A lot of the old leftie conspiracy theories that used to impress our girlfriends in high school turned out to be true, with a little help from the Freedom of Information Act. I visited the Gulf of Tonkin this week as I worked my way down the Vietnam Coast from Hanoi.
The incident that got LBJ to go on national TV to ask Congress and the American people to support the acceleration of the Vietnam War never happened.
On August 4th, 1964, the USS Maddox reported that it was under attack from North Vietnamese patrol boats. James Stockdale, the American pilot who would become a Vice Admiral, serve time in the famous Hanoi Hilton (Hoa Lo) prison and run for vice president on Ross Perot’s ticket, was flying over the Gulf that day. Years later, Stockdale admitted that he “had the best seat in the house to watch that event, and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets—there were no PT boats there…. There was nothing there but black water and American fire power.” His superiors told him to keep that information to himself. Secretary of Defense at the time Robert McNamara admitted in the masterful Errol Morris doc ‘Fog of War‘, “It was just confusion, and events afterwards showed that our judgment that we’d been attacked that day was wrong. It didn’t happen.” President Johnson later said, “”For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there.”
Not that it mattered. The Johnson administration was looking for a pretext to justify escalation, and was repeatedly sending warships and aircraft into the Gulf as both provocation and in active support of South Vietnamese military operations. After the phantom attack, coastal cities were bombed.
McNamara: We introduced what was called “Rolling Thunder,” which over the years became a very, very heavy bombing program. Two to three times as many bombs as were dropped on Western Europe during all of World War II.
I visited Vinh, which was destroyed by the bombing. You see a stark difference between the beautiful old imperial and colonial towns like Hue and Hoi An, and cities like Vinh rebuilt with East German and Soviet aid. The French destroyed Vinh in their battle against the Viet Minh in the late forties, early fifties, the US in the sixties.
An Afterparty project backer took offense at one of the reasons I gave for Vietnamese forgiveness and their uniformly kind treatment of American visitors. That is, that they won the war. In Joseph Galloway’s 1999 New York Times book review of the Naval Institute Press’ “The Wrong War: Why We Lost In Vietnam,” he writes:
(Jeffrey) Record, who served a tour as a civilian State Department adviser in the Mekong Delta and was later a legislative assistant to Senators Sam Nunn and Lloyd Bentsen, declares at the outset that in his view the main causes of the American defeat in Vietnam were a misinterpretation of both the significance and nature of the struggle; an underestimation of the enemy’s tenacity and fighting power; an overestimation of United States political stamina and military effectiveness; and the absence of a politically competitive South Vietnam.
Record goes on to quote Gen. Colin Powell, a two-tour Vietnam veteran: ”Our political leaders led us into a war for the one-size-fits-all rationale of anti-Communism, which was only a partial fit in Vietnam, where the war had its own historical roots in nationalism, anticolonialism and civil strife.”
I am visiting numerous museums as I roll south. The inspiring and horrifying Land Mine Action Center (over 40,000 killed and 60,000 maimed from mostly US unexploded ordinance, since the end of the war, or 10x our 9/11 casualties), the Ho Chi Minh Museum, Hoa Lo prison, the DMZ facilities, the Citadel in Hue, the military museums. Exhibits documenting a thousand years of struggles for independence from the Chinese, then the French, then the Japanese and the puppet Vichy regime, then the French again, then the United States.
McNamara, again from ‘The Fog of War:’ Kennedy announced we were going to pull out all of our military advisors by the end of ’65 and we were going to take 1000 out by the end of ’63 and we did. But, there was a coup in South Vietnam. Diem was overthrown and he and his brother were killed. I was present with the President when together we received information of that coup. I’ve never seen him more upset. He totally blanched. President Kenndy and I had tremendous problems with Diem, but my God, he was the authority, he was the head of state. And he was overthrown by a military coup. And Kennedy knew and I knew, that to some degree, the U.S. government was responsible for that.
The farmer, the mother, the teacher fighting American forces in the rice paddies knew and cared little about Das Kapital or The Communist Manifesto. They had been fighting foreign invaders for decades, for centuries, for millennia, and they were ready to fight to the last man or woman.
