Tuesday, August 28, 2007

So What?

But for the last sentence, this book review in the Atlantic Unbound by Robert Kaplan would come across as entirely unrestrained adulation of the "warriors" who fought in Vietnam (via Matthew Yglesias.) Kaplan reviews some of the less well-known first-person accounts of soldiers and pilots who fought and were captured in Vietnam, but though Kaplan doesn't come out and make any definitive claims himself, his article is drenched revisionist history of the war. Here's a couple of paragraphs in which Kaplan discusses Bud Day's memoir "Duty, Honor, Country" (excerpted out of order):

What Bud Day and other POWs specifically admired about Nixon was his willingness to strike back in a way that Johnson hadn't. Johnson's bombing halt in 1968 was seen as a betrayal by POWs, and caused disappointment and anger even throughout the U.S. military. Remember that these POWs were often combat pilots—professional warriors and volunteers that is, not citizen soldiers who were drafted. Professional warriors are not fatalists. In their minds, there is no such thing as defeat so long as they are still fighting, even from prison. That belief is why true soldiers have an affinity for seemingly lost causes.

* * *

Vietnam, like Iraq, represented a war of frustrating half-measures, fought against an enemy that respected no limits. Bud Day, half-starved and broken-limbed, writes of seeing a long convoy of trucks heading out of Hanoi, safe because of our own self-imposed bombing restrictions. "I found it mind-boggling that the United States, the strongest nation in the world, would permit this flea on the buttocks of humanity to conduct a war this way." More than almost any writer I know, Larteguy communicates the intensity of such frustrations, which, in turn, create the psychological gulf that separate warriors like Bud Day from both a conscript army and a civilian home-front.

Kaplan doesn't say as much, but it's clear that Day (and other authors Kaplan cites) believe to one extent or another that they fought the Vietnam war with a hand tied behind their back, so to speak. Limitations on bombing campaigns and ground offensives were to be reviled, and the war was lost only because we lacked the will continue fighting it.

There are two related points to be made from this. I've argued repeatedly that the viewpoints of soldiers bear close listening to. But I've also said repeatedly that soldiers are as prone to seeing the trees instead of the forest as anyone else in any other profession. Day, and some of the other writers Kaplan cites to, are clear examples of this. For a soldier, the way to victory is to utilize all possible force against the enemy to bring about his defeat. It's no surprise that many veterans of the Vietnam conflict (and those who lived through it but didn't fight in it) believe that had we only employed force with less restraint, we could have achieved "victory" in Vietnam.

But in these sorts of accounts, where bombing restrictions are raged at and politicians are despised, victory is never exactly defined. Had we continued carpet bombing Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam on through the remainder of the 70's, would that have toppled the North Vietnamese government and protected the grossly illegitimate and ineffective government in Saigon? Could bombing have destroyed the nationalist fervor that had been nourished in the hearts of the Vietnamese people for a thousand years, a fervor that was the primary cause and motivation of the war? Revisionists are quick to cite that "success" the South Vietnamese forces enjoyed against North Vietnam even with the caveat that it required tremendous air support on our part, but neglect even to discuss that for all our might in the air the best we could procure was a stalemate against North Vietnamese forces (and that South Vietnamese offensive efforts were hurled back repeatedly.)

Under these conditions, what victory could we possibly secure except a stalemate secured at the cost of endless fighting? Leave aside for a moment the morality of killing millions of Vietnamese for dubious national security purposes; what interests of ours were served by engaging in a war that was a continuous drain on our treasury, divided the American people, broke our military, and tarnished our reputation worldwide? When would such a war end? From the revisionists...no answer.

At least men like Bud Day share personal experiences that inform their opinions. Less honest and reputable men-such as Mark Steyn-have no excuse for the ignorance that he aptly demonstrates in this column, where he laments the damage the withdrawal from Vietnam supposedly did to our credibility and national interests the world over.

[Withdrawal] had a "few negative repercussions" for America's allies in South Vietnam, who were promptly overrun by the north. And it had a "negative repercussion" for the former Cambodian Prime Minister, Sirik Matak, to whom the U.S. ambassador sportingly offered asylum. "I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion," he told him. "I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty.... I have committed this mistake of believing in you, the Americans." So Sirik Matak stayed in Phnom Penh and a month later was killed by the Khmer Rouge, along with the best part of 2 million other people. If it's hard for individual names to linger in the New York Times' "historical memory," you would think the general mound of corpses would resonate.

The Argentine seizure of the Falkland Islands occurred because Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri had figured if the commies were getting away with all this land-grabbing, why shouldn't he get a piece of the action? If the supposed Yank superpower had no stomach to resist routine provocations from its sworn enemy, the toothless British lion certainly wouldn't muster the will for some no-account islands in the South Atlantic. "The West" as a whole was infected by America's loss of credibility.

Of course, Steyn is not botching history because he firmly believes that Vietnam deserves historical reconsideration. He accuses those on the left of reaching for the Vietnam metaphor to justify withdrawal from Iraq, but of course he does exactly the same thing; he only attempts to reshape the metaphor. Leave aside for the moment that it was the carpet bombing of Cambodia that killed hundreds of thousands of Cambodians-a campaign that rightly would be considered a war crime under international had we not been its perpetrators-that actually destabilized Cambodia to the extent that the Khmer Rouge could come to power. Leave aside for the moment that Steyn apparently in all seriousness believes that our withdrawal from Vietnam encouraged the Argentinian dictatorship to seize the Falklands (and would their victory been that great of a loss for us or the British?)

Again, the crucial question goes unanswered. For Steyn, and others like him who would desperately like to revise the history of the Vietnam war to enable them to gain some traction against the Iraq war's opponents (who hold the upper hand-rhetorically-in this conflict as they did in Vietnam) there's simply no consideration of what we were supposed to continue doing in Vietnam. Yes we perhaps could have dragged the war on for another five or ten years or so, killing or helping to kill hundreds of thousands more Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians so that we could "save" them from communist chaos but the question remains, so what if we could? What would be the purpose, if we only watched South Vietnam fall apart in 1980 instead of 1975? If we delayed the bloodshed that was a natural result of the frustration of an inevitable reunification of North and South? Where would we find anything approaching victory in a completely unjustifiable extension of the war?

Steyn et al. seek so desperately to redefine the war because the lessons of the war are so obvious to the average American. And they seek so desperately to apply their revisionist history to Iraq because the lesson of that war is no less obvious. Where our nation intrudes on the internal development of another nation by force, we will find ourselves overwhelmed by nationalistic, sectarian, ethnic and other social motivations that we have little or no understanding of, and little to no ability to control or manipulate. This is a lesson that history will reinforce again, and again, and again, much to the despair of those who think the destiny of nations are written solely in blood and military force.

No comments: