“We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”
One of the most persistent myths of the Vietnam War concerns that sentence, supposedly uttered by an American general to excuse a massacre. It quickly came to symbolize the absurdity of war and has by now become a cliché.
However, to invoke another cliché to illuminate the roots of this one: the first casualty of war is the truth.
Peter Arnett eventually gained fame as the CNN’s chief correspondent during the Gulf War. But back in 1968, Arnett was a young Associated Press reporter, assigned to report on the battle of Ben Tre during the Tet Offensive. For two days, a small American unit had battled the Vietcong, who in turn had killed many villagers.
Arnett entered Ben Tre after it had finally been secured and interviewed army major Phil Cannella.
Cannella “believes he is the officer Arnett was quoting” when he penned his most famous sentence, according to Mona Charen in her book Useful Idiots. However, “he believes his comments were ‘taken out of context.’ He recalls telling Arnett that the Vietcong had destroyed the town and that it was a shame. But Arnett’s report made it seem that American forces had shelled the town and featured an anonymous officer saying, ‘We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”
As historian Victor David Hanson explains:
“Arnett never verified, much less produced, his source — and the town was mostly shelled by the Communists anyway. An exhaustive investigation by the Pentagon never found any such official who said anything such thing.”
Having coined a memorable phrase, Arnett, intoxicated by his instant fame, went on to report other “scoops” of dubious veracity, charging (again, without proof, that American soldiers had employed deadly Sarin nerve gas in South Asia.) In 2003, NBC News fired Arnett, after he pronounced America’s invasion of Iraq a “failure” on state-run Iraqi TV.
Meanwhile, other journalists latched onto Arnett’s manufactured line and still use it as their own when they were too lazy to come up with anything original, and want to sound like seasoned pros.
According to Hansen, “A good rule is, when you hear Arnett’s fabrication promulgated on the news, assume that it is once again being used for its original purposes of distortion.”
I’d add that it’s wise to treat every mainstream newscast you see, and every news story you read, with skepticism, for the same reason.