McNamara, quite a reviled figure during the Vietnam War, but a man capable of extraordinary introspection, went to Vietnam in the nineties. He tells this story:
The former Foreign Minister of Vietnam, a wonderful man named Thach said, “You’re totally wrong. We were fighting for our independence. You were fighting to enslave us.” We almost came to blows. That was noon on the first day.
“Do you mean to say it was not a tragedy for you, when you lost 3 million 4 hundred thousand Vietnamese killed, which on our population base is the equivalent of 27 million Americans? What did you accomplish? ….”
“Mr. McNamara, You must never have read a history book. If you’d had, you’d know we weren’t pawns of the Chinese or the Russians. McNamara, didn’t you know that? Don’t you understand that we have been fighting the Chinese for 1000 years? We were fighting for our independence. And we would fight to the last man. And we were determined to do so. And no amount of bombing, no amount of U.S. pressure would ever have stopped us.”
French colonialists and companies undermined Vietnam’s subsistence economy by forcibly expropriating vast amounts of land and reorganizing farmers into large plantations. By the 1930’s, French Indochina was producing sixty thousand tons of rubber annually, five per cent of world production. Vietnamese worked long hours in debilitating conditions for slave wages. Malnutrition and malaria were common on the plantations. In the years between the two world wars, one Michelin-owned plantation recorded seventeen thousand worker deaths. Meanwhile, Ho Chi Minh was in Paris studying revolutionary philosophies in vogue in French cafes and universities. He wasn’t there because he got off on Engels. He was there to adopt a framework for leading his people out of the humiliating repression of French colonial capitalism. He was a nationalist, returning to drive out the French and Japanese. Working alongside the American OSS, moving American leaders like FDR to furiously insist the U.S. support Vietnamese independence and oppose French colonialism, much as the U.S. opposed British colonialism post-WWII. Ho began his independence address to a half million newly liberated Vietnamese in Hanoi with the words of the American Declaration of Independence.
As with radical Islamists who know fuck-all about the Koran, but have had brothers, neighbors and uncles killed by western bullets, missiles, bombs, drones, there was a history of grievance that American leaders ignored. Walking Vietnamese streets in Hanoi, Vinh, Dong Ha, Hue and Hoi An, I see rare signs of Marxist-Leninist triumphalism. The occasional billboard, a tribute to military heroes, the iconic flag, a rare photo of Marx on a shop wall, a statue of Lenin in a park. Young people have accepted that they can talk whatever shit they want with their friends, but will be visited by the state police if they get too public with their discontent. There is too much state control of industry, but a growing, mostly market-driven economy. It is a young country that is eager to move on, feeds on American culture and technology and, considers the Chinese (manufacturer of cheap American consumer goods, produced by underpaid, exploited laborers) their biggest threat.
Finally, this, from Galloway.
In the end it all boils down to one question: Could we have won a military victory in Vietnam? Record’s answer is: Yes, but not at any price even remotely acceptable to the American people. One thoughtful former infantry battalion commander told me he had reflected long and hard about what would have resulted from unlimited war, including an invasion of North Vietnam: ”We could have won a military victory without question. But today my sons and yours would still be garrisoning Vietnam and fighting and dying in an unending guerrilla war.” The war was ours to lose, and we did; it was for the South Vietnamese to win, and they could not.
“The most impressive thing is how willing Afghans are to learn,” says Mina, tucking into a full plate of breakfast. She is 30ish, perfectly made up, with distinctive Afghan features and a North American (Canadian) accent. “With Americans, they hated listening to me. I was treated like a child. Afghans go into training workshops and they are so perceptive.”
Mina takes another bite. “This is really good food. Oh man, I should have taken the eggs too. Too late.”
I offer to share a serving, solving her problem. “I’m here for you. During the Taliban years, were the scouts considered some bourgeois western Christian thing?”
We are at the PARSA camp, home of Afghanistan’s decades-old Boy and Girl Scouts program. Extraordinary photos on the walls of old troops from days gone by, it’s a beautiful place, complete with animal sanctuary.
“It was stopped before the Taliban,” she continues. “During the Russian years, because they were using them as tools.”
