My Opposition to the Vietnam War
Greg Laxer. Introduction by William Astore.
This week, historians have marked the 100th anniversary of World War I, a cataclysm that resulted in the deaths of more than nine million soldiers and the collapse of four empires. Yet there’s another grim anniversary that has gone mostly unmarked: the 50th anniversary of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in 1964 that gave President Lyndon B. Johnson a blank check to escalate American military involvement in Vietnam. That resolution led to the deaths of more than 58,000 American soldiers and as many as three million Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians caught up in the American crusade against homegrown Communism in Southeast Asia.
Greg Laxer opposed that war from within the US Army, and for that opposition, he paid a heavy price. We’re pleased to offer the following excerpt from his memoir that recounts his Army experiences and the burden of opposing a war when you wear a military uniform. W.J. Astore
Author’s Introduction by Greg Laxer: This is an excerpt from the eleventh and final chapter of my memoir-in-the-making about my opposition to the Vietnam War from within the US Army, 1967-1971. This chapter ranges far and wide beyond the Vietnam Era itself. The American Servicemen’s Union (1967-1974) was a leftist organization with which I was deeply involved starting in 1968, when I first refused to ship out for duty in Vietnam. (There would be a second refusal later, the Army being rather stubborn.) The ASU opposed all wars of imperialist aggression and agitated for civil rights for military personnel in the guise of a labor union model. I can’t say with certainty whether the information revealed below is new to the general public, only that I suspect it is. The analysis that follows is that of the author.
When American Servicemen’s Union was shut down I took into my personal possession, for safekeeping, four pamphlets (“Historical Studies”) that had been published by the US Army in the early 1950s. Someone in sympathy with the anti-war movement had made these available to us, which means they were still in use during the war against Vietnam. It could have been a junior officer, but more likely a low-ranking enlisted person whose job had been collecting the materials after a classroom session for Commissioned Officers and putting them back in a cabinet, then emptying the ashtrays, sweeping up, etc. In order of their publication, these volumes were: Pamphlet No. 20-201, Military Improvisations During the Russian Campaign (August 1951); No. 20-234, Operations of Encircled Forces–German Experiences in Russia (January 1952); No. 20-291, Effects of Climate on Combat in European Russia (February 1952); No. 20-243, German Antiguerrilla Operations in the Balkans, 1941-1944 (August 1954).
The middle two volumes were rated “RESTRICTED Security Information.” The US military establishment obviously didn’t want the public to be alarmed that they were drawing up contingency plans for war against the Soviet Union. But they had a wider concern that, in the post-World War II environment, they would be ordered to fight guerrilla forces trying to free their nations from exploitation by the Western powers. Since Nazi Germany waged many such campaigns, America’s military leadership assembled groups of actual former (in theory!) Nazi officers with experience in that arena of war for advice. (This is explained plainly in the Introduction to each pamphlet.)
The pamphlet published in 1954, about the Balkans experience, is the most enlightening one for us to examine. From page 22: “the shooting of hostages or burning of homes of suspects and whole communities suspected of sheltering the guerrillas [failed to] achieve the desired results.” Now cut, in your mind, to the many instances documented on film (consider this report on the “Zippo Brigade” by Morley Safer) of US troops torching whole villages in Vietnam. On page 38 we find: “The readiness of the Bulgarians [home-grown Fascists collaborating with the Nazis] to shoot suspects without investigation of any kind finally prompted the German Commander in Serbia to request a careful preliminary investigation of each case before an execution was carried out.” Now cut to Col. Mike Kirby, John Wayne’s character in The Green Berets, declaring “Out here, mister, due process is a bullet.” Then cut to the famous documentary footage of the instant execution on a Saigon street of a “suspected VC guerrilla.”
The Germans designated captured guerrillas “illegal combatants” (page 53). Fifty years later another imperial military/intelligence apparatus would take to kidnapping foreign nationals abroad, designate them “enemy combatants,” torture some of them and/or imprison them indefinitely without trial. True “military logic” at work: troops invade a foreign country with no justification whatsoever under international law and claim the right to declare “illegal” any resistance by the local population. As the old saying goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
In summation of this particular study, it seems that in their own minds the Germans were always on the brink of totally annihilating the guerrillas, but something always got in the way: troops deployed to the Balkans were older on average, and less well prepared for the terrain than the average German unit; they had trouble getting replacement parts for their vehicles; their Italian allies didn’t have the stomach for this war; they got infiltrated by spies, and so on. Despite claiming kill ratios of 5 to more than 20 to one over their opponents in Greece and Yugoslavia, the Germans withdrew in autumn 1944 without having defeated the guerrilla forces.
Does not this prove the merit of the doctrine of People’s War? Those who have lived in a terrain all their lives can utilize that terrain more efficaciously than any invading/occupying force. But did the US learn anything from the German officers’ accumulated knowledge? Of course not! With his superior technology, essentially unlimited resources for re-supply of weapons and ammunition, and ability to deliver terror from the skies Uncle Sam arrogantly went about destroying Vietnam “in order to save it.” In the end, North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap emerged the victor–at a terrible, terrible cost–and more than 58,000 American lives had been thrown away permanently, with many more disabled for life.
From this experience, did the United States take away any lessons, especially in the sense of avoiding future quagmires? It would be hard to argue an affirmative answer to that question, looking at its record of invasion/occupation in the intervening decades.
Greg Laxer is a lifelong peace activist who served time in military prisons for opposing the War against Viet Nam from within the Army.
7 thoughts on “My Opposition to the Vietnam War”
I think the true “Vietnam syndrome” is not any reluctance to use power, but rather the opposite. Our government (and military) keeps using power, and keeps intervening in foreign lands, in an attempt to efface the stain of having “lost” Vietnam. But the point was (and is) that other countries are not ours to win. And these wars, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere, are not ours to fight.
We can’t win “the next Vietnam” by fighting better or smarter. We win when we choose not to fight. Simple as that.
The totalitarian military mind learns only one lesson from failed wars of conquest: namely, that the next time they will have to do a better job of controlling the “perception” back home among the ignorant and misinformed public. “Reality Control,” the Party called it in Orwell’s 1984. Karl Rove of the Bush II administration called it the same thing in Ron Suskind’s classic article “Without a Doubt” (2004). General David Petraeus made a virtual career out of managing American mis-perception of reality in his many, ticket-punching tours through Iraq and Afghanistan. I call it Manufactured Mendacity and Managed Mystification. “We didn’t really lose. We just needed to do a better job of lying.”
For example, as reported by the Australian, August 30, 2004:
“George W. Bush has admitted the US failed to plan for a speedy victory in Iraq, describing the sudden collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime as a “catastrophic success.”
Or, as George Orwell put the case in his essay Catastrophic Gradualism (1946):
“There is a theory which has not yet been accurately formulated or given a name, but which is very widely accepted and is brought forward whenever it is necessary to justify some action which conflicts with the sense of decency of the average human being. It might be called, until some better name is found, the Theory of Catastrophic Gradualism…. The formula usually employed is ‘You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.’ And if one replies, ‘Yes, but where is the omelet?’ the answer is likely to be: ‘Oh, well, you can’t expect everything to happen all in a moment.’
Which led me to try and encapsulate in verse the never-ending sequence of U.S.-wars-just-to-have-them mentality:
Another Catastrophic Success
With their tails tucked proudly ‘tween their legs
Advancing towards the exit march the dregs
Of empire, whose retreat this question begs:
No promised omelet, just the broken eggs?
Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2011
The photo above shows IFFV HQ, on Beach Road, between Camp McDermott and Nha Trang, Viet Nam . Plans were made here and intelligence received and transmitted from here; in “Apocalypse Now”, Martin Sheen’s character mentions this place frequently. I rode past it several times a week as I was stationed at Camp McDermott.
