I hope you’ were able to catch Ken Burns’ extraordinary documentary series on the Vietnam War. It was poignant, enraging, ennobling and damning in equal measure, and served as a terrifying reminder for everyone who’s forgotten the inherent imbecilities that squat malevolently deep in the heart of the powerful as they pretend they will always maintain a firm, statesmanlike grip on Policy & Strategy.
Personally, I didn’t need that much reminding. Even though the war ended when I was 16, it remains the formative event in the development of my political consciousness, although my awareness initially consisted almost entirely of a misunderstanding, albeit of the kind forgivably common among six year olds. Because as a small child I was immensely impressed by the fact that in a jungle the other side of the world people had trained gorillas to fight a war against their invaders. It wasn’t just an understandable homonymic confusion, but the clear (to me) association between the Viet Cong and King Kong. True, a few years later when – as a direct result of the myriad chaotic forces unleashed by the war – people started talking about “urban gorillas”, I thought that that was unnecessarily cruel, taking the poor creatures away from their natural habitat. But gorillas fighting in a jungle against wicked, powerful people trying to destroy their jungly home? It made total, conservationally commendable sense.
So, from a very early age I was rooting for the gorillas, even after I worked out they were actually guerrillas. By that point I was learning more important lessons, about the impotence of power as domestic America started tearing itself to pieces against a faraway soundtrack of another nation being systematically pulverised and brutalised with blithe incompetence in pursuit of god knows what.
The documentary series brilliantly catalogues the complacency and arrogance behind mistake after bloody mistake, how each error by the Americans was compounded by the next one as they dug themselves deeper and deeper into disaster, almost wholly because each step they stumbled forward took them further and further from the point where once they could have admitted they’d got it wrong.
The consequences weren’t limited to Vietnam, as we know. Cambodia and the deaths of millions under the primitivist necrocracy of the Khmer Rouge was a direct result of the US’s conduct of the war, though the consequences of that itself reveal how the madness metastasised: Pol Pot’s genocidal rule was ended by a Vietnamese invasion in 1979, although the Khmer Rouge then kept up a jungle insurgency for another dozen years, with US support.
Burns’ series doesn’t delve into the hideous, gut-churning tragedy of Cambodia, but highlighted another, even madder madness central to American military strategy. Because it was an insurrectionary war, there was no “front”, so no real way of accounting for victory – and I mean “accounting” as in spreadsheet – in terms of areas conquered, or “liberated”. So instead the US army chose “bodycount” as their abacus of success. This led directly to the indiscriminate massacre of civilians, at My Lai and many other places, and the ultimate necessity, in the infamous and foul corporatist absurdism of a US spokesman at the time, of “destroying the village in order to save it.”
But man hands misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf. A quarter of a century – a political generation – later, the true lessons of Vietnam had been forgotten, except for this one: when the US invaded Iraq, once again to destroy it in order to save it, they had just about enough hindsight not to bother with bodycounts any more. This time the innumerable dead lay uncounted.
The Vietnam War wrote the Zeitgeist, from student uprisings to escapist hippyism, from rock music to Watergate to the Manson family. The US, the most powerful nation of earth, fought against poor peasants and lost, and threw away 55,000 lives of mostly poor and powerless Americans, many of them as definingly unwhite as the Vietnamese, two million of whom died. Forces of chaos were released as the carapace of civilization started crazing, forces which have started squirting and oozing again.
Yet one of my strongest childhood memories of Vietnam is a farcical one, from just before the Fall of Saigon. It was the annual celebration of the 3rd Century female warrior Lady Trieu, who fought against a Chinese invasion, and is traditional depicted astride her war elephant. In 1975 the South Vietnamese couldn’t get an elephant, so the actress playing Trieu was televised parading, tiny and alone, past the stands containing, among others, South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu, shortly to scarper with ten tons of gold in his fleet of helicopters. It was a pathetic sight, a symbol of vanity and futility and impotence and absurdity.
But things fall apart. They always have. And as our rulers, blinded by embarrassment perpetually to blunder into disaster should but don’t know, they always will.