The Fall Of Saigon And Shift To Proxy-War Tactics: 40 Years On From Vietnam What's Changed?

Sean Bresnahan with a piece on the fall of Saigon. Sean Bresnahan, is PRO of the 1916 Societies and Secretary of the Thomas Ashe Society in Omagh. He writes here in a personal capacity.

40 years to the day from the Fall of Saigon and liberation of South Vietnam, to those of us with an interest in the ongoing situation in our world at present, a reflection on events leading up to the American evacuation, in the final days of April 1975, can help us map the shift from full-scale imperialist interventions, through 'Vietnamisation' under the Presidency of Richard Nixon, to the use of proxy-forces in the Middle East today.

The connection can be found in the importance of public opinion on the ‘Home Front’.

Because of public abhorrence at crimes such as the infamous Mỹ Lai massacre – where more than 500 unarmed civilians were raped, tortured and murdered by US Army soldiers – never again could the reputation of the ‘shining light and beacon of truth and justice’ be exposed and brought into question in this manner. In future, either the natives would do the fighting themselves, as far as possible, or the atrocities would be committed by proxy – allowing in turn the added bonus of dehumanising indigenous targets of our violence with public opinion at home.

This is the genius of current imperialist policy, where we have the so-called Al Qaeda Brigades and ‘Islamic State’ committing massacres on a par and indeed much worse than Mỹ Lai. The difference now is the West’s hands appear clean and a pretext is given for military involvement, and indeed escalation, where none is justified.

A discerning example here might be the recent 'execution' of journalists by ISIS, in front of the television cameras and beamed out across the globe for all to see. At a time when British-US policy in Syria was running aground, having already failed with the attempt to blame the Assad government for the chemical attack in Damascus, and with the Syrian Army beginning to recover the situation militarily, these executions served as pretext for engendering an aerial bombing campaign – a campaign that has resolutely failed to target the ISIS-factions and has instead served to strengthen their positions inside Syria.

Such military intervention would not have been possible, after the catastrophe in Iraq, without demonising and dehumanising the enemy. To this end the flesh-eating murder-gangs unleashed in Syria have served their masters well. ‘Any right-thinking person can see the need to take these vicious evil-doers out before they come for us’ is the common consensus crafted for our consumption in the halls of power, forged in the blood of those unfortunates who find themselves in the sight of these psychopaths.

The angle is easy to find if we look closely; get your proxies to carry out the Mỹ Lai’s and other such acts of wanton savagery. Rather than a public backlash on the Home Front, with city-streets demanding ‘an end to our inhumanity’, instead you garner public support for increased hostilities, military strikes and the ramping up of direct involvement – as a necessary measure for ‘the greater good’.

Such is the insidious logic – the ‘terrible beauty’ – of the ‘War On Terror’. Creating pretext through exploiting proxy-forces – even where they don’t always realise it themselves – might seem like a crazed notion dreamt up by conspiracy theorists but is all too real. And indeed all too effective. It works. Incubators in Kuwait and Gulf of Tonkin eat your heart out, this is on a whole new level.

The whole operation, from Libya to Syria and now into Yemen, is as cynical as it comes and can be seen, at least in part, as a direct outworking of the Vietnam War, its failures and lessons (though of course that's not to exclude the influence of its Iraqi equivalent 20 years later).

The response of the American people – as reflected on the ground and in public opinion at that time – and the eventual loss of the war – not on the field itself but in the key battleground of public opinion – signalled the need to shift tactics: first with Nixon's use of Vietnamisation and the 'secret war' in Laos and Cambodia; later with the use of psychological operations integrated by counter-gangs and proxy-forces, designed to foment dissent, provoke response, commit atrocity and create a situation demanding direct military intervention.

From the banks of the Mekong to the streets of San Salvador, from Baghdad and Benghazi to Dara’a and beyond, on and on it goes.

40 years on from Vietnam we can see that nothing has really changed other than the way in which we conduct the business of war. Millions-on-millions of wasted lives and no end in sight, the European Champions League, the Super Bowl – or other such trifles of distraction – sadly of far greater import to most in our societies today.

Despite the tremendous obstacles facing us in the propaganda war, we've no option but to keep on reaching out to anyone prepared to listen. It may seem at times a losing battle, in an environment where the enemy retains massive superiority and control of the chess-board, but we can take solace in the timeless words of the great Jamaican poet and singer-songwriter Bob Marley: ‘Get up, stand up – don’t give up the fight.’

The fight for truth and justice – for another way – a better way – for our children and our children's children – must go on... Together we can win.


  1. Some great photography. Thanks to the loyalist reader who sent the link.

  2. Thanks for the link. In London later in the month. Hope to catch that exhibition.

  3. Noraid supporters will go crazy when they read this. Their sons & daughters provide the labour for the American military !

  4. Why would they go crazy? You underestimate the Irish republican community in the states, many of whom want an American Republic not an American Empire

  5. Sean et al

    While it's certainly true that the U.S. government and American military in the post-Vietnam era have sought to mask atrocities by transferring culpability to proxies, other shifts in strategy resulting from the debacle in Vietnam are also worthy of note. American leaders not only learned how to transfer blame but also how to play the public relations game with far more success.

    Increased control of the media, the limitation of its access to war zones, became paramount in the new strategy. If the U.S. government hoped to control (i.e. sanitize) news from hot spots abroad, it could not allow reporters and photographers to have the same kind of freedom that they enjoyed in Vietnam. Huey hopping reporters like Michael Herr and John Laurence, embedded by initiative and not by careful selection, were the gnats, the heroic gnats, who bit the ass of Westmoreland and McNamara. Big hitters contributed too. The post-Tet analysis of the iconic Walter Cronkite, convinced of the war's futility, lent the writers in the field credence, his voice of dissent arguably doing more damage to the hawks and hard hats than the emerging truth of My Lai.

