The War I Survived Was Vietnam: Collected Writings of a Veteran and Antiwar Activist
By Michael Uhl
The journalistic “beat” that Michael Uhl covered over the years in the essays and reviews collected in his just-published anthology of short works is that realm of thought that survives the relentless American capacity for forgetting history. You can look at a book like this as a tool of memory, in this case, focused on the Vietnam War from the perspective of a veteran who came to see his war as a shameful war of aggression and a crime.
This war on memory began during the war and is on-going now. “The GI resistance and antiwar Vietnam veteran’s movements of the Sixties and Seventies, so unique in the annals of warfare, became prime targets for erasure in this new and approved version of the war the Pentagon hopes to fashion.” This is from a 2012 essay on the Pentagon’s 13-year, multi-million dollar program to sanitize the Vietnam War known as the 50th Commemoration Project, which was launched that year with a speech by President Obama at the Vietnam Wall in Washington D.C.
The Vietnam War will always be controversial and subject to politics. “But the specific history of the organized opposition to the war is more vulnerable.” Uhl is referring to the political opposition mounted by veterans of the war like himself, a young intelligence officer. Moral opposition by veterans becomes “more and more abstract and remote to younger generations as it recedes into the past.” For veterans of the war like Uhl, none of it is “abstract” or “remote.” They began building a moral case against the war when they found themselves trapped in it. When they returned to “the world” they took their case up in the streets and in the halls of government.
Uhl does not accept President Obama’s “consoling fiction that Vietnam Veterans as a whole ‘were blamed for the misdeeds of a few.’ ” We all know the drill: Although bad things happen in all wars; the Vietnam War was a noble cause. Uhl’s response is direct: “I am too wedded to my own truths about the evils of that war to ever be consoled, and Obama’s lies on this particular occasion infuriate me. I went to Vietnam. I lived the war. It horrified me. I came home and actively opposed it. Like tens of thousands of other Vietnam veterans, I witnessed or participated in atrocities. I saw the routine use of torture. These were not the ‘misdeeds of a few’: they were the essence of that war.”
With the ascendancy of Donald Trump, torture is again front and center on the American agenda. Think logically: If one is going to “make America great again,” one can’t be worried about having broken some furniture in Vietnam a half century ago. Here’s Donald Rumsfeld on the Iraq War: “Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. Stuff happens.” The fact is, regime change didn’t work in Vietnam, and it has never worked well anywhere, except in backwater places in the early 1950s like Iran and Guatemala, where the tactical use of disinformation (the “fake news” of the time) was effective. Regime change backfired in Iraq; it didn’t work in Libya, and it’s a US debacle in Syria.
Uhl wrote a memoir called Vietnam Awakening: My Journey From Combat to the Citizens’ Commission of Inquiry on the U.S. War Crimes in Vietnam. Both books are published by McFarland Publishing. McFarland is not in the bestseller business. Instead of indulging the popular American market for sensationalist “war stories,” McFarland has a loftier goal; it markets its books to individuals, libraries and other venues out of a sense of witness and keeping the record complete. I see it like those monks back in the Dark Ages who memorized and hand printed books so that their contents would not disappear forever into a black hole.
Anyone who defends the honor of the Vietnam War should be asked to answer one question: What (be specific) did the Vietnamese ever do to us here in the United States that justified an invasion and a ten-year-plus military occupation that killed millions, polluted the ecosystem and food supply and set the resourceful nation and people back decades? We know about the Cold War and how Truman, Eisenhower and the rest had to keep the communist yellow peril in check lest — what? — they invade California? Fluoridate our water? Destroy our vital bodily fluids? Was the United States of America that weak and vulnerable? Or were we, instead, that arrogant? What the Vietnamese asked from the United States was simple: They wanted French colonialists off their backs, and when they beat the French in 1954, they wanted the United States to leave them alone. A forgotten fact of history: Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh were our allies in WWII against the Japanese. Long an enemy of China, what the Vietnamese really wanted was for the US to treat them like we treated the Tito regime in Yugoslavia — with a spirit of neutrality. Of course, the Vietnamese are now part of the Asian capitalist miracle, what some have called “the rise of the rest.”
