Friday, September 3, 2010

Backfire, a Book Review

Backfire, Ballantine Books, 347 pages

Regarding liberal arts:
Besides helping nation-building efforts, liberal arts degrees are good for helping individuals to manage to stay out of terrorism. 

According to “… Tarek Fatah. The outspoken and controversial critic of Islamist extremism…” as reported by Bryn Weese, for the Parliamentary Bureau, for the Calgary Sun, p. 10, August 28, 2010. “You would never see a history major, a sociology PhD, or someone studying philosophy or anthropology as a jihadist," Fatah said.

“I’ve been dealing with these (people) for 40 years, and I have never met folks in the study in the humanities who ever indulge in this fascism."

As you know, home-grown terrorists are trained in things like hospital technology, medicine and engineering.

“They have no time for the grey area of issues," Fatah said, and are “inclined to regimented ideas, fixed solutions … and follow prescribed rules.” 

Perhaps the finest moments in academia are when one relates an actual event to an unexamined premise of society, thus producing a higher social awareness level.

Earlier in our age the pain of Vietnam prompted Terry Orlick to isolate competition, something normally taken for granted, as a negative factor in American involvement. Today camp counselors all across the continent use co-operative games, certain little leagues no longer keep score, and probably every physical education professor’s library contains Orlick’s New Games textbook.

Now University of Massachusetts Provost Loren Baritz’s latest book shows promise of similar far-reaching effects on our society.

Backfire, subtitled A history of How American Culture Led Us in to Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did, is a searing look at the pattern for tragedy built onto the very warp and woof of our society. The book is exciting, informative, and extremely moving.

Since the Truman years most of the U.S.’s decisions regarding Vietnam have been wrong. In part this is due to beliefs peculiar to the American culture. (To illustrate: The January British edition of Cosmopolitan contains the line “foreign (movie) audiences had become tired of American idealism,” something they would not say of Canadian or Mexican films.)

Baritz sees three facets to the question of understanding Vietnam: myths, political processes (Baritz includes an analysis of the President versus his bureaucrats) and bureaucratic systems. “Bureaucratic man…
is and must be dedicated to the proposition that his personal needs and desires take precedence over the basic purposes of his institution or profession. This is not new. What is modern…is that the bureaucratic personality is contagious. It spread with the spread of higher education, doubly important, first to train professionals, and also to reclassify older activities as professions which now require training such as management and engineering.”

Backfire convincingly shows that the bureaucratic mindset is not only the problem of the civil service, but of all of us. Even the warriors, traditionally set apart from society’s values, would now rather get promoted than win a battle. The corporate man, the student, John Q. Public: they have all lost their citizenship.

It is thus no wonder that all the well meaning diplomats and political scientists and everyone else in Saigon, for all their research skills and organizational theory, were foredoomed to fail. They lacked character.

Backfire will be remembered for defining the bureaucracy beyond just simplistic red tape and reports. The reader learns through osmosis the ramifications of bureaucracy long before the thesis is explicit. With 23 paperback pages of bibliographical references, the 350-page work is a cornucopia of information.

One sees the whiz kids under Kennedy insisting on seeking out ways to quantify information, and the State Department intellectuals fumbling to clarify goals and misapplying management techniques familiar to every career student in social work or physical education. Interestingly, President Nixon comes across as more reputable than Nobel Peace Prize winner Henry Kissinger.

Backfire is a complex work. It could stand alone as a justification of the need for liberal arts degrees if only for its minor theme of how the various organs of society involved in Vietnam lacked the depth to truly know why they were involved, and lacked the breadth of vision to co-operate effectively.

At one point, for example, the Central intelligence Agency (CIA) had achieved success by using teams of local Vietnamese to defend their villages. The winning combination involved the farmers picking their own leaders and no one wearing uniforms. Overriding CIA protests, the military took it over, increased the size and firepower of the teams, and eliminated the political part of the training. "Desertions from the teams rose, and their effectiveness fell.” Earlier, when the teams still had their Vietnamese character, they “had so far lost four weapons, but captured more than four hundred."

Baritz brings to Backfire the experience of an ex-history professor whose bureaucratic credentials include being chancellor for the 64 campuses and 300,000 students of the State University of New York.

He gives sobering reasons why formal education is not the solution to war. While seeing a revival of citizenship as a “pipe dream,” he views the alternative, nuclear weapons in the hands of a few people of a technical orientation, to be “calamitous.”

There were 30,000 Canadian volunteers in Vietnam. Some came home in a box. Backfire is being published at a time when campuses all across this continent, including our own, are still lining the road to Saigon.

Come to think of it, when I review my memories of the individuals in Iraq described in Imperial Life Inside the Emerald City, individuals who displaced those with "real world development experience," individuals whose main credentials were they voted republican, (seriously!) I see them not only as America's B team—make that the C team—but as folks who got straight C's in college while feeling unmoved by the liberal arts. I don't remember them as the sort who would have been enthusiastic students who enjoyed talking students-in-acaedemia stuff... and the farce proceeded to unfold as if Vietnam had never happened.

It makes sense, now, that they individually could not have thought about, and would have been unable to talk to each other about, open-minded visions for nation-building in Iraq.

Sean Crawford
Originally published April, 1989
In the University of Calgary Gauntlet
~Obviously, if US citizens are unwilling to learn the lessons of Vietnam then their War on Drugs is  utterly doomed in advance. I wrote of this in March of 2013 in A Young Girl's Guide to Wars and Drugs.

~While I was doing the "linking thing" via google I discovered that the Matt Damon movie Green Zone was based on Inside the Emerald City. I really liked the book. Now I wish I'd seen the movie.

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