Victory in Vietnam

It was the war of my childhood, but thankfully it was an entirely televisual conflict for me.

In an age before Sky News, I got to witness the event.

The evening news sent reports from the front line and ‘World in Action’ (the current affairs flagship of Granada Television) provided the background.

As a ten-year-old my TV viewing was a strange admixture of ‘Joe 90’, ‘Thunderbirds’ and the Tet Offensive.

I was thirteen when the image of Lieutenant William Calley Jr saluting after his court martial flickered on our black and white screen.

By then I had heard the words ‘My Lai’ many times.

One year later it probably helped me process what the British had done on the streets of Derry to unarmed civilians.

This was a very different type of TV war that was being served up every night with my dinner, this one as real.

Our telly had fed me a steady diet of WW2 fantasy movies where tubby middle aged actors stormed ashore at Iwo Jima and Omaha beach.

The reality of terrified teenagers and screaming amputees would have to wait for Steven Spielberg landing on the Wexford coast.

Apart from the telly my interpreter to these events happening on the other side of the world was my maternal grandfather.

A wagon builder from Uddingston he had been born into crushing poverty in 1904.

He was the second eldest child of two County Carlow parents.

By the time he was raising me he had a fairly jaundiced view of man’s inhumanity to man.

AS a ten-year-old he had seen lads cheerily marching off to the ‘Big Picnic’.

As a young man, he saw the broken disfigured remnants of that regimented manhood struggle with life after the trenches.

His analysis of the war of the telly was rudimentary, but sound enough.

Looking back on it now he had a better grasp of what was going on than most of the people in Washington.

For him, America was behaving in Vietnam as the British had behaved in Ireland.

He was clear that the moral authority was with the native people who were defending their partitioned homeland.

My settled view over the years since is that this was a superpower bullying a small country.

The USA used anything in their vast arsenal that they could use in that theatre of operations, including chemical weapons.

Agent Orange defoliated thousands of squares miles of Vietnam.

The idea was to deprive the Viet Cong of the forest cover that sheltered them.

This was about as subtle at the US military got in that war.

The Pentagon supplied a sledge hammer to crack the head of a flea, but the annoying insect rarely stayed put to be obliterated.

The Red Cross of Vietnam estimates that up to 1 million people are disabled or have health problems due to contaminated Agent Orange.

The aircrews also ingested these dioxins while flying the missions, although Uncle Sam is still disputing that it had any harmful health effects on those who delivered this dioxin cloud onto defenceless civilians.

The Vietnamese responded with very smart low tech solutions to thwart their large enemy and the ‘punji stick’ is as useful an example as I can think of.

A sharpened bamboo stick hidden in the undergrowth wounded a GI sufficiently for him to be evacuated on a helicopter that, of course, could then be shot down.

The Vietcong became hugely skilful at creeping up on unsuspecting American troops and ‘grabbing their belt buckle’.

Asking a B52 for handers wasn’t a viable military option at that point.

Up close and personal the M16 jammed, but the rarely cleaned Kalashnikov would scythe through undergrowth cutting down disorientated conscripts from Idaho.

Their commander General Westmoreland ached for an Iwo Jima in the Jungle where we could wipe out his enemy in one big battle.

However, this was the War of the Flea.

Although the USA’s enemy used Soviet bloc ordnance, this was not part of the Cold War.

The policy wonks inside the Beltway had convinced themselves that this was the Domino Theory in Indochina, but they should really have asked the French.

Although President Lyndon Baines Johnson could not pronounce ‘Dien Bien Phu’, he did not also understand the significance of the victory won by General Giap in 1954.

The Americans had stumbled into a post-colonial civil war.

With the French gone the societal divisions between the local Francophile elite, and the nationalist rural heartlands would inevitably erupt.

The intervention of the Americans to ‘stem the tide of communism’ merely made matters worse.

The leader of the Vietnamese people was Ho Chi Minh.

As a young man, he had spent time working in hotels in London, and he came into contact with the Irish community.

He was deeply affected by the death on hunger strike of Terence MacSwiney.

Ho Chi Minh said of the Lord Mayor of Cork, “A nation that has such citizens will never surrender”.

I gave one of the Terence MacSwiney memorial lectures in London in the 1980s and I When I made reference to this during the Q&A it clearly unsettled at least one Irish American member in the audience.

History forgotten is a betrayal.

You cannot fully understand the catastrophic blunder into Iraq in 2003 without looking at the guilt-ridden personal histories of many of the major players in that criminal lunacy.

Many of the hawks in the first US Administration of the new millennium responded to the call of their country in the 1960s with college deferments or sojourns in Canada.

The commander in chief, of course, ‘served’ in the Texas Air National Guard.

Lenin once famously observed that a country that had just been defeated in a war was “ripe for revolution”.

However, in America my cousins went to the movies and watched Rambo.

It would take another decade before Oliver Stone, a Vietnam veteran himself, would make ‘Platoon’.

All wars seemed to great literature.

I read Michael Herr’s’ Dispatches’, the year it was published 1977, and  I was the same age as many of the combatants in the Mekong Delta that I had watched on our telly.

Then the entire psychological vista he brilliantly evoked was also being played out in Belfast and South Armagh only with less ordnance.

Today a new generation of young Americans take vacations in Vietnam, and there is no problem.

The people of that small country were not an existential threat to the most powerful nation on the planet.

They simply wanted to be left in peace.

Moreover they were willing to fight for that basic human right.

Forty years ago today the tanks under the command of Colonel Bùi Tín burst through the gates of the Independence Palace in Saigon.

I watched in on the telly that night.

The Vietnam War was over.

Today it is called Ho Chi Minh City.



Discover Phil’s dramatic play Rebellion