I belong to an online forum called Vietnam Old Hacks, made up of correspondents and other observers of our murderous Southeast Asian follies. Lately there has been a discussion of whether a forum member should have flat-out called Henry Kissinger a war criminal.
We Americans learn nothing, absolutely nothing, ever, from our stupidities of even the very recent past. And our Vietnam idiocy, given the shortness of our national memory, now seems even more remote and irrelevant than Clinton’s repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. Still, what’s an Old Hack to do? He’s got to try. So here’s Andrew Pearson, who was a television cameraman, correspondent and producer in Vietnam back in the day:
In 1970, Telford Taylor’s book was published: Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy. The subtitle: Is the US guilty of war crimes in Vietnam? He was America’s chief counsel for the prosecution at the Nazi war-crimes trials at Nuremberg in 1946. When I saw the cover of the book some forty years ago, I wasn’t ready to absorb the argument though by then I had witnessed in South Vietnam what various Geneva Conventions would say were crimes of war.
On page 206, Taylor writes, “... when the nature, scale and effect of intervention changed so drastically in 1965, it is more than “puzzling” (as the Senate Refugee Subcommittee put it) that virtually no one in high authority had the capacity and inclination to perceive and articulate the inevitable consequences. How could it ever have been thought that air strikes, free-fire zones and a mass uprooting and removal of the rural population were the way to win ‘the allegiance of the South Vietnamese’? By what mad cerebrations could a ratio of 28 to 1 between our investments in bombing, and in relief for those we had wounded and made homeless, have even been contemplated, let alone adopted as the operational pattern? One may well echo the acrid French epigram, and say that all this ‘is worse than a crime, it is a blunder’— the most costly and tragic national blunder in American history.... Somehow we failed ourselves to learn the lessons we undertook to teach at Nuremberg, and that failure is today’s American tragedy.”
Forty years after having read Taylor’s book, I really don’t mind at all when those of us call the old “leaders” war criminals. It’s apt. Reagan tried to get everybody to get over it with his invocation that it was a “noble cause.” Not even a blunder. Where does responsibility lie? Do we excuse our decision makers because, looking back, they didn’t know anything about the history of the place — didn’t think they needed to know anything about it. But the trouble with wars is that a lot of people can’t “get over it” for a variety of reasons. The older they get the closer the old memories cling. Truth seems to mature with age and language becomes more blunt.