I’ve watched the first three episodes of the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick series on the Vietnam War, which take us from the French colonial period beginning in the 19th century to the end of 1965 and a mushrooming U.S. military commitment. The narrative thread, it seems to me, is the notion of the war as a tragic mistake, most especially for the United States.
The series begins with a voice-over that suggests the war was begun in good faith by America, even as other American voices in the series suggest otherwise. I kept a notebook handy and jotted down the following notes and thoughts as the series progressed:
There were divisions among the Vietnamese people, but they were more or less united by one idea: resist the foreign invaders/occupiers, whether that foreign presence was French, Japanese, the French again, American, or (both earlier and later) Chinese. And there’s no doubt Ho Chi Minh would have won a democratic election, as promised at Geneva. Which is exactly why that election never came.
As one American admitted, the U.S. totally misread the situation in Indochina after the French defeat in 1954. The Cold War and Falling Dominoes dominated the thoughts of Americans, obscuring the reality of a powerful and popular anti-colonial and nationalist revolt that tapped Vietnamese patriotism.
When not fearing Falling Dominoes, U.S. officials were far more concerned about their own prestige (or political fortunes) than they were with the Vietnamese people.
U.S. officials recognized South Vietnam was a fiction, a puppet government propped up by American money and power, and that they had “backed the wrong horse.” But they came to believe it was the only horse they had in the race against communism.
U.S. presidents, stuck with a losing horse of their own creation, began to lie. As president, Kennedy said he hadn’t sent combat troops; he had. As president, Johnson tried to obscure both the size and intent of the U.S. military’s commitment. These lies were not done to deceive the enemy — they were done to deceive the American people.
After backing the wrong horse (Diem and his family), American leaders conspired to eliminate him in a coup. When Diem was assassinated, matters only grew worse. Left with no horse in the race and a “turnstile” government in South Vietnam, the U.S. began to bomb North Vietnam and committed combat units beginning in March of 1965.
More duplicity by U.S. officials: Battles such as Ap Bac and Binh Gia, which revealed the “miserable performance” of the South Vietnamese army (ARVN), were reinterpreted and sold as victories by senior U.S. military leaders.
Both JFK and LBJ had serious reservations about going to war in Vietnam. However, domestic political concerns, together with concerns about containing the spread of communism, always came up trumps. For example, the series quotes Kennedy as saying he believed America couldn’t win in Vietnam, but that he couldn’t win the 1964 presidential election if he withdrew U.S. advisors from Vietnam. LBJ was similarly skeptical but took a tough line with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which saw his approval rating on Vietnam soar from 42% to 72%, ensuring his electoral victory over Goldwater in 1964.
One of the more compelling sound bites comes from then-Major Charles Beckwith, who is at pains to praise the fighting quality of Viet Cong/NLF forces, their total commitment to the struggle. If only he had (Vietnamese) troops like them to work with, says Beckwith.
To summarize: the series provides evidence of U.S. dishonesty and duplicity and showcases the mistakes generated by hubris when aggravated by ignorance. Yet, the overall message is one of sadness about a “tragic mistake” committed by decent men who were overwhelmed by fears of international communism.
Final points: As we watch the series, we follow individual Americans, and hear American commentators, far more than we hear Vietnamese voices. Also, while the series shows U.S. bombing from afar and mentions Agent Orange, the effects of this destruction haven’t yet been shown in detail. (A telling exception: a young Vietnamese women joins the communist resistance after U.S. bombing destroys a center for senior citizens near her home.)
In short, the Burns/Novick series privileges the American experience, suggesting that U.S. troops of that era fought courageously as a new “greatest generation,” even as senior U.S. leaders spoke privately of an unwinnable war.
Is killing millions of people in a lost cause merely a tragic mistake? Or is it something far worse? More to come as the series continues to air on PBS.
On September 17th, a new TV documentary series on the Vietnam War by Ken Burns (famous for past series on the U.S. Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz, among others) and Lynn Novick begins its run on PBS. Airing in ten parts over 18 hours, the series promises a comprehensive look at the war from all sides, with the catchphrase “There is no single truth in war” serving as a guiding light. Initial excerpts suggest the series isn’t looking to provide definitive answers, perhaps as a way of avoiding political controversy in the Age of Trump.
I’ll be watching the series, but I have ten points of my own to make about America’s war in Vietnam. As a preamble, the Vietnam War (American version) was both mistake and crime. What’s disconcerting in the U.S. media is the emphasis on the war as an American tragedy, when it was truly a horrific tragedy inflicted upon the peoples of Southeast Asia (Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians). Yes, American troops suffered and died in large numbers, yet Southeast Asian casualties were perhaps 50 times as great. Along with wanton killing came the poisoning of the environment with defoliants like Agent Orange; meanwhile, mines and unexploded ordnance from the war continue to kill people today in Southeast Asia. In a sense, the killing from that war still isn’t over.
