Can’t we have an honest conversation about Vietnam?

The Ken Burns/Lynn Novick television series on the Vietnam War provides yet another example of the narrowness of “acceptable” political discourse in the United States. More than four decades past the end of that imperialist adventure, having a serious discussion about it remains taboo.

The series also provides a fresh example of how the narrowness of acceptable discourse is disguised through the appearance of a vigorous debate. I will confess here I have not watched Burns and Novick’s The Vietnam War, but the consistency of the many discussions of it I have read confirm what would have been expected: The liberal side of the “debate” on the Vietnam War, that an “honorable” effort was tragically miscarried because of “mistakes.”

The series has a long list of corporate sponsors, typical for a Public Broadcasting System production. One of the Koch Brothers, David H. Koch, provided funding, as did the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Bank of America. Such blue-chip sponsors are not going to associate themselves with any organization that has the slightest potential of providing any challenging critique.

Rice paddies in Vietnam (photo by Simon Gurney)

But let us not reverse cart and horse. This is the sort of case where corporate sponsors, including fiercely anti-democratic ones like the Koch Brothers, provide funding because they are confident of what they will be getting. There is no need for any formal censorship because corporate control of the media will see to it that viewpoints challenging the mythologies of capitalism are deemed out of bounds.

Most large, influential broadcast stations and print publications are owned by large corporations, and a typical small-city newspaper is owned by a prominent local businessperson if it is not owned by a large corporation. Powerful corporate interests appoint the top editors and managers of their media properties — these mass media decision-makers are men and women who already see the world through the prism of dominant ideologies, and those ideologies will be reflected in the way that news stories are covered. Those ideologies are also reflected in indirect ways — pressure to increase readership or viewership easily leads to pandering to perceived (and sometimes manufactured) consumer interests such as wall-to-wall coverage of celebrity gossip and exhaustive coverage of sports teams simultaneous with the shrinking of news sections.

The press isn’t free if you don’t own one

Many folks on the Left have the idea that there is some sort of organized conspiracy among owners and managers of major media outlets to make sure that ideologically inconvenient perspectives are shut out. That simply isn’t so. Competition alone would prevent any such collusion; within “acceptable parameters” reporters and editors want to be the first to report news. It is enough that corporate-inspired ideologies pervade a society and that corporate ownership ensures that decision-making positions are filled with those who hold to some variant of prevailing ideologies or are inclined to “play it safe” by cautiously remaining within “acceptable” boundaries.

The mass media will then simply reflect these dominant ideologies, and continual repetition through multiple mass media outlets reinforces the ideologies, making them more pervasive until the emergence of a significant countervailing pressure. The very competitive nature of mass media ownership helps dominant ideologies prevail — if so many different outlets report the same news item in a nearly identical way, that “spin” can easily gain wide acceptance. Or if stories are reported differently by competing media outlets, but with the same dominant set of presumptions underlying them, those dominant presumptions, products of ideologies widely propagated by elite institutions, similarly serve as ideological reinforcement.

Editors can reign in reporters with independent mindsets by not running unacceptable stories, or revising them so that dominate ideologies and mythologies are not challenged. When a reporter is fearless enough to follow the trail until some semblance of the truth can be published, even if in watered-down fashion, an exemplary punishment can be made of him or her (such as was done to Gary Webb after his reporting on the CIA). But even when that is not the case, a simple ignoring of a story can make it disappear.

The persistence with which stories are reported is another reinforcement — stories that serve, or can be manipulated, to uphold dominant ideologies can be covered for long periods of time with small developments creating opportunities to create fresh reports at the same time that stories that are ideologically inconvenient are reported briefly, often without context, then quickly dropped. An inconvenient story run once, then ignored, can even misleadingly be pointed to as “proof” that news is being reported no matter what interests are at stake.

One well-documented example will provide an illustration — coverage by elite media of Jerzy Popieluszko, a pro-Solidarity priest in Poland murdered in 1984 by Polish secret policemen in contrast to coverage of priests and other church personnel murdered in U.S.-backed Latin American dictatorships.

Human rights depends on if the U.S. supports the régime

In their classic book, Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman analyzed four U.S. media outlets that then often set the tone for the press — the most influential newspaper (The New York Times), the two main news magazines (Time and Newsweek) and the most authoritative television news broadcaster (CBS). Their study found 140 articles/broadcasts on Popieluszko and eleven articles/broadcasts on 23 victims in Guatemala during a period that overlapped with Popieluszko’s murder; the Times ran ten front-page articles on Popieluszko, none on the others.

The articles on Popieluszko routinely featured graphic descriptions of the details of his murder and consistently tied his murder to Polish communist authorities despite the fact that the murderers were swiftly arrested and found guilty in an open trial. By contrast, only four of the 23 Guatemalan victims had their names mentioned in any news account, little detail was offered for any of these murders, no remark was made concerning the fact that no arrests were made in any of these cases, nor was U.S. material support of the Guatemalan government that was behind the murders once mentioned.

None of the prevailing situation precludes energetic debate in capitalist mass media within the parameters set by prevailing ideological interpretations. Ideas that directly challenge corporate orthodoxy can be excluded at the same time that a debate among two or more “acceptable” ideas rages. This brings us back to interpretations of the Vietnam War. At the end of the 1990s a strong debate played out in the mass media outlets of the United States concerning the Vietnam War (one in which the Times was a significant participant).

A U.S. Air Force plane drops a white phosphorus bomb on Vietnam in 1966.

This debate had all the appearances of a serious dissection of a bloody, deeply divisive blot on U.S. history. But although the debate was heated and lively, it was only between two “acceptable” viewpoints — an honorable effort that tragically failed or a well-intentioned but flawed effort that should not have been undertaken if the U.S. was not going to be “serious” about fighting. Left out were the widely held views that the war should never have been fought because it was a war to extend U.S. hegemony or that the U.S. simply had no business fighting in someone else’s civil war.

Further, the first “acceptable” viewpoint implied, and the second explicitly stated, that the U.S. didn’t really fight hard to win the war, ignoring the actual intensive level of the U.S. war effort in which most of North Vietnam’s larger cities were reduced to rubble, much of the farming lands were destroyed and three million Vietnamese were killed. The total tonnage of bombs dropped by the U.S. in Vietnam exceeded that of all bombing by all countries during World War II. Reports of the countryside at the end of the war spoke of entire regions as “bare, gray and lifeless.”

So much for the proverbial “fighting with one hand tied behind the back.” And let’s not forget that the Vietnamese had already spent years freeing themselves from the grip of France, only to have the U.S. sabotage elections and resume the fight. That the Vietnamese have the right to decide for themselves how their economy will be structured, or even be allowed independent development at all, and that the U.S. used the full might of the world’s biggest military machine to prevent that, is still outside “acceptable” discussion.

Debate in the service of obfuscation

The liberal conception of an honorable effort that tragically failed is every bit an obfuscation as the conservative perspective that a well-intentioned but flawed effort that should not have been undertaken if the U.S. was not going to be “serious” about fighting. But that these two narrow perspective were allowed to fight it out provided the appearance of a free and open media at the same time that the media obscured.

To return briefly to Guatemala, there has only rarely been any effort in the U.S. to discuss Washington’s bloody role (and elsewhere in Latin America). The Eisenhower administration overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected government, after a 1952 “national intelligence estimate” (a joint document put together by the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies) declared that the United Fruit Company’s massive profits there were a “U.S. interest” requiring intervention.

Allen Dulles, then the CIA director, met with a United Fruit official, promising that whomever the CIA would select as the next Guatemalan leader would not touch the company. The overthrow would institute a 40-year nightmare of state-organized mass murder. A series of military leaders, each more brutal than the last and fortified with U.S. aid, unleashed a reign of terror that ultimately cost 200,000 lives, 93 percent of whom were murdered by the state through its army and its death squads.

The worst of these dictators was General Efraín Ríos Montt, whose régime murdered more than 1,000 people a month during 1982. Ríos Montt was an evangelical Protestant preacher who declared that his presidency was the will of God. Ronald Reagan responded by paying a visit to Ríos Montt, declaring him “totally dedicated to democracy” and claiming that reports of human rights abuses were a “bum rap.”

Do you ever see of this (only one of dozens of examples that could be cited) discussed in the U.S. corporate media? I don’t, either.

In countries in which the media is controlled by the government, it is easy for people to disregard what they read or hear because it is all coming from the same source, even when there is room for different opinions. A system in which the mass media is believed to be independent is far more effective at suffusing a society with an ideology. Such a system is not the result of some sort of conspiracy or a conscious plan, it is simply a natural outgrowth of corporate institutions growing so powerful at the expense of all other institutions.

And when a particularly skilled team of producers is able to uphold the interests of elite institutions, corporate and otherwise, the red carpet will be rolled out. Slick, beautifully presented work beats ham-fisted propaganda every time.

War crimes and forgetting

Forty years after the long Vietnamese struggle for independence concluded with the capture of Saigon, the mythologies surrounding the war on the other side of the Pacific Ocean have not loosened their grip. The “debate” surrounding the war is a textbook example of corporate media obfuscation.

A strong debate played out in the corporate media outlets of the United States concerning the Vietnam War at the end of the 1990s, and that same debate, with the same parameters, continues today. This debate, however, is only between two “acceptable” viewpoints — an honorable effort that tragically failed or a well-intentioned but flawed effort that should not have been undertaken if the U.S. was not going to be “serious” about fighting.

A U.S. Air Force plane drops a white phosphorus bomb on Vietnam in 1966.

A U.S. Air Force plane drops a white phosphorus bomb on Vietnam in 1966.

Left out are the widely held views that the war should never have been fought because it was a war to extend U.S. hegemony or that the U.S. simply had no business fighting in another country’s civil war. Further, the first “acceptable” viewpoint implies, and the second explicitly states, that the U.S. didn’t really fight hard to win the war, ignoring the actual intensive level of the U.S. war effort in which most of North Vietnam’s larger cities were reduced to rubble, much of the farming lands were destroyed and three million Vietnamese were killed.

Thus there was all the appearance of a free and open media at the same time that the media obscured.

Elections only when you do as we say

What were some of the messy things going on in Southeast Asia at the time? (Most of the following is taken from Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, Pantheon Books, 1988.) The U.S. sabotaged the scheduled 1956 all-Vietnam election that was a cornerstone of the 1954 agreement that ended the French intervention; an election that was not allowed to occur precisely because Ho Chi Minh would have won. The U.S. set up South Vietnam as an artificial puppet state, overthrew and killed South Vietnam’s “leaders” and installed new “leaders,” who were invariably military thugs.

The U.S. invented the Gulf of Tonkin attack, a deliberate lie to create a cover for increasing the U.S. military role. By the time of the U.S. land intervention in 1965, American aerial bombing, napalming and gassing had already killed 15,000 Vietnamese. The U.S. carried out a policy of rural and urban terror. The military forced peasants in wide parts of the country off their land and into “strategic hamlets” — in reality, rural concentration camps — and killed peasants who refused to leave their homes. Tens of thousands were swept from their homes and sent to camps in single ground operations.

A writer in Foreign Affairs wrote that destroying the countryside and forcing rural residents into cities was necessary because the Viet Cong were “a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist.” The U.S. systematically destroyed by force any South Vietnamese grouping opposed to the installed military dictators, even non-Communist groups such as organized Buddhists.

The U.S. leveled major cities — 77% of the buildings in Hue, one of Vietnam’s biggest cities, were completely destroyed. Dams were blasted away, allowing salt water from the South China Sea to flood farmland, making the growing of food impossible. When North Vietnam agreed to the Paris Peace Agreements in 1972, Henry Kissinger decided not to accept the pact, began demanding major changes to an agreed-upon document, then launched the Christmas bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong when the North Vietnamese government insisted the agreement be signed.

In South Vietnam, 9,000 of 15,000 hamlets were damaged or destroyed, as were 25 million acres (100,000 square kilometers) of farmland and 12 million acres of forest. Killed were 1.5 million cattle. One million widows and 800,000 orphans were left behind.

In North Vietnam, 34 of the largest 36 cities suffered significant damage, with 15 completely razed, while 4,000 of about 5,800 communes were damaged. More than one million acres of farmland and 400,000 cattle were destroyed in the North. The Central Intelligence Agency admitted that at least 30,000 North Vietnamese were killed per year by 1967 by U.S. bombing, with these deaths primarily civilian. The total tonnage of bombs dropped by the U.S. in Vietnam exceeded that of all bombing by all countries during World War II. Reports of the countryside at the end of the war spoke of entire regions as “bare, gray and lifeless.”

No mercy in neighboring countries

Next door, in Laos, following a 1958 election in which a two-party Left coalition won 13 of 21 legislative seats, the U.S. swiftly overthrew the government, with the new government seated by the U.S. vowing to disband the Pathet Lao, which had won the most seats. Two years later, that new government was overthrown by the U.S., which installed a CIA-backed extreme Right-wing general.

In rural Laos, entire districts were wiped out by bombing. A series of articles in Le Monde reported on a district capital that had been deserted for three years because of repeated bombings. This capital was a portion of a 20-mile area stretching into the countryside in which not a single building was left standing and in which were found the remnants of American fragmentation bombs, which are dropped to maximize civilian casualties.

There were areas of Laos where villagers hid in nearby mountains, in caves or in ditches during daytime because of the ceaseless bombardment and who could conduct life only at night. Craters so saturated some areas that it was impossible to distinguish them, and all vegetation was destroyed. More than 350,000 Laotians — more than 10% of the country’s population — were killed and a similar number left homeless.

In Cambodia, bombing by the U.S. during the period 1969 to April 1975 resulted in 600,000 deaths and two million refugees, according to the same Finnish Inquiry Commission that concluded one million people died during the subsequent Khmer Rouge régime. As the bombing was ending in 1975, the U.S. government estimated that deaths from starvation in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, were near 100,000 per year.

This horrific bombing is believed to have played a role in the rise of the Khmer Rouge, which the U.S. covertly sided with during its murderous four-year reign. A U.S. government report in 1975 said 75 percent of Cambodia’s draft animals had died and that it would likely be three years before the country could regain rice self-sufficiency.

The carnage inflicted on Vietnam reverberates still. An estimated 19 million tons of toxic herbicides were applied that has resulted in more than half a century of damage to health and birth defects.

Such is the price of empire, paid by those on the receiving end. If these are not war crimes, then what would be?