HistoryBits: Southeast Asia

HistoryBits: Southeast Asia

Bits and Pieces of History

Cambodia

Religion/Angkor Wat

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings; Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare the lone and level sands stretch far away.” These lines from Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley might well have been written with Angkor Wat in mind. More than just a splendid pile of ruins, Angkor Wat stands as mute testament to the (constructive and destructive) power of a new idea. Hinduism, as fostered throughout Southeast Asia by the ancient Hindu kings, was perhaps too much of a way of life. Alienated by its excessive ritualism, concentration of power in the hands of the priestly class, and pervasive cultural dominance, India’s older and wiser souls longed for another, less stultifying path to God. Buddhism came about as an intellectual revolt against the emptiness of all this ritual and the oppressiveness of the caste system, and offered a path to release from earthly travails and complications without all the bells and whistles of Vedic ritual. When Buddhism upended all the old gods and idols of Hinduism, the Khmers were left spiritually eviscerated, and it was all downhill from there. When a society’s religion is thrown out the window, it leaves society dangerously vulnerable to the incursion of other foreign values that piggyback themselves onto the imported religion, which ultimately weaken a society so that it is no longer willing to resist being overwhelmed by the outside world.

Malaysia

Society/Putrajaya

Putrajaya, the crown jewel of the New Malaysia, calls to mind the extravagant showcase of China’s Pudong, rising phoenix-like from the tawdry sprawl of old Shanghai. Asian governments have gone to great lengths to build showcases like these, which probably serve a useful purpose in dazzling foreign investors with the prospect of a burgeoning middle class with a boundless appetite for consumer goodies. To a certain extent that assessment is correct—there are fortunes to be made. But far greater fortunes have been and will continue to be lost in the scramble to cash in on a nascent prosperity that’s built on bedrock shot through with yawning social and economic inequities and political corruption.

Vietnam

Society/AIDS

It’s as if not just the traditional Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse had marched into the history of Vietnam, but an entire army. Take your pick of pathologies: war, poverty, and the unsavory legacy of its thug-ocracy—and throw in AIDs for good measure. By depriving a society of its most productive members and leaving children to fend for themselves, AIDS has a nasty habit of reducing a society to living off its seed-corn, so to speak, leaving its economy to wither away to mere subsistence and their people powerless to prevent their slide into the Heart of Darkness.

Society/Amerasians

Of all the tragedies of the war, it’s the plight of the children of wartime dalliances that somehow affects me the most. The loss of life of soldiers and civilians is undeniably tragic… yet in a sense these lives were willing participants in a war of their own making. Sounds odd, I know—especially when you consider the young men drafted to fight a war they may have detested, the faceless victims of bombs dropped on hamlets and cities, the families sundered by the loss of a son, a husband, a father. Still, many of these people at least had a choice of some kind, whether Canada, heading north or staying south, fighting or refusing to fight. And until the moment when death came and clapped its cold hand on their shoulders, there was love: families, friends, and society. Yet, for the Amerasian kids whose fathers left when their tours ended, who grew up in a society that would not accept them because they were neither fish nor fowl, who in many cases were left to fend for themselves on the streets, there was never a choice… and where was there love?

Society/Calendar

The Vietnamese calendar, replete with celestial and terrestrial creatures and their personalities, seems destined for the dustbin of irrelevancy. Nonetheless, in order to understand the culture of a people, one must understand the cultural canons that shape their worldview. Governed by whatever creature personality is in the ascendancy, the lunar calendar accords well with the traditional Vietnamese veneration of an animist universe.

Society/Population Growth

As one of Asia’s poorest nations, it would seem that Vietnam could ill afford more mouths to feed. Yet ironically, as people become wealthier, they’re able to afford more children even less. Family size almost certainly has a lot to do with income. Lower-income families traditionally require as many hands as can be raised to run a family business, or to cobble together an aggregate income sufficient to make ends meet. (It may also be that such families often live their lives in difficult circumstances that exact a high toll in child mortality). But with better education and greater participation in the global economy, affluence will rise in Vietnam, and population will decline (consider what happened in Japan, where one of the world’s most affluent societies will see its population drop by some 20% by 2050). Higher education–and the lifestyle that is often lived by a well-educated family–is expensive, and that sort of expense mitigates against having large families. Anytime there’s a mystery, look first of all to the bottom line (the one with the dollar sign next to it) for the answer.

Society/Prostitution

It’s as if not just the traditional Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse had marched into the history of Vietnam, but an entire army. Take your pick of pathologies: war, poverty, and the unsavory legacy of its thug-ocracy. By tolerating corruption and vice, the regime has squandered the self-esteem that it banked with its victory in the long struggle against foreign occupation, and greases the skids of its people’s slide back into the Heart of Darkness. With habits like these, I suspect that we haven’t seen the last of Vietnam’s political turmoil… only this time, there won’t be anyone to blame but themselves.

Culture/Language

The disunity of the Vietnamese language reflects the long-standing division between north and south that persists to this day. Isn’t it ironic that the corruption and venality of the South that the North so bitterly denounced came around to plague them in equal measure in the end? Politics always talks a new game, but can never seem to change human nature in the end… which is why each nation must be allowed to achieve political maturity in its own way, and in its own good time.

