This post originally appeared at TomDispatch.
looked great for 78 years old. (At least, that’s about how old he thought he
was.) His hair was thin, gray, and receding at the temples, but his eyes were
lively and his physique robust -- all the more remarkable given what he had
lived through. I listened intently, as I had so many times before to so many
similar stories, but it was still beyond my ability to comprehend. It’s
probably beyond yours, too.
Pham To told
me that the planes began their bombing runs in 1965 and that periodic artillery
shelling started about the same time. Nobody will ever know just how many
civilians were killed in the years after that. “The number is uncountable,” he
said one spring day a few years ago in a village in the mountains of rural
“So many people died.”
And it only got worse. Chemical defoliants came next, ravaging the land.
Helicopter machine gunners began firing on locals. By 1969, bombing and
shelling were day-and-night occurrences. Many villagers fled. Some headed
further into the mountains, trading the terror of imminent death for a daily
struggle of hardscrabble privation; others were forced into squalid refugee
resettlement areas. Those who remained in the village suffered more when the
troops came through. Homes were burned as a matter of course. People were
kicked and beaten. Men were shot when they ran in fear. Women were raped. One
morning, a massacre by American soldiers wiped out 21 fellow villagers. This
was the Vietnam War for Pham To, as for so many rural Vietnamese.
One, Two… Many Vietnams?
beginning of the Iraq War, and for years after, reporters, pundits, veterans,
politicians, and ordinary Americans asked
whether the American debacle in Southeast Asia
was being repeated. Would it be “another
Vietnam”? Would it become a “quagmire”?
The same held
true for Afghanistan.
Years after 9/11, as that war, too, foundered, questions about whether it was “Obama’s
Vietnam” appeared ever more frequently. In fact, by October 2009, a
majority of Americans had come to believe it was “turning
into another Vietnam.”
even proved a surprisingly two-sided
analogy -- after, at least, generals began
reading and citing revisionist
texts about that war. These claimed, despite all appearances, that
the U.S. military had
actually won in Vietnam
(before the politicians, media, and antiwar movement gave the gains away). The
same winning formula, they insisted, could be used to triumph again. And so, a
failed solution from that failed war, counterinsurgency, or COIN, was trotted
out as the military panacea for impending disaster.
between the two ongoing wars and the one that somehow never went away, came to litter
newspapers, journals, magazines, and the Internet -- until David Petraeus, a
top COINdinista general who had written his doctoral dissertation
on the “lessons” of the Vietnam War, was called in to settle the matter by
putting those lessons to work winning the other two. In the end, of course,
U.S. troops were booted
out of Iraq, while the war in Afghanistan continues to this day as a
dismally devolving stalemate, now wracked by “green-on-blue”
or “insider” attacks on U.S. forces, while the general himself returned to
Washington as CIA director to run covert wars in Pakistan
before retiring in disgrace
following a sex scandal.
all the ink about the “Vietnam analogy,”
virtually none of the reporters, pundits, historians, generals, politicians, or
other members of the chattering classes ever so much as mentioned the Vietnam
War as Pham To knew it. In that way, they managed to miss the one unfailing
parallel between America’s
wars in all three places: civilian suffering.
For all the
dissimilarities, botched analogies, and tortured comparisons, there has been
one connecting thread in Washington’s
foreign wars of the last half century that, in recent years at least, Americans
have seldom found of the slightest interest: misery for local nationals.
Civilian suffering is, in fact, the defining characteristic of modern war in
general, even if only rarely discussed in the halls of power or the mainstream
An Unimaginable Toll
Pham To was
lucky. He and Pham Thang, another victim and a neighbor, told me that, of the
2,000 people living in their village before the war, only 300 survived it.
Bombing, shelling, a massacre, disease, and starvation had come close to wiping
out their entire settlement. “So many people were hungry,” Pham Thang said.
“With no food, many died. Others were sick and with medications unavailable,
they died, too. Then there was the bombing and shelling, which took still more
lives. They all died because of the war.”
