Vietnam War

The Camera at War: Part 2

Several years ago, I wrote about the power of photography in war in this blog. The Camera at War post is one of my favorite posts. And in teaching Vietnam, it is one of my favorite lessons to teach. The VHS video I used for 17 years had started to deteriorate. For the past two years, I have had to make adjustments to the lesson and was unable to show the video. I felt I was shorting my students.

Today, while trolling YouTube for a Malcolm X video to download, I stumbled upon the Camera at War finally being posted on YouTube. I could not download the video fast enough. The Camera at War was produced by BBC2 in the mid-1990s. Many of its participants and photographers have since passed away. It is an emotional video to watch as these were the images of my youth. For my students, it is a unique experience for them to see the images I saw as a young child from six years old to twelve. I will still have to wait three weeks to show it, but this morning, I am really excited!

DISCLAIMER: The following links are for educational purposes only

Hopefully, the videos will stay uploaded on to YouTube for a while!


Daniel Ellsberg and The Pentagon Papers

Long before WikiLeaks released the largest amount of classified documents in American History, Daniel Ellsberg shocked the nation in 1971 by releasing what has become known as “The Pentagon Papers”. There is a huge difference between the two events. I doubt if any change in foreign policy comes from WikiLeaks. The only damaging piece of evidence coming out from WikiLeaks was that the Pakistani troops were aiding the Taliban in Pakistan. The Pentagon Papers on the other hand, brought out the worst in a President, an ultimately, brought down the President and changed the US’s role in Vietnam.

Daniel Ellsberg was born in Chicago in 1931. He grew in Michigan and went to Harvard, graduating with a B.S. in economics in 1952. In 1954, Ellsberg left to join the Marines. He would stay in the Marines until 1957. After an honorable discharge, Ellsberg resumed graduate studies at Harvard. He also began working for the Rand Corporation and received his Ph.D. in economics in 1962. His dissertation was on a paradox in decision making now known as the Ellsberg paradox.

Between 1964 and 1967, Ellsberg worked for the Defense Department and the State Department and even served one tour in Vietnam. When he returned home, Ellsberg went back to work for the Rand Corporation. Ellsberg was commissioned (along with two other people) by then Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to compile a top-secret history of the War in Vietnam. At the time, Ellsberg had top-secret clearance.

Throughout 1969 and 1970, Ellsberg lived a double, sometimes, triple life. He worked for Rand, he worked on the top-secret history, and he began attending anti-war rallies. In 1970, Ellsberg began to try to get the top-secret history published. He approached newspapers and senators. No one was biting. He began to copy more and more of the report. On June 13, 1971, the New York Times began to publish what became known as “The Pentagon Papers”.

Ellsberg became public enemy number one in the eyes of the Nixon Administration. Even though most of the documents were about Johnson’s attempts to get into war and the mismanagement thereafter, Nixon was still outraged. “Tricky Dick” went into full effect even having his “plumbers” break into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. The Nixon administration tried to lock up Ellsberg and throw away the key, but by the time the case went to trial, Watergate was the story of the day. Ellsberg was to be tried under the Espionage Act of 1917, and he was, but the Judge threw out most of the evidence of the prosecution because it had been illegally obtained. Judge Byrne dismissed all charges against Ellsberg.

Ellsberg, who was working at the Defense Department on the night of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, said in an interview on NPR:

Years later when I revealed some of those same cables and documents that I had in my safe that night, August 4th, 1964, when I revealed them in the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, Senator Wayne Morse who’s been one of the two senators who voted against the Tonkin Gulf resolution told me, if you had given me, on the foreign relations committee, those documents which were now out in 1971.

If you’d given me those documents, at the time, in 1964, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution would never have gotten out of committee. And if they had brought it to the floor, it would have lost. And he was telling me that I, by telling the truth to Congress, as was my constitutional responsibility to do, I could have averted that war and 50,000 American lives and several million Vietnamese – so that’s a heavy burden to bear.

