This month I visited the ‘War Remnants Museum’ in Saigon, formerly the ‘War Crimes Museum’ (and technically in Ho Chi Mihn City nowadays). The ‘war crimes’ of the USA, French and the South Vietnam regime are graphically illustrated with photographs and relics of torture, imprisonment, indiscriminate bombing, careless killings and trophy-collecting. It of course completely ignores the murders and atrocities committed by the NVA and VietCong. A superb retrospective of photographs by journalists killed in the conflict particularly shows the agony of the US war effort, whilst again the North Vietnamese photography was of cheerful NVA soldiers, sturdy peasants and so forth. Hardly balanced, and casting the USA particularly as the baddies. The Museum of the Revolution in Havanna does much the same, although with hilarious lack of credibility in places.
In my reading around the Vietnam War, one US politician looking at the corrupt and oppressive South Vietnamese regime wondered if the US was actually fighting on the right side. The reality of Cold War proxy wars was generally that the US would back unpleasant right-wing regimes with dismal human rights records, whilst the Russians, Chinese and Cubans would back insurgencies by ‘popular’ leftist groups equally comfortable with violence and murder. To the peasants and teenage soldiers forced to fight or flee it would be hard to tell who the good guys really were.
On holiday I read the classic ‘We Were Soldiers Once and Young’ by Moore and Galloway, concerning the first major bloodbath between US and NVA forces in 1965. Heart-wrenching stories of the NVA executing wounded Americans got no mention in the War Crimes museum, nor did their favored targeting of medics and medivac helicopters. I also watched the indifferent Brad Pitt movie ‘War Machine’ about Afghanistan, which drew its own parallels to the Vietnam War; the people we are fighting are the people we came here to defend.
It has been said that the mistake the West keeps making is to assume we are the good guys.
There are always two sides to a conflict, always two views, even if objective analysis shows one to be in the wrong. ‘Zulu’ is a cracking film of bravery against the odds, but did the Good Guys win? The Good Guys clearly won WW2, albeit with the British carpet-bombing German cities, the Americans nuking Japan and the Russians throwing mercy to the wind as they closed on Berlin. Afterwards, the colonies and liberated territories simply wanted us gone. We view Liberal Capitalist (Christian) Democracy as the gold standard, but a huge chunk of the rest of the world does not agree. Capitalism is widely viewed as a Bad Thing and destructive of the environment, democracy is despised as weak, liberalism as decadent. Newly created democracies easily succumb to corruption, infighting and sham elections, turning the reign of the last dictator into some kind of golden age. Some religious groups even argue that government comes from God, not man, so democracy is fundamentally wrong.
Because we believe we are right, we gain the moral justification to act in our interests with all the power at our disposal. This view has probably triggered more conflicts than any other in modern history.
When writing, one can flirt with the opposing viewpoints of each side to avoid being simplistic. MI6 or KGB operatives are simply doing their job for their country, and the moral ambiguity of the spy thriller means that the line between good and evil is blurred. War movies and westerns from the 1960s onwards moved away from the flag-waver to the ‘anti-war’ movie where the enemy is human too. We even see clumsy attempts in terrorist fiction to get into the hearts and minds of the suicide bombers and jihadi killers; but for the meantime, they are the baddies, period.
Back in the dangerous and unstable real world we yearn for the simplicity of a 007 supervillain to fight. Our film fiction grasps at hollow victories snatched from a mess of inconclusive or disastrous interventions. Watching say ‘Black Hawk Down’ or ’13 Hours’ where flag-waving AK-toting gunmen are shot down like Red Indians in a 1950s B movie, we can see articulation of that simplicity; an against-the-odds mission to save your buddies amid a geopolitical clusterfuck. However, looking at those heaps of bodies of fighters at the end of the movie, killed in their own countries by foreign interventionists, we have to ask; are we the good guys?