate how American exceptionalism, that powerful myth, a litmus test for patriotism, was doubted as never before by so many. There is hardly enough room here to do this masterful work justice so here are some of the highlights.


In Vietnam we pulverized the landscape with napalm bombs that explode on contact, producing giant fireballs that spray gobs of burning, sticky gel in all directions burning skin ten times hotter than boiling water and cannot be wiped away. Many nearby died from suffocation, heatstroke, or carbon monoxide poisoning. We dropped 400,000 tons on Vietnam, far exceeding the 16,500 dropped on Japanese cities in World War II. Our B-52s carpet bombed Vietnam making fifteen foot deep craters with a thirty foot diameter that killed more civilians than combatants. Anti-personnel cluster bombs with little bombs packed inside one big one contained hundreds of smaller bomblets, each with hundreds of razor-sharp darts (fléchettes) that would not always kill but would burrow deep into one’s body and were impossible to remove. Agent Orange a defoliant that caused grievous damage to many on both sides, the body count used as a measure of success, and free-fire zones, where anything that moved was fair game added brutality to the enemy our leaders were sure would demoralize them, but they were dead wrong.


The Diem regime with our encouragement refused to hold elections promised by the Geneva Accords after the French Defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 because we knew 80 % of the people favored Ho Chi Minh. Our support of the unpopular brutal dictator stands in opposition to our claim of protecting democratic freedoms and respecting the people’s will. Our government lied that Ho had many Catholics and others in prison camps in North Vietnam whom they tortured to make it appear we were humanitarian. By late 1968 the Tet offensive exploded any idea that victory was around the corner. A combined force of NVA and VC placed their flag over the Hue Citadel for almost a month and dramatically exposed the draconian failure of body counts, brutality of free fire zones, the indiscriminate air war, and overall military policy. We could not defeat a determined people to have their choice of government rather than the pathetic dictators we placed in Saigon. We established beyond doubt we were anything but exceptional and many felt our conduct of the war was genocidal and involved war crimes. Walter Cronkite concluded the war had become a bloody stalemate with no end in sight. Unsatisfied with Ngo Dinh Diem’s corrupt government’s secret police, concentration camps, repressions against Buddhists and non-Catholics, and inability to stop the insurgency, Kennedy authorized the CIA coup that replaced him with generals who had him killed. Similar replacements followed.


Regarding the Gulf of Tonkin claimed unprovoked attack on two destroyers Maddox and Turner Joy, August 4, 1964 LBJ said, “Hell, those dumb stupid sailors were shooting flying fish.” He said to  McGeorge Bundy regarding Vietnam early on, “I don’t think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out and it’s just the biggest mess that I ever saw… what the hell am I ordering (those kids) out there for?” When reporters pressed him to explain why he waged war with so much opposition he unzipped his fly, drew out his substantial organ, and declared, “This is why.”

Anti-war protests included four antiwar sailors from the Aircraft Carrier Intrepid in October 1967 who deserted to Japan after a bombing mission in the Gulf of Tonkin and worked the catapult to launch countless navy jet bombers on Vietnam missions. Daniel Ellsberg, a marine officer in Vietnam and later a hawk for Rand, became an outspoken critic, released the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and sixteen newspapers revealing how our military leaders knew we could not win in Vietnam from early on. The Army covered up the My Lai massacre for one and a half years while the NY Times reported we had caught the North Vietnamese in a pincer movement and killed 128 soldiers there. Ron Ridenour a witness sent detailed letters of the war crime to the Pentagon, State Department, and Congress. On September 9, 1969, Lt. Calley was charged with murder of 109 civilians, but Seymour Hersh’s investigation showed it exceeded 500. The soldiers methodically raped the women, killed and mutilated the bodies of these unarmed civilians, the old, men and women, children and babies. Helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson trained his guns on the army ordering them to cease firing and rescued a dozen. Calley was found guilty of murder March 3, 1976 and given a life sentence by a military court. Unbelievably, Nixon removed Calley from prison, moved him into bachelor’s officers’ quarters under house arrest. After three and a half years the army with Nixon’s approval reduced Calley’s sentence making him eligible for parole.


