Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Devastation We Inflict

Published on Monday, January 23, 2006
Two Letters from Vietnam Vets on "Collateral Damage" in Iraq

Almost two weeks ago, I published a piece by Michael Schwartz, "A Formula for Slaughter," on the brutal nature of American "rules of engagement" from the air in Iraq and the consequent proliferation of Iraqi civilian casualties. As it happened, this piece spurred powerful memories in a number of Vietnam veterans who wrote vivid e-responses in to Tomdispatch -- striking enough that I chose the two most eloquent to send out (with permission, of course) in my latest dispatch (along with a discussion of my own on the way the Vietnam experience has dogged the Bush administration in its Iraqi adventure). The first letter comes from Wade Kane, once a helicopter door gunner and crew chief in Vietnam, who wrote in from Crescent City, Florida; the second is from George Hoffman, a former Vietnam medic, from Lorain, Ohio, which he describes as being "thirty miles west of Cleveland, in the heart of the industrial rust belt, and my apartment has a scenic view of the smokestacks and the steel mill." Both in their accounts give the Vietnam analogy in Iraq painful new meaning. These are the sorts of voices we should hear far more from in this country and, unfortunately, almost never do. -- Tom Engelhardt

Wade Kane writes:

Dear Tom,

Although I'm sure we occasionally execute some innocent person after years on Death Row, we as a nation go to great lengths not to execute any innocents. Only the worst of murderers seem to reach death row. So it seems quite ironic that we accept seeing some men apparently planting a bomb on the side of a road in Iraq via a video from a Predator drone and, using that information, decide to drop a 500-pound bomb on a house where they might be hiding, a house where we don't have a clue if there are other people.

Killing innocent women and children is okay, "just" collateral damage… If this is "okay," then why wasn't what Lt. Calley did in Vietnam okay? Similarly, why were Hiroshima and Nagasaki okay, but My Lai wasn't? Somehow, when our soldiers shoot innocents at close range we are appalled, but when it is done via bombs or artillery it's "okay."

At about the same time My Lai occurred, I was flying as a crew chief/gunner on a Chinook [helicopter]. Passing a small village I thought I heard a single shot directed at my helicopter. Or maybe it was just "blade pop." Looking into the village, I could see women and children in the streets in what I'd call a "pastoral scene." I elected not to "return fire," though by my unit's rules of engagement I could have done so. About an hour later we happened to fly past that village again. There was no one in sight, but there were numerous bomb craters in the rice paddies and where homes had been. My guess is that someone else received fire, or thought they received fire, returned fire, and the pilots called for an air strike. I doubt any of the people in the village had time to flee from the attack. Never ever have I heard anything about that event, just My Lai...

I'm not guiltless. At about the same time, flying low level -- like 20 feet AGL [Above Ground Level] at 140 mph -- we passed a family tending a tapioca field. As we came by, a young boy of 12 or so picked up his hoe and pointed it at us like a weapon. I tried to swing my M-60 around and shoot him, but we were going too fast. At the time, I would have felt it was a good shoot as he was "practicing" shooting us down. Now, with young sons of my own, I'm appalled I could have been so callous.

People here got really worried about a flashlight at a Starbucks (which might have been a bomb). Had it been a bomb, which it wasn't, it would have weighed about 1/500th of what we routinely drop in residential neighborhoods in Iraq. It's like most people don't seem to realize what devastation we inflict there on a frequent basis. Today, for example, someone I know sent me some "feel good pictures" about our troops in Iraq. You know: old ladies holding up "Thanks, Mr. Bush" signs, smiling kids. Pictures she said that "just don't make the news." For "don't make the news," how about some pictures of kids that our bombs have eviscerated? Pictures of the sort that are found in Where War Lives, a Photographic Journal of Vietnam by Dick Durrance (intro by Ron Kovic).

We should be the bright light to the world, spending our tax monies on cures for malaria, not on killing innocents.

Have we no shame?

From the bottom of my heart I wish to thank those who, like yourself, are trying to bring an end to this war madness.

Wade Kane

War time:
SP/5 Wade O. Kane RA 14952996
Co. A, 228th AVN BN (ASH)
1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile)
June ‘67 to June ‘68
Door Gunner on Chinook 64-13137, Aug '65 to Nov '67
Crew chief/door gunner on Chinook 64-13140, Nov '67 to June '68
Occasional ramp gunner various Co. A Chinooks, Feb '68 to June '68

The Que Son Valley & LZ Leslie
Battle for the Citadel at Hue during Tet '68
The relief of the Marines at Khe Sanh
The April ‘68 A Shau Valley campaign

George Hoffman writes:
Dear Tom,

I want you to know that many Vietnam vets really have had a hard time dealing with this unnecessary war in Iraq that has taken the lives of so many innocent Iraqis as well as American men and women serving there. I am sure that the reason I have such deep feelings about this war is that, as a medical corpsman in Vietnam, every day for a year I had to go into a hospital, face such casualties, and deal with them on such a visceral level.

