The American War

Jonathan Neale, The American War: Vietnam 1960-1975 (Bookmarks: 2001, $25 paperback) now republished as part of Howard Zinn’s People’s History series as A People’s History of the Vietnam War (New Press: 2003, $35.95 hardcover).

“That’s what I can’t get out of my head - the bodies… all those bodies. Back then we didn’t give a shit about the dead Vietnamese. It was like: “Hey, they’re just gooks, don’t mean nothin’.” You got so cold you didn’t even blink. You could even joke about it… It’s not like that now. You can’t just put it out of your mind. Now I carry those bodies around every fucking day. It’s a heavy load, man, a heavy fucking load.”
- former GI John Hendricks in 1985
The Vietnam War (or “American War” as it is known in Vietnam) was one of the great atrocities of the twentieth century. Over two million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans died in war that included chemical weapons, massacres of whole villages and ended in famine and dictatorship. But it was also a time of great heroism. The United States, the world’s largest military power was forced to flee with its tail between its legs as it was outwitted by peasant guerrillas, lost control of its own army was threatened by massive civil unrest at home. Vietnam was the last time the US has used a standing army in war, and its shadow hangs over every American imperial policy from Colombia to Iraq.
Jonathon Neale is highly qualified to take on the subject. Now an organizer of the Genoa Social Forum, Neale was an anti-war activist at a black college in the American south during the war. The book is his attempt to document the successes and failures of that movement for activists today. This is reflected in his writing style: he is very close to his subject matter, making the book intimate and moving. You feel like Neale is sitting you down and looking you in the eye, telling you what he thinks you need to know about the war so you can help stop it happening again. In simple but gripping language, Neale weaves a complex argument around oral testimony from soldiers, peasants, students and protesters.
“This is a short history of [the] war from the point of view of the peasants and GIs who fought it,” he declares in the introduction. As he relates first-hand accounts of atrocities committed by American soldiers, he never loses sight of the human trapped in the machine. Neale is not moralistic when he asks how this happened. Instead, he soberly maps the chain of events that led from boardrooms in Washington to massacre at My Lai: the strategic importance of Vietnam in the Cold War; the mass popularity of the Nationalist regime; an enemy hidden in jungles and underground tunnels. This left the US with only one strategy: attrition. Kill so many Vietnamese that they give up. The only way to measure success was to count bodies and reward slaughter. Everyone was the enemy; the Vietnamese were not human. Whole villages were leveled, women raped, children mowed down by machine-gun fire, napalm, Agent Orange. All this was propelled by the logic of the system. And as people slowly discovered what was happening in Vietnam, they began to turn against the system itself.
Every argument Neale makes is underscored by an analysis of class: “The politicians who ran the American War in Vietnam did not send their children to fight there. They sent the children of the working class.” Every contradiction in American society found expression in Vietnam. Officers were university educated volunteers; the army was made of draftees from working class towns. Soldiers were disproportionately black; officers were disproportionately white and racist.
Class was also the defining contradiction on the Vietnamese side. The Communist movement was led by bourgeois intellectuals and fought by nationalist peasants. The party leaders looked to Russia and China as models for their development, and saw themselves occupying the same position as the privileged layer of bureaucrats who made up the ruling class of those countries. But following the state-capitalist model of development created two problems in Vietnam. First, it meant that the party looked to the peasantry and ignored the working class, meaning they were always weak in urban areas which were of vital strategic importance. Second, it ensured that victory would end in the dictatorship of a small elite without popular support. A ruthless dictatorship, driven by the need for rapid industrialization to create a functioning state-capitalist economy.
Neale charts the course of the anti-war movement from marginal meetings on campuses to mass action involving students, workers and (most importantly) returning soldiers. One of the most moving stories is of a march by Vietnam Veterans Against the War to return their medals to their congressmen. “They found a fence had been put up in front of the steps of Congress to stop them. The police guarded the fence. One by one the veterans stepped forward and threw their medals over the fence at the Congress… It went on for three hours. Some men had a lot of medals to throw because their friends who couldn’t make it had given them theirs to throw too.”
The anti-war movement overlapped with the black power movement. Both came to Vietnam and inspired the soldiers’ revolt which eventually stopped the US from being able to control its army. By 1970, GIs simply stopped fighting. An article in the Armed Forces Journal in June 1971 complained, “All the foregoing facts… point to widespread conditions among American forces in Vietnam that have only been exceeded in this century by the French Army’s Nivelle Mutinies and the collapse of the Tsarist forces in 1916 and 1917.”
In The American War, Jonathan Neale has written the best kind of Marxist history: one that is enthralling in the stories it tells and rigorous in its need to explain the world. It is theoretically complex without being dense; its language is clear and direct. And its subject is not obscure - Neale’s arguments about the nature of imperialism and the importance of class are relevant to anti-war activists today.


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