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
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.
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?
For some more thoughts on this topic, try these: