Max Hast­ings on Viet­nam

BBC History Magazine - - Contents -

The jour­nal­ist and his­to­rian de­scribes the car­nage and chaos of the Viet­nam War, and his mem­o­ries of re­port­ing on it

Half a cen­tury ago, as a young re­porter,

Max Hast­ings wit­nessed the hor­rors of the Viet­nam War at first hand. He has now pro­duced a ma­jor new his­tory of the con­flict and speaks to Rob At­tar about some of the big ques­tions aris­ing from his re­search

Amer­ica be­came en­tan­gled in Viet­nam fol­low­ing a dis­as­trous French at­tempt to pre­vent In­dochina gain­ing its in­de­pen­dence. Was the French cam­paign doomed from the out­set? One of the most ex­tra­or­di­nary as­pects of post­war French his­tory was the fact that they fought these fe­ro­cious bat­tles in In­dochina [the area of south-east Asia that con­tains Viet­nam] – and then in Al­ge­ria – to try to hang on to an empire that it was ob­vi­ous to most peo­ple was doomed. You could only sus­tain these Euro­pean em­pires in far­away places with some de­gree of pop­u­lar ac­qui­es­cence and this was com­pletely de­stroyed by the ex­pe­ri­ence of the Se­cond World War [where Viet­nam had been ad­min­is­tered by Vichy France at the be­hest of Ja­pan].

Ge­orge Or­well mem­o­rably said the quick­est way to end a war is to lose it and in In­dochina the French took eight years to do so in what was a messy, bloody, mur­der­ous busi­ness. I don’t think that the French would have tried it but for the fact that they had been so hu­mil­i­ated by their ex­pe­ri­ence of oc­cu­pa­tion and de­feat by the Nazis that they were des­per­ate to re­store La Gloire. De Gaulle fool­ishly over­ruled the views of some of his ad­vi­sors in 1945 that they would have to talk to the Viet Minh. In­stead, he de­cided to fight it out. The re­sult was a dis­as­ter. Hav­ing seen what hap­pened to the French, why did the Amer­i­cans still de­cide to get in­volved mil­i­tar­ily? The Amer­i­cans have al­ways had a deep be­lief in their own ex­cep­tion­al­ism. They came to be­lieve that the French had lost their war to the com­mu­nists be­cause they were French, while they, as Amer­i­cans, were im­bued with this virtue that they wanted to in­tro­duce democ­racy and bring good things to the peo­ple of In­dochina.

Yet un­der­ly­ing ev­ery­thing that the Amer­i­cans did from 1954 on­wards was their de­sire to con­tain China. They were ab­so­lutely con­vinced – com­pletely wrongly, as I show in the book – that the Rus­sians and Chi­nese were pulling the strings on Ho Chi Minh and the Viet­namese na­tion­al­ists as their pup­pets. One of the huge ironies is that all through the war, with all their vast in­tel­li­gence ma­chine, the Amer­i­cans never re­ally un­der­stood that the Rus­sians, espe­cially, loathed the Viet­nam en­tan­gle­ment but felt that, as the lead­ers of the so-called so­cial­ist world, they had to go on sup­port­ing the North Viet­namese. As for the Chi­nese, they had just gone through the Korean War and the last thing they wanted was an­other big war on the Asian con­ti­nent. The Amer­i­cans didn’t un­der­stand this and thought that stay­ing in In­dochina was about con­tain­ing com­mu­nist ag­gres­sion, whereas it was over­whelm­ingly a na­tion­al­ist cause.

The com­mu­nists were bet­ter sol­diers. A lot of them were far more ex­pe­ri­enced than the Amer­i­cans

Why was it that the Amer­i­cans couldn’t over­whelm a poorly re­sourced foe? The fun­da­men­tal rea­son that the com­mu­nists won in Viet­nam was be­cause they were Viet­namese. Af­ter 1945 Ho Chi Minh achieved own­er­ship of Viet­namese na­tion­al­ism, and he main­tained this for the fol­low­ing 25 years. Even af­ter Ho died in 1969, noth­ing the Amer­i­cans did was able to shake that.

