Vietnam: A Grand Canyon in the Moral Landscape

From the title alone, The Impossible War, one is given a preview of the moral content of Sam Harris’ most recent podcast. On it Harris discusses a new, and epic, 18-hour PBS documentary series with its producers, directors, and writers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick on a subject still sour and sore in the minds and hearts of millions of Americans: the Vietnam War. The war in Vietnam, unlike almost any other fought by US soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines has a murky and dark place in the public consciousness. Burns, Novick and Harris only make the waters more muddy and the place darker.


Americans are united in their distaste for the war. Indeed, as journalist Michael Tomasky, armed with decades of Gallup polls on Vietnam from the Library of Congress, noted in 2004:

“America is not — emphatically not — divided over Vietnam. … By overwhelming margins, Americans have always believed — and continue to believe — that the Vietnamese conflict was wrong. The first majority calling the war a mistake appeared in August 1968, after the Tet Offensive and Walter Cronkite’s famous anti-war editorial at the end of his newscast on the night of February 27 of that year.

After the war’s 1975 conclusion, Gallup has asked the question five times, in 1985, 1990, 1993, 1995, and 2000. And all five times — over that 15-year period that saw vast social change, the raging of the culture wars, and dramatic shifts to the right in American public opinion on several issues — respondents were consistent in calling the war a mistake by a margin of more than 2 to 1: by 74 percent to 22 percent in 1990, for example, and by 69 percent to 24 percent in 2000.”

 This is precisely the position taken by Burns, Novick, and Harris in the course of the podcast. The duo adopt the “journalistic” creed of “reporting both/all sides” to cover their ultimate conclusions. They subtly, yet consistently, posit that – as many Americans believe and are taught in public schools – the war in Vietnam was fought for either the right or at least understandable reasons. For some the US maintained generally positive intentions, but simply conducted in the wrong way, with the wrong set of assumptions, or with incomplete or misleading information. Harris’ melancholy-laden “critique” of the likes of Kissinger, Kennedy, McNamara, Nixon and Johnson also betrays his attempts to remain “neutral”.


The utter amazement that the host and guests display when reminiscing about the “mistakes,” “blunders,” and “irrational” decision-making also shows their hands to an audience that has, partially due to Harris rather constant insistence on the moral weight of – well – everything, seems to be wholly absent in this particular instance. This is ironic at best and morally despicable at worst. To discuss the Vietnam War without mentioning the moral hazard, if not the unadulterated horror it wrought, is to be a particularly suspect moral agent – the very thing Harris has not one qualm about when directed at immoral actors on the other end of American rifles. It is just this kind of moral obscurity that opens Harris up (usually unfairly, by using constructed, or mis, or abridged quotations) to critiques that he is a shill for American imperialism.

But let this be clear: Anyone who listens to Harris’ podcasts or reads his writing knows that he is not a racist or an Islamaphobe (whatever content that word does or does not have), or many of the other epithets and unfair names and labels that he is given by a stream of unscrupulous “journalists”, actors, and social media commentators alike. However, in this podcast Harris displays the moral vacuousness of liberalism, one that also animates his other judgments about the moral value of US military action. Harris’ lack of moral clarity and uniformity is exactly the thing Noam Chomsky tried to point out, albeit poorly, in their famous e-mail exchange. Given the context, it is understandable that Harris missed this critique, but is not ultimately justifiable.

But, as Chomsky has rightly said in print and in public, the Vietnam War is rather obviously one of the worst crimes perpetrated in the 20th century – a period that includes the Holocaust, the Holodomor, and the Cultural Revolution. This is not merely Chomskyian rhetoric. If one looks at the statistics of the war, the placement of the war on the list of the moral transgressions of the century is not mere bluster. In the podcast itself, Harris mentions how, even after deciding the war was unwinnable early on, many actors, namely McNamara and Johnson, stayed the course and sent tens of thousands of US soldiers to unnecessary and usually gruesome deaths. By 1975, some 58,220 US soldiers would lose their lives on the orders of commanders-in-chief who knew all along the futility of continued engagement. This is not a mistake; this shows a conscious disregard that a substantial and unjustifiable risk to life would occur and yet no change of course resulted. This is murder.


