Dispatch from Vietnam: The Patriot Game

In Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) there’s an interesting facility called the War Remnants Museum. One of the interesting things about it is that it formerly was called Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes. But apparently the facilitators realized that they have many visitors from the United States and China, and it might not be the shrewdest of PR to saddle their attraction with a moniker that was so accusatory toward those two countries. The unflattering exhibits, themselves, however, still remain in place, bearing witness to the atrocities that are largely unknown to the American public — and for that matter, the Chinese public.

Seven hundred miles to the north, in Hanoi, is an interesting museum of a different but related sort: the former site of Hỏa Lò Prison, which had already housed political prisoners for decades before it gained notoriety in the Sixties as the place of internment for American POWs, who sardonically nicknamed it the Hanoi Hilton because of the brutal treatment they received there. Vietnamese authorities, on the other hand, insisted and still insist that they were treated well; and that, in any case they were treated no worse than their own people were by the other side (which wasn’t very well at all).

Not long ago, I realized that I was only a few miles away from the site of the My Lai Massacre. When I mentioned this to my wife, who was born the year before the incident occurred, she responded with a blank stare. To my astonishment, she’d never even heard of My Lai. And I feel certain that she’s hardly unique in that regard. Only half a century ago in this neck of the woods, American troops rounded up and slaughtered as many as 504 unarmed civilians — many of them women and children. Some of the women and young girls were gang-raped and maimed before being killed. And now, this episode has been all but blotted from the American collective memory.

This is not entirely by accident. The U.S. Army deliberately whitewashed the incident, and even assigned an officer to spearhead the effort. This would prove to be a solid springboard for that young major’s future career of gaslighting the public on a much more conspicuous stage. His name was Colin Powell. By the way, My Lai is not the only village American troops savaged. It’s just the only one that made the news (before disappearing from public awareness).

You may be sensing a pattern here. Government officials, whether from Vietnam or the U.S., are quite willing to publicize the outrages committed against their soldiers and citizens by other nations, but not so keen on fessing up to the violence perpetrated by their own troops. And by no means is that syndrome limited to those two countries.

Beginning in 1915, the Ottoman Empire (which soon would become the Republic Of Turkey) rounded up and relocated hundreds of thousands of Armenians, who were subjected to violence, starvation and deprivation, exposure to the elements, and forced conversion to Islam. As many as 1.5 million Armenians perished in this genocidal campaign in a rather short time. Yet to this day, the Turkish government denies that these events ever occurred; indeed, for many years, it even forbade public mention of them. Not long ago, when a popular Turkish writer spoke up and declared that it was time for his government to acknowledge its past misdeeds and make amends, he was loudly denounced.

There were also American heroes of conscience at My Lai, most notably Maj. Hugh Thompson, who interposed his helicopter between the villagers and his fellow American soldiers, threatening to shoot the latter if they didn’t cease the slaughter. He later was called a traitor, and received death threats. He even found the mutilated carcasses of animals left on his porch.

Many Americans still utterly revile Jane Fonda and call her a traitor, as if she’d incited a mob to storm the U.S. Capitol or something, half a century after she criticized U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia and suggested that American troops had been less than forthcoming about their experiences there. Of course, it didn’t help matters any that on a trip to Hanoi she participated in a spontaneous photo-op with a piece of anti-aircraft equipment; and in accordance with North Vietnamese government regulations, donned a military helmet when around the vehicle — thus creating an iconic image of someone who appears to be chummy with the enemy. She was naive, and her statements were in error, but that wasn’t really her sin. The reason so many people hate her is simply that she dared to suggest the U.S. military, and the officials who sent them into battle, could be wrong. That, to many, is unpatriotic, and unforgivable.

And so it goes, in just about any land on earth. The Irish folk song “The Patriot Game” begins thus:

Come all you young rebels
And list while we sing
For the love of one’s country is a terrible thing

It banishes fear with
The speed of a flame
And it makes us all part of
The patriot game

But it isn’t really love of one’s country that’s a problem; it’s dedication to a warped image of one’s country, and a warped sense of what patriotism entails. This jingoistic brand of “patriotism” is not about loving one’s country — people who truly love their country will acknowledge its faults and try to correct them — it’s about maintaining a delusion of superiority.