“Like Young Pioneers.” Every Soviet bloc country had one. The Pioneers was started by Lenin’s wife after White Russian scouting organizations fought against the revolution, and it seemed fit to create a competitive organization. “A ready made platform for the distribution of ideology.”
Our group is a little sleepy from a late night. Farshid banged on my door this morning and asked how long I needed to get ready. I estimated ten minutes. “Let’s get it done!” he declared in his executive voice.
Mina refused to talk about the Lycée suicide bombing at Farshid’s gathering last night. It’s a common practice. Don’t let it in.
“I was more upset about the bombing when I got home,” she says to the group. “I know the school program very well, they are little children learning classical Afghan music. The Taliban is messaging…it’s music…but this is Afghan music, here long before them. Those fuckers.”
The group argues about an annoying commenter on a Kabul Facebook page. Mina lets him have it. “He would be MAYBE a manager at McDonald’s if he was back home. Probably back-kitchen.”
After graduating university, she told her family that she was coming back home to Afghanistan. She’s been here ten years, a perfect blend of Afghan urban patriot and western educated sophisticate, with a cutting wit.
“Members of my family went to that school. Hold it, my father went to that school. What are they against? Everything? It’s literally, just, it has to be controlled by our guys or you’re wrong. It’s Pakistanis that want to make Afghanistan look so bad.”
The group discusses local housing economics. The dynamics of sharing, sub-letting, meeting budgets. Then, back to the Lycée Es
teqlal bombing. I walked by the school last week, and was shooed away by the guard after I took pictures of the signage and Massoud billboard. The ‘Lion of Panjshir’ attended the Lycée as a young man, as did many aspiring Afghans.
“Have you seen the videos, one was after the fact and one was a person filming the show. Some people thought it was part of the show. It’s only a few seconds. It’s really gross.”
Someone suggests that the explosives had to be small enough to get through. A current theory is that the sixteen-year old kid hid them in his underwear. They knew he was sixteen because his head was intact after the blast. “Even the kids’ violins get checked.”
Mina finds the video and plays it. There is an explosion and a flash then horrified audience gasps.
The group, stunned, plays it over and over.
“Oh my God.”
“Don’t play it anymore,” says Mina. “I don’t want to ruin the Scout spirit.” We polish off our shared eggs. “I heard it was from the hallway. Have you been there? You know, the lobby?”
Time for dessert.
Mina greets people as they come in. Her work for the event is done, so she can relax and enjoy her Afghan and expat colleagues. She greets and chats up yet more late arrivals. “It’s already had, like 50,000 views. I’ll share it. No, I won’t share it. I’ll tweet it.
“Afghans abroad say, that’s so sad. It’s their passive behavior that’s part of the problem. Oh, poor us. That’s not the way to get past these things. Who cares about your pity?”
Farshid was driving by after it happened. “I thought it was a fight. I passed it and there were people gathered.”
They discuss the mystery of what gets attacked and what doesn’t. Examples of little to no security. “Why go for Serena when you can go for 100 at once.” Reasons for the Taverna attack and the subsequent Swedish reporter killing are debated.
Farshid has to go so we walk out to see the animals. Much of the contingent is citified, failing to see the glamor in walking through cow shit and seeing animals. But the conversation is lively and warm.
Attempts are made, mostly successful, to mount the stirrup-less pony.
The main event is inside, and it’s wonderful. I sit up front to get photos. There are prayers offered, speeches in Dari, real pride and comradery. I shot some video of the slide presentation and speakers.
Courtney Body, a highly respected American journalist and member of Kabul’s expat community approaches to tell me, we should go. I think I am disrespecting the dignitaries by sitting up front, but what she means is, her car is here and I get a free ride back home. I’m already late for my interview with Mohammed, fondly called Kabul’s ‘white hat hacker,’ so I pick up my things and we talk all the way back about terrorism, the future of Afghanistan and how an expat decides it’s time to go.
Days later, the #Kabul Twitter feed suggests the Haqqani network is behind the bombing. The Taliban claim the event was ‘propaganda’ against principles of jihad and Islam. Another tweet, also from Ali Latifi, quotes the Taliban as saying the bombing was against ‘cultural occupation’ and warns others against attending similar events.
As I post this, news posted by Courtney of a Taliban attack on a Peshawar, Pakistan school, killing over one hundred twenty people, most children. She retweets this from @AliaChugtai:
“This is not just Peshawar’s tragedy, this is the nation’s shame, our shame for harboring terrorism for 35 years #PeshawarAttack.
More interviews and video from the event will be posted. Our thoughts with the Peshawar victims.
We gather today to welcome back Vojislav Seselj, hero, murderer, Serbian patriot, war criminal, martyr, a leader of men.
The Saturday rally starts at noon and the crowd is roaring as I approach Belgrade’s Republic Square. Chanted slogans. A woman belts out a patriotic song, accompanied by hundreds of supporters. I push through the crowd and witness a panorama of faces. Mostly male.There is a lot of joy and enthusiasm, and a lot of visceral anger.
I understand not a word of it. But I get the emotional content.
Seselj seems an intelligent man. He is supposed to be a big reader of classic literature and philosophy, Balzac, Zola, Stendhal. He is an articulate speaker. My years at C-SPAN and FORA.tv give me an appreciation for an artisan of the spoken word. He seems reasonable on stage, is working the crowd magnificently. He is talking for half an hour. Nothing like the prolific four hour opening statement he gave at his war crimes trial at The Hague. He knows how to bring it up and bring it back down, give some love and take it back, then build to a crescendo, kind of like John Cusack building a mix tape in High Fidelity.
Hey, let’s give the guy some sympathy. He has been in some form of jail/ trial/ detention for a dozen years. He showed up at The Hague voluntarily, though one suspects he knew a trial was in his future whether he volunteered or not. And due to some kind of weird fucked up process, the trial is still not over all these years. It took four years before it even started. Now, he has cancer, so they give him a get out of jail free card. They may want it back, but he’s made it clear, that’s not going to happen. So, a dozen years of hell, cancer, away from friends and family. Give him that.
Milosevic, no slouch himself in the war crimes category, once called Seselj “the personification of violence and primitivism.” High praise.
Seselj sought a “unitary Serbian state where all Serbs would live, occupying all the Serb lands.” He described Croats as a genocidal and perverted people. The International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia charged him with fifteen counts of “crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs or war.” For persecution of Croatian, Muslim and other non-Serbs. And murder, forced deportation, illegal imprisonment, torture and property destruction.
After the brutal heat and humidity of Central America, I brought winter clothes specifically for this climate, intending to leave them behind when I headed to tropical climes. But it’s a beautiful day. Bright sun, clear blue skies, the iPhone Weather app says 57F but it feels like 67.
Coming to Belgrade from Berlin, visiting the Nazi and Berlin Wall exhibits and monuments, I’d say the crowd is not quite Hitler youth-level viciousness. Maybe because they are in the midst of a modern, cosmopolitan city that these days mostly eschews extreme nationalism. The vibe is familiar, but more intense than anything I’ve experienced in the States.
Here is what I am seeing and hearing:
A mostly male audience (90 percent?).
A sense of victimhood, anger, grievance. The world is against us.
Some sports symbolism.
A lot of flags, national, party, maybe militia.
The body language is mixed, a lot of shaking of fists and salutes. Some participants, with military or political paraphernalia, are dour, seeking something, anticipating some form of release or validation. Others, younger, are laughing, enjoying the moment; some are listening thoughtfully.
In his four hour opening trial statement, Seselj insisted that his greatest regret was that there was no death penalty “so that proudly, with dignity, my head upright like my friend Saddam Hussein, I could die and put the final seal on my ideology. It would become immortal. I have lived long enough.” The former warlord commanded a militia that the indictment says was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of civilians.
The event ends, surprisingly, in an hour. Big applause. Orderly dispersal. Sesejl and his Serbian Radical Party got the television footage they needed. His followers got some inspiration on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. All of the Serbians I talk to this week dismiss Seselj and Milosevic and their actions, their brutality, and regret their effect on the Serbian national character and reputation. They see Sesejl as an anachronism of the past.
Time will tell.
The stories are heartrending, visceral, charged, defensive, pained.
