Deliberate Distortions Still Obscure Understanding of the Vietnam
by Harry G. Summers Jr. [August 1989 issue of
Deliberate distortions still obscure understanding of the Vietnam
War. It's time the distortions were laid to rest.
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
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 [that were used] 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
(arguably 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 [sic] 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
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,
Washington. 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
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 [sic] 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
As earlier articles in this [Vietnam] 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 [sic] 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
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.