Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Moon and Vietnam

Political sovereignty rests on control of territory. It’s that simple really: without territory, there is no polity

This control depends upon the monopolization of violence on the part of the state. But throughout history, each state has been faced with one or more other polities whose existence, too, depends upon control of territory. 

War, and interstate rivalry in general, occurs because of the rulers of each state fear that their sovereignty will be compromised by their rivals’ acquisition of territory. 

During the Cold War, this competition between great powers for the control of “territory,” was extended to outer space. 

The “space race” between the United States and the Soviet Union was spurred on by each side’s efforts to one-up the other in terms of astronautic achievement. 

Thus, when the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, it sent panic through the population and government of the United States, because it seemed the “Ruskies” were about the acquire an absolute sovereignty over America itself. The U.S. quickly adopted their own satellite program. 

When, a few years later, the Russians became the first nation to put a man in space, president John Kennedy felt obliged to commit the United States to placing a man on the moon – the closest terra firma (so to speak) to the earth itself – as a way of claiming sovereignty over it, before the Russians could. 

Thus was born the world’s most expensive science-project: the Apollo moonshot

Under a blood-red moon.

The ramping up of the Apollo program occurred coincidentally with another product of the rivalry with the Soviet Union: the Vietnam War

Like the moonshot, the U.S. mobilized its army to fight in southeast Asia, out of the simple worry that the Soviet Union would, through its control of Vietnam as a satellite, gain control of the entire region through a “domino effect.” 

What has long fascinated me about the Vietnam War is how vociferous the opposition was to it, in spite of the fact that historically, the lethality rate for American troops, was significantly less than the other major wars in which the U.S. was involved. 

The American conflict with the worst casualty rate was, of course, the Civil War. It took place over almost exactly four years, from April 12, 1861, to April 9, 1865, about 210 weeks. The traditionally cited death toll from this conflict was 600,000. But actuarial studies of census figures have more recently determined a total estimated to be 761,000. 

If true, the death-toll for this conflict was 3,600 per week, or more than five-hundred every day! This at a time when the total prewar U.S. population was about 31 million, meaning that more than one in fifty Americans died during the “war between the states.” 

Major twentieth-century wars, invariably not fought directly on American soil, were much less deadly. 

Even so, about 116,000 American soldiers died in World War I, in which U.S. participation was relatively brief, from April, 1917 to November 11, 1918. The death toll was thus about 1,300 per week, or two hundred per day. Of course, this is only the total averaged out over the entire eighty-four weeks in which the U.S. was officially involved in hostilities. In reality, the first U.S. troops did not start arriving in Europe until the autumn of 1917, and the vast majority of them didn’t get there until the next spring. The bulk of American Great War casualties thus occurred only in the seven or eight months prior to the armistice in November. The American death rate in World War I could thus have rivalled that of the Civil War. 

The U.S. involvement in World War II lasted about 192 weeks, from December 7, 1941 to August 15, 1945. The total American dead stood at 405,000, or about 2,100 per week, three hundred per day. Again, these averages are misleading, since U.S. soldiers didn’t start actively fighting either the Japanese or Germans until well into 1942, and the worst of it, involving ground combat, didn’t commence until the next year. 

Again, the daily or weekly death toll during 1943 to ‘45 (but especially after Allied troops landed at Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944) rivalled that of the American Civil War. 

The Korean war was far less deadly, in total American deaths, than either the World Wars that preceded it, or the Vietnam war later. About thirty-six thousand Americans lost their lives on the Korean peninsula. But the duration of the conflict was far shorter than even the most active phase of the Vietnam war: about one hundred sixty four weeks, June 1950 to July 1953.  That’s about 220 deaths per week, or thirty-six per day. 

As for Vietnam, more than 58,000 Americans died in the conflict. It is hard to get a fix on just when U.S. involvement began and ended in southeast Asia, since the Americans never officially declared war on North Vietnam, although it did come to a treaty concluding U.S. involvement at least, in Paris in 1973. 

I have chosen only to average the total American deaths between 1965 and 1972, the most deadly period of the Vietnam war. This is three-hundred sixty-five weeks, putting the average weekly combat deaths at 159, or just twenty per day. Even if one cuts down the sample to the total American dead in Vietnam between 1966 and ‘69, this is exactly the weekly death toll of the Korean war, that is 220, or 36 per day, for a total of forty-six thousand or so deaths over 208 weeks. 