Economy/Trade Relations

Vietnam was rewarded for its long struggle for independence with contentious relations with China, abandonment by the Soviet Union, alienation from the regional trade that was heavily dominated by Western corporate and geopolitical interests, and calamitous mismanagement of its economy. The skills that win the war are virtually assured to lose the peace.

Economy/Trade with China

As with Taiwan, money can usually be depended upon to transcend and overcome political differences. Incredibly, even China’s labor force is becoming uncompetitively expensive these days, and the Chinese are going to have to swallow some of the bitter medicine they’ve doled out to the West if they’re going to survive the harsh regimen of globalization. This will undoubtedly entail offshoring some of its own industry to lower-wage neighbors like Vietnam… which ultimately is all for the best. The nature of globalization is such that as each player in the global economy advances up the economic ladder, it will in turn be called upon to compete with lower-wage economies that are struggling to emerge from the Third World, and–by offshoring its own overpriced industry–spread the wealth in the bargain. It’s cruel, but quite ingenious when you think about it.

Economy/WTO

Money can usually be depended upon to transcend and overcome political differences. Incredibly, even China’s labor force is becoming uncompetitively expensive these days, and the Chinese are going to have to swallow some of the bitter medicine they’ve doled out to the West if they’re going to survive the harsh regimen of globalization. This will undoubtedly entail offshoring some of its own industry to lower-wage neighbors like Vietnam… which ultimately is all for the best. The nature of globalization is such that as each player in the global economy advances up the economic ladder, it will in turn be called upon to compete with lower-wage economies that are struggling to emerge from the Third World, and–by offshoring its own overpriced industry–spread the wealth in the bargain (cruel, but ingenious when you think about it). But part of that same bargain is that Vietnam’s economy (and politics) become transparent to foreign investors, and abide by the golden rules of them that’s got the gold.

Power/Binh Xuyen

Had we been paying attention, the skullduggery of the Binh Xuyen could have given us a pretty good preview of the way things work in Vietnam. With these kinds of characters running the show, I’m not sure how we could have so naïve as to think that we could install a Vietnamese version of “George Washington” (as Lyndon Johnson referred to Ngo Dinh Diem), and expected things to go anywhere but south. Nor did things improve once the puritanical communist reformers climbed into the saddle after the war, as the corruption and venality of the South that the North so bitterly denounced came around to plague them in equal measure in the end. Politics always talks a new game, but can never seem to change human nature in the end… which is why each nation must be allowed to achieve political maturity in its own way, and in its own good time.

Power/Corruption

Isn’t it ironic that the corruption and venality of the South that the North so bitterly denounced came around to plague them in equal measure in the end? Politics always talks a new game, but can never seem to change human nature in the end… which is why each nation must be allowed to achieve political maturity in its own way, and in its own good time.

Power/Elections

It’s ironic that, having spurned the opportunity to hold the agreed-upon elections in 1956 for the unification of the country, the United States went on to fight for, ostensibly, that same right for Vietnamese to exercise their own political choices. It would be naive to think that the elections would have been free, or if victory in the elections went to the South that that outcome would have prevailed for long, but it does make one wonder about what the Americans were really fighting for in Vietnam. Was it freedom, or its opposite–hegemony?

Power/FDR

Had FDR lived, our relationship with Vietnam might have had a very different outcome. While the perception of FDR’s diplomatic and domestic political acumen was considerably more heroic than the reality, I would concur that Truman seemed a very common and small-minded politician by comparison–at a time when the most crucial rearrangement of geopolitical forces of the 20th century made vision and magnanimity so essential.

Power/French

One is tempted to be cynical about the French, and say it’s amazing what a hash they made of things in Vietnam: not only did they successfully arouse the ancient antipathies and spirit of nationalism that the Vietnamese had last employed against the Chinese 2,000 years ago, they blew away their Confucian traditions of education, political authority and jurisprudence, and shamelessly raped the natural wealth of the land for the most bald-faced pecuniary motives. So much for France’s mission civilisatrice! A more generous assessment would admit of the good intentions of the early French missionaries in instilling Christianity in Vietnam. It makes me wonder why Christianity took root and flourished in Vietnam–which drew its philosophical and social legacy from Confucian China—and not in China.

Power/Fear of Communism

So much of the American fear of the domino-like spread of communist insurgency throughout Southeast Asia has to do with our conceit that we had lost China as well, through our failure to stand up to communism there. The domino theory might have had something to do with our Cold war doctrine of containment, in which we drew the line within which communism must be contained; everything within the line was theirs and beyond our redemption, and everything beyond the line was ours and subject to our protection and dominion. No allowance was made for the history, the legacy of colonialism, or the free will and determination of peoples within our orbit to learn their own lessons in their own time, within the contours of their own historical experience and political, social, and economic development.

Power/Ho and Diem

No matter how much autonomy Diem claimed his regime had and displayed, his relentless persecution of protesters would not help his case. I’m not sure how much Ho was actually successful in prizing out of all those he was supposedly playing off against one another, but it seems that the one great certainty that he could depend on was that no matter how long it took, the day would have to come when the Americans (like the French) would have to go home; the entire colonial experience around the world confirmed as much. I would submit that, as with schoolyard bullies, it is typically those who are most insecure in their own self esteem that inflict the worst abuses and atrocities upon people who are quite helpless–which is why it hardly surprises me that a nation as vainglorious as the French behaved the way it did.