With the caveat that we should reserve judgment until we’ve seen the series, let’s keep these ten points in mind as we watch:
1. To most Americans, Vietnam is a war. And war is a distorting and limiting lens through which to view cultures and peoples. Will Burns recognize this distortion?
2. The series talks about hearing voices from all sides of the conflict. But will the Vietnamese people, together with Laotians and Cambodians, really have as much say as Americans?
3. The U.S. suffered nearly 60,000 troops killed. But Vietnamese killed numbered in the millions. And the destruction to SE Asia — the spread of the war to Laos and Cambodia — was on a scale that rivaled or surpassed the destruction to the American South during the U.S. Civil War. Will that destruction be thoroughly documented and explained?
4. Whose point of view will prevail in the documentary? What will be the main thread of the narrative? Will the war be presented as a tragedy? A misunderstanding? A mistake? A crime? Will the “noble cause” and “stabbed in the back” myths (the ideas that the U.S. fought for freedom and democracy and against communism, and that the U.S. military could have won but was prevented from doing so by unpatriotic forces at home) be given equal time in the interests of a “fair and balanced” presentation? Will these myths be presented as alternative truths of the war?
5. Which American war in Vietnam will be presented? Even when we talk of the American part of the Vietnam War, there were at least four wars. The U.S. Army under General William Westmoreland fought a conventional, search and destroy, war. The Air Force wanted to prove that airpower alone, specifically bombing, could win the war. The Marines were more interested in counterinsurgency and pacification. The CIA and special ops types were engaged in psychological warfare, assassinations, torture, and god-knows-what-else.
6. The American presence in Vietnam became so overwhelming that by 1967-68 the Vietnamese economy was completely distorted. We brought American materialism and profligacy to a nation that was, by comparison, impoverished and “backwards” (from our perspective, of course). Material superiority bred and fed cockiness.
Consider Meredith Lair’s book, “Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War” (2011). It details the non-combat experiences of U.S. troops in Vietnam. Here’s a telling book blurb written by historian Christian Appy: “Meredith Lair’s fascinating analysis of rear-echelon life among American G.I.s dramatically challenges our most common conceptions of U.S. military experiences in Vietnam. From steaks to steambaths, swimming pools to giant PXs, the amenities provided on large bases not only belie conventional images of that war, but also stand as dramatic testimony to the desperate and unsuccessful effort of American officials to bolster flagging troop morale as the war lurched toward its final failure.”
Will this orgy of American-driven materialism be documented?
7. Anti-war protests and serious unrest within the U.S. military led to the end of the draft and the creation of an “all-volunteer” military. Has this decision contributed to a more imperial U.S. foreign policy facilitated by a much more tractable military of “volunteers”?
8. Short of nuclear weapons, the U.S. military used virtually every weapon in its arsenal in SE Asia. The region became a test/proving ground for all sorts of weapons and concepts, from “smart” weapons and electronic fences and sensors to horrendous pounding by conventional bombs to war on the environment using defoliants and massive bulldozers to … well … everything. All sorts of pacification theories were tested as well, along with COIN and “small wars” and unconventional tactics to search and destroy to Vietnamization to … well … again, everything. SE Asia became a laboratory and its peoples became lab rats. Will this reality be fully documented?
9. It’s essential that people realize President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, knew the war was a lost cause no later than 1969. (Their conversations on tape prove this.) All they were looking for was a “decent interval” between a peace treaty (“peace with honor”) and what they saw as the inevitable collapse. They got that (in)decent interval of roughly 2.5 years. The Congressional decision to cut off funding to South Vietnam was convenient for the Nixon/Kissinger acolytes, since it allowed them to shift the blame for South Vietnam’s collapse in 1975 to Congress as well as to the usual “suspect” elements in American society, i.e. the peace movement.
Will the duplicity and hypocrisy of Nixon/Kissinger be adequately documented?
10. Finally, an important aspect of the Vietnam War was the breakdown in discipline within the U.S. military, which helped to drive the eventual elimination of the draft. Part of this breakdown was driven by drugs, a trade in which the CIA was implicated. At The Intercept, Jeremy Scahill interviewed Alfred McCoy, who wrote the book on this drug trade. Here’s an excerpt from their recent interview:
Alfred McCoy: And in 1970 and ’71, there were rumors that started coming back from Vietnam, particularly 1971, that heroin was spreading rapidly in the ranks of the U.S. forces fighting in South Vietnam. And in later research, done by the White House, [it was] determined that in 1971, 34 percent, one-third of all the American combat troops fighting in South Vietnam were heavy heroin users. There were, if that statistic is accurate, more addicts in the ranks of the U.S. Army in South Vietnam than there were in the United States.
And so what I did was I set out to investigate: Where was the opium coming from? Where was the heroin coming from? Who was trafficking it? How is it getting to the troops in their barracks and bunkers across the length and breadth of South Vietnam? Nobody was asking this question. Everyone was reporting on the high level of abuse, but nobody was figuring out where and who.
So I started interviewing. I went to Paris. I interviewed the head of the French equivalent of the CIA in Indochina, who was then head of a major French helicopter manufacturing company, and he explained to me how during the French Indochina war from 1946 to 1954, they were short of money for covert operations, so the hill tribes in Laos produced the opium, the aircraft picked it up, they turned it over to the netherworld, the gangsters that controlled Saigon and secured it for the French and that paid for their covert operations. And I said, “What about now?” And he said, “Well I don’t think the pattern’s changed. I think it’s still there. You should go and look.”
So I did. I went to Saigon. I got some top sources in the Vietnamese military. I went to Laos. I hiked into the mountains. I was ambushed by CIA mercenaries and what I discovered was that the CIA’s contract airline, Air America, was flying into the villages of the Hmong people in Northern Laos, whose main cash crop was opium and they were picking up the opium and flying it out of the hills and there were heroin labs — one of the heroin labs, the biggest heroin lab in the world, was run by the commander-in-chief of the Royal Laotian Army, a man whose military budget came entirely from the United States. And they were transforming, in those labs, the opium into heroin. It was being smuggled into South Vietnam by three cliques controlled by the president, the vice president, and the premier of South Vietnam, and their military allies and distributed to U.S. forces in South Vietnam.
And the CIA wasn’t directly involved, but they turned a blind eye to the role of their allies’ involvement in the traffic. And so this heroin epidemic swept the U.S. Army in Vietnam. The Defense Department invented mass urine analysis testing, so when those troops left they were tested and given treatment. And what I discovered was the complexities, the complicity, of the CIA in this traffic and that was a pattern that was repeated in Central America when the Contras became involved in the traffic.
These ten items highlight just some of the complexities of the Vietnam War and its effects throughout Southeast Asia. How many of these will be tackled honestly in Ken Burns’s new series? We shall see, beginning in two weeks.
Greg Grandin has a new book on Henry Kissinger and a new article at TomDispatch.com. Kissinger, writes Grandin, had an affinity (or perhaps an avidity) for power, especially air power, as a way of demonstrating his (and America’s) resolve.
Henry Kissinger is, of course, not singularly responsible for the evolution of the U.S. national security state into a monstrosity. That state has had many administrators. But his example — especially his steadfast support for bombing as an instrument of “diplomacy” and his militarization of the Persian Gulf — has coursed through the decades, shedding a spectral light on the road that has brought us to a state of eternal war …
Kissinger was very hands-on. “Strike here in this area,” Sitton recalled Kissinger telling him, “or strike here in that area.” The bombing galvanized the national security adviser. The first raid occurred on March 18, 1969. “K really excited,” Bob Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, wrote in his diary. “He came beaming in [to the Oval Office] with the report.”
In fact, he would supervise every aspect of the bombing. As journalist Seymour Hersh later wrote, “When the military men presented a proposed bombing list, Kissinger would redesign the missions, shifting a dozen planes, perhaps, from one area to another, and altering the timing of the bombing runs… [He] seemed to enjoy playing the bombardier.” (That joy wouldn’t be limited to Cambodia. According to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, when the bombing of North Vietnam finally started up again, Kissinger “expressed enthusiasm at the size of the bomb craters.”) A Pentagon report released in 1973 stated that “Henry A. Kissinger approved each of the 3,875 Cambodia bombing raids in 1969 and 1970” — the most secretive phase of the bombing — “as well as the methods for keeping them out of the newspapers.”
All told, between 1969 and 1973, the U.S. dropped half-a-million tons of bombs on Cambodia alone, killing at least 100,000 civilians. And don’t forgetLaos and both North and South Vietnam. “It’s wave after wave of planes. You see, they can’t see the B-52 and they dropped a million pounds of bombs,” Kissinger told Nixon after the April 1972 bombing of North Vietnam’s port city of Haiphong, as he tried to reassure the president that the strategy was working: “I bet you we will have had more planes over there in one day than Johnson had in a month… Each plane can carry about 10 times the load [a] World War II plane could carry.”
As the months passed, however, the bombing did nothing to force Hanoi to the bargaining table. It did, on the other hand, help Kissinger in his interoffice rivalries. His sole source of power was Nixon, who was a bombing advocate. So Kissinger embraced his role as First Bombardier to show the tough-guy militarists the president had surrounded himself with that he was the “hawk of hawks.” And yet, in the end, even Nixon came to see that the bombing campaigns were a dead end. “K. We have had 10 years of total control of the air in Laos and V.Nam,” Nixon wrote him over a top-secret report on the efficacy of bombing, “The result = Zilch.” (This was in January 1972, three months before Kissinger assured Nixon that “wave after wave” of bombers would do the trick).
