Why does all this matter? The United States is not the only nation to gloss over its bloody past. When he was President of France Nicolas Sarkozy introduced legislation requiring schools to teach the positive side of French imperialism. And despite the slavery, the racism, the genocide and the shameless appropriation of other nations’ commodities, a 2014 survey found that 59% of British people thought the British Empire was something to be proud of. The difference is that France and Britain can no longer independently strut their stuff on the international stage. The United States, by contrast, can and does continue to throw its enormous weight around, with often devastating consequences for millions upon millions of people. The Pentagon has successfully resisted the efforts of two presidents to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. In breach of international law, US forces continue to occupy some of the most productive areas of Syria. Provocative actions are taken against an Iran that sections of the US security State have long wanted to invade. Against this background the last thing America, or indeed the rest of the world, needs, is a rose-tinted history of US involvement in Vietnam.
In this context what sticks in the throat is the playing of “Let it Be” over the final frames of the film. What that says is that, however terrible the events portrayed were, they belong in the past. They may represent a painful chapter in American history, the song implies, but they are historical issues only. This is perhaps the biggest lie of the whole film.
Because the Vietnam War was not some isolated, one off tragedy. Rather, it was, with one important exception, U.S. foreign policy 1.01. Support for a brutal, corrupt leadership with no democratic legitimacy: check; support for the leader’s systems of repression, check; enormous numbers of civilians killed, tortured and imprisoned, check; massive overuse of firepower to achieve objectives, check; repeated U.S. government lying to justify the policy, check; collusion with figures involved in trafficking narcotics, check. Normally the bulk of the US media does its job of shielding the American public from the full horror of what is being done by its government with its tax dollars and in its name. The sole, crucial factor that set Vietnam apart from so many other US foreign interventions was that, in addition to large numbers of locals, Americans also died in significant numbers. That is why Ken Burns made a documentary about this foreign adventure not the overthrow of Allende or the proxy war the United States waged against the Sandinistas or the Guatemalan genocide or any of the other grisly episodes in post World War 2 US foreign policy.
As Noam Chomsky has demonstrated, it is possible to write volumes about the iniquity of US overseas interventions. What follows below is not in any way intended to be an encyclopaedic account of the brutality of US foreign policy. These paragraphs are simply bullet points intended to illustrate the extent to which US conduct in Vietnam is of a piece with US overseas action in the decades which have followed.
Support for brutal, corrupt leaderships with no democratic legitimacy
We have an embarrassment of riches here. Ken Burns himself refers to two of them: the replacement of the democratically elected Mosaddegh with the Shah of Iran and the replacement of the democratically elected Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz with the military dictatorship of Carlos Castillo Armas. If we confine ourselves to Latin America, there are the Duvaliers of Haiti, the Somozas of Nicaragua, the Brazilian generals who seized power in the 1964 US backed coup and Augusto Pinochet, who came to power in a coup organised by a veteran of the Phoenix programme. In the Philippines, Korea and Vietnam the US backed those undemocratic sections ,of society who had collaborated with the Japanese against the forces who had resisted Japanese occupation. Etc.
Support for systems of repression
Given that Burns makes some effort to put early US involvement in Vietnam into some sort of context it is strange that he makes no mention of the 1965 Indonesian genocide. At the same time as the US was committing ground troops to Vietnam the CIA was helping to organise the killing of between half a million and a million people on the basis of the membership of or association with the Communist Party of Indonesia.
In Latin America Manuel Contreras, the man in charge of Operation Condor (the assassination of leftists and others, which was run by South American dictators between 1975 and 1985 and resulted in something like 60,000 dead), was simultaneously a salaried agent of the CIA. And the CIA have acknowledged that they knew the full details of Operation Condor, not only because the man who ran it was on their payroll, but also because they had provided the encoding communications equipment used to manage the operation.
In El Salvador, the CIA was intimately involved in the running of death squads and the Atacal battalion, fresh from training at the US run School of the Americas, committed the infamous El Mozote massacre in which around 1,200 civilians were murdered.
The US was also closely involved in the Guatemalan genocide in which perhaps 200,000 people died. The Report of the Commission for Historical Clarification states, “The CEH recognises that the movement of Guatemala towards polarisation, militarization and civil war was not just the result of national history. The cold war also played an important role. Whilst anti-communism, promoted by the United States within the framework of its foreign policy, received firm support from right-wing political parties and from various other powerful actors in Guatemala, the United States demonstrated that it was willing to provide support for strong military regimes in its strategic backyard. In the case of Guatemala, military assistance was directed towards reinforcing the national intelligence apparatus and for training the officer corps in counterinsurgency techniques, key factors which had significant bearing on human rights violations during the armed confrontation.”
Perhaps the most shockingly direct example of continuity from practices in Vietnam is the case of Jon Burge, who had been a decorated military interrogator in Vietnam. Although Burns is completely silent about torture of Vietnamese prisoners by US forces, a frequent, and widely reported, form of torture was to use field telephones to apply electric shocks to the genitals of suspects and captured Viet Cong. On his return from conducting interrogations in Vietnam Jon Burge joined the Chicago Police where, over a period of 20 years, he used this and other forms of torture to extract confessions almost exclusively from African American suspects.
