Re: genocide, ill-defined, and the Vietnam war (multiple responses)

Fri, 22 May 1998 04:23:39 -0400


From: "David Vancil" <>
Subject: Re: genocide, ill-defined, and the Vietnam war

Whether it was "officially" genocidal or not, the warfare certainly
could feel that way, since there was no "clear objective" to win,
but, rather, one to enable our comrades to prevail without us
remaining there forever. So, killing their--the good
Southerners'--enemies rather than trying to take Hanoi or whatever
"rational" military goal might make sense created a disconnection for
acts of violence against the enemy that gives "attrition" a rather
solemn connotation--dead bodies of people against whom one personally
had no particular personal grudge except that they would do unto us
before we did unto them.

I understand the "war of genocide" label from that perspective, but
it was not to cleanse the earth of a race--rather than evaporate a
dangerous and somewhat invisible foe. If we could just kill enough
of 'em, they'd get tired of it. But of course it didn't work, as we
all know. Obviously, "genocide" is a stretch of the word, but it
carries so much moral baggage with it that it attracts us. Nobody
has really come up with a horrible enough word to describe the lack
of personal commitment Americans felt when they killed. Perhaps
that's why Calley seems so unsurprising in some ways.



From: "Marc J. Gilbert" <>
Subject: Re: genocide, limited definitions,Viet Nam

Drieux shoots!
Drieux scores!
Sort of!

The failure of definition prompts me to ask a specific question.

McNamara estimated the x number of civilians (as opposed to
"combatants") were being killed each month in Viet Nam.

My memory says 10,000, but my memory may lie.

When engaging in a war in someonelse's country, attempting to put
down a terroist war against a government which is niether just nor
legitimate nor loved by its own people, when does the killing of the
host country's population constitute "actions other than war?" When
do those actions amount to genocide, if they ever can?

What intrigues me is that on an average day, hundereds of Vietnamese
civilians might die due to collateral damage, but these deaths, as
they were not intentional or a matter of policy, were shrugged off.
However, forced "refugee relocation" was a policy that was not very
nice and was official. When does "shrugged off" deaths and forced
relocation amount to the legal definition of criminal negligence?
When does criminal negligence become genocide? According to the
Yamashita Precedent, the slaughter of even one village, such as that
as supposedly occurred only once at My Lai, would have led to
Westmoreland being hung, and he would have been, if that precedent
was followed. On this most agree.

As for the 82mm motars being fired by Vietnamese at their own people,
I will join Drieux as a judge at the war crimes trials in Hanoi. Oh,
there won't be any. I forgot. They won. But I am ready to go if the
Vietnamese ever decide that they actually lost. As for us, we lost.
So where are our post-war war crimes trials imposed on us by the
Vietnamese? Oh, that's right. Lefties already did that in Sweden!
And if the Right says we won, and we did, then, by
tradition, we are immune from war crimes! Hoooray! But in the next
war . . . .

By the way, the small fry who fired the 81mm and 82mm mortars and
torched the villes. No trials. They do not need the defense of
superior orders. They suffered enough. Me, too. I was right there
when both sides did it, every time, because I took the Stone's
"Sympathy for the Devil" too literally, bless my liberal heart and
teenage imagination.

Woo! Woo!




From: Peter Brush <>
Subject: Re: Ted Morgan's comments on the genocide & Vietnam war


I think a technical definition of genocide is appropriate, since
genocide is a crime. Being accused of a crime with no tight
definition can get a bit Kafkaesque. To me, the term gets thrown
around too loosely. When "genocide" means everything it means
nothing: e.g.,

"Proclamation to support SOUTHEAST ASIA

WHEREAS, since 1975 millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians have
perished a s a result of the horrendous genocide perpetuated by the
three Communist Parties of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos when they
forcefully seized power in these countries; and [...]

WHEREAS, protesting acts of genocide is the responsibility of all
people who cherish freedom and justice; opposing the atrocities of the
Vietnamese Communist Party proclaims the duty of every Vietnamese."


Here's why you and I disagree on whether or not the Vietnam War was

I study the Vietnam War and come to some conclusions about how it was
fought. I look into the word "genocide" to determine its meaning and
try to connect the two. Looking at the origin of the word, and its
meaning in law, and its political/human rights meaning in the context
of the United Nations declaration on genocide and all lead me to
conclude it was not a genocidal war.

