Whatever U.S. Senator Sam Washburn had done in Vietnam, whatever that was and however he thought about it or avoided it now, he felt he had acted as he had because the individual leaders and the powerful organizations that shaped the US system of rule had made it possible, allowed it, encouraged it, demanded it. Any massacre Sam may have been involved in was no uncommon occurrence – and so those massacres, as with the overall slaughter of millions in Vietnam, mostly civilians, were the responsibility ultimately and primarily of the dominant political and economic establishment, the War Parties, not the scared and frenzied soldiers on the ground.
Not so much, anyway, Sam thought.
Sure, as a field officer he could not escape some of the responsibility. But so many officials so much higher than himself had put him in that position. They had trained him to kill.
They ordered him. They expected him. They encouraged him. They coached him. They pushed him. They made him. They turned him loose, told him the fate of his country depended on him, on the killing. And they paid him. Ultimately they honored him. They decorated him. Then through business, governmental and other political channels, they encouraged him to join the power structure at higher levels. They supported him in government in exchange for his support of their politics and businesses, and he became like them, an administrator of power, although he told himself he was different. He told himself the wars subsequent to Vietnam were different, and Vietnam was not so bad as he had once come to think – if he were to reflect on it much at all, which he did not. But if he were –
Any killing that Sam was responsible for in Vietnam, no matter how it may have looked, any killing was carried out in self-defense. Sam had to believe that.
At least, he had to believe it could be viewed that way, could be justified or at least appear to be justified.
He could plausibly explain it, if he had to, he was sure. At least he could explain the events so that the worst was plausibly deniable. He could both explain away any unjustified killing and deflect responsibility up through the chain of command. Deflecting responsibility would be his last line of defense, if necessary. He could do that. He felt he had a right to.
To avoid having to resort wholly to this final line of defense when he was confronted by allegations of massacre, US Senator Sam Washburn wrote his memoir, An American Life – Sam Washburn, in an attempt to show himself as he wanted to be seen, as a son of America, as a creature of his country, the offspring of his upbringing, not the cold-blooded killer he was accused of being, not the killer he was determined to not write and not think about. Not directly.
Self defense. Even when on attack, this was how a soldier operated in battle. Any threat, or potential threat, even if not imminent might best be eliminated in advance, in fact must be eliminated for the sake of country, team, for the sake of mom, dad, apple pie, and all that was good about America. So a soldier must think. And a loyal citizen too. So one is told.
Kill, kill, kill and call it self defense.
Go through the target checklist, identify, then kill. Taught, instilled, drilled, this was what troops were expected to accept and believe, as were citizens in a state of war, especially a state that saw itself as perpetually under attack and at war.
Kill, kill, kill and call it self defense.
Of course there had to be limits. A soldier and nation could not just kill anyone, which, morality aside, would be counterproductive. And everything could not reasonably be explained away as self defense. A mistake, yes – as long as no one could prove malicious intent. In that case, virtually any act of violence could be called a tragic mistake – including the mass killing. A bit of plausible deniability was all it took, or even not so plausible deniability. As long as a soldier or nation could (pretend to) plausibly deny malicious intent or negligence in the face of incriminating facts, or deny knowledge of likely consequences, then a person or militarized government or a lethal corporation could do just about anything in the world that it wanted to do and get away with it, at least in some limited (and fraudulent) legal and moral sense, if not in the minds of everyone, or even in the minds of the many.
You could get away with it, if there were no stronger power than your country, if you were the world superpower, or had the full support of the world superpower. Officially then you were in the clear. You might most likely win reelection too, due to a million different confusions and lies. And that was how an effective system operated – for, of, and by the owners – a system that made individual representatives virtually superfluous. And since Sam understood the situation and the system, he thought, Why not me? Why should I allow myself to be ousted by allegations of long ago massacre if I can at all help it – no matter my past, no matter what I scarcely need think of?
So Senator Sam Washburn fought the accusations of massacre for his seat at the table. He fought for his reputation. He fought for his personal way of life. He fought for his family. He faced the media. He ran for reelection. He wrote a memoir in self defense. Sam Washburn was a winner and determined to remain one. Falling down was not in the game plan, never had been. No allegations of atrocity would stop him, true or not. Why should they? What difference did the alleged crimes make one way or another these many years past?
Sam felt he lived in a system of war that was like a force of nature. And now that he had aged and gained distance from the battlefield he believed he could see how the system was not entirely destructive. In any case, Sam had no intention of giving up his plush niche within the prevailing structure of power and rule.
As Sam thought of it, most everything the US had done in Vietnam, and now in Iraq, was done in self defense. Likewise, self defense was the reason America stationed a quarter million troops all around the world in one hundred fifty countries, including dozens of huge military installations that were like fortified cities of the United States planted strategically around the globe, for self-defense, as it was called, from the world. Was this not at least plausibly believable?