Similar to American denials of CIA overthrows in Guatemala, Iran, the Congo, etc., until the Freedom of Information Act allowed journalists to prove, yup, we sure did, Serbians now generally accept the horror and extent of atrocities against Croats, Bosnians and Kosovo Albanians. Most, though not all. I will attend the Republic Square rally of recently released (alleged) war criminal Vojislav Seselj tomorrow. I don’t expect much repentance there.
The Balkans have a long and contentious history as a crossroads between East and West. The conflicts of the 90’s happened after the death of unifier and beloved, “benevolent dictator” Josup Broz Tito.
Tito was a lifelong communist, even serving the Party for a time in the Soviet Union. He was considered the most effective of WWII European partisan leaders, and thus drew the respect and support of Churchill, American presidents and Stalin. Until he decided to go his own way, and formed the Non-Aligned Movement. Stalin was not amused. So, just as Tito rose to the head of the Yugoslav communist party after his predecessor was invited to Moscow and murdered, Stalin tried to kill Tito (the nom de guerre of Josip Broz) several times. Tito wrote Stalin an open letter:
“Stop sending people to kill me. We’ve already captured five of them, one of them with a bomb and another with a rifle (…) If you don’t stop sending killers, I’ll send one to Moscow, and I won’t have to send a second.”
Leigh Ziller, who pushed us over the top in our Kickstarter campaign, funding the “Afterparty” project, introduced me to Gazprom architect Marijana Curuvija. We met in Novi Sad, an hour north of Belgrade, a major target of the bombardment. I took pictures of the Cathedral where we met. But forgot to take one of Marijana, which drew a scold from Leigh. We walked to a cafe.
Where were you during the bombardment?
I first heard of it in school. My parents didn’t really talk about it. I heard something on TV, and kids at school were saying we were going to war. I didn’t think it was real; someone was going to bomb our country?? I couldn’t imagine why. We were watching Esmeralda, a soap opera.
What was the plot?
A poor and blind woman falls in love with a rich fellow. It was an interesting episode. The sirens went off in the middle of the show.
So you missed the ending. Maybe he dumped her!
(Laughs). Typical soap opera plot. My father came home half an hour later. We didn’t know how to react. We were supposed to turn off the lights and go down to the basement but we didn’t know we were supposed to do that. My father said, “We will be the first place they are going to bomb.”
The closest was 20 kilometers away. It hit the bridge. It was loud but we didn’t see it. We couldn’t visit my grandmother as much because the bridges were blown up. We saw the oil refinery go up from 40 kilometers away. The sky turned orange in the middle of the night.
NATO was claiming humanitarian reasons for the bombardment, protecting Kosovo Albanians from ethnic cleansing, even genocide from the Milosevic led Serbian armed forces and militias. Did anyone ever discuss why it was happening?
We never discussed politics. I don’t remember asking why it was happening. I know there had been people coming from Bosnia and Croatia. I knew there was a war. I was only six during the Bosnia war.
We talked about her student exchange experience with Leigh in Mississippi. She was surprised by the separation of ethnic groups. Her mother’s parents were from Bosnia. Her fathers’ parents were from Croatia. Under the strong hand of Tito, everyone considered themselves Yugoslavs. We discussed the irony of the (historically, and sometimes still, segregated) United States bombing her country for ethnic cleansing. I asked, “Is there nostalgia for the days of Tito?
Yes, among older people. They say everything was easier. Ethnic cleansing is the wrong term. We didn’t attack. We were defending. We felt there wasn’t a necessity for NATO to come in and try to slve things because it was an internal problem. The country had to solve its own problems.
Do you harbor any anger toward the US?
No. I was an exchange student there. It wasn’t the people from the country. It was the administration. I don’t hold a grudge.
Brian Gruber is traveling around the world visiting the scenes of the major U.S. military and covert actions of the last half century. The project, “War: The Afterparty” is funded by 62 backers via Kickstarter. Follow Brian’s global walkabout on the blog and on Facebook.
I have been creating, innovating and marketing new forms of media for thirty years. My projects have ranged from senior executive roles in the United States and Australia and the founding of Silicon Valley-based digital media companies to international consulting assignments and globetrotting book projects.
I currently reside on the Thai island of Koh Phangan. I write books by the sea, conduct writing and visioning workshops, and help individuals and groups tell their stories. For information on personal and organizational coaching, visit The Vision Project.
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