We Had to Destroy the Village to Save It

Due to the increasing comparison of the Iraq war to Vietnam , the time has come to brush off the old Orwellian phrases and see how they fit the war in Iraq . Quagmire, 'a soft, wet area of low lying land that sinks underfoot,' was an apropos metaphor for our catastrophic involvement in the river deltas and rain forests of Vietnam . Perhaps our American pundits and wordsmiths--William Safire perhaps--will devise a better phrase for the 'long hard slog' in the deserts of Iraq . Many timeless quotes of the Vietnam era weren't invented by linguists or literary giants but were uttered instead simply by people under duress, doing the bidding of idiots and sadomasochists. The brief catalogue of quotes below--however incomplete--may offer younger readers additional puzzling questions. What were Tet, My Lai , and Operation Phoenix? These were pages from our imperial history, notable for cruelty, folly and unbelievable heartbreak, ill suited for brevity and better researched as lessons unlearned while we increase our bootprint on the world.

'We had to destroy the village to save it'

Attributed to many different people, including war correspondent Peter Arnett who supposedly attributed the quote to an unidentified Army officer. Used circa 1968, perhaps during the bloody Tet offensive. Some people believe the phrase applies to the massacre at My Lai , where approximately 500 unarmed villagers were murdered by rampaging US troops. Army Lt. William Calley was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment but served only three years before being pardoned by President Richard Nixon. Tim Larimer of Time magazine returned to My Lai 30 years later and said, ' My Lai 's place in American history is firmly entrenched, as a disturbing wake-up call that the US military could be as guilty of inhumane acts as any army.' A Vietnamese war veteran who returned to the village to find his entire family murdered and then hastily buried, remarked, 'There were many My Lais.' Recently the Toledo Blade corroborated his remark, uncovering other atrocities and war crimes in Vietnam . Lately the Israelis seem to have adopted the 'We had to destroy the village to save it' policy in Palestinian territory, and the likelihood is we will in Iraq , since we've asked the Israelis for advice.

'Hearts and Minds'

Apologists for the Vietnam War tried hard to put a positive spin on our objectives there, just as the architects of the Iraq invasion have done. 'Winning the hearts and minds' of the Vietnamese people became an oft-repeated phrase. Everyone said it; no one knew exactly how to do it. Just like in Iraq . After the relocation of thousands of South Vietnamese to 'strategic hamlets,' however, the effort to win hearts and minds collapsed, especially when many Vietnamese villages became 'free-fire zones,' which meant that anything, or everything, that moved there'human or animal--could be fired upon. Just like in Iraq .

'Body Count'

The Pentagon announced early in the Iraq war that 'We don't do body counts.' Body counts in Vietnam , in a war without any real objective--according to General Westmoreland, who more than any man seemed to grasp at body counts as a sign of success--opened the door to the killing of civilians and the mutilation of their bodies. The dead were stacked like cordwood. Marine Lt. Philip Caputo, author of A Rumor of War, summarized that prevailing mindset succinctly: 'If it's dead and it's Vietnamese, it's VC.' The American media''media whores' according to Sherman Skolnick'embraced Vietnamese body counts, but the trumpeting of death, especially on television accompanied by graphic footage, proved to be counterproductive to the war aims of administration hawks. Thus today in Iraq , body counts are out, but the count of bodies, both Iraqi and American, continues to rise.


George Orwell invented the word doublespeak --War is peace; Lies are truth'in his timeless novel, 1984. Orwell would have understood the usage of the word 'pacification,' as applied in Vietnam and perhaps again in Iraq . 'Pacification became a word drenched in blood,' said former CIA liaison officer, Colonel Fletcher Prouty, in his authoritative work, JFK: The CIA, Vietnam and the Plot to Assassinate John F. Kennedy. 'Borrowed from the French commandos in Algeria by the US Army Special Forces activists, it meant to hit an area as hard as possible in order that it would be reduced to rubble'that is, 'pacified.' Pacification became the battle cry of the dreaded Phoenix Program that was operated under the direction of the CIA in later years.'

