Minority Report

Article excerpt

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. …