In the face of rising protests and failure of his military forces, Nixon decided to invade neutral Cambodia April 30, 1970 setting off a massive anti-war movement on college campuses and in the streets. On May 4, 1970 four students were killed by National Guards at Kent State and nine others wounded. Vietnam Vets against War (VVAW), Vets for Peace and others began showing Americans that many Vietnam Veterans stood with the protestors that created a dilemma for the administration so they marginalized the long-haired peaceniks as effete snobs and sissies. VVAW denounced the war as criminal. On Labor Day weekend 1970, 200 VVAW marched to Valley Forge, PA. from Morristown N.J. in Operation RAW (Rapid American Withdrawal) tracing the Continental Army route taken in 1777 to reach its winter encampment. VVAW staged guerrilla theater performances along the way to educate the bystanders on the tactics used in Vietnam against the “gooks”.

The resistance included disturbing facts Appy substantiates: Desertions jumped from 14.9/1000 in 1966 to 73.5/1000 in 1971, the total numbering half a million military desertions. Fragging was the extreme form of GI resistance of attempted, and actual, murder of officers with fragmentation grenades that left no fingerprints. They could be rolled under a cot or booby-trapped at a latrine. Some units offered bounties to kill a despised officer. There were 126 fraggings recorded in 1969, 271 in 1970, and 333 in 1971, but those are just reported incidents. In a 1971 assessment from an armed forces journal, Col. Robert Heinl (ret) said: “Our army that remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers, and non-commissioned officers, drug-ridden and dispirited where not near mutinous.” Five aircraft carriers were kept out of the combat zone by acts of sabotage and protest by active duty sailors, and some antiwar pilots who were refusing to fly combat missions.


Henry Steel Commager, although a champion of America’s exceptionalism, argued: “This is not only a war we cannot win, it is a war we must lose if we are to survive morally…some wars are so deeply immoral that they must be lost, that the war in Vietnam is one of these wars, and that those who resist it are the truest patriots.” Despite this history our imperial presidency led by an aggressive military industrial complex ignored these lessons and plunged us into a war after 9/11 against a country that had no connection to our attackers, and has ignored the lessons professor Appy urges to correct our nation’s foreign policy ever since: “Perhaps the only basis to begin real change is to seek the fuller reckoning of our role in the world that the Vietnam War so powerfully awakened-to confront what we have done. It is who we are.”


Bio: VVAW member Daniel C. Lavery graduated Annapolis, navigated a Navy jet, and a ship, turned peace activist and became a civil rights lawyer for Cesar Chavez's UFW. His memoir, All the Difference, describes his experiences.


 Unarmed My Lai Vietnamese Bumper Sticker VVAWVietnam Women and children huddled by tree at My LaiCivilians before massacred by Charlie Company 1968