And of course, this is in a country with a total population that in, 1965, was forty-two million higher than in 1950 (with fifty million more by 1969 than nineteen years earlier, standing at just over 200 million by then). Thus, the total number of dead in Korea, as a percentage of the prewar total U.S. population, was a fiftieth of one percent, while in World War II, it was just over a third of one percent (about 0.12% of Americans died in the Great War). 

That's one small step for a man...

Yet taking a closer look at the casualty rates from the Korean and Vietnamese wars, in fact it was more dangerous to be an American soldier in Korea than in Vietnam (during the period of peak mobilization in southeast Asia, 1965 to 1969). In Korea, about one-million, seven-hundred eighty-five thousand U.S. troops were deployed. 

With a death-toll of about thirty-six thousand American servicemen in the Korean theatre, this is twenty-two thousand less than the toll in Vietnam. But there, almost three-and-a-half-million U.S. soldiers served in the combat zone. The overall mortality rate for American troops in Korea was thus about a fifth of one percent, while in Vietnam, it was just over a sixth of one percent of the soldiery. 

But in the late 1960s, a war with a death-toll comparable to what existed in a previous (and similar) conflict less than two decades earlier, but which was historically far below mortality rate of previous major roles, was viewed by many as an unprecedented disaster.  
A change in social psychology was the cause, obviously. I think it has something to do with the saying (widely attributed to Stalin) that “one death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic.” Paradoxically, when many more young men were falling in combat, as during the American Civil War, and the World Wars, their deaths became nearly impossible to personalize, except by their loved ones. Most families lost at least one member to war, and thus most were too wrapped up in their own grief so as to feel the tragedy of the death of someone else’s loved one. There is a paradoxical need for meaning, too, that in situations of mass death, those left behind find solace in the belief that their loved ones did not die in vain. 

During Vietnam, however, combat-death was uncommon enough such that afflicted families could be the recipients of regret and sympathy by neighbours and relatives, who did not similarly suffer such loss, probably because their own sons received deferment from conscription through marriage, schooling or fraud. Thus, Vietnam-war military deaths, while numerous enough, were not so voluminous as to be (as with the previous wars in which the U.S. fought) mere statistics. 

There was another factor related to this — the state of medical practice and technology that, by the late 1960s, were far advanced from what they were even two decades earlier. These advances were spurred on, at least, by previous experience of military surgeons in the really big wars. It meant, firstly, that a very marginal number of American military deaths in Vietnam resulted from other than combat injuries. Up to World War I, deaths from accident, misadventure, infighting and disease, typically were more than half of all military casualties. 

World War II was the first war in which America fought, where a majority of deaths were from actual combat. The disease factor, especially, was in Vietnam much reduced as a cause of mortality, even from World War II. This is in spite of the fact that the Vietnamese military theatre was directly in a tropical zone, where communicable disease has always been more prevalent than in the temperate climes from which, in turn, most American soldiers hailed. 

Tropical diseases, too, have always been especially harsh upon outsiders to the plague zone, which should have included American servicemen. Instead, improvements in sanitation and inoculation meant that very few U.S. soldiers succumbed to disease at all. 

There was, in 1968, a global influenza outbreak centred in southeast Asia. Though many soldiers came down with the flu (and returning stateside, also brought the epidemic with them), and many others died, this toll included a negligible number of U.S. military personnel. 

Added to these lifesaving factors, were more direct surgical interventions upon combat injuries, assuring that a large number of those who would have died in previous wars, were able to live on. Unfortunately, many of these survivors also had mutilating and disabling injuries that even the best medicine could not repair. Many other seriously-injured veterans recovered without losing the use of arms or legs (or the loss of a limb entirely), but were thereafter beset with long-term injuries to mental health which the medical profession at the time was even more addled in dealing with. 

Thus it was assured that a large number of Vietnam-war veterans were psychologically and physically broken upon their return home. For years, the very term “Vietnam vet” was almost a byword for pathology, as it seemed many crimes and infamies were committed by individuals of that description. 