What was ex­tra­or­di­nary was that, even in 1965, the Amer­i­cans un­der­stood that the so-called Saigon gov­ern­ment they were sup­port­ing was pa­per thin. It wasn’t a real

gov­ern­ment: it was a load of crazy gen­er­als. It was ter­ri­bly un­pop­u­lar. But the Amer­i­cans be­lieved that, with their mil­i­tary su­pe­ri­or­ity, it didn’t mat­ter that they were sup­port­ing a rot­ten regime. They were wrong.

It was like try­ing to use a flamethrower to weed a flower bor­der. They were us­ing com­pletely the wrong tools. The Amer­i­cans could go on killing Viet Cong, they could go on killing North Viet­namese, but they didn’t have a co­her­ent strat­egy, and that was al­ways the prob­lem.

And although Amer­i­cans al­ways pro­fessed to loathe colo­nial­ism, in a way their ap­proach was pro­foundly colo­nial­ist. One vet­eran who made a great im­pres­sion on me was a for­mer medic called David Rogers who told me about a time when he and his in­fantry com­pany were out on a sweep north of Saigon with some Viet­namese sol­diers. They stopped some­where and on the ra­dio the Viet­namese’s Amer­i­can ad­vi­sor said over the ra­dio, in front of ev­ery­one: “OK, guys I’ve got to go now, I’m with the lit­tle peo­ple.” David Rogers heard that and he saw the re­ac­tion among the Viet­namese. A lit­tle while later, a Viet­namese of­fi­cer who had be­come his friend said: “David, we must go now be­cause we are only the lit­tle peo­ple.” Now if you treat peo­ple like that, then it ain’t too sur­pris­ing that you lose your war. How do you rate the mil­i­tary abil­ity of the North Viet­namese? There is no doubt that the com­mu­nists were bet­ter sol­diers. They knew the coun­try and a lot of them were far more ex­pe­ri­enced than the Amer­i­cans, who typ­i­cally only spent a year there, whereas they had been fight­ing for years on end. Even though they didn’t have any­thing like the Amer­i­cans’ fire­power, they were ex­traor­di­nar­ily skil­ful.

One thing the com­mu­nists did have was the AK-47 and it was re­ally in this war that it be­came the most fa­mous gun in the world. The Amer­i­cans had the M16 ri­fle, which is a ter­rific bit of kit if you are on a fir­ing range – far bet­ter than an AK-47. But if you drop an M16 in the jun­gle, or it gets mud in it, the whole thing will seize up. In con­trast, the AK-47 was de­signed in the Soviet Union for use by ig­no­rants and it was so sim­ple and bril­liantly ma­chined that even if you dropped it in a river, and it got cov­ered in mud and sand, it would go on shoot­ing. For jun­gle war­fare it was a far bet­ter gun than the M16 and a lot of the Amer­i­cans got a sort of in­fe­ri­or­ity com­plex about that. They found them­selves go­ing into bat­tle with clean­ing rods taped to the stocks of their guns be­cause they knew they were go­ing to jam and the only way to clear them was by – in the mid­dle of a bat­tle – push­ing a clean­ing rod up the bar­rel to try to get the spent case out. Was the Viet­nam War un­usu­ally sav­age or is its rep­u­ta­tion due more to the me­dia cov­er­age it re­ceived? If you had lived through the Thirty Years’ War, or a lot of the Se­cond World War, then you would have seen just the same ter­ri­ble things hap­pen­ing. But in the Se­cond World War, no­body showed news­reels of the thou­sands of hook­ers hang­ing around Pic­cadilly Cir­cus to pick up Amer­i­cans, or Bri­tish or Amer­i­can sol­diers shoot­ing pris­on­ers. What was dif­fer­ent about Viet­nam was that, in the new mood of rev­e­la­tion in the 1960s, the re­al­i­ties of war were brought bru­tally home.

The com­mu­nists had a pol­icy of si­lence and they wouldn’t let any­one into North Viet­nam who wasn’t a known sym­pa­thiser. So when they buried land­lords alive, for

ex­am­ple, they did not record it on cam­era. But all the dread­ful things – and they of­ten were dread­ful things – that the Amer­i­cans and South Viet­namese were do­ing were all recorded. There are some of the most no­to­ri­ous pho­to­graphs from his­tory [see right]. These im­ages forced the western pub­lic to face up to the hor­rors of war, but it was a very se­lec­tive view be­cause it didn’t show the hor­rors in­flicted by the other side.

