“Into the Quagmire”

Most of us have some familiarity with the fact that we failed in Vietnam, though many might debate the reasons for this failure.  Some see the fight as essentially hopeless, from an American point of view.  When General Petraeus asked historian Stanley Karnow (author of Vietnam, a History) for advice about fighting in Iraq based off of his knowledge of Vietnam, Karnow responded that the biggest lesson was that we should not have been there in the first place.

Perhaps true, but not very helpful to Petraeus.

Others, like Max Boot, argue that had we fought the war in a different way — as a small, counterinsurgency war, we could have drastically lowered the financial and human cost of the war, maintaining political will at home while fighting more effectively abroad.  Others, like General Westmoreland himself, argued that had the “gloves come off” and we bombed more heavily and used more troops, we would have had success.

Given this, I wasn’t sure what Brian Van DeMark could offer in his book, Into the Quagmire, but I found myself pleasantly surprised.  Van DeMark concentrates not so much on the military side, but the political side of South Vietnam, and the internal debates within the Johnson administration over what to do about the eroding South Vietnamese government.  What surprised me was that almost no one in Johnson’s circle of advisors had any real optimism that military action would work to achieve their objectives. Johnson and others astutely recognized that the chaos of South Vietnam’s political situation stood as their main problem.  Military action in defense of a an unstable government would almost certainly do nothing to stabilize the regime.

Some argued that our presence would only destabilize them, doing their “dirty work” for them while at the same time making them look weak in the eyes of the South-Vietnamese themselves.  Dean Rusk had more optimism than most, but even he realized that our military action had a limited chance.  McGeorge Bundy thought success, “unlikely despite our best ideas and efforts,” and believed that the U.S. plan of action was, “likely to stretch out and be subject to major pressures both within the U.S. and internationally.”  Johnson saw, “no point in hitting the North if the South is not together.”  Ambassador Maxwell Taylor told Johnson that “intervention with ground combat forces would at best only buy time and would lead to an ever increasing commitments, until, like the French, we would be occupying an essentially foreign country.”  Johnson’s  friend Senator Mike Mansfield wrote him that,

Under present conditions [the U.S. sticking to bombing exclusively] Hanoi has no effective way of retaliating against the air-attacks.  But if we have large numbers of troops in Vietnam, the Communists would meaningful U.S. targets against which to launch their principal strength, [infantry].  Hanoi could strike back at us by sending main forces into the South.

And so on, and so on.

So why did Johnson end up committing more than 1/2 million men into a war that few believed we could really win?

Part of the logic came from Ass’t Secretary of Defense John McNaughton, who argued that South Vietnam’s dire condition required dramatic, “life-saving” intervention that might possibly give them a chance to live.  It probably wouldn’t work but was, “worth a shot.”  Along with this, ancillary concerns about China and the Domino Theory had their place.  But Van DeMark’s narrative shows that Johnson’s concerns about the domestic politics drove much of his Vietnam policy.  This makes sense, for Johnson shone on the domestic scene, and this is where his strengths lay.  It makes sense that he put his energies here.

Johnson wanted desperately to pass his “Great Society” legislation, and needed broad congressional support to do so.  He feared that inaction in Vietnam would provide enough ammunition to his critics to derail his domestic agenda.  Taking action, any action, would show his “tough” stance on communism and rob the right-wing of political leverage against him.  As Bundy said,

In terms of domestic politics, which is better: to ‘lose’ now or to ‘lose’ after committing 100,000 men?  The latter, [f]or if we visibly do enough in the South, any failure will be, in that moment, beyond our control.

And beyond political reproach from the right.

I can sympathize with Johnson in many ways regarding Vietnam.  He inherited a very sticky situation that he had no part of creating.  The loss of China, Johnson knew, helped lead to the rise of McCarthy.  With Cuba going communist and opportunities lost in North Korea, something it seemed, “had to be done.”  In the end, our failure in Vietnam involved poor judgment and bad choices from many different people besides Johnson.  In the end, no one’s perfect.

But you can’t stop there.  As Polybius stated,

I find it the mark of good [leaders] not only to know when they are victorious, but also to know when they are beaten.

Johnson does deserve a great deal of criticism for using real troops who would both inflict and suffer real death to prop up his domestic agenda.  Politics, after all, involves a kind of unreality where crafted image only sometimes leads to substance.  To use real lives to bolster an image is in my mind, to commit a definite evil in hopes of an imagined, or possible good.  It’s a poor foundation on which to build, and often does not even accomplish what you hope for, since one builds upon image, upon sand.

