"It's time the distortions were laid to rest." Col. Harry G. Summers Jr. in the 1980s (World History Group Archive)
"It's time the distortions were laid to rest." Col. Harry G. Summers Jr. in the 1980s (World History Group Archive)
Reprinted from August 1989 issue of Vietnam magazine

One of the great ironies of the Vietnam War is that those still suffering most from conflict are the ones who never served there. While the overwhelming majority of Vietnam veterans have long since returned to civilian life and got on with their lives and careers, many of the draft dodgers and war evaders still struggle with their consciences. Torn by guilt, they continue to try to explain away their evasion by deliberately distorting what the war was all about.

Most Vietnam veterans could care less about their posturings, but there is one fact that cannot be ignored. In trying to make themselves look good, these shirkers must of necessity make those who did serve look bad.

Perpetuated by such “documentaries” as Hearts and Minds (to Hollywood’s everlasting discredit, an Oscar-winning propaganda film glorifying the totalitarian regime of Ho Chi Minh much like the similar “documentaries” of Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl in the 1930s which glorified the totalitarian regime of Adolf Hitler), one of the most pernicious myths is their contention that the war in Vietnam was uniquely horrendous—the most heinous, the most brutal, and the most inhumane war in the history of mankind.

Designed to explain why they refused to serve there, this myth is nonsense, as anyone with even a rudimentary sense of history could attest. While all wars are terrible, the Vietnam War was hardly unique. Critics of the war often fasten on “free-fire zones” (areas where artillery could be fired or bombs dropped without obtaining clearance) as an example of the brutality of the Vietnam War. Perspective would have told them there was nothing unique about that practice. In World War II, with some small exceptions for “open cities,” the entire continent of Europe was a free-fire zone.

One of the great moral dilemmas that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and General Dwight D. Eisenhower had to face prior to the invasion of Europe was whether the road and rail transport lines of our French ally on the Continent (whose territory was then under German occupation) should be targeted. The decision was reluctantly made to bring these lines of communication and supply under attack, and many French citizens were killed as a result. And once the invasion began, cities like St. Lô and Caen were leveled by Allied artillery and airstrikes. The same was true in the Korean War, where everything forward of the front lines was fair game. Seoul was leveled several times, and villages in no-man’s-land were routinely shelled with white phosphorous to provide battlefield illumination.

Although you wouldn’t know it from the rhetoric, free-fire zones in Vietnam (officially “specified strike zones”) were, in fact, attempts to limit such indiscriminate use of firepower, for outside those zones permission had to be obtained from Vietnamese province and district chiefs before artillery or airstrikes could be made. Interestingly, those complaining about “free-fire zones” never mention the indiscriminate use of rockets by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong against Saigon and Bien Hoa and Hue and Da Nang and other towns and cities to terrorize the local civilian population, a tactic they continued to use until the very last days of the war.

Allied with the free-fire zone mythology are the outright lies about the “carpet bombing” of Hanoi. For example, CBS news correspondent Alexander Kendrick’s The Wound Within (arguable the most twisted and distorted book written on the Vietnam War) compares the Air Force’s “carpet bombing” of Hanoi to the Nazi Luftwaffe’s terror bombing of cities in World War II. But there really was no such comparison.

In 1974, on my first journey to Hanoi, I fully expected to see what I had seen in Yokohama in 1947, or in Berlin in 1953, cities that had indeed been carpet bombed. But as our negotiating team traveled from the airport and across the Paul Doumer Bridge into the city itself, I was truly shocked at how thoroughly I had been deceived. Instead of a city flattened to the ground, I saw a city which evidenced no sign of bomb damage whatsoever. Old French colonial housing, not rubble, stretched in all directions.

The city undoubtedly had been hit during the bombing attacks. But any fair-minded observer could clearly see that it had never been carpet bombed. When journalist Stanley Karnow first visited Hanoi, he, too, expected to find extensive damage from supposed carpet bombing in the 1972 “Christmas bombing” raids. Instead, as he reported in his 1983 masterwork, Vietnam: A History, he found a city “almost completely unscathed.”

He also found that such misrepresentation had not been unintentional. “American antiwar activists visiting the city during the attacks urged the mayor to claim a death toll of 10,000. He refused, saying that his government’s credibility was at stake. The official North Vietnamese figure for fatalities… was 1,318 in Hanoi.”

The perfidy of these American traitors aside, these figures were also telling. As Karnow points out, during the March 1945 raids on Tokyo, a genuine carpet bombing campaign, “nearly 84,000 people were killed in a single night.”

Those complaining about “free-fire zones” never mention the indiscriminate use of rockets by the NVA and VC against Saigon, Bien Hoa, Hue, Da Nang and other places to terrorize local civilian populations, a tactic they used until the end of the war.

Another particularly pernicious myth spawned by the antiwar movement is their charge that atrocities were not only commonplace in Vietnam, they were also aided and abetted by the military establishment. Unfortunately, this attempt to portray Vietnam veterans as monsters so that the evaders could masquerade as angels has gotten an assist from a handful of self-proclaimed Vietnam combat veterans who continue to smear their fellow vets by milking public sympathy (as in a recent CBS News Special) with lurid tales of how many babies they have killed.

