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Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Monday, December 20, 2004
 

Ben Tre Bollocks: a mystery solved?


I see that I first referred to the well-known quote back on March 22 2003:
It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.

I appended the note
Did anyone ever identify by name the actual guy who said that to Peter Arnett?
- the issue flagged as worthy of further research, at least.

Then, on May 8 2004, another reference, and the question
Is the quote kosher? From Mr Google, I see different formulations, different ranks for the officer... For another time.

Since I stumble just now on materials bearing on the point, now turns out to be that time.

A column by Mona Charen dated April 1 2003 slagging off Arnett (who had just been sacked by NBC for giving an interview on Iraqi TV) refers to the Ben Tre [1] quote: she says it was wrong.

According to this note, one BG Burkett [2] (in his book Stolen Honor) says that Ben Tre was destroyed by the Vietcong, not the Americans, as the quote implies. And that Arnett's reporting including the quote was made on February 7 1968.

This piece, and a comment at Daily Pundit are the only web pages to identify Major Phil Cannella as having spoken to Arnett after the battle. The comment says Cannella
told him that it was a shame that some of the town had been destroyed during the seige.

Fairly skimpy sourcing, to put it mildly, for Cannella as being Arnett's source.

And there's more: according to a 1978 paper in the Air University Review by Capt Donald Bishop The Press and the TET Offensive, the source was quite different.

In a list of media misconceptions about Tet is included
The characteristic American response was to destroy city districts and villages with overwhelming, indiscriminate firepower. This misconception was fueled by the ill-advised comment of an Air Force officer at Ben Tre that "we had to destroy the town to save it" and by television clips focusing on urban damage.

Now, the ARVN could have had a USAF major as an advisor - I am not qualified to comment - but I note that there is a retired member of the USA rifle team called Phil Cannella [3].

Cannella is not the only name associated with the quote: according to a piece on Tet by Steven Hayward,
Arnett refused to identify the source of the quote, but later revealingly referred to his source as "the perpetrator." The New Republic identified the source at the time as Major Chester L. Brown.

An AIM report in 1977 gives the quote from Arnett's AP dispatch of February 7 as
'it became necessary to destroy the town to save it,' a U.S. major says.

And quotes from the book Big Story by the Post man Peter Braestrup [4]; Braestrup says that the quote
was cited, paraphrased, reshaped, misattributed, and used for years as an all-purpose description of the war

On the attribution to Chester Brown,
The New Republic reworked the quote and attributed it to Major Brown: 'Helicopter and bomber attacks on Ben Tre were directed by Maj. Chester L. Brown of Erie, Pennsylvania, who said to the Associated Press that 'it became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it' and 'a pity about the civilians.'"

Arnett's quote was fingered as dubious fairly soon after his piece was filed:
William Touhy of the Los Angeles Times wrote a story six weeks later in which he said: "Only 25% of the city-rather than the reported 80%-was actually destroyed by the Vietcong attack and the Vietnamese artillery and U.S. air strikes that followed. And the U.S. advisory group doubts that the (Arnett) statement was actually made in that form. 'It sounds too pithy and clever to have been made on the spot,' says one U.S. civilian advisor. 'It just rings wrong.'"

Braestrup quizzed Arnett at the time on the identity of his source, to be told
I will keep my silence until I run into him again and get his clearance.

The Post considered running Touhy's story, but decided not to.

Not wholly without interest that a site like Military.com should take the quote at face value.

The site has a description of action during the Tet offensive involving Chester Brown:
The fighter-bombers again returned. U.S. Air Force Major Chester ("Chet") Brown from the MACV compound was acting as the FAC [forward air controller] for them in his little Cessna L-19 observation plane.

So, whodunnit? Was it Cannella or Brown or a third man?

Ought such a detail not be established by now?

  1. Ben Tre province is south-west of Saigon in the Mekong Delta (provincial maps).

  2. 'Jug' Burkett (I kid you not) is not to be confused with Lt Col Bill Burkett of George Bush Texas Air National Guard/Rathergate fame.

  3. Photo here; references on the Military Marksmanship Association site - as here.

  4. There is an oral history interview (PDF) at the LBJ Library site. It says (p25 - the only namecheck for Ben Tre) that
    they sent down a helicopter load of' colonels to find out who said that.


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