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Goodbye Graceful Squirrel

  Squirrel in tree Squirrel's head profile in tree

Scampering through Italian pine

Orange white and brown with bushy tail

Jump to acacia with friend near

Leaving chewed pine cones on the ground

Peering at me through my window

Both musing frozen eye to eye

Daily spirited romp and dance

 Squirrel with peanut

Chattering agile graceful friend

Acrobatic leaps shuffling leaves

Bringing joy to thrilled observer

Watching careful balancing skill

Diving down from upper branch perch

Racing to back lawn or downhill

Leaves Golden Retriever behind

And charging brown Lab bewildered

   Squirrel GingerSquirrel Barkley

Yesterday entered danger zone

Bird feeders stand and canines glide

Fast down hillside chasing thrown balls

Past gray stone fence to lawn below

Returning with saliva scent

To the next target day or night

Scamperer will tip bird feeder

Seed spill gives gorgeous thief a meal

If dogs appear brave prancer bolts

Squirrel Maple in back

Up Maple with chattering tease

Until the balancer was caught

By Ginger’s instinctual thrust

Despite odds comparing prowess

Shimmering dancer’s prance ended

Brash Golden Retriever streaking

Muscular lab in hot pursuit

Tails wag expecting approval

For their quick innate reaction

Guarding turf from brazen scoundrel

Squirrel Ginger and Barkley together near garden

Defying chance of encounter

Slight touch of gymnastic sprinter

Heard whimper outside my abode

Opened door to discern its source

Saw slender one in Ginger’s mouth

With sharp death-grip on Retriever’s

Golden jaw where blood was gushing

Yelled in shock and grabbed white towel

Ginger dropped sprinter on stairway

Glimpsed backyard friend for the last time

Squirrel in grassSquirrel bird on feeder

His splendor was the most stunning

Only inches from me this time

Instead of ever moving blur

Testing all senses to find him

In his perpetual motion

Now just slow breathing and beauty

Spread on cement with Retrievers

Playfully panting over him

When playfellow drew his last breath

Gathered him gently and placed him

In bushes hoping he’d survive

Squirrel treeSquirrel sundial and water bath for birds

Took Ginger in pressing towel

To bloody mouth and came outside

Finding Barkley with limp dancer

No chattering or moving now

Glance of nature’s final ending

Its harshness and brutal wisdom

Balancing the population

No signal of his companions

Squirrel garden below Squirrel Patio chair and bird feeder

Only memories of brilliance

I will miss my wandering friend

Hope his comrades will return and

Display their natural wonders

The brisk chattering outdoor show

Added peanut and bird feeders

Fountain, garden, and many trees

Squirrel Hill west with treesSquirrel at sunset

Soon new friends wander to our home

Even a skunk and opossum

Now trained retrievers still chase balls

Barking toward strangers but smiling

At squirrels, rabbits, Scrub Jays, Hawks,

Finches, Mocking and Humming Birds

In our wildlife sanctuary

Facing sunset, hills and bird bath

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Ruthie’s Nature Lesson

Ruthie’s Nature Lesson, by Daniel C. Lavery, an excerpt from All the Difference, Dan read at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena Sunday February 8, 2015 at "IWOSC Reads Its Own" presentation of various authors from 2-4 PMDan at Vroman's blowup 2815

Grampa found a large property he bought in North Miami he called “the ranch.” Mom took me there when I pleaded to take my new BB gun to use on a visit. I took target practice on mangrove and palm trees, rocks, and fences as I wandered around a few acres of undeveloped land with many trees, shrubs, and swampy areas. I imagined my adventure took me through a jungle.

Something blue covering the ground moved under some white mangrove trees near a saltwater swamp as I approached. Blue land crabs congregated there in the thousands appearing at first like a blue carpet. They frightened me because many had a large claw that looked dangerous, scurried around more quickly than I imagined, and resembled large spiders. Bigger than tarantulas, they had an outer covering that appeared a kind of armor. They scattered when I ran at them and shot my BB gun at the moving targets. War movies taught me about soldiers fighting with their rifles in World War II. Mom and grandmother Ruthie cheered me on when I marched around the dinner table singing military songs with my toy gun on my shoulder pretending I was a soldier. In the wild foliage, I carried my BB gun as if in battle and ran after the enemy crabs. They retreated lifting their claws in hopeless defense and scuttled under trees in a moist boggy area that reeked with an odd smell like dank garbage. Pursuing my fleeing enemy determined to win the battle, I aimed at these moving targets and learned to shoot ahead of the direction they scooted. Accurately killing many creatures, I stalked them around trees and shrubs in torrid heat. My face became sweaty and the putrid odor emanating from the wet marsh was annoying.

Backtracking in an easterly direction, I heard a lively chirping sound. The source came from a partially hidden small dark bird sitting on a branch in the shade. Silently creeping past a thick stand of hardwood trees about twenty feet away, I feared it would fly away soon so stopped my heavy breathing trying not to frighten it. With my rifle butt in my right shoulder and the barrel pointing at my singing target, I took careful aim and squeezed the trigger slowly when I saw part of the bird in my sights. POW went the gun. The bird fell to the ground without a sound from my direct hit. Silence followed. I raced for a view of the target of my spectacular shot.