I found this out first hand when I confronted one such “veteran” during a lecture at the University of Washington and found that the closest he had been to Vietnam was Seattle, Wash. Most of those making such charges are phonies. In his landmark 1978 book, America in Vietnam, the first book to directly refute the slander of the antiwar movement, Professor Guenter Lewy argued persuasively that while, as in any war, atrocities did occur in Vietnam, they were neither encouraged nor condoned. From 1965 to 1973, 201 Army personnel and 77 Marines were court-martialed for serious crimes against Vietnamese civilians.

Even Oliver Stone’s ostensibly antiwar movie Platoon makes that clear. When Sergeant Barnes (Tom Beringer) murders the Vietnamese woman during a village search, he is told by the company commander that the incident will be investigated and, if warranted, criminal court-martial charges will be filed.

That impending court-martial sets up the tension between Sergeant Barnes and Sergeant Elias (Willam Dafoe) and leads to Elias’ murder to keep him from testifying. If atrocities were (as the antiwar movement claimed) aided and abetted by the military, no court-martial would have been necessary, no tension would have existed, and the movie would have been left without a plot. In the matter of atrocities at least, Platoon gave an accurate portrayal of the war.

Another put-down of the Vietnam veterans is the charge that they lost the war through battlefield incompetence and were driven from Vietnam in defeat by the “revolutionary ardor” of the Viet Cong guerrillas. Again it is a charge that cannot survive the truth.

“You know you never beat us on the battlefield,” I told my North Vietnamese Army (NVA) counterpart, Colonel Tu, during a meeting in Hanoi a week before the fall of Saigon. “That may be so,” he replied, “but it is also irrelevant.”

These victories were irrelevant when it came to winning the war because they were not part of a coherent overall strategy. But they were not irrelevant in judging the fighting qualities of the American fighting man. Although there are reports that Colonel Tu has recently recanted his too-candid comments about American battlefield superiority, other sources corroborate his remark. As the eminent historian Douglas Pike points out in his excellent analysis, PAVN: People’s Army of Vietnam, U.S. forces never lost a significant battlefield engagement.

The same cannot be said of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. In 1969, NVA General Vo Nguyen Giap admitted that from 1964 to 1969 alone, he had lost over 500,000 soldiers killed on the battlefield, and an untold number wounded or missing. As the North Vietnamese now freely admit, the Viet Cong guerrillas virtually destroyed themselves during their abortive 1968 Tet uprising. From then on, until the war ended seven years later, the war was almost entirely a North Vietnamese Army affair.

In his book Great Spring Victory, his account of the final 1975 campaign, NVA General Van Tien Dung scarcely mentions the actions of the Viet Cong. And when Viet Cong General Tran Van Tra, in his book Ending the Thirty Year War, attempted to claim some of the credit, he was put under house arrest and his publisher was executed.

Not only were U.S. forces not defeated by a guerrilla enemy, neither were they driven from Vietnam by military force. In 1969, six years before the end of the war, the 3d Marine Division and most of the Army’s 9th Infantry Division left Vietnam. Their withdrawal was prompted by political considerations at home, not battlefield conditions in Vietnam. These withdrawals continued apace, and by mid-1972, almost three years before the end of the war, all U.S. ground forces had left country. U.S. air and naval forces were also phased down, and in January 1973 (over two years before the fall of Saigon) all U.S. military forces were completely withdrawn.

As earlier articles in this magazine have emphasized, the American military was not defeated by North Vietnam’s final 1975 blitzkrieg for the simple reason that there were no American military forces there to be defeated. They had left country years earlier. Ironically that irrefutable historical fact does not seem to have registered on many Americans who still talk about America’s military defeat in Vietnam. They are entitled to their own set of opinions but, as former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger once observed, they are not entitled to their own set of facts.

When it comes to shooting down Vietnam War myths, facts are the best ammunition. Take for example the notion perpetuated by veterans of earlier wars that the Vietnam War, in comparison with World War II or the Korean War, was not really a war at all, but a “conflict,” a “walk in the woods,” where the action was comparatively tame and the dangers relatively slight.

Battlefield casualty figures tell another story. As I found in compiling data for my Vietnam War Almanac, the facts are that the 1st and 3d Marine Divisions took some 101,571 casualties in Vietnam, almost 20 percent more than that 86,940 casualties the entire Marine Corps took in World War II and over three times as many as the 30,544 casualties the Marines suffered in Korea.

The same is true with Army forces. For example, the 173d Airborne Brigade took some 10,041 casualties in Vietnam, five times the losses the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team took in Korea, four times as many as the entire 11th Airborne Division took in the Pacific in World War II and more than either the 82d Airborne Division or 101st airborne Division suffered in their World War II campaigns in Europe. The 25th Infantry Division took 34,484 casualties in Vietnam, almost twice as many as the 5,532 casualties it suffered in World War II and the 13,685 casualties it suffered in Korea combined. The casualty figures for other combat units in Vietnam are equally stark. For those actually fighting the war, Vietnam was as intense as any war in which American forces have ever been engaged.

Vietnam veterans have every right to be proud of their service. And they have every right to insist that those who over the years have deliberately perpetuated the myths that demean that service be challenged and brought to account. It’s a job for every American, veteran or not, who cares about the truth.

Colonel Harry Summers Jr., the founding editor of Vietnam magazine and the author of several books on the military, died in 1999. Summers went to Vietnam in 1966 with a combat infantry unit as a battalion operations officer. He was wounded twice in Vietnam and was the second to last Army serviceman to leave Vietnam, flying out from the roof of the U.S. Embassy. He received the Silver Star and two Purple Hearts.  For more on Summers’ career, visit http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/hgsummers.htm