‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode Five: ‘This is what we do’

OK, I’m an episode behind in posting about this. I should have used the two-day R&R we had Friday and Saturday to catch up, but I had a lot of other stuff going on. I’m going to post this now (from Thursday night), and try to get to Episode Six before the day is out.

Several thoughts from this episode:

  • Are we “killer angels” or not? In the clip above, Marine Karl Marlantes disputes the notion that military training teaches young men to kill. He maintains that we are a species born to such aggression, and training merely serves as a “finishing school,” polishing our skills for what we already tend to do. Not a new idea, of course. But it flies in the face of what military psychologist Dave Grossman argues in that book I cite so often here, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Grossman presents considerable evidence to indicate that most men (although not all — we get our special forces soldiers from the tiny minority) have a deep-seated aversion to killing, and that it takes a lot to override that. So which is it? Are we natural-born killers, or do we have to be schooled to become that?
  • On a related point… The title of the episode comes from the opening clip above, in which another Marine talks about how he adapted to combat. At first, he questioned some of the things he saw fellow Marines doing. He’s not specific, he just refers to “some interesting things that happen” — although he had dropped the word “atrocities” in setting up the segment. Anyway, he was told, and he eventually internalized, “This is war. This is what we do.” This strikes me on a couple of levels. First, there’s the point I’ve made for 50 years to people who thought there was something especially immoral about our involvement in Vietnam, something setting it apart. No, this is war. Be against war if you choose, and that’s fine. But most (not all, but most) things that horrify people about Vietnam are things that happen in other wars. This is just the first war in our history in which folks at home had an inkling what happened on the battlefield. Second, I’m reminded of Grossman’s book: One of the factors that overcomes men’s aversion to killing is seeing their comrades doing it around them. In fact, one point that I don’t think has been made overtly in this series yet is this: Most soldiers don’t fight for causes, or nations, or any of the usual things we talk about. They fight for the guys next to them. If their comrades turn and run away, they’ll run away. But if his comrades stand and fight, a soldier is too ashamed to do anything else himself.
  • MusgraveOne of the most startling stories thus far in the series is the one told by Marine John Musgrave. He was shot in the chest, and had a hole “big enough to put your fist through.” He was triaged three times, and each time given up for dead — by a corpsman on the battlefield, again in the evac helicopter, and finally by a doctor at the hospital. Each time, he was shoved aside so the medical personnel could try to save the men who had a chance. The third time, the doctor only asked him his religion so he could call over a chaplain for him. Finally, a surgeon says, “Why isn’t somebody helping this man?” As they anesthetized him for surgery, he assumed he wouldn’t wake up. But they saved him, and he survived to tell his story to Burns and Novick.

That last item was one of those things that we should all pay more attention to. The moral is, Don’t ever assume you know what’s going to happen. This has many applications in life. Sometimes, as in Musgrave’s case, it means “Don’t give up hope.” Other times, we should not get complacent thinking we know things are going to be OK. For that reason, I’ve been pretty irritated at news stories I’ve seen the last two or three days saying that Graham-Cassidy is dead. As Yeats wrote (in the same poem quoted by Bobby Kennedy in last night’s episode):

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

On this, Lindsey Graham has thrown his lot in with the worst — even acting like he’s proud that Trump is backing his effort. And he will pull out everything he can to succeed in passing this abomination…

this is war

20 thoughts on “‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode Five: ‘This is what we do’

  1. Mark Stewart

    Here’s a gem of a quote from Sen. Cassidy today:

    “All of this was designed to as much as possible hold states harmless while benefiting those non [Medicaid] expansion states where there are so many folks who would benefit if the state could afford to provide them better coverage,” he said.

    So much disingenuousness these days. Everywhere. It is dispiriting, it really is.

  2. Doug Ross

    “Are we natural-born killers, or do we have to be schooled to become that?”

    The ability to do that is there. What would make a person shoot up a bar in the Vista? That wasn’t something he was trained to do.

