Vietnam, Iraq & 'A City Upon a Hill'

Two student readings examine, compare, and provide commentary on the U.S. wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Suggested discussion questions, writing assignments, and subjects for inquiry encourage students to explore opposing viewpoints.

To the Teacher:

The student readings below examine, compare, and provide commentary on the U.S. wars in Vietnam and Iraq. The first reading begins with a brief introduction to John Winthrop's "city upon a hill" trope, which U.S. leaders have frequently cited to reinforce an idealistic vision of America. Included also are suggested discussion questions, writing assignments and subjects for inquiry—including investigations of viewpoints opposed to those presented in the readings.

Introduction: "A City Upon a Hill"

Aboard the Arbella somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean more than 375 years ago, John Winthrop addressed the Puritans he was leading to America: "We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when he shall make us a praise and glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantations [settlements]; the Lord make it like that of New England: for we must consider that we shall be a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us."

Winthrop knew that he and his Puritan band would face danger in the new world. But Winthrop was confident that since "the God of Israel is among us," God not only approved of, but participated in, the Puritan mission, and intended to make of them a great example: "we shall be a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us."

American presidents have repeatedly echoed Winthrop's words at important moments:

"At last the world knows America as the savior of the world!" —President Woodrow Wilson, returning from the Paris Peace Conference after World War I.

"The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor [defending freedom] will light our country and all who serve it-and the glow from that fire can truly light the world. —President John Kennedy's 1961 inaugural address

Every nation has myths that glorify its origins and history. Egypt prides itself on being "the cradle of civilization." So does Greece. France emphasizes its "glory," Israel and Russia their selection by God as a "chosen people." President Thomas Jefferson called the United States a "chosen country."

U.S. leaders remind Americans of the special quality of their nation when they call upon the country to go to war.

"We aspire to nothing that belongs to others," President Lyndon Johnson said in his 1965 inaugural address as he was about to escalate a war in Vietnam. In April of that year the president declared, "we fight for values and we fight for principles."

President Bush's stated his vision on the eve of the U.S. assault on Iraq in 2003: "Unlike Saddam Hussein, we believe the Iraqi people are deserving and capable of human liberty. And when the dictator has departed, they can set an example to all the Middle East of a vital and peaceful and self-governing nation." After the dictator was gone, along with the weapons of mass destruction the administration claimed he possessed, Iraq would take its place among the free, democratic nations of the world.

Historian Loren Baritz comments on this American view of itself: "We create a vision of the world made in what we think is our own image. We are proud of what we create because we are certain that our intentions are pure, our motives are good, and our behavior virtuous. We know these things to be true because we believe that we are unique among the nations of the world in our collective idealism." ( Backfire: Vietnam—The Myths that Made Us Fight, The Illusions That Helped Us Lose, The Legacy That Haunts Us Today )

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What other national myths can you think of? Why do you suppose that the people of every country have created myths about their origins and history?

3. What is your opinion of the Baritz quote? What evidence would you cite to support or oppose it?


Student Reading 1:

The Vietnam War, Communism, and the Domino Theory

In 1947, President Truman announced what became known as the Truman Doctrine. He said "it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressure." The president aimed the doctrine at Communist Soviet Union, a World War II ally.

After the war, the Soviet Union had installed puppet governments in such Eastern European countries as Poland and controlled them as satellites. The cold war soon began under the cloud of a possible nuclear war. Anticommunist efforts at home and abroad became the central theme in American politics.

During World War II in Southeast Asia, Vietnam, a French colony since the 19th century, fell to the Japanese. The leader of the Vietnamese resistance to Japan was Ho Chi Minh. He had lived in exile for 30 years, become a communist and returned to Vietnam. He organized an army, the Vietminh, and—with some weapons supplied by U.S.—led his country to independence as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945. At ceremonies in Hanoi, the Vietnamese band played the "Star Spangled Banner," and Ho quoted from the Declaration of Independence.

