CSotD: Standing around with our fallacies in our hands

David Fitzsimmons riffs on the 1893 bronze by German sculptor Hugo Rheinhold, in which an ape contemplates a human skull, while sitting on a stack of books, one of which is by Darwin, the other identifiable text being Genesis 3.5, “Ye shall be as God.”

I particularly like it because of the cobwebs on this ape’s pile of books, and the likelihood that he will learn anything from staring at a skull, at least without a few more thousand years of evolution.

Better he should be sitting on a pile of skulls, reading a book.

His pile of books could certainly be taller, and, as a fan of bananas, the ape might enjoy seeing what the United Fruit Company managed to compile in Central America, with the aid of our government, while he might also find a book to tell him why the Iranians don’t embrace us as brothers. He could even dig deeper to find how we freed the Filipinos first from Spain and then from themselves.

It would eventually become a tall enough pile to give even a chimpanzee acrophobia.

Tolstoy said “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” and, similarly, historic tragedies are tragic each in its own way, and those who suffer in them deserve to be remembered accurately.

Yes, we have compiled a prodigious history of screwing up, and of screwing up other people. We keep hearing promises that it’s over, and yet it keeps happening.

Still, Afghanistan is not Vietnam. Or Guatemala. Or Iran.

They don’t “all look alike,” and you can’t learn from the past if you don’t make an effort to get it right.


I’ve seen about a half-dozen political cartoons — none of which I’ll be featuring today — consisting of a sketch of this iconic 1975 photo from the collapse of Saigon with the word “Afghanistan” added somewhere.

More of a “professional meme” than an actual cartoon, really.

Hugh Van Es’s photo has become a symbol of Americans piling into helicopters on the roof of the American Embassy, bugging out on their Vietnamese allies, which is important, because, like a lot of what we know about our involvement in Vietnam and that era generally, it’s bullshit.

I’ll direct you to this NY Post piece from two years ago, aptly headlined “Almost everything you thought about the famed Fall of Saigon photo isn’t true.”

First of all, that’s not the Embassy. It’s an apartment building. (Edited – see comments)

More important, those aren’t Americans bugging out. Those are our Vietnamese allies, being evacuated as part of “Operation Frequent Wind” to get them out before the North Vietnamese could take them into custody for “re-education.”

The only American in the shot is O.B. Harnage, a tough CIA operative who made sure people got on board in a first-come, first-served basis, and with only one small bag of personal items.

The rest are refugees.

No, not a lot of shrimp fishermen in the crowd, but that’s part of the true story of that war, and so it’s part of the truth behind the photo.

I met a Vietnamese student at the University of Toronto in 1969, the first person from that country I’d met, and she was from that Saigon echelon of upper class, semi-Westernized Catholics, but she understood the situation.

She told me that the Vietnamese out in the countryside simply wanted it to be over. They wanted to harvest a rice crop without tanks rolling through and destroying their ancestral paddies, without armed troops from either side coming to their villages to threaten and destroy.

We flew out 1,373 Americans and 5,595 Vietnamese in that helicopter operation, after which some 800,000 Vietnamese “boat people” braved pirate-filled seas in the years following the war, staying in massive refugee camps until they could be re-settled.

They weren’t universally welcomed, but, today, there are 2.2 million Americans of Vietnamese ancestry.

I doubt we’ll ever see that many Afghans join our family.

I’m sorry for them, and I wish we were making a similar effort to get them out if they want to leave, though I’d note we’ve disengaged in Iraq with a similar lack of concern for those left behind.

I’m glad we’re pulling out, but we should have done it in a more organized way, with loyalty to those who trusted us.

The administration says they’ll get them all out, but I don’t think they were anticipating how quickly the Taliban would regain power.

It should be noted that the last American combat troops were pulled out a year and a half before that photo. “Frequent Wind” was hastily planned, but we knew the moment was coming well before it arrived.

In any case, history matters. Accuracy matters.

As Reed Tucker notes in that NY Post article, that’s not a picture of us bugging out. It’s a picture of us saving our allies.

My takeaways are

  1. I wish cartoonists would stop using the image without understanding what it portrays.
  2. I wish I thought we would put a similar effort into getting our Afghan friends and allies out. But, even if we re-deployed enough troops to pull it off, our Vietnamese allies had mostly grouped up in Saigon by then. Our Afghan allies are scattered all over the place.

I also wish more people had been at the anti-war demonstrations in the Vietnam years, not to raise their voices but simply to listen at the Teach-Ins during which the history of the Geneva Accords were repeated, so that they might know why we were there and why it was futile.

And why some in Congress knew it was futile and dangerous, even as the Senate approved the resolution that enabled the President to wage war over the alleged attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin.

And I wish this Tom Toro cartoon would stop being relevant.

And that we could simply remember Phil Ochs as a guy who sang songs that, similarly, were no longer relevant.


5 thoughts on “CSotD: Standing around with our fallacies in our hands

  1. From the New York Post article, the Hugh van Es photograph wasn’t taken at either the embassy or at the Lee Hotel, but rather at an apartment building.

    “After the Lee Hotel became unsafe, the CIA station chief urged Harnage to start picking up at 22 Gia Long Street. The apartment building’s top floor served as quarters for CIA employees… On the fourth touchdown at Gia Long Street, van Es was sitting in the offices of United Press International about four blocks away when a colleague called out, ‘Van Es, get out here! There’s a chopper on that roof!’ “

  2. I too lived in the time of the Vietnam War, protesting instead of enlisting. Dropping my college deferment, waiting to go to jail or Canada until my draft number came up high. Twenty years or so after the fall of Saigon we, as a country, were friends with Vietnam. I don’t see that happening with Afghanistan. The Taliban have already had decades of femicide, no schooling for girls, no religious freedom. I think they will continue to follow their dogma. I I feel really sad about the women and girls in Afghanistan and what they will lose, those of them who survive the re-imposition of Sharia. The Taliban are just an extreme form of the religious fanaticism found around the world, including in the U.S. Religious fanaticism is the scourge of the earth. I am at a lose at what we can do. What we should have done over the last 20 years. I am just sad.

  3. Thank you – you have a way of taking editorial cartoons and distilling their essence into a narative which often has more substance and thought than either ‘news’ stories or ‘editorials’. And, after reading, one has a better understanding…


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