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Now there is a monument to that massacre, built 30 years later at the expense of Blue Dragon soldiers who came back offering genuine remorse. But there is something wrong. The monument stands proud, as big as a house, with ornate roofing that shelters two collective tombs and a large gravestone carrying the names of the adults and children who died. But there is no explanation for their deaths. The villagers say that when the monument was first built, the back of the gravestone displayed a vivid account of what happened that day.
Why would the Vietnamese compromise like that? Why would the people who won the war allow the story of that war to be defined by the losers?
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The villagers say the answer is simple: South Korea had become one of the biggest foreign investors in their economy, and had offered to pay for a local hospital if the massacre poem was concealed. So the Vietnamese authorities agreed; they could not afford to resist. And there is the heart of what has happened to Vietnam since the war ended 40 years ago, on 30 April A month spent travelling there at the beginning of this year — talking to farmers, intellectuals, academic specialists and veteran fighters from both sides of the line — revealed numerous falsehoods and compromises that have been forced on the Vietnamese people by the powerful in pursuit of profit.
The US has succeeded in promoting a false account of the cause and conduct of its war. In spite of losing the military conflict, the Americans and their allies have returned with the even more powerful weapons of finance, forcing the Vietnamese down a road they did not choose. Now, it is their leaders who are telling the biggest lie of all. Nguyen Hao Thu, aged 90, lives in a bright and beautiful flat in Hanoi.
She chatters like a bird in fluent French and broken English, describing how, as a young woman, she saw her country crushed between two powerful enemies. First, it was the French who refused to let go of their colony at the end of the second world war. With the powder in the bomb, you can — pop!
And that dream was not simply nationalist, to expel the foreign invader. It was specifically communist and revolutionary. Thu recalled a childhood during which the French took away her father, a kindergarten teacher; she used to bring food to him in jail when she was just seven years old. She remembered reading Marx and Lenin and how, when she was 16, the French executed one of her friends.
Le Nam Phong is nearly as old as Thu. He was 17 when he signed up as a common soldier to fight the French in He spent the next 30 years at war, rising to become a lieutenant general in the army of North Vietnam and a key figure in the eventual destruction of the US military machine.
Yes, of course. The purpose of all the fighting was to build a socialist society, to gain freedom and independence and happiness. During the first days against France and against the US, we already had in mind the society we wanted to create — a society where men would not exploit other men; fair, independent, equal. The American version of events has it that when the French were defeated in , the US army became involved in order to protect the nation of South Vietnam from the threat of a takeover by communists from North Vietnam.
And, more important, there were no two separate nations. In , in spite of the victory of the Vietnamese army, France and its western allies hung on to power in their southern stronghold.
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At an international convention in Geneva, all sides then agreed that the country should be divided — temporarily — into South Vietnam and North Vietnam, until July , when an election would deliver a new government for the nation as a whole. But the US would not allow it. Instead, they turned to a notorious CIA officer, Edward Lansdale, who proceeded to use a dexterous combination of bribes and violence to install a new government in Saigon, headed by the Catholic politician Ngo Dinh Diem.
He was autocratic and nepotistic, but anti-communist and pro-American. In October , Lansdale rigged an election in the South to make Diem president. The national elections were cancelled. By March , it was sending its own men into combat. By the time the war was over, the number of dead was beyond counting, possibly as high as 3.
Step by step, the west blundered and floundered into a dilemma they never completely comprehended and never in fact sought: from the very beginning, they argued in cliches. The violence of those years still lives with those who suffered its grand assault. If you drink it, it would bring tears to your eyes. It stopped us being frightened.
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The US dropped more high explosives on Vietnam than the allies used on Germany and Japan together in the second world war. It also dropped napalm jelly, which stuck to its victims while it roasted their skin; white phosphorous, which burned down to the bone; fragmentation bombs, which hurled ball bearings and steel shards in all directions; and 73m litres of toxic chemicals, including 43m litres of Agent Orange, which killed vegetation and inflicted illness on those who were exposed to it. Infamously, the US also bombed Hanoi — a city full of civilians with no air force to defend it.
A woman who was eight at the time remembered wearing a leafy branch on her back as flimsy camouflage against F bombers flying at twice the speed of sound. On the ground, the US assault was just as powerful. In a village in the Mekong delta, a peasant farmer in her late 60s sat peacefully in her home, with its floor of baked mud. She remembered the day her mother in law, who was working in the fields nearby, made the mistake of running when a US helicopter thundered down towards her: a missile caught up with her and smashed her to pieces against a coconut tree.
We had to pick up her teeth. All these years later, she added, she still has trouble sleeping, and is full of fear if she hears any sound that could possibly be a helicopter.
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Many Americans now believe that the notorious massacre of villagers at My Lai was a unique or rare event, but the journalist Nick Turse found a different picture in the US National Archives in June They showed that the army had substantiated more than claims of massacre, murder, rape and torture by American soldiers. Turse then visited Vietnam.
In his book, Kill Anything That Moves , he describes trying to find the site of an incident from the files in which 20 women and children were said to have been killed in a hamlet in the central highlands. Those who survived were sometimes taken prisoner and subjected to harsh abuse. In , a group of US congressmen visited the notorious Con Dao prison. In spite of the uproar when this was reported, the prison stayed open. Until a couple of years ago, journalists from one of the big newspaper groups in Saigon used to stop to buy their coffee from an amiable woman who spent each day on the pavement in front of their office.
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