Power/Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh was no angel, but I can’t help but feel that he could have been one of the best friends that America ever had in Asia. It’s clear that the man cared little for personal wealth–he ever forsook the comforts of marriage–or anything other than the independence of his country. For a man like that to have embraced the ideals of the American Revolution and constitution as the model for his own country’s aspirations for independence sets him a world apart from the usual tinhorn tyrants and corrupt satraps that the United States has so often wound up with for allies in Asia.

Power/Montagnards

The Montagnards are paying a stiff price for winding up on the wrong side of the power curve as a result of their complicity with the Americans in the war. On the other hand, it may be counterproductive to punish their persecution with trade sanctions against Vietnam, since I believe that the wealthier a society becomes, the better educated and more sophisticated it becomes, and the less tolerant it becomes of oppression and being denied the standard of living that the rest of the world enjoys (and which is increasingly visible to the Vietnamese, thanks to the Internet and the globalization of communications). As is happening with China, it may behoove us to do everything possible (by way of trade and investment) to help the Vietnamese get rich.

Power/Nationalism

It’s surprising that, after a thousand years of rule by the Chinese, the Vietnamese still retained some sense of their own national identity; relatively brief intervals under the French and the Japanese pale by comparison. I wonder how, had any of those who were responsible for America’s involvement in Vietnam been aware of the enormous resilience that the Vietnamese had demonstrated against the far more formidable and immediate oppression of the Chinese, we could have presumed that they would not have been at least as tenacious in securing their independence from the West.

Power/Normalization

The return to normalization of our relations with Vietnam shows how long a passage of time is required to salve the wounds of war. Vietnam was a grudge that took over twenty years to get over; the U.S. had lost that war, and unlike post-WWII Germany and Japan, we were not able to exercise our writ in Vietnam. The greatest difficulty for the Americans in normalizing relations with Vietnam seems to have been in accepting the limitations of its global influence.

Power/Tay Son Rebellion

The Tay Son Rebellion of the late 18th century seems to have anticipated the revulsion against the corruption and venality of the South that inspired much of the North’s war effort—though ironically, the corruption that the North so bitterly denounced came around to plague them in equal measure in the end. Politics always talks a new game, but can never seem to change human nature in the end… which is why each nation must be allowed to achieve political maturity in its own way, and in its own good time.

Power/War/Agent Orange

The far-reaching effects of Agent Orange point up the Vietnam War as a conflict that involved every member of Vietnamese society (and the environment, for that matter). Had we been listening, this should have told us something: that this may have been—from our standpoint, at least–a conventional military conflict for control of strategic objectives, territory, and resources, but for the Vietnamese, it was an all-or-nothing proposition, a war for their very heart and soul and existence as a nation. For the Vietnamese, was there any resolution to such a war, short of total victory… or the total annihilation of every man, woman, and child?

Power/War/American Revolution

It’s surprising that we were unable to see in the Vietnamese experience echoes of the struggle that we ourselves had fought back in the American Revolution. There was a time when we played the best game of guerrilla warfare in town—against the British—and even if we were unwilling to empathize with the same nationalist spirit that we once laid our own lives down for, we should have seen the sort of fight that was coming from even a casual examination of the Chinese experience with the Vietnamese. But who cares about history… and all that dead white male stuff?

Power/War/Ap Bac

The Battle of Ap Bac opened our eyes to the fact that we were not in fact fighting some “bunch of pissants running around in pajamas”—as Lyndon Johnson would have it—but a full-fledged military force that more than made up for its deficiencies in armaments with dedication to their cause. The tragic loss of life that resulted from this engagement notwithstanding, the experience at least did us the favor of knocking the chip off the shoulders of some of the stuffed shirts that were running the war; the arrogance of presuming that we knew everything we needed to know about our enemy (when in fact we knew virtually nothing)–and of presuming that we could fight this war on our terms—was just the kind of errant thinking and policymaking that got us into the Vietnam War in the first place. If most Americans were unable to see in the Vietnamese experience echoes of the struggle that we ourselves had fought back in the American Revolution, it’s no surprise that George W. Bush is unable to comprehend the forces of history that he’s contending with in Iraq.

Power/War/Asian Allies

How is it that the United States winds up with allies like Diem, Marcos, Suharto, Park Chung-hee, Chiang Kai-shek, and Lon Nol? With friends like these, who needs enemies? Is it any wonder that the opposition that arises against tinhorn tyrants like these so often takes the populist path (think Mao or Ho). Isn’t it ironic that the United States—the champion of the rights of the common man—has been seen by so many Asians as the supporter of elitist regimes and the enemy of democracy?

Power/War/Australian Participation

Our mates Down Under have made common cause with us Americans ever since we linked arms against the Yellow Peril in World War II. But sometimes I wonder whether being a best friend is less about or following us blindly into the abyss (as the Ozzies did in Vietnam) or more about criticizing a misbegotten military adventure–as the French did our invasion of Iraq.

Power/War/Babylift

I never cease to be amazed at the incredible lengths that we Americans go to in our efforts to preserve human life and ameliorate tragedy and social calamity… and how odd it all seems in relation to the horrendous costs of war for all those faceless millions who get caught up in the consequences of policy decisions that are so ill informed and cavalierly enacted.

Power/War/Bao Dai

Bao Dai—dissolute womanizer, pampered reprobate, and compliant minion of his French and American masters—quite nicely summed up the all the worst weaknesses implicit in the South Vietnamese cause. If it’s true that everything means something, than who better than Bao Dai to explain what went wrong in Vietnam?

