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Hitchens, Haditha, and My Lai

By Paul McNellis

Whether it takes a shoehorn or a crowbar, the Mainstream Media have decided that all Iraq reporting must be squeezed into the Vietnam template. Thus the immediate link, before we had any facts, between Haditha and My Lai. But Christopher Hitchens is having none of it.

"All the glib talk about My Lai," Hitchens writes, "is so much propaganda and hot air." Indeed, any comparison between Iraq and Vietnam offends Hitchens, not because the comparison might be a slander against American troops in Iraq, but rather because it slanders the Viet Cong. For in Vietnam, unlike Iraq, according to Hitchens, the Americans

were vainly attempting to defeat a people's army with high morale and exalted standards. I, for one, will not have them insulted by any comparison to the forces of Zarqawi, the Fedayeen Saddam, and the criminal world now arrayed against us. These depraved elements are the Khmer Rouge.

In an earlier article for Slate, Hitchens explained "why there is no reasonable parallel of any sort between Iraq and Vietnam." Let's consider Hitchens' claim against the background of the following press accounts.

For weeks in advance, Al Qaeda had roamed the countryside, making their position grimly clear: the village elections were an "American trick," and candidates for office would be assassinated and blown up. Then, just to make sure that the villagers got the message, Al Quaeda terrorists methodically murdered four candidates and kidnapped ten others as election day drew near.

Or this story.

"Demons weep, God grieves, and anyone who goes out will vomit blood." Such was the fearful forecast that Al Qaeda agents circulated ... to discourage those who were inclined to go to the polls ...

Or, from a story describing the killing of 100 villagers.

Thursday's attack had been preceded by warnings. Al Qaeda had left notes warning villagers that they would be beheaded unless they stopped collaborating with the Americans.

I must confess, I have altered the above quotations, though only slightly. If you replace "Al Qaeda" with "The Viet Cong," you have the verbatim accounts from Newsweek, April 17, 1967, Newsweek, September 19, 1966, and The Washington Post, June 16, 1970.

In a cover story on My Lai, Time magazine (Dec. 5, 1969) also included a sidebar report titled, "On the Other Side: Terror as Policy." The story begins:

For shocked Americans, what happened at My Lai seems an awful aberration. For the Communists in Vietnam, the murder of civilians is routine, purposeful policy. Terror is a part of the guerillas' arsenal of intimidation, to be used whenever other methods of persuasion have failed to rally a village or province round the Viet Cong flag.

In a long war, no one knows just how many civilians have been attacked by the Communists. The U.S. has listed well over 100,000 separate incidents of terrorism against the South Vietnamese population since 1958. During the past eleven years, the Communists are known to have killed more than 26,000 South Vietnamese, injured hundreds of thousands, kidnapped at least 60,000 in their campaign of terror.

The story goes on to describe the massacre at the Montagnard village of Dak Son in 1967. A year earlier the villagers had fled the Communists for the South Vietnamese government side. For the crime of refusing to change their minds and their political allegiance, the Viet Cong attacked the village with flamethrowers and then executed the 60 villagers who survived the initial attack. As Time concludes: "Altogether, 252 unarmed Montagnards, nearly all of them women and children, were murdered, 100 kidnapped, 500 listed as missing."

But surely there is some exaggeration here, for killing on such a scale would have been more widely reported at the time, would it not? Not really. Newsweek (May 15, 1967), in a summary of terror incidents it described as "typical," concluded:

Since mid-1957, long before U.S. troops were on the scene, incidents like these have been a routine affair in South Vietnam--so routine that most Vietnam-based correspondents no longer find them newsworthy.

Notice the date on the above report: 1967, before the Tet offensive. The "exalted standards" of the Viet Cong, which Hitchens so much admires, were on full display during the Tet offensive, especially in the city of Hue. While they held the city, Viet Cong cadre went from house to house with specially prepared "blood lists" of enemies to be eliminated. When South Vietnamese government troops retook the city, they eventually found mass graves containing nearly 3,000 bodies.

Is Hitchens aware of this history? It's hard to tell. Hitchens claims that "No car bomb or hijacking or suicide-bombing or comparable atrocity was ever committed by the Vietnamese, on American or any other foreign soil." Does Hitchens mean there were no atrocities, or that they occurred only on Vietnamese soil? If the former, it is simply false; if the latter, what difference would it make if you were Vietnamese? Nor does Hitchens mention the gulag that spread over Vietnam after 1975, the boat people, the expulsion of ethnic Chinese, or the stultifying intellectual life and lack of freedom in today's Vietnam.

Hitchens is correct that Haditha is not My Lai. And even if Haditha proves to be as bad as the worst press reports would have it, it will not be My Lai. But Hitchens' claims notwithstanding, there are some parallels between Vietnam and Iraq. To be classified an "enemy of the people" by the Viet Cong or an "infidel" by Al Qaeda yields similar results: your humanity is denied, and your life becomes expendable as you become a mere means to someone else's ends.

There were millions in South Vietnam who did not want the "liberation" the Communist north imposed on them, just as there are probably millions in Iraq who want no part of the new Caliphate. Hitchens will no doubt reject this reading of Vietnamese Communism, but I can only suggest that he have more conversations with Vietnamese Americans.

Although Hitchens sees his current position on Iraq as entirely consistent with his earlier antiwar principles, I think his former colleagues at The Nation are right: He's changed more than they have. This time around he is opposed to the forces of oppression, and that's why he's more interesting to read than they are.

Rev. Paul W. McNellis, S.J., teaches philosophy at Boston College.

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