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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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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.