Ho was a great admirer of the U.S. But he received no answers to letters he wrote to President Truman asking for support in Vietnam's conflict with France, which wanted to reclaim its former colony. Ho was a communist, which in Washington D.C., now meant Vietnam was part of the Soviet orbit. President Truman decided to support France by recognizing officially Bao Dai, France's puppet emperor in Vietnam, and by supplying $10 million to fight the Vietminh. Soon, U.S. military advisors were also sent to help France. But the age of colonialism in Vietnam was over, and in 1954 France gave up its efforts.

President Dwight Eisenhower, Truman's successor, explained that same year why the U.S. needed to resist communism in Southeast Asia (including Thailand, Burma, and Cambodia): "You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it go over very quickly."

At a 1954 international conference in Geneva, Vietnam was divided temporarily into northern and southern sections. Internationally monitored elections were scheduled for 1956. Ho Chi Minh, stationed in the city of Hanoi, in the north, had every reason to believe a majority of Vietnamese people would vote for him, and the nation would be unified under his leadership. But Vietnamese leaders in the south did not want elections they knew they would lose. President Eisenhower supported canceling the elections. Instead, the U.S. worked to create a new nation, an anticommunist South Vietnam.

By the time John Kennedy became president, the U.S. had 1,000 advisors in South Vietnam. By the time Kennedy was assassinated, there were 16,000. President Kennedy said in 1963: "If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam we would have another Joe McCarthy red scare on our hands." (Baritz)

Every post-World War II American president had to establish his anticommunist credentials and avoid being tagged as "soft on communism." Each also subscribed to the "domino theory" and tried to prevent the Soviets and the Chinese from spreading communism to other countries and gaining control of them. In President Johnson's State of the Union address in 1966 (during the Vietnam War), he declared: "To yield to force in Vietnam would undermine the independence of many lands, and whet the appetite of aggression. We would have to fight in one land and then we would have to fight in another-or abandon much of Asia to the communists."

Two years earlier, President Johnson had called for a congressional resolution giving him the power to take "all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression." The resolution, approved by all but two senators, was based on the president's report that the North Vietnamese had fired on two U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin.

President Johnson said, "The first reality is that North Vietnam has attacked the independent nation of South Vietnam. Its object is total conquest.  Over many years we have made a national pledge to help South Vietnam retain its independence." (4/7/65)

To vote against the Tonkin Gulf resolution meant calling both the president's report and the domino theory into question and being "soft on communism." Only two senators did so. The vote led in time to a force of more than 500,000 American troops in Vietnam, the deaths of 58,000 of them and of more than one million Vietnamese.

In the following years, President Johnson, General William Westmoreland, and other political and military leaders repeatedly issued optimistic statements about the progress of the war, the "body count" of the enemy, the "light at the end of the tunnel," and "the boys" coming home soon. But by 1968 a majority of Americans no longer believed them and had turned against the war.
But President Richard Nixon, who succeeded Johnson, reminded Americans in familiar words about why their nation's soldiers were in Vietnam. "Never in history have men fought for less selfish motives-not for conquest, not for glory, but only for the right of a people far away to choose the kind of government they want." (4/7/71)

In 1975 the last U.S. troops left Vietnam. North Vietnam had won the war and soon had control of all Vietnam. No other Southeast Asian "dominoes" fell then or later. In 1979, the domino theory received a further blow when China and Vietnam fought a border war.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What do you know about the origins of the cold war? If you don't know much, how might you find out more?

3. Why did President Truman support France, rather than Ho and the Vietnamese? Why had anticommunism become so important to U.S. leaders

4. What was the domino theory and why did it become so important?

5. What did President Kennedy mean about "another Joe McCarthy red scare"?

6. President Johnson referred to South Vietnam as an independent nation. How had it gained that status?

7. What did the aftermath of the Vietnam War demonstrate about the domino theory?

Student Reading 2:

A New National Security Strategy and the Iraq War

On September 11, 2001, an Al Qaeda plot succeeded when 19 men flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing nearly 3,000 people. U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden had organized Al Qaeda training camps, and ousted its Afghanistan's Taliban rulers, who had been allied with Al Qaeda. But before bin Laden was captured or killed, President Bush turned the attention of Americans to Iraq: "We've learned that Iraq has trained al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and gases," the president said (10/7/02). In his January 2003 State of the Union address, he declared that Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein "aids and protects terrorists, including members of al Qaeda."