And so self defense made up a large part of the platform Sam was elected on, each time. Self defense was the standard he swore to uphold. This was what the mountains of election funds and the tax dollars went for, largely – the safeguarding of national security, as it was called, the militarization of the economy and politics and everything, as far as possible, the world over – self defense, as Sam commonly viewed and voiced it. Self defense, real or fake – it could make you or break you. Just so, Sam lived, and just so, Sam labored through the writing of his memoir An American Life – in self defense.
When questioned by the media and friends about any new thoughts of running for the Presidency, Sam claimed realistically he could never again consider running for the office, while in the back of his mind he held onto hope for such a run. Perhaps an opportunity might arise in a moment of even more extreme nationalism, and religious fervor, when a greater war-time atmosphere might make him an appealing candidate again. Only the allegations of a massacre, personally led, had derailed his previous run.
And so Sam determined to write a book about his life in his own defense. He tried to make it humanizing. His wife Kalli supported him all the way, which meant as much to him, he told her, as anything, her steady grace and presence.
A man’s wife, he believed, could garner to her husband the benefit of the doubt in circles of respectability, both private and public. Sam believed that deeply. He had believed it when he decided he would seek Kalli’s hand in marriage. He was drawn to how circumspect, careful, and warm she seemed, and he believed in her circumspect personality even more now. He loved her for this not alone.
Sam wrote simply and did not dwell. Needle and thread, Sam crafted the book with his family and country wrought almost as one. He sewed together the public and private, hoping his words would gain stature as both a noted public document and a valued family heirloom. This was how his wife encouraged him to think of the project whenever it threatened to unravel.
Together they came up with the idea of using the metaphor of an American tapestry for thinking of their lives. In the introduction Sam tried to explain that the book was a project larger than himself, and by implication larger than any criminal allegation – which he left unmentioned not only in the introduction but almost throughout the entire book, even though anyone who knew anything about Sam Washburn knew that clearing his name was the main purpose shaping and driving virtually every line of the book.
Sam wrote that he hoped to highlight some vital and typically American characteristics of people’s families and lives far beyond his own, yet very much part of his own. He wished to highlight the various overlaps and stitchings, the long boundaries and tricky corners, the fine and sturdy edging, all the important detail work sewing together the vibrant patterns that made up everyone’s lives and the nation as a whole, the common patterns of values and experiences that shaped the culture and influenced the world, the American pattern that created so much of reality, including global reality, as it had come to be known. Including so much the reality of Sam Washburn – his life, his times, his alleged massacres.
Sam pushed the tropes of sewing, weaving, and tapestry as far as he could in the introduction, as a way to win readers over, as a nod to his wife, as an attempt to diffuse the spotlight from himself, or block it altogether by a blanket, a nice image, nice words.
And why not? Hadn’t he devoted his whole life to this sort of skilled shaping and crafting, consciously and unconsciously? He had a knack for it. Never be too dull. Never too interesting. Keep the style plain and approachable. Homey if not Homely. Weave in diverse patterns for everyone to appreciate. Don’t say too much up front, don’t hold too much back. But most of all, don’t say too much.
He did not see the point of remembering too much, wherever it might lead. Emphasize the positive, about himself especially – that priority served as his guide in thinking. At least this was what he might think he thought if he ever allowed himself to consider it much in the first place.
Which he did not.
But if he ever were to fully reflect on what he may have done or not done in Vietnam, he might vividly recall the three women, two elderly men, five children, and other captives he gunned down and ordered his platoon to gun down, in self defense, as Sam had chosen to think of it at the time. And yet, all those killed were unarmed and captive. And Sam was in their country.
Self defense, this was the idea that enabled Sam and his team to destroy, to carry out such slaughter up close and personal. Self defense – buttressed by the idea that the best defense is a good offense.
Just so, Sam excused his past, whatever it might or might not have been.
He went over it again, the story of his life, beginning with his childhood, nothing unusual, a typical American youngster who liked movies, sports, did okay in school, went to college during the war against Vietnam, then enlisted rather than be drafted after graduation. Officer Candidate School. After which, perhaps because of his sports background, however modest, he was encouraged to try out for the Army Special Forces, to be all that he could be – long before the slogan was put to exhilarating music and used in the Army’s massive advertising campaign.
Within months of arriving in the Mekong Delta, as an officer in charge of a small team of Special Forces, he was hit by a ricochet bullet that tore wounds so ghastly across his face – ripping through both cheeks, laying them open in gruesome flaps and knocking out several teeth – that members of his squad mistook him for the walking dead. Thus ended Sam’s war in Vietnam.
Ultimately he lost only a few teeth, but given the fact that his jaw was wired shut, and given the operations and physical therapy, he was shipped home and discharged. Cosmetic surgery restored his sharp features, leaving only small scars, distinguishing marks, it was said.