I my­self al­ways re­mem­ber one mo­ment when I was work­ing in Viet­nam. I used to find it ab­so­lutely thrilling to fly around in ‘Huey’ he­li­copters – I thought it was all very ex­cit­ing. And when you are 24 years old and an am­bi­tious jour­nal­ist, you are thrilled that some­one is pay­ing you to do this, and you don’t think too much about hav­ing your head blown off. But one day in 1972 or ’73, I was in a jeep driv­ing north of Saigon, try­ing to look at a bat­tle we came across, when we had to stop be­cause there was a South Viet­namese army pa­trol drag­ging onto the road a group of com­mu­nists whom they had killed in an en­counter dur­ing the night.

I re­mem­ber watch­ing them drag­ging one half-naked corpse whose guts were spilling out about 10 feet be­hind him. And, as they dragged this corpse, I thought that if I got shot in the guts and I was be­ing dragged, then that’s how I would look. It was the be­gin­ning of a sort of grow­ing-up process for me. I went on do­ing a lot of war re­port­ing, but I made a per­sonal jour­ney from an ig­no­rant teenager think­ing there might be some­thing ro­man­tic about war to some­one who un­der­stands that it is ac­tu­ally un­be­liev­ably ghastly. Why do you think the Viet­nam War stirred up so much op­po­si­tion in the US and around the world? One has to re­mem­ber that this was in the six­ties, which was a time of re­volt against cap­i­tal­ism and im­pe­ri­al­ism, and all sorts of other things that the war seemed to rep­re­sent. It was also a time of ex­tra­or­di­nary naïvety among the young. They con­vinced them­selves that peo­ple like Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Cas­tro and Che Gue­vara were great he­roes but were obliv­i­ous to the fact that, even in those days, a lot was known about Cas­tro’s ex­traor­di­nar­ily re­pres­sive regime in Cuba and the fact that Stalin and Mao were the great­est mass mur­der­ers in the 20th cen­tury, af­ter Hitler. So it was a time of great naïvety, it was a time of gen­er­a­tional re­volt – and Viet­nam seemed a sym­bol of ev­ery­thing the older gen­er­a­tion was get­ting wrong.

But while the anti-war move­ment was in­cred­i­bly naïve, one thing they were right about was the sim­ple fact that the war was a catas­tro­phe, it was crazy. Pas­sions were also stirred by the fact that a lot of the peo­ple do­ing the fight­ing were draftees, whereas nowa­days, not only are the ca­su­al­ties in Afghanistan and Iraq much smaller, these wars are all be­ing fought by pro­fes­sional sol­diers who want to be there. That cre­ates a dif­fer­ent mood from the fact that the kids in Viet­nam didn’t want to be in Viet­nam, and felt mis­er­able about risk­ing their lives. Max Hast­ings is an au­thor, jour­nal­ist and for­mer news­pa­per ed­i­tor whose nu­mer­ous books in­clude the best­selling All Hell Let Loose, Catas­tro­phe: Europe Goes to War 1914 and The Se­cret War

While the an­ti­war move­ment was naïve, one thing they were right about was the sim­ple fact that the war was a catas­tro­phe, it was crazy

Com­bat he­li­copters fly over US troops dur­ing a search and de­stroy mis­sion, South Viet­nam. De­spite their mil­i­tary might, ar­gues Max Hast­ings, the Amer­i­cans were doomed to fail dur­ing the Viet­nam War

Es­ca­lat­ing con­flict CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP LEFT: Newly drafted US sol­diers at Fort Jack­son army base, South Carolina, 1967; a South Viet­namese sol­dier and an Amer­i­can mil­i­tary ad­vi­sor com­mu­ni­cate with sign lan­guage, 1963; a US sol­dier uses an M16 ri­fle to haul his col­league out of mud, near Saigon, 1967; North Viet­namese troops in train­ing

Stop the draft Ac­tivists with the Women’s Strike for Peace at­tempt to storm the Pen­tagon in 1967, one of many protests against the con­flict in Viet­nam that year

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