Del Vecchio: Thank you, I'm glad to be here.
FP: First things first, tell us a bit about your Vietnam experience.
Del Vecchio: Well, I got to Da Nang in December of 1967, assigned to the Photographic Services Lab of the 1st MarDiv. Working there meant you had two sets of duties, which were conventional developing and printing of pictures and standard photo assignments like promotions and awards on the one hand, and field assignments with infantry units- the grunts- on the other.
The field work would take you to the various battalions and their companies, during operations. Operations meant everything from hot walks in the sun to intense battles and a lot in between. Doing field work properly involved some risk; thirteen of my brother photographers died doing their job, some of them good friends of mine, and many of us were wounded.
The mission was to record as much as possible for historical purposes, which ranged from simple views of Marines for publication in their home town newspapers to trying to capture images during combat. I went on a number of operations with various units, and was involved in a number of skirmishes, ambushes, and pitched battles. I traveled from the southern part of I Corps all the way up to Hue in the north during my tour. Some of my pictures wound up in newspapers during the war, and are now in the National Archives in Maryland.
FP: What inspired you to write this new booklet and why are you primarily interested in targeting young people with the truth about Vietnam?
Del Vecchio: Last Fall there was a conference of veterans in Boston, discussing the myths of the war, and it became clear that while all wars beget a few myths and legends, Vietnam was unique in that the myths had become much better known than the real history. All of us concluded that waiting for the historians and the media to move towards the real history was clearly useless, and it was time for us to do whatever we could in the way of bringing out more of the real truth.
My co-author has a masterwork on the war in progress, the draft is 700 pages, but from my own experience as a lecturer and writer of technical books I recommended we come up with a basic, factual, and very readable booklet that would give students a glimpse of the realities and put them on the path to really worthwhile learning. So naturally I was suddenly elected to do the job. It is the young people coming up who will be the citizens and leaders of tomorrow, and many of them are very curious about Vietnam, so giving them valid information to help them learn the real lessons of that experience is of critical importance to the future.
FP: So what do you and the others involved in this booklet hope to accomplish overall?
Del Vecchio: The great mass of readily available information about Vietnam is riddled with inaccuracies, misstatements, and some outright falsehoods. Yet it is more critically important today for people to understand the real history of that war than ever, and unless people look carefully among those sources of information to avoid those with major flaws, they cannot hope to glean good information as the basis for thinking about the war and its meaning.
All we hope to accomplish in this booklet, which is written to be clear, concise and objective, is to help people see how many reefs there are in the river of information about Vietnam, and show them how to cruise that river to avoid those reefs. It is still true that sincere, intelligent people may see the same valid data about the war and draw somewhat different conclusions, but if any of the biased and inaccurate information is absorbed, then chances of achieving real understanding become very low, and chances of arriving at a very flawed view of the war become high. Those flawed views have damaged our country too long, and we cannot afford to indulge in them any longer.
FP: Why are there so many myths about Vietnam? What damage do they do?
Del Vecchio: The coverage of that war was different from all earlier wars, due to technical advances such as TV reporting, the very heavy presence of the media in-country, the evolving controversies of the war, the serious loss of objectivity by much of the media, and finally, the frustration and enormous discomfort most Americans experienced during and after it. The antiwar movement seized on everything from valid complaints to exaggeration of the problems inherent to any war to outright falsehoods and communist propaganda and publicized it all in an unending media blitz. Returning vets very often felt alienated, even rejected at times, and the bulk of them closed off the war in their minds and went on to jobs, families, making lives. The comparatively tiny fraction of antiwar vets tended to remain publicly active, and some of them went into teaching, so they've had a very disproportionate share of attention. And since the college campuses had become hotbeds of protest during the war, academia in general accepted and recorded much of the negative reports, and established a bias in thinking and teaching about the war that continues today.
The damages from these myths include things like the assumption that the US simply cannot apply military force anywhere in the world for even the most legitimate reasons without falling into a "quagmire". Another assumption is that the media always provide accurate, unbiased war reports and are fully qualified to critique military operations. A third is that antiwar activists are always knowledgeable and hold the moral high ground, and none of their recommendations will bring anyone to harm. These ideas tend to cripple the ability of the US, the last remaining superpower, to act intelligently and responsibly in the world.
