I stare at trees and imagine them on fire. Did you know that whole swaths of landscape have burned away from acts of war?
Maybe it’s impossible to comprehend great pain from the comfort of my life at the moment – the physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living. And maybe this is the point of hegemony – to keep a populace pacified or ignorant while others are greatly exploited. But I want to relate to the world, to understand the complexities between societies, to perhaps connect to all earthly feelings through an open heart and analytical mind, however distant. I want to comprehend profound pain and ruin. It’s universal, so I think I can tap into it. I let go of my appeased body and whatever scattered thoughts remain adrift and I begin to consider suffering, to focus on it – the suffering of individuals and of populations.
I think about the 9-year-old girl in Nick Ut’s photo, Kim Phúc, wailing, naked. She was burned by napalm and stripped off her clothes because of such intense heat. The most terrible pain you can ever imagine, she’s said. Napalm B is a gelatinous substance that sticks to skin and cannot be rubbed off. It burns for 10 minutes at insanely high temperatures. 1000°C/2000°F – numbers that, in their immensity, mean virtually nothing. It’s impossible to fathom, isn’t it? I can barely conceive of a bee sting at the moment, but I know I’d do just about anything to avoid it. Who knows how many people have suffered this kind of pain. Is there any number that isn’t heart-breaking? One feels like too many.
There’s a great short film from 1969 called The Inextinguishable Fire by Harun Farocki, made in Germany. It chronicles the manufacturing of napalm by Dow Chemical for the US government. These warmongers told themselves that the war would be won sooner – that freedom and democracy would be sooner secured – by developing weaponry more and more atrocious. At Dow’s offices and throughout the military industrial complex, the labor of manufacturers and scientists was so divided, each citizen’s life so far removed from the final result, that no one felt directly responsible for the atrocities being committed.
It’s an understatement to say that America’s involvement in Vietnam was incredibly misguided. Apart from the death and destruction it caused, it was a huge drain on American morale and energy, and to this day collects its debt in the form of social services for so many vets, as well as a general distrust in government. It also failed in its main mission: to prevent a communist country. What was America doing there, exactly?
When the US entered WWII, it created a powerful industry around the manufacture and marketing of military goods. The economy soared while the rest of the industrialized world barely kept itself alive. It was suddenly the global power, along with the USSR. The USSR was perceived as an existential threat, both literally, in the form of nuclear attack, and metaphorically, in the form of an anti-capitalist system. If Stalin’s economic politics spread to other parts of the world, it would mean less trade partners for America, and possibly more military hostility. There’s old propaganda footage of a globe being painted in red.
After nuking Japan into submission, President Truman came up with a doctrine: America would assist any nation in “resisting authoritarian forces” – his political way of combatting communism, to contain Russian influence so that it wouldn’t spread like that red paint. Like the Bush Doctrine of our day, Truman’s stance was a very convenient way to justify the bloated military budget and bureaucracy from WWII, to continue this industry instead of shrink it. Thus was born the military industrial complex. I guess if you build a bunch of bombs and jets, you find new ways to use them, to keep evolving this sort of tech in a newly booming industry that had so successfully raised GDP. From then on, the US would insert itself wherever it saw fit. And so it has been. This might be okay if the US really did assist nations – people – against tyrannical governments, as the French did for the Americans in their revolution against Great Britain. But of course this has rarely been the case.
The American Resistance War (as it’s locally known in Vietnam) was a proxy war between the world powers, a war of ideology. This is what we learn in school and it’s not wrong, but is it everything? Maybe it’s fallacious to equate communism with authoritarianism, capitalism with freedom. In this case, capitalism was the more oppressive system of authority. To force a country into a certain market is more authoritarian than allowing the spread of Marxist ideas, which aren’t inherently totalitarian. Furthermore, by focusing on the proxy war between superpowers, we forgot about Vietnam itself.
Vietnam has gone through a lot of shit. It’s been pushed around by China since forever. And then, in the 1600s, French Catholic missionaries started poisoning the well of Eastern tradition and local culture. There was pushback from Buddhists and traditional spiritualists against the sinister beliefs of Catholicism, but France’s colonialists were strong and persistent, and by 1887, the French ruled Vietnam as a colony, led by religious influence. So it was for decades, until after WWII, when America took over.