You seem to have decided the war was genocidal, then adjust the
definition of "genocide" to support your conclusion. Definitions of
genocide that don't work are too narrow and technical for you.

> The real question, I contend,
> is whether the term "genocide" or "genocidal" has meaning for contexts that
> are in some way or degree different from the Nazi death camps --the Vietnam
> War, the Khmer Rouge, the invasion of East Timor, Rwanda, etc.... I would
> argue they do.

I agree the term has non-Nazi applications, but the real real
question here is whether or not the Vietnam was was genocidal.

> Of course, the REASON body counts were the measure of "success" was because
> they were based on one of the structural foundations of the war --that it was
> a war of attrition against the NLF/No.Vietnamese.

No, it was a war of attrition against the NLF and the North
Vietnamese Army, not against the North Vietnamese. The great majority
of US firepower was dropped/shot in South Vietnam, not North Vietnam.
The US didn't do much to kill non-military North Vietnamese.

> Furthermore, the characterization of "them" is significant --we
> aren't talking about a "regular army" period.

How do you respond to those who claim that the NLF was destroyed by
the US/GVN during Tet 1968 and was not important thereafter? If these
claims are correct, then we *are* talking about a regular army. You
talk about Richard Nixon's strategy in the context of genocidal war.
Keep in mind that Richard Nixon's problem was the NVA, not the VC.

> Richard Nixon's strategic shift relied on keeping the U.S. public and the USSR/
> China "out" of the war so he could wreak whatever brutal punishment on North
> Vietnam would get them to give up --even to the point of destroying the
> `nation' of North Vietnam if necessary.... these are all structural
> considerations that, in my mind, make this a "genocidal" war by the United
> States

Only problem with this argument is that Richard Nixon didn't do those
things. Nixon was unable to manipulate US public opinion sufficiently
to allow him to wreak whatever brutal punishment on North Vietnam to
make them give up. In the January 1972 peace agreement the North
Vietnamese agreed to the same conditions as they agreed to in
October 1971 which were the same as the Communists proposed in 1968
which were the same as what they agreed to in 1954. Noth Vietnam
didn't give up. We did.

> The fact that we didn't "succeed" in killing them all is irrelevant to this moral
> judgement.

Since no one made this claim, I agree it is irrelevant.

Civilians took a greater beating from American firepower in Korea
than in Vietnam. Was that war genocidal? Same in World War II. Did we
practice genocide there? If so, perhaps there is something to my
point that you can call Vietnam genocide if you remove the
distinction between war and genocide.

Peter Brush


Subject: "genocidal" once more

Foolish me. I don't think the discussion about the Vietnam War being
"genocidal" is finished yet....

First, I got a nice response from Peter Brush off-line; wanted to
respond, but somehow lost the file--maybe he (you) can resend it?

Second, I don't think Steve Haas got my point about "genocidal"
vs. the 1948 Nazi-based definition of "genocide:"

>This seems to me to be an important point. People seem to think that the
>American military thought about the Vietnamese, in the same way the Nazis
>thought about the Jews.

No, I don't think the "genocidal war" argument in any way requires the
point that the American military "thought about" the Vietnamese in the
same way the Nazis thought about the Jews." The "thinking" in fact,
is irrelevant to my point. The structure of the war is what is
crucial. I would say it wasn't either a "genocidal" war in the sense
of being a conscious effort to "eliminate" the Vietnamese people OR of
"succeeding" in doing that to a sufficient degree that we can all
agree it was genocide. I think drieux gets an important point when he
points out that the "rules of engagement" etc. (a) show there wasn't a
genocidal intent and (b) helped to prevent a true genocide. There is,
however, this troubling thought in drieux's comment:

>With more and more material falling out of the Government, it becomes
>more and more clear that the US Military was never allowed to embark upon
>the very 'genocidal warfare' that has been heaped upon them for years. The
>complaints about ROE's { Rules of Engagement } from various members of
>the US Military, up and down the chain of command, makes it painfully clear
>to anyone actually trying to resolve 'what happened' - that there was no
>clear concerted effort to irradicate any ethnic group - in spite of the
>rhetoric of the TrendyLeft, and the ongoing calls by the RankingRight that
>we ShouldHave embarked upon such practices.