President Bush warned repeatedly that Iraq was part of an "axis of evil" (along with Iran and North Korea) and a great danger to world peace and U.S. security because of its weapons of mass destruction. The president, Vice President Dick Cheney, and other administration officials charged that Iraq was not only a threat because of its weapons of mass destruction, but was also complicit in 9/11. They demanded regime change in Iraq.

The president released a new National Security Strategy for the United States. It declared "We will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting preemptively.  We must deter and defend against the threat before it is unleashed." The U.S. would not wait if it thought an attack was coming; it would attack first. The U.S. had never before had such a military strategy. But the president maintained that it was essential for something else unprecedented in U.S. history, "the war on terror."

In presenting an updated version of this strategy in 2006, the president reminded Americans that the U.S. was still "a city upon a hill," writing, "The ideals that have inspired our history-freedom, democracy, and human dignity-are increasingly inspiring individuals and nations throughout the world."

The main theme in U.S. politics and international relations now was not anticommunism, but "the war on terror" and Iraq's support for terrorists, its growing arsenal of biological and chemical weapons, its reconstituted nuclear program, and the danger that Saddam Hussein would provide terrorists with weapons of mass destruction to attack the U.S.

In October 2002, Congress authorized the president "to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to (1) defend the national security interests of the United States against the threat posed by Iraq and (2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq." These resolutions called on Iraq to eliminate its weapons of mass destruction and admit inspectors to be certain it had done so.

Saddam Hussein insisted he had no weapons of mass destruction, but admitted UN inspectors in December. By March 2003 they had found nothing. The U.S. and Britain maintained that Iraq's leader was hiding the weapons and lying. French, Russian, and Chinese leaders believed that inspectors should continue their work.

On February 5, 2003, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the UN Security Council: "My colleagues," he declared, "every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence." The secretary's speech laid out in devastating detail how Saddam Hussein was deceiving the UN and building a threatening stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. He was a great danger to world peace and security. By this time, 44 percent of Americans believed that the 9/11 terrorists had been Iraqis. ( New York Times , 2/25/07). In fact, none had been Iraqis.

Six weeks later the U.S. led "a coalition of the willing" in an attack on Iraq. After a few weeks Baghdad was in U.S. hands. On May 1, Bush stood on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier beneath a huge sign reading "Mission Accomplished," and declared that "major combat operations" in Iraq were over. But soon American troops were battling mostly Sunni-led insurgents - as well as militants from the region attracted to the fight against the U.S.

In his 2005 second inaugural address, President George W. Bush declared, "By our efforts, we have lit a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of the world." The president said "victory in Iraq" was essential because it was "the central front in the war on terror."

The U.S. found in Iraq no biological or chemical weapons, no reconstituted nuclear program, no evidence that Saddam Hussein had been complicit in 9/11, and no reason to believe that he had harbored Al Qaeda operatives. President Bush said, "Nobody has ever suggested that the attacks of September the 11th were ordered by Iraq." (August 2006)

By the president's January 2007 State of the Union address, a majority of Americans opposed the war and wanted a timetable for withdrawing American troops. Saddam Hussein was dead; regime change had occurred; and now U.S. forces were caught in a Shiite-Sunni civil war. The president said that to leave Iraq "would be to ignore the lessons of September 11th and invite tragedy."
President Bush had his own version of the domino theory, which he explained in a press conference: "If we do not defeat the terrorists or extremists in Iraq, they will gain access to vast oil reserves and use Iraq as a base to overthrow moderate governments across the broader Middle East. They will launch new attacks on America from this safe haven. They will pursue their goal of a radical Islamic empire that stretches from Spain to Indonesia." (10/26/06)
But an official U.S. government National Intelligence Estimate dated April 2006 and released in September of that year reported that the U.S. war in Iraq is creating terrorists: "The Iraq conflict has become the cause celebre for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement."