At the little library hut there, someone slipped in a book by Australian author Wilfred G. Burchett,called “Vietnam Will Win!” It opened my eyes totally, and I was then burdened by serving a master, Uncle Sam, fighting and waging hellfire against this country I was in with no hope of winning any sort of “final battle”.
At this time, my friend Greg Laxer, our humble author here, hooked me up with the ASU and I penned a few letter which were published in the ASU paper, “The Bond”.
Before accepting my fate as a draftee (Vietnam forced service) I filed a conscientious objector status request with my first sergeant at Fort Ord, CA, which was where I had served as a medic with Pvt. Laxer. I was unduly harassed and ridiculed and I decided to not jump all the legal hoops and do stockade time, and I followed the pack and boarded the big jet airplane at Travis AFB bound for Bien Hoa , Viet Nam. I held orders for nine straight days on the tarmac awaiting transport to the 196th Light Infantry Brigade to be a medic, but the November monsoons prevented most flights , and I had new orders cut to catch a jeep to Nha Trang instead. That is how I became involved with seeing IFFV HQ and serving as a medic at Camp McDermott .
There’s a new documentary on HBO with excerpts from Nixon’s audiotapes. One of them records Nixon talking to Kissinger about Vietnam. Even as Nixon was talking to the American people about “peace with honor” and victory, he was privately admitting to Kissinger that South Vietnam’s fall was inevitable. Their main goal was to make sure South Vietnam didn’t collapse too quickly — “a decent interval,” in other words. Nixon and Kissinger already planned to blame the inevitable collapse on South Vietnamese corruption, with Kissinger telling Nixon not to worry — that, by the time South Vietnam ceased to exist, it would be a “backwater.”
Earlier, in another online article, I listened to excerpts from LBJ’s recorded telephone conversations. I can’t remember the precise year, but from those conversations it was clear that LBJ thought the war couldn’t be won. I think this was before Tet in 1968.
Yet both men persisted in prosecuting the war in Vietnam, in the name of containing communism, killing millions yet failing in the end to contain communism, which was not monolithic to begin with. Like Mike Murry said above, lots of broken eggs (as in broken minds and bodies from the war), but no omelet.
All for a war that the U.S. didn’t have the guts to leave when we knew it was unwinnable.
It was the politicians who didn’t have the guts to leave not the “U.S.”
Lesson to learn? Don’t trust your politicians. Their only interest is their job security.
And their reputations. Nixon seems to have been obsessed with looking and acting tough. And both he and LBJ didn’t want to be “the first president to lose a war.” Which didn’t matter, since Reagan reinterpreted the war as “a noble cause” irrespective of its outcome.
Interestingly, it’s not the first war we’ve reinterpreted. The War of 1812 was a disaster that deeply divided the country; only Andrew Jackson’s victory (after the peace treaty!) salvaged some pride. The South lost the Civil War. The Filipino Insurrection was another disaster. Korea was a stalemate. And so on.
The American obsession with winning — or of not being a “loser” — is one of our greatest Achilles’ heels. We refuse to admit defeat even when the policies we’re pursuing are contributing to it.
I have not independently researched this for verification, but I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of the statements by Veterans For Peace (of which I’m now a dues-paying member): It seems the Obama regime has approved $65 million (if I’m remembering correctly), to be spent over next 15 years, to “rehabilitate” the image/perceived legacy of what the US military did in Southeast Asia c. 1962-1973 (withdrawal of bulk of US combat units). How very Reaganesque of you, Mr. Obama! Yes, it will be given a shiny new coat of paint and taught in public schools as having been a noble effort to free those benighted peoples (I’m including Cambodia and Laos here, as Mike Murry wisely always makes a point of doing) from the oppressive yoke of evil “communism.” (Which was fundamentally the yearning to oust foreign troops from their soil.) Veterans For Peace is launching a counter-campaign called Towards An Honest Commemoration of the Vietnam War, in which I have enlisted.