During those four-and a half years when the U.S. military dropped more than 6,000,000 tons of bombs on Southeast Asia, Kissinger revealed himself to be not a supreme political realist, but the planet’s supreme idealist. He refused to quit when it came to a policy meant to bring about a world he believed heought to live in, one where he could, by the force of the material power of the U.S. military, bend poor peasant countries like Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam to his will — as opposed to the one he did live in, where bomb as he might he couldn’t force Hanoi to submit. As he put it at the time, “I refuse to believe that a little fourth-rate power like North Vietnam does not have a breaking point.”
In fact, that bombing campaign did have one striking effect: it destabilized Cambodia, provoking a 1970 coup that, in turn, provoked a 1970 American invasion, which only broadened the social base of the insurgency growing in the countryside, leading to escalating U.S. bombing runs that spread to nearly the whole country, devastating it and creating the conditions for the rise to power of the genocidal Khmer Rouge…
Bombing for Kissinger was a way to show he was tough within an inner circle around Nixon that put a premium on toughness. It was also a way to minimize casualties to Americans while demonstrating a total disregard for casualties among the peoples of Southeast Asia.
Kissinger the bombardier was seduced by the seemingly god-like potential of air power — the ability to strike from on high, to smite evil-doers and those who would thwart Kissinger’s designs. Best of all, Kissinger never had to bloody his own hands. (Can you imagine Kissinger in a knife fight? Of course not. But you can imagine him gleefully gushing over bombing reports and bomb craters as bomber jets knifed through the sky.)
There’s a “Star Trek” episode in which Captain Kirk says, “Above all else, a god needs compassion.” Kissinger the “air power god” had no compassion. It was all about power. The little people who refused to kowtow to him — the Vietnamese, the Cambodians, the Chileans, and so on — these people were simply abstractions for Kissinger. Put differently, they were pawns on the geopolitical chessboard, to be sacrificed at will by self-styled grandmasters like Kissinger.
In his book “Secrets,” Daniel Ellsberg captured Kissinger’s blithe disregard for the lives of others in a probing question about Vietnamization. Was it moral, Ellsberg asked, to turn the war over to the South Vietnamese, knowing they were going to incur high casualties while fighting North Vietnam, even as American troops withdrew? Kissinger had no answer, one senses because the morality of his policies didn’t much matter to him. The goal was to save America’s “face” in Vietnam; for Kissinger the fates of the peoples of Southeast Asia paled in comparison to the importance of American prestige.
In his deliberately ponderous Germanic accent, Kissinger spoke softly as he wielded the big stick of American bombing. It didn’t work then, nor is it working today for those who still worship at the altar of Kissinger’s Realpolitik.
“The president announced last week that American troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond the planned withdrawal at the end of 2016. This is a devastating blow. We’ve already spent $716 billion and counting on the war in Afghanistan alone, plus countless lives lost and derailed.”
Of course, not the same American troops will “remain” in Afghanistan until 2017 (or 2024, or who knows what year). U.S. troops, intelligence operatives, privatized paramilitaries, and assorted imperial straphangers are constantly rotating in and out of war zones around the world, sometimes on yearly tours, often on much shorter ones. This reality got me to thinking about American imperialism as a peculiar form of global tourism. All those repetitive, fairly short-term, “tours” to foreign countries, followed by new American tour groups (fresh deployments of new combat units). The result is needless repetition, endless waste, and flat learning curves for Americans. For the locals who have to endure America’s “tours,” the results are often far worse — and unlike Americans they usually can’t get on a boat or helicopter or jet and leave.
I was stimulated to write this new article on America’s “tourists of empire,” which appears at TomDispatch.com today. You can read it in full here. I’ve included some excerpts below. I hope this article provides a contrary perspective on U.S. military efforts around the world.
Tourists of Empire: America’s Peculiar Brand of Global Imperialism
The United States is a peculiar sort of empire. As a start, Americans have been in what might be called imperial denial since the Spanish-American War of 1898, if not before. Empire — us? We denied its existence even while our soldiers were administering “water cures” (aka waterboarding) to recalcitrant Filipinos more than a century ago. Heck, we even told ourselves we were liberating those same Filipinos, which leads to a second point: the U.S. not only denies its imperial ambitions, but shrouds them in a curiously American brand of Christianized liberation theology. In it, American troops are never seen as conquerors or oppressors, always as liberators and freedom-bringers, or at least helpers and trainers. There’s just enough substance to this myth (World War II and the Marshall Plan, for example) to hide uglier imperial realities.
Denying that we’re an empire while cloaking its ugly side in missionary-speak are two enduring aspects of the American brand of imperialism, and there’s a third as well, even if it’s seldom noted. As the U.S. military garrisons the planet and its special operations forces alone visit more than 140 countries a year, American troops have effectively become the imperial equivalent of globetrotting tourists. Overloaded with technical gear and gadgets (deadly weapons, intrusive sensors), largely ignorant of foreign cultures, they arrive eager to help and spoiling for action, but never (individually) staying long…
Call it Imperial Tourist Syndrome, a bizarre American affliction that creates its own self-sustaining dynamic. To a local, it might look something like this: U.S. forces come to your country, shoot some stuff up (liberation!), take some selfies, and then, if you’re lucky, leave (at least for a while). If you’re unlucky, they overstay their “welcome,” surge around a bit and generate chaos until, sooner or later (in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, much, much later), they exit, not always gracefully (witness Saigon 1975 or Iraq 2011).
And here’s the weirdest thing about this distinctly American version of the imperial: a persistent short-time mentality seems only to feed its opposite, wars that persist without end. In those wars, many of the country’s heavily armed imperial tourists find themselves sent back again and again for one abbreviated tour of duty after another, until it seems less like an adventure and more like a jail sentence.
The paradox of short-timers prosecuting such long-term wars is irresolvable because, as has been repeatedly demonstrated in the twenty-first century, those wars can’t be won. Military experts criticize the Obama administration for lacking an overall strategy, whether in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere. They miss the point. Imperial tourists don’t have a strategy: they have an itinerary. If it’s Tuesday, this must be Yemen; if it’s Wednesday, Libya; if it’s Thursday, Iraq …
It was a dynamic already obvious five decades ago in Vietnam: a ticket-punching mentality that involved the constant rotation of units and commanders; a process of needless reinvention of the most basic knowledge as units deployed, bugged out, and were then replaced by new units; and the use of all kinds of grim, newfangled weapons and sensors, everything from Agent Orange and napalm to the electronic battlefield and the latest fighter planes and bombers — all for naught. Under such conditions, even the U.S. superpower lacked staying power, precisely because it never intended to stay. The “staying” aspect of the Vietnam War was often referred to in the U.S. as a “quagmire.” For the Vietnamese, of course, their country was no “big muddy” that sucked you down. It was home. They had little choice in the matter; they stayed — and fought.
Combine a military with a tourist-like itinerary and a mentality to match, a high command that in its own rotating responsibilities lacks all accountability for mistakes, and a byzantine, top-heavy bureaucracy, and you turn out to have a surefire recipe for defeat. And once again, in the twenty-first century, whether among the rank and file or at the very top, there’s little continuity or accountability involved in America’s military presence in foreign lands. Commanders are constantly rotated in and out of war zones. There’s often a new one every year. (I count 17 commanders for the International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan, the U.S.-led military coalition, since December 2001.) U.S. troops may serve multiple overseas tours, yet they are rarely sent back to the same area. Tours are sequential, not cumulative, and so the learning curve exhibited is flat…
At some level, the U.S. military knows it’s screwed. That’s why its commanders tinker so much with weapons and training and technology and tactics. It’s the stuff they can control, the stuff that seems real in a way that foreign peoples aren’t (at least to us). Let’s face it: past as well as current events suggest that guns and how to use them are what Americans know best.
But foreign lands and peoples? We can’t control them. We don’t understand them. We can’t count on them. They’re just part of the landscape we’re eternally passing through — sometimes as people to help and places to rebuild, other times as people to kill and places to destroy. What they aren’t is truly real. They are the tourist attractions of American war making, sometimes exotic, sometimes deadly, but (for us) strangely lacking in substance.
I read the news today, oh boy. President Obama has decided to keep thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan until 2017, effectively kicking the war to the next president. According to the New York Times, “The Obama administration sees the choice to slow down the United States’ Afghan exit as the best of bad options.” Not to be cynical, but the decision to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan until 2017 is obviously intended to prevent an Iraq-like collapse in 2016, a collapse that Republicans would seize upon in next year’s election cycle to portray democrats as weak and feckless. All politics is local, as Tip O’Neill said.
Afghanistan is known as the graveyard of empires, but the United States believes if we whistle loud enough past it, no harm will come to us. In other words, we refuse to learn anything from history, the theme of an article I wrote back in 2009 for TomDispatch on the lessons of Vietnam for Obama, recently anointed as presidential savior. Sections (2) and especially (4) below seem especially germane to today’s news of yet another extension to America’s troop commitment to Afghanistan.
Mary McCarthy in Vietnam, Barack Obama in Afghanistan
Seven Lessons and Many Questions for the President
By William Astore (written in 2009)
In 1967, outraged by the course of the Vietnam War, as well as her country’s role in prolonging and worsening it, Mary McCarthy, novelist, memoirist, and author of the bestseller The Group, went to Saigon, then the capital of South Vietnam, to judge the situation for herself. The next year, she went to the North Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. She wrote accounts of both journeys, published originally in pamphlet format as Vietnam (1967) and Hanoi (1968), and later gathered with her other writings on Vietnam as a book, The Seventeenth Degree (1974). As pamphlets, McCarthy’s accounts sold poorly and passed into obscurity; deservedly so, some would say.