Following the attacks of 9/11 the US abandoned any pretence of applying the rule of law in its pursuit of terrorists, kidnapping and torturing whoever it suspected, in a programme that resulted in the deaths of an unknown number of individuals. It speaks volumes about the culture of the US Security State that in 2018 Gina Haspel was confirmed as Director of the CIA in the full knowledge that she had played an active role in this torture programme.
Massive over-use of firepower
In the course of the invasion of Panama the US lost 23 killed, while killing 205 Panamanian soldiers and in the region of 3,000 Panamanian civilians. General Marc Cisneros said,
“I think we could have done it with less troops and less destruction. We made it look like we were battling Goliath … We are mesmerised with firepower. We have all these new gadgets, laser-guided missiles and stealth fighters, and we are just dying to use that stuff.”
During the siege of Fallujah in 2004 US troops apparently treated much of the city as a free fire zone. According to journalist Patrick Cockburn British officers who were present were shocked by the lack of concern for civilian casualties with over 40 155mm artillery rounds being fired into a small sector of the city in one night.
But perhaps the most astonishing tale of excessive fire power deployed in Iraq is recorded in Thomas Ricks’ Fiasco. A Marine colonel reports,
'They had been taking sniper fire from a building for six nights so that day they send a civic action team to the high-rise building it came from and they ordered everyone to evacuate because the building was going to be destroyed. That night two AC-130s pumped rounds into it until it was reduced to rubble. Made lots of friends that way. Suggestion that perhaps they should set an ambush and either kill or capture the sniper since he is being so predictable was rejected. We had to demonstrate our firepower to these people.”
The gratuitous shooting of various Reuters staff in Baghdad
In June 2009 CIA drones fired three missiles at a funeral on the basis that Baitullah Meshud, leader of the Pakistan Taliban MIGHT be there. Between 18 and 45 innocent people died but Meshud, whether he was there or not, lived on.
In Yemen the government reckoned that US airstrikes between December 2009 and May 2010 had killed 40 Al Quaeda members and in excess of 200 civilians. One airstrike killed Yemeni government officials on their way to persuade Al Quaeda members to disarm.
In 2019, as negotiations with the Taliban progressed, the US ramped up its bombing of Afghanistan. In comments that could have described Washington’s approach in the early 1970’s, Laurel Miller, former US acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said,
“This is the US military mistakenly thinking that they’re somehow going to change the political dynamics by dropping more ordnance on Afghanistan. The argument that is made in favour of what they’re doing is that this will somehow change the political dynamics and in a way that makes the Taliban more likely to come to favourable terms at the peace table, but I have no expectation that this is going to have that kind of effect. It also poses the considerable risk of of blowback in the sense that inevitably this increase in use of air power results in an increase in civilian casualties.”
Anyone who has followed reporting of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will have lost count of the number of wedding parties, hospitals etc that have been bombed by the US and its allies. Here’s a couple of articles from The Intercept if anyone needs a refresher.
The Phoenix programme rises from the ashes of Vietnam
The parallels between the Phoenix Programme and the war on terror are obvious. When, in 2004, the US found itself losing its grip on the Sunni triangle it called in retired Colonel Jim Steele, who had run death squads in El Salvador, to set up a similar programme of murder, torture and intimidation in order to bring the area under control. (In the course of his career Steele has been awarded the Silver Star, the Defence Distinguished Service Medal, four Legions of Merit, three Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart. However, his involvement in the illegal supply of weapons to the Contras ended his military career. His CV also includes a spell at Enron.)
In 2004 under Donald Rumsfeld, JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command, formed in the aftermath of the failed Iranian hostage rescue attempt) was tasked with assassinating America’s enemies across a wide (but secret) range of countries. In Iraq they killed thousands. They were also active in Somalia and Yemen. When McChrystal took charge in Afghanistan he ramped up killings by JSOC. But just as, in Vietnam, the Phoenix programme had been used by local officials to settle personal scores, so Afghans used JSOC to settle personal and tribal scores. Even McChrystal was forced to admit that, just as in the Phoenix programme, large numbers of innocent people had been killed.
Drone strikes represent the same tactic. Their randomness is increased by the use of “signature strikes”: strikes on unidentified men of military age (and anyone in their vicinity at the time of the strike) who, from their pattern of movements and contacts alone are deemed a terrorist.
And, just as in Vietnam, all this killing of innocents has only undermined the American cause.