Just as President Johnson was always publicly optimistic about the course of the Vietnam War, so now, in the face of relentlessly bad news, Vice President Cheney talked about an insurgency "in its last throes" and President Bush told the nation before the 2006 congressional elections "absolutely, we're winning" and "Al Qaeda is on the run." He told a thinktank group in mid-February 2007, "The Taliban have been driven from power" in Afghanistan. But intelligence reports declared that Al Qaeda was strengthening itself and news reports that the Taliban were making a comeback in Afghanistan.

Despite congressional and public opposition, President Bush ordered additional troops to Iraq as part of a "new strategy" for victory.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. President Bush's decision to turn U.S. attention away from Afghanistan and to Iraq is the subject of much controversy. What is your understanding of why he did this? If you need more information, where might you find it?

3. Why is the new National Security Strategy critical to understanding why President Bush decided on an invasion of Iraq? Why do you suppose that it includes a celebration of America as "a city upon a hill"? How and why did President Bush include reference to it in his second inaugural address?

4. What is your opinion of President Bush's August 2006 and January 2007 remarks about the 9/11 attacks?

5. In what way might President Bush's 10/26/06 press conference comment be considered a version of the domino theory?

6. According to the National Intelligence Estimate, how is the U.S. war in Iraq creating terrorists?

7. How would you explain why so many Americans believed for so long that Iraqis had been among the 9/11 terrorists?


Student Reading 3:

Vietnam and Iraq: Comparison and a Point of View, Part One

Student Reading 3 Parts 1 & 2 present a point of view with which some students and teachers will disagree. The suggested discussion questions and activities that follow offer students the opportunity to express their points of view.

In its two largest wars during the past half-century, U.S. presidents determined upon war well before American troops attacked. Neither president told Americans the truth about why they took the country to war. They kept crucial information secret, not because to reveal it would damage national security, but because it might damage them. Neither Vietnam nor Iraq was a threat to U.S. security.

Why did the U.S. go to war in Vietnam?

The inciting event of the war was the Gulf of Tonkin episode. When President Johnson reported to the public in August 1964 that North Vietnam, in an "unprovoked" attack, had fired on two American destroyers, he knew the evidence was at best very shaky and quite possibly incorrect. He did not report to the public or Congress that American ships in the gulf were there to support South Vietnamese raids on North Vietnamese ships and installations. If there was an attack, the U.S. provoked it.

President Nixon also kept secrets from the public, but not necessarily the enemy. In early 1970 he ordered bombing attacks on neutral Cambodia because, he said later, North Vietnam was using it as sanctuary. The North Vietnamese and the Cambodians certainly knew about the bombings, but not the American public. President Nixon, in a TV address to the public on April 30, 1970, said that the U.S. had "scrupulously respected" the neutrality of Cambodia.
By 1964, despite U.S. efforts to make South Vietnam a nation and to support it with money, weapons, and advice, the war with North Vietnam was going badly. President Johnson decided that only American troops could save the situation. His reasons included:

  • He wanted to avoid a humiliating defeat and maintain U.S. credibility as a world power
  • He was convinced that North Vietnam could not stand up to overwhelming U.S. power
  • He wanted to avoid right-wing attacks that he was soft on communism.

Why did the U.S. go to war in Iraq?

President Bush launched the war on Iraq after he, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Powell, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and National Security Advisor Rice insisted that Iraq possessed biological and chemical weapons, was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program, harbored al Qaeda operatives and was complicit in 9/11. All of these accusations, including virtually everything in Secretary Powell's UN speech, were not "facts" and were not based on "solid sources" or solid intelligence."

The president and other officials claimed later that any inaccuracy resulted from bad intelligence. But there is much evidence that they knew that their case against Iraq was at best very shaky and quite possibly incorrect. President Bush and administration officials publicized information that supported their claims and kept secret that which did not.