Americans who traffic in this delusion often like to use the slogan “America first”. It’s not a new phrase, by any means. It’s been around since at least the Forties, when isolationists invoked it in the belief that it somehow justified their refusal to get involved in the struggle to stop Hitler. Political cartoonist Theodore Geisel, who’d later become famous as Dr. Seuss, had a thing or two to say about this.

And it isn’t just indifference to the suffering of non-Americans that characterizes this “patriotism”; it’s a willingness, and indeed an eagerness, to inflict such suffering. Such as the Germans did at the concentration camps. And the Turks did to the Armenians. And the North Vietnamese did to American soldiers at the Hanoi Hilton. And the Russians did to Ukrainians during Holodomor (forced starvation) during the Thirties (yes, they were abusing Ukrainians even then). And American soldiers did to helpless civilians at My Lai and elsewhere.

A better word for this type of ruthless “patriotism” is nationalism — which in theory isn’t such a bad thing, but in practice tends to merge into fascism. Many of today’s American right-wingers (including Former Guy) proudly proclaim themselves to be nationalists, as if they consider it the grandest thing in the world. But certain notable historical figures disagreed:

Nationalism, in my opinion, is nothing more than an idealistic rationalization for militarism and aggression… Nationalism is an infantile thing. It is the measles of mankind. (Albert Einstein)

Patriotism is when love of one’s country comes first. Nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first. (Charles de Gaulle)

Nationalism is power hunger tempered by self-deception. (George Orwell)

Furthermore, in their quest to find someone to feel superior to, nationalists and “patriots” often end up turning on their fellow citizens; it isn’t just the “others” outside the national border that they loathe, but the “others” inside it as well. This leads to suppression, marginalization, persecution and sometimes horrible abuse. As the Nazis did to the Jews. And the Turks did to the Armenians. And the Khmer Rouge did to many of its fellow Cambodians. And the Americans did to… well, a lot of people. That unwarranted feeling of superiority is the ultimate goal of right-wing ideology, and of the Patriot Game. The citizens of any nation deserve better.

6 comments

  1. I was a teenager when when the scandal of My Lai came out, but the press focused mainly on Lieutenant William Calley. I know some of the guilty were let off, and that later when the truth came out, those flying the helicopter were exonerated, even if posthumously, but during all the years the story played out, I never heard of, or read, one comment that points to Colin Powell part in the tragedy, such as using My Lai to gain hero status or to cover up this crime? Below are excerpts of an article written by Howard Jones, A History professor at the University of Alabama, but although many of the guilty were falsely exonerated, and many of the innocent were jailed for their alleged part in the crimes, (as I said) the press was often focused on Lieutenant William L Calley, who ordered the soldiers under his command to lie about what happened. But I did not find one mention in the article about Colin Powell being involved at any level. Here are some excerpts from a book written by Professor Jones:

    https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/173620

    “Three young soldiers were on a small OH-23 helicopter whose mission was to draw enemy fire and expose the Viet Cong’s location: twenty-five-year-old Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, twenty-year-old crew chief Glenn Andreotta, and eighteen-year-old gunner Larry Colburn. They were acting as “bait,” Colburn later declared.”

    “They witnessed a captain (Ernest Medina, commander of Charlie Company) shoot an unarmed and severely wounded Vietnamese woman with his M-16. Moments later they saw scores of Vietnamese bodies in a drainage ditch on the eastern side of the village of My Lai 4. American soldiers were standing on its edge, shooting those trying to crawl out. Thompson landed his helicopter and jumped out, demanding to know who was in charge. He was confronted by a second lieutenant (later determined to be William L. Calley).”

