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In Memoriam: Jonathan Schell

An interview with the late journalist and author who studied warfare and nuclear weapons.

| Mon Mar. 31, 2014 5:56 PM EDT

The unmistakable fact was that the general population despised the United States and if they hadn't despised it before we arrived, they soon did after we destroyed their villages. Our whole goal was to build up a political system that would stand after we left, with a functioning government supported enough by its people so it could fight on its own. But our policies were destroying whatever support that government might ever have had, which was probably about zero to begin with. The more we'd win on the battlefield—and we did just about every day in just about every battle—the more we lost the political war.

The more we "won," the more we lost. That was the paradox of Vietnam. American soldiers went over thinking they were freeing an enslaved people from their oppressors. I do think the Communists were pretty oppressive. However, it just so happened that they were the representatives of national dignity and that seemed to trump whatever oppression they dealt out. Whatever the reason, the people by and large supported them and they were the de facto government of a very considerable part of South Vietnam. So the idea that the Viet Cong were a sort of mysterious band of people that could be rooted out and separated from the population at large just didn't have a basis in political reality.

One thing that struck me very powerfully was the capacity of both the officer corps and the press corps to see things in terms of a story they had brought with them to Vietnam and not to see what was actually going on under their noses. For example, when I came back to Vietnam in the summer of 1967 I went up to Quang Ngai Province and saw that the place was being leveled by American bombing. But when I got home, I remember reading a story in the New York Times about how the marines had built a hospital in this area. Apparently the Hiroshima-like devastation that was around that hospital was not visible to the reporters of the New York Times because they weren't telling about that.

And it wasn't a subtle thing. The fire and smoke was pouring up to the heavens. You didn't have to be a detective or do any investigative journalism. The flames were roaring around you. I mapped it all out and seventy, eighty percent of the villages were just dust—ashes and dust. But that was not the story. The story was still how we were going to help the South Vietnamese resist the attack from the North. In Vietnam I learned about the capacity of the human mind to build a model of experience that screens out even very dramatic and obvious realities.

When I first went back to Vietnam that summer I joined the journalistic pack, the "boys on the bus." What they were covering at the time was this fraudulent election, a completely farcical election. One day we were all taken to a village for a campaign rally, but the candidates somehow didn't make it. Apart from the journalists, the only person who showed up was an ancient guy going around with a bullhorn shouting that there was going to be an election rally. This was supposed to be democracy in action and we were the only people there.

To report on that as if it was something real would have been absolutely absurd so I just took the next helicopter out and somehow decided to begin covering the air war in the South—the air slaughter, really. People had been writing about the bombing of North Vietnam, but the air war in the South was far more devastating and not getting much attention.

So in Quang Ngai I started going up in forward air control (FAC) planes—little Cessna two-seater spotter planes that would direct the pilots to their targets. These little planes were constantly turning and twisting, in part to avoid enemy ground fire. That and the overwhelming heat made me constantly nauseous. But I had my notebook right there in the plane and the setup was unbelievably perfect for reporting. It was as if it had been designed for reporting. It gave you this fantastic perch. You could sit over the scene of the action, witness it, and you were conveniently supplied with earphones in which you heard conversations among the pilots, the forward air controller, and the ground. The quotes were coming right into the earphones and I wrote them down as if it were a lecture at Harvard. It was an amazing stroke of journalistic luck.

The idea that the US military was operating under constraints in South Vietnam is ridiculous. We pulverized villages from the air if we merely imagined that we received hostile fire. I witnessed it with my own eyes and I saw the leaflets we dropped which said, "If you fire on us, we will destroy your village," and then a follow-up leaflet that said, "You did fire on us, and we did destroy your village." And US planes were actually bombing churches. They would see the church, target it, and blow it up. I saw that happen.

And sometimes they cracked jokes about it. They were trying to imagine that the war was something like World War II. When you were in the air you could try to forget about all the paradoxes of policy that made your very successes counterproductive. But I sensed a deep uneasiness and regret among the pilots. They sometimes sang rather brutal ditties that seemed to me like confessions in a way:

"Strafe the town and kill the people,
Drop napalm in the square,
Get out early every Sunday
And catch them at their morning prayer."

I wasn't inclined to blame the people doing it so much as the people ordering it. I got along well with the soldiers and their officers. I liked them very much. Maybe that was a defensive thing. It would have been very uncomfortable for me to be in a position of feeling fury at the people doing it. Those are deep questions. You know, just following orders is no excuse. These were atrocities—bombing villages from the air, just pulverizing houses, attacking people on the basis of little or no information. And there was this absurd supposition that if someone ran away from your attack, they automatically belonged to the Viet Cong.

It was a massacre from the air that was going on every day and I was a part of it in a way. I was kind of doing it. That was the feeling. The FACs were equipped with phosphorous rockets. They were used as markers for the bombers, but phosphorous rockets are particularly horrifying weapons—worse than napalm. It's something that burns that you can't put out. The rocket would blow up the house and then people would run out. I was witnessing from a distance, but I had a real feeling of complicity. I mean I didn't push the button, but I was there.

