This 17 August 2018 CounterPuncharticle is the third in a trilogy. Here are the first and second articles. This should be my last word about this sad story.
Pardon the nasty military metaphor but it’s not nearly as nasty as some of the quotes from “one of the most influential figures in the US-Viet Nam relationship you’ve never heard of” in a January 2018 interview.
Here’s an excerpt:
As I mentioned to an FUV official who was involved in Kerrey’s appointment in a previous incarnation, what I’ve discovered in all of this is how invisible the victims of that massacre at the hands of Bob Kerrey and his unit are, both the dead and the living, not to mention the millions of whom Thomas Vallely spoke in a couple of throwaway sentences.
That is my main motivation in writing and speaking out about this, not “sticking it” to any individual or institution. The tendency of most people involved with this issue to completely ignore the victims is both heartless and morally reprehensible.
The last of the Buddha’s Five Remembrancesabout impermanence is relevant here (translation by Thích Nhất Hạnh): “My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.” The ground upon which Thomas Vallely once stood dissolved into quicksand the moment those chilling words about civilian deaths in the Mekong Delta and Thạnh Phong spilled out of his mouth.
This well-known and often misquoted quote by George Santayana (1863-1952), a Spanish-US American philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist who was born in Madrid and died in Rome, literally assumes there is something learned in the first place that has since been forgotten. This is not the case with people who don’t learn the good, the bad, and the ugly of their country’s history, or any history, for that matter.
Vũ Viết Tuân, a Vietnamese journalist, recently wrote an article entitled Khoảng trống lịch sử that was subsequently translated into English with the more descriptive title Vietnam needs to embrace its history fully. This is a simple yet profound lesson that many countries need to learn, including the United States. (The first time I began to fill in the gaps of the top-down history I was taught as a child was when I read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States as a high school student.)
Any culture and civilization that ever existed on our land is a part of our historical legacy. – Phan Huy Lê (1934-2018)
I should add that Mr. Tuân wrote this article in the context of the recent national high school graduation examination and the death of one of Viet Nam’s greatest historians, Professor Phan Huy Lê, who passed away on 23 June.
As someone who studied, taught, and conducted research in Germany, I know there is plenty of convincing evidence that this country went to great lengths and was largely successful in overcoming its Nazi past in the spirit of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which means the “struggle to overcome the [negatives of the] past” or “working through the past”. Sadly, the US has yet to accomplish this goal only as it relates to the American War in Viet Nam, not to mention many other tragedies of US and world history starting with the annihilation of Native American tribes in the 17th century in colonial America.
While ignorance may very well be bliss, it is not a recommended state of mind for anyone or any society that wishes to learn from its mistakes and not repeat them in the hope of creating a better future.
The open letter below, an initiative of Veterans For Peace (VFP), is further proof that the US has yet to overcome its participation in the American War in Viet Nam (“Vietnam War”) in the spirit of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a German term that means the “struggle to overcome the [negatives of the] past”. VFP is “an international organization made up of military veterans, military family members, and allies” who are “dedicated to building a culture of peace, exposing the true costs of war, and healing the wounds of war.” They are the ones who realized that the American War in Viet Nam was an immoral travesty and who made the decision to stand on the right side of history, most after the fact.
The letter is related to an upcoming VFP Vietnam Trip that is being organized by VFP Chapter 160 in Viet Nam. The dates are 4-21 March 2018: Veterans For Peace will go on a 50-year look back at 1968 – the Tet Offensive, Khe Sanh, My Lai – as we travel through Viet Nam, north to south. It will be delivered to the Vietnamese and a translation read at the end of the My Lai commemoration ceremony on 16 March.
If you’re interested in adding your name to this letter, please contact Doug Rawlings at rawlings[AT]maine.edu.
Many Americans, especially those of us who came of age during the American War in Viet Nam, understand that our war in Vietnam was a crime of untold proportion and a massive violation of international law. As citizens under this government, we have to accept responsibility for its actions. It is with that realization in mind that we engage with you as the 50th Anniversary of the My Lai massacre nears.
We acknowledge that this terrible massacre was a clear atrocity, but also we recognize that it was not an anomaly — that it is one of many such abominations that many of our soldiers inflicted on the people of Viet Nam during the American War.
We acknowledge the deep and tragic suffering we have caused you — death, destruction, the ruin of your land, and the torturous rending of your social fabric.
We acknowledge the great sacrifices you have made to resist our government’s global, imperial designs, including battling the civil strife our military forces brought to your society as they pitted governments they manipulated against your resistance forces. Many of our soldiers deepened and exploited the divisions in your society.
