This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
Pham To looked great for 78 years old. (At least, that's about how old he thought he was.) His hair was thin, gray, and receding at the temples, but his eyes were lively and his physique robust—all the more remarkable given what he had lived through. I listened intently, as I had so many times before to so many similar stories, but it was still beyond my ability to comprehend. It's probably beyond yours, too.
Pham To told me that the planes began their bombing runs in 1965 and that periodic artillery shelling started about the same time. Nobody will ever know just how many civilians were killed in the years after that. "The number is uncountable," he said one spring day a few years ago in a village in the mountains of rural central Vietnam. "So many people died."
And it only got worse. Chemical defoliants came next, ravaging the land. Helicopter machine gunners began firing on locals. By 1969, bombing and shelling were day-and-night occurrences. Many villagers fled. Some headed further into the mountains, trading the terror of imminent death for a daily struggle of hardscrabble privation; others were forced into squalid refugee resettlement areas. Those who remained in the village suffered more when the troops came through. Homes were burned as a matter of course. People were kicked and beaten. Men were shot when they ran in fear. Women were raped. One morning, a massacre by American soldiers wiped out 21 fellow villagers. This was the Vietnam War for Pham To, as for so many rural Vietnamese.
One, Two… Many Vietnams?
At the beginning of the Iraq War, and for years after, reporters, pundits, veterans, politicians, and ordinary Americans asked whether the American debacle in Southeast Asia was being repeated. Would it be "another Vietnam"? Would it become a "quagmire"?
The same held true for Afghanistan. Years after 9/11, as that war, too, foundered, questions about whether it was "Obama's Vietnam" appeared ever more frequently. In fact, by October 2009, a majority of Americans had come to believe it was "turning into another Vietnam."
In those years, "Vietnam" even proved a surprisingly two-sided analogy—after, at least, generals began reading and citing revisionist texts about that war. These claimed, despite all appearances, that the US military had actually won in Vietnam (before the politicians, media, and antiwar movement gave the gains away). The same winning formula, they insisted, could be used to triumph again. And so, a failed solution from that failed war, counterinsurgency, or COIN, was trotted out as the military panacea for impending disaster.
Debated comparisons between the two ongoing wars and the one that somehow never went away, came to litter newspapers, journals, magazines, and the Internet—until David Petraeus, a top COINdinista general who had written his doctoral dissertation on the "lessons" of the Vietnam War, was called in to settle the matter by putting those lessons to work winning the other two. In the end, of course, US troops were booted out of Iraq, while the war in Afghanistan continues to this day as a dismally devolving stalemate, now wracked by "green-on-blue" or "insider" attacks on US forces, while the general himself returned to Washington as CIA director to run covert wars in Pakistan and Yemen before retiring in disgrace following a sex scandal.
Still, for all the ink about the "Vietnam analogy," virtually none of the reporters, pundits, historians, generals, politicians, or other members of the chattering classes ever so much as mentioned the Vietnam War as Pham To knew it. In that way, they managed to miss the one unfailing parallel between America's wars in all three places: civilian suffering.
For all the dissimilarities, botched analogies, and tortured comparisons, there has been one connecting thread in Washington's foreign wars of the last half century that, in recent years at least, Americans have seldom found of the slightest interest: misery for local nationals. Civilian suffering is, in fact, the defining characteristic of modern war in general, even if only rarely discussed in the halls of power or the mainstream media.
An Unimaginable Toll
Pham To was lucky. He and Pham Thang, another victim and a neighbor, told me that, of the 2,000 people living in their village before the war, only 300 survived it. Bombing, shelling, a massacre, disease, and starvation had come close to wiping out their entire settlement. "So many people were hungry," Pham Thang said. "With no food, many died. Others were sick and with medications unavailable, they died, too. Then there was the bombing and shelling, which took still more lives. They all died because of the war."
Leaving aside those who perished from disease, hunger, or lack of medical care, at least 3.8 million Vietnamese died violent war deaths according to researchers from Harvard Medical School and the University of Washington. The best estimate we have is that 2 million of them were civilians. Using a very conservative extrapolation, this suggests that 5.3 million civilians were wounded during the war, for a total of 7.3 million Vietnamese civilian casualties overall. To such figures might be added an estimated 11.7 million Vietnamese forced from their homes and turned into refugees, up to 4.8 million sprayed with toxic herbicides like Agent Orange, an estimated 800,000 to 1.3 million war orphans, and 1 million war widows.