In the last episode, we learned that Horace lost his son in the War in Vietnam and that to his mind, at least, the parallels between that war and the current one in Iraq are all too real — and for him, all too painful . . .
The Last Chance Democracy Café:
Episode 13: Lies That Kill, Part Two
by Steven C. Day
And when he’s not around, it leaves an awful hole, doesn’t it?”
(Clarence Oddbody to George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life”)
“The first year after Lester was killed . . .” Winston faded off. He didn’t seem close to tears anymore. It was more a pervasive sense of sadness, a deep wound, now momentarily open to view after 30 years in hiding. “That first year I was just numb, just going through the motions. But as they say, time heals all wounds . . . no, actually that’s a crock. You never really heal. What time gives you, eventually, is the strength to cope.” Then Horace looked at Zach and asked, “Have you ever lost somebody you were really close to?”
“Someone die, you mean?”
“No . . . not really, not yet.”
“Good. At your age that’s how it should be . . . but let me warn you, it’s coming. It’s always coming . . .”
“I understand . . .”
“I hope so . . . but I’ll tell you something. You never really understand death . . . the utter emptiness . . . the awful permanence of it, until it hits someone close.”
In 1956, the United States formally assumed responsibility for training South Vietnamese forces, following the French withdrawal. In 1959, Major Dale R. Buis and Master Sergeant Chester M. Ovnand became the first U.S. servicemen to die in the war, the victims of a Vietcong guerilla attack. Major overt U.S. combat action didn’t begin, however, until the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident some five years later.
On August 2, 1964, three North Vietnamese PT boats allegedly fired torpedoes at the USS Maddox. The attack followed six months of covert U.S. and South Vietnamese navel operations against the North. Two days later, a second attack was alleged to have occurred. The weight of historical evidence suggests that this second assault, the one which led to the adoption of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and to the commencement of bombing operations over North Vietnam, never took place. Lyndon Johnson was aware of the unreliability of the reports in question. Several days after Congress adopted the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, he commented to Undersecretary of State George Ball that, “Hell, those dumb, stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish.”
By the end of the next year, 1965, troop levels in Vietnam had topped 200,000.
” . . . The thing about Lester’s death,” continued Horace, “is that first year, even as bad as I hurt, I never really blamed anyone.”
Tom said, “That’s the kind of person you are.” As trite as it sounds, I’m certain Tom was being sincere.
“Nah,” Horace waived him off. “Nothing that noble. I’m as capable of holding a grudge as the next guy. It’s just that I’ve never felt like one person has the right to be bitter toward another person based upon an honest mistake. And during that first year, that’s what I thought about the Vietnam War: It was a mistake . . . a horrible, tragic mistake, but an honest one. And the thing is, we all make mistakes. And if . . . God forbid, the stars happen to be aligned in just the wrong way when any one of us makes one, it could cost someone else their life.”
“I suppose that’s true,” replied Zach.
“Well, presidents make mistakes too . . . John Kennedy made a big mistake in the Bay of Pigs invasion, and people died because of it. It goes with the territory. These men aren’t Gods. So you can’t really blame them if, sometimes, they turn out to not be infallible. Anyway, that’s pretty much where I was in 1970. I knew in my heart that the Vietnam War was wrong, an awful misjudgment. But back then . . . I guess maybe I was naive, but back then, I still trusted what my government was telling me. I still believed, for the most part, at least, that it was an honest mistake. I just couldn’t make myself believe . . . not then, that it had all been a lie. That Lester had died for a lie.”
There was a hint of moisture in Horace’s eyes again. But he was hanging tough.
In December of 1963, eight months before the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara went on a fact-finding mission to Vietnam. His public statements reflected an almost bubbly sense of optimism. At the airport in Saigon, he told reporters that he was “optimistic as to the progress that had been made and could be made in the coming year” against the Vietcong. He was just as encouraging at a news conference held at Andrew Air Force Base, upon his return. But it was a lie.
In his private meetings with President Johnson, McNamara painted a very different picture. “Vietcong progress has been great,” he told Johnson. Then he added, “With my best guess being that the situation has in fact been deteriorating to a far greater extent than we realize . . . The situation is very disturbing.” The public wouldn’t learn of this discrepancy between the administration’s public and private appraisals of the war until the publication of the Pentagon Papers eight years later.
Horace swallowed hard, before saying, “But my viewpoint . . . my willingness to take a charitable view of the motives of those in charge . . . that all changed in 1971.”
“What happened then?” asked Zach.
“That’s the year Daniel Ellsberg gave a copy of the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times.”
“Are you familiar with the story of the Pentagon Papers?” Tom asked Zach.
“Just in a very general way.”
Tom continued, “The Pentagon Papers were the work product of a U.S. government study of American involvement in Vietnam, covering the time from World War Two through 1968. It was a huge thing — 47 volumes total, and every one of them was stamped top secret. Simply put, it disclosed an extraordinary pattern of deceit involving Vietnam running through multiple administrations . . .”