Ho Chi Minh was the leader of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, established in 1945 after decades of struggle. He was a legit intellectual Marxist – a believer in sharing, in the collective prosperity of people. His politics invoked the sentiments of America’s own declaration of independence. He simply believed in freedom and democracy for his nation. He fought his whole life against Western control, and gained the love and support of the people: The Viet Minh, who after 1954, successfully controlled the North. But somehow Western influences managed to install a regime with capitalist sympathies in the South, in Saigon, as the French withdrew and American numbers grew. An anti-communist English-speaking right-wing Roman Catholic politician, Ngô Đình Diệm, became president of the Republic of Vietnam – South Vietnam – through a rigged election. The country was thus divided.
There’s a famous picture of a Buddhist monk who set himself on fire – Thích Quảng Đức. This was in protest of the South Vietnam sham government that discriminated against Buddhists in favor of Western ideals. The people opposed Western influence, and the 1963 photo by Malcome Browne was clear evidence of it. Nevertheless, America supported the South because they were “anti-communist”, because Stalin supported Ho Chi Minh, and they wanted “to win”. If America really stood against authoritarianism as stated in the Truman Doctrine, it would have protected against the very side it fought for.
The United States waged a totally futile war against the will of the majority, and ruined the land and people in the process. In addition to developing napalm, the US created another substance, perhaps even more insidious: Agent Orange. Agent Orange was a highly toxic herbicide made by Monsanto, in collaboration with Dow Chemical, that the US sprayed all over Southeast Asia in the 60s in order to wipe out forests and deprive “the enemy” of food and shelter. It was certainly a war crime as far as the international community was concerned, but the UK did similar in Malaysia, so together they convinced the UN that dioxin was somehow exempt from war crime status. Operation Ranch Hand destroyed millions of acres of land (20% of the country’s total forests were sprayed) and millions of lives. It has resulted in mass mutations, birth defects, brain damage, cleft palettes, no eyes, extra fingers & toes and countless other genetic monstrosities, which persist to this day. The chemical compound has rendered much of the countryside un-reforestable, and has entered the food chain as well, exacerbating the effects, mostly near old US bases. US veterans have suffered as well.
War is fascinatingly evil. People in power wage huge crimes against humanity in the guise of something lofty – the fight against tyranny, for instance – but war itself is the tyrant. Ignorant people are consigned to commit unthinkable violence, and for what? The destruction and suffering brings unbearable sadness. There is no lofty goal behind the curtain. Just a fear of embarrassment.
It’s crazy what becomes normal in war. Lines blur, motives fade and everyone descends into a sort of primal tribalism, the institutions designed to protect us somehow unglued. It becomes acceptable to murder a man at point-blank range without any semblance of due process. Nguyễn Văn Lém, dressed in civilian clothes, was executed by General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan in front of US photographer Eddie Adams. The victim was a suspected Viet Cong officer. The Viet Cong were the communists of the South, supporters of the North’s plan for a united Communist state. He had allegedly murdered dozens of citizens himself, or commanded their deaths, during the chaos of the Tet Offensive in 1986. General Loan doled out the swift capital punishment as he saw fit. In the fog of war, it makes sense. Murder isn’t murder in the mind of a soldier; it’s something else. Everything is a game. The power of belief. Brainwashing. Each fighter inspired by crafted rhetoric, duped by their politicians whose motives are so often cryptic.
A real fight for freedom is understandable, and certainly more tangible, more visceral, more urgent than anything felt by Americans in the second half of the 20th century. The People’s Army of Vietnam in the North, the Viet Cong in the South – these are manifestations of legitimate resistance, whose bloodshed actually makes sense. Surely the Vietnamese wouldn’t just surrender to the whims of continued, corrupt imperialism – not when they were finally sensing their independence. These groups fought against the behemoth of America – and against the French before that, and the Japanese briefly, and the Chinese countless times throughout their long, embattled history – for their actual liberty. They withstood napalm and Agent Orange because of goals dire and direct: the autonomy of their land and people. Noble ideals espoused by the inspiring, noble Ho Chi Minh.
All that destruction intended to prevent what was inevitable in the end: a united Marxist Vietnam. Saigon (a word derived from French, and still the moniker of preferred usage, presumably out of habit as well as aesthetic preference) was renamed after the country’s beloved leader from the North, just two years after the withdrawal of the West. Burn. Some fires cannot be put out.