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Minority report.

There are war crimes, and there is the crime of war. The Nuremberg Tribunal, for example, indicted the Nazi leadership not just for its crimes; it laid a general indictment of conspiracy to wage the aggressive war that made such crimes inevitable. There are also war lies, though unfortunately one cannot complete the analogy and say that there is the lie of war. It is still the case, as the cliche has it, that in war the first casualty is truth.

At and around the Washington Vietnam Memorial in the days after its Reaganite reconsecration, there was an intense debate about all this. Most reports stressed secondhand and second-rate aspects of the debate, trashy and sentimental stuff about "healing," "homecoming" and "reconciliation." It's pretty clear that there can be no healing while there are those who believe that the war could or should have been won and those who believe it should never have been fought, or even that it deserved to be "lost." The problem with the current CBS/Westmoreland lawsuit is that it allows both contestants to be hypocritical and evasive about the nature of a lie, and the nature of the war.

If you accept the CBS interpretation, you must believe that Lyndon Johnson was the victim of lies, not the author of them. You must acknowledge that an "undercounting" of "the enemy" was responsible for the American defeat in Indochina. How much more trivial can revisionism get? No doubt, Westmoreland fibbed about casualty figures and troop levels, as every general must do. No doubt, Mike Wallace and George Crile think that something gives them the right to refer to the Vietnamese as "the enemy." And, no doubt, there are officials and operatives from that period who remember that the books were cooked. So what? You were expecting maybe the truth?

The Vietnam War was founded on lies. When the American public was told, as early as the 1950s, that it was not financing and arming French colonialism, that was a lie. When it was told of a North Vietnamese attack on U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, that was a lie. When it was told of numerous heartfelt "peace offensives" by the Johnson Administration, that was a lie. When it fell for Nixon's promises about "peace with honor," it was the victim of a lie. When it believed that all you needed for victory was an invasion of Cambodia to clean up the Central Office of South Vietnam ("the jungle Pentagon"), it was the victim of a lie. No truthful statement was, or could have been, made by any defender of the war policy. Yet it is left to the smart-asses of CBS to say that the failure was in not adding up, or killing off, enough of the Vietcong. Their "conspiracy" show even quoted Lieut. Gen. Daniel Graham as saying, in effect, that General Westmoreland had illusions about communism. I suppose that this cost-effective, pseudo-investigative method is the documentary equivalent of the neoliberal style.

The amusing result of this statistical reductionism is that the extreme right has seen its chance. By financing Westmoreland's lawsuit it hopes to reverse the liberal verdict on the war, or at least to do so psychologically. It also hopes to amplify the big lie about the media stab in the back that robbed a fine command of its rightful victory. An honest soldier, vindicated at last, tells how he did his best as God granted him the light. And the rising generation of Americans is brought up on lies about Vietnam.

History can't be decided in the courts, but it can be debated there. Even the limited characters who pass as "expert witnesses" may remaind people, as they testify about phony figures, of the political mega-lies told by Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Dean Rusk, Ellsworth Bunker, L.B.J. and H.H.H. CBS could still make a William Calley defense: that Westmoreland was accomplice to a system of deception and became utterly compromised by it. But it seems that the times don't favor such a strategy. Everyone is apparently looking for cover. In these circumstances, truth is no defense. A verdict favoring either side will represent an obfuscation of the meaning of the war and the meaning of the word--so understated by CBS--"conspiracy."

As presented in the newspapers and as argued by people outside the courtroom, the suit pits the East Coast media against the simple grunt and the bluff general. This caricature puts the so-called liberal establishment on the defensive and on the stand, rather as the recent election did. There is a crumb of consolation, just one, to be found in this debacle in which the murderers have become the accusers. It was the liberals, with their cost-benefit analyses, their computing machines and their sweet little "problem-solving" ways, who devised and prolonged the Vietnam War in the first place. Nemesis takes devious routes, but she gets there in the end.

I see that some cleric has attacked me for not having a towering intellect [see "Letters," The Nation, November 17]. Well, if Pastor Dave LeMoine is so smart, how come he can't told down a real job? I write in the course of a week when the Nicaraguan archbishopric has become the open patron of the counterrevolution, and when the Archbishop of Santiago, Chile, has urged the half-starved working class of his country to achieve a "dialogue" with Pinochet by fasting. None of this will still the babble of the liberation theologians, one of whom, Father Cesar Jerez of the Jesuits, has produced a pamphlet titled "The Church and the Nicaraguan Revolution." His tract begins with a flat lie--"Nicaragua's revolution received the backing of the churches especially the Catholic Church"--and goes on to give the game away. In justifying the participation of Christians in the Nicaraguan revolution, Jerez writes that "the way they conceive the role of the church could be summed up as follows: 'It is worth the risks involved in order to evangelise the new Nicaragua."' [Emphasis in the original.]

The contras, too, have this as their proclaimed goal. These bandits and killers do their work in the name of the Virgin Mary, as did their Francoist and Phalangist forerunners. Poor Nicaragua, to be so loved by the Christians.
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Title Annotation:Vietnam war lies and the Westmoreland-CBS trial
Author:Hitchens, Christopher
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:column
Date:Dec 1, 1984
Previous Article:Drop those guns.
Next Article:The strange correspondence of Morris Ernst and John Edgar Hoover, 1939-1964.

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