The act of war is only truly understood by those who have participated in it and, even then, a soldier’s loyalty is to his nation and the reasons for war, if not readily self-evident, may be clouded by the motivations of those who send him, and those who subsequently record the event.

Regardless of these entangled themes, with the exception of those who commit war crimes, a soldier bravely performs his duty in the face of terror, hardship and suffering, for many the last act in the drama of their often short lives, for which he or she is rightly remembered in honour.

Virtually everywhere in human history, and in all eras, warfare sadly seems an intrinsic component of the human condition.

It is in the nature of most creatures to acquire and defend territory, kill rivals and fight over food, and in this respect, despite all our apparent advances in civilisation, knowledge and wishes to the contrary, human beings are no different, and seem unable to shake off this most basic instinct.

From the time that the first human accidentally cut his hand on the sharp solidified molten remains found among the hearth stones surrounding the fire, the immediate comprehension of metal as a weapon to a previously stone and bone culture, gave its users supreme advantage over their enemies, and inexorably propelled the escalation of the arts of war toward the industrial and computer assisted automated killing of today.  

Even though most people, at least on the surface, profess to be horrified by warfare, it is a simple fact that most successful films, video games and bestselling novels invariably include scenes of violence or war which, by their mere popularity, prove otherwise, reflecting a widely held fascination with violence, which the ancient Romans, among others, perfectly well understood with their spectacular orgies of killing in the arena.

In many ways, the sporting spectacles of today represent a carefully and consciously controlled parallel of the same emotional mass tribal outpouring of competitive aggression.

In the film and television industries, the principal justification of storylines and plots, in most cases, revolve around the notion of justice or freedom being delivered by the heroic protagonists of the tale, and here we begin to delve into the maze of ambiguous twists of motive, false promises, betrayals, the propagandist manipulation of truth and history, and, in some cases, downright lies and brutal murder.

In any given conflict, the subtleties of the subconscious interweaving of assumptions perceived subjectively as truth, may ultimately depend upon national or cultural loyalties, flawed education and understanding, religion and the consequent inherited overarching perspective of what is right, all of which can be spurious.

THE ORIGINS OF THE VIETNAM WAR

Whilst it must always be remembered that, even before the arrival of the European powers, the countries of Southeast Asia, as indeed everywhere else in the world, were themselves continually shaped and redefined by warfare, it was the undoubtably the plundering presence of Britain, France, Spain, Holland and Portugal who between them gave rise to the complicated wars of independence which feature so heavily in the historical narrative of many of these nations.

Nowhere did this situation get more blurred and deathly than in French Indochina.

Vietnamese resistance to the often brutal French occupation began with the Can Vuong movement in 1885, set up by the young Emperor Ham Nghi. Unable to take on the French militarily, the movement largely tackled the cultural threat by targeting Vietnamese Christian converts.

The French retaliated by installing his more compliant brother as Emperor in his stead. Ham Nghi was captured in 1888 and exiled to North Africa, but one of the former Emperor’s entourage, Phan Dinh Phung, took up the struggle for a further ten years using similar tactics until the French eventually surrounded his camp and executed his followers. 

During the First World War, 100,000 Vietnamese were sent to France as labourers or fighters on the front, and, ironically in the fertile philosophic free thinking then swirling around France, and Paris in particular, many of these displaced citizens were first introduced to communist thinking.

Independently, a young Ho Chi Minh, then known as Nguyan Tat Thanh, had left Vietnam in 1911, taking a job on a French ship bound for Marseilles, and subsequently spent several years working on ships, travelling widely until 1917, including a visit to the United States.

Living in France between 1919 and 1923, Ho mixed with other Vietnamese nationals in Paris, and in 1920 became a founding member of the French Communist Party. Over the following years, he became active as an influential communist activist and campaigner for Vietnamese Independence during travels to China, the Soviet Union, India and Thailand.

Back in Indochina, the Indochina Communist Party came into being against the backdrop of the 1930’s depression and a famine which was gripping the area, with the French doing nothing to ease the pain of widespread joblessness and poverty.

Several uprisings were met with brutal reprisal, but the movement nevertheless persevered and was particularly strong in the southern areas around Saigon.

The fall of France in 1940 to Nazi Germany led to the collaborationist Vichy government relinquishing much of the control of Vietnam to the Japanese, who began their co-occupation of the country later in the same year.

Initially some Vietnamese responded positively to the Japanese occupation and, for their part, the Japanese initially made overtures to win them over to their rule, and the Vietnamese were largely spared the brutality of the Japanese so transparent in its occupations all over Southeast Asia.

Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam in 1941, setting up a secret base in a cave close to the Chinese border, and founded the league for Vietnamese Independence, known locally as the Viet Minh, which drew widespread support from all indigenous political persuasions, and was aimed at securing the liberation of the country from both Imperialist powers.

In August 1941, The US and Britain drafted a document known as the Atlantic Charter, later ratified by all the allied nations, including France, which postulated a post war reality which, among other things, specified the right of peoples to self-determination and the post war independence of European colonies. 

With the bombing of Pearl Harbour in late December, 1941, the United States had also felt the rising power of Japan in the east and, having by consequence entered the war, strategically began to aid the Viet Minh against the Vichy French and Japanese, through assistance provided by American Intelligence.

In the light of this cooperation, by 1943, US President Roosevelt, previously a supporter of French occupation of the country that conveniently provided much of its rubber, was now making favourable vocalisations towards a future Vietnamese independence.

The successful allied invasion of Nazi Europe in June 1944, had led to the subsequent liberation of Paris by August of that year and, in Vietnam, many of the French nationals in the Vichy government began to experience a sudden realignment of loyalty toward the new government of General de Gaulle.

As these sentiments began to grow, the Japanese acted in March 1945, taking full control of Vietnam and persuaded Emperor Bao Dai to relinquish the former treaty with France and declare Vietnam independent of France, though not of Japan.

In the wake of this action, several other Independence movements began to sense the changing tide and became increasingly active.

The necessity of their struggle was amplified by the famine and floods of 1945 which led to widespread death and suffering that the Japanese did little to alleviate. Indeed popular raids by the Viet Minh on ‘Japanese’ granaries to liberate food for the masses provoked brutal Japanese wrath, despite which the Viet Minh managed to take advantage of a now weakening Japan, taking control of several villages and towns.

DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE

Following the inevitable demise of the Japanese Empire, in the wake of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Ho Chi Minh seized his moment, and on August 15th, the day of Japanese surrender, launched a well prepared takeover, occupying Hanoi four days later.

Emperor Bao Dai agreed to abdicate and Ho Chi Minh declared the Independence of the new Democratic Republic of Vietnam on September 2nd, 1945, an expression of the restoration of longed for nationhood which fate, by its own decree, would only allow to last for twenty days.

To oversee the Japanese surrender, under terms agreed at the post war Potsdam conference in Germany, 200,000 Chinese troops entered Hanoi, where the Viet Minh were blissfully engaged in the removal of French street names and the rounding up, imprisonment and sometimes killing of French civilians, while in the south, British forces were ominously accompanied by a detachment of French troops in direct defiance of the agreement at Potsdam.

In blatant disregard of the Atlantic Charter, the French, with the complicity of the British, attacked the Viet Minh in Saigon on September 22nd and took over the city. By October, French forces were boosted by an influx 35,000 soldiers.

Furthermore, in agreement with the Chinese as a condition of their withdrawal from Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh was reluctantly forced to accept the lesser compromise ambition of an autonomous North Vietnamese state within French Indochina, with French troops allowed freedom of movement, even though he knew full well that the French had no intention of honouring any such agreement.

Negotiations between Hanoi and the French would continue throughout 1946, but in November the French attacked Haiphong, killing a great many civilians in the bombardment. On December the 19th, the French entered Hanoi which, unsurprisingly, resulted in a state of all out warfare.

THE FRENCH INDOCHINA WAR

The rekindling of colonial conflict, now also known as the First Indochina War, in the early years went in favour of the French, aided by their superior firepower, who took Hue and most other provincial capitals, while the Viet Minh were forced to retreat into the countryside to regroup and engage in guerrilla tactics.

The gradual acquisition and training of new recruits began to give the Viet Minh the edge in numbers, but the real breakthrough came when Mao Tse Tung and his Chinese communists entered Beijing in 1949, taking over China, and obligingly availed their Vietnamese bothers in arms of the weaponry they sorely lacked, which by 1950, began to equalise the odds.

In the United States, following Mao’s success in China, the McCarthyist takeover of American politics and media led to a heightening of anti-communist fervour, which would see US troops enter Korea to make war there, and additionally provide fifteen million dollars of military aid to the French in Vietnam, eventually providing a total of three billion dollars in equipment and aid during the course of the conflict.

Over the next two years, individual battles ebbed and flowed in virtual stalemate yet, through the gradual attrition of guerrilla war, the Viet Minh secured increasing swathes of northern territory.

The French, aware of the importance of Viet Minh supply lines from China through the town of Dien Bien Phu, decided to invade the settlement with a combined attack of paratroopers and a ground assault, which they successfully accomplished in November 1953, little realising their strategic error.

