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Lies and Politics

You say yes, I say no

You would have thought that with a war as recent and as well documented as Vietnam that it would be fairly easy to get an accurate picture of what went on, but this proximity brings with it it another brand of inaccuracies. It's fairly easy to find out the drier stuff, such as how many rounds per minute the 7.62mm mini-gun fired, but then things go rapidly downhill from there. How many rounds in an M-16 magazine. The manual says 20, the veterans say 18 or the spring jams. Which was the better weapon, the M-14 or the M-16? Certainly the M-16 had teething troubles, but was it better in the end? It's very difficult to say.

Many of the most detailed and comprehensive sources are from the documentation of the US military itself, so it isn't hard to imagine a motive for bias. This is further enriched by inter-service rivalry, individual's career considerations, and uncomfortable consciences, all of which impose their own editorials. Vietnam really validates the central theme of deconstruction, that when analysing a text, it is vital to consider the motives of the author and his readers. The high level of reporting engendered intense political debate at the time, which has never gone away, and the more sensitive the topic the harder it is to find an objective account.

For example, some accounts imply that throwing Vietnamese prisoners out of helicopters during interrogation was common practice, but others vehemently deny that the American soldier would ever stoop so low. I suspect that the truth lies somewhere in between and that it probably did happen, but not that often. With all those contradictory accounts though, it's very difficult to be sure.

Poetic Licence

As well as the military reference books, there are plenty of accounts written by those that lived through it. Ideal, you might think, for a really solid primary source of information, however it has been said that there were as many Vietnams as there were soldiers that fought in them. Furthermore, not only are the accounts skewed by being one tiny view of a very large landscape but the veterans too have their axe to grind. It's human nature to portray yourself in the best possible light, especially when people have died as a result of your decisions.

The authors of many of these Vietnam 'auto-biographies' admit that they have a fictional element, that they are true in essence, but the truth has been tailored - as in Lauren Slater's semi-fictional account of her epilepsy which she sub-titled 'A memoir with lies', or as Michael Herr said 'Everything in Dispatches happened for me, even if it didn't necessarily happen to me.'

Playing a Game

In most games players have a tendency to co-operate as a single war-machine, with a bit of self-interest with regard to getting their own troops killed. If the victory conditions are set for the US and the VC then all on that side will co-operate to achieve them. It seemed a good idea to cater for the various personal objectives of characters by setting differing 'Victory Points', but there is a certain moral discomfort in giving a player the objectives of shooting civilians. On the other hand, the treatment of the Vietnamese populace was a pivotal element in the ultimate outcome, and to pretend that it was a stand-up fight is to deny the historical reality.

Is it disrespectful to those that fought and died to turn their experiences into a form of entertainment, however educational? Michael Herr said that every war story was a variation on the same refrain - 'Put yourself in my place'. If through wargaming, people confront realistic (even if abstracted) situations, then they are doing this more profoundly than by passively reading books or watching films. Is that really worse than forgetting about it or just accepting the popular myths?

Further Reading

For some more thoughts on this topic, try these:

2003. All rights reserved.