"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 29 June 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Nerve Damage


[looking forward to buying some furniture]

The other Y2K problem turns out

to be even more complicated.


Back in April, timed to coincide

with the anniversary of the

event, the German Parliament

apologized for the bombing of

Guernica. Also working to clear

the balance sheets for a clean

entry into a new century, the

Japanese government paid

reparations - US$2,272 each - to

three so-called "comfort women,"

South Korean women forced to

provide sex to soldiers during

World War II. Switzerland chimed

in with a lowball offer to make

good on its storage of Nazi gold

stolen from Jews killed in the

Holocaust. And the US head of

state, lagging behind the effort

a bit, issued that famously

vague apology for

19th-century slavery. Not

that Americans aren't also

determined to tidy up for the

crimes and misdemeanors of the

American Century - we just have

a much more involved approach.


A little over three weeks ago,

CNN broadcast an astonishing

story, also published as a

companion piece in Time

magazine; the US armed forces,

reporter Peter Arnett charged,

had used nerve gas in more than

20 attacks during the Vietnam

War - including an attack, known

by the code name Operation

Tailwind, in which US soldiers

deliberately killed ex-US

soldiers, men who had

purportedly defected to the

North Vietnamese government. The

howls of protest were immediate, vigorous,

detailed - and frequently



But the report, and the reaction

to it, were much more than a

tug-of-war over the contents of

some gas canisters shot from a

couple of airplanes - much more,

in a way, than a prosaic

life-and-death dispute. CNN and

its detractors are both after

something bigger, though of

course not intentionally; both

are fighting over what we choose

to remember about ourselves, and

how. While other cultures work

at cleaning up after a bloody

patch of history with contrition

and handshakes, we continue our

long-running effort to stop

believing the guy who mentioned

the blood. Not quite killing the

messenger, but watching with

subtle gratitude as he appears

to kill himself. (Need a push,

there, fella?)


[playing guitar through the twin]

On the afternoon of Friday, 19

June, for example, a pair of

retired US Army colonels -

Bernard and Hackworth - sat down

with a talking hairdo from the

Fox News Network to discuss the

CNN report. Getting started,

they established their

credentials; Bernard, for

example, worked combat missions

in Laos back in '61 - where, he

made it clear, he damn sure

didn't see any of this nerve gas

crap being used.


And so, without seeming to be

even vaguely aware of the

implications, Bernard opened an

attack on a report he called a

lie with the unvarnished

statement - not even an

admission,,but a matter-of-fact

recitation of his curriculum

vitae, as if he were applying

for a job in retail management -

that he had himself participated

in a large and coordinated lie,

fighting in secret combat

missions during an undeclared

war. 1961? Laos? Why the hell

not? The old "non-combatant

military advisor" lie is old and

well-known, and who cares?


But let's get back to how you

can't trust the media.



CNN's critics do have an

excellent point: The news media

has a habit of relying on

unreliable sources to do quick,

poorly researched stories. Back

in August of '64, for example,

just about every newspaper in

the country allowed itself to be

suckered by a shadowy figure by

the name of "Lyndon Johnson."

This Johnson character tipped

the media to a pair of attacks

on two US Navy destroyers, ships

that had simply been doing

peaceful and routine patrols off

the shores of North Vietnam;

suddenly, he insisted, North

Vietnamese PT boats swarmed in,

laying down a deadly net of

torpedoes. The Maddox and a

second ship had narrowly - you

might even say miraculously -

escaped destruction during a

fierce firefight. Johnson, who

apparently had some influence in

military affairs, took his

account of the vicious and

unexplainable attack on peaceful

US vessels to Congress, which

authorized something akin to war

("to take all necessary measures

to repel any armed attack

against the forces of the United

States and to prevent further

aggression") on the North

Vietnamese. With that, US

bombing and ground attacks began

against that hostile country.


Except that, whoops, the Maddox

had been coordinating attacks on

North Vietnam by South

Vietnamese ships, moving close

to shore to gather intelligence

on North Vietnamese military

facilities. And the second

attack, the one that forced the

United States to retaliate,

never happened. And Johnson

almost certainly knew, when he

addressed the nation on

television, and when he asked

Congress for authorization to,

um, counter-attack, that the

attack had never happened; when

Navy officials reported to the

White House that the sonar man

who reported torpedoes in the

water "was hearing his ship's

own propeller beat," they got a

really very remarkable response

from Secretary of Defense Robert

McNamara - and in writing, no

less: "The president wants to go

on the air at 11:15," McNamara

cabled the naval officers. "That

is the problem."


And, of course, the 1964

authorization for the use of

military force was - well, ask

Colonel Bernard what he was

doing in 1961. Not to mention

the whole tricky issue of what

the ships were doing when they

were "attacked."


Johnson taped his phone calls,

so we know, now, about his

belief that our involvement in

Vietnam never made sense, that

"I don't think it's worth

fighting for." And we know that

he ordered more troops to the

cause he didn't believe in

because "The Republicans are

going to make a political issue

out of it" during election

season. And we know that

McNamara acknowledged, in 1995 -

about three decades after his

leadership in a cause that left

58,000 of his countrymen dead,

and uncountable others - that

"we were wrong, terribly

wrong.... When it came to

Vietnam, we found ourselves

setting policy for a region that

was terra incognita."



"We Americans are the ultimate

innocents," Sydney Schanberg has

written. "We are forever

desperate to believe that this

time the government is telling

us the truth." And with good

reason: Government operates with

our money, and supposedly -

though at an increasing level of

abstraction - under the direct

control of our chosen

representatives. The media, on

the other hand, makes an

excellent Other. Choosing which

discredited entity to believe,

then, becomes a choice: Us or



Thirty-four years after the

fictional Gulf of Tonkin

Resolution, 24 years and

counting after the fall of

Saigon, we're supposed to have

put Vietnam behind us. We have,

the story goes, kicked a little

ass elsewhere and repaired our

wounded warrior pride; as one

newspaper account explained

after the conclusion - the false

conclusion, it turns out - of

the Gulf War, "The voices of

dissent, clamoring since before

the Tet Offensive, have been

drowned out by concussive waves

of elation."


"Yes," Ernest Hemingway wrote,

concluding a novel about love

and violence and history - "Isn't

it pretty to think so?"

courtesy of Ambrose Beers