    Also, there’s a difference between the atrocities that come with war when men (mostly) are fighting other men (mostly) on the battlefield. I reserve the term atrocity for killing and maiming innocent women and children with the “collateral damage” rationalization. Those are atrocities and any soldiers who did it or witnessed it and didn’t speak up should be ashamed of themselves — as well as the leaders who make the decisions that caused it to happen.

  3. Jeff Mobley

    I haven’t dropped by in a while, and I’m very sorry (for myself) that I haven’t, because I see that Brad has been posting his thoughts on the documentary, and there’s been a lot of conversation that I’ve missed.

    I’ve been watching, also. I may chime in a bit, but I don’t expect that I’ll have very much to add. I was born in 1980. I’m hoping that I’ll have learned some things from the experience of viewing these episodes, and I feel like I already have.

    But I am particularly interested in Brad’s thoughts (and others’ also) about any point at which the documentary doesn’t ring true, or seems somehow unbalanced. There may have been some of that in the comments already posted, so I should look back through the posts.

    I will offer this: Lyn Novick, Burn’s collaborator on the film, tweeted out a link to this video clip of John Musgrave speaking with veterans of some more recent military actions. Very powerful stuff.

    The documentary’s interviews with Musgrave, the Crocker family, and Roger Harris have delivered the most powerful emotional wallops so far, in my opinion.

  4. Phillip

    I’m taking this in more slowly as time permits, so we just finished episode 3 last night. You mentioned Marlantes above…his comments near the end of episode three really summed up completely I’ve always felt about the war, and this series has pretty much only reinforced those thoughts. I don’t have the exact quote, but he said something to the effect of…that he was not so angered by the policy errors made “with a noble heart” (I think he said)…as “Eisenhower and Kennedy were trying to figure things out…” but by the LBJ administration, with McNamara and others (even LBJ to some extent) realizing the war was not really winnable, as early as ’65, and then just pursuing it, throwing lives away, “for their own ego” was how he put it. Marlantes also spoke about “the lying,” and it’s true, it’s incredible how much was going on in the early escalation of which the public had no idea.

    I’m not sure if “ego” would be the most precise term, or maybe it’s “national ego” as much as individual ego? There was also in episode three the document from Washington that broke down our “purpose” for being there as 70% “avoiding humiliation”, 20% trying to keep the Chinese in check (as if they were seeking territorial conquest a la Third Reich, which was ridiculous), and 10% helping the South Vietnamese. That sounds about right—meaning that at best 90% of our reason for being there and throwing away thousands of lives was bogus on the surface and all about us, and even the more understandable 10% motivation was not really our fight to fight, the civil and internal conflict over the direction this small country wanted to take.

    When Westmoreland asked for 200,000 more troops, that should have been the end. How right Kennedy had been with the “first drink” metaphor about ground troops.

    1. Doug Ross

      I agree. I plead total ignorance on the history of the Vietnam War but as I’ve got halfway into episode 3, I keep saying “Why?” Why did we continue down a path that everyone in charge knew was a disaster? It was a clusterf*ck from day one with one bad decision after another. For what? There hasn’t been a moment yet in the series where the American leaders look smart. A lot of hubris, a lot of posturing in the face of elections, but nothing resembling leadership or honesty.

      On a side note – I was somewhat surprised that during the recap of the Bay of Pigs situation, it seemed like the intelligence photos of missiles in Cuba in 1963 were better than the photos of WMD’s that Colin Powell presented to the U.N. to justify the Iraq War 40 years later. How could that be? Well – unless you wanted to start a war regardless of the evidence.,..

  5. bud

    As I cited earlier Vietnam is best thought of in 3 phases:

    Phase 1 – The complex phase. That runs from about 1957-The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. In this phase there is a tiny bit of merit to the argument that we should save the south from the communists. But as this phase ran it’s course the evidence was mounting that this was a fools errand. I was very surprised to learn that only 2 people in congress voted no. This demonstrates that bipartisan agreement does not guarantee the proper course. One of the no votes was Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon who stated presciently – “I believe this resolution to be a historic mistake.” With this vote we enter …

    Phase 2 – The mendacity phase. This started with Tonkin and runs through 1968 and the Tet Offensive. Tonkin was based, in part, on the first big lie about Vietnam. Johnson used a couple of provocative naval attacks as a reason for greater involvement. The second attack was a complete fabrication. This 3 year mendacity phase was punctuated by greater and more audacious lies by the Johnson administration. They lied about body counts, dominoes falling, lights at the end of the tunnel as a metaphor for progress. Allied atrocities were hidden or minimized. Brad dismisses the atrocities of war far too cavalierly as something that just happens in war. Yes war is hell but Brad misses the point that atrocities are only ‘acceptable’ in a war that is a legitimate part of our security. Since Vietnam was most assuredly not then American committed atrocities really were nothing but war crimes. So any time you see the term “collateral damage” just remind yourself that that is a euphemism for war crime with respect to Vietnam. So yes, Doug is right to say that dropping napalm in Vietnam was different that in WW 2.

    Phase 3 – The big delusion. After Tet the mendacity of Johnson was exposed and the American people quickly caught on to the real reasons we were fighting. It wasn’t about security nor even dominoes. It was rather about saving face. Sadly it turned out that Nixon was every bit the liar that Johnson was. Secret Plan? What BS. Even before the election he sabotaged the Paris peace talks. Then we have nonsense about the shape of the damn negotiating table! Thousands of lives were lost while politicians wrangled over trivial matters. Nixon’s procrastinating over what obviously needed to be done quickly was far, far worse than Watergate. But aside from Nixon there were far too many neocon holdouts that still considered the war “winnable”. Whatever “winnable” was supposed to be is unclear. These people pressed for greater involvement and more troops with an invasion of the North a primary objective. Thankfully rational thought finally prevailed, at least in part. Yet somehow history forgets that. But we don’t have to now. Let’s just get out of Afghanistan NOW. Isn’t that the lesson Vietnam taught us?

    1. Doug Ross

      “Let’s just get out of Afghanistan NOW. Isn’t that the lesson Vietnam taught us?”

      Of course. But when you have a huge military, you have to find something for them to do. When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

      As I watch the series, I kept thinking – “Why don’t we have a Secretary of Peace to balance out the Secretary of Defense?” Imagine if there was SOMEONE in the cabinet specifically tasked with preventing war… with a budget and personnel to present an alternative view. This is probably something the Secretary of State should be charged with but that position is typically a rubber stamp for the President and Defense Department.

        1. Doug Ross

          My thoughts exactly as I watched Kennedy and LBJ take us down a path we never should have been on. Sheesh!

        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          I’m reacting to the “if only we didn’t have a military” message in your second paragraph. Or, excuse me, “if only we had a weak military” message… Hence the “sheesh”…

          Doug, do you really think what we decide to do and be as a nation occurs in a vacuum?

          If we’re not the world’s hegemon, then who is? Because someone will be. The world’s problems, as you perceive them, do not arise from the United States having the most powerful military.

          And in the real world, you have to deal with the question: “Who would be that most powerful force if it were not the United States?”

          And the followup, “How exactly would the world be better off?”

          1. Doug Ross

            I don’t think I said anything close to “if we only didn’t have a military” or a weak one. All I said was that it would be good to have the side of peace represented in the room in addition to those who have spent their lives preparing for war.

            Do I think what we decide to do and be as a nation occurs in a vacuum? Absolutely not. I think what we decide to do is formulated by a group of people who have biases based on their experiences… and that group of people is dominated by people who think we need to be everywhere in the world killing people… even in places where they don’t want us to be.

  6. Jeff Mobley

    Okay, so, I’ve gone back and read most of the comments on the blog about this documentary series and Vietnam. Here are some assorted thoughts:

    The post-WWII situation in Vietnam seems to have been, or to have quickly become, three things at once: A fight for independence from colonial rule, a front on the global expansion of communism, and a civil war. As has been discussed, the Unites States viewed it mainly through the “containing communism” lens, which has now been shown to have been a serious mistake, because expanding communism internationally seems to have been the least significant of the factors motivating the North Vietnamese (though it obviously factored for the Soviets and the Chinese).

    But the mistaken U.S. perspective can be understood in light of the events and experiences that had been respectively witnessed and shared by Americans who were in leadership at the time. Maoist China. East Germany.

    Like Bryan and others, I was appalled at Charles DeGaulle’s attitude toward the idea of Vietnamese independence. I wish the documentary would have fleshed that out a little more.

    Another aspect that was touched on, but not in depth, was the exodus of Vietnamese Christians, fearing for their lives, from the North to the South immediately after the Geneva accords (if I’m remembering the timeline correctly). It’s not clear to me whether the Vietnamese communists targeted Christians because of communist philosophy, or because they considered Vietnamese Christians to be collaborators with European colonialists, or a bit of both. But it’s very clear that there were plenty of South Vietnamese who wanted nothing to do with the communists, even as they were dismayed by the corruption of their own government. Indeed, the communist Vietnamese would eagerly kill many of their own countrymen, given the opportunity.

    Part of what makes it all so sad is knowing what we know. For example, if I remember correctly, 49 Americans had been killed in Vietnam just before the coup against Ngo Dinh Diem. As I watch the documentary, I imagine what would have happened if Kennedy had taken the off-ramp, washing his hands of Diem and getting Americans out of there after the persecution of the Buddhists.

    But of course, men can’t see the future. We can only learn from the past and be aware of the present. And this documentary shows us that it’s quite easy to learn the wrong lessons from the past, or to learn the right lessons, but imagine they’re applicable to the present, when they’re not. Or to incorrectly interpret the present in view of the past.

    It’s difficult to muster much sympathy for Johnson. He lied to himself and to the American people. He also seems to have tried to split the baby in terms of the use of military force. Bomb here, but not there, send this many more soldiers, but not as much as requested. Do enough, but not too much.

    In my mind, he and McNamara approached the whole thing sideways. If what is necessary to accomplish the goal is “too much”, then you’re done. Get out.

    The economic concept of sunk costs (“don’t throw good money after bad”) may seem at first like a very cold and callous concept to apply to the blood and lives of brave young Americans, but we don’t honor those who’ve sacrificed by repeating mistakes that will get more brave young Americans killed.

    And while of course there are some things that may be necessary to keep secret militarily, the American people should be told with as much candor as possible the answers to some questions:

    What is the outcome we seek, or can live with? Why are alternative outcomes unacceptable?
    What do we believe it will cost to achieve the desired outcome, and what do we believe are our chances of success?

    But again, all this is easy for me to type from 2017 looking back.

    One scene from the documentary was illuminating. After the Tet Offensive, there was a debate in the Pentagon about what it meant. Some felt it was the last gasp of the North Vietnamese, and that they were essentially spent. So, some in the Pentagon believed that this was actually evidence that the war was more winnable than it had appeared before. Who knows whether I would have shared that conclusion, if the same set of circumstances and evidence were before me at that time?

    1. Jeff Mobley

      One more thought: I left out Nixon and the fact that he convinced the South Vietnamese to delay agreeing to peace talks, in an effort to get himself elected. It turns out that when the talks finally started, not much progress was made, but still, what a monstrous thing to do.

      You never want men of such character in leadership, but especially not in such times. I remember talking to my dad about something I’d learned at school, and I mentioned LBJ. “He was a crook,” my dad said. I believe he was referring to voter fraud perpetrated during Johnson’s senate campaign, but I’m not sure.

      But anyway, watching this documentary has just made it all the more unsettling to read things like this.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        People talk about leaders lying. Doug, for instance, sees JFK as lying when he carefully answers that question about combat troops. (It wasn’t a candid answer, but it was defensible. It depends on how you define combat troops. And the definition he was using is to this day widely accepted — we’ve used that same distinction many times in recent years, such as when we still had troops in Iraq training Iraqis, but not combat units of Americans directly engaging in battle.)

        But this… wow. Nixon calls Johnson up, and DIRECTLY denies doing what he did. See, folks, if you want to be a liar, this is how it’s done.