The title McFarland gave Uhl’s anthology seems a bit awkward. But, then, the more I thought about it, the more I concluded maybe that’s a good thing. I Survived the Vietnam War may be more direct, but it characterizes survival as a personal accomplishment. Shifting the words around to The War I Survived Was Vietnam subtly stresses the war itself as something problematic to be survived. What Uhl is consistently writing about is moral survival, not physical survival. Veterans like Uhl survived the war morally because they insisted (and still insist) on the grotesque immorality of what they found themselves compelled against their will to do. Each and every day Vietnam veterans like Uhl “survive” their war by having the courage to say the emperor has no clothes.
The anthology starts with featured articles from The Nation and elsewhere. There’s a 1994 Nation piece on the MIA issue, which is notable for the fact the number of US missing is miniscule compared to missing Vietnamese. When Uhl and his partner Carol Brightman are visiting the Hanoi Military Museum, she runs into a US Air Force master sergeant, there for some MIA accounting mission. She chats him up and asks why we in the US are so hung up about the POW/MIA issue. The man’s answer: “Because we lost. We’re sore losers.” It doesn’t get more direct and on-the-money than that. It explains why the war has become such a political football. As Uhl nicely explains, the Vietnamese understood that “Washington needed to save face.” This kind of empathetic understanding helped Washington get over an obsession with only its own missing and encouraged working with the Vietnamese on their massive numbers of missing. Many Vietnamese soldiers were killed and bulldozed en-mass into huge pits. According to Vietnamese spirituality, the unburied (ie the missing) are wandering ghosts. In this spirit, Vietnam Veterans of America encouraged its members to return war souvenirs to Vietnam.
In a review/essay on Robert McNamara’s book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, Uhl and co-writer Carol Brightman interview McNamara. The exasperating truth here is, bombing devotees like McNamara (he helped develop carpet bombing in WWII) understood the Vietnam War was not winnable in the mid 1960s. Yet to save face it went on slaughtering Vietnamese for ten more years! They describe “McNamara’s tendency to speak out of both sides of his mouth, as if penitent and apologist are grappling for control.” So, I suppose, one has to give McNamara some credit; at least he’s somewhat morally torn by his role in it all. I’m reminded of the true story of the Vietnam vet who encountered McNamara on a Martha’s Vineyard ferry late one foggy night and, after some conversation, tried to throw him off the boat — only to be saved by a deckhand. McNamara didn’t press charges.
There are several essays on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, a necessary topic in any discussion of Vietnam. All wars mess up people’s minds; but immoral wars really mess up people minds. Uhl witnessed torture and other things that don’t sit well in his conscience. I know too many vets who had to absorb and make sense of horrible things made only worse by the moral dubiousness of the war. If you’re fighting for the liberty of your country or your people, that’s one thing; if you’re fighting to break the back of a peasant culture that never did anything against you, that’s another.
In another essay, Uhl is critical of the great Seymour Hersh for suggesting Abu Ghraib was something new. Torture and cruelty are the common denominators of war, and they certainly were given free rein in Vietnam. “Affixing primary responsibility for atrocities that are hardwired into modern wars of ‘counterinsurgency’ onto the lowest-ranking soldiers, those tasked with carrying out the dirty work, while limiting the culpability of the command, is yet another echo from the My Lai massacre that resonates with Abu Ghraib.”
There’s a fine personal essay in which Uhl engages with a war buddy with his share of PTSD and women trouble. The man tells of being attacked by war protesters in Seattle when he returned home. C’mon, Bob, it’s been shown this stuff never really happened, Uhl says. Bob insists it did. Uhl then does some research and realizes Bob was part of big PR show “return” of a unit from Vietnam in July 1969. At McCord AFB in Washington state the ceremony is indeed interrupted by protesters chanting, “Bring them all home now!” Uhl logically concludes that this “jeer” is focused not on the common soldier, but at military brass and US political leaders. Sure, human nature being what it is, “Bob felt like he was being jeered, and I’ll bet that was how most of the other GIs felt that day.” Still, Bob wouldn’t let go of what Uhl tries to convince him is a misunderstanding of events. Uhl’s conclusion: “Class resentment runs deep and gets tragically misplaced in this society, while divide and rule fuels the myth that vets were spat upon, even when they weren’t.”