Those who’d say this, however, would be wrong. McCarthy brought a novelist’s keen eye to America’s activities and its rhetoric in Vietnam. By no means a military expert, not even an expert on Vietnam — she only made a conscious decision to study the war in Vietnam after she returned from her trip to Saigon — her impressionistic writings were nevertheless insightful precisely because she had long been a critical thinker beholden to no authority.
Her insights into our approach to war-fighting and to foreign cultures are as telling today as they were 40 years ago, so much so that President Obama and his advisors might do well to add her unconventional lessons to their all-too-conventional thinking on our spreading war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
What were those lessons? Here are seven of them, each followed by questions that, four decades later, someone at President Obama’s next press conference should consider asking him:
1. McCarthy’s most fundamental objection was to the way, in Vietnam, the U.S. government decided to apply “technology and a superior power to a political situation that will not yield to this.” At the very least, the United States was guilty of folly, but McCarthy went further. She condemned our technocentric and hegemonic form of warfare as “wicked” because of its “absolute indifference to the cost in human lives” to the Vietnamese people.
Even in 1967, the widespread, at times indiscriminate, nature of American killing was well known. For example, U.S. planes dropped roughly 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam and parts of Laos and Cambodia during the war, nearly five times the tonnage used against Germany during World War II. The U.S. even waged war on the Vietnamese jungle and forest, which so effectively hid Vietnamese guerrilla forces, spraying roughly 20 million gallons of toxic herbicides (including the dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange) on it.
In her outrage, McCarthy dared to compare the seeming indifference of many of her fellow citizens toward the blunt-edged sword of technological destruction we had loosed on Vietnam to the moral obtuseness of ordinary Germans under Adolf Hitler.
Questions for President Obama: Aren’t we once again relying on the destructive power of technology to “solve” complex political and religious struggles? Aren’t we yet again showing indifference to the human costs of war, especially when borne by non-Americans? Even though we’re using far fewer bombs in the Af-Pak highlands than we did in Vietnam, aren’t we still morally culpable when these “precision-guided munitions” miss their targets and instead claim innocents, or hit suspected “terrorists” who suddenly morph into wedding parties? In those cases, do we not seek false comfort in the phrase, C’est la guerre, or at least that modern equivalent: unavoidable collateral damage?
2. As Richard Nixon campaigned for the presidency in 1968 by calling for “peace with honor” in Vietnam, McCarthy offered her own warning about the dangers that arose when the office of the presidency collided with an American desire never to be labeled a loser: “The American so-called free-enterprise system, highly competitive, investment-conscious, expansionist, repels a loser policy by instinctive defense movements centering in the ganglia of the presidency. No matter what direction the incumbent, as candidate, was pointing in, he slowly pivots once he assumes office.”
Questions for President Obama: Have you, like Vietnam-era presidents, pivoted toward yet another surge simply to avoid the label of “loser” in Afghanistan? And if the cost of victory (however defined) is hundreds, or even thousands, more American military casualties, hundreds of billions of additional dollars spent, and extensive collateral damage and blowback, will this “victory” not be a pyrrhic one, achieved at a price so dear as to be indistinguishable from defeat?
3. Though critical of the U.S. military in Vietnam, McCarthy was even more critical of American civilian officials there. “On the whole,” she wrote, they “behaved like a team of promoters with a dubious ‘growth’ stock they were brokering.” At least military men were often more forthright than the civilians, if not necessarily more self-aware, McCarthy noted, because they were part of the war — the product, so to speak — not its salesmen.
Questions for President Obama: In promising to send a new “surge” of State Department personnel and other civilians into Afghanistan, are you prepared as well to parse their words? Are you braced in case they sell you a false bill of goods, even if the sellers themselves, in their eagerness to speak fairy tales to power, continually ignore the Fantasyland nature of their tale?
4.Well before Bush administration officials boasted about creating their own reality and new “facts on the ground” in Iraq, Mary McCarthy recognized the danger of another type of “fact”: “The more troops and matériel committed to Vietnam, the more retreat appears to be cut off — not by an enemy, but by our own numbers. To call for withdrawal in the face of that commitment… is to seem to argue not against a policy, but against facts, which by their very nature are unanswerable.”
Questions for President Obama: If your surge in Afghanistan fails, will you be able to de-escalate as quickly as you escalated? Or will the fact that you’ve put more troops in harm’s way (with all their equipment and all the money that will go into new base and airfield and road construction), and committed more of your prestige to prevailing, make it even harder to consider leaving?