The National Security Strategy of 2002 declares that the U.S. "will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, [and] preemptively." The president "has no intention of allowing any foreign power to catch up with the huge lead the United States has opened. Our forces will be powerful enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military building in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the U.S." But as the New York Times reported, "a corollary embraced by the White House has held that policy makers must assume the worst about the intentions of adversaries, even with imperfect intelligence about their intentions and capabilities." (3/2/07)

Like President Johnson, President Bush had a mixture of reasons for war. Among them:

  • He was determined to demonstrate to the world, in general, and Middle East nations, in particular, that the U.S. meant what it said in its National Security Strategy.
  • He believed Iraq was weak and it would not be difficult to make an object lesson of Iraq.
  • He hoped to: 1) install in Iraq of a regime friendly to the U.S. and amenable to permanent U.S. bases; 2) assure a commanding American military position in the Muslim Middle East; 3) exploit Iraq's huge oil deposits, producing big profits for American corporations as well as a large reserve of energy for U.S. needs.


Common factors in the decisions to go to war in Vietnam and Iraq were 1) the conviction of the two presidents that the U.S. possessed such commanding power that the enemy would be overwhelmed and 2) the apparent ignorance of both presidents and their policy aides about the histories and cultures of Vietnam and Iraq.

President Johnson seemed unaware of the Vietnamese passions aroused during France's century-long colonial rule of Vietnam. Nationalism and anti-colonialism inspired the North Vietnamese and many in the south as well. They would fight any effort to control them for another century. The president did not seem to understand that they were willing to die for those beliefs and in far great numbers than Americans would be.

Similarly, President Bush seemed not to consider that the British had created Iraq after World War I from Ottoman empire territories and that Iraqis had strongly resisted British control in the 1920s. He seemed unaware of the sensitivities and resentments of Middle East people to their long domination by European colonial powers. He also seemed unaware of the history of Sunni-Shiite animosities and what they might lead to in a country that had been dominated by Sunnis who had suppressed the majority Shiites.

Despite its ability to inflict tremendous damage on an enemy, the U.S. in both Vietnam and Iraq became caught up in unconventional guerrilla wars. In conventional battlefield wars, the U.S. could overpower any nation. In Vietnam, the U.S. troops fought a jungle war, in Iraq a city war. In both cases, they fought combatants who were not necessarily in uniform, who would strike and disappear into a supportive civilian population, who would fight when, where, and how they chose to.

Chinese communist leader Mao Tse-tung described this kind of warfare: "Guerrillas are fish, and the people are the water in which they swim. If the temperature of the water is right, the fish will thrive and multiply." Inevitably, powerful U.S. bombing and other tactics to kill and root out guerrillas also killed civilians. Such killings created more guerrillas.

Fighting in a faraway land drags on and on with no end in sight. More and more soldiers are maimed and killed. Thoughts of victory fade. Americans weary of such wars, presidents lose the public's support, and senators and representatives feel the voter disapproval and look for a way out.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What secrets did Presidents Johnson and Nixon keep from the public? In each case, were their reasons to protect U.S. national security? According to the commentary, why or why not? How might these presidents argue that they had good reasons for secrecy? If you need more information, where might you find it?

3. What secrets did President Bush keep from the public? Was his reason to protect national security? According to the commentary, why or why not? How might the president argue that he had good reasons for secrecy? If you need more information, where might you find it?

4. Consider critically each of the reasons cited for presidential decisions to go to war on Vietnam and Iraq. What evidence can you offer that would support these reasons? That would cast doubt on and/or oppose them? If you need more information, where might you find it?

5. How do you evaluate the statements about presidential ignorance? Where might you find more information to support or oppose them?


Student Reading 3:

Vietnam and Iraq: Comparison and a Point of View, Part Two

All wars are brutal and murderous. This is why, in 1949, an international conference produced the Geneva Conventions, a detailed set of rules and regulations intended to reduce war's horror as much as possible. They include specifics about the humane treatment of noncombatants—civilians and prisoners of war. Most nations, including the U.S., have ratified the conventions. But in Vietnam and Iraq, as well as in "the war on terror," the U.S. has repeatedly violated them.