Burns acknowledges that Kennedy lied about the level of commitment that the US had already made to Vietnam. He underplays the extent to which Macnamara lied about the Gulf of Tonkin incident to justify Congressional authority for ill- defined further action in Vietnam. In later years the US has lied about its involvement in the overthrow of the Chilean president Allende in 1973. The Reagan administration lied about US involvement in Nicaragua. He lied again when justifying the invasion of Grenada claiming that 800 U.S. medical students in Grenada were in immediate danger. (Officials at the medical school had in fact refused to issue a call for help when the U.S. government tried to pressure them to do so and 500 parents cabled Reagan asking him to not to invade; 90% of the medical students said they were never in any danger and did not want to be evacuated; and even visiting U.S. diplomats from Barbados found no danger. Nor was the medical school a priority for invading U.S. troops.) George W Bush lied about the evidence that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction. When US Marines kidnapped the Haitian President Aristides in 2004, the US lied and said he had gone voluntarily. The Pentagon lied in 2009, denying they had special forces carrying out assassinations in Pakistan. Most recently evidence has emerged that the US pressured the OPCW to rewrite its report on the alleged gas attack in Douma in order to justify missile attacks on Syria. The experts on the ground had concluded it was far more probable that the attack was staged by rebels than that the Assad forces had carried out the attack, but you wouldn't know that from the report that was eventually released. (See Aaron Mate’s evidence to the UN) The list goes on and on. The US security state lies endlessly to the American people and, since Vietnam, people have continued to die in their hundreds of thousands off the back of these lies.
Foreign Policy and drugs
It is perhaps a little unfair to say that links with the drugs trade characterise US foreign policy but links with the drugs trade are certainly not unique to Vietnam. Heroin played a major part in CIA involvement in Thailand. The remnants of the Chinese Nationalist Army had retreated to Northern Thailand in 1949. The US had continued to supply them with weapons which they used to dominate the surrounding area and compel the local population to grow heroin which they sold to the CIA-backed Thai police chief General Phao Sriyanonda who in turn used CIA-provided transport to get the opium down to Bangkok. The profits from this trade, combined with further CIA support, allowed Phao to dominate Thai politics for years.
When the US security apparatus was backing the Contras, both legally and illegally under US law, against the democratically elected government of Nicaragua, planes which took weapons out to the Contras returned laden with cocaine with the full knowledge of US officials. (One can also draw a parallel here between the willingness of so many US officials to ignore Congress’ ban on supporting the Contras and the willingness of hundreds, maybe thousands, of US Air force staff to bomb of Cambodia illegally for 4 years.) John Kerry, who led an investigation into this affair, criticised the way drug smugglers could effectively purchase immunity by also running guns for the Contras. By 1987 according to Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall in Cocaine Politics: Drugs Armies and the CIA in Central America, Honduras accounted for between 1/5 and 1/2 of all cocaine coming into the US. It had no DEA office but the largest US diplomatic outpost in the world.
Panama was run for many years by Manuel Noriega, who was both a CIA asset and a major player in the drugs trade who would turn over his drug smuggling rivals to the DEA. (The Medellin Cartel would also betray smugglers who did not pay them off to the DEA.) When the Miami Attorney General started pursuing Noriega, Panama DEA agents were very unhelpful. After the US invaded Panama in order to regain control of the canal they installed president Guillermo Endara, who was a banker for the Cali and Medellin cartels and who appointed as AG, Treasury Minister and chief justice of the supreme Court three former directors of First Interamericas Bank, which was controlled by the Cali Cartel.
When the US backed rebels against the Soviets in Afghanistan, vehicles which took weapons over the border from Pakistan returned laden with heroin. And the government which the US currently supports in that country remains deeply involved in the heroin trade.
The difficulty of extracting US ground troops after military intervention
Nixon’s difficulty in finding a means of ending America’s commitment of ground troops in Vietnam has echoes in the more recent past. While campaigning Obama promised to get US troops out of Afghanistan by 2014. He promised not to deploy boots on the ground in Syria before… deploying boots on the ground in Syria. Trump campaigned on a promise of ending American’s stupid wars then didn’t. And Biden’s promise to “bring forever wars to a responsible end” feels like a recasting of Nixon’ promise of peace with honour.
And here's a few paragraphs from a recent Economist article about Biden's options in Afghanistan. It is, to coin a phrase, deja vu all over again.
"Should the United States, having expended 2,300 American lives, and nearly $1trn, cut and run leaving the country to its fate? Or should it declare the peace deal dead and accept that the war, if not endless, is not over yet? ... Ms Miller and others argue that Biden should seek a 6 months extension of the deadline [to withdraw US troops]. The intention would be to keep the peace process alive while buying the Biden administration time to work out what it wants. A delay would reassure the Afghan government which felt sidelined by the Trump deal and dreads American abandonment. Officials in Kabul hope to be treated as American partners again. Their message to the Biden administration, says a negotiator, Nader Nadery, is that a peace deal must not be rushed, especially when the Taliban are not keeping their side of the bargain.
But America has few ways to persuade the Taliban to behave better. ... Even if the Taliban do acquiesce in a delay that may only be because they believe time works in their favour. Popular anger at the corruption and ineptitude of the Afghan government is high. Taliban commanders, meanwhile, are buoyed up by their creeping conquest of the country. They talk not of power sharing but of a coming take-over. Meanwhile, even if Biden secures an extension the same dilemma is likely to loom over him in 6 months time: should I stay or should I go?"
Or, to put it another way,