    For those interested, Seymour Hersh, a reporter who helped blow the lid on My Lai by interviewing GIs from Charlie Company, recently wrote a reflection on the massacre in The New Yorker (see link):

    Avoiding conscription while maintaining a volunteer force has been another vital element of the American government's new strategy to quell discontent on the homefront. Some lessons apparently were learned. The draft, while necessary to prosecute the war in Vietnam, also killed off the support for its continuation. The American government will probably never make that mistake again, preferring instead to foster the kind of wealth disparity which forces the poor to join the military en masse. In essence you could call this a draft through economic imperative.

    The muted protest to the war in Iraq certainly proved that the American public will stomach casualties sustained by a military comprised of volunteers. Interestingly, the same was true of the British public during the Troubles. The deaths of squaddies, all volunteers, did not move the British public in the way that militant Republicans had hoped, leading some IRA men like Jim Lynagh and Padraig McKearney to question the efficacy of the long war strategy endorsed by Adams. "[Lynagh and McKearney] didn't believe sending Brits home in boxes would work," commented a former associate of theirs from Tyrone, "because the British army wasn't a conscript army like the Americans in Vietnam" (Ed Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA).

    Vietnam did not cure the American government of military intervention and foreign entanglement. But it sure changed how news is reported and boots are filled.

  6. I mentioned this before on the Quill but with Frank Kitson being in the papers I thought I would remind people that he was "included in a small group of foreign military officers brought to the USA for a RAND symposium on counterinsurgency in 1962, anticipating an escalating US involvement in South Vietnam."

    Great photos in the BBC link. The Associated Press book of photographs "Vietnam: The Real War" is a decent collection if anybody's interested.

    However, the link to Kitson provides a telling story. "When Kitson is discussed, the concern is with the development of his counterinsurgency parameters in the mid- to late 1970s, and less on his actual tour of duty in Belfast in 1970–2. General Sir Michael Jackson, who was an adjutant in 1 Para in the early 1970s, described Kitson as an ‘incisive thinker and military theorist’, and claimed that ‘he was the sun around which the planets revolved . . . and very much set the tone for the operational style’ in Belfast."

    Kitson was decorated for tactical successes against the Mau Mau in Kenya, was involved in the RAND think tank prior to the Vietnam War and we all know of his involvement in Ireland. Sounds like the chap who'd get promoted quickly.

    The use of proxy torturers vis-a-vis rendition also deserves more focus. Rendition that Ireland North and South played its part in. We can expect it of the British state but surely the Irish would have some empathy? Never mind the Celtic Tiger these bastards should have been brought to book for rendition.

  7. Don't understand the point about the loyalist reader unless I've missed something. Michael, I was going to include a reference to Hersh in the article but then removed it. For those interested in how he warned of the use of proxy-forces to justify military intervention they should read his Redirection. Have you ever heard of John Negroponte? His role in the fractious violence that swept through Iraq has largely been hidden from public view but the idea was to divide and conquer - isn't it always - through exploiting the Sunni-Shi'ia divisions arising from tensions ongoing from the days of Ba'ath rule just ended.
    In Iraq they utilised a little-known policy, born in the world of psychological operations, referred to as 'the Salvador Option'. Basically the means employed is to integrate paramilitary death-squads into the fabric of the community to foment unrest, violence and retribution, methods pioneered on the streets of San Salvador and San Miguel. These are the tactics of modern war - as is this 'embedded journalism' you referred to. It's all both highly sophisticated yet devastatingly simple in the one brush-stroke. A crazy, crazy world run by psycopaths

  8. Sean,

    a loyalist who reads the site and who has a keen interest in the Vietnam War sent me an email with a link to the exhibition. I put it in the comments section without asking him if he wanted named. So I acknowledged that it came from him.

  9. Sean

    Yes, John Negroponte became a name associated with the imbroglio in Iraq. He replaced the slick and dismissive Paul Bremer, he who arrived with much cash and wasted no time socking it to the Ba'athists. I was not aware, however, that Negroponte had been the ambassador to Honduras during the Reagan administration when a concerted and thoroughly reprehensible campaign was launched against the Sandinistas in neighboring Nicaragua. His experience in Latin America obviously prepared Negroponte for the less than above board tactics employed in Iraq. Divide and conquer, yes, ever thus. Granted, Iraq was already a boiling pot, a lunatic construct out of touch with the ethnic and religious realities on the ground - the stuff of T.E. Lawrence's nightmares.

    The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) has recently been running two interesting Vietnam documentaries as part of the American Experience series: My Lai & The Last Days of Vietnam. The latter is a fairly ideologically free depiction of the chaos in 1975 with plenty of human interest stories, both Vietnamese and American. Check those out if you have time - riveting stories that in the end form an indictment of a military and moral cul de sac.

    Thank you Sean for the Hersh book recommendation and for writing this thought provoking piece.

  10. Thanks for the links Michael, that 'Redirection' is not a book and can be accessed online. Check out Robert Ford, a protege of Negroponte, who was shifted from Baghdad - where he oversaw the carnage manufactured to destabilise the Shia'a uprising in Najaf - into Syria only months before the events in Dara'a, triggering the terrorist war ongoing. Pretty much the same type of operation used against the Sandinista government in Nicragua as you referenced; arm and orchestrate terror to instil fear and bring about political change