In November 1969 Americans learned of a village the Army called My Lai 4. More than 500 men, women, and children had been massacred there a year-and-a-half earlier in March 1968 by a platoon led by Lt. William Calley. Jr.

But it was not until more than three decades later, in October 2003, that a series of articles in The Toledo Blade revealed a murderous rampage from May through November 1967 by a reconnaissance platoon known as the Tiger Force of the 101st Airborne Division. "For seven months, Tiger Force soldiers moved across the Central Highlands, killing scores of unarmed civilians-in some cases torturing and mutilating them. Women and children were intentionally blown up in underground bunkers. Elderly farmers were shot as they toiled in the fields. Prisoners were tortured and executed-their ears and scalps severed for souvenirs. One soldier kicked out the teeth of executed civilians for their gold fillings." (Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss spent months researching the articles for the Blade and later published a book, Tiger Force. )

In April 1971 John Kerry, who had been a Navy officer in Vietnam, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: American troops, he said, had "raped, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, which is done by the applied bombing power of this country." In his 2004 presidential campaign, Kerry said nothing about his 1971 testimony despite attacks on him motivated, at least in part, by that testimony

Lt. Calley was convicted of murder, sentenced to house arrest and paroled after three-and-a-half years by President Nixon. The Army insisted that My Lai was an isolated episode. There were no prosecutions of upper echelon officers under whom Lt. Calley and his platoon or the Tiger Force operated. Nor were there charges for obvious violations of the Geneva Conventions that should have led to war crimes trials and convictions. In November 1975 an Army report on Tiger Force actions concluded that "nothing beneficial or constructive could result from prosecution at this time."

Air force bombings aimed at North Vietnamese ports and military facilities also inevitably killed countless North Vietnamese. Vietnam was "free fire" zones in which U.S. troops fired at anything that moved. Villages reduced to ashes. Napalm attacks to defoliate forests that resulted in hideous burnings and deaths of the Vietnamese people. An enemy that often could not be identified. "Body counts" that were manufactured for PR purposes. Vietnam was a long war that increasingly made little or no sense to the troops on the ground or to their leaders.


As My Lai became a symbol for war crimes committed by Americans in Vietnam, so a U.S-run prison in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, became a symbol for war crimes committed by Americans in Iraq as well as elsewhere since 9/11. Photographs shown around the world depicted American soldiers amusing themselves with what Major General Antonio Taguba in an official Army investigation called "sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses."

President Bush said the behavior at Abu Ghraib involved actions "by a few American troops who disregarded our country and disregarded our values." (5/4/04)

But such behavior has not been confined to Abu Ghraib or "a few American troops." The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported after its inspectors visited 14 places of detention in Iraq: "The ICRC medical delegate examined persons presenting signs of concentration difficulties, memory problems, verbal expression difficulties, incoherent speech, acute anxiety reactions, abnormal behavior and suicidal tendencies. These symptoms appeared to have been caused by the methods and duration of interrogation." The ICRC called some of the abuses at Camp Cropper, a detention center in Iraq, "tantamount to torture."

An official panel headed by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger declared: "The abuses were not just the failure of some individuals to follow known standards, and they are more than the failure of a few leaders to enforce proper discipline. There is both institutional and personal responsibility at higher levels."

Such official reports as well as those from the ICRC, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, American Civil Liberties Union, and Human Rights First provide many examples of U.S. prisoner treatment in many detention centers. A small sample:

  • Preventing a prisoner from sleeping
  • Waterboarding a prisoner
  • Subjecting a naked prisoner to extreme cold and pouring ice water over him
  • Sodomizing a prisoner with a chemical light
  • Forcing a prisoner to crawl on his stomach while guards spit and urinate on him
  • Placing a lit cigarette in the ear of a prisoner
  • Chaining a prisoner in the fetal position of 24 hours without food, water or toilet facility
  • Shackling a prisoner in his underwear to a chair and subjecting him for hours to strobe lights, rock and rap music played through two close loudspeakers while air conditioning is turned up to maximum levels
  • Chaining a prisoner to the ceiling an kicking and beating him until he dies
  • Detaining a prisoner indefinitely without charge

On UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, June 26, 2004, President Bush declared: "The United States reaffirms its commitment to the worldwide elimination of torture.  American stands against and will not tolerate torture."