        And mind you, if I’d been eligible to vote in 1968, I’d likely have voted for Nixon. I almost did in 1972, but I just couldn’t shake my misgivings about that Watergate thing…

  7. Bart Rogers

    I admit I haven’t watched any of the episodes because in truth, not many new facts are surfacing based on the comments by Brad and others who have been watching them. Most of you already know, I am probably one of the oldest members of the blog community on Bradwarthen. Being an older citizen and being there when it all first started, revisiting the reasons for going into Vietnam were sold to the general public by the media supporting the LBJ administration.

    JFK was on the verge of pulling us out of Vietnam when his life and presidency was ended in Dallas. The scales were coming off of his eyes and he was gaining a clearer vision of the potential end of involvement in Vietnam. No, I am not suggesting he was shot because of his pending decision.

    We, the public, we were inundated with tales of horror and atrocities committed by the VC and North Vietnamese. We were never told that Ho Chi Min wanted to talk to our leaders and seek a peaceful end before it started and when he was ignored, he sided with China and Russia. We had influential individuals who had LBJ’s ear and they held sway over his usual common sense. Plus it was a time when the Cold War was still at it’s peak and gaining an advantage or foothold in the region would have been a coup against our Cold War foes.

    I will admit that for a long time, I was caught up in the hype and hysteria about how critical it was to stop North Vietnam from taking South Vietnam. This was the domino that if tipped would rebalance the world’s power structure. Eventually, when the obvious truth became evident, the question I asked myself is how could the North taking the South in reality have such a powerful impact? This was a civil, internal conflict between the two and in retrospect, we should have never sent the first advisor.

    But, reflective politics and revisionist history always looks much better using 20/20 hindsight. Too many very good men and women of my generation have their names on a black monument in Washington, DC. Too many died because of an ideology that prevailed at the time and anyone who went against it was considered to be unpatriotic. I was fortunate to not be drafted but some of my friends were not so fortunate.

    We cannot change what happened during that time in our history and revisiting it may serve a good purpose if it educates the generations coming up who will one day be the power brokers and leaders of this country and if they actually do learn a lesson from history. But, considering the way our country is so divided and Trump is playing with fire and a possible engagement with North Korea, from where I sit, the attitude is “to hell with history, we will do it my way”.

    I have always and will always hold our military in the highest regard especially the “foot soldiers” who end up being on the front lines when the $hit hits the fan. Sometimes I will watch the YouTube video of Sarah McLaughlin’s, “In The Arms of an Angel – American Soldier Tribute”, and the photo montage that accompanies it. It still brings a tear to my eye.

    It is my fervent hope and prayer that if this country ever goes to war again, it will be a righteous war for the right reasons and not to assuage the small minded men who have to compare the size of their “hands” in order to fool themselves into thinking they are something they are not. I don’t want another cemetery on foreign soil holding the bodies of American soldiers.

  8. Doug Ross

    Finished episode 5… segments that stuck out: the institutional racism employed by the military to numb recruits to the idea of killing people, the veteran saying this is how you get “kids” to fight your wars, LBJ discussing war protesters with Ike and calling them mentally deranged and revealing he had Hoover going after them, John McCain’s look of terror as he was interviewed after being captured, the Tiger Force atrocities (that served as the basis for the movie Casualties of War”) and that despite an investigation into their war crimes, no one was ever punished.

    Just so we don’t forget what the Tiger Force did:

    the routine torture and execution of prisoners
    the routine practice of intentionally killing unarmed Vietnamese villagers including men, women, children, and elderly people
    the routine practice of cutting off and collecting the ears of victims
    the practice of wearing necklaces composed of human ears
    the practice of cutting off and collecting the scalps of victims
    incidents where soldiers would plant weapons on murdered Vietnamese villagers
    an incident where a young mother was drugged, raped, and then executed
    an incident where a soldier killed a baby and cut off his or her head after the baby’s mother was killed

    That’s not “fog of war”, not “war is hell”, not “you want me on that line”. That is inexcusable, indefensible, and (for me) reason enough to justify being a pacifist.

    It’s too bad our high schools can’t make watching this series part of the mandatory history curriculum.

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