An additional factor, too, was the advent of television, and in particular, broadcast-news coverage directly from the Vietnamese war theatre. During the Korean war, TV-ownership increased from as little as one-quarter of the American public, to more than one-half. Even so, TV news was just getting started over the period of 1950-53. National newscasts were typically no longer than fifteen minutes in length before the end of the 1950s. 

Very rarely in those days, too, were news reports accompanied by “visuals”, as videotape had yet to be invented, and celluloid-film took too long to be edited, processed and transported to be available for the daily newscast. Until well into the 1960s, in fact, events were witnessed in moving-image form, primarily through the weekly cinematic newsreel. 

There are in fact newsreels documenting the early stages of American involvement in Vietnam. Their super-patriotic, anti-Communist tone, scarcely different in presentation from Second World War-era newsreels, make them seem strangely anachronistic when seen today, as perhaps they were received as such also at the time. 

Technical innovations — not least the videotape and satellite communications — constituted a mini-revolution in newsgathering during the 1960s. The last U.S. newsreels were produced in 1967, by which time the evening national-newscast (extending to a half-hour in length in the early ‘60s) had become highly-rated and very profitable for TV networks. 

Most of the footage of Vietnam combat was shot on film, and not videotape (video-cameras were then too heavy and bulky to be practical for battlefield use). But this imagery was quickly transported by plane to Tokyo or Honolulu, transferred to video and then transmitted by satellite to headquarters in New York. The footage was thus only a day or so old when seen by the public — a vivid illustration of reports that came in that day’s morning newspapers. 

The unacknowledged Legislator of the United States for two decades.

Moreover, Vietnam-war footage was typically shot on colour film (in complete contrast even to late-era newsreels). Most homes did still have black-and-white TV, and the most gory and bloody of the footage was edited out for broadcast. Neither was the reporting by network correspondents usually very critical of the conduct of the war by American forces — let alone the reasoning behind U.S. involvement in the first place (at least prior to the attack by North Vietnamese forces during the Tet lunar new-year in January, 1968). 

But Vietnam has been called the “first television war”, or more pertinently, the “living-room war.” Far beyond the actual content of the news reports from Vietnam, the very fact of war-imagery being transmitted into the domestic surround each and every day, served to undermine support for U.S. military-involvement among the broader public. 

 There was no better example of this, than the coverage of the Tet-offensive itself. Militarily, the result was a disaster for the government in Hanoi. The war historian Don Oberdorfer wrote in 1971 of the Vietcong: “Tens of thousands of the most dedicated and experienced fighters emerged from the jungles and forests of the countryside only to meet a deadly rain of fire and steel within the cities. The Vietcong lost the best of a generation of resistance fighters, and after Tet increasing numbers of North Vietnamese had to be sent south to fill the ranks. The war became increasingly a conventional battle and less an insurgency. Because the people of the cities did not rise up against the foreigners and puppets at Tet — indeed, they gave little support to the attack force — the communist claim to a moral and political authority in South Vietnam suffered a serious blow.” (Tet! Doubleday & Co., 1971, pp. 329-30, cited in Peter Braestrup, Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington, Westview Press, 1977) p. xx.) 

The North Vietnamese weren't able to stage further attacks upon the south until after U.S. military forces vacated the country several years later. In the age before televised news, it would have been reported as such — “Enemy routed after failed invasion.” But the actual footage of Viet-Cong and North-Vietnamese regular troops pouring into south Vietnam — getting as far as the grounds of the U.S. embassy in Saigon — shown on TV soon after, had the same demoralizing effect on the home-front, as does the sight of a particularly fierce and disciplined attacking force on a much more numerous defending army. 

Pressured by the change in public opinion, the mighty United States military did not exactly turn and run from Vietnam. But the irony is that the Americans decided to abandon their south-Vietnamese allies just when they had the North on the heel for the first time during the course of war. And, contrary to legend, it wasn’t youthful protests that pressured the U.S. government to reverse course in Vietnam. The student radicals were very conspicuous opponents of the war, certainly. But according to opinion-polling at least, younger people were actually more in favour of fighting in Vietnam than were those in middle-age or older. It was this latter — the people who never missed Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley each evening — who were really responsible for the American “loss” of southeast Asia.

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