When I got back from Vietnam I met Jerry Wiesner, provost of MIT and a friend of my parents. He had been Kennedy's science adviser and knew Secretary of Defense McNamara. We had lunch and when I told him about what I'd seen in Vietnam he said, "Would you be willing to go and talk to McNamara about this?" I said, "Yeah, sure," and the meeting was arranged. So I went down to the Pentagon, where I'd never set foot, and was ushered into the secretary of defense's office. It's the size of a football field—a proper imperial size. And there was McNamara, all business as usual, with that slicked-back hair of steel. I began to tell my story and he said, "Come over to the map here and show me what you're talking about."

Well, I truly had my ducks in a row. I had overflown the entire province of Quang Ngai and half of Quang Tin. And so I really had chapter and verse. After a while he interrupted and asked, "Do you have anything in writing?" I said, "Yes, but it's all in longhand." So he said, "Well, I'll put you in General so-and-so's office—he's off in South America—and you can dictate it." And so for three days I sat in the general's office dictating my longhand, book-length New Yorker article on the air war in South Vietnam. Up from the bowels of the Pentagon would come typed copy. It was a dream for me, probably saving me a month's work because this was long before word processors.

Three days later, stinking to high heaven because I had no change of clothes, I reappeared in McNamara's office. I handed it to him, he took it, and that was the last I heard about it from him. But I learned later that a foreign service officer in Saigon was sent around Vietnam to retrace my steps and re-interview the pilots and the soldiers I had quoted. He even read back to the pilots the gruesome ditties they had sung for me at the bar. The foreign service officer had to admit that my book was accurate but he added, "What Schell doesn't realize is what terrible circumstances our troops are in. He doesn't realize that old ladies and children are throwing hand grenades because the people are against us." Hence, the Vietnam War makes sense because the South Vietnamese are against us!

So why couldn't we get out? When it became clear that the costs were so much greater than anything at stake on the ground in Vietnam itself, then why couldn't we just withdraw? None of the official war aims made much sense. It was hard to maintain that we were fighting for freedom or democracy in South Vietnam since the government we were defending was so obviously corrupt and dictatorial. Nor could we honestly claim to be preventing aggression when the only foreign combatants in Vietnam were Americans or soldiers paid for by the United States like the South Koreans. Even the domino theory seemed to fall apart in the face of intense nationalism, support for reunification throughout Vietnam, and the historical conflicts between Vietnam and China.

But the one justification that proved most durable was this idea of credibility. Fighting for American credibility was not a tangible goal; it was the defense of an image—an image of vast national strength and the will to use it. According to the doctrine of credibility, the United States was engaged in a global public-relations struggle in which a reverse in any part of the world, no matter how small, could undermine the whole structure of American power.

Part of the concern with maintaining credibility stemmed from a kind of psychological domino theory. In other words, policy makers worried that if the United States did not prevail in Vietnam, it would cast doubt on our determination to prevail anywhere. If the United States lost in Vietnam, then countries and revolutionaries all over the world would see that we were a paper tiger who couldn't win wars and they would be emboldened to resist our will. So what was at stake in Vietnam was the ability of the United States to maintain control all over the world on a psychological basis.

But there was another component of the doctrine of credibility that is in a way the most subtle and the least noticed, but I think the most important. It was nuclear policy. In nuclear strategy one of the crucial facts is that you can't actually fight a nuclear war. The moment that you fight the war you've lost it because everybody loses in a nuclear war. The purpose of deterrence is to prevent a nuclear war from happening. It depends entirely on producing a psychological impression in the mind of the enemy that you are a very tough guy—so tough you're ready to commit suicide and drag the enemy down with you.

Well that is a kind of crazy proposition. It doesn't have a lot of inherent credibility. Why would you commit suicide to defend yourself? So it's a real strain to keep producing an impression of toughness. All you could do in the arena of nuclear confrontation was build up your arms and talk tough. You couldn't prove your toughness by actually using the weapons. 'Round about the end of the 1950s there were a number of thinkers, including Henry Kissinger, who began to say, well, okay, we're paralyzed in the nuclear arena, but we can go out and win a few on the periphery. Here's a place where we can actually fight wars and show how tough we are. At the same time [Soviet Premier] Khrushchev began to talk about the necessity of fighting wars of national liberation in the Third World so the Soviets were making their own contribution to the rhetorical battle. Thus, the model for Vietnam was actually created before we ever went directly into that war. Because the so-called peripheral wars were supposedly winnable, and since they occurred in a context of a very shaky credibility based on nuclear weapons that you couldn't use, these limited wars came to bear an additional burden.

It was as if World War III were being fought in Vietnam. In the nuclear age, the whole structure of credibility and deterrence seemed to depend on winning these wars out there on the periphery. This was the sort of theoretical trap that the policy makers found themselves in. They thought they were not only preventing the toppling of dominoes but total war itself. And if you believed the assumptions, then almost no cost was too high to pay in Vietnam.

The above interview is from Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides by Christian Appy, copyright (c) 2003 by Christian G. Appy. Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

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