I served in Vietnam as a medical corpsman from May 31, 1967 to May 31, 1968 at the 12th USAF Hospital in Cam Ranh Bay. Besides treating wounded soldiers, the facility also had a special ward for Vietnamese nationals. Usually they were the officials and relatives of the Thieu administration, highly educated and employed in government positions. But occasionally the patients were peasants, average people whom the Americans were supposedly trying to win over to our side (the hearts-and-minds issue). And they were usually patients wounded by shrapnel -- "collateral damage." And, of course, having been wounded by the Americans, they were angry at them and their hearts and minds were lost to the other side, the supposedly evil VC guerillas.

With that bit of unfortunately necessary personal information, let me move on to your latest dispatch. I understand the rationale of the Bush administration's policy of air supremacy which seems logical in military terms, but it is a complete failure in diplomatic terms. I am sure that many thousands of innocent Iraqis, whose only sin is that they lived next to some house with insurgents, or in that house, have been murdered in these so-called surgical air strikes with precision bombs; and, as in Vietnam, these operations are becoming a major reason that Americans are losing Iraqi hearts and minds as well turning Iraqi civilians into insurgents.

In addition to the reporters and editors in the mainstream media, most of whom remain ignorant of the horrible reality for Iraqi civilians in these operations, the average American citizen seems to have taken the bait of the Bush administration's propaganda about how the war is being prosecuted, hook, line, and sinker. Civilians really have no concept of how horrible "collateral damage" can be and it will be a hard lesson to learn, since major media outlets basically refuse to report on this issue.

Of course, the insurgents love the American policy of air supremacy, because each new wound and/or death is a great tool for recruitment to their side. I think it is more than a coincidence that the married couple, who traveled from Iraq to Jordan and were found to have lived in Fallujah, were among the suicide bombers that participated in the attacks in the hotels in Amman. In one article that I read, a reporter stated that residents in Fallujah were quietly celebrating the attacks. Remember, the siege of Fallujah in November 2004 leveled close to two-thirds of all the buildings in that city. As the grunts used to say in Vietnam, payback is a real motherf----r.

Related to the siege of Fallujah is another issue that hasn't been well reported by the mainstream media. During the siege, the American forces used white phosphorus artillery rounds. I treated soldiers in Vietnam, who had been wounded by shrapnel coated in white phosphorus or, as the grunts nicknamed it, Willy Peter. Unlike napalm, Willy Peter shrapnel burns until it completely oxidizes with the air. So it burns through the skin and down to the bone. Again, the American military commanders in Iraq have used a weapon which turned Iraqi civilians against their so-called liberators and put them into the camp of the insurgents. As more American troops are redeployed out of Iraq, due to the political pressure applied to the Bush administration since Rep. Murtha came out so strongly against the war, I am sure that the field military commanders have been told to keep American casualties to a minimum, so they are likely to rely even more upon a policy of using air supremacy to take out insurgents.

One last personal observation: I suspect that, in the coming decades, historians will look back on the war in Iraq in the same way they now do on the war in Vietnam. Both wars were predicated on a false premise (the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution versus Iraq's nonexistent WMD and Saddam's nonexistent links to Al Qaeda's jihadists) and blindly accepted by congressional representatives who had the moral fortitude of jellyfish. LBJ's [President Lyndon Baines Johnson's] propaganda about nations in Southeast Asia falling like dominoes to the communists fits all too well with Bush's assertion that making Iraq a democratic model in the Middle East will mean the surrounding kingdoms and dictatorships then fall like so many dominoes to democratic reforms. Widespread illegal domestic spying on American civilians during Vietnam matches the current warrantless spying on Americans by the National Security Agency and the American military's TALON program. Finally, as with key officials in LBJ's administration, the very officials who influenced President Bush to prosecute this unnecessary war are the first to leave the administration when domestic criticism is directed at them. Of course, here I am referring to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who was the architect of the Vietnam War, and Paul Wolfowitz, who served a similar role in the war in Iraq. They both fled to the World Bank, where each later admitted that he had discounted the resolve and determination of the enemy; and, in Wolfowitz's case, that he was surprised when the war became a guerilla-style one.

If I had one word to describe the most essential quality of both the New Frontiersmen in LBJ's administration and the neocons in the Bush administration, that word would be hubris.

George Hoffman

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