Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Oliver Stone's history lesson

As my regular readers know, I tend to get very serious about the subject of history.  As someone who hated the subject for the first, oh, 25 years of my life, I have more than made up for my late start once I discovered how important knowing history was to the understanding of my place in the cosmos.  Once I learned a little history, I rapidly joined the ranks of those who cannot understand how people navigate through life without this wonderful assist.  As I have said for at least 30 years now, I read history because I believe it is impossible to think as an adult without being historically literate.

This attitude leads often to a really good question.  "OK history nut," folks will ask, "what history book would you suggest I read?"  Because history is such a huge subject and I have read well over 1000 big fat history books, I often find myself reduced to helpless sputtering.  There is always Howard Zinn's The People's History of the United States which is a good primer but doesn't answer the interesting questions like How exactly did the USA achieve industrial sophistication?  One of my favorites is William Manchester's The Arms of Krupp which goes a long way towards explaining how Germany became the bad guy of the 20th century—fascinating but narrow.  I consider Carroll Quigley's Tragedy and Hope a stunner but hardly a first history book.  And so on.

Interestingly, it is recent history that folks typically know the least about.  The schools start out their American history courses with Columbus or Plymouth Rock and are lucky to get to the Grant administration before the school year ends.  So hardly anyone knows much about the Progressive Era, the Great Depression, or the World Wars.  And they know zip about the the Cold War and the rest of the madness of American Imperialism.  And what they think they know is usually comically wrong.

But now I have a new favorite answer for anyone who wants a history recommendation—watch Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States!  In ten hours you will know almost as much about the recent history of USA as I know having read hundreds of history books.  What makes Stone's history so remarkable is he has found incredible file footage (he's a film maker, after all.)  So while I might quibble with some of the points he makes, his series is must viewing because there nothing like seeing and hearing historical figures make their important speeches.

This is Stone's great gift to the nation.  I am certain the professional liars are working to discredit this series as I write.  But it's going to be damn hard to discredit with all the file footage.  So everyone, watch it—it will be the best ten hours you ever spend.  And if you cannot find a good copy of the series, be patient—someone will float a copy past you soon.  In the meantime, you can always read the book.

Untold History of the United States

Oliver Stone, Obama, and the War in Vietnam


Oliver Stone’s Showtime series, Untold History of the United States, is the most radical mainstream television I have ever watched. Eye-opening scenes, shocking speech by our presidents, splendid narration by Stone, all make for a compelling series. A 700-page book by Stone and historian Peter Kuznick accompanies the ten-part program; it provides greater detail and covers more ground than the Showtime installments, allowing viewers to gain an even better understanding of our “untold history.”

Episode 7, which is mainly about the War in Vietnam (or the Second Indochina War as it is also called), riveted me to the screen. Stone atones for whatever guilt he has felt about being a soldier in Vietnam by laying out the horrors of the war, the sheer murderous violence of it, in vivid detail. I came of political age in those years, and I got angry all over again watching the bombs and defoliants falling, the victims screaming, and the politicians and generals lying. It will be a joyous day when that master liar and war criminal Henry Kissinger dies and joins his cohorts in mass slaughter, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. His name should become a synonym for murderer.

The carnage brought to Southeast Asia by the United States is mind-boggling, as Stone and Kuznick document:
*nearly four million Vietnamese killed.
*more bombs dropped on Vietnam than by all sides in all previous wars throughout history, and three times more dropped than by all sides in the Second World War.
*19,000,000 gallons of herbicide poisoned the land.
*9,000 of 15,000 hamlets destroyed in the South of Vietnam.
*In the North, all six industrial cities devastated; 28 of 30 provincial towns and 96 of 116 district towns leveled by bombing.
*The United States threatened to use nuclear weapons thirteen times. Nixon chided Kissinger for being too squeamish about this. Nixon said he, himself, just didn’t give a damn.
*After the war, unexploded bombs and mines permeated the landscape and took an additional 42,000 lives. Millions of acres of land have still not been cleared of live ordnance.
*Agent Orange and other defoliants have caused severe health problems for millions of Vietnamese.
*Nearly all of Vietnam’s triple canopy forests were destroyed.
*3,000,000 tons of ordnance struck 100,000 sites during the “secret” war in Cambodia, causing widespread social dislocation, destruction of crops, and starvation. The U.S. bombing campaign in Cambodia was directly responsible for the rise of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot and the genocide that took place afterward (The United States actually sided with Pol Pot when Vietnamese troops finally ended his reign of terror). Stone and Kuznick quote a Khmer Rouge officer:
Every time after there had been bombing, they would take the people to see the craters, to see how big and deep the craters were, to see how the earth had been gouged out and scorched … The ordinary people sometimes literally shit in their pants when the big bombs and shells came. Their minds just froze up and they would wander around mute for three or four days. Terrified and half crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told. It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing that they kept on cooperating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children off to go with them … Sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge.
*2,756,941 tons of ordnance dropped in Laos on 113,716 sites. Much of the Laotian landscape was blown to bits.
At a news conference in 1977, in response to a reporter’s question asking if the United States had a moral obligation to help rebuild Vietnam, President Jimmy Carter infamously replied:
The destruction was mutual. We went to Vietnam without any desire to capture territory or impose American will on other people. I don’t feel that we ought to apologize or castigate ourselves or to assume the status of culpability.
Mutual? Carter’s statement reflects both the arrogance of power and a vulgar sense of imperial righteousness. There were 58,000 U.S. soldiers killed during the war, and 300,000-plus wounded, and plenty of mental and physical illness, suicides, broken families, and other kinds of distress. Stone nicely captures all of this with a statement made to a journalist by a mother whose son was at My Lai, “I gave them a good boy, and they sent me back a murderer.” But whatever happened here, it pales in comparison to what took place there. There was no mutuality whatsoever, and it is obscene to say there was. What the United States did in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos ranks with the worst atrocities of the twentieth century. If the peoples of Southeast Asia had done to us what we did to them, and the same share of our population was killed as in Vietnam, the Vietnam Memorial wall would have about 20,000,000 names on it. more
The Vietnam War is especially hard to understand.  It was surrounded by layers of lies.  Atrocities like the Phoenix Program were dreamed up un the quiet offices and conferences rooms of the most prestigious schools in the land.  Trying to protest this insane war got the country's brightest students jailed, heads cracked, and futures destroyed.  All the while, those of us who thought that war had to be stopped were operating in an almost complete information blackout.  Good information about Vietnam didn't start trickling out until the books of the 1980s like Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie.