FP: The North Vietnamese communists have themselves conceded that the anti-war protestors are to thank for the communist takeover of Vietnam. The Jane Fondas and Tom Haydens are directly responsible for the bloodbath that followed in Southeast Asia. Why do you think that today these same individuals and their ilk have not been chastised by their errors and apply exactly the same tactics toward Iraq, knowing full well that the American withdrawal that they seek will lead to yet another bloodbath. What do you think is in the heart of the Left?
Del Vecchio: They don't know a withdrawal from Iraq will lead to anything bad, just as they didn't know that a communist takeover in South Vietnam would lead to anything bad, and for the same reason. Simply put, they CANNOT allow themselves to see any such thing, since that would mean they are not really agitating against the truly bad side of the conflict, which is what their inherent prejudices and twisted thinking say absolutely must be the US.
Fonda and most of the rest of the very public and famous antiwar people have never even acknowledged the terrible things that happened in Vietnam after 1975, which go on to this day. The executions of many thousands after the fall of Saigon, the concentration camps that held hundreds of thousands for up to 17-18 years (with at least a 30% death rate), the ongoing denial of human rights of worship and free speech, the brutal persecution of the Montagnards, none of these can be admitted by the antiwar, anti-US fanatics. Only a small number of sincerely idealistic antiwar people have ever been able to look at the real results of the war and learn to live with the regret and guilt that come with honest admission of having supported liars, deceivers, and cruel despots.
The Left has a range of people in it, from totally sincere pacifists to admitted admirers of Marxist-Leninist thought who are intrinsic enemies of our system and very good at propaganda and manipulating the system. Just as the Vietnamese communists duped the many sincere nationalists into serving their purpose and then discarded them when victory was won, the Far Leftists use the idealists very effectively in their campaigns.
Their best troops are the twisted idealists who convince themselves they are fighting the good fight, and go into it with total righteousness and find it enormously rewarding to do so. Why else would a very rich, aging actress commit to the time and effort of another antiwar campaign? Because it's all about ego and fawning crowds and the glory of being a savior. How could anyone think for a second of losing all that by looking at the reality of who it is your glorious campaign really serves?
FP: Well sir, I disagree with you that these radicals “don't know” the horrible consequences that will result from the victory of the enemies they cheer for. In my study of the Left, I have found that it is precisely the totalitarian monstrosity -- and all of its brutal and horrifying components -- that attracts leftists in the first place. The objectives of the Left are not naïve and sincere. Naïve and sincere people don’t support Stalinism and Maoism and Pol Pot and North Korea and Castro and Mugabe and Ortega and then every and any tyranny and terrorist regime, and the bloodbath filled with millions of corpses that all of these leftist monsters engender, because they are not aware of what they perpetrate. It is a conscious and malicious longing for terror – spawned by the dream for earthly redemption. But this is another debate that we need to have in another forum my friend.
Let’s get back to Vietnam. Kindly narrow in on some of the most blatant and destructive myths about the war.
Del Vecchio: One that comes to mind is the frequently heard statement that the US fought a war in Vietnam and lost. People take this to mean that the full might of the US was brought to bear on a small country with comparatively little military technology, and the small country won against all odds. This has fostered great insecurity among many Americans about our ability to accomplish military goals, which again tends to paralyze us in the world today. But the fact is that the US never fought a real war against North Vietnam, nor even fought with all possible resources and tactics in the South. We fought a holding action until the South Vietnamese had a chance to stand on their own. After Vietnamization and the departure from Vietnam of all US ground units, the South was in fact able to repel a very conventional invasion from the North, one that involved 200,000 men, hundreds of tanks, and artillery pieces superior to what we'd given the South. So we had in fact achieved our major goal. Clearly the South fell and there was a loss, and a failure on our part to support the South as we'd promised; but we did not fight and lose a war in the normal sense, and such a statement is misleading.
Another terribly destructive myth is that of the US military being given from the top down to policies of wanton death and destruction, which made many of our soldiers into habitual war criminals and robbed us of any claim to morality in our actions. This brought shame and more insecurity to many Americans, and has been a cause for general willingness in much of the world to assume the worst about US actions, and damaged the image of our military. The truth is that every war brings with it brutality and horrors, and the only difference is whether they occur as comparatively few isolated incidents or as a consistent policy. The Nazi death camps were consistent policy, the assassination and terror campaigns of the Viet Cong in the villages were consistent policy, but there was absolutely no such policy in the US military. Indeed, the US is about the only country that has consistently held war crimes trials against its own soldiers. The image of American soldiers as a pack of brutes led by incompetents or monsters is more than inaccurate, it's horribly unfair and prejudicial.
FP: So could the U.S. have achieved victory in Vietnam? How?
Del Vecchio: Well, the US did achieve victory, in that by 1972 our troops were gone, the major cities and smaller provincial capitals were pacified, traffic went up and down the length of SVN safely, the once-powerful VC were a fraction of their former strength, and only the constant injection of fresh Northern cannon fodder and supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail kept the conflict going. The crowning confirmation of our success was the destruction of the Easter Invasion by the North, when several divisions of the North Vietnamese Army charged into the South, complete with tanks, excellent artillery, and SAM missiles to down the planes of the South Vietnamese. After months of bitter and very intense fighting, the NVA had to retreat, having taken 40% casualties and lost almost all their tanks and artillery. The goal of the US was to help the South be able to defend itself, and the victory they achieved in '72 demonstrated that when properly supplied and supported, they could do that.
The terrible tragedy was that after '72 the flow of supplies from the US to SVN went to a trickle while the flow of supplies to NVN from China and the Soviet Bloc swelled to a torrent. Once Congress removed the President's power to even offer air support to the South if the North invaded again, the North knew they had the edge. They prepared very carefully for almost two years and then sent 20 full divisions into the South in a blitzkrieg that would have made Rommel proud. There were some valiant stands by SVN units, but in the end, the lack of supplies and absence of US air power doomed them.
The shame of it was that all we had to do was keep up supplies to SVN and promise the North that any invasion of the South would precipitate massive US bombing both of the invading forces and critical targets in the North, and very likely today Vietnam would be like Korea, with a communist North and a free and prosperous democratic South.
FP: What lessons from Vietnam can help us win in Iraq and in this terror war?
Del Vecchio: The first lesson is that we were far too slow in Vietnam to apply the tools we had against the enemy. We had crazy rules of engagement, hesitated to do things like mine Haiphong Harbor or bomb the SAM missile storage facilities, didn't want to engage in hot pursuit into Laos and Cambodia. We see some of the same hesitation and war management by politicians in Iraq today. The Marines should have cleaned out Fallujah the first time they went there, but political shenanigans got them called off. The city became a hellhole of terrorists, including many foreign jihadists, and the population suffered. Finally the Marines went in and did the job that should have been done the year before, and it cost us more because of that delay, and it cost innocent Iraqis more besides.
One lesson of Vietnam is that in a real fight you don't hold back, you use your resources, you hit hard and fast, and you accept that things will not always go perfectly. We have started to do that in Iraq, but it should have been sooner and it should be the standard way of operating.
The other lesson that jumps out at me is that our enemies have learned to focus on what we might call the Psywar (psychological warfare), they know they cannot really compete with the professionalism of our military and the high technology we bring to the conventional battlefield. But they know our society is given to impatience, and that a vocal minority of dissenters can, with the help of the media, become the tail that wags the dog of public policy. They know that suppressing a terrorist strategy in which they hide among the population (even as they attack that population, as they do now in Iraq) means either a very long struggle if we restrict our means of responding to absolutely minimize collateral damage, or that we'd have to adopt much harsher tactics against the terrorists that would be guaranteed to increase collateral damage. And our society abhors such harsh tactics, so the long struggle is assured. They only need to prolong the fighting, the suffering, the destruction, and the deaths, while using propaganda skillfully in the Moslem world one way and in the Western world another way, and if they do it well enough, we will again find a way to abandon the battlefield and they achieve victory by default.
Thus we all, as a society, need to acknowledge that what gave victory to the communists in Vietnam was our succumbing to impatience, war-weariness, and being manipulated by antiwar propaganda. We must remain determined and unified in the commitment to do the job all the way, and publicly so. This is what is so scary about the rebirth of the antiwar movement, even as small as its numbers really are, it's having an effect on public perception, and it's providing enormous morale boost to the jihadists. We need more people to publicly voice clear opposition to these misguided idealists, we need more support from Congress to supply whatever is needed to do the job, we need good media coverage about the positive things we achieve in Iraq, and we need bold but very competent leadership in waging this war. It cannot be anything but a lengthy and messy war, and we must learn to deal with that appropriately, with determination. Anything less will guarantee an increase in jihadism and anti-Americanism and instability all over the world.
FP: Mr. Del Vecchio, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview today. Thank you for your contribution to this nation and to your valiant fight for the truth.
Del Vecchio: Thanks for the privilege of trying to expose Americans to the truths, however disconcerting they may be, of our past history and how it is affecting us today.