Leaving aside those who perished from disease, hunger, or lack of medical
care, at least 3.8 million Vietnamese died violent war deaths according to
researchers from Harvard Medical School
and the University
of Washington. The best
estimate we have is that 2 million of them were civilians. Using a very
conservative extrapolation, this suggests that 5.3 million civilians were
wounded during the war, for a total of 7.3 million Vietnamese civilian
casualties overall. To such figures might be added an estimated 11.7
million Vietnamese forced from their homes and turned into refugees,
up to 4.8
million sprayed with toxic herbicides like Agent Orange, an
estimated 800,000 to 1.3 million war orphans, and 1 million war widows.
are staggering, the suffering incalculable, the misery almost incomprehensible
to most Americans but not, perhaps, to an Iraqi.
No one will
ever know just how many Iraqis died in the wake of the U.S. invasion
of 2003. In a country with an estimated population of about 25
million at the time, a much-debated survey -- the results of which
were published in the British medical journal The
suggested more than 601,000
violent “excess deaths” had occurred by 2006. Another survey
indicated that more than 1.2
million Iraqi civilians had died because of the war (and the various
internal conflicts that flowed from it) as of 2007. The Associated Press
tallied up records of 110,600
deaths by early 2009. An Iraqi family health survey fixed the number
violent deaths by June 2006. Official documents made public by
Wikileaks counted 109,000 deaths, including 66,081 civilian deaths, between
2004 and 2009. Iraq Body Count has
tallied as many as 121,220 documented cases of violent civilian deaths alone.
are those 3.2
million Iraqis who were internally displaced or fled the violence to
other lands, only to find uncertainty and deprivation in places like Jordan, Iran,
and now war-torn Syria.
By 2011, 9% or more of Iraq’s
women, as many as 1
million, were widows (a number that skyrocketed in the years after
invasion). A recent survey found that 800,000 to 1 million
Iraqi children had lost one or both parents, a figure that only grows with the
continuing violence that the U.S.
unleashed but never stamped out.
country, which experienced an enormous
brain drain of professionals, has a total of 200 social workers and
psychiatrists to aid all those, armed and unarmed, who suffered every sort of
horror and trauma. (In just the last seven years, by comparison, the U.S.
Veterans Administration has hired 7,000
new mental health professionals to deal with Americans who have been
psychologically scarred by war.)
too, would surely be able to relate to what Pham To and millions of Vietnamese
war victims endured. For more than 30 years, Afghanistan has, with the rarest of
exceptions, been at war. It all started with the 1979 Soviet invasion and Washington’s
support for some of the most extreme of the Islamic militants who
opposed the Russian occupation of the country.
iteration of war there began with an invasion by U.S. and allied forces in
2001, and has since claimed the lives of many thousands of
civilians in roadside
attacks and helicopter
raids and outright
massacres. Untold numbers of Afghans have also died of everything
from lack of access to medical care (there are just 2 doctors for
every 10,000 Afghans) to exposure,
including shocking reports of children freezing to death in refugee camps last winter and again
this year. They were among the hundreds of thousands of Afghans who have been
internally displaced during the war. Millions more
live as refugees outside the country, mostly in Iran
Of the women who remain in the country, up to 2
million are widows. In addition, there are now an estimated 2
million Afghan orphans. No wonder polling
by Gallup this
past summer found 96% of Afghans claiming they were either “suffering” or
“struggling,” and just 4% “thriving.”
American Refugees in Mexico?
Americans, this type of unrelenting, war-related misery is unfathomable. Few
have ever personally experienced anything like what their tax dollars have
wrought in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Southwest
Asia in the last half-century. And while surprising
numbers of Americans do suffer from poverty and deprivation, few
know anything about what it’s like to live through a year of war -- let alone
10, as Pham To did -- under the constant threat of air strikes, artillery fire,
and violence perpetrated by foreign ground troops.
