Calling a Spade a Spade: Stanley Karnow, Stanley McChrystal & Vietnam
Below is a recent exchange on the Vietnam Studies Group (VSG) listserv. Members include Vietnam scholars and practitioners, current and former diplomats and spooks (“agents or people involved in espionage”), journalists, non-governmental (NGO) organization staff, etc. Quite a few are overseas Vietnamese (Việt kiều).
Read from the bottom up. Bernard Kalb, the journalist and former US State Department spokesman during the Reagan Administration, shares a story about a 2009 telephone conversation Stanley Karnow had with Stanley McChrystal, then Commander, International Security Assistance Force and Commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan. McChrystal asked Karnow if there was anything we (Americans) learned in Vietnam that “we” can use in Afghanistan. Karnow’s reply: What we learned is we never should have been there in the first place.
Subject: RE: [Vsg] stanley karnow!
Date: Wed, 30 Jan 2013 08:14:42 -0500
Karnow’s response to McChrystal pretty much sums it up. Had the US not scuttled the Geneva Accords, picked up where the French left off, bankrolled yet another client state, subverted the will of the electorate (I believe it was none other than Ike who said HCM would have received 80% of the vote in a 1956 election) and delayed the inevitable unification of VN, millions would still be alive, many of you would be in a different line of work and many others would still be in Vietnam. (Regarding the last point, read – or reread – Linh Dinh’s 2010 essay House Slave Syndrome.) There would not have been an American War in Vietnam that for some is a “subject of study” (Pierre A.), for some a “cause,” and for others both. And, of course, Vietnam and SE Asia would be very different places today.
Official America “repeats the past” not because it can’t remember it, to quote from George Santayana’s dictum, but because the past doesn’t conform to the precepts of missionary nationalism. Andrew Bacevich addresses this point succinctly in The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism: “Humility imposes an obligation of a different sort. It summons Americans to see themselves without blinders. The enemy of humility is sanctimony, which gives rise to the conviction that American values and beliefs are universal and that the nation itself serves providentially assigned purposes. This conviction finds expression in a determination to remake the world in what we imagine to be America’s image.” The USG chooses, again and again, in spite of the inestimable cost in human life, suffering, damage to flora and fauna, and money, to embrace sanctimony over humility.
> From: bkalb@…
> Date: Sun, 27 Jan 2013 16:33:32 -0500
> To: email@example.com
> CC: firstname.lastname@example.org
> Subject: [Vsg] stanley karnow!
> tough one, this one, to share the word that we’ve just lost one of the best–stanley karnow, off on his last assignment this morning, a cple months short of his 88th birthday; in nearby potomac, md. my best companero, stanley, for decades, ever since we first met in seasia back in the late 50s; he with TIME then and going on to write book after book, including his definitive VIETNAM–plus the 13-part VIETNAM: a television series, on PBS in the 80s. plus a book on china, on paris, a pulitzer prize winner on the philippines, in 1990. was writing his memoirs when….
> only vignette i’ll add here–which stanley told me about after he’d recd a surprise phone call from general mccrystall when top commander in afghanistan, the general asking whether stanley, to quote a few sentences as published in the washington beacon, march 2010, had learned anything in vn that cld be of use in afghanistan. “well, i didn’t have a long conversation with him, but i did say if we’re going to talk about vn, what we really learned in vn is that we shldn’t have been there in the first place.”
> you’ll be reading more abt stanley in the next few days as the vignettes and stories mount skywards.