Thursday, January 18, 2007

Vietnam: a different sort of revisionism

Very good review of a new book on Vietnam:

A Winnable War
The argument against the orthodox history of Vietnam.
I especially liked this part:

The primary weakness of the orthodox school, Moyar demonstrates, is its constricted historical horizon. For the most part, orthodox historians have covered the war as if the only important decisions were made in Washington and Saigon. This is an example of what has been called "national narcissism," the idea that history is just about us. Of course, important decisions were also made in Hanoi, Beijing, Moscow, and many other places. Moyar has exhaustively consulted the relevant archives and uses them to demonstrate the very real limitations of the orthodox view. He not only places Vietnam in its proper geopolitical context, but demonstrates the Clausewitzian principle that war is a struggle between two active wills. An action by one side elicits a response from the other that may be unexpected.

Orthodox historians often act as if Hanoi pursued a course of action with little regard for what the United States did. But Moyar demonstrates that the North Vietnamese strategy was greatly affected by U.S. actions.

This point was driven home to me in 1983 when the late Douglas Pike, the foremost American expert on Vietnamese communism and an early proponent of Vietnam revisionism, delivered a paper at a Wilson Center symposium on the war. Pike observed that "the initial reaction of Hanoi's leaders to the strategic bombings and air strikes that began in February 1965--documented later by defectors and other witnesses--was enormous dismay and apprehension. They feared the North was to be visited by intolerable destruction which it simply could not endure." But the air campaign was severely constrained, a fact that became increasingly apparent to Hanoi. As a result, North Vietnamese leaders concluded that the United States lacked the will to bear the cost of the war

There is a big, important book to be written by a scholar from the new generation on the war reporters who made their bones in South East Asia. The review touches on them but I want more:

So why has Diem been depicted the way he has? First, he was a victim of press bias: No one did more to undermine Diem's reputation in the United States than David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan. Far from providing a balanced picture of the war, they pushed a decidedly anti-Diem view, and their prejudice was so transparent that a 1963 congressional mission described the American journalists as "arrogant, emotional, un-objective, and ill-informed."

But then, these same reporters were themselves influenced by others with axes to grind. Much of the criticism of the Diem regime's military policy was fed to them by the maverick U.S. Army adviser, Lt. Col. John Paul Vann. In addition, many American reporters relied on a Vietnamese journalist named Pham Xuan An, a Reuters stringer later revealed to be a Communist agent whose very mission was to influence the American press. As journalists such as Stanley Karnow later admitted, Pham was very good at his job.

I think Halberstam illustrates Moyar’s point about the Western insularity of the orthodox view. This problem was present even in the “first draft of history” written by those brave young reporters in 1962-65. (This article by Robert Elegant is very good on the subject).

Correspondents, briefly set down in the brutally alienating milieu called Viet Nam, turned to each other for professional sustenance and emotional comfort. After all, there was nowhere else to turn, certainly not to stark reality, which was both elusive and repellent.

Most correspondents were isolated from the Vietnamese by ignorance of their language and culture, as well as by a measure of race estrangement. Most were isolated from the quixotic American Army establishment, itself often as confused as they themselves were, by their moralistic attitudes and their political prejudices. It was inevitable, in the circumstances, that they came to write, in the first instance, for each other.

To be sure, the approbation of his own crowd gave a certain fullness to the correspondent's life in exile that reached beyond the irksome routine of reporting and writing. The disapprobation of his peers could transform him into a bitterly defensive misanthrope (I think here of one industrious radio and newspaper stringer who was reputed to be the richest correspondent in Viet Nam, except, of course, for the television stars). Even the experienced correspondents, to whom Asia was "home" rather than a hostile temporary environment, formed their own little self-defensive world within the larger world of the newcomers.

It was no wonder that correspondents writing to win the approbation of other correspondents in that insidiously collegial atmosphere produced reporting that was remarkably homogeneous. After each other, correspondents wrote to win the approbation of their editors, who controlled their professional lives and who were closely linked with the intellectual community at home. The consensus of that third circle, the domestic intelligentsia, derived largely from correspondents' reports and in turn served to determine the nature of those reports. If dispatches did not accord with that consensus, approbation was withheld. Only in the last instance did correspondents address themselves to the general public, the mass of lay readers and viewers.
I discussed another example here:

Mission to Niger and a Cautionary Tale from Vietnam
In his book the Best and the Brightest Halberstam goes to great lengths to appear knowledgeable about "the real forces" driving the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. It’s nationalism and anti-colonialism; communism is just a canard. But thirty years later, with colonialism dead everywhere, Hanoi is still run by a Stalinist regime.
A glimpse into Halberstam’s thinking is provided by his obsession with McCarthyism. Anti-communism, that was the real cause of the Vietnam debacle:

All of this was part of one of the great illusions of the country and the Administration in 1961, the belief that the McCarthy period had come and gone without the country paying any real price, that the Administration and the nation could continue without challenging or coming to terms with the political and policy aberrations of that period.
Halberstam the Harvard man wielded Vietnam as a club against those awful men--those rubes-- who were mean to the China hands and Robert Oppenheimer. So which came first: his disenchantment in Vietnam, or his snobbish anti-anti-communism?

I think the snob factor is real. Halberstam goes on and on about the anti-communists ignorance of "nuance" their failure to appreciate "subtleties", etc. etc. Since Halberstam, like most US reporters in Vietnam had neither the language nor education to really grasp the nuances or subtleties themselves, what was he talking about? Was it just thatthose Marine officers in the Delta were not like him? Not as clever, not as well-read, not hip to the new world without absolutes? Not willing to suck-up to the super-credentialed reporter from the New York Times?

I’ve suspected for a long time that much of the "slant" to the reporting came from ignorant young reporters reading Graham Greene’s The Quiet American on the plane ride over to Vietnam.

Here is just one example of Halberstam’s ill-informed arrogance. In The Best and the Brightest he draws a savage portrait of Gen. Paul Harkins the top US military man in Vietnam during the Kennedy years. Harkins, he declared, was a "compelling mediocrity", a military nonentity, a careerist, a staff officer who knew nothing of infantry war.

Missing from Halberstam’s description is the fact that Harkin served as the deputy Chief of Staff in Patton’s Third Armythe finest Army level staff the US had in World War Two. This was the group that pulled off one of the great feats of modern war: the redeployment of Third Army to relieve Bastogne and cut off the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge. Patton’s staff was not a bunch of rear echelon paper shufflers. In the Third Army staff officers operated as extra eyes for Patton. They went to the front seeing, evaluating, reporting back to their commander.

None of this means that Harkin did a good job in Vietnam. But it does show just how shallow Halberstam’s understanding was. Harkins knew war. He had seen it from the bottom to the top. He had seen sieges, armored thrusts, grinding infantry advances and desperate defensive stands. If a reporter could be so knowing and yet so wrong on such a basic point, how can you trust him on anything?

1 comment:

Otto said...

Yes I also want more. Didn't Moyar promise a follow on book?