Still, as a
simple thought experiment, let’s consider for a moment what it might be like in
American terms. Imagine that the United States had experienced an
occupation by a foreign military force. Imagine millions or even tens of
millions of American civilians dead or wounded as a result of an invasion and
resulting civil strife.
country in which your door might be kicked down in the dead of night by
heavily-armed, foreign young men, in strange uniforms, helmets and imposing
body armor, yelling things in a language you don’t understand. Imagine them
rifling through your drawers, upending your furniture, holding you at gunpoint,
roughing up your husband or son or brother, and marching him off in the middle
of the night. Imagine, as well, a country in which those foreigners kill
American “insurgents” and then routinely strip
them naked; in which those occupying troops sometimes urinate on
American bodies (and shoot videos of it); or take trophy
photos of their “kills”; or mutilate
them; or pose with the body
parts of dead Americans; or from time to time -- for reasons again
beyond your comprehension -- rape
a moment, violence so extreme that you and literally millions like you have to
flee your hometowns for squalid refugee camps or expanding slums ringing the
nearest cities. Imagine trading your home for a new one without heat or
electricity, possibly made of refuse with a corrugated metal roof that roars
when it rains. Then imagine living there for months, if not years.
things getting so bad that you decide to trek across the Mexican border to live
an uncertain life, forever wondering if your new violence- and poverty-wracked
host nation will turn
you out or if you’ll ever be able to return to your home in the U.S.
Imagine living with these realities day after day for up to decade.
disasters like Hurricane Sandy or Katrina, small numbers of Americans briefly
experience something like what millions of war victims -- Vietnamese, Iraqis,
Afghans, and others -- have often had to endure for significant parts of their
lives. But for those in America’s
war zones, there will be no telethons, benefit
concerts, or texting
Pham To and
Pham Thang had to bury the bodies of their family members, friends, and
neighbors after they were massacred by American troops passing through their
village on patrol. They had to rebuild their homes and their lives after the
war with remarkably little help. One thing was as certain for them as it has
been for war-traumatized Iraqis and Afghans of our moment: no Hollywood
luminaries lined up to help raise funds for them or their village. And they
“We lost so
many people and so much else. And this land was affected by Agent Orange, too.
You’ve come to write about the war, but you could never know the whole story,”
Pham Thang told me. Then he became circumspect. “Now, our two governments, our
two countries, live in peace and harmony. And we just want to restore life to
what it once was here. We suffered great losses. The U.S. government should offer
assistance to help increase the local standard of living, provide better
healthcare, and build infrastructure like better roads.”
No doubt --
despite the last
decade of U.S. nation-buildingdebacles
in its war zones -- many
Iraqis and Afghans would express similar sentiments. Perhaps they will even be
saying the same sort of thing to an American reporter decades from now.
last years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of war victims like Pham Thang, and he’s
right: I’ll probably never come close to knowing what life was like for those
whose worlds were upended by America’s foreign wars. And I’m far from alone.
Most Americans never make it to a war zone, and even U.S. military personnel arrive only
for finite tours of duty, while for combat correspondents and aid workers an
exit door generally remains open. Civilians like Pham To, however, are in it
for the duration.
Vietnam years, there was at least an antiwar movement in this country that
included many Vietnam
veterans who made genuine
efforts to highlight the civilian
suffering they knew was going on at almost unimaginable levels.
In contrast, in the decade-plus since 9/11, with the rarest
Americans have remained remarkably detached from their distant wars, thoroughly
ignoring what can be known about the suffering that has been caused in their
As I was
wrapping up my interview, Pham Thang asked me about the purpose of the last
hour and a half of questions I’d asked him. Through my interpreter, I explained
that most Americans knew next to nothing about Vietnamese suffering during the
war and that most books written in my country on the war years ignored it. I
wanted, I told him, to offer Americans the chance to hear about the experiences
of ordinary Vietnamese for the first time.
American people know about these incidents, if they learn about the wartime
suffering of people in Vietnam,
do you think they will sympathize?” he asked me.
I should finally know the answer to his question.
Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and
a fellow at the Nation Institute. An award-winning journalist, his work has
appeared in the Los
Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author most recently of Kill
Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books). Published on January
15th, it offers a new look at the American war machine in Vietnam and the
suffering it caused. His website is NickTurse.com. You can follow him on Tumblr and on Facebook.
2013 Nick Turse
Image by the U.S. Army,
licensed under Creative