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MEDIA AND VIETNAM: APPARITIONS OF INNOCENCE


Solomon

Media

commentators are split about Bob Kerrey and what happened 32 years ago in the

Vietnamese village of Thanh Phong. Some journalists seem eager to exonerate the

former senator. Others appear inclined to turn him into a lightning rod for

national guilt.

Syndicated columnists have been a bit unpredictable. "This is a murder story

that lacks the basic underpinnings high standards should require," liberal

Thomas Oliphant wrote. Conservative John Leo was less evasive: "The village was

a ‘free-fire’ zone, meaning that all who lived there were regarded as enemies

who could be fired on at will. Did that policy amount to a blank check for

American troops to commit atrocities? Even at this late date, we need to know

the answer."

In

some media quarters, fury erupted after a New York Times editorial declared: "It

is a story that — with its conflicting evidence, undeniable carnage and tragic

aftermath — sums up the American experience in Vietnam and the madness of a war

that then, as now, seemed to lack any rationale except the wrecking of as many

lives as possible on both sides."

The

punditry duo on the "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" condemned the Times as terribly

unfair to Kerrey. The editorial was "an act of moral arrogance rarely seen,"

Mark Shields charged. Paul Gigot chimed in: "Mark stole my thunder beating up

the New York Times." Similar noises, on "Fox News Sunday," came from the host of

NPR’s "Talk of the Nation," Juan Williams, who claimed that reporters were

giving Kerrey shabby treatment.

Striving to encourage such sentiments, Kerrey has resorted to the kind of

media-as-traitors bombast that Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon found so

irresistible as commanders in chief. "It’s disgraceful," Kerrey complained

during an Associated Press interview in late April. "The Vietnamese government

likes to routinely say how terrible Americans were. The Times and CBS are now

collaborating in that effort."

New

York Times columnist William Safire is also sounding familiar themes these days.

While not bothering to note his own specialized war-making services as a top

speechwriter in the Nixon administration, he rushed to the defense of Kerrey —

and the war on Vietnam. In a column that decried a "humiliating accusation of

national arrogance," Safire urged us to "recall a noble motive."

But

when motives were based on lies and illusions, how could they have been "noble"?

Commonly, in the U.S. media frame, the vast majority of the war’s victims —

including a few million dead people in their home countries of Vietnam, Laos and

Cambodia — are rendered as little more than props for the anguish of Americans.

How much we have suffered as a result of killing those people! Their importance

grows only to the extent that they underscore our own.

A

year ago, Kerrey wrote a Washington Post op-ed piece that concluded: "Was the

war worth the effort and sacrifice, or was it a mistake? Everyone touched by it

must answer that question for himself. When I came home in 1969 and for many

years afterward, I did not believe it was worth it. Today, with the passage of

time and the experience of seeing both the benefits of freedom won by our

sacrifice and the human destruction done by dictatorships, I believe the cause

was just and the sacrifice not in vain."

Only

our own national narcissism, mendacity and denial can preserve the binary myth

that the war was either "worth the effort" or "a mistake." The war was wrong not

because it proved to be unwinnable but because it was, fundamentally, mass

murder from the start. Propaganda aside, U.S. forces invaded Vietnam — welcomed

by a succession of Saigon regimes that Washington installed and propped up.

Kerrey did his deadly work in the Mekong Delta in early 1969. So did Brian

Willson, a first lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. As a ground security officer,

he saw bombing operations up close and witnessed effects on the ground, in

villages. "The only difference between Kerrey and myself is that I was never in

a position to personally kill while in Vietnam," Willson says. "But I was part

of a killing machine, even being complicit in the bombing campaigns, and I saw

dozens and dozens of the bodies of women and children."

Willson went on to become an Air Force captain. Later, he studied the Pentagon

Papers and other official documents clearly showing that — from the outset —

U.S. leaders knew the overwhelming majority of Vietnamese wanted the U.S. out of

their country. "It was true that we could not determine friend from foe,"

Willson remembers. "Most, at least secretly, were foe." Vietnamese people "were

defending their integrity and sovereignty from us invaders." The entire war was

"immoral and illegal."

One

day in 1987, Willson lost his legs when he joined with other peace activists for

civil disobedience on some train tracks in California. A train — carrying

munitions on the way to Central America — ran him over. At the time, Willson

was trying to impede the shipment of weaponry destined for use in warfare

largely aimed at civilians.

Since

the early 1990s, the bombing and ongoing embargo of Iraq have killed at least

several hundred thousand children. A current billion-dollar military aid package

from the United States, under the guise of a "war on drugs," is boosting the

death toll in Colombia. Just foreign-policy business as usual. Rest assured, we

have no blood on our hands.

"They

have destroyed and are destroying … and do not know it and do not want to know

it," James Baldwin wrote a few decades ago. He added: "But it is not permissible

that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence

which constitutes the crime."

 

Norman Solomon’s latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." His

syndicated column focuses on media and politics.

 

 

 

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