We acknowledge the virulent form of racism that our government brought from our country into yours as it made almost no attempt to understand your rich history and culture.
We acknowledge that this racial animus led us to assault your people with what our government leaders imagined was “impunity,” using our Pentagon’s almost unlimited funding and massive firepower to kill, maim, and poison your land and people.
We acknowledge that even after our armed forces had withdrawn from your country, abandoning our government’s colonial designs, many U.S. government officials continued to wage economic warfare against you to thwart your efforts as you rebuilt your reunified country.
Therefore, we pledge the following:
We will make an honest effort to try as fully as possible to understand and feel the impact of the war on your families and your land, to empathize with your struggles and suffering and to share our experience with others.
We who were directly engaged in this war will continue to publicly confess our complicity in your country’s suffering.
We will do all in our power to make amends by supporting efforts to assist you in the healing of your land and your people.
We pledge to keep learning, and taking to heart, the lessons our people should have learned from the American War in Viet Nam as we work to attain peace and social justice in our own country.
We who were complicit in the American War in Vietnam will continue to search our consciences as we face our own direct and indirect participation in a system that enabled our government to start and escalate this war against your land. We cannot undo the wrongs we have done, but we will use our remorse to work for world peace.
Below is an excerpt from my latest CounterPunch article about Bob Kerrey and Fulbright University Vietnam. Think of it as the 2017 bookend to my 2016 CP article, Bob Kerrey and Fulbright University – What were they thinking?, published a month after the controversy erupted. Follow this link to read it in its entirety.
“One simply cannot engage in barbarous action without becoming a barbarian… one cannot defend human values by calculated and unprovoked violence without doing mortal damage to the values one is trying to defend.”
– J William Fulbright, The Arrogance of Power
More than 48 years after mortal damage was inflicted with a vengeance on both human beings and human values in a quiet village in Bến Tre province in the Mekong Delta, justice, fairness, and common decency won a minor victory when Bob Kerrey, former Nebraska governor, U.S. senator, New School president, decorated veteran, and self-confessed war criminal, quietly resigned from his high-profile position as chairman of the Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV) board of trustees, according to reliable sources.
Kerrey, whose appointment was announced one year ago at the iconic Rex Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) by then Secretary of State, John Kerry during President Barack Obama’s visit to Viet Nam, has stepped down behind closed doors. He was reportedly replaced by Đàm Bích Thủy, a prominent Vietnamese businesswoman who is the current FUV president.
It was Bob Kerrey himself who said in an interview last June, as all rhetorical hell was breaking loose, that he would not step down. This about-face came after first saying, in response to questions emailed to him by a New York Times reporter, that he would resign if he felt his role was jeopardizing the U.S.-Vietnamese joint education venture. I’m not a diplomat and therefore have no need to play the quiet game. Bob Kerrey was appointed with much fanfare and some fanfare should accompany his surrender.
Never Say Never
Never say never and never forget this timeless wisdom from Proverbs 16:18: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” It was Kerrey’s arrogance that made him dig in his heels and delay the inevitable. It was a firestorm of controversy and, most importantly, steely and steadfast official Vietnamese opposition, that forced him to do the right thing. It wasn’t only about Bob Kerrey. Jeopardize FUV he did, at the end of the day, as some predicted.
Kerrey’s long overdue resignation is a cause for celebration and a sense of vindication for many. It is, however, a bitter disappointment for his supporters, both Vietnamese and U.S., who probably still cluelessly wonder why a man who led a U.S. Navy SEALS unit that murdered 21 men, women, and children in the village of Thạnh Phong in February 1969 would not be considered morally fit to assume such a leadership position.
Keep in mind that this is a man who has the dishonor and disgrace of having his very own war crimes exhibit in the War Remnants Museum in HCMC, one of many such incidents in the bloodbath and industrial-scale slaughter that was the American War in Viet Nam.
This piece about the US commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War was published in The Huffington Post blog on 9 April 2013. I introduced it with this excerpt from a 2003 essay written by war veteran Steve Banko:
One of our victims was searched when the shooting stopped and the bleeding continued and was found to be in possession of a medal. Our interpreter told us it was for heroism at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu fourteen years previous. While we were sent to war to fight communism, he had fought his whole life for his country’s right to self-determination. We traveled 12,000 miles to kill him for that. — From I Would Rather Die Alone — for Peace: A Soldier’s Dream by Steve Banko, 2003