Thursday, February 3, 2011

Knowing Nam

Prologue: Excerpt from my anti-War on Terror essay, Pick Your Wartimes Well archived September 2013:
This new war effort, if indeed we are still at war, is different. No one has said “commitment.” Some people were saying right from 2001, remembering Nam, that the US people lacked “the right stuff” for a long drawn out war. You may recall how the North Vietnamese, besides saying Americans are all na├»ve, said Americans had no patience, and so all the Viet Cong had to do was keep not-losing until the Yankees went home. In fairness to the Yanks, they had merely designated the show as a non-war, as “a conflict,” where the People’s Republic of North Vietnam was not to be invaded, and South Vietnam was not to be occupied. Of the South: “It is their war and they have to win it.” If Nam been a “declared war," with commitment unleashed, then the exit strategy, “victory” would have been clear and easy-to-agree-on. A “war” would have meant an easy to coordinate-and-work-towards goal. But of course it was the South’s war, and the US continually had to be careful not to help too much, and not to undermine the self-esteem and effectiveness of the Vietnamese. Well. Maybe winning a non-war is not possible; maybe trying to win one is as crazy and useless as trying to prove a negative.

Introduction: I regret that people are oversimplifying Nam by forgetting the word "generation gap." At the time, it was like the hit TV show All in the Family, where young Mike (the meathead) and all his friends opposed the war, while his father-in-law Archie Bunker and all his friends favoured the war.

By forgetting the generation gap we are in danger of becoming like those jaded Europeans, with castles dotting their hillsides, who believe wars are imposed on the poor working class by the evil government and the upper-upper class. Those castles are nice, but over here we have a republic.

Knowing Nam
Ironically, the same sort of person who caused the agony of the South Vietnam “conflict” has now written some bizarre stuff about soldiers. Last year a person from generation X, “Peetee” (not her real blogger name) wrote that we shouldn’t have Veterans Day. (Remembrance Day) Among other things, she thought soldiers joined up solely for the money, and that armies and wars were like during Vietnam.

On her blog Peetee got over three hundred replies, some of them from people who had taken a big pay cut to serve, and so I don’t feel moved, here, to respond specifically to her narrow views. Nor will I link any trolls or hate-mongers to her, since blogger-folk, as part of their having no patience for essays, write for a really ephemeral statute of limitations.

Instead my concern is with the bigger picture, with folks like Peetee enabling war yet denying responsibility. How can I make sense of her? I think part of her problem is that being uninformed in two small areas, diplomacy and “gunboat diplomacy,” have led to her being grotesquely uninformed in one large area. I will explain.

Here in my company town, in the big factory, I believe it’s fine to delegate individuals to do union negotiations, while at the same time we delegate federal government representatives to do diplomacy overseas. Although such talks are done privately, without leaks, I can easily guess at what goes on. I think, some times, instead of turning the other cheek, my shop steward needs to act as if “two wrongs make a right.” In the international arena, although “it’s just not fair!” to seize assets on US soil, or to break a solemn contract with a poor fascist and suspend supplies of intricate spare parts for his military aircraft, such unilateral actions are surely better than going to war.

It’s usually best not to commit to going to war when a nation harbors pirates or, like North Korea, sends commandos on incursions below the border. Last year the communists fired artillery shells across the border and killed people. How to respond? As a character in a 1948 postwar novel by Robert Heinlein put it, one keeps order in a nursery using a willow branch, not a loaded gun. Hence South Korea will try to hold up incursions by using precise land mines, not blunt biological warfare. When there is a pirate village up the river one sends a navy gunboat with marines to burn the huts, not a blazing atom bomb.

 I suppose the marines belong to the president, as part of his being delegated by the US people to act in their name while not informing the people of the details. Likewise, here in town, the union representative is delegated by the workers to act against our natural enemy: management. From what I’ve seen of the US, the American culture involves the people having "plausible deniability." For example, plain folks are innocent as to how Yankees are viewed by ordinary people in Latin America, and why.

 Meanwhile, I suppose the army belongs to congress, as part of the people’s willingness to be accountable for committing to go to war. Such responsibility is a part of their culture: An oft-repeated US children’s cartoon from my youth shows ants lining up to receive army helmets, stamped down like bottle caps, and singing, “We have done it before, and we can do it again.” Remember? That’s the cartoon that ends with the victorious allies disagreeing on whether to divide the cake in half by north to south or east to west. Fistfights break out.

The makers of that cartoon would have grown up with the same sort of US high school textbooks I had in my basement, books that always made a point of emphasizing how the Roman army was not paid, and not conscripted, but was all volunteers serving for free. Not serfs but free citizens. (Naturally the army supplied the rations, catapults and so forth)

Surely the cartoonists, in showing the fistfights, expressed their dashed hopes of the postwar years where the allies quickly parted, dividing into the west and the communists. The Marxists wanted to rule the globe, converting us all to communism. Suddenly we lived in a terrible world, a world with air raid towers on the school grounds, where the Reds could pull a Pearl Harbor on us at any moment, when communism (snarl) was nearly as bad as Nazism, while knowing the next war would not allow any slow mobilization, not like last time. For the first time ever, the US needed a European-style standing army, in order to mobilize fast, an army with such numbers as could not be sustained except by a European-style conscription: The draft. (My French textbook, in the part where the students visit France, went: “Ou est votre cousin?” “Ill fait son service militaire.”)