At the same time, the flippancy with which US planners dealt with the massive loss of life of the Vietnamese cannot simply be a mistake. R. J. Rummel’s 1997 mid-range estimate put the total deaths at around 2.45 million from 1954–75. The Vietnamese government figure adds an additional million lives lost.  Though the Geneva Conventions were in full force by 1954, much less 1963, the US government appears not to have taken nearly the necessary precautions at limiting civilian deaths, causing nearly a million civilian casualties. Furthermore, the sheer tonnage of bombs dropped on Vietnam is staggering at 2.5 Million tons. These are not bombs dropped by accident, and not always on military targets. Indeed, the Nixon intrigue regarding the 1968 peace talks, and the well-documented failure it produced, prolonged the war another 7 years, doubling its length and the total misery thereof. Again, these actions cannot constitute a blunder. Instead, it represents the purposeful, knowing, reckless, and/or negligent murder of millions of human beings.

But these costs, the most obvious an emotionally scarring, are not the major crime of the conflict. Indeed, the conflict itself is the crime. Two decades prior to the start of the war in southeast Asia, a world war had ended and a new field – International Criminal Law – had emerged and been codified in the Nuremberg Tribunal. It was during this trial that international criminal law had its true beginnings and found its “supreme international crime”: aggression. Aggression was found to be the crime of crimes because it was different from other war crimes in that it encompasses all the evil that follows.  Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, the US chief prosecutor of the Tribunal issued his warning that unless we apply the Nuremberg principles to ourselves, the tribunal is a farce. It should be noted that this crime of crimes was not added to the Rome Statutes of the International Criminal Court until 2010, when the rest of the Statutes went into effect in July of 2003. One can only assume that the US invasion of Iraq, a clear example of aggression which began in March of 2003 was the intervening factor in this delay.

The war in Vietnam, with all its costs was not a mistake; it was deliberate, intentional policy and by at least 1961, it was pure aggression. Yet these obvious moral transgressions are discussed in the podcast without moral condemnation, but rather confusion at how such decisions could have been made. Such questions only arise when one assumes the moral virtue of moral monsters, of which US leadership can almost uniformly be categorized. Yet Harris fails to get into this moral muck, instead laying aside his moral scruples to play advertiser for a piece of work that will, ultimately, be yet another thing that generates profits off those lives lost, weapons expended, and crimes committed. Vietnam war profiteering continues and amoral liberalism moves on unabated.


The fact that a moral philosopher fails to mention the most morally despicable thing done by a country with a list of despicable actions longer than any of its citizens would ever admit, understandably allows the listener to call into question the validity of the moral frame Harris has constructed generally, however logically unfair such a move may ultimately be. This is as frustrating as it is miserable, given that Harris’ moral landscape is a rather noble way of envisioning moral acts, intentions, and decisions. If only he would apply them to the grand canyon on the landscape that is the war in Vietnam.

It is also telling that so many Americans are aware of the immorality of the war, late as it may have come. As Michael Tomasky found:

 “[A] 1995 Gallup question even found a majority of 52 percent agreeing with the assertion that the war was ‘fundamentally wrong and immoral,’ as opposed to the 43 percent who called it a ‘well-intentioned mistake.’” [Emphasis Added]

Though not captured by Gallup, the immorality of the war, not just its mistakes or a “blundering effort to do good” as Anthony Lewis called them in 1975, was the real driver of the anti-war movement. If guided by the belief that American action in southeast asia was fundamentally legitimate, just conducted the wrong way, then there would have been no anti-war movement like the one that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Instead, a concerted lobbying effort to retool and re-evaluate the means by which we fought a good war would have encouraged a mere change of tactics rather than a call for total withdraw. However, the justified moral reversion of a large swath of the American public led to the massive disruptions and protests that still define the period.


Importantly, it is this same righteous moral indignation against the war that would help to explain why US soldiers returning from Vietnam were mistreated – something Harris laments and happily claims the US civilian population has thankfully “gotten past”. Again showing the bias of American liberalism, Harris neglects to challenge this myth; despite it being convincingly dispelled by Vietnam-veteran and Sociology professor Jerry Lembcke in his 1998 book The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam.

All in all, Harris, Burns, and Novick do not for a moment fool those who are armed by even the slightest bit of knowledge of the actual costs and decisions regarding the engagement in and conduct of the wars in Southeast Asia. These wars (plural), importantly including Nixon’s illegal war in Cambodia which lit a spark the ignited a Khmer Rouge fire that would immolate millions, are easily lumped together and considered part of a series of mistakes but morally adept agents rather than pre-meditated and calculated crimes. The moral obfuscation of the podcast on these all-important matters leaves a slimy feeling in the stomach of those who have accepted the validity of Harris’ own arguments, only to see them rejected when American imperialism is the subject of the day and the guests have dollars to make.

It is a moral shame that the author of such a persuasive text on morality and another on the value of telling the truth does neither in this instance.

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