Power/War/Blood Under the Bridge

With all that blood under the bridge, the best we can make of it now is to remember it and try to understand the lessons that Vietnam offers us in guiding our future involvement in foreign conflicts. And with all this talk of re-making the Middle East in our image, I believe the lessons of Vietnam are timely. I believe that the foremost lesson here is that Vietnam was a nationalist war; the Vietnamese had struggled for literally a thousand years to get first the Chinese, then the French, then the Japanese, then the Chinese again, and finally the Americans off their backs. Having made the commitment to become their own nation, there was no military force on earth—no matter how powerful and well funded—that would ever alter that commitment. The Vietnamese realized that even if it took a hundred years or a thousand years or more, the day would someday come when the Chinese, the French, the Japanese, and the Americans would have to go home, and that nothing short of being their own nation would ever make any sense. It’s odd that the Americans had forgotten the lessons of their own Revolutionary War against the British, who were at the time much as the Americans later became to the Vietnamese: an immeasurably more powerful force… that had no business being there. If you study the American Revolution, you’ll find that its lessons apply in every measure to Vietnam—lessons that we ignored at our own peril. This, then, is why we study history.

Power/War/Buddhists/Self-Immolation

Enacted in protest against the Diem regime’s political persecution of the Buddhists, Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation was an act of undiluted idealism in a war that was shot through with suspect motives and allegiances. It is said that even after several additional attempts to complete the incineration of his remains, the monk’s heart remained wholly unaffected by the flames, and was eventually buried in a grove where it is safeguarded as an object of veneration by others pure of heart.

Power/War/George W. Bush

If most Americans were unable to see in the Vietnamese experience echoes of the struggle that we ourselves had fought back in the American Revolution, it’s no surprise that George W. Bush is unable to comprehend the forces of history that he’s contending with in Iraq. With the cost of the Iraq War at $2 trillion and counting, can we continue to afford to fill in every pothole on the road to global democracy? Or should we just allow other nations to find their own way, on their own time and terms, in ways that make sense for them? At the end of the Second World War, only six nations were democracies; today, some 120 are, and most of those have come around in their own way, once the benefits of participating in the community of nations on the enlightened and transparent terms demanded by globalization became clear to them; political maturity must be grown into. It’s surprising that we were unable to see in the Vietnam and Iraq experiences echoes of the struggle that we ourselves had fought back in the American Revolution. There was a time when we played the best game of guerrilla warfare in town—against the British—and even if we were unwilling to empathize with the same nationalist spirit that we once laid our own lives down for, we should have seen the sort of fight that was coming from even a casual examination of the history of Vietnam and its 2000-year long struggle to throw out the Chinese. But who cares about history… and all that dead white male stuff? Certainly not Mr. Bush.

Power/War/Cambodia

The operations in Cambodia were a sign of an administration looking for a no-holds barred plug of the communist influx. In Nixon’s eyes, a communist foothold in Cambodia would undermine his efforts to show imminent victory when, in fact, it was becoming clear that we were in a no-win situation.

Power/War/Christmas Bombing

No doubt technology plays a significant role in war, but one of the most intriguing lessons of Vietnam was that the superior firepower of the U.S. meant so little in the face of determined nationalism. In fact, the lessons of saturation bombing of civilian populations in both Germany and Japan during World War II and of North Vietnam are that such bombing not only does not put the enemy’s munitions industries and infrastructure out of business for very long, but that it stiffens the resolve of the civilian population to endure.

Power/War/Colonial Wars

It does seem that in some respects the imbroglios in Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam represented the final blows for empire that brought an end to the era of colonialism that began with the Portuguese and Spanish forays into the New World in the 16th century, and culminated in the carving up of much of Asia into British, French, and Japanese possessions through the 19th century and continuing into World War II. Both Korea and Vietnam seem to have been wars fought by proxies of the United States and Soviet Union–knowing as they did that any direct confrontation could easily result in nuclear holocaust–and both were in a sense wars for empire, whether Communism or Western hegemony.

Power/War/Combat Photography

It was easy to put the war out of one’s mind as long as it was relegated to the sanitized realm of armchair strategy or the evening news, as so many of American public (and the people who ran this war from Washington) were in the comfy habit of having the war served up to them. The fierce combat of the Tet Offensive, as played out on prime-time newscasts nation-wide—along with the myriad other photos and footage that made Vietnam America’s Television War–brought its ugly reality home to Americans who were at last made to understand that a war that was so far out of sight could no longer remain out of mind. The determination that was evident in the eyes of our enemy—and the indifference and futility that was to be seen in the faces of our soldiers and allies–had a way of taking hold of the viewer and shaking his conscience by its collar: their stark immediacy was such that they offered no sanctuary from our administration’s ignorant rationalizations and its word-processed, stage-managed public relations campaigns. Ultimately, the truth won out: the supreme irony of Tet was that its military victory for the United States proved to be the turning point that—in large part because of its extensive news coverage–soured American opinion on the ultimate prospects for victory in Vietnam, and broke the spine of public support for the war.

Power/War/Coming Under Fire

The war in Vietnam, more so than any other, was one fought both in-theatre and on the domestic front. LBJ was prepossessed with the war and how it was playing at home, since our primary premise for waging the war–fighting a monolithic communist conspiracy-had come under fire, much as our pretext of ferreting out WMD for the Iraqi war came under question. As more and more lives and money and morale were squandered on this lethal delusion, it became clear that the only option that truly made any sense was to salvage whatever national prestige remained to us and leave.

Power/War/Cu Chi Tunnels

No doubt technology plays a significant role in war, but one of the most intriguing lessons of Vietnam was that the overwhelmingly superior firepower of the U.S. meant so little in the face of the fiercely determined nationalism so well exemplified by the ingeniously low-tech network of the Cu Chi Tunnels.

Power/War/Deserters

In most cases, desertion carries its own penalty: the example of the U.S. soldier who spent some forty years in North Korea as a result of his decision to defect to the Workers’ Paradise comes to mind. No wonder they pardoned him upon his return.

Power/War/Détente

America’s détente with China and Russia may have made things more uncertain for the North Vietnamese, but it did not change the underlying reality that—in large part because of our experience in Korea–America was unwilling to invade the North and take the war to China’s border; it is very unlikely that China would have tolerated it, and any military engagement with China would surely have proved intractable and futile.

Power/War/Dien Bien Phu

The French were absolutely certain of the impregnability of their stronghold at Dien Bien Phu… much as the British were in their assessment of the odds of their prevailing against the upstart Americans, and as the Americans were in the invincibility of their firepower and bottomless well of money. Certainty as to the outcome of war is a contrarian indicator—the more they toot it around, the more certain it is that, somewhere and in some very important respect, they’re missing the point. What matters in war—or in anything where material or numerical superiority would seem to assure success–is the power of the human will… and nothing exerts willpower and determination more enduringly than the struggle for freedom and sovereignty.

Power/War/Domino Theory

The domino theory presumes there was some sort of monolithic leadership behind “communism” in Southeast Asia–whether from Moscow or Beijing. Malaya had a nasty episode with a communist insurgency, and it’s possible that Indonesia could have become fractured by some sort of insurgent ideology, and the Philippines has had is trouble with Muslim insurgents. But Thailand and Singapore. no. In any event, if any Southeast Asian nation did fall to insurgency, it wouldn’t be communism or any such presumably so well organized movement–just to whatever local schisms might choose to masquerade under the name of communism. I frankly doubt whether either Vietnam, China, or North Korea understand the first thing about Marxism-Leninism, but it proved a wonderful cover for the sort of timeless tyranny/authoritarianism that has always visited itself upon those societies.

Power/War/Draft

It’s quite impossible for even an all-volunteer force of professional soldiers to win a war—like Vietnam or Iraq–that has no moral compass, no sense of higher purpose, no way of winning the hearts and minds of anyone, and nothing to do with national defense. On the other hand, a “good war” like World War II elicited a heroic performance from what was essentially a citizen army, and commanded the willing efforts of every man, woman, and child in America, who made every sacrifice demanded of them without hesitation or complaint. With that said, a case could be made in favor of the draft in times of genuine need, and for sending the army home otherwise; if the need cannot be met by a citizen army, then how legitimate is that need?

Power/War/Eisenhower

Eisenhower was one of the saner heads to prevail throughout this war—it was he who refused the demands of the Joint Chiefs to use nuclear weapons to rescue the French at Dienbienphu (if you can imagine such a thing!). The fact is, it takes a man who has personally experienced the horrors of war—as Eisenhower did as commander of allied forces in Europe (having presided over the D-Day operation)—to appreciate the need to exercise every conceivable restraint in the interest of preserving peace. It’s no surprise that George W. Bush, having no experience with the military other than to wriggle out from his Texas Air National Guard stint, would become one of the ardent warmongers of our time.

Power/War/Fall of Saigon

The fall of Saigon (and of South Vietnam) could not possibly have come as a surprise to Washington, since it was quite clear that the peace negotiations had been a sham all along; the North Vietnamese were looking for a way to get the Americans to go home, and the Americans were looking for an “honorable” exit. Could we have been so naïve to have believed that the North would stop at anything—including treachery at the conference table—to accomplish their single-minded objective of reunification? For the Vietnamese, the war was an all-or-nothing proposition, a war for their very heart and soul and existence as a nation—a war they would never have allowed themselves to lose, short of the annihilation of every man, woman, and child. As for our “honorable” exit, where was the honor in a man of Mr. Kissinger’s intellectual stature and cold-blooded political cunning having accepted the Noble Peace Prize for concluding a peace treaty that he must have known was a sham?

Power/War/Firepower

No doubt technology plays a significant role in war, but one of the most intriguing lessons of Vietnam was that the superior firepower of the U.S. meant so little in the face of determined nationalism.

Power/War/Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap

Gen. Giap’s assault and siege of the French fortress at Dienbienphu—brought off by doing something that no Frenchmen thought possible: dragging heavy artillery up to the crests of the surrounding mountains– should have put us on notice as to the sort of iron-bound determination we would be up against. This is the same kind of moxie that George Washington demonstrated by crossing the ice-clogged Delaware in the middle of the night to storm the Hessians at Trenton. For the Vietnamese, the war was an all-or-nothing proposition, a war for their very heart and soul and existence as a nation. Could they have ever lost such a war–short of the annihilation of every man, woman, and child? That said, could the Americans have possibly won such a war?

