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War Without Fronts: the USA in Vietnam

The rape, torture and murder of Vietnamese civilians went on before and after the My Lai massacre. T

Years ago, as the New Statesman's correspondent at a UN conference in Chile in the early 1970s, I chanced upon Robert McNamara, the former US defence secretary, in a narrow passage. "War criminal," I hissed as he went by. He looked hurt and confused; he must have suffered the same humiliation many times. Later, I came to regret my youthful gesture, as one of the principal architects of the US disaster in Vietnam sought to remake his life at the World Bank and to atone for the criminal decisions for which he will always be remembered. One reason for my change of heart was the release of White House tapes which showed the role McNamara had played in defusing the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Another was the 2003 documentary film The Fog of War, in which McNamara drew intelligent lessons from the huge errors of Vietnam.

Yet, on reading Bernd Greiner's book, which casts a pitiless light on that most controversial of American wars, I wondered whether my original reaction had not in fact been correct. For among Greiner's conclusions is that McNamara and his colleagues were by no means wandering lost in the fog of war. Far from it; they knew all too well what was going on. They knew about the horror and the excessive violence; they knew civilians were being targeted; and they knew that the policy was doomed to failure. Their crime, and it was a crime, was to allow it to carry on.

“Alternatives were available," Greiner writes, and the decision-makers knew about them. They could have spoken out in favour of a different policy, with the support of "a substantial part of the political elite". One alternative would have been to secure a neutral, reunified Vietnam with communist participation in government. Indeed, that prospect was always on offer. So why did a succession of US presidents (with the diplomatic support, let us not forget, of their British allies) remain bogged down in a quagmire of their own creation? The question is still relevant today, as the protagonists in a similarly hopeless war in Afghanistan seek, and fail, to find a way to abandon a strategy that clearly has no hope of success.
Greiner's book is not a definitive history of the Vietnam war, but a well-documented essay on its violent, criminal reality and the failure of American society to come to terms with what happened. His implicit criticism of the role of the United States in Indochina, and his outright condemnation of US war crimes, derive from his distinctive perspective as a German historian. Inevitably, even though Greiner himself never spells this out, an uncomfortable comparison between US and Nazi war crimes grows in the reader's mind.

Only in an astonishing final section, where the author discusses the widespread American opposition to the trial of William Calley, does the shadow of Nuremberg flit across the pages. Lieutenant Calley was the officer held primarily responsible for the 1968 My Lai Massacre, in which 500 men, women and children were killed. The American public, across the political spectrum, objected to the way he was singled out for punishment, and the people rose up in their hundreds of thousands to support him. "Free Calley" was a slogan employed both by those hostile to the war and by those who would have liked it to be prosecuted more vigorously.

Although an account of My Lai makes up a central portion of War Without Fronts, the author argues that it was not exceptional: rape, torture and the murder of civilians had gone on before and continued afterwards. Greiner does not exonerate the murderers, the rapists and the practitioners of torture; but he also identifies the "real" war criminals - those who, from the top down, connived in allowing this to happen. He examines, in turn, the politicians, the generals, the officers and the soldiers themselves. They all knew what was going on, but could not find it in themselves to call a halt.
My Lai took place in March 1968, but did not become public knowledge until more than a year later, in November 1969, when the facts were laid out by the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh (the accurate details provided immediately after the event by Vietnamese insurgents were dismissed as propaganda). Yet concern about the nature and conduct of the war had been growing, particularly among veterans, for several years, and the then US defence secretary, Melvin Laird, became worried that My Lai would spark further revelations. He set up the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group to secure all information relating to US crimes during the occupation and to rebut the flow of accusations that was expected. In the process, says Greiner, the working group created "the most extensive archive about American war crimes", one barely touched by historians - until now.

Greiner's book concentrates on three episodes in the ground war in South Vietnam - the case of Task Force Oregon, which operated in 1967
in the five provinces immediately south of the border with North Vietnam; My Lai itself; and Operation Speedy Express, launched during the "pacification" of the five provinces south-west of Saigon in 1968-69. The details of these operations serve to bolster Greiner's contention that My Lai was no exception.

Task Force Oregon was given the job, in April 1967, of driving 300,000 people in Quang Ngai Province into "relocation centres". These were, in effect, prisons holding peasants loyal to the Vietcong. The province was then declared a "free fire zone", in which few prisoners were taken, troops were allowed to rape at will, and civilians were indiscriminately fired on. By the end of 1967, 70 per cent of the settlements of the province had been destroyed.

Much of this "calculated terrorism against civilians" was reported at the time by Jonathan Schell in the New Yorker, but even Schell didn't know that the Americans were also operating secret "Tiger Force" death squads, whose activities were fully uncovered only in 2003, thanks to the enterprise of two reporters from the Toledo Blade. Greiner describes how the death squads "shot peasants in the field without any pretext and murdered anyone who happened to cross their path; they tortured prisoners and executed them singly or in groups; they raided villages
in the late evening or early morning and mowed down with machine-gun fire everyone they could find - peasants who had gathered for
a meal or were sleeping, children playing in the open, old people taking a walk". They raped and murdered their victims and mutilated their bodies. Greiner notes that US customs officers came across dozens of parcels of human bones and skulls, often sent home to friends and relatives.

Operation Speedy Express was a repeat in the South of what had occurred in the North, with the additional use of helicopter gunships. Once again, civilians found themselves in an extensive "free fire zone" and helicopter crews embarked on indiscriminate killing of non-combatants.

My only regret is that Greiner deals solely with the activities of the US army. The equally heinous crimes of the US air force - the carpet-bombing of the North, the aerial destruction of Laos and Cambodia, and the bombardment by B-52s of selected areas of the South - are referred to, but left largely unexamined. During Operation Rolling Thunder, which lasted from 1965 until 1968, the four southern provinces of North Vietnam had more bombs dropped on them than any other area in history. When I travelled through North Vietnam during a halt in the bombing in the early weeks of 1970, I came across villages, towns, bridges, factories and railways that had been destroyed.

Two years later, in May 1972, President Nixon ordered the launching of Operation Linebacker, a six-month campaign that virtually destroyed the remaining industrial centres of the North. It was, writes Greiner, "the most massive attack in the history of aerial warfare". Designed to cover the withdrawal of front-line troops from the South, and to bolster the morale of the abandoned South Vietnamese army based in Saigon, it was perhaps the most cynical of the innumerable criminal acts of a filthy war.

“We're gonna level that goddam country," Nixon was recorded as saying in June 1971. "We're gonna hit 'em, bomb the livin' bejesus out of 'em." To which Henry Kissinger replied: "Mr President, I will enthusiastically support that, and I think it's the right thing to do." This served to prolong the war for several more years, until finally the Americans were ejected from the country they had tried to destroy.

Richard Gott's most recent book is “Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution" (Verso, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: The Lost War

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis