Bush’s speech yesterday seems to have spawned a further opening of that wound that’s never really closed, the Vietnam War.
Bush’s critics are incensed: after all, Iraq/Vietnam is their analogy, always good for a negative spin on what we’re doing now in Iraq. How dare Bush—who, it goes without saying, is as ignorant of history as he is of everything else save Machiavellian grabs for power—how dare he co-opt it in the service of the surge and the continuing US presence in Iraq?
Today’s Real Clear Politics has a good example of the dueling Vietnam narratives of Left and Right. There are links there to two articles, one above the other, the first entitled “Bush’s Vietnam Analogy Fails History’s Test” (by Matt Yglesias, appearing in the Guardian), and the second “The President Has His History Right” (by Peter Rodman, appearing in National Review Online).
Take a look; read them both. These two are just a small sample of what’s available, but let me know which you think has the better argument and knowledge re Vietnam and history. I know what I think.
Then read the actual text of Bush’s speech, not provided by most newspapers reporting on it. You’ll find that he concedes the complexity of the history of the Vietnam War, stating that it “is a complex and painful subject for many Americans. The tragedy of Vietnam is too large to be contained in one speech….Three decades later, there is a legitimate debate about how we got into the Vietnam War and how we left.”
In his speech, Bush limits himself to one part of the history of the Vietnam War: the aftermath of our withdrawal. In this, of course, he is limiting himself to the part most favorable for his purposes; no surprise there.
But it is also the part of that war’s history particularly relevant at this juncture, because we are facing, once again, a Congress with many members poised to push for a withdrawal that will have grave consequences—probably even graver than those of Vietnam (the latter of which I’ve written about at length, for example, here).
What does Bush actually say about that withdrawal? This:
Whatever your position is on that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like “boat people,” “re-education camps,” and “killing fields.”
There was another price to our withdrawal from Vietnam, and we can hear it in the words of the enemy we face in today’s struggle — those who came to our soil and killed thousands of citizens on September the 11th, 2001. In an interview with a Pakistani newspaper after the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden declared that “the American people had risen against their government’s war in Vietnam. And they must do the same today.”
In my previous effort on this subject, I wrote at length of the ways the Left manages to avoid, minimize, or blame others for the consequences of the Vietnam withdrawal it was so instrumental in helping to bring about. Bush’s words touched an especially raw nerve on the Left, especially sensitive to mention of the boat people and the Vietnam aftermath
Yglesias seems to fancy himself a stickler for historical accuracy, calling Bush’s words a “shocking embrace of a historically illiterate account of the Vietnam war.” But how “historically literate” is Yglesias himself?
Quoting Bush’s sentence about the boat people, Ygelsias adds this:
While it is of course true that people died in South Vietnam following American withdrawal, millions died during the United States’ years of military involvement as well, a great many killed by the American military at enormous expense and with no end in sight.
Yglesias concedes that some unspecified number of people died following the US withdrawal, although he doesn’t say who they were, or how they died, or why. An odd omission; does it not matter? This is quickly followed by the assertion that “millions died” (now we are getting actual numbers, and they are large) during the US presence there, “a great many” killed by the American military “with no end in sight.”
Notice that Ygelsias does not say how many of those millions who died while the US was fighting in Vietnam were actually killed by the American military. Nor, again, do we know who they were and why they may have been killed. He focuses instead on the millions who died while the US was there.
But what does that mean? It’s as though someone attributed all the deaths in World War II to America—after all, we were part of the action, and “millions died,” all right. It’s an interesting assumption that we are free to ascribe all deaths in a war to whatever side we choose, for whatever reason we want, merely by that side’s presence in a war.
Aside from those “millions,” what about those “many” deaths that Yglesias asserts were of people actually killed by Americans, “at enormous expense and with no end in sight?” Is Yglesias aware that, by the time the withdrawal from South Vietnam happened, there had been no American fighting forces in Vietnam for two years? The last of our active military had left in March of 1973, after years of the stepped-down withdrawal that was part of Nixon’s Vietnamization. Far from there being “no end in sight” at this point—at least for Americans killing people in the war—the end had quite definitely already occurred.