Power/War/Gulf of Tonkin Resolution

The protest against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution voiced by Senator Wayne Morse offers a disconcerting parallel to the war in Iraq. I’ll go Mr. Morse one better and say that the Bush administration had no business taking us into this war–with or without a declaration of war, since so many of the wise old heads in Congress are no wiser now than they were during Vietnam, and seem no better informed on ancient verities and geopolitical realities than Mr. Bush.

Power/War/Ia Drang

The Battle of Ia Drang Valley opened our eyes to the fact that we were not in fact fighting some “bunch of pissants running around in pajamas”—as Lyndon Johnson would have it—but a full-fledged military force that more than made up for its deficiencies in armaments with dedication to their cause. The tragic loss of life that resulted from this engagement notwithstanding, the experience at least did us the favor of knocking the chip off the shoulders of some of the stuffed shirts that were running the war; the arrogance of presuming that we knew everything we needed to know about our enemy (when in fact we knew virtually nothing)–and of presuming that we could fight this war on our terms—was just the kind of errant thinking and policymaking that got us into the Vietnam War in the first place. If most Americans were unable to see in the Vietnamese experience echoes of the struggle that we ourselves had fought back in the American Revolution, it’s no surprise that George W. Bush is unable to comprehend the forces of history that he’s contending with in Iraq.

Power/Kennedy/Bay of Pigs

A plausible case could be made for the connection between Vietnam and Kennedy’s earlier foreign policy failures. Had not Kennedy been so abjectly humiliated by the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and by Khrushchev in Berlin, one wonders whether he would have gone as far as he did in Vietnam (which really wasn’t all that far, to be sure). But with his ego bruised as badly as it was, Kennedy felt compelled to demonstrate American resolve to draw the line somewhere against what was perceived as the monolith of Moscow-led world communism. What’s more, the Special Forces were Kennedy’s creation (just as the Peace Corps had been), and what better place for them to cut their teeth than Vietnam? Still, Kennedy knew that Vietnam was all wrong for America, and I suspect that absent his earlier embarrassments, it seems likely that he would have cut loose from Vietnam in a heartbeat.

Power/Kennedy Assassination

Lyndon Johnson must have been one of the most nakedly ambitious politicians that we’ve ever hatched. From the time he could string five words together, those words were: “I’m gonna be president someday.” (No kidding.) He stopped at nothing in his obsessive pursuit of power, and knowing Mr. Johnson as well as I believe I do, it is entirely conceivable that he might strike any bargain—with the Pentagon to “give ‘em their goddamn war” in return for the highest political prize of all: the White House. What a shame that he squandered so much of the drive and determination that won him that prize on an unwinnable war, rather than investing it in his Great Society program (which, with better funding and follow-through) might have accomplished worlds of good instead of reaping a whirlwind of malice and mayhem.

Power/War/Khe Sanh

Khe Sanh became the buzzword for the futility of a war so often characterized by ferocious battles one day to take or defend a piece of terrain that would only be abandoned the next.

Power/War/Khmer Rouge

History has a long fuse, but no less long are the tendrils of repercussions that sprout from a nasty little war like Vietnam, which spawned the invasion of Cambodia and the rise of the Khmer Rouge… and Iraq, which has sparked a spasm of anarchy and civil war that’s roiling ancient sectarian fault lines throughout the Muslim world with similarly disastrous consequences.

Power/War/Laos

The Ho Chi Minh Trail, which wound its way down through Laos and Cambodia, points up one the greatest constraints on the U.S. war effort in Vietnam. The Americans and South Vietnamese were generally limited to fighting a defensive war, prohibited (in theory) from invading the North and from extending the war into Cambodia and Laos; the North Vietnamese, on the other hand, fought an offensive war that did not constrain them from invading the South. Both the strategies and the mindset for these two kinds of war are very different, and as the war ground on, the defensive war became more of a holding action–a temporary fix whose objective was not to gain victory but to prevent loss. What kind of thing is that to fight for? Where is the glory, the pride, the stuff that fuels bravery and motivates sacrifice? If a war has to be fought with one hand tied behind our backs, it should not be fought at all.

Power/War/Line in the Sand

It may well be that Vietnam marked the end of colonial empires, and many Americans saw it as the line in the sand they drew to mark the end of Communist empire-building.

Power/War/Henry Cabot Lodge

Perhaps it was the “fog of war” or just the muddied political waters of the times, but it’s hard to get a grip on Henry Cabot Lodge—one of the wise old heads that guided the White House through the minefield of Vietnam. With his hand elbow-deep in the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem, he was contemptible. I can only say that whether with Truman and Acheson, Kennedy and Lodge and Rusk, Johnson and the Joint Chiefs, Nixon and Kissinger, and (for that matter) George Bush and Rummie&Rice, the blind will invariably choose to be led by the blind.

Power/War/McNamara

Bob McNamara, undeniably a brilliant man, may have been too smart by half. McNamara seems to have regarded the Vietnam War as a physics equation: firepower in equals bodycount out, and the more dead Indians you can count, the fewer live ones you’ll have to contend with. It was an equation that took no account of the absolute commitment to nationhood that engrossed every member of the people we were fighting. For McNamara, this may have been a conventional military conflict for control of strategic objectives, territory, and resources, but for the Vietnamese, it was an all-or-nothing proposition, a war for their very heart and soul and existence as a nation. For the Vietnamese, was there any resolution to such a war, short of total victory… or the total annihilation of every man, woman, and child? Apart from the Revolution, there was once a war in which the people of the United States demonstrated the same absolute, whatever-it-takes commitment to winning—against enemies that were overwhelmingly better armed. That war was World War II. It’s surprising that we didn’t recognize—from our own experience–what we were dealing with.