Within two years of being knocked out of the war, Sam earned a Masters of Business Administration degree and went on to study corporate law. He passed the bar exam but rather than practice law he entered the business of what is called defense contracting at the behest of former military associates who guided and groomed him for public office. He came to rule for nearly eighteen years as a US Senator.
Then decided to run for President of the United States. And all of a sudden, Sam’s military past threatened his reelection. The media alleged he had directed and carried out a massacre of Vietnamese civilians in the Mekong Delta.
Sam’s family stood by him in face of the charges, not least his wife, Kalli, who had married him soon after he returned from Vietnam. She had been his girlfriend going back to high school. Upbeat and ambitious, they were a strong fit, conventional extensions of their birth families, proud and hardworking – soon raising a family of their own, with two girls and a boy, which Sam considered to be a solid American unit, civic-minded, family focused. The Washburns knew who they were by their commitments to kin, church, school, career and country, and upon this basis, as steadily as they were able, Sam and Kalli attempted to weave daily a worthy tapestry of their lives, an American tapestry, as they felt it to be.
Sam wanted his family to understand and empathize with people far and diverse but especially with those whom he thought of as regular people. The people he had grown up with in his town – the masses, so-called, though Sam tried never, or almost never, to think of people in the abstract. For elections, a personal touch was key. “People are people,” Sam liked to say. “That comes first.”
Often, he turned the sentiment nationalistic in campaign speeches – “People are people. And Americans are Americans,” leaving few people to wonder who or what really came first, and what that implied for real.
Still, Sam was wary of the slippery slope between emphasis and finesse, nuance and spin, slant and shading, distortion and outright lies. Working along that infernal slope was unfortunately too often the slick nature of the business of politics – not to mention the politics of business, to which Sam was professionally indebted. Sam felt proud his staff worked the slope with no small skill. At the top were ideals, at the bottom, imperfections. Articulating precise distinctions and compromises along the slope created reality, as Sam viewed it, in governing circles not least. You played the game of the reality slope in Washington DC and elsewhere, or you got out quick.
You tried to hew to the so-called center as often as possible, the re-electable center, as it was by necessity understood, the political center as defined by the struggle between the wide body of people and the select wealthy few – between what people both knew and wanted, and what the major funders of political campaigns and the dominant media and wealthy operators found acceptable. This was the reality that Sam and his family lived, professionally and personally, publicly and privately.
It made sense to watch what you said at all times, to make sure it squared with the reigning power order, so much so that you could forget who you were in the constant strain to adapt to the so-called political center, that slippery compromise if not outright lie. Politics in DC could all be said to come down to the art of the compromise, a careful slide along the slick slope of reality. It all came down to that and a lot of talk. Just as the President explained his own job, it was also the Senator’s job “to kind of catapult the propaganda” at the American public.
The published accusations of massacre were substantiated by Vietnamese survivors and two members of Sam’s Special Forces team who claimed he had led the massacre as a young officer before being shot out of the war on a subsequent raid.
Sam called off his push for the presidency.
He vowed to clear his name.
He vowed to do whatever it took.
He interviewed and appeared as needed on television, radio, in print, and he began writing a memoir in self-defense.
He wrote the book of his life, by his life, for his life. He tried to keep it simple and tell it straight, the prosaic story of his past – An American Life. All the while, he had to fight off the tugging in his mind, the restless stirring of the ghost of a book he would never write, though he might think it from time to time, just as he thought how to avoid writing it, which he did automatically for the most part, having trained himself to the point where he scarcely needed to consciously consider what he did not want to understand or even what he did not know for sure but might not want to know if he were to go ahead and reflect on how much he would rather not think about in the first place.
This was how exacting the Senator’s mind became when really pressed.
This was how precise he was forced to be to avoid considering and caring about certain compelling facts, which took real brain power, real discipline to be able to deny some of the most important reality of life, some of his own buried dangerous lines of thought that threatened to destroy much of the intellectual and material foundation upon which he lived his life.
It took an almost uncanny sense of which thoughts were admissible in the first place, and which must be ruled out of bounds entirely for Sam to be able to reflect safely on what he had done in Vietnam, or what he may have done, or not done.
The same for Iraq today.
Sam did not dare know what anyone might and many did – that if there was any proportionality in human affairs, the US Administration and virtually the entire US Congress would be on trial – the charge, Crimes Against Humanity – for their lives.
Senator Sam Washburn not least. Senator Sam Washburn who for now lives in comfort and scribbles away his days – and the lives of many in Iraq and beyond – no matter what he has done and not done in Vietnam, no matter what he has done and not done anywhere else in that skilled and brute tapestry, his life.
US Senator Sam Washburn – this is your life. An American Life – Sam Washburn.