In those tense days, before Peetee was born, I can remember how the world was divided into the first world, the good guys; and the second world, the dirty commies. The battlefield of this cold war, where both sides agreed not to use atomics, was the third world. Even when the swiftly advancing communist North Koreans sent the South Korean and US forces retreating almost to the sea there would be no atomics used, no B-52’s screaming over the border into the Soviet Union or China.

An instructive example of those tense days comes from the Olympics. While the free world was adhering to the Olympic ideals of only sending amateurs, the Soviets claimed their ice hockey players were amateurs too… with their day jobs, as it were, being soldiers in the Red Army. In reality, of course, their team was full time professionals who probably never marched or fired a gun from one year to the next. As I recall no one, and I mean no one, dared accuse the Soviets of cheating: The Russians were just too big and scary to confront.

And then, one day, in the gulf of Tonkin, the communist North Vietnamese sent a few motorized gunboats, (MGB’s or MTB’s) the sort of craft which US navy calls Patrol Torpedo boats, to scare the US fleet... At the time the US president was using the equivalent of his marines: experienced career soldiers as “advisors” to the South Vietnamese... Swiftly the president got congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution so he could legally escalate the war and send in a flood of conscripts.

Unfortunately, people like Peetee, to use a 1960’s phrase, were “part of the problem, not part of the solution.” Since the Vietnam conflict still wasn’t a declared war people like her felt no need to commit, no need to exercise their citizen oversight. They were horribly innocent of how the result was a fiasco, almost as screwed up as the occupation of Iraq.

The story gets worse: As a few correspondents over in Nam, and a few Ugly (to the establishment) Americans over there, all tried to mail out cries for sanity, tried to expose the fiasco… the Peetees of the world thought the lone voices must be wrong. To them the last war, WWII, was “normal” and so the army must be True and Good and Honest. Alas, if only the "older generation" editors hadn’t ignored the dispatches from those young reporters…

Back then Peetee would have been mesmerized, her eyes magnetically, fatally, drawn to the last war. (WWII) She would not “see” the conflict before her… and even today the American people, in their denial and avoidance, still have not resolved that conflict. (Nam) Unhappily, this isn’t news to any Iraqi who holds a library card.

It is obvious to me that today Peetee is again magnetized to the last war. (Nam) Evidently she thinks a “gunboat diplomacy” conflict, fought using conscripts, where half the public feels no commitment, and are in fact protesting and actively opposed, is “normal.” Peetee is wrong: Vietnam was a fluke, made possible in part by unnecessary ignorance.

People only line up for helmets if everyone else is doing so too. The cold war draftees were 19; the average age of a US soldier in WWII was 26. For any democracy, from the old Republic of Athens to today’s Australia, it’s insane to expect a 26 year old farmer to leave his wife and little children, to leave his crops half grown in the field, in order to go volunteer to serve in a war that is protested and opposed.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand” quoth my favorite president, Abraham Lincoln. 

There is a reason why Lincoln allowed federal elections to be held in the middle of a war, even as the Union kept losing, even as his advisors were sorely afraid he would lose his office: Lincoln wanted the people to feel free to democratically exercise their choice to elect someone else, someone who would NOT force the South to surrender.

Needless to say, neither in the North nor in the South did the people oppose their government as being  “older generation,” capitalist, "establishment," separate from the groovy “now generation,” or somehow alien to The People. Like I said, Vietnam was a fluke.

A public war is waged by the public. Too bad Peetee doesn’t get it.

Sean Crawford
“Looking back, it's hard to tell…
Spend your whole life working it out”
February 2011
~For a different angle on Nam, comparing it point by point to the war on drugs, see one of my more popular (by hit count) essays A Young Girl's Guide to Wars and Drugs, archived March 2013.

~Here is an excerpt regarding idealists in Nam, an excerpt from a piece of mine on whether innocent people have anything to fear from idealists doing domestic surveillance, archived October 2013 The boldface is added:

I like Americans; I like how federal workers, including the various “guns and uniforms” crowds, are not like dispirited minions of Darth Vader (or middle east armies) who merely go through the motions. In fact, I am touched by how idealistic they are: I’m still chuckling fondly over Vietnam. After the Japanese left, the French fought there the same way as any other western army would, but the Americans in their turn were exceptional. Who else would have brought in grueling long range patrols, complete with special long-range rations, lonely snipers, the widespread phoenix assassination program, candy for the children, and all sorts of plans to “win the hearts and minds?” And who else, unlike Europeans, would have kept their hands off, no hiring and firing of bad Vietnamese officers, insisting the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam be allowed to screw up? “This is their war and they have to win it.”

It was during Nam I first heard the term mission creep. The grunts, I heard, started with a mission to defend the Vietnamese airport, presumably from foxholes along the perimeter. But then… they would go out on reconnaissance patrols, “reconnaissance in force,” combat patrols… forward listening posts, bigger posts, and “force protection” by dominating the area… “We need more troops!” And so it goes. 

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