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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