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Truth or Consequences

My Lai

Truth or Consequences was once a TV game show and a town in New Mexico.

In the real world, there is always truth, and ignoring the truth has terrible consequences. In Vietnam, we tried to demonstrate that advanced technology could conquer Stone Age nationalism. Using guns that could fire thousands of bullets a minute, chemicals that could incinerate whole villages at once, and planes that could deliver the bullets and chemicals from miles in the air, we set out to inflict compassionate colonialism on the Vietnamese.

But we lost. The civilian “terrorists” on motorbikes, or hiding beside rice paddies, beat the highest technology fighting forces the world had ever seen. Just as rude farmers, crouching behind stone walls, had once beaten the better armed and trained Hessian “Redcoats” thrown against them.

We also used our military to prop up a wildly unpopular government in Saudi Arabia, in exchange for effective control of Saudi oil. But as with other such adventures, one consequence of creating a puppet Saudi ruling class was the need to educate some to administer our desires. As the British saw in India, and the French in Vietnam and Algeria, some of our educated Saudi puppets started to act out feelings of nationalism.

By the 1970s, the Saudis had decided that they could manage their own oil. They still wanted us to provide, and pay for, the military force to control their population. They sent us the bills, but kept the income for themselves.

As the birthplace of Islam, they spent money to honor and promote the religion. We encouraged them to foster the most extreme and intolerant Islamic sects. We taught them that religious extremes and the politics of divisiveness had been effective tools for managing plantations and textile mills in our own South – keeping profits up and workers down.

We encouraged them to export their religious beliefs, to support religious “freedom fighters” against Russia’s attempts to control Afghanistan. We mixed their religion with our politics and weapons, and told them that any excess was OK, if it served our transitory goals.

So, export they did – to Afghanistan and Sudan. To attack the USS Cole. Then, Saudi money paid for, and Saudi citizens planned and executed the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The “puppets” we propped up and the mujehadin we trained brought the religious intolerance we encouraged to our doorsteps.

This was not the first time we reaped what we sowed. In Vietnam, the military encouraged drug use by our troops, to help them quiet the nightmares and dull the pain. When the troops came home, our population of homeless, drug-addicted young men grew, and with it the crime necessary to afford drugs that had been free or nearly so “in country” in Vietnam. We drove Vietnamese peasants off their land, and drove their daughters into brothels to make a living and to soothe our young fighters. And venereal disease became a standard problem among our homeless, addicted vets.

Now we are paying new consequences for our foreign adventures. Do you recognize the names Maria Lauterbach or Megan Touma or Holly Wimunc? Each was a U.S. soldier. Each was murdered, this year, in North Carolina. Each was murdered by another U.S. soldier. All involved had served tours in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Each was killed because she had become a problem for her killer.

In California, the military has just dropped all charges against a sergeant who ordered his men to kill a group of handcuffed, sitting (or kneeling) Iraqi prisoners. They were killed because our soldiers had to move, and the prisoners were a problem.

The sergeant, and the soldiers accused of killing the women at Fort Bragg, and the increasing number of other post-Afghanistan and post-Iraq soldiers being charged with violent crimes, are part of the new consequences of our current philosophy of war and of social justice.

After Vietnam, the veterans who littered our streets, disabled by their memories or by drugs, were abandoned by a military that refused to take Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome seriously, and by a society that punished, rather than treated, the very behaviors it had encouraged during the war.

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In the 1980s, Reagan the demigod authorized Colombian, El Salvadoran, and Honduran generals to traffic cocaine to fund their death squads, to contain civil unrest in Latin America. Prices plummeted in our cities and we still suffer the consequences.

Now our troops are being told that their mission is so important that the rules of war don’t apply. They are trained to believe that treaties can be ignored. And daily, they shoot down civilians who “may” or “might” or “could” pose a threat.

And when a soldier seems to get too enthusiastic about killing civilians, he is discharged, not treated. Treatment is too expensive. And our military still clings to its denial that mental health issues arise in the service – if one of these boys goes bad in uniform, it must mean he was bad before he signed up. Not our problem. Kick him out. Punish – don’t treat.

People think that the one-half trillion dollar Bush/McCain deficit is the worst consequence of our imperial adventures. It is not. We are training tens of thousands of young people to kill as their first response to stress, as their primary approach to solving problems. And we are going to discharge them into a society of falling real incomes, curtailed educational opportunities, and nonexistent mental health treatment facilities.


Recently editor Robert Scheer pointed out (on KCRW’s “Left, Right & Center”), that no power that has tried to conquer Afghanistan has ever succeeded. Yet both presidential candidates have committed to expanding our effort to impose an inept, corrupt, and grossly unpopular government, of our choosing, on that country.

This is going to be worse than the post-Vietnam homeless vet problem. In Vietnam, we encouraged troops to self-medicate and to prove their studliness on the local women. But in Vietnam, we acknowledged war crimes. We prosecuted the officers who led the My Lai massacre. We prohibited water boarding and other atrocities.

Now, in the name of -- what? -- we order our troops to target civilians (“every civilian is potential terrorist”). We use water boarding and other tortures to extract confessions that our own FBI says are utterly unreliable. And when we’re caught at it, the Pentagon’s official policy is to excuse any officer accused of misconduct. Punish the grunts, the guardsmen, the weekend warriors. But never an officer.

The Vietnam vets brought home PTSD, drug addiction, and venereal diseases. Today’s vets will bring home contempt for rules at all levels, contempt for other (“alien”) viewpoints, and the belief that their highly trained killing skills are the best first response in any dispute.

How far we have come from General and President Eisenhower’s preference for negotiations over war (at the height of the Cold War, he invited Khrushchev to visit America), to General Westmoreland’s burning villages to save them, and to our new rejection of all rules of warfare.

Tom Hall

And now even Obama wants to escalate in Afghanistan. The truth is that the consequences are going to be real, tragic, and expensive. Bush’s one-half trillion dollar deficit is going to be only a small down payment on the true social costs of “compassionate colonialism” and “no billionaire left behind.”

by Tom Hall

Tom Hall is a family law attorney. He is originally from Boston, where he grew up in the Cambridge Friends Meeting (Quakers), thinking that religion was a progressive force. During the Vietnam War, he organized draft counseling centers and worked with groups training people to participate in highly disciplined nonviolent demonstrations (real disciplined nonviolence is just plain maddening to police forces who count on demonstrators giving them reason to get ‘messy’ during public demonstrations). After the war, he became just another yuppie working to make himself a comfortable life. The Bush administration has shocked him back into social concerns. Tom can be reached at

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