Meanwhile, responding to a proposal to settle the war diplomatically, Ho Chi Minh agreed to a meeting in Geneva which was aimed at not only resolving the Indochina conflict, but also the securing terms over the concurrent Korean War, which had achieved a ceasefire in July, 1953.

Sensing an opportunity for strategic advantage at the forthcoming talks, scheduled for May 8, 1954, Viet Minh forces surrounded Dien Bien Phu in March, trapping some 10,000 French troops.

Seeing the writing on the wall, Washington organised air drops to help supply the French, and considered several other options including a tactical nuclear strike, which was opposed by Britain, and eventually decided against direct intervention.

The colonial war was finally brought to an end in May 1954, when the French surrendered at Dien Bien Phu.

GENEVA ACCORDS

As part of the internationally supervised settlement in Geneva, Vietnam was temporarily and arbitrarily divided at the 17th Parallel while elections to properly decide the country’s future were promised for 1956, a commitment that was never kept.

With French rule now over, a new US backed anti-communist government took over control of an independent South Vietnam, with Ngo Dinh Diem appointed prime minister and later elected President in a flagrantly fraudulent election. In 1955 the US began a programme of military aid to the south, and sent advisers to train its fledgling army.

Meanwhile in the north, the true scale of the betrayal and pollution of the ideals of the independence movement became evident during a brutal period of Maoist style ‘purification’ which now took place, with many thousands executed and many more sent to labour camps as the Viet Minh sought to reshape society under the newly introduced communist 'principles'.

In the south, things were barely less brutal, with Diem rounding up pockets of local Viet Cong (southern communists) resistance, and openly stealing land from Buddhists as he sought to form a pro-Catholic state, within which he was the principal financial beneficiary. The death penalty was introduced for any perceived communist activity.

The deadline passed for the promised elections, which the south, under US advice and guidance, refused to participate in, fearing that Ho Chi Minh would win.

In the meantime, the Viet Minh had recovered its strength after falling into its period of bloody disarray in the north and, by 1959, had declared a ‘Peoples War’ to unite Vietnam, imposing conscription in the following year in order to prepare for the inevitable battle ahead.

In November 1961, the US set operation Ranch Hand in motion, testing the use of chemical weapons on Vietnam, aimed at defoliating the forest hiding places of communist forces. 

Although US Special Forces had been engaged in covert operations, disguised as Vietnamese fighters, the first official US combat mission was operation Chopper, in which American Air Cavalalry directly engaged along with a thousand South Vietnamese troops to attack enemy positions.

In 1963, the blatant corruption of the South Vietnamese leader and his persecution of Buddhists in the south became a crisis, threatening US strategic interests, as increasing numbers of Buddhists were murdered and their wealth plundered. When Lam Van Tuc, a Vietnamese Mahayana Monk set himself on fire in protest, an image that was beamed around the world, causing much consternation in the US, America decided to act, and conspired with the generals surrounding Diem, who were provided $42,000 dollars in assistance to arrange his assassination, which duly took place on November 2, 1963.

The assassination of President Kennedy three weeks later has led to speculations that a cadre within American politics was determined to have a full-scale war to oust North Vietnam, and it is certainly interesting that his successor, Lyndon B Johnson, then his vice president and rival, had previously implored Kennedy to send 100,000 troops to Vietnam, which Kennedy had turned down, causing a split in the government. Another key player, Robert McNamara, had also unsuccessfully petitioned Kennedy for 200,000 troops.

What is certain is that American-backed secret bombing raids began along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in March the following year in Laos, despite the US having earlier signed a declaration to respect Laotian neutrality. 

Also in March the US began to prepare a strategy for bombing North Vietnam, while the costs of supporting the situation in South Vietnam escalated to $2 million per day. By this time, some 16,000 US troops and several covert special forces units were already in South Vietnam and in July, a further supplement of 5,000 troops were sent.

In the summer of 1964, a major series of guerrilla incursions by 56,000 Viet Cong soldiers in several locations in South Vietnam took place, reinforced by Viet Minh forces from the north. 

THE VIETNAM WAR

In late May of 1964, Johnson had expressed concerns as to whether the US public would back an official war in Vietnam, particularly after Senator Goldwater had publicly aired the possible use of nuclear strikes, which had caused much disquiet.

With fateful convenience, two US destroyers engaged in espionage were claimed to have been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin by North Vietnamese torpedo boats on August 4th, 1964, supported by several false ‘eye witness’ accounts in the suitably outraged media, which was used as a pretext for the US Congress to pass a resolution authorising full scale war. 