There also seemed to be a blind “hope against hope” mentality that reasoned, “Failure is quite likely, but we have to do it, so therefore it can work.  This sense of feeling trapped, of having ultimately no choice in the matter, strikes me as succumbing to fate, a moral laziness that leads to willful blindness.  As Toynbee wrote,

. . . the prospects of man in Process of Civilization depend above all on his ability to recover a lost control of the pitch.

In Johnson’s case, he did get his Great Society legislation passed, but almost certainly would have anyway with or without Vietnam.  Our troubles in Vietnam surely helped contribute to Nixon’s election in ’68 (though to be fair, Nixon was not nearly the conservative that Goldwater was, with his overtures to the Soviets, China, the creation of the EPA, etc.).   Johnson lost his presidency, and Democrats lost the White House.  This seems to me like reality asserting itself, a natural result of an unnatural policy.

One sees a similar principle at work with rookie NFL quarterbacks.  Many think that what rookie qb’s need is a an effective running game to take the pressure off the need to pass, to avoid “third and long” situations.  I agree with commentator Mike Lombardi, however, who said that rookie quarterbacks don’t need a running game so much as they need a good defense.  A good defense will always keep games close, which allows the offense to avoid the need to throw all the time, and force the issue to get big plays and catch up.


The Genius of the Prophets, the Evil of Drones

Finding new authors is akin to finding new friends, and I recently read with great delight Herbert Butterfiled’s Christianity and History.  I will need to read more of him.

One his great observations dealt with Old Testament prophetic literature.  He writes,

What was unique about the ancient Hebrews was their historiography rather than their history. . .  Their historiography was unique also in that it ascribed the success of Israel not to their virtues but the favor of God; and instead of narrating the glories or demonstrating the righteousness of the nation, like our modern patriotic histories, [they] denounced the infidelity of the people, denounced it not as an occasional thing, but as the constant feature of the nation’s conduct throughout the centuries; even proclaiming at times that the sins of Israel were worse, and their hearts more hardened by the light, than those of the other nations around them.

He goes on to say that, in contrast to pagan societies around them, the prophets blamed Israel’s troubles not on the “Gentiles” or the “unrighteous,” and not on “God’s deaf ears,” but on themselves.  “The beds you lie in, O Israel, are the beds you made.”

This might explain the prophets’ lack of popularity.

I always get wearied during elections not because the issues lack importance, but because of how much posturing and blame both sides throw around.  It’s always “the liberal media,” or “the right-wing conspiracy,” or, “We are the 99%,” or, “The Makers vs. The Takers.”  No one wants to risk losing 51% of the vote to say, “It’s our fault,” preferring rather to carve up the carcass of the American body politic and divide us into “us” and “them.”  Until someone speaks as a prophet might speak, and until we hear them, I don’t see much changing.

I wrote recently about The Story of Rome, and, while not a big fan of the book, I did find a few insightful tidbits.  Among them, the book discussed how modern historians view the problems of Rome’s empire, and how different the views of the Romans themselves were from modern thinkers.  We often say  the problems revolved around economics, or incongruous geographical frontiers, or barbarian migrations, or political centralization, or some other such measurable factors.

The Romans never saw things this way.  For them, it came to virtue, plain and simple.  When they practiced virtue, they succeeded, and when they lacked it, troubles came their way.

Not quite equal to prophetic genius, perhaps (especially considering what the Romans meant by virtue), but as foreign as the words sound to our ears, perhaps we should hear them.  Take their “Social War,” of 91-88 B.C., for example.  Before the 2nd Punic War Rome treated its allies well, but the rebellion of some of their so-called friends during Hannibal’s invasion left a deep scar on their psyche (much as 9-11 has on us — Toynbee masterfully outlines the consequences in his book on the late Republic).  They treated their Italian allies afterwards as second class citizens and after 100 years of such treatment, it came back to bite them terribly (the aforementioned “Social War’)  in a conflict with an estimated 300,000 casualties on both sides.  Rome survived only by making concessions at the very end.