Power/War/My Lai Massacre

That there were massacres does not surprise me. War at its worst is where no holds are barred, where all the rules of chivalry, honor, decency, and fair play go right out the window, and where men will do the worst they can possibly think of to do, and do it with any and all means at their disposal. What surprises me about My Lai—and about the war in general—is how completely the Vietnamese have forgiven and forgotten. On the other hand, you’d have found the same forgiveness from the Japanese after their country was “ground to powder” (in the words of Winston Churchill), and from the Americans, in the form of the $13 billion that the Marshall Plan handed out to help restore a pulse to war-shattered Europe. Scratch a man and you’ll find a beast; wipe the blood from the jaws of the beast and you’ll find a smile.

Power/War/Napalm

Man is at his most clever and ingenious when it comes to devising ways to slaughter his fellow human creature. World War I saw the advent of machine guns, flamethrowers, mortars, grenades, tanks, barbed wire, and poison gas–all of which made for an unprecedented dimension of misery. World War II gave us the atomic bomb, and Vietnam blessed us with napalm and Agent Orange. And now, with smallpox, sarin, and suitcase nukes added to the mix, we have attained a new threshold of lethality that promises vastly more profound horrors to come. Is it any wonder that men have such a boundless hatred for each other?

Power/War/Nixon and Kissinger

The machinations of the Nixon-Kissinger duo in orchestrating the resolution of the war were shrouded in secrecy, from the clandestine diplomacy with China to the undeclared invasion of Cambodia. Nixon’s theory of a grand communist conspiracy–and his desire to confound it–provided the impetus for his meetings with Russia and China, in which he hoped he could insidiously play the two powers off against each other. With the American public increasingly exasperated over escalating troop deployments and an ever-soaring high body count, new strategies were called for.

Power/War/POWs

The repatriation of American POWs was one of the most effective bargaining chips that the North Vietnamese brought to the table at the Paris Peace Talks, knowing that nothing so played on the heartstrings of the American public as their safe return. I guess I’ll never quite understand—for a nation that agonizes over whether the troops are coming home in time for Christmas—why we do we send them away to these death-traps in the first place?

Power/War/Phoenix Project

Even the senior-most members of the North Vietnamese command—interviewed after the war—admitted that the Phoenix Project was the most effective thing the Americans ever did against them. But are we prepared to stoop to this kind of behavior, and should we? Would not victory purchased at such a terrible cost to human decency have betrayed the moral purpose of the war–presuming that the purpose for which we fought was freedom and the purpose and dignity that it accords human beings? As the protagonist of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness asked, “who is the savage… and who is the civilizer?”

Power/War/Preoccupation with Winning

With all of its preoccupation with “winning” in Vietnam, one wonders just what the West had hoped to win. A military victory is meaningless and very tenuous if the hearts and minds of the people are not won in the bargain. Winning control of the government and the political process of a nation is no less meaningless if that government in unable to take lasting root in the people it governs. What was there to win in Vietnam if the heart of the people wasn’t in their struggle against the Vietminh? I suppose you can only win when the people (and their government) are ready to be won over.

Power/War/Protest

A valid comparison might be drawn between the vocal minorities protesting the Vietnam War and those protesting against the war in Iraq. Most Americans continue to believe that our wars are waged for noble causes, and tolerate them as long as the casualties are low, which they were not in Vietnam. The Bush administration has been more indifferent to public opinion than the White House has ever been before, and even with the backlash against anti-war protesters at a fever pitch, the beat of the war drum cannot be silenced.

Power/War/PTSD

The welter of complications and unintended consequences that obtains as a result of war takes generations to play out in societies, and a lifetime in individuals. We seldom understand how we are truly affected by trauma; we study history in order to understand how the effects of things that happened long ago anticipate the implications of modern events (Vietnam… Iraq?). The powder keg of history burns with a long fuse, whether with societies or with individuals.

Power/War/Dean Rusk

Whether with Kennedy and Dean Rusk, Johnson and the Joint Chiefs, Nixon and Kissinger, or George Bush and Rummie&Rice, the blind will invariably choose to be led by the blind.

Power/War/Strategic Hamlets

The failure of the strategic hamlet program calls to mind the assertion often quoted from a U.S. Army officer that “we had to destroy this village in order to save it.” If, in order to protect a village, it becomes necessary to wall it off from the larger community that it subsists in, have you not destroyed it just as surely? This cuts to the whole issue of why it’s necessary to win the hearts and minds of the people in order to win a war, because if all you’ve won is territory (or some strategic outpost thereof)–and have denied its inhabitants the lifeblood of the economy and culture—what really have you won? What is territory without people? Yet, this was in keeping with the pattern of the war throughout: fighting to the death of dozens—if not hundreds—of men for possession of a hilltop, only to abandon it a week later. The inane inspiration of the strategic hamlet program was no different.

Power/War/Tet Offensive

The fierce combat of the Tet Offensive, as played out on prime-time newscasts nation-wide, brought the ugly reality of the Vietnam War home to Americans who were at last made to understand that a war that was so far out of sight could no longer remain out of mind. The supreme irony of Tet was that its military victory for the United States proved to be the turning point that soured American opinion on the ultimate prospects for victory in Vietnam, and broke the spine of public support for the war.

