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Issue #1729      May 4, 2016

Culture & Life

Vietnam and the legacy of “continuous war”

On March 29, 1973 the last US combat troops were officially withdrawn from South Vietnam. “Withdrawn?” Driven out would be more accurate. The war would not actually end for another two years, but it was clear that the world’s richest imperialist power had suffered ignominious defeat at the hands of one of the world’s poorest nations.

Philadelphia protest against the Vietnam War.

The people of the whole of Indo-China had been invaded and conquered by France, intent on adding the region’s territory – and its rice and rubber – to their colonial empire. Then the French were ousted by the Japanese imperialists. In the jungles of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh began a guerrilla war against the foreign invaders and continued it when the French attempted to reconquer the region after Japan’s defeat in WW2.

France’s crushing defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 should have been a salutary lesson for the USA, but the leaders of US capitalism preferred to believe that it did not apply to them. With their massive industrial and military might how could it? They would learn the hard way, but the resultant war would last 20 years and cost the lives of over a million Vietnamese (and 58,000 US troops). The US waged a rich man’s war against the former French colony, which fought back with a poor people’s guerrilla-style war.

The high-tech war waged by the USA produced enormous profits for that country’s military-industrial complex. The US dropped a greater weight of bombs on tiny Vietnam than was dropped in the whole of WW2. In just one campaign, 1972’s Operation Linebacker for example, US air and naval forces dropped more than 150,000 tons of bombs over North Vietnam. (According to US propaganda then and now, these bombing campaigns targeted exclusively “air fields, power plants and other key infrastructure to disrupt the flow of supplies being sent to enemy troops in the south”. In fact, strategic US bombers, flying so high they could not see anything on the ground, flew to prearranged radar co-ordinates and released their huge load of bombs indiscriminately.) The cost to the Vietnamese people in death and destruction was horrific.

Much of Vietnamese society had to move underground to avoid US bombs, in a defence campaign that far outshone the resistance to the London blitz, but which has been largely ignored by the capitalist media. The Vietnamese people became masters of digging and hiding intricate systems of tunnels, permitting the US troops to uncover the tunnels they were meant to find and not the deeper, hidden ones used by the NLF fighters.

The scale of the US war against Vietnam is hard to grasp today but consider this: there are 7.2 million US “veterans” of that war still alive today. Most of them were either poverty stricken volunteers or equally poor draftees, who found themselves being ordered to carry out horrific actions on the flimsiest of excuses justified by blatantly racist propaganda. As a famous anti-war slogan of the time said, “No Vietnamese ever called me Nigger!”

So horrendous were the things that US troops were made to do by their officers, that large numbers of soldiers were seriously psychologically damaged as a consequence. In Vietnam, this resulted in frequent attacks on officers by lower ranks. “Fragging” – rolling a fragmentation grenade into an officer’s tent – was a favourite action. When they returned from service in Vietnam, they were often so disturbed by what they had seen and done that they simply could not reintegrate into civilian life. Many sought refuge in the woods and other isolated places.

Large numbers actually joined the anti-war movement.

The Vietnam War was the culmination of the US military effort to “roll back Communism”. That effort began during WW2 with the betrayal of the Sicilian Communist guerrillas by the invading Americans (the British betrayed the French Maquis to the Germans at the same time, in what was obviously a co-ordinated action.) It was followed by intervention on behalf of colonial powers in various wars of national liberation, everywhere from the Philippines to Algeria to Malaya and of course Vietnam.

Later, the US, Britain, Australia and other imperialist states tried to first foment a war on the Korean Peninsula and then to turn that into a nuclear war with China. Fortunately, the USSR held its nerve and the US had to back down, ignominiously sacking its hero General Douglas Macarthur who had brought them to this sorry pass.

The US was fought to a standstill in Korea. Nevertheless, when the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu, US imperialism was quick to take their place. After all, even unsuccessful wars are extremely profitable – if they are fought on someone else’s territory.

Since the end of the Vietnam War, the leading imperialist powers – the USA, Britain and France – have fought numerous wars, but always on someone else’s territory: in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, in central Africa, all over Central America and much of South America. Most recently, the US and its bosom buddy Japan has been trying to foment a war with China over some nondescript islands in the South China Sea. The right-wing Japanese government of Shinzo Abe is hell bent on reviving the “glory days” of Japan’s imperial past, and sees trying to bully its bigger neighbour as the way to curry favour with the USA. The latter, of course, is the world’s most powerful imperialist state, but the days are long gone when empires can be built at the point of a gun.

China has been invaded before by Japan (and also by Britain and the USA) but it is no longer a defenceless imperial remnant at the mercy of whatever colonial power wanted to seize some of its territory. Today, anyone attempting to bully China is likely to get a bloodied nose. But of course, the Chinese government is aware that they have an even more potent weapon than their military: their economic clout. Their policies for economic integration and development across central Asia promise to change the face of the global economy out of all recognition.

No country will want to miss out on a share of that future.

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