During the initial "shock and awe" air force bombings of Iraqi cities, countless civilians were maimed and killed. During the regular bombings since then to kill insurgents and terrorists in a number of Iraqi cities, additional countless civilians have been maimed and killed. Despite all efforts to avoid them, civilian casualties are inevitable in attacks on cities. They are "countless" because neither U.S. nor Iraqi officials keep records of them. But U.S. bombings and other military actions have clearly resulted in tens of thousands of Iraqi deaths.

Vietnam and Iraq

U.S. actions in Vietnam and Iraq have not demonstrated to the world the model its leaders have celebrated of "a city upon a hill." They have revealed instead its "dark side."

The people of every nation have a hard time recognizing and absorbing the dark side each has. Japanese leaders, for example, have often refused to or allow Japanese school books to describe their nation's forced sex slavery of Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese, and Filipino women during World War II. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently declared, "There is no evidence to prove there was coercion, nothing to support it." But a Japanese historian in 1992 found documentary evidence to the contrary. Other historians support his findings, and "many former sex slaves have stepped forward in recent years with their stories." ( New York Times , 3/2/07)

Similarly, American leaders have been unwilling to acknowledge the dark side of American power revealed by the wars Vietnam and Iraq, fearing a huge outcry and a political cost. Announcing four years after the end of the Vietnam War that he would run for president, Ronald Reagan declared, "We will become that shining city on a hill." In his 1981 inaugural address, he said, "We will again be the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not have freedom." This refrain was untempered by the Vietnam experience.
As for Iraq, the officer in charge of Abu Ghraib, Army Reserve Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, was demoted to colonel. The only other Americans punished for the widespread abuse and torture of prisoners are lower level soldiers. No high-ranking officials have been accused of anything. Nor do these officials generally discuss the Iraqi civilian casualties of a war now four years old.

The American philosopher George Santayana wrote long ago, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." And perhaps those who do not absorb their dark side are condemned to repeat it — as the U.S. has done in Iraq and "the war on terror."

The American historian, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote: "History is the best antidote to delusions of omnipotence and omniscience."

For discussion

1. These portraits of American behavior in Vietnam and Iraq are very unpleasant and very critical. Are they fair? What evidence is there to support them? To oppose them? If you need more information, where might you find it?

2. The commentary accuses Americans of war crimes. What evidence is there to support such accusations? To oppose them? If you need more information, where might you find it?

3. How do you explain why no high-level civilian U.S. officials have been accused of war crimes or, indeed, any crime in connection with Tiger Force operations? Abu Ghraib and other detention centers in Iraq? Guantanamo? Civilian deaths in Vietnam? In Iraq?

4. The commentary declares that every nation has its dark side. What evidence can you cite about any other nation's dark side?

For writing

1. Write an essay in which you discuss either the Santayana or the Schlesinger quotation. Support and/or refute it based on evidence you can cite from your knowledge of history.

2. The commentary emphasizes the "dark side" of U.S. behavior. Write an essay in which you support with evidence from your knowledge of American history that the U.S. has indeed been "a city upon a hill."

For inquiry

1. Investigate further and assess 1) U.S. reasons for either the Vietnam or the Iraq war other than those offered in the readings or 2) Views opposing those presented in the readings about presidential behavior on either Vietnam or Iraq.

2. Investigate views countering accusations in the readings of American war crimes in either Vietnam or Iraq.

3. Investigate and assess U.S. behavior and action regarding any one of the following:

  • President Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs, 1961
  • President Johnson and the Dominican Republic, 1965
  • President Carter and Afghanistan, 1980
  • President Reagan and Grenada, 1983
  • President George H.W. Bush, Gulf War, 1991
  • President Clinton, Kosovo, 1999

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