The South Korean mercenaries who fought in the Vietnam war are not heroes. The statement ‘support our troops‘ is not only completely meaningless and idiotic, it exhorts us to uncritically accept the agenda of the politicians who have deployed them.
Let’s unpack all of this, because while the Vietnam war finished decades ago, its repercussions are still with us today.
When we memorialise soldiers and the wars they fought in, we must ask ourselves what exactly we are being asked to remember. It is possible to recognise the suffering they endured, but be critical of the predatory and imperialistic goals for which they fought.
This sentiment is not original, and is certainly not my own invention. Sam Husseini, writing in Counterpunch magazine, stated his reflections on the passing of Vietnam veteran and POW John McCain. He, similarly to the Confederate soldiers of the slave-owning South, endured horrendous suffering, but fought for a cause that was economically predatory and motivated by racist misconceptions regarding the official enemy.
Current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces strenuous criticism from, among others, South Korea and Australia, when he attempts to rewrite the history of Imperial Japan’s conduct in World War 2. Abe, like other conservative Japanese politicians before him, visits the Yasukuni Shrine in his endeavour to minimise the crimes of the Japanese military during WW2.
The shrine is ostensibly dedicated to honouring the Japanese soldiers who died serving in that conflict. When Abe, and rightwing Japanese politicians, visit the shrine to honour the dead soldiers – the equivalent of ‘support our troops’ in our political culture – they are engaging in a concerted campaign to rewrite the history of WW2 to absolve the Japanese ruling class of its culpability for crimes against humanity.
South Korean troops in the Vietnam war
Another imperialistic war fought for economically predatory and racist motives was the American assault on Vietnam. This attack, more so than other overseas wars, has attracted more than its share of attempted rewriting and mythologising, in particular along the lines of ‘supporting our troops’. While the overwhelming focus of retrospectives on the Vietnam war examine the conduct and suffering of American soldiers, less well known are the contributions of their South Korean allies.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has honoured those troops who served alongside the Americans in Vietnam. His comments have been criticised by the government of Vietnam as an attempt to whitewash the numerous crimes committed by Republic of Korea (ROK) forces in that conflict. The South Korean President in the 1960s, General Park Chung-hee, sent the first contingent of thousands of South Korean soldiers into the Vietnam war in 1965.
Overall, 320 000 South Korean troops would participate in the Vietnam conflict, forming part of the American-led effort. By the early 1970s, South Korean soldiers outnumbered their American counterparts, and the ROK became a model client state. In fact, much of South Korea’s success in transforming its economy, and becoming an economic miracle’ story, is because of its participation in the Vietnam war. The Park Chung-hee era, a military dictatorship characterised by its cultivation of clan-based conglomerates, the chaebol – was a solid ally of the US in the Vietnam war.
In the aftermath of the 1968 Tet Offensive, the American government and its ROK allies embarked on a massive campaign of retaliation. Unleashing an orgy of violence, South Korean soldiers targeted civilians, killing women and children, and committed terrible atrocities. While the voices of South Korean veterans from that conflict are steadily being heard, the war crimes they committed have not received the attention they warrant.
In much the same way as South Korea demands an apology from Japan for the latter’s kidnapping and use of Korean ‘comfort women’ during WW2, Vietnam is demanding answers from the Seoul government regarding the exploitation of Vietnamese women, raped and abused by South Korean troops in the Vietnam conflict. Campaign groups are urging recognition and for Vietnamese women afflicted by sexual violence from South Korean soldiers, and their children produced by such forced unions.
Cliches are soothing for the conscience
Empty slogans such as ‘support our troops’ make us feel good about ourselves, but they do nothing except shut down critical debate about the role of the military in overseas wars. In fact, such slogans help to disguise the criminal character of imperial wars, and implicitly portray anti-war dissidents as potential traitors – why would you not ‘support our troops!?’ Steven Salaita, writing in Salon magazine, states that unthinking patriotism, typified by the ‘support our troops’ slogan, makes for an exploitable consumer commodity.
Salaita makes an interesting observation:
Who, for instance, are “the troops”? Do they include those safely on bases in Hawaii and Germany? Those guarding and torturing prisoners at Bagram and Guantánamo? The ones who murder people by remote control? The legions of mercenaries in Iraq?
The Vietnam Veterans Against the War campaign organisation, in gathering evidence about the conduct of American troops in Vietnam, detailed how US troops cut off the heads and ears of Vietnamese deemed to be the enemy, used electric shocks on their victims, poisoned the wells of Vietnamese farmers, killed their livestock, burned down villages and scorched the countryside of South Vietnam. Future Secretary of State and Vietnam veteran John Kerry has stated how such crimes were known at all levels of command.
Such war crimes cannot be covered with anodyne slogans and ridiculous cliches.