Power/War/Unexploded Ordnance

It would be for a generation innocent of the sins of the past to suffer the consequences of unexploded ordnance; the defoliation of much of the country by Agent Orange; the oppressive and impoverishing policies of the old warhorses that won the war and lost the peace; and the deep freeze of diplomatic and economic relations with the United States. Wars take a very long time to go away.

Power/War/Veterans

The treatment of American veterans of unpopular wars like Vietnam and Iraq never seems to much trouble the public’s conscience—except at certain times of the year. I guess I’ll never quite understand—for a nation that agonizes over whether the troops are coming home in time for Christmas—why we do we send them away to these death-traps in the first place?

Power/War/Viet Cong

Our characterization of the Viet Cong (the Vietnamese term itself is a pejorative for “Vietnamese Communist”) as “a bunch of pissants in black pajamas” shows how sorely we had mistaken lack of firepower for lack of willpower. It’s surprising that we were unable to see in the Vietnam experience echoes of the struggle that we ourselves had fought back in the American Revolution. There was a time when we played the best game of guerrilla warfare in town—against the British—and even if we were unwilling to empathize with the same nationalist spirit that we once laid our own lives down for, we should have seen the sort of fight that was coming from even a casual examination of the history of Vietnam and its 2000-year long struggle to throw out the Chinese.

Power/War/Vietnamese Women

Had we been listening, the example of Vietnam’s “long-haired army” should have told us something: this may have been—from our standpoint, at least–a conventional military conflict for control of strategic objectives, territory, and resources, and a war whose definitions of “non-combatant” should have conformed to “civilized norms.” For the Vietnamese, however, it was an all-or-nothing proposition, a war for their very heart and soul and existence as a nation. For them, could they have lost such a war, short of the annihilation of every man, woman, and child? That said, could the Americans have possibly won such a war?

Power/War/Vietnamization

The odd concept of “Vietnamization” surely must have made it clear that we were pushing on a string—literally, something that had no spine to it. The South Vietnamese army reflected all of the factors of its government and the war that made it impossible to win the war—regardless of how heavily we armed them. They had none of the commitment to national unity that the North had; it (along with the Americans) was forever doomed to fighting a defensive action against an enemy whose strategy was unrelenting offense; and it reflected the corruption and self-interest of its government.

Power/War/Gen. William Westmoreland

Gen. Westmoreland seems to have very much a product of the old school of military leadership, believing that more men, more materiel, and more bombs would inevitably enable the United States to prevail in a war in which, frankly, none of the above could possibly have made any difference in the face of a spirit of nationalism that broke 2,000 years of Chinese, French, Japanese, and American intrusion. There have been wars in which the people of the United States demonstrated the same absolute, whatever-it-takes commitment to winning—against enemies that were overwhelmingly better armed—that the North Vietnamese did in pressing their fight. Those wars were the American Revolution and World War II. It’s surprising that we didn’t recognize—from our own experience–what we were dealing with.

Power/War/World War II

Apart from the Revolution, there was once a war in which the people of the United States demonstrated the same absolute, whatever-it-takes commitment to winning—against enemies that were overwhelmingly better armed—that the North Vietnamese did in pressing their fight. That war was World War II. It’s surprising that we didn’t recognize—from our own experience–what we were dealing with.

Power/War/War American-Style

No matter how we might ameliorate the misery of the war— air-conditioned barracks; Thanksgiving dinner helicopter’d in to the troops; Bob Hope and the Playmates; PXs brimming with America’s cornucopia of consumer goods—we were not able to give our troops the one thing that mattered most, the one thing that saw our enemy through to victory in the face of every manner of privation. We were not able to give them a good reason to fight this war.

Philippines


Religion/Christianity

There can be little doubt as to which of the Holy Trinity of “gold, God, and glory” motivated the early Spanish colonizers, but while Spain found little gold in the Philippines, it struck a rich vein of converts which has left the Philippines one of the most extensively Christianized nations in the world today. Once the Americans acquired the Philippines, our civilizing mission became to tame the savage breast and bestow those values that had worked for America on our less fortunate Philippine brethren. But, much as Spain’s avowed mission of proselytizing its conquests only thinly disguised its lust for lucre, much of the moralizing over Christianity, democracy, sanitation, and the Protestant work ethic was ultimately designed to support and safeguard American commercial interests in foreign markets (especially the China market, to which the Philippines was seen as the gateway), without which the American economy would soon wither and die.

Thailand

Power/Asian Allies

Our implicit approval of the recent coup in Thailand calls to mind some of our other dubious Asian alliances: Diem, Marcos, Suharto, Park Chung-hee, Chiang Kai-shek, and Lon Nol… to say nothing of our complicity with odious sorts elsewhere—most notably the House of Saud. With friends like these, who needs enemies? Is it any wonder that the opposition that arises against tinhorn tyrants like these so often takes the populist path (think Mao or Ho)? Isn’t it ironic that the United States—the champion of the rights of the common man—has been seen by so many Asians as the supporter of elitist regimes and the enemy of democracy? It’s been a while since our foreign policy has stood on principle alone—has it always been about oil, money, and realpolitik after all?

Exit mobile version
%%footer%%