Tomgram: Jonathan Schell, Seeing the Reality of the Vietnam War, 50 Years Late

Jonathan Schell  January 17, 2013.

Forty-six years ago, in January 1966, Jonathan Schell, a 23-year-old not-quite-journalist found himself at the farming village of Ben Suc, 30 miles from the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon. It had long been supportive of the Vietcong. Now, in what was dubbed Operation Cedar Falls, the U.S. military (with Schell in tow) launched an operation to solve that problem. The “solution” was typical of how Americans fought the Vietnam War. All the village’s 3,500 inhabitants were to be removed to a squalid refugee camp and Ben Suc itself simply obliterated -- every trace of the place for all time. Schell’s remarkable and remarkably blunt observations on this grim operation were, no less remarkably, published in the New Yorker magazine and then as a book, causing a stir in a country where anti-war sentiment was growing fast.

In 1967, Schell returned to Vietnam and spent weeks in the northern part of the country watching from the backseats of tiny U.S. forward air control planes as parts of two provinces were quite literally blown away, house by house, village by village, an experience he recalls in today’s TomDispatch post. From that came another New Yorker piece and then a book, The Military Half, which offered (and still offers) an unmatched journalistic vision of what the Vietnam War looked like. It was a moment well captured in a mocking song one of the American pilots sang for him after an operation in which he had called in bombs on two Vietnamese churches, but somehow missed the white flag flying in front of them. The relevant stanza went:
“Strafe the town and kill the people,
Drop napalm in the square,
Get out early every Sunday
And catch them at their morning prayer.”
If Afghanistan is the war we somehow haven’t managed to notice most of the time, even while it’s going on, Vietnam was the war Americans couldn’t forget and have never been able to kick, possibly because we never managed to come to grips with just what it was and what we did there. Now, so many years later, in a monumental essay appearing in print in the Nation magazine and online here at TomDispatch, Schell returns (via Nick Turse’s new book, Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam) to the haunted terrain he last visited so many decades ago. All of us, whether we know it or not, still live with the ghosts of that moment. Tom

How Did the Gates of Hell Open in Vietnam?

A New Book Transforms Our Understanding of What the Vietnam War Actually Was

By Jonathan Schell

For half a century we have been arguing about “the Vietnam War.” Is it possible that we didn’t know what we were talking about? After all that has been written (some 30,000 books and counting), it scarcely seems possible, but such, it turns out, has literally been the case.

Now, in Kill Anything that Moves, Nick Turse has for the first time put together a comprehensive picture, written with mastery and dignity, of what American forces actually were doing in Vietnam. The findings disclose an almost unspeakable truth. Meticulously piecing together newly released classified information, court-martial records, Pentagon reports, and firsthand interviews in Vietnam and the United States, as well as contemporaneous press accounts and secondary literature, Turse discovers that episodes of devastation, murder, massacre, rape, and torture once considered isolated atrocities were in fact the norm, adding up to a continuous stream of atrocity, unfolding, year after year, throughout that country.

It has been Turse’s great achievement to see that, thanks to the special character of the war, its prime reality -- an accurate overall picture of what physically was occurring on the ground -- had never been assembled; that with imagination and years of dogged work this could be done; and that even a half-century after the beginning of the war it still should be done. Turse acknowledges that, even now, not enough is known to present this picture in statistical terms. To be sure, he offers plenty of numbers -- for instance the mind-boggling estimates that during the war there were some two million civilians killed and some five million wounded, that the United States flew 3.4 million aircraft sorties, and that it expended 30 billion pounds of munitions, releasing the equivalent in explosive force of 640 Hiroshima bombs. more


  1. Thank you for this post. The historical illiteracy of my colleagues and neighbors frightens me every day of my life.

    I foresee a flurry of bookmarking for me as I finish reading your post and add a whole new batch of books to my wish list.

    You have probably read everything I've found, but just in case I've uncovered one or two you missed, here are links to some things on my own reading list -





  2. A friend of mine just interviewed Nick Turse. The interview is here: http://www.wyso.org/post/book-nook-kill-anything-moves-real-american-war-vietnam-nick-turse

  3. Interesting collection of articles. Regarding the first article, considering the amount of ordnance used , I still hear the myth that the bureaucrats back in DC tied our soldiers hands and that lead to our loss. This is usually followed by an assertion that our troops never lost an engagement in Vietnam. As your first cited article shows, the rules of engagement didn't seem to make much difference regarding the casualties and devastation to North Vietnam. Secondly, the following article shows that despite facing overwhelming firepower the NVA and the Viet Cong could adapt their tactics very adroitly against superior US forces.

    Lost Battles of the Vietnam War