“People ask me who my heroes are. I have only one – Adolf Hitler.” – General Ky, prime minister of South Vietnam.
Written by Felix Greene and published in 1966, this is a explicit and graphic photo heavy book that makes a strong antiwar case. Though it was available early in the United States expedition into Vietnam, the book like many others had little impact in deterring the monstrosity of violence that was to come. The book is interesting in the sense that it reveals what was already known to the wider public about the fighting in South East Asia and what the consequences were like for those innocent civilians that had to suffer the war.
The book does not pull any punches in its depiction of the victims plight, nor should it have. Photos of women and children dead, dying, mutilated, naked in shame and lost to the winds of history fill much of the book. Just as images of young boys to elderly men, their bodies mangled, taut in pain as they suffer torture or lingering inside an unknown limbo as prisoners. It is a war on the people of South East Asia, focused to Vietnam but not limited there. It is a war against an ideology, communism, but in fighting such a war it united the once indifferent individual behind the homegrown nationalists who also happened to be communist.
Perhaps the greatest weakness of the book and why it may have been less than effective at the time of publishing is that the language lingers with a left wing leaning pen stroke. The author does not hide the fact that he sympathises with the Vietnamese National Liberation Front and instead portrays them with a heroic shade. This is after all easy to do. Given that the greatest military power on Earth was waging a terrible war against their cause, people and homeland. They were after all the defenders.
The book like many written before the popular opinion switched is through and through anti-war and focused on the suffering that the innocent, those powerless are forced to suffer. In the middle 1960s it was often only the voices of the left who championed such calls to justice. Very few if any books came from the mouth of right wing nationalists or free market libertarians at that time. Instead it was the left, those either sympathetic with communist governments the world over or those simply drawn to that ideology because it was anti-colonial and thus antiwar who spoke up against the mass murder.
To call the book propaganda takes a bold assumption, after all would a book depicting the heroic Soviets in their defiance to the Nazi war machine be considered simply as a biased medium for the Soviet state? The Soviet regime was terrible, a monster to millions of human beings. So was the Nazi government. Those suffering because of the war inflicted upon the peoples of the USSR could only unite for the most part to reject the foreign intrusion and destruction caused by the Wermacht invaders. Good and Evil are irrelevant, the suffering of the innocent is all that matters. Who could ask the peasant who has lost everything to decide their loyalties between Stalinist communism and Hitlerian fascism? When survival is all they desire in those horrible moments. That was the fate for many inside Vietnam, homegrown terror and foreign monsters, in the end only suffering.
In Vietnam in 1966, the suffering was caused most by the foreign invader, the powerful great nation dropping bombs, chemicals and lead from the air while its warriors entered the villages of peasants and burned them down. Killing often as they did so. How would such conduct inspire those feeling this agony to become supportive of the US proxy in Saigon or to embrace the claimed ideological economic system of the invader? Is it not propaganda to omit such examples of mass murder and human suffering? Would it not be propaganda to pretend that the US mission in Vietnam was completely altruistic and had the entire populace in that country welcoming such an intervention?
It would take the revelations of the My Lai massacre and the Pentagon Papers to help invoke an acceptable popular dissatisfaction among the American voter towards the war on South East Asia. But why did it take so long? Many had been writing from very early on about the consequences of the US involvement in Vietnam. Many had been critical and much footage and photos revealing those miserable moments were available for public consumption. Books such as this were in print.
One could make the defence that the main stream media was slower in its reporting on such atrocities and that while the alternative media was active, those privy to such were few. Furthermore, to be anti-war and against the government then could make one seem more like a radical and as mentioned considered a ‘lefty’.
So, what is the excuse now in our time? With instant access to the internet and social media individuals can fact check and look at the consequences of the war from the device that they hold inside the palm of their hands. They can keep up to date with the wars, all of them and recently with the main stream publishing of the Afghanistan Papers along with the decades old Wikileaks documents they can see that credible sources of the generic media have confirmed the alternative dissidents revelations about the war. Yet indifference reigns supreme and the killing rages on.
Is that the truth of it all? That those at home inside the heart of empire really care little about the suffering of foreigners before the hands of their government? So long as jobs, entitlements, welfare, grants and national dignity are abundant do most really condone mass murder in their name? Is that the secret that despotic regimes in the past partly understood? Is that the key element in sacking Carthage and being adored for it?
Vietnam! Vietnam! Is not a light book, it is ugly and honest. Even if you were to ignore the captions and the authours paragraphs you will understand why war is horrible. Napalm soaked children awash with agony, their skin dripping as their eyes no longer innocent look for a loved one perhaps dead. A mother feeding a baby, their face bloated and stabbed deep from the burns of phosphorous, scars ever lasting as a mother is unable to soothe her child. Villages made of thatch burning, livestock slaughtered, tall American soldiers standing over those crying as their entire world turns to ash, the soldiers indifferent.
Vietnam was a poor country, the victim of European exceptionalism when France invaded then conquered it making it part of the Indo China. It then suffered beneath the Japanese imperial rule only to have its nationalist hopes of independence betrayed by the US government when the French rulers returned after World War Two backed by a cold war fixated Washington D.C. Decades of war, and then by 1966 divided by two capitals each a symbol of both sides in the Cold War. Caught in the middle, millions of innocent civilians. This book is for them. It does its best to show their faces through the blood and tears.
But over fifty years later, this book could also be for those in Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Chechnya, Kashmir and so on. Other poor regions on this Earth where the victims are lost to the self righteous power grabs of foreign powers seeking an ownership of tyranny and bloodshed. The victims buried in unmarked graves, lost in prisons or depressed to live a life as a subject beneath a government of gangsters.
Many of the same left wing voices who were ardent in their dissent of the US governments war of the 1960s are still active today but there are few newer voices from that same left. The antiwar tone is no longer limited to the left, in fact for the most part the popular left are all but absent in their hatred for war. To be anti-war is not popular, unfortunately it never really has been.
Felix Greene has inside of his book everything that the Pentagon Papers and Seymour Hersh’s reporting on My Lai would go on to reveal. With basic photos and quotes, this simple book has the truth of the war open to be seen. A war which would run for nearly another decade, its effects snatching life and happiness deep into another century. For the audience who the book was intended for, many were not interested. And as the copies of this book are lost to pulp any new eyes are likely far removed from caring, unable to connect the dots of consistency. The Vietnam War is ancient to them, even as bombs continue to detonate killing the innocent in this day, babies are born mutated thanks to the defoliant poison dropped, victims not yet born will go on to suffer this ancient war waged by outsiders who are now tourists.
But here we are. History is ongoing, the passive voyeur to it is unconcerned unless it directly harms them. Worse is that many profit from its bloody progress and others adore it with sadistic delight fantasising that their national writ is above what ever God they pretend to obey or any moral dignity that they claim to adhere. War is all that they serve. Whether it is a war on Vietnamese peasants or peasants in Afghanistan, whether it is a war on drug addicts at home, those seeking work outside of the regulators protection, war on the writer disobeying the censors or simply the individual who wants to be left alone. The war is always fought for some one else sense of righteous need, the innocent are props, lost statistics that lose value over time. The mass murderers, torturers and imposers of rule and tyranny are never in doubt, often above question but nearly always adored by those who feed them with their wilful ignorance.
The chapter, “American Advisers” includes images of torture and executions of suspects and prisoners of wars. Alongside a photo of a young Vietnamese man maybe twenty, his face cut from beatings and his eyes scared though defiant, the caption reads, “This man, though tortured, refused to speak. He was shot.”
Images of South Vietnamese soldiers and their American handlers waterboarding and torturing Viet Cong suspects has the quotation from Graham Greene alongside it,
“The strange new feature about the photographs of torture now appearing is that they have been taken with the approval if the torturers and published over captions that contain no hint of condemnation. They might have come out of a book on insect life. ‘The White ant takes certain measures against the red ant after a successful foray.’ But these, after all, are not ants, but men. ….These photographs are of torturers belonging to an army which could not exist without American aid and counsel.”
Another photograph shows the lifeless body of perhaps a teenage Viet Cong suspect tied by his ankles and attached to an M113 Armoured Personnel Carrier. One of the American soldiers on top of the carrier takes a drag from a cigarette while the body festers in the heat. The quote attached from Malcolm Browne in his book ‘The New Face of War,’ reads
“In more than one case a Viet Cong suspect has been towed after interrogation behind an armoured personnel carrier….This always results in death in one of its most painful forms.”
The chapter “Americans Move in Big” captures the escalation with images of technowar. Photos of C-123 transport aircraft spraying the jungle with “poisonous chemicals” along with children in agony after napalm has eaten their flesh. Women and children escaping bomb shelters after being flushed out with gas, their villages ablaze and soldiers with fixed bayonets prodding them into the jungle. The quote beneath such a photo reads,
“A report presented to Congress indicated that some military actions have resulted in six civilian casualties for every guerrilla killed. The National Liberation Front reported that 170,000 civilians have been killed in South Vietnam and nearly 800,000 have been wounded or disabled by torture. This was in 1965.”
The rest of the book is filled with such images, all of which were available In 1966.