I’ve just finished reading Backfire, by Loren Baritz. It’s a book about the Vietnam War that I saw recommended somewhere here on Livejournal; if you recommended it, remind me.
I grew up in the shadow of my country’s Vietnam War. I was born just as it was starting, and the final defeat happened while I was in grade school. My older brother registered for the draft but wasn’t called. My childhood was colored by a war we were losing, that a majority of the country disliked. As I got older I read a lot about the war. Quite a few people my family knew had been in combat there, too. At least partly because of Vietnam, my country didn’t fight any serious wars for quite a while. We’d fought an unjust war, done it poorly, been beaten, mistreated our soldiers, made ourselves an international pariah, and lied to each other about it. Any suggestion of war made people consider the phrase “another Vietnam”.
Most books about the Vietnam War follow one of a few patterns. There are military histories, first-person journalistic accounts, vast tomes about the social impact in the United States, even more gigantic tomes about the strategies of various Great Men of the time, and rip-roaring military adventures. I recommend reading one of each, since they don’t vary much in quality.
I also recommend reading this one. Babitz treats the war as a disastrous expression of American culture. Our belief in American uniqueness and virtue, the explicitly religious belief that we are a “City on a Hill” that can heal the world’s ills, and a doggedly held belief that everyone everywhere wants to be American are three points that stick very well. Once we’d set out on this project of defending South Vietnam, it was impossible to back out or to admit that we were doing things poorly, because national prestige was at stake. There are depressingly many points along the way where the whole thing could have been stopped — and people in power who did their best to stop it — but the war was a cultural necessity. Everything else follows from this point. The total lack of strategy (one general is quoted as saying “The operations are the strategy!”), ignorance of our enemy, hatred of our allies, bureaucratic idiocy, official lying, and downright insanity of highly placed officials just mark the way that was set from the beginning when we declared ourselves to be the world’s savior.
That’s not why this book was such a gut-punch, though. I knew all of this before from other reading. No, the reason I’ve been so disturbed reading this is that the generals and CIA agents and politicians who fucked this thing up so badly are clearly superior to anyone we have managing our current war. White House staff, military officers, and CIA agents resigned in protest. Senators and Congressmen questioned the war and its conduct incessantly. I realized as I read that I was becoming nostalgic for the uniformed brass and right-wing politicians of 1966.
Because we didn’t learn. The reaction to Vietnam that I described from my childhood didn’t last. Starting in about 1980, the revisionists got to work. A new story was written about the war; It had been won by the soldiers but they were made to lose by our enemies at home: liberals, protesters, craven politicians, and desk-bound soldiers. Our boys could have won it but they were stabbed in the back, and spat on when they returned. A whole new genre of movies showed up: the Vietnam payback flick, in which POWs were rescued or angry vets got to do one right this time and shoot up some Central Americans or drug dealers. And at the end of the decade we had our Anti-Vietnam, the first Gulf War. We fought a set-piece battle against an enemy no one could love and rolled right over him using all the technology that failed us in an unconventional war against popular guerillas. The pride was back.
And now we’re doing it again, but worse. We’re ass deep in a country that hates us, fighting popular guerillas with the wrong weapons just as before. We’re losing and trying to extricate ourselves. We’re committing atrocities and idiocies right and left. But this time there’s no reporting worth reading, because that’s all been shut down. There will be no Seymour Hersh finding My Lai. There’s no draft, because that was unpopular. Therefore this war is fought entirely by the poor and mercenaries, and the great American middle class won’t see their children dead. And the reaction of those in power to the painful lessons of Vietnam is to deny them entirely. We are bringing democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan; the people love us and want us to save them from evil. Any opposition to any tiny part of the war is treachery. There is no dissent within the government or the military. The solution to the problems that ended the Vietnam war is to silence the journalists, muzzle the naysayers in the government, and lie like crazy.
It’s trite and forced to make exact analogies with German in the Thirties; too many parallels are absent, and the culture is very different. But it’s hard not to see that Vietnam was our Great War and our Versailles. The first Gulf War was our Spain. And the current eternal war on Terror and Evil is an attempt at erasing the shame of Vietnam by beating the entire world into submission: a Thousand Year City on a Hill. We didn’t really lose that war before, we were stabbed in the back. And we’re a great people. And we’re going to show the whole world how great we are, and how right we were, by doing it all over again without the distractions of competent journalism, honest officials, a well-informed public, or the shadow of a doubt in this Administration’s mind that we were chosen by God to bring his light to the world.
This book does a good job of telling you why this happened; read it. And hope I’m wrong.