By the time of the final US withdrawal of support from the South Vietnamese, the “enormous expense” of the war was limited to a financial one for the US, and it was that monetary support that Congress withdrew from the South Vietnamese struggling to stave off the Northern invasion and the Communist takeover. And it was that Communist takeover, a direct result of our financial abandonment of the South, that led inexorably to the boat people and the re-education camps.
Whether the South Vietnamese cause was doomed, and therefore already a lost one even before the US ended the funding, is one of those “up for debate” arguments. Rodman, however, writes that:
Military historians seem to be converging on a consensus that by the end of 1972, the balance of forces in Vietnam had improved considerably, increasing the prospects for South Vietnam’s survival. That balance of forces was reflected in the Paris Agreement of January 1973, and the (Democratic) Congress then proceeded to pull the props out from under that balance of forces over the next 2 ½ years — abandoning all of Indochina to a bloodbath. This is now a widely accepted narrative of the endgame in Vietnam, and it has haunted the Democrats for a generation.
Back to Yglesias’s argument: so, what of all those millions of Vietnamese deaths occurring while the Americans were present there? Tracking numbers and assigning blame is a difficult task, especially determining who’s doing the reporting, what their agenda might be, and how they arrived at their figures. Other important questions include who those dead are, at whose hands did they die, and why?
Yglesias provides a link to a site that provides a link to this list of casualties in Vietnam during the years of American involvement. Note how much the estimated numbers of deaths vary, depending on the sources (and, no doubt, their agenda). This variation in estimates of the dead is not at all unusual with wars.
So, knowing that these are estimates only, that they may be biased, and that we have no way of knowing the true figures, I’ll just use the median figures, the ones I assume Yglesias is relying on, and try to assign responsibility.
The first group of deaths, that of South Vietnamese military members, is 224,000. Although these deaths occurred during the US presence there, it would be hard (although not impossible) for even the most rabid Leftist to say that the Americans killed them.
The next group of deaths is of North Vietnamese military and the Vietcong, and the estimate of the number of deaths during the America years is 660,000. Some of these were no doubt killed by the South Vietnamese and some by US forces, and although there’s no breakdown of which is which, we can safely say that the vast majority of these deaths were of the enemy.
That’s what war involves—killing the enemy, who in this case were no angels, despite romantic Leftist rhetoric (see for example, lower down on the page, a reference to “36,725 civilians assassinated by VC/NVA, 1957-72,” and many of the other estimates there under “Misc. Atrocities” of the horrors the North and the VC spawned during the war).
But because of the nature of the Vietcong and the difficulty at times of determining who they were, it’s a legitimate question to ask how many of the reported Vietcong deaths were actually of non-VC—i.e. innocent—civilians? That is not only difficult to estimate, it is virtually impossible, and subject to extreme bias, as the site acknowledges. So it remains profoundly unknown.
Then there’s “South Vietnamese civilians,” estimated at 300,000 during the American presence. Although there’s no doubt that at least some portion of those were at the hands of Americans, we can assume the vast majority were killed by the North Vietnamese and Vietcong.
Lastly, we have North Vietnamese civilians killed in American air strikes. And here, finally, we have what is probably the civilian death toll that can unequivocally be laid at the feet of the Americans. The figure appears to be somewhere in the fifty thousands.
So, to compare, how many died in the “re-education camps” so kindly set up by the North Vietnamese victors, or on the journeys made by the fleeing “boat people?” Hard to estimate, as well, and subject to agenda-driven errors I’m sure, but here’s one attempt that puts the figure for the former at one million imprisoned and 165,000 killed, and here’s another site estimating the latter at up to 250,000 dead.
We can never know for sure. In addition, evaluating whether a war is just or unjust, and which side is more at fault, is not simply a matter of counting up the dead and comparing who lost more people.
But if those who favor our withdrawal from Iraq want to defend our withdrawal from Vietnam by arguing death figures and history, at least do it in a way that makes sense. It makes absolutely none—except in terms of sophistry and rhetorical effect—to lump all Vietnam War deaths together and ascribe them to the US. “Historical literacy” would demand otherwise.
[NOTE: In a subsequent post, I plan to deal with another question debated by Yglesias, Rodman, and others as a result of Bush’s speech: who bears responsibility for the killing fields of Pol Pot’s Cambodia?]