Burns and Novick: The Vietnam War (3)

I’ve now completed my viewing of the Burns-Novick series on the Vietnam war. I found it overwhelming.

The series offers plentiful evidence that the U.S. government early on knew that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable. The State Department’s George Ball warned in 1965 that we couldn’t win. A Rand study of 1966 reached the same conclusion. President Johnson knew we were headed toward defeat. Nixon and Kissinger cynically decided to keep the war going for political purposes even though they knew winning was impossible.

What kind of people are we that our leaders repeatedly lied to us about the war and, until 1968 and even later, we believed them?

The series showed how the war went on and on. Bestiality and chaos. People, including civilians, killed hideously by the thousands. Monstrous things done by American commanders and troops. “Free fire zones.” Shoot anything that moves. Kill anyone who runs away. Unspeakable atrocities by the North Vietnamese.

The battle of Huế during the Tet Offensive of 1968 was among the worst for murder of innocent civilians by the North Vietnamese. The estimated death toll from the battle is between 2,800 and 6,000 civilians and prisoners of war or 5 to 10% of the total population of Huế. Victims were found bound, tortured, and sometimes buried alive. Many victims were also clubbed to death.

Both sides, in other words, were guilty of naked barbarism. As several soldiers interviewed in the series reported, in war the natural human repugnance for brutality becomes muted, then disabled. It’s worse than animals. Tigers, for example, kill to eat. Humans at war kill for the sake of killing.

War is nonjudgmental. The innocent and the guilty are destroyed without prejudice or distinction. The killers are vicious murderers who are the same time respectable family men known for their civility and charity. War makes monsters of us all.

More tomorrow.

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