The prophets, the presidential campaign, and Rome ran around my head when I think of the great current stain on American morality, our drone campaign in the mid-east.   A recent NYU/Stanford University study, if true, indicts us of great evil.  This article in the U.K.’s Guardian highlights many of our atrocities.  We have attacked and killed (unintentionally let us pray, but still) civilians many times over.  Our administration hides the facts and our watchdog media has played right along, always calling the dead “enemy combatants.”  An excerpt reads of the study reads,

But Republicans, get off your high horse.  Romney has said nothing to indicate that he would do things any differently.  Other prominent conservatives, like Newt Gingrich, have praised Obama’s assassination program.  In fact the only candidate who has said publicly that he would end the drone strikes is the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson.

But “We the People” cannot blame the politicians.  We’re all guilty of preferring our immediate safety to the welfare of others (myself included). For the drones, Pakistani civilians are guilty until proven innocent, which would be bad enough, but drones offer no court of appeal.

Most of us understand the posturing and policies that come with a nation at war.  But if we want to claim any kind of identification with the “righteous” side in the “War on Terror,” we have to consider whether we have the willingness to consider other lives more worthy than our own, to think of others as better than ourselves.


Mastering Stories

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master has garnered much acclaim for the acting jobs of its lead characters.  Most also appear to appreciate the fact that the narrative leaves many holes and unresolved questions.  My thanks to a former student who passed me this more critical review from Stephen Farber.  He writes,

. . .enthusiastic critics have described the film as “elusive,” “enigmatic” and “confounding.” One glowing review rhapsodizes that the movie “defies understanding.”

If these seem like strange words of praise, you may need a crash course in new critical and directorial fashions. “The Master” epitomizes the rise of a new school of enigmatic movies, which parallels similar post-modern developments in literature and music. “The Master” aims to join this company, but its release only proves to me that the cult of incoherence is beginning to pall. Too many movies, novels and even TV series dispense with all sense of logic; they revel in unintelligibility and dare audiences to enter their tangled web.

I haven’t seen the movie, but if the above comments ring true, I would likely agree with his assessment.   Good stories should involve us in multiple perspectives, but these perspectives need a narrative center, and perspectives need resolution.  Creators who ask others to enter the world they create owe this to their audiences.  Perhaps there can be exceptions to this, as Farber continues. . .

It is probably easier to accept these films if they announce from the outset that they are working in a more impressionistic vein. Although I was not a fan of “The Tree of Life,” I understood that Malick never intended to spin a Hollywood-style narrative. He was aiming for something closer to a lyric poem or an atonal symphony than a traditional drama. The problem with “The Master” is that it does not really present itself as this kind of experimental effort. It starts out telling a straightforward story but then veers into murkier terrain without ever establishing a clear set of ground rules.

Unless one wants to write a reference book, non-fiction authors should deal with the same narrative constraints.  Alas, often historical writers get bogged down in details and forget that what makes History come alive is the story.  The story doesn’t even have to involve people.  One could weave a narrative about geological time, I’m sure.  Using multiple perspectives aid stories, but they are not the story.

So it was with great hope that I picked off the shelves Greg Woolf’s Rome, An Empire’s Story.  Like books on any other historical subject, works on Rome often drag their feet talking about the details, and lose sight of the where they’re going.  But the word “Story” in the title got me excited.  “Here, I thought, “is a valiant champion to right all past wrongs!”

The early chapters did little to encourage this hope, and then I got to page 52, where he writes,

Each invention was based on a combination of crops–cultigens–that could together supply the carbohydrate needs of humans, and some of their protein.

My heart sank.  I knew that when he called crops “cultigens,” and he referred to “humans,” that I was certainly not involved in a “story.”

The eminent Adrian Goldsworthy praises Woolf on the book jacket, stating,

…[Woolf] offers no simplistic answers, but instead well considered discussion of the evidence and how we try and understand it.

Far too often I see this imagined dichotomy.  Since no one wants simplistic answers, we offer no answer at all and instead play ping-pong with the facts.  The best historical writing offers answers without stooping to oversimplification, without fear of what the facts might actually mean.  No one should make blind dogmatic assertions that have no room for evidence. But we want our experts in the field to make their best guesses, if for no other reason than it’s fun to make such guesses, and it’s good to see people enjoying themselves.

To Woolf’s credit, at the close of each chapter he has a marvelous and brief discussion on the best sources for the issues at hand.  Here he reveals his true calling – a collector of valuable factoids that he shares gleefully and humbly with whoever is interested.  Looking at his picture, I knew he had to be a nice guy after all.