Saturday, November 1, 2008

Heroes, Then & Now: The Twin Sagas of John McCain and William Ayers

There’s something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say "Be non-violent toward [Selma, Alabama segregationist sheriff] Jim Clark," but will curse and damn you when you say, "Be non-violent toward little brown Vietnamese children."
--Martin Luther King, Jr. 'Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam"

The more important the rule, the greater is the likelihood that knowledge is based on avoided tests.
--American Sociologist Harold Garfinkel, “Studies in Ethnomethodology”

Thanks to the McCain-Palin campaign, Bill Ayers has more name recognition today as a former bomber, than he ever had back in the day when he actually was conspiring to plant bombs. Just why Mr. Ayers felt compelled to plant bombs forty years ago, however, is a question left unasked. Likewise, no one feels particularly compelled today to ask John McCain what exactly did the senior senator from Arizona do during the Vietnam War. The agreed upon consensus is that the former was a “terrorist,” while the latter was a “hero.” Everybody knows that.

Which I find troublesome, and not just because the kindler gentler race mobs that pass for Governor Palin’s political rallies also “know” that Senator Obama is the Manchurian Candidate Muslim prophesized in the Revelation of St. John as the communistic socialist Anti-Christ--after all, there’s no denying his people killed Christ.

So, why is William Ayers a “terrorist,” while Senator McCain a “war hero”? Unfortunately, even at first glance, the clear answer starts to blur. Bill Ayers and the loose confederation that made up Weather Underground were a self-anointed American wing of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front, or Vietcong. Consequently, they were on a mission from god (so to speak) to place raggedy, homemade bombs in “military targets,” to help discourage America from bombing Vietnam. So far so good: he's a terrorist.

But why was America in general, and John McCain in particular, bombing Vietnam?

Just what exactly makes Senator John McCain's combat experience "heroic"? How should--or even could--you explain how John McCain was 'fighting for his country' in Vietnam? Why isn’t Senator McCain a terrorist, not entirely dissimilar from the terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center Buildings and the Pentagon? And if there are no good answers to those questions, then why isn’t Bill Ayers a hero, for putting his life and liberty at risk, in a futile (if not silly) effort to stop an activity most of the world considered (both then and now) a crime against humanity?

The Vietnam War

These facts are not in dispute. During the Second World War, several Vietnamese nationalist groups formed the Viet Minh, under the nominal leadership of Ho Chi Minh, to fight Japanese occupation. After Japan was defeated, the Vietnamese expected they would be granted their independence, in recognition for their contributions to the Allied war effort. France, however, refused to give up its holdings in Indochina. The Viet Minh, having trained from fighting the Japanese, began fighting the French. In 1954, a peace conference was held in Geneva, involving France, Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (what eventually became North Vietnam), Laos, the Peoples' Republic of China, State of Vietnam (South Vietnam), the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom. The United States had been supporting France's efforts to preserve colonial rule, even aiding the newly created Vietnamese National Army to combat the Viet Minh. However, the United States refused to participate in or even recognize the Geneva peace conference.

On April 27 1954, the conference produced the Geneva Accords: Vietnam was nominally given its independence, and the country partitioned into northern and southern zones. The Accord also provided that Vietnam would be unified, following internationally supervised free elections in July 1956.

In 1955, elections (as such) were held in South Vietnam, with Emperor Bao Dai running on a platform to restore the monarchy, opposed by Ngo Dinh Diem, who vowed to create some unspecified form of republican government. Diem, though, did have a base of support in Vietnam's Catholic minority, as opposed to the Buddhist majority. Additionally, Diem had the backing of the Americans, as well as control over the existing governmental apparatus in the South (such as it was). Even though Diem would have been elected president under any semblance of a free election, he preferred to be 'elected' by 98.2% of the vote, including winning 133% of the registered voters in Saigon.

As the date for the July 1956 elections drew near, it was clear that Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh would win by a substantial margin in every part of Vietnam. Rather than face certain defeat, President Diem and his American backers withdrew from the elections, claiming that the Republic of Vietnam had not been part of the Accords, and therefore was not bound by them.

South Vietnam under the rule of President Diem and his extended family quickly devolved into a morass of incompetence and corruption. By December 1960, disparate South Vietnamese groups of communists, nationalists, and people generally opposed to President Diem formed the National Liberation Front (Vietcong), to fight the autocratic rule of the Diem family. Most of the fighting of the 'Vietnam War' prior to 1968 was between Southerners: the Vietcong versus the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). That changed, however, following February and March of 1968, when the entire nation of South Vietnam exploded in combat during the Tet Offensive. In putting down the Tet Offensive, significant numbers of Vietcong soldiers and cadre were killed, leaving the Vietcong virtually destroyed as a fighting and political force. Only after Tet did the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) start sending large numbers of soldiers into South Vietnam to continue the war against escalating numbers of American troops and an increasingly ineffective ARVN. An excellent book on Tet and its aftermath is Ronald H. Spector's “After Tet, The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam” (Free Press, 1993).

With that background in mind, here are the circumstances of Senator McCain's combat experience. On October 26 1967, Senator McCain was flying his twenty-third bombing mission, bombing Hanoi. His plane was a A-4E Skyhawk, which carried 9,900 pounds of bombs and four missiles. His plane was shot down by a Vietnamese missile, and he was badly injured when he parachuted into Truc Bach Lake in Hanoi. He was pulled ashore, then badly beaten. Senator McCain was then placed in a POW camp, where he was badly treated, frequently tortured, and released five and a half years later, on March 14 1973. Almost two years later to the day, in April 1975, the South Vietnamese Government collapsed, with the debacle of US helicopters desperately airlifting refugees from the roof of the American embassy. Seventeen years of war had ended, and ended for less than nothing.