The "complaints about ROE's up & down the chain of command" ALSO
reveal the very genocidal structure of the war --i.e., for the
military to do its job right, it would have to BE genocidal. The only
apparent saving grace is that the military weren't allowed to. [One
could, however, argue that the Nixon years saw the US come MUCH closer
to this forbidden outcome. IF the Chinese & Soviets could be
successfully bought off (they largely were for Nix&Kiss' objectives)
AND the US public could be kept in the dark, then Nixon would have a
free hand to "destroy if necessary" the nation of North Vietnam. As I
said earlier, call that genocide or nationcide, it doesn't really
matter; they amount to about the same thing --except for the 1948

On the STRUCTURE of the war, hear General Westmoreland himself --in
1966!): "We'll just go on bleeding them until Hanoi wakes up to the
fact that they have bled their country to the point of national
disaster for generations. Then they will have to reassess their

Now, note a few things. First of all, of course Westy asserts that
"THEY will have bled their country..." Absolutely typical of the
projection of aggression onto the enemy that characterized American
propaganda from beginning to end --thereby allowing American
decision-makers to believe the "idealism" of their noble purpose in
Vietnam. The AIM of American bombing is to kill & maim enough of them
that their will to continue to struggle for reunification, etc. will
be shattered --WHATEVER it takes! Second, notice, too, that this
largely refers to US bombing of NORTH Vietnam, much more restricted (a
kind of "ROE") under LBJ than Nixon. It doesn't refer to SOUTH
Vietnam which was in fact reeling from far more brutal punishment than
the North --not only from massive bombing, but from massive
defoliation, forced relocation, "free fire zones," and Search and
Destroy --all of which pitted the force of American weaponry against
an NLF movement which --like Mao's fish swimming in the sea, and like
all authentic guerrilla movements-- was embedded in (though, yes, also
selectively violent towards) the PEOPLE of Vietnam.

So to drieux's:

>Where I think Ted Morgan Hoists himself upon his own petards is trying
>to 'limit' "genocidal" to merely the official Nazi Death Camps - rather
>than including the Sondokommando's - let alone addressing the more unpleasant
>set of questions that REALLY come to the foreground during the vietnam war,
>namely the problems of running counter-guerrilla operations.

I would say, first, that I don't in fact try to `limit' "genocidal" to
the Nazi Death camps at all; my point is the opposite (and I include
the Khmer Rouge, Suharto, & the Rwanda massacres in this category).
Not sure what the last half of that sentence means, except my point
above is clearly that, in fact, there is something
structurally/potentially genocidal in all "counterrevolutionary wars"
fought against authentically-grounded-in- -the-people guerrilla
movements. There is also, as Gabriel Kolko argues, an inherent limit
to the military power & will of counterrevolutionary, imperial
governments like that of the United States in such conflicts. Simply
put, they (we) CAN'T win them without committing some form

Which brings me back to Steve Haas' comment, continued here:

>To the military, the Vietnamese were simply
>obstacles towards a goal; the military were trained to and trying to 'win.'


>They just couldn't figure out what winning meant in this context, and
>therefore, couldn't figure out how to 'win.' The whole war was an exercise
>in flailing naround this issue. The Vietnamese had little to do with this,
>except for being in the way.

Yup. Which means not only did they systematically bear the brunt of
the American onslaught, but as Steve says, American GIs "couldn't
figure out how to `win'" except by removing all ROE's --which, for
those with the sensitivity to see it, however darkly, raised the
spectre of something immoral and intolerable. Being put into THAT
situation by the American government, in my view, defines the govt's
criminal abuse of AMERICAN boys (as well as the potentially genocidal
and clearly criminal destruction of the Vietnamese). In a way, that
makes 'em kind of doubly war criminals.

So, to drieux, I'd ask:

>Geeze, maybe the younger generation's "failure" to fall in line with
>either the left or the right and their FreeFloatingPoliticalRhetoric

where in what I've said is the FreeFloatingPoliticalRhetoric?


Ted Morgan

Department of Political Science
Maginnes Hall #9
Lehigh University
Bethlehem, PA 18015
phone: (610) 758-3345
fax: (610) 758-6554