As I wander around this tiny fishing village, I can’t stop noticing signs from a war that ended almost 40 years ago. From the fishermen using old rusty American ammunition boxes as tool boxes to the bullet holes in old brick buildings, I see them everywhere. So I feel inclined to share the story of the Vietnam War. In order to get to the bottom of this we have to go all the way back to 1880 and the French occupation of Vietnam. From 1880 to 1950 the French ruled with an iron fist and very little humanity. It was illegal to say “Vietnam” and anyone spreading anti-French ideas would be killed along with his or her entire family. Entire villages were fire-bombed because a few people had committed a crime. Though not technically genocide, because the French did not systematically try to eradicate the Vietnamese, over the course of 70 years the French murdered and starved over 2 million people. Understandably tired of this, the Vietnamese started to rebel in the 1950s. They kicked the French out of what became North Vietnam and set up a communist government. This is what caused America to get involved in 1961.
The Soviet Union and the United States were in the middle of The Cold War and were trying to spread their preferred method of government. The Soviet Union was promoting Communism and the United States was promoting Capitalism, er, Democracy. Both countries were trying to stop the spread of the other country’s government system. So every time a communist government tried to spread its influence, the United States got involved. Every time the U.S. got involved, the Soviet Union got involved. Since America is tied to France by the NATO pact, when North Vietnam invaded French-held South Vietnam, the NATO pact (and America’s efforts to curb Communism) drug America into the war.
I won’t go into many specific battles and I will only talk about overall strategy, because this was the longest war in American history – lasting for almost 20 years. During the Vietnam War, America never really tried to fully commit and capture North Vietnam or destroy its army. However, even without fully committing, America’s army was still too powerful for the North Vietnamese Army to engage directly in a pitched battle. So the NVA and Viet Cong (the two branches of the North Vietnamese Army) resorted to gorilla tactics. This was to be a thorn in the side of the American army for 20 years and eventually force them out of the country.
The strategy worked because the American army was prepared for a conventional war – not an enemy that used booby traps and surprise ambushes, and then disappeared 10 seconds later. The Viet Cong’s favorite trap by far was the punji stick. It was a simple trap in which about 25, 12-inch long pieces of sharpened bamboo were placed in a pit. The pit would be about 2 feet deep, and when an unsuspecting soldier stepped in the concealed pit the spikes would easily go right through the soldier’s boot. This would effectively remove the soldier from the war and at least one person to help him.
These traps, while seldom fatal, injured thousands of US troops during the war. The American strategy for the first part of the war was to use so-called “search and destroy” tactics. This basically entailed sending patrols of 30-50 men into the woods to try and find the NVA/Viet Cong. This idea, though effective in killing and capturing the NVA/Viet Cong, always put the American soldiers at a disadvantage. Their enemy had lived in the jungle for their entire lives. The Americans had attended a 6 week course on jungle warfare. The Viet Cong could appear out of the jungle, shoot 2-3 people, and then disappear. This number may seem small, but over 20 years and happening nearly every hour, the causalities started to mount up for the Americans and South Vietnamese. Over the course of the war over 325,000 Americans were killed, but the North Vietnamese were still losing overall due to the massive American strategic bombing campaign.
This cycle continued until around 1970, when the protestations of the American people and people internationally started gaining momentum. Mass protests in Washington and outside the Pentagon led to a decreased troop level in Vietnam, and soon after that the president of the United States opened negotiations with the North Vietnamese. Over the next 4 years the Americans slowly withdrew. With the Americans gone, the North Vietnamese surged across the border and quickly captured South Vietnam, ending the war by 1977.
I visited the Museum of the War of American Aggression in Saigon. There were several sections of the museum dedicated to American war crimes. Both sides during the war violated the Geneva convention and committed war crimes such as torture, and the use of chemical weapons. America used a herbicide called Agent Orange. It was supposed to be used to clear the jungle so the American soldiers could see their enemy, but it was often dropped on enemy troops… and it was deadly, extremely deadly. The horrible effects of Agent Orange are still evident today, as even if you survived you would be horribly scared and disfigured. It also caused birth defects in so many children that for a time Vietnam had the highest defect rate in the world. However, North Vietnam committed war crimes out of all proportion to the Americans – from torture to executing anyone they felt like. During the war the North Vietnamese murdered over 1 million people (mostly South Vietnamese) and maimed many more. They also took many prisoners, but after the war ended only 40 percent of American POWs came home alive. Sorry to end this post on a depressing note, but we cannot forget what happened or we are doomed to repeat it. – CLaff