The Papers did help to change America’s perceptions about its government in the 1970s. America became more and more apathetic. Nixon would resign, but not before turning over control of the war to South Vietnam. The papers shed light on the role of the Johnson administration and its handling of the press. It changed how America viewed its secrets. “The War Logs” as they are no being called are not rattling anyone’s sabers. The only thing that might change today would be security protocols. That’s a shame.

In 2009, an Oscar nominated documentary was released about the Pentagon Papers. Here is a nice interview with the director of “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers”.

Here is a short interview with Ellsberg about what he call Vietnamistan (Afghanistan)

The My Lai Massacre

On March 16, 1968, Charlie Company of the 11th Infantry Brigade of the United States Army entered the village of My Lai in Quang Ngai Province of South Vietnam. Like many missions, it was a search destroy mission. US soldiers were to search the village for elements of the 48th Vietcong Battalion. According to intelligence, My Lai was a haven for the 48th Vietcong Battalion. By the end of the day, over 500 villagers would be dead.

The Massacre would be covered up beginning that day and would last until the fall of 1969. Two men would not stand for that. One is Seymour Hersh who broke the story  in the newspaper over a year and half later. The other was pilot Hugh Thompson who filed a complaint with the Army.

Upon arrival in Vietnam, each soldier was given a booklet that had the rules for battle and what to do and what not do when dealing the enemy. Here is an example of one MACV Pocket Card. It reads:

“The Enemy In Your Hands”
As a member of the U.S. Military Forces, you will comply with the Geneva Prisoner of War Convention of 1949 to which your country adheres. Under these Conventions:
You can and will:
* Disarm your prisoner.
* Immediately search him thoroughly.
* Require him to be silent.
* Segregate him from other prisoners.
* Guard him carefully.
* Take him to the place designated by your commander.
You cannot and must not:
* Mistreat your prisoner.
* Humiliate or degrade him.
* Take any of his personal effects that do not have significant military value.
* Refuse him medical treatment if required and available.

The atrocities are hard to imagine. The platoons, under the command of Lt. William Calley and Lt. Stephen Brooks began the day with an eight minute flight from their camp to the village of My Lai. Lieutenant Calley took up a defensive position along the western edge of the village. This helped to secure a landing zone. Lieutenant Brooks did the same on the northwest side of the village. Several villagers attempted to escape and were shot. Hugh Thompson was a warrant officer assigned to scout the village in his helicopter during the conflict .

By 8:00 a.m., the two platoons had taken fire. The platoons began moving through the village.

Sergeant David Mitchell leads the first squad, followed by Lieutenant Calley and a squad of about 24 GI’s, then Sergeant L.G. Bacon’s squad and finally Sergeant Isaiah Cowan. As they move into My Lai the men shoot many fleeing Vietnamese and bayonet others. They throw hand grenades into houses and bunkers and destroy livestock and crops. The two platoons in the village begin rounding up approximately 20-50 civilians (mostly women, children and old men,) pushing them along trails to a dirt road south of the village, and placing them under guard. Another group of 70 civilians are moved to the east of the village. Soldiers begin killing the civilians without pretext. Men are stabbed with bayonets or shot in the head. One GI pushes a man down a well and throws an M26 grenade in after him. Over a dozen women and children praying by a temple are shot in the head by passing soldiers.

The day begins to be filled with atrocity after atrocity. Men, women, and are killed and one soldier even forced a woman  to perform oral sex on him while holding a gun to a four-year-old child’s head.

The soldiers begin rounding up civilians and shooting them.

Hugh Thompson describes the events of the day in his own words.

The village was prepped with artillery prior to the assault, and we went in right when the “slicks” —the troop-carrying aircraft that brought the Charlie company and Bravo company— landed simultaneously right in front of them. We started mak ing our passes, and I thought it was gonna be real hot that day. The first thing we saw was a draft-age male running south out of the village with a weapon and I tol m to et him. He tried, but he was a new gunner— he missed him. That was the only enemy person I saw that whole day.

