The BBC Schools history website “GCSE Bites: Vietnam 1954-1975”
is fundamentally a lie though most of the statements on it are not, strictly, untrue. An individual sentence, shorn of background and context, can be both factually correct and at the same time a lie in that it contributes to an erroneous overall picture. A young student of history can learn a lot by studying this phenomenon. A simple example from the site is the statement that in the war “thousands of Vietnamese people had been killed”. That is not strictly false but it is nevertheless an appalling lie because when rough numbers are stated they should be of the appropriate order of magnitude. A more complex example is “in 1945 the French re-occupied Indo-China,” as I will discuss. The cumulative effect of many such “not untrue” statements, coupled to the missing out of the basic facts of the matter — namely the lawlessness of US actions, the immorality of its aims and the horrifying savagery of the military attack — is to bury the truth.
In future articles I will analyse the site line by line but for now I want to draw attention to a grotesque game on the site, “Surviving Vietnam.”
In the game children are invited — in the name of education and learning — to imagine themselves to be an American soldier who can decide whether it is safest for themself to drop chemical weapons like napalm or Agent Orange, or to burn a village down. Then they can go to “have a great time” in the “go-go bars” of Saigon. It is morally wrong to invite children to play this game in the name of “learning”. The US attacked, invaded and brutally occupied South Vietnam. This game is no different morally from a game in which children play the role of a German soldier deciding whether or not to use chemical weapons or burn down a French or Soviet village before enjoying some relaxing R&R. Would the BBC include such a game in the section on World War II?
Even the description of the game teaches children to side with the invaders and not with the invaded: “To help you learn this information, play the decision-making game Surviving Vietnam. As you face each situation, make the best and safest choice you can.” Safest for “you”, perhaps, but not safe for those whose homes you are destroying or the Vietnamese children you are burning with napalm. In any case, the decision to commit a war crime should not be described as being “safe” for the perpetrator. It would not be “safe” if there were justice.
“Surviving Vietnam”? Young students should be encouraged to think about how the people of Vietnam could have survived the onslaught. Only the deep racism that pervades this whole site can explain the cheerful reference to the notorious, corrupt and corrupting war economy of US-occupied Saigon where prostitution further devastated the lives of Vietnamese women whose families were being torn apart by war. “Surviving Vietnam”? The psychological damage and anguish suffered by many US soldiers who were sent to wage this colonial war against the people of Vietnam drove some of them to take their own lives afterwards. This poem by soldier-poet Bruce Weigl would teach students more than any “game” could:
Song of Napalm
(for my wife)
After the storm, after the rain stopped pounding,
We stood in the doorway watching horses
Walk off lazily across the pasture’s hill.
We stared through the black screen,
Our vision altered by the distance
So I thought I saw a mist
Kicked up around their hooves when they faded
Like cut-out horses
Away from us.
The grass was never more blue in that light, more
Scarlet; beyond the pasture
Trees scraped their voices into the wind, branches
Crisscrossed the sky like barbed wire
But you said they were only branches.
Okay. The storm stopped pounding.
I am trying to say this straight: for once
I was sane enough to pause and breathe
Outside my wild plans and after the hard rain
I turned my back on the old curses. I believed
They swung finally away from me …
But still the branches are wire
And thunder is the pounding mortar,
Still I close my eyes and see the girl
Running from her village, napalm
Stuck to her dress like jelly,
Her hands reaching for the no one
Who waits in waves of heat before her.
So I can keep on living,
So I can stay here beside you,
I try to imagine she runs down the road and wings
Beat inside her until she rises
Above the stinking jungle and her pain
Eases, and your pain, and mine.
But the lie swings back again.
The lie works only as long as it takes to speak
And the girl runs only as far
As the napalm allows
Until her burning tendons and crackling
Muscles draw her up
into that final position
Burning bodies so perfectly assume. Nothing
Can change that; she is burned behind my eyes
And not your good love and not the rain-swept air
And not the jungle green
Pasture unfolding before us can deny it.