The then Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, later admitted (in 2003) that the incident never actually occurred. This tendency to mislead the public to achieve war ambitions has often been recycled since, famously in the account of the sinking of the Belgrano that began hostilities in the British Falklands War, and most dramatically in the prelude to the Second Persian Gulf War in Iraq, when the United Nations was treated to a stellar performance by Colin Powell, armed with glossy visual presentations of fictionalised evidence of Saddam Hussein's arsenal of 'weapons of mass destruction'.

Having thus successfully engineered public opinion to their ambitions, by June of the following year, 82,000 US combat troops were stationed in Vietnam, with a further 100,000 arriving the following month. The following year, the force would be supplemented with a further 100,000 and eventually totalled half a million men by November 1967. Additional contingents of troops were also sent from Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and South Korea.

On March 2, 1965, Operation Rolling Thunder was launched, a massive and virtually unceasing aerial bombardment of targets in Vietnam which would last for three years, but which ultimately failed in its objective of defeating the opposition. The first direct clash between North Vietnamese forces and US ground troops occurred at the battle of La Drang, in November, 1965.

During the war the American military dropped nearly eight million tons of bombs, used seven and a half million tons of ground munitions and two hundred thousand tons of naval munitions. In addition, nearly twenty million gallons of chemical defoliants and three hundred and seventy tons of Napalm were used.  

Despite the deployment of this vast amount of weaponry and overwhelming firepower, the communist insurgency, though heavily damaged, never abated. America didn’t so much lose the war in Vietnam but, rather, failed to win it. Where they truly lost the war was at home.

As the American public, and even US soldiers themselves, began to question the war, the tide began to turn, with escalating protests leading the US government to initiate secret peace talks with Hanoi. Meanwhile some half a million American men, anxious not to be sent to Vietnam, had become so called draft-dodgers.

In March 1968, the infamous My Lai Massacre of unarmed Vietnamese civilians by US troops was originally portrayed in the media as a military victory and the truth covered up by none other than a then younger Colin Powell, until the story was exposed publicly by an investigative journalist on November 12, 1969.

Meanwhile, Ho Chi Minh, now aged 79, died of heart failure, on September 2, 1969, never knowing the outcome of the war.

Just three days after the My Lai massacre came to light, a quarter of a million Americans took to the streets of Washington to protest against the war, which led to the decision to begin a process of gradual American withdrawal from 1969.

In 1970, further revelations of the incursions by the US into Cambodia and Laos, in violation of international law, came to light and began another wave of resentment back home, in which six protesting students were killed by National Guardsmen, just one of many significant protests which would follow. These cross border adventures also had unforeseen consequences that would play their part in the deathly future of Cambodia.

In January 1971, President Nixon repealed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, following the public exposure of the truth surrounding the ‘incident’ that had been used to justify the war.

As the American leadership bowed to the domestic unpopularity of the war, troop numbers continued to decline throughout 1970 to 1972, though bombing raids continued unabated. Indeed, in a bid to incentivise the communists to settle for peace, Nixon ordered the most concentrated bombing in history against targets in the north over the Christmas period of 1972.

Following the eventual conclusion of peace talks in Paris which had been labouring in stalemate since 1968, a peace declaration was finally signed by all parties on January 27, 1973. 

The depleted northern forces continued its skirmishes, now unhindered, but were by now too weakened to mount a full invasion of the south. In 1974 the US provided substantial financial aid to South Vietnam, but when the north violated the cease fire agreement by attacking Phuoc Long province, in December 1964, the Americans took no action.

Spurred on by the lack of reaction to the violation, northern forces began their assault on March 10, 1975, capturing most of the country by the end of the month. Saigon finally fell on April 30.

For the first time through over a century of struggle since the Treaty of Saigon in 1862, Vietnam was finally a single nation of its own again, but instead of forgiving the past in the interests of celebrating that fact, bitter and cruel recriminations would follow.

During the war, terrible crimes and atrocities were committed on both sides, but the conquerors were not magnanimous in victory, and a brutal programme of ‘re-education’ similar to that which followed the victory in Dien Bien Phu would now prevail in the south and Vietnam would take many years to begin the process of normalisation, before the country finally set a new course toward a peaceful and prosperous future.

In the final analysis, there is a great deal to regret on all sides about a war that was supremely costly in every possible sense, but ultimately, the ambition to free itself of a colonial master, ostensibly built on the ideals of liberte, egalite, fraternite, that did not have the good grace to relinquish its unlawful control in a more enlightened time, is nothing Vietnam would, nor ever should, feel ashamed of.
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