War and Murder Since Vietnam

By David Swanson, World BEYOND War, May 5, 2023

Remarks from May 4th webinar with Green Party Peace Action Committee; Peoples Network for Planet, Justice & Peace; Green Party of Ohio 

I’m going to be brief and generalize and give some tentative conclusions in order to fit into 10 minutes what I think happened in Vietnam and what I think are some of the key lessons for peacemaking now from peacemaking at the time of what the Vietnamese call the American War.

I think that the U.S. public has been much more aware from that time to now of the extent to which the U.S. government is principally the world’s primary war machine. We all sometimes get some facts wrong. Sometimes exaggerate. Some make the mistake of imagining that the rest of the world’s warmakers are admirable, just as some peace activists made the mistake of cheering for the Vietnamese side of the war on Vietnam — though they had the excuse we do not of far less knowledge of the superior power of nonviolent action.

(Now, as everyone prepares to ask me how a friendly little sit-in can stop bombs from landing on your head, I encourage you to envision a completely different approach of noncooperation with occupation and to see the list of successes at worldbeyondwar.org/list )

But mostly, I think, people fail to quite grasp just the extent to which the U.S. government is responsible for the institution of war. In the latest numbers on military spending, of 230 other countries, the U.S. spends more than 227 of them combined. Russia and China spend a combined 21% of what the U.S. and its allies spend on war. Since 1945, the U.S. military has acted in a major or minor way in 74 other nations. At least 95% of the foreign military bases on Earth are U.S. bases. Of 230 other countries, the U.S. exports more weaponry than 228 of them combined. Most places with wars manufacture no weapons.

The war on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia remains the worst thing the U.S. military has done. The U.S. dropped more than three times the bombs it had in WWII, combined with a massive ground war, plus spraying from the air tens of millions of liters of Agent Orange, not to mention napalm. Tens of millions of bombs remain unexploded, and increasingly dangerous, today. An estimated 3.8 million people died violently just in Vietnam. Some 19 million were wounded or made homeless in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Many millions more were forced to live dangerous and impoverished lives, with impacts lasting to this day.

The U.S. soldiers who did 1.6% of the dying, but whose suffering dominates U.S. movies about the war, really did suffer as much and as horribly as depicted. Thousands of veterans have since committed suicide. But imagine what that means for the true extent of the suffering created, even just for humans, ignoring all the other species impacted. The Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. lists 58,000 names on 150 meters of wall. That’s 387 names per meter. To similarly list 4 million names would require 10,336 meters, or the distance from the Lincoln Memorial to the steps of the U.S. Capitol, and back again, and back to the Capitol once more, and then as far back as all the museums but stopping short of the Washington Monument. To get U.S. society to not think it would be insane to put Vietnamese names on the Vietnam Memorial would require a revolution of values.

In Laos, about a third of the country’s land remains ruined by the heavy presence of unexploded bombs, which continue to kill large numbers of people and which were originally intended to wipe out farms in order to starve people or were simply littering by bombers unable to make it to Vietnam due to the weather. Then there’s the growth of the Khmer Rouge, as much a result of war as ISIS or the empowerment of rightwingers in Ukraine and Russia. Then there are all the results for the U.S. and the world that I must leave to other speakers today — the financial tradeoffs, the bigotry, the violent culture, the damage to the ideas of law and cooperation — also (not necessarily a bad thing) the boost to independence and resistance to U.S. domination around the world.

What have we learned? To some extent we’ve learned, and not forgotten, that governments lie. But we still talk about “a war based on lies” as if some other war could be based on something else. We’ve started to learn that a Venn diagram of human decency and government interests would have a tiny and bizarre overlap. We’ve come to understand that governments are rarely moved by moral arguments. But we’ve also largely failed to learn that the public pressure needed to move governments is itself very much driven by moral arguments — as it was successfully during the war on Vietnam.

During the wars since Vietnam, U.S. peace activists have generally failed to tell the U.S. public that wars are immoral one-sided slaughters, choosing to focus on the damage the wars have been doing to U.S. troops, and the financial cost to taxpayers. This is the boomerang result of the spitting lies and other wild tales and exaggerations of mistakes of blaming the rank-and-file troops who destroyed Vietnam. A smart peace movement, its elders have believed, would stress sympathizing with troops to the point of not telling anyone what the basic nature of the wars was. Of course anything can be used against you by an ever-worsening media, but even as polling shows that people in the United States care less and less about patriotism, competing pro- and anti-war rallies I witnessed on a sunny day in Crawford, Texas, some years back were nearly indistinguishable swarms of U.S. flags.

When we’ve reached the point of not being allowed to mention that mass shooters are disproportionately veterans, or of cheering for a veteran who murders a man on a subway, we’re in danger, not so much of creating prejudices against veterans (many of whom are wonderful peace activists) as of glorifying participation in mass-murder. By the way, I think the Washington Post and Secretary of State Blinken should hold a conference on the foot-dragging developing nations where the backward governments will charge you with murder merely for killing people on subways. That would show them.

Young people, in particular, do not require flags or crosses or political parties to believe that slaughtering families is worth standing up against. But someone has to tell them that families are being slaughtered — and not only by Russia. During the war on Vietnam, peace activists did that.

The media, awful as it was, was better than now. People in the U.S. saw a U.S. ally shoot someone in the head. But did they know that that shooter was brought to Northern Virginia to live near the CIA for decades, neighbor to the once and hoped-for future royalty of Afghanistan and Iran, not to mention the one true unelected president of Venezuela, the would-be ruler of Libya, and a whole prop-room of puppets?

What we need to learn most is that, difficult and confused as it was and is, activism worked, won a vote to end the bombing of Cambodia, swayed public opinion, dominated politics, helped force through a progressive agenda of domestic policies, and helped compel Congress to hold a president accountable in a manner that seems thoroughly foreign to the U.S. Congress today — as does the integration of peace as part of a package of sane transformations away from racism, sexism, authoritarianism, consumerism, etc.

We need to learn that uncomfortably large coalitions work better than prioritizing canceling people, that changing an entire culture works, that placing peace over political party works, that youth get things done, that peace should be made part of human identity, not just a passing topic in the news. That this was done during the war on Vietnam is evident from how many current peace activists were peace activists then — many, such as Daniel Ellsberg — a whistleblower then — not with us much longer. The cultural change was so great that the war mongers called it an illness, the Vietnam Syndrome. And then they partially cured the country of it. Unfortunately it wasn’t an illness but a wellness on which all life depends.

We need to unlearn the weird idea that a draft is a tool of peace. Drafts facilitate wars. The warmongers want one. The Democrats want women forced to register. The Vietnam War not only persisted for many years during the draft, killing far more people than any U.S. war since, but also continued for two years after the draft ended. Yes, people opposed a war with a draft who say nothing about a proxy war or a drone war, but I’d like to use education and organizing to try to get them active before resorting to a tool that kills millions and risks apocalypse.

In 1965 there was a song called Nowhere to Run to. Tribes of humans used to be able to flee each other. Then they filled the habitable land. Refugees used to be able to flee danger for a land with a secure future. In 1849 a man could mail himself in a box from Richmond to Philadelphia and freedom. In 1958 a black journalist could escape Mississippi to Chicago in a casket. There’s no escaping a world hellbent on nuclear or environmental destruction. Delusions of space travel won’t help you. Our only help is to learn what’s worked and adapt and improve it. People come up to me at peace events to tell me all is already hopeless. But if they believed that, they wouldn’t be there. Our job is not to predict the future, but to change it as much as we can.

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