In two pieces, Uhl is critical of Nick Turse’s 2013 book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. He doesn’t dispute Turse’s general thesis that atrocity and killing characterized the war, which everyone knows devolved into the notorious “body count,” tallied nightly by Walter Chronkite. Uhl’s beef is young Turse’s tone as he reveals the “hidden history” of the war; his book is less about real history and more about a writer’s ambitions to have a “scoop” and be popular.
Uhl does write with a certain “edge” here and elsewhere in the anthology. In my opinion, it’s well deserved. (Full disclosure, I’m a Vietnam vet and Uhl is a friend of mine.) For me, this edginess comes from the frustrations incumbent in being part of a serious, morality-based movement of Vietnam soldiers and veterans, men and women who tried mightily from the mid-point in the war up to today to insert the message into the cultural streams of their society that the Vietnam War was a cruel act of military aggression. The process can seem downright Sisyphian — I know. Uhl earned his spurs working with the Citizens Commission of Inquiry On War Crimes in Vietnam, Citizens Soldier, the Safe Return Amnesty Committee, and of late with Veterans For Peace. Other vets pushed boulders up the hill in Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
“Nick Turse’s decision to airbrush from the record the provenance of the Vietnam war-crimes narrative, and the roles of veterans within it, defies explanation,” Uhl writes. He cites an essay by Turse on TomDispatch called “Who Did You Rape in the War Daddy?” in which “Turse seems to harbor a truly bizarre resentment toward war veterans.” Uhl even suggests this resentment may be rooted in Turse’s “envy” of war vets and his lack of firsthand war experience. Uhl appends to his review a long bibliographic file from his CCI days listing 90 newspaper articles from 1967 to 1972 reporting veteran accounts of atrocities and suggesting that “atrocities in Vietnam were in fact the norm.” Knowing Vietnam combat vets, Uhl concedes Turse’s resentment may come from combat veterans’ reluctance to reveal intimate details of their war experience to a young journalist they don’t know. Uhl’s central point is that the story Turse should have addressed is — since atrocities were in fact the norm, as Uhl and Turse both agree — why has the real story not gotten traction in US culture? What’s blocking the Truth?
Uhl tells of Vietnam veteran writers John Ketwig and W.D. Ehrhart attending a conference at Gettysburg College. They both made the case before attendees that the Vietnam War was a crime. Here’s Ketwig: “An old lifer Sergeant Major spoke, pointed to us and very specifically stated, ‘These whining, complaining Vietnam veterans will die off. I want to assure you, we have written the history of the Vietnam War your grandchildren will read.’” A right-on story. You might say, in the Vietnam War remembrance game, there’s whiners and losers. In my moral universe, though mainstream, patriotic US culture and its arsenal of weapons may be on his side, the old lifer sergeant major is the real whiner, here. No culture that I know of easily accepts the horror and evil of its own crimes. Vietnam is a very tiny nation, and our missing, wounded and dead from the war are dwarfed by theirs. Yet, pro-war veterans and citizens obsess on our much smaller losses and suffering from the war. At the same time, we consistently refuse to publicly concede those incredible Vietnamese losses. Add to this the fact the Vietnamese were our ally in WWII and never did anything to harm or provoke the US and one begins to fathom the nature of the crime. So what’s blocking the Truth? It’s simple: It’s the Manifest Destiny of American Imperial Culture. It’s what gave that old lifer sergeant major the confidence to dis’ two fellow vets able to get beyond their own cultural narcissism and extend empathy to the Vietnamese.
There are book reviews that deal with Vietnam veteran politicians John Kerry and Bob Kerrey. There are three informative essays on PTSD. For some idea of Uhl’s political backstory, there are essays in conjunction with Uhl’s work with Tod Ensign and Citizens Soldier in the 1970s, a GI and veterans advocacy group with headquarters in the flatiron building in New York. Three essays discuss the very 1970s notion of unionizing GIs. There’s an essay deconstructing the image of the “war veteran” as a modern construct. The anthology ends with a 34-page excerpt from GI Guinea Pigs: How the Pentagon Exposed Our Troops to Dangers More Deadly Than War, a well-known expose authored in 1980 by Uhl and Ensign.
Finally, always provocative and erudite, Uhl takes on one of the Left’s current icons in an essay titled “Apocalypse Now? The Strange Jeremiads of Christopher Hedges.” First off, as with Turse, Uhl doesn’t disagree with Hedges’ “assessment of the mounting woes and blows that we as a people have grown accustomed to bearing.” The corruption. The Greed. The Runaway Militarism. He admires Hedges’ journalistic experience with The New York Times in war zones like El Salvador and Bosnia. He recognizes in Hedges the same PTSD found in war veterans. What he questions is “Hedges’ blend of mysticism and muddled thinking,” his preacher-like ascension onto a “sectarian pulpit.” He suggests Hedges’ “resume in the peace movement seems a trifle lite …. Minimally, Hedges and those who follow his doomsday strategy must concede that ‘repeated and substantial acts of civil disobedience’ are not the only avenues of struggle available to us today.” He quotes Ralph Nader in an interview with Hedges: “Every major movement starts with field organizers …. But there’s nothing out there. We need to start learning from what was done in the past.”
Where the nation is off to with Donald Trump is an open question. While the president-elect thrives on ignorance of them, all sorts of moral issues hang in the balance. In 1919, Yeats wrote the famous lines that resonate so much today:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
As WWII approached, great minds like Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud struggled with these issues. For them, it was the foundational dialogue out of which civilization was formed and barbarism was kept at bay. The future looked dark and cruel. Freud tried to frame the problem in the two forces he called Eros and Thanatos — the Life Principle and the Death Principle. In the great dialogue between them, which direction did one lean?
Oftentimes, these lofty and abstract psychological/mythic principles play out in sudden, heated moments in war zones — in acts that are virtually instinctual. Uhl tells of one such moment in his memoir Vietnam Awakening. He’s relatively new to the war as an intelligence officer, the ranking man on a patrol that encounters a tunnel. Hand grenades are tossed in; a claymore mine is dropped into the hole and set off; C4 detcord is wrapped around a tree, blowing up part of the tunnel. Three maimed Vietnamese bodies (likely NVA cadre) are extracted, some in parts. One teenage male is alive. A particularly manic, aggressive member of the team puts a .38 pistol up to the kid’s head and looks around at his superiors. Most are ready to look the other way; as the ranking man, it’s up to Uhl. The would-be killer says: “‘If we don’t do him now, Lieutenant, he’ll be back out there in two days planting booby traps that’ll kill more GIs.’” Uhl writes, “The sap of righteousness rose up in me.” He gives his order: “‘Maybe what we’ve done here today is justifiable as an act of war. I don’t know. But I will not stand here and allow you to commit premeditated murder.’” The subordinate is “purple with rage.” There’s a cost: the man becomes a bitter enemy.
In a more high-profile example, there’s Larry Colburn, who died this week. With Huey pilot Hugh Thompson, Colburn was the young door gunner who turned his M60 toward US troops about to massacre a group of terrified Vietnamese peasants in My Lai. (Fellow door gunner Glenn Andreotta died in Vietnam.) In the remaining years of their military careers, these honorable men suffered great indignity and abuse for the decision they made in the heat of the moment that day. There’s no denying that real sacrifice, real honor and real heroism could and did flourish within the cruel confines of our terrible war in Vietnam. I’m not sure how that old lifer sergeant major at Gettysburg College would feel about Thompson, Colburn and Andreotta. They’re all dead now. For me, they were the best of us.