We kept flying back and forth, reconning in front and in the rear, and it didn’t take very long until we started noticing the large number of bodies everywhere. Everywhere we’d look, we’d see bodies. These were infants, two-, three-, four-, five-year-olds, women, very old men, no draft-age people whatsoever. That’s what you look for, draft-age people. It came out in the interrogations that my crew and myself went through. My gunner’s big questions—were, “Were there weapons that day?” There was not the first weapon captured, to my knowledge, that day. I think a count has been anywhere from two to four hundred, five hundred bodies— it was that many. I think that’s a small count, including the three villages that were hit.

As we were flying back around the civilian people, there was one lady on the side of the road, and we knew something was going wrong by then. Larry Colburn, my gunner, just motioned for her to stay down; she was kneeling on the side of the road. We just ordered her to stay down; we hovered around everywhere, looking, couldn’t understand what was going on. We flew back over her a few minutes later and most of you all have probably seen that picture; she’s got a coolie hat laying next to her. If you look real close, some odd object laying right next to her— that’s her brains. It’s not pretty

We saw another lady that was wounded. We got on the radio and called for some help and marked her with smoke. A few minutes later up walks a captain, steps up to her, nudges her with his foot, steps back and blows her away.

We came across a ditch that had, I don’t know, a lot of bodies in it, a lot of movement in it. I landed, asked a sergeant there if he could help them out, these wounded people down there. He said he’d help them out, help them out of their misery, I believe. I was . . . shocked, I guess, I don’t know. I thought he was joking; I took it as a joke, I guess. We took off and broke away from them and my gunner, I guess it was, said, “My God, he’s firing into the ditch.” We’d asked for help twice, both times— well actually, three times by then, I guess— every time that people had been killed. We’d “help these people out” by asking for help.

Sometime later, we saw some people huddle in a bunker and the only thing I could see at that particular time was a woman, an old man, and a couple of kids standing next to it. We look over here and see them and look over there and see the friendly forces, so I landed the helicopter again. I didn’t want there to be any confusion or something; I really don’t know what was going on in my mind then.

I walked over to the ground units and said, “Hey, there’s some civilians over here in this bunker. Can you get them out?” They said, “Well, we’re gonna get them out with a hand grenade.” I said, “Just hold your people right here please, I think I can do better.” So I went over to the bunker and motioned for them to come out, everything was OK. At that time I didn’t know what I was going to do, because there was more than three or four there, more like nine or ten or something like that. So I walked back over to the aircraft and kind of kept them around me and called the pilot that was flying the low gunship and said, “Hey, I got these people here down on the ground, and you all land and get them out of here.” So he agreed to do that, which I think was the first time a gunship’s ever been used for that. There’s enough of them there that he had to make two trips and he picked them up and took them about ten miles or so behind the lines and dropped them off.

A short while later we went back to the ditch. There was still some movement in there. We got out of the aircraft and Androtta, my crew chief, walked down into the ditch. A few minutes later he came back up carrying a little kid. We didn’t know what we were gonna do with this one either, but we all get back in the aircraft and figure we’d get him back to the orphanage or hospital back over at Quang Ngai. In examining him in the aircraft that day, the kid wasn’t even wounded, or we didn’t see any wounds, I’ll put it that way. He was covered with blood, and the thought was going through my mind and my crew’s mind, “How did these people get in that ditch?”

After coming up with about three scenarios, one of them being an artillery round hit them, you wipe that out of your mind ’cause every house in Vietnam, I think, has a bunker underneath it. If artillery was coming there, they would go to the bunker; they wouldn’t go outside in the open area. Then I said, well, when artillery was coming, they were trying to leave and a round caught them in the ditch while they were going for cover. I threw that one out of my mind. Then something just sunk into me that these people were marched into that ditch and murdered. That was the only explanation that I could come up with.

Taking the child to the hospital was a day I’ll never forget. It was a very sad day, very mad day, very frustrated and everything. So later in the afternoon, (this was brought up when everything hit and became public during interrogations, the Department of the Army IG was asking me about the incident and I had totally blocked it out of my mind. I had no idea what this guy was questioning me for), after the mission that day, I went back to our operations area, which is over in LC Dottie and I was very upset. I was very mad.

I reported to my platoon leader. He said let’s go see the operations officer. In turn we went to our commander and the words were said for me that day that, you know, dean this up. “If this damn stuff is what’s happening here,” I told him, “You can take these wings right now ’cause they’re only sewn on with thread.” I was ready to quit flying.