    “Turning back, he and his crewmates saw a squad of American soldiers in pursuit of a small number of Vietnamese civilians running toward an earthen bunker. Thompson set down his helicopter between the soldiers and the Vietnamese and left the engine running as he tried to find the officer in charge. Like Calley, 2nd Lieutenant Stephen Brooks refused to stop the killing. A shouting match ensued, after which Thompson stormed back to the helicopter and ordered Andreotta and Colburn to grab their machine guns while he coaxed the Vietnamese out of the bunker. If any of the American soldiers opened fire at him or the civilians, he declared, “shoot ’em”

    “On March 18, five officers gathered in the command post van of the architect of the assault, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Barker, to discuss Thompson’s charges. “Nobody knows about this except the five people in this room,” Young declared to Barker, Colonel Oran Henderson (America’s brigade commander), Lieutenant Colonel John Holladay (battalion officer at Chu Lai), and Major Frederic Watzke (Thompson’s aviation commander).”

    “Furthermore, all three Eyewitness Statements, on which the awards were based, were phony, written by someone in the America Division. When asked in congressional committee hearings about his Eyewitness Statements on behalf of his men, Thompson denied writing them and claimed that his signature on them was a forgery. He then signed a piece of paper showing the differences in the handwriting.”

    “Nixon wanted members of Congress to discredit Thompson and other witnesses. Calley, Nixon declared, was “probably a good soldier” who might be “getting a bum rap.” The president ordered the establishment of a secret “Task Force—My Lai” to undermine press stories of a massacre as part of a “dirty tricks” campaign aimed at deflecting national attention to Viet Cong atrocities committed at Hué.”

    “The truth had gradually emerged after Army and Congressional hearings, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning investigative work of Seymour Hersh, stories that appeared on television and other news media, and a series of courts martial in which both Calley and Medina confessed to wrongdoing. Calley was convicted for premeditated murder but paroled after less than four years of house arrest; Medina was acquitted in the spring of 1970, because of the two-year statute of limitations on charges less than war crimes.”

    “On March 16, 1998, the 30th anniversary of the My Lai massacre, in a ceremony before the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, the Pentagon awarded the Soldier’s Medal to Thompson, Colburn, and Andreotta (posthumously)—the highest honor for bravery bestowed on a soldier in a non-combat situation. To emphasize the importance of moral and ethical leadership in combat, the Army incorporated a copy of Thompson’s award into its Field Manual of August 1999, highlighted in a boxed quote under the heading “W01 Thompson at My Lai.”

    “They paid the price for it, as whistleblowers usually do. Thompson died in 2006—“morally wounded and despondent,” according to Colburn, who sat at his bedside. Two years earlier, his long-time friend had been inducted into the Army Aviation Hall of Fame. Even this honor could not atone for his long ordeal: intimidation, name-calling, and blackballing by his peers; accused of treason by Americans both inside and outside the Army; flight assignments in the most dangerous areas without what Colburn thought was adequate protection; death threats in the mail and over the phone; mutilated animals dumped on his doorstep, a strained home life.”

    However there is not one reference to Colin Powell in the article being part of a cover-up, nor is there mention of him managing to keep his crimes, secret.

    Perhaps I misread your article or missed part of it. But it’s strange that professor Jones does not even mention Powell in the article?

  2. POP, I began writing a very personal criticism of all wars and the people who create them. I had quite a long comment going, but it would shift and go back to a former website frequently. I kept going and hoping I could end my proofreading quickly since It seemed my comment was not being accepted by someone.

    Nowadays there are so many skilled hackers everywhere that it seems they are able to remove content they do not want others to see. So next time I will write a word document first and then paste it here. Is 1984 finally being realized? My comment was long but I have posted many long ones here over the years and not been forced to quit.

  3. Hello POP,

    Twice someone has zapped my entire comment as I was writing on your blog for some odd reason. So let me try again.

    I Suppose that the historian I gave you a link to did not want to tarnish the name of Powell, or perhaps chose deliberately not to discuss the atrocity itself at every level, including the Bit players and brass who kept it secret. I remember hearing the name, William Calley mentioned, along with a few others who should have been punished while those who tried to save innocent victims were sent to prison for years. And that is a clear travesty kept under wraps by the military! Powell may have decided to whitewash the issue since Americans were becoming tired of us fighting a never ending war, that some in the military thought could still be won.

