“What are we fighting for?” – Country Joe McDonald
When I had to prepare for a 7th grade classroom debate on the Vietnam War in Spring 1965, President Johnson had begun escalating the war with the massive bombing of Operation Rolling Thunder and the deployment of a few thousand Marines to Da Nang, the first of what would become nearly 200,000 US troops by the end of 1965 and over 500,000 in 1968. I learned that the US had signed the 1954 Geneva Accords, which provided for an election in 1956 to unify Vietnam and establish an independent government. But I also learned that the US had prevented the election because it knew the winner would be Ho Chi Minh, the Communist leader of the Viet Minh, the nationalist coalition for independence that had defeated the Japanese and then the French imperialists. The Viet Minh controlled the North, but the French had retaken the South when the Japanese left with US military support from the Truman and Eisenhower administrations until the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and gave up their colonies in Indochina. I read the 1945 “Vietnamese Proclamation of Independence from Japan and France.” Ho had drafted and modeled the proclamation after the American Declaration of Independence in consultation with operatives from the OSS (predecessor of the CIA), who had been helping the Viet Minh fight the Japanese during World War II. None of this was on the nightly news, which broadcast Johnson’s justifications for the war. I was outraged at the hypocrisy of the pro-war US political leaders who talked of democracy and self-determination but were opposing it in Vietnam. What are we fighting for?
When the Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, all of these violations of America’s professed values were more thoroughly documented by internal Pentagon documents. What also became clear in those leaked documents is that US political leaders knew the whole time that the US could not defeat Vietnamese nationalism and win the war. Yet they continued to send young Americans to die in Vietnam so they didn’t appear soft on Communism in domestic politics. What are we fighting for?
When my draft number came up in 1972, I enlisted in the Marine Corps and in the GI resistance to the war. When I got to Quantico for bootcamp for officer candidates, I was training with a lot of Vietnam combat veterans now in college on the GI bill and coming back in the Marines to become officers—and most of them opposed the Vietnam War. They loved the anti-war anthem of the Navy veteran, Country Joe McDonald. His “Feel Like i’m Fixing to Die Rag” captured the hypocrisies of the US war in Vietnam and the spirit of the anti-war movement inside as well as outside the military. For the military rank-and-file, the song gave voice to their real feelings about how they were treated as expendable pawns by the military brass and the country’s political leaders. What are we fighting for?
It took 19 years after the 1956 election that the US prevented for the Vietnamese, with the assistance of the anti-war movement and the GI resistance, to finally expel the last US forces 45 years ago on April 30, 1975. US leaders said we were fighting Communism. Washington’s aggressive war the cost of lives of nearly 4 million Vietnamese. The Communists won and today preside over a predominantly capitalist economy. What are we fighting for?
Today multinational corporations from the US, China (Vietnam’s millennial-old colonial nemesis), Japan, South Korea, and other nations locate factories in Vietnam to exploit cheap labor and environmental laws so lax and unenforced that the legendary General Vo Nguyen Giap, who had led the Vietnamese People’s Army in defeating the Japanese, French, and finally US occupiers, became Vietnam’s most prominent a environmental, pro-democracy, and anti-corruption dissident, criticizing Vietnamese state and party leaders on these issues until his dying day in 2013 at the age of 102. What were we fighting for?
And what are we fighting for now? It’s not for us regular people. We are not why the US now has over 800 foreign military bases. We are not why the US is officially engaged in 7 endless wars and covert special operations in well over 100 foreign countries. We are not why the US is continuing to impose economic sanctions on countries that need aid and trade right now to fight the coronavirus. The US war machine is not about defending Americans in our homeland. It is about making the world safe for profiteering by US-based global corporations.
What are we fighting for? We should be fighting to dismantle the US Military/Industrial Complex. Instead being the world’s military empire, we must demand that the US become the world’s humanitarian superpower. Let’s make the US use its wealth and knowledge in a multi-lateral Global Green New Deal that reverses climate change and provides for the basic needs of all. Let’s make friends, instead of enemies. Let’s make peace, instead of war.