5.A cursory reading of The Pentagon Papers, the famously secret government documents on Vietnam leaked to the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg, reveals how skeptical America’s top officials were, early on, in pursuing a military solution to the situation in South Vietnam. Nevertheless, knowing better, the “best and brightest,” as journalist David Halberstam termed them in his famous, ironic book title, still talked themselves into it; and they did so, as McCarthy noted, because they set seemingly meaningful goals (“metrics” or “benchmarks,” we’d say today), which they then convinced themselves they were actually achieving. When you trick yourself into believing that you’re meeting your goals, as Halberstam noted, there’s no reason to reexamine your course of action.
Questions for President Obama: Much has been written about an internal struggle within your administration over the wisdom of surging in Afghanistan. Now, you, too, have called for the setting of “benchmarks”for your new strategy’s success. Are you wise enough to set them to capture the complexities of political realities on the ground rather than playing to American strengths? Are you capable of re-examining them, even when your advisors assure you that they are being achieved?
6.In her day, Mary McCarthy recognized the inequities of burden-sharing at home when it came to the war in Vietnam: “Casualty figures, still low [in 1967], seldom strike home outside rural and low-income groups — the silent part of society. The absence of sacrifices [among the privileged classes] has had its effect on the opposition [to the war], which feels no need, on the whole, to turn away from its habitual standards and practices — what for? We have not withdrawn our sympathy from American power and from the way of life that is tied to it — a connection that is more evident to a low-grade G.I. in Vietnam than to most American intellectuals.”
Questions for President Obama: Are you willing to listen to the common G.I. as well as to the generals who have your ear? Are you willing to insist on greater equity in burden-sharing, since once again most of the burden of Iraq and Afghanistan has fallen on “the silent part of society”? Are you able to recognize that the “best and brightest” in the corridors of power may not be the wisest exactly because they have so little to lose (and perhaps much to gain) from our “overseas contingency operations”?
7.McCarthy was remarkably perceptive when it came to the seductiveness of American technological prowess. Our technological superiority, she wrote, was a large part of “our willingness to get into Vietnam and stay there… The technological gap between us and the North Vietnamese constituted, we thought, an advantage which obliged us not to quit.”
Questions for President Obama: Rather than providing us with a war-winning edge, might our robot drones, satellite imagery, and all our other gadgetry of war seduce us into believing that we can “prevail” at a reasonable and sustainable cost? Indeed, do we think we should prevail precisely because our high-tech military brags of “full spectrum dominance”?
One bonus lesson from Mary McCarthy before we take our leave of her: Even now, we speak too often of “Bush’s war” or, more recently, “Obama’s war.” Before we start chattering mindlessly about Iraq and Afghanistan as American tragedies, we would do well to recall what McCarthy had to say about the war in Vietnam: “There is something distasteful,” she wrote, “in the very notion of approaching [Vietnam] as an American tragedy, whose protagonist is a great suffering Texan [President Lyndon Baines Johnson].”
Yes, there is something distasteful about a media that blithely refers to Bush’s or Obama’s war as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans suffer. For American troops, after all, are not the only ones paying the ultimate price when the U.S. fights foreign wars for ill-considered reasons and misguided goals.
I write a lot about the U.S. military, partly because I served in it for 20 years, partly because I’ve been reading about it since I could read, and partly because I have a lot of affection for colleagues, young and old, who still serve. My articles tend to be critical because there’s much to criticize about our military. I get interesting responses, like the one from a military man who said I wrote well and had a few interesting things to say, but why couldn’t I write more positive articles about the military? Why couldn’t I just focus on “good news”? I explained to him that the military has a small legion of public affairs officers and that sharing good news is their job, not mine. He didn’t write back.
I have a few critical things to say in my latest article at TomDispatch: “Seventy Years of Military Mediocrity.” You can read the entire article here; what follows is an excerpt on America’s most senior officers and some of their faults and failings. As ever, I welcome your comments.
America’s Senior Officers: Lots of Ribbon Candy, No Sweetness of Victory
In my first article for TomDispatch back in 2007, I wrote about America’s senior military leaders, men like the celebrated David Petraeus. No matter how impressive, even kingly, they looked in their uniforms festooned with ribbons, badges, and medals of all sorts, colors, and sizes, their performance on the battlefield didn’t exactly bring to mind rainstorms of ribbon candy. So why, I wondered then, and wonder still, are America’s senior military officers so generally lauded and applauded? What have they done to deserve those chests full of honors and the endless praise in Washington and elsewhere in this country?
By giving our commanders so many pats on the back (and thanking the troops so effusively and repeatedly), it’s possible that we’ve prevented the development of an American-style stab-in-the-back theory — that hoary yet dangerous myth that a military only loses wars when the troops are betrayed by the homefront. In the process, however, we’ve written them what is essentially a blank check. We’ve given them authority without accountability. They wage “our” wars (remarkably unsuccessfully), but never have to take the blame for defeats. Unlike President Harry Truman, famous for keeping a sign on his desk that read “the buck stops here,” the buck never stops with them.