'The Draft'

'If I die in a combat zone, box me up and ship me home,' wrote Tim O'Brien, drafted Vietnam veteran. Despite Donald Rumsfeld's claim that draftees added 'no value, no advantage, really, to the United States Armed Services over any sustained period of time,' many draftees returned home in body bags and boxes. The Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) loudly criticized the Secretary for his remarks. 'Secretary Rumsfeld should know that the Vietnam War could not have continued for 10 years without a military draft of honorable Americans who accepted their military obligations,' said VVA president Thomas Corey. Unlike our current crop of leaders in Washington , few of whom actually served in the military, whether drafted or enlisted, Vietnam era draftees seldom had the option of Ivy League schools. Before 1973, when the draft was abolished and the war in Vietnam was winding down, young American men were required by law to register for the Selective Service'otherwise known as 'the draft'--upon reaching 18 years of age. Even then a bias towards the lower middle classes left many wondering about the fairness of those on the boards. Truthfully, the Selective Service draft was a lottery where the winners were losers. The only requirement to play seemed to be poverty, powerlessness and na'vet'. Now there is talk of bringing back 2,000 Selective Service Boards, and the Pentagon is calling for volunteers. 'You only have to look at troop levels to realize we don't have the numbers to do the job in Iraq properly,' said Charles Pena, a senior analyst with the Cato Institute. Ned Lebow, formerly a professor at the National War College in Washington , added: 'What the Department of Defense is doing is creating the infrastructure to make the draft a viable option should the administration wish to go this route.' In other words, young man: get those grades up now, or better yet, get your parents on the draft board.

'The Light At The End Of The Tunnel'

Attributed to President Lyndon Baines Johnson but probably written by an unknown speechwriter, the phrase became the signature quote of a disastrous war. In November of 1967, Johnson was advised by public relations advisors to take a more upbeat rather than adversarial approach with the media regarding the Vietnam War. Initially, the tactic worked, and Johnson's approval rating rose. Within two months, however, at the height of the Tet offensive by Vietcong and NVA regulars, American combat deaths skyrocketed and reached a peak of 1,200 per month, and the phrase 'light at the end of the tunnel' became a bitter joke among troops or a personal mockery of LBJ, rather than a true measure of optimism. Johnson himself remarked to his press secretary, Bill Moyers (who probably coined the phrase), 'Light at the end of the tunnel? We don't even have a tunnel; we don't even know where the tunnel is!'

Like fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson, President George W. Bush appears to be foundering on a foreign war of his own device. Bush could learn a lot from LBJ, if he chose. Unwilling or unable to resolve the Vietnam War diplomatically, LBJ continued to squander lives. He told White House aide Richard Goodwin, however, that opponents of the war were close to being traitors. Privately he confided: 'I don't think it's worth fighting for and I don't think we can get out. It's just the biggest damned mess.' Unfortunately, none of LBJ's private quotes, his more honest assessments, ever swayed his public policy to end the war. Reviled throughout the last months of his presidency, LBJ left office, choosing not to run in 1968. Nixon replaced Johnson in 1969 and the new phraseology became 'Vietnamization,' or replacement of US troops with South Vietnamese soldiers. Ironically, Washington plutocrats now speak of 'Iraqization,' and LBJ, like the troubled ghost of Scrooge, may yet rise from his grave..

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Columns on STR: 149

Award winning artist, photographer and freelance journalist, Douglas Herman can be found wandering the back roads of America. Doug authored the political crime thriller, The Guns of Dallas  and wrote and directed the Independent feature film,Throwing Caution to the Windnaturally a "road movie," and credits STR for giving him the impetus to write well, both provocatively and entertainingly. A longtime gypsy, Doug completed a 10,000 mile circumnavigation of North America, by bicycle, at the age of 35, and still wanders between Bullhead City, Arizona and Kodiak, Alaska with forays frequently into the so-called civilized world of Greater LA. Write him at Roadmovie2 @ Gmail.com