Had the United States honored the Geneva Accords, and allowed the July 1956 elections, Vietnam would have been united--but united under a system that would have had to recognize the pluralistic nature of its society. By 1975, much of the Vietcong as a governing body had been killed, and no opposition remained in the North. The totalitarian communist nightmare predicted by the west came true--but only after another generation of Vietnamese lost to war.

Senator McCain’s Sacrifice was of No Help to Vietnam . . .

How did Senator McCain’s war service benefit the Vietnamese people? And what were the American interests Senator McCain was fighting for in Southeast Asia?

There is no dispute that American military involvement in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia was nothing less than an unmitigated nightmare in the lives of those peoples. During America's involvement in Vietnam, North Vietnam was one of the world's poorest countries. Nevertheless, the world's most powerful nation dropped more bombs in tonnage on an area the size of New Jersey, than were dropped in the entire European theater during the Second World War. That level of bombardment does not even include the napalm, the Agent Orange and other defoliants, or the 'anti-personnel' weapons that were dropped. If you are interested in more information, I recommend “Hearts and Minds,” the 1974 documentary by Peter Davis. Specific to Senator McCain’s role, Senator McCain’s twenty-four bombing missions were aimed at civilian targets, because there were no targets in Hanoi that could be defined as “military.” From the perspective of radical Islamists and the third world (as well as the Americans selecting ‘military targets’ to bomb in Baghdad, Belgrade, and Afghanistan) the World Trade Center was a much clearer military target than anything 1967 Hanoi had to offer.

Nor can it be argued that Senator McCain was bombing North Vietnam to help preserve “democracy” in South Vietnam. Presidents Diem and Thieu, as well as the circus of incompetent Generals who seized and lost power in South Vietnam, did not even pretend to build any semblance of a representative democracy, or even a government that existed for any purpose other than to enrich the current ruling clique.

Therefore, Senator McCain's military service cannot be considered heroic, in the sense he was helping the Vietnamese people.

. . . Nor Did Senator McCain’s Service Support Any American Interest

So, if Senator McCain's bombing of Hanoi was not assisting the Vietnamese people, then what American interests were advanced by his service? The short answer is “none.” In 1967, the rationale for American involvement was to prevent Mao Zedong's China from establishing domination in southeast Asia. Ho Chi Minh and the North Vietnamese were seen by the West as puppets, under the complete direction of China. Even at the time, that view was ridiculous, and acceptable only to people wholly uninformed about the history of the Chinese and Vietnamese peoples. But from the perspective of 2008, the 'Mao's Puppet' rational is even more absurd. While China gave Vietnam military supplies during the long war with the French and the Americans, the two nations always had--at best--an uneasy relationship. When China and the Soviet Union began competing for power and influence in the Socialist world, Vietnam was always closer to Moscow than Beijing. Later, China actively supported the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, while the Khmer Rouge maintained an on-going border war with Vietnam. After Vietnam invaded Cambodia in late 1978, driving the Khmer Rouge out of the capital of Phnom Penh, China invaded Vietnam. The two nations fought a bloody, month long border war, after which both sides claimed victory—probably because there was ample evidence to show how both sides had lost.

So, to say that Senator McCain's service in Vietnam was 'heroic,' because he fighting against China's domination of Vietnam--the 1960s era rationale—that is simply wrong. Additionally, no one--not even in the 1960s--honestly considered the Viet Minh a military threat to America, so Senator McCain was not 'protecting' America from anything.

Certainly, Senator McCain's actions as a POW were admirable--particularly his refusal to be repatriated until all POWs were released. But to say that his actions in bombing Hanoi were 'fighting for his country' is (at best) a distortion of history. Senator McCain, as I would argue were all Vietnam Veterans, was lied to and badly used by his government. Both he and the Vietnamese people deserved better.

So—John McCain v. Bill Ayers: Who’s the Hero?

Not John McCain. But because I live in Oregon USA, not Bill Ayers either. By the close of the 1960s, a clear majority of the country had turned against the Vietnam War, led in no small part to the truly heroic eloquence of Martin Luther King Jr. As a nation, we should be embarrassed that every school child is inundated with Dr. King’s 1961 speech from the March on Washington (“I have a Dream”), much less so his final “Mountain Top” address in Memphis 1968 (“I See the Promised Land”), and his 1967 speech at Riverside Church on the Vietnam War (“A Time to Break the Silence”) is largely ignored. Dr. King lost almost all his supply of political capital when he publicly opposed the Vietnam War, the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover seized that opportunity to escalate his private war against the civil rights leader.

But I have never lived in Hanoi. Or Hue. Or Khe Sanh. Or had my town torn up, and relocated to a prison camp called a "strategic hamlet." Or see my neighbors chopped into pieces from machine guns on a Bell Huey Helicopter or a Douglas AC-47. The now-obsolete technology on the latter could fire 300 rounds a minute, and the accompanying documentation bragged how it could "put a round in every square inch of football field in less than a minute." Would I feel the same way about the niceties of a republican democracy and non-violence on the other side of the planet, after Puff the Magic Dragon made a few passes down my block? Or seen a pregnant woman miscarry, after being poisoned by Agent Orange? Or a child with plastic shrapnel in his leg from an anti-personnel weapon--designed so that an x-ray will not locate the pieces under the skin? Michael Herr in "Dispatches" quotes a marine saying "Spooky understands." I am so fortunate in that I can choose not to understand. For my generation and those that followed, Phoenix is nothing more than a place where it gets too hot in the summer.

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