Think about two of America’s most celebrated generals of the twenty-first century, Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal and how they fell publicly from grace. Both were West Point grads, both were celebrated as “heroes,” despite the fact that their military “surges” in Iraq and Afghanistan proved fragile and reversible. They fell only because Petraeus was caught with his pants down (in an extramarital affair with a fawning biographer), while McChrystal ran afoul of the president by tolerating an atmosphere that undermined his civilian chain of command.
And here, perhaps, is the strangest thing of all: even as America’s wars continue to go poorly by any reasonable measure, no prominent high-ranking officer has yet stepped forward either to take responsibility or in protest. You have to look to the lower ranks, to lieutenant colonels and captains and specialists (and, in the case of Chelsea Manning, to lowly privates), for straight talk and the courage to buck the system. Name one prominent general or admiral, fed up with the lamentable results of America’s wars, who has either taken responsibility for them or resigned for cause. Yup — I can’t either. (This is not to suggest that the military lacks senior officers of integrity. Recall the way General Eric Shinseki broke ranks with the Bush administration in testimony before Congress about the size of a post-invasion force needed to secure Iraq, or General Antonio Taguba’s integrity in overseeing a thorough investigation of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. Their good deeds did not go unpunished.)
Authority without accountability means no one is responsible. And if no one is responsible, the system can keep chugging along, course largely unaltered, no matter what happens. This is exactly what it’s been doing for years now in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
Can we connect this behavior to the faults of the service academies? Careerism. Parochialism. Technocratic tendencies. Elitism. A focus on image rather than on substance. Lots of busywork and far too much praise for our ascetic warrior-heroes, results be damned. A tendency to close ranks rather than take responsibility. Buck-passing, not bucking the system. The urge to get those golden slots on graduation and the desire for golden parachutes into a lucrative world of corporate boards and consultancies after “retirement,” not to speak of those glowing appearances as military experts on major TV and cable networks.
By failing to hold military boots to the fire, we’ve largely avoided unpleasantness between the military and its civilian leadership, not to speak of the American public. But — and here’s the rub — 70 years of mediocrity since World War II and 14 years of failure since 9/11 should have resulted in anti-war protests, Congressional hearings, and public controversy. It should have created public discord, as it did during the Vietnam War, when dissent was a sign of a healthy democracy and an engaged citizenry. Nowadays, in place of protest, we hear the praise, the applause, the thank-yous followed by yet another bombastic rendition of “God Bless America.” Let’s face it. Our military has failed us, but haven’t we failed it, too?
Judging by my local newspaper and email stream, Memorial Day is about sales and selling, a reminder that the business of America is business. But of course Memorial Day is truly about honoring the dead in America’s wars, the veterans who died defending freedom. Sadly, far too often wars are not fought for high ideals, but that is not the fault of the veteran.
As we remember American veterans this weekend, those who died in the name of defending our country and Constitution, we would do well to ask whether our sympathy for the dead should be limited only to those who fought under the U.S. flag, or whether we should extend it to “the enemy.” In other words, to all those who suffer and die in wars.
Consider the Vietnam War, a war the USA could and should have avoided. But we didn’t, and that war was prosecuted with a ruthlessness that was often barbaric. America lost more than 58,000 in that war, and their names are on the wall in Washington, D.C. We visit that wall and weep for our dead.
But what about the Vietnamese dead? Estimates vary, but Vietnam lost roughly three million people in that war, with some figures approaching four million. The war in Southeast Asia spread to Laos and Cambodia as well, leading to genocide and the “killing fields” of Cambodia. Do we weep for their dead?
Vietnam today has friendly relations with the USA. The enemy of the 1960s is, if not an ally, at least a trade partner. There are warm friendships shared between our peoples, nurtured by cultural exchanges between the U.S. and Vietnam.
So, in the case of the Vietnam War, as we remember the American Vietnam veteran, should we not make room in our hearts to remember the Vietnamese veteran as well?
Ultimately, our fellow human beings are not the enemy. War is the enemy. A will to destruction is the enemy. And those caught up in war–the innocent victims on all sides–are worthy of being memorialized.
Far too often, national flags become little more than tribal symbols, much like bikers’ gangs and their colors. Wear the wrong color, belong to a rival gang, and violence, even a mass shooting, is the result.
Are we fated to keep saluting our own colors while reviling the colors of others? Are we fated to keep marching off to war under the American flag while killing those who fly a different flag?
Yes, there are necessary wars. I for one wouldn’t want to live under the Nazi Swastika. But history shows that necessary and just wars are rare. For every past war fought for a “just” cause, so many more have been fought for loot, money, power, territory, radical ideologies of one sort or another, dynastic advantage, prestige, and on and on. The one constant is the troops on all sides who march and die.
A memorial day that remembers the “enemy” dead as well as our own would, perhaps, be a small step toward a memorial day in the future with far fewer war dead to memorialize.