My commander was very interested. Within a day or so— I don’t think it was that day, it was probably the next day— we were called up to the command bunker at LC Dottie and everybody gave their statements. This was a full colonel (a full colonel is next to a general); that means he can walk on water. He was very interested it seemed; I remember him taking notes and that was it, I do believe. I don’t know if I was called again to report to the commanding general.

There was one thing in my mind that I think, but I can’t be positive. Our two units were like sixty miles away. So we didn’t have contact with these ground people every day. A lot of people don’t understand that sixty miles into Vietnam is a long way away You just don’t go there. I guess I assumed something was being done. It wasn’t a colonel’s position to come down to a Wl and inform him of his investigation, that just was unheard of. It seemed like it was just dropped after that.

Approximately two years later is when it was broke publicly and that’s when all the investigations started. I was called before the US Senate, the Department of the Army IG and for every one of the court-martial investigations. They appointed Lieutenant General Peers to investigate this. I honestly think the Army thought they had a ‘yes-man’ when they got Lieutenant General Peers and found out when he released his final report that he was not a “yes-man.” I think he made a fairly accurate report of what happened that day.

I believe too, as everybody says, there was a cover-up and everybody’s talked about that the cover-up started on the ground. In my mind, I’m not real sure that’s where the cover-up started. I would not be the least bit surprised if this cover-up started “up” and worked its way all the way back down.

It was probably one of the saddest days of my life. I just could not believe that people could totally lose control and I’ve heard people say this happened all the time. I don’t believe it. I’m not naive to understand that innocent civilians did get killed in Vietnam. I truly pray to God that My Lai was not an everyday occurrence. I don’t know if anybody could keep their sanity if something like that happens all the time. I can see where four or five people get killed, something like that. But that was nothing like that, it was no accident whatsoever. Pure premeditated murder. And we’re trained better than that and it’s just not something you’d like to do.

What would possess men do commit such horrors? The day before, Captain Medina was briefed with intelligence that pointed to  My Lai as the haven for the 48th Vietcong Battalion. Company Commander, Colonel Oran Henderson led the briefing. Henderson stated that the company would have the opportunity to “meet the enemy head on” and encouraged his platoon leaders to be more aggressive. Lt. Barker and Captain Kotouc informed the troops civilians will have left for the markets in nearby Quang Ngai City when the attack is scheduled. Any civilians remaining in the villages would be considered Vietcong or actively sympathetic to the Vietcong. A recon flight of My Lai to scout landing zones took place that afternoon.

Captain Medina addressed Charlie Company after the reconnaissance flight.

Medina “embellishes”Barker’s orders and adds a “revenge element” in his briefing. He tells his men they will be outnumbered two to one, with 250 to 280 members of the 48th hiding outside of Son My. Charlie Company will be airlifted south of the village and will attack Son My, destroying the enemy forces. Medina encourages his men to destroy the crops and kill any livestock seen.

Within less than a month, Charlie Company is disbanded. The investigation into the incident would last a year. Calley and 25 others would face trial but only Calley would be found guilty.

The outrage over My Lai was limited to a small portion of the public. The majority of Americans believed it to be an isolated incident or some sort of conspiracy to make American troops look bad. Unfortunately, it did happen. It was an atrocity that was covered up and made “hush hush” in a time when America was on the verge of breaking in two over Vietnam.

Calley was seen a scapegoat by many. President Nixon received thousands of letters for Calley’s release and eventually the sentence was reduced from Life in Prison to 20 years, then to ten years, and eventually he was released in 1974.

Hugh Thompson was recognized for his courage and honesty with the Soldier’s Medal in 1998. 60 Minutes ran a story on Thompson and covered Thompson’s trip back to Vietnam.

Calley has only spoken once (2009) about the events of the day. He states:

“There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai. I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.”

And so too are we.

On April 26, 2010, American Experience on PBS will air a new program about the My Lai Massacre. It should be interesting. He is an old documentary on the subject.

For further reading and trial transcripts, see Douglas Linder’s Great Trials Site.

