Tuesday, September 27, 2011

9/11 And The Vietnam Albtaross: The story of George Coker

America's engagement in Vietnam is a sordid saga of venality and war crimes. It was an age and time that makes current partisan discord look like exemplary brotherhood. The civil rights struggle, the anti-war movement, military drafts, a president assassinated, the air thick with conspiracy tales, America was a cauldron. When many rushed to scold US on 9/11 with a thinly disguised criticism of its foreign policy what drove most were the memories of Vietnam, especially of a little girl running naked, screaming, when her village was napalmed. 

Nothing has weighed heavily on US foreign policy as Vietnam. The nation's psyche was wounded for decades. US never again got into a full fledged war until the Gulf War of 1991. In fact Saddam had calculated that America with its aversion to seeing soldiers return in body bags would not venture into a war. That US had scurried out of Somalia in between Vietnam and Gulf War emboldened not just Saddam but Osama too.

Robert McNamara, LBJ, Nixon are the three most culpable individuals in what turned out to be America's shame ranked probably only next to the original sin of slavery. That they were not indicted as war criminals is not indicative of any exclusive power of America but symptomatic of how weak the world bodies are in prosecuting any such person. If those deserved to be prosecuted they should very well be along with so many others.

While most of the above is common knowledge what is less known is how America got dragged into this body quagmire. Eminent historian and two time Pulitzer winner Barbara Tuchman, author of bestseller 'Guns of August', traces how America slid into this mess that was not of its making in 'The March of Folly". During the days of World War II the Allies had an uneasy relationship which on some counts was even blatantly hypocritical. Churchill was calling for the defense of liberty while he jailed Gandhi and declared that he had not become "his majesty's first minister to preside over the liquidation of the British empire". De Gaulle while mourning the loss of France and yearning to be its leader again was clear that France will remain a colonial power. Stalin, as historian Robert Conquest labeled him, was the 'breaker of nations'. The least guilty in this was US led by FDR. FDR would plead with all three, Churchill, Stalin and De Gaulle to be fair to nations in their post war plans.

What is now known as Vietnam used to be Indo-China. It was the playground of the French, the Japanese and Chinese. The French ruled Vietnam with an iron fist and in true colonial fashion. Try watching the movie "Battle of Algiers" to get a sample. With Ho-Chi-Minh in saddle North Vietnam slid into the deadly embrace of communism. In a conflict that drew a wide array of nations and competing agendas Vietnam became America's "Bloodland", to adopt the phrase of a historian. America went headlong into Vietnam when the French sowed chaos and sought to exit out. With the passage of time what remains in most  people memory is only the carnage that US left behind and that is married to notions of a superpower trying to bludgeon a country of bicycle riders under the pretext of saving them from Communist stranglehold.

If one traces the role of countries in Vietnam its mindblogging to separate friend from foe. In what is characteristic of wars at various junctures both US and China had allied with the murderous regime of Khmer Rouge in the background of the Vietnam war.

With such stories to be told Hollywood was not far away. The anti-war movie "Hearts and Minds" was highly critical of US policy in Vietnam. A scene featured a Vietnam veteran,  George Coker, saying "If it wasn't for the people, it was very pretty. The people there are very backwards and primitive and they make mess out of everything". The movie in Hollywood style omitted to mention who Coker was. Wikipedia notes aptly that this was a propaganda movie. Not surprisingly it garnered an Academy Award. What the movie omitted was George Coker has been prisoner of war in the notorious "Hanoi Hilton". Coker had suffered inhuman torture that would make water boarding and Guantanamo look like five star facilities. Wikipedia details:

"While in a facility on the outskirts of Hanoi known as "The Zoo", he was forced to endure a torture called "the wall", in which he, as well as other prisoners, was forced to stand facing a wall in his cell with his hands above his head from the time a gong sounded at 5:30 in the morning until it sounded again at 10:00 at night. After two weeks, the knee injury he suffered when he ejected had worsened, and he was taken to a hospital where the infection was drained. After a two day respite while he recuperated, "the wall" torture continued for two more months. Coker called this "probably my worst experience in Vietnam".[1

Another Prisoner of War who was famously incapacitated due to torture in Vietnam is Arizona Senator and former GOP Presidential candidate John McCain. While critics of US foreign policy breathlessly recount tales of My Lai and napalming of villages the narrative becomes too stilted and blatant propaganda when it completely ignores the brutal realities of tortures by Vietnamese.

In what can be the very epitome of irony today US and Vietnam are close allies. John McCain and Hillary Clinton have visited Vietnam. Vietnam is a major outsourcing hub for software. Ultimately it was the market that triumphed. The victorious North Vietnam gobbled the south and the united country plunged into socialist abyss until recent times. The US failed to save South Vietnam unlike South Korea. South Korea under American tutelage (or hegemony as the critics remind us) became an economic power house. TOday South Koreans, thanks to American soldiers still dying in the DMZ ( I met a veteran wounded recently in South Korea), enjoy a free society that they can organize marches decrying US hegemony. The icing on the Vietnam-US detente is Vietnam requesting US help to stave of Chinese threat in the seas, New York Times, reports, quoting Nguyen Manh Hung, director of the Indochina Institute at George Mason University in Virginia, "Vietnam worries about Chinese in the South China Sea and America worries about interference in freedom of navigation,” Mr. Hung said. “Because of this, the strategic interests of Vietnam and the United States converge.”

The more and more I read on US foreign policy the angrier I get at the shibboleth of citing US foreign policy as reason for 9/11. That girl running naked with burning skin from a Napalm attack had more reason to be angry at US than the polygamist turned fundamentalist Osama Bin Laden and his thugs ever had. China, Japan, all of Western Europe, Philippines, India, Simgapore, Vietnam, South Korea are all beneficiaries of US economic policies and many owe their prosperity to US. It was US leadership, or hegemony, that saved Western Europe from Stalin. Communism laid waste continents and impoverished millions and it was US to the rescue almost always. What prompted Bin Laden was not any articulation of high liberal principles but sheer religious fundamentalism that was unique in that region. After the July 2004 London subway bombings Granta magazine ran an issue titled "the rise of British Jihad". That and about the apologists for terrorism in my next blog.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I find your blogs very rational and moral. Re. Vietnam however I do not understand your almost Pinterish criticism of the US. If protecting S Korea OK, why protecting South VN not OK? How come no Pinter ever asked Krushchev why he (not mainly Mao)bothered fueling hugely the N Vietnamese infestation of the South from 1959 onward. Do not tell me this was a 'national war'. Might as well say the Nazi invasion of Austria was a 'national struggle' when nation state nationalists, Nazis, were undermining their own state. Your work is generally a good thing, M in Dublin