    However, when it comes to any war, they can all be described as mass madness, since they force normal people to kill or be killed (a situation which causes many of us, to abandon our sense of right or wrong). Some of my High School friends were unlucky enough to draw low lottery numbers and thus became soldiers in a war they did not want to fight. One friend recalled how his group of soldiers would find dead Americans hanging in trees, bearing obvious signs of extreme torture. Some were found with their genitals cut off and stuffed in their mouths, so my friend sadly admitted that eventually he and other soldiers did the same thing to the Viet Cong.

    War probably drove some of the greatest generation to kill innocent German citizens too, but in Viet Nam the enemy did not always wear a uniform and was often indistinguishable from ordinary civilians. We had heard stories of men who had gunned down kids when those kids actually pointed guns towards them, kids who were probably being forced to kill Americans. I can’t say if I believe this story entirely, but it does not surprise me as being the kind of cruelty and dehumanization that is always part of war!

    I had other friends who fought Mayor Daly and his personal police force which were deployed to keep protesters from protesting in areas much closer to the convention, even though they were promised they could use such closer spaces. But even though they were hit with Billy clubs, and had dogs attack them, they kept chanting, saying, “the whole world is watching,” and at that time we all (were) watching. At first protesters like The Weathermen we considered (drug addled crazies or Commies), who wanted us to lose the war. Gradually though, because of their actions, or none at all, discontent fermented year after year while the promised victory never materialized.

    It is truly a travesty that the Helicopter pilots who placed their plane between the villagers and US soldiers, were vilified for being traitors, since all they did was try to save at least a few innocent people from dying—something that in less violent times would have been rewarded with medals for their bravery. The military brass chronicled the war to us in large numbers of enemies killed, and way fewer numbers of our own soldiers dying. Small numbers meant nothing because they knew the war depended on public support, and if the public focused on innocent women and children, such negative publicity could forever spoil their chances.

    I know several people who survived Viet Nam. Yet most of them never talked about their experiences. I often get the feeling that some saw and did terrible things that they were forever not proud of and stowed them far back in a secret closet where all their painful and horrible memories were sent, never to be discussed again. Those in the Greatest Generation also had to stow away painful and violent memories that they never talked about either. But in those days, there were no therapy groups or drugs that could help minimize their emotional and physical pain, so the many valiant people who saved us all from the Nazis had to keep their memories inside of them, some for more than 50 Years!

    So, when it comes down to why we elect leaders who don’t give a damn if they sacrifice millions for their own personal gains, it comes down the simple fact (that you mentioned in another of your posts)– “We keep putting our hands on hot stoves and then do it over and over again, even though the memories of our resulting pain are sometimes recent ones!

  4. I know that the European theater was where Hitler did his sick things, but he is one person who would not have ended his aggression unless he and his Nazi soldier were killed and gone! If he had conquered all of Europe he could also have launched attacks on Americans on our home soil too. If we had not entered the fray to help Churchill, the possibilities would have been chilling!

    I know that many wars are fought according to the whims of old men who send young men to die, and there is often greed motivating military aggression!! But in WWII there were many courageous incidents when Americans soldiers endured Literal Hell to protect their comrades in arms.

    I think WWII was not as foolish as World War I, and not so politically motivated as korea and Vietnam, So I am not trying to lay blame on any Americans or their allies who kept on fighting until their last iota of strength was gone. And we are all extremely lucky that they did not give up! If Trump finally has no political say in our future, that will take many noble Congressmen who succeed freeing us all from the grip of an unprincipled Authoritarian like 45.

    The Republicans know that the big steal was really just another big lie. So, thank God there are enough principled americans who have grown tired of his lies and spins, and want to end them! Those of us who discuss his behavior and his methods online are often exhausted by how many words it takes to transform the hearts and minds of MAGA! Our Time is wasted on social media unless we convince at least a few Trumpers to accept reality, and thus, keep our Democracy alive!

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