“The bottom line,” said Winston, “was that the U.S. government had been lying to the American people about Vietnam for years. One president after another had misrepresented the extent of U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia — it turned out that bombing over Laos, raids against the North Vietnamese coast and offensive actions undertaken by marines had all been going on for years before the public was informed . . . And most important, the Pentagon Papers proved that at the very same time our leaders were telling us that the War in Vietnam was intended to stop outside communist aggression, they knew . . . they knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the insurgents were actually far more popular with the South Vietnamese people than the American backed government. This was no Godless communist horde of outsiders pounding on the gates. It was a civil war, growing out of an anti-colonial war.”
Years later, in 1997, the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas released audiotapes of White House conversations that had been secretly recorded by Lyndon Johnson. The tapes proved that at the very same time that Johnson was publicly cheerleading the war, he was actually racked by private misgivings. “We’re in quicksand up to our necks,” he told Senator Richard Russell on May 27, 1964, “and I just don’t know what the hell to do about it.”
Three years later, in late 1967, nearly 500,000 American troops were serving in Vietnam.
By 1968, the war seemed to be literally tearing America apart. In March, President Johnson stunned the nation by announcing that he would not seek reelection. There was “division in the American House,” he said, and he was withdrawing in the interest of “national unity.” In April, Martin Luther King was assassinated, followed, in June, by the assassination of Robert Kennedy.
At the Democratic convention in August, Mayor Richard Daley ordered a police crackdown on antiwar protestors. As the nation watched on television, the streets of Chicago erupted into chaos. Richard Nixon was elected president over Hubert Humphrey by a razor-thin margin. Nixon was widely quoted as having told a reporter that he had a secret plan to end the war. He didn’t. And the deceit continued and even became magnified during Nixon’s slow decent into Watergate and disgrace.
Horace shrugged sadly. “It’s been more than thirty years since the Pentagon Papers became public . . . I still can’t believe it. Losing my son would have been horrible under any circumstance . . . but to lose him because my own government lied to me. You tell me how someone is supposed to live with that. How they’re supposed to move on . . . I’m sorry. I swore I wouldn’t . . .”
The emotion in his voice was inescapable, but Horace didn’t break down. In fact, he started to speak even more forcefully,
“But forget about me,” he continued. “Forget about old men and their old graveyards. Tell me how the families of the men and women dying in Iraq today are supposed to live with it. At least in Vietnam, the bastards made a halfway credible effort of covering up their deceit. With the current bunch . . . with Bush and these so-called neoconservatives, it’s like they don’t even think they need to bother. It’s just one lie after another. The more blatant the better. And every time you catch them in one, they just spout three more. My God, the list could fill a piece of paper stretching to the moon — Iraq supports al Qaeda, Saddam was behind Sept. 11, weapons of mass destruction, an easy bloodless war, cheering crowds and on and on . . .”
“It’s pathological,” muttered Tom.
Winston disagreed, “No, it’s worse than that. Pathological lying implies a mental disorder of some type, which would be an excuse of sort . . . No, it isn’t pathology, it’s just arrogance. They’re just so damn smart, so much smarter than the rest of us, so much smarter even than the real experts. So, if they have to tell a few lies as part of leading us to the promised land, so be it. The end, as that other fanatic once said, justifies the means.”
“Unfortunately, that promised land of a peaceful, modern and democratic Middle East they promised us, is turning out to be just one more desert mirage,” added Tom.
“And just one more betrayal,” added Winston.
“And in the meanwhile,” said Horace, “the body bags just keep coming. That’s the thing. Bush can ignore them, hide from them like a coward. He can refuse to meet the planes, decline to attend the services. He can do all of that and more to try to hide the awful truth from the people, but he can’t stop those bags from coming and coming and coming . . . the brave sons and daughters of America, victims of his deceit.”
“How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake,” Tom quoted young John Kerry for a second time..
“No,” said Horace, “not this time. This time the question is how do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a lie.”
More than 58,000 Americans died in the War in Vietnam. It is believed that close to a million Vietnamese perished. U.S. involvement continued until 1973, while Nixon pursued a policy of “Vietnamization.” The theory was to gradually shift the burden of defeating the communists away from the U.S. and onto the South Vietnamese army. It didn’t work. In 1975 South Vietnam fell.
Contrary to the many dire warnings offered under the so-called Domino Theory, the fall of Vietnam didn’t lead to the spread of communism. True, South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, historically tied nations of little strategic importance to the U.S., all eventually fell to communist forces. But communism spread no further. And in late December of 1978, just two and a half years after the official reunification of Vietnam, communist Vietnam invaded communist Cambodia. Two mouths later, communist Vietnam was itself invaded by communist China, resulting in a brief bloody border war.
It would seem that the concerns over monolithic communism spreading across the globe were a bit exaggerated — a warning to the ages, one would think, of the folly of any nation presuming that it has the foresight to justify pursuing a purely preemptive war.
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The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is visited by more than four million people every year. Many of the visitors are family and friends of soldiers lost in the war. It’s common for people to locate the name of a loved one along the long somber, yet strikingly beautiful wall and then to take a tracing of it on a piece of paper. Many tears are shed by men and women of all ages — tears for the loss, tears for what might have been and tears for the awful holes left behind.
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When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 25 years. Contact Steven at .
© Copyright Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001