Turning Points: The Tet Offensive

So, there America was; defending freedom in Southeast Asia – keeping the Communists contained, stopping the domino theory. Ever since the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and the subsequent United Nations division of the French Indo China, the United States had been aiding South Vietnam. Through training of soldiers, equipment, and advisers, the presence of the United States was felt throughout the region to keep Communism at bay. After the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in 1964, and the resulting Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, President Johnson had unlimited powers to in SE Asia. The document states:

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,
*That the Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.
*Section 2. The United States regards as vital to its national interest and to world peace the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia. Consonant with the Constitution of the United States and the Charter of the United Nations and in accordance with its obligations under the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, the United States is, therefore, prepared, as the President determines, to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.
*Section 3. This resolution shall expire when the President shall determine that the peace and security of the area is reasonably assured by international conditions created by action of the United Nations or otherwise, except that it may be terminated earlier by concurrent resolution of the Congress.

Within a year, the US had troops on the ground in the Ia Drang Valley in South Vietnam.

People back home in the US were supportive of the war to a point. I remember as a child turning on the evening news at 5:30 to watch Walter Cronkite. We would sit down to supper and see reports about the war. Looking back, it is hard for a young child to understand terms and phrases such as search and destroy, winning hearts and minds, destroyed the village to save it, and I can see daylight at the end of the tunnel. But these were the sound bytes of the day from 1965-67. Even with a buildup of over 500,00 soldiers, Americans were assured and assuaged that 1968 was going to be the year in which the US won in Vietnam. The communists would give up and our boys and men would be back home before Christmas.

The Public only knew what the generals wanted them to think. For General Westmoreland, he believed the US was winning the war.

*We were succeeding. When you looked at specifics, this became a war of attrition. We were winning.

Starting on January 21, 1968, North Vietnamese forces began an attack at the US base at Khe Sahn. There are some who still see this attack as a diversion to draw troops, supplies, and resources away from Saigon. As the Lunar New Year, or Tet Holiday, approached, many thought a cease fire would take hold as agreed upon by all parties.

Early in the morning of January 31, 1968, the North Vietnamese and Vietcong launched coordinated attacks all throughout South Vietnam. More than 100 towns were attacked including the capital of Saigon. The Vietcong were actually in the American Embassy in Saigon. Militarily, the Tet Offensive was a disaster for the North. Khe Sanh and the Battle of Hue would last longer, but most of Tet was wrapped up by the end of the day and the north took heavy casualties.

Initially, the US claimed victory. The American public did not see it that way. The public had more answers than they were getting. If the US was winning this was of attrition, then how could the North attack wherever and whenever they wanted. The images coming out of Tet clashed with the words of the military command. One in particular was Eddie Adams’ The Assassination.

The image itself shocked Americans and marked a turning point in the war. How could the US support the South? This was not democracy.

From February of 1968, Vietnam for the American Public was never the same. The Tet Offensive, while a military disaster, proved to be the turning point of the war. For if the North could attack at will, the American Public would never support the war. The psychological victory proved too much as television and the still image did its part.

To his dying day, Westmoreland still believed it was not the military’s fault. He states:

*Militarily, we succeeded in Vietnam. We won every engagement we were involved in out there.

The Tet Offensive was lost psychologically because the US and the South could never shut down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. For years, supplies, men, and women poured into the South via a footpath. LBJ tried carpet bombing, Nixon tried invading Cambodia, but neither effect worked. As a result, a course of a war, the course of two nations, and the course of thousands of lives changed in the coming year.

President Lyndon would not seek re-election. Nixon would be elected and the dominoes of American History fell. Atrocities in My Lai, Cambodia, and the nether regions of a jungle were broadcast into the living rooms of a public that neither cared nor wanted to see them anymore. By 1973, US combat troops were out, most of the P.O.W.s would be on their way home, and only “advisors” were left. Two years later in 1975, Saigon fell and Vietnam was united under a communist flag. It would be another ten years before American ended the malaise that started with the Tet Offensive.

For Further Reading
A Bright, Shining Lie
Vietnam: A History
Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam