This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch
On August 31, 1969, a rape was committed in Vietnam. Maybe numerous rapes were committed there that day, but this was a rare one involving American GIs that actually made its way into the military justice system.
And that wasn’t the only thing that set it apart.
War is obscene. I mean that in every sense of the word. Some veterans will tell you that you can’t know war if you haven’t served in one, if you haven’t seen combat. These are often the same guys who won’t tell you the truths that they know about war and who never think to blame themselves in any way for our collective ignorance.
The truth is, you actually can know a lot about war without fighting in one. It just isn’t the sort of knowledge that’s easy to come by.
There are more than 30,000 books on the Vietnam War in print. There are volumes on the decision-making of Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, grand biographies of Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, rafts of memoirs by American soldiers — some staggeringly well-written, many not — and plenty of disposable paperbacks about snipers, medics, and field Marines. I can tell you from experience that if you read a few dozen of the best of them, you can get a fairly good idea about what that war was really like. Maybe not perfect knowledge, but a reasonable picture anyway. Or you can read several hundred of the middling-to-poor books and, if you pay special attention to the few real truths buried in all the run-of-the-mill war stories, you’ll still get some feeling for war American-style.
The main problem with most of those books is the complete lack of Vietnamese voices. The Vietnam War killed more than 58,000 Americans. That’s a lot of people and a lot of heartache. It deserves attention. But it killed several million Vietnamese and severely affected — and I mean severely — the lives of many millions more. That deserves a whole lot more focus.
Missing in Action (From Our Histories)
From American histories, you would think the primary feature of the Vietnam War was combat. It wasn’t. Suffering was the main characteristic of the war in Southeast Asia. Millions of Vietnamese suffered: injuries and deaths, loss, privation, hunger, dislocation, house burnings, detention, imprisonment, and torture. Some experienced one or another of these every day for years on end. That’s suffering beyond the capacity of even our ablest writers to capture in a single book.
Unfortunately, however, that’s not the problem. The problem is that almost no one has tried. Vietnamese are bit characters in American histories of the war, Vietnamese civilians most of all. Americans who tromped, humped, and slogged through Vietnam on one-year tours of duty are invariably the focus of those histories, while Vietnamese who endured a decade or even decades of war remain, at best, in the background or almost totally missing. (And by the way, it’s no less true for most of the major movies about the war. Remember the Vietnamese main characters in Apocalypse Now? Platoon? Full Metal Jacket? Hamburger Hill? Me neither.)
The reasons for this are many and varied, ranging from racism and ethnocentrism to pure financial calculation. Few Americans want to read real stories about foreign civilians caught up in America’s wars. Almost no one wants to read an encyclopedia of atrocities or a chat room no registration guatemalan tome-like chronology of suffering. And most Americans, above all, have never wanted to know the grotesque truths of their wars. Luckily for them, most veterans have been willing to oblige — keeping the darkest secrets of that war hidden (even while complaining that no one can really know what they went through).
The truth is, we don’t even know the full story of that war’s obscenity when it comes to the American experience. This, too, has been sanitized and swapped out for tales of combat horror or “realistic” accounts of the war in the boonies that focus on repulsive realities like soldiers stepping on shit-smeared punji sticks, suffering from crotch rot, or keeling over from dehydration. Such accounts, we’ve been assured, offer a more honest depiction of the horrors of war and the men who nobly bore them.
Don’t believe it.
As the narrator of Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story” puts it:
“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.”
Which brings us back to that rape on August 31, 1969.
Aside from Daniel Lang’s Casualties of War, a brilliantly-compact and harrowing account of the kidnap, gang-rape, and murder of a young Vietnamese girl (a New Yorker article-turned-book-turned-movie), you’re not likely to encounter the story of the rape of a Vietnamese woman by Americans in “the literature.” And yet the sexual assault of civilians by GIs was far from uncommon, even if you can read thousands of books on the Vietnam War and have little inkling that it ever happened. Hints about the harassment or sexual assault of American women — nurses, enlisted women, and so-called Donut Dollies — also rarely make it into the histories. And you can read most, perhaps all, of those 30,000 books without ever coming across a case of GI-on-GI rape in Vietnam.