As I approached the fallen bird, I saw his colors slowly display themselves, lifted his limp body in my hand, and held him in the light of the sun. He had a deep blue head, a blotch of bright yellow on his back, and green on the wings followed by a patch of black. His chest was red. An orange circle wound around his black eyes and his beak was white-gray. None of these colors was visible from a distance. My shot had killed the most beautiful bird I had ever seen. Sobbing because my shot killed one of nature’s most splendid creatures, and miserable for my cruelty, I stumbled home.

Ruthie saw the tears rolling down my cheeks and hugged me. “What’s wrong dear?”

“I just killed this beautiful bird with my BB gun.”

“Why that’s a painted bunting. I can see you are sad for ending its life. We must never kill anything nature created unless it is truly harming someone. That bird contributed his beauty and singing to our backyard. All living creatures have a place in nature we should respect.”

“I feel bad I killed it.”

“I know you do. Come, let’s bury the beauty.”

We dug a hole in the moist ground close by, placed his body in, and covered it with dirt. Ruthie put a tiny wooden cross on the spot from twigs to remember him.

“At first I used my BB gun just to take target practice, but then shot some blue crabs in the back pretending they were my enemy.”

The expression on Ruthie’s face changed. "Oh Danny!" She pulled out a book from her library, thumbed to an article: “You killed quite an interesting specimen that delivers its babies in salt water as larva who become baby crabs in forty-two days. The blue land crab determines direction using vibrations, landmarks, prevailing winds, and light during the day, and by identifying the brightest part of the horizon at night. Females carry their eggs on their skin for two weeks before depositing them in salt water. Aren’t they amazing? Promise never to mistreat our land crabs again.”

“I’m sorry I killed any.”

“Now look out the front window and tell me what you see between the rose bushes.”

“A giant spider in a huge web! It looks scary.”

“Use this paper, sit at the table, and sketch the Golden Garden Spider’s web.”

After drawing for a few minutes, I realized my fear of spiders might have made me kill it if Ruthie hadn’t caught my attention. Spending three hours depicting the web that wound in different directions and shimmered when the sunlight reflected off some of it, caused me to admire the fascinating insect. Ruthie saw the care I took in drawing the complex strands and patterns the large spider had woven.

“You have captured that Golden Garden Spider’s magnificent web. Let’s frame your drawing so we can appreciate what you drew. Now you won’t ever kill something man could not create.”

Daniel C. Lavery retired in 2006 and developed a passion for writing a memoir of a slice of his unusual life from five to thirty five that resulted in his newly published book, All the Difference, in paperback at It is available for a free look inside of the first 6 1/2 chapters at Dan's website at and for Amazon's Kindle version at

Knowing Dan had a life story with an important message of how one could change from a pawn in the military to a champion for the poor and powerless, motivation was never a problem. He retired as a civil rights attorney for farm workers and the poor from 1972 to 1976 and opened a private practice concentrating on civil rights, consumer protection, employment discrimination, and criminal appeals. Beginning with an autobiography for his outline he discovered from informal critique groups that he had much to learn about the craft of creative writing. This enhanced his understanding of authoring a book that would reach a wide audience. Creative writing classes at local community colleges enhanced his memoir as the writer developed his art from authors of many genres including memoir, poetry, and fiction. After five such courses he winnowed his sprawling story to a focused forty chapters and an "Afterward" that received strong support from writers, professors, friends, his editor, and many readers who wrote five star reviews. All the Difference will resonate with many readers, especially the baby boomers who lived through the same period, and is pertinent to all readers showing how a naval officer cheated death and defied the odds learning determination, integrity, tenacity, resilience, and litigation expertise regardless of what obstacles confronted him on his path to a productive life assisting others less fortunate.

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