Lansdale’s Ghost

Below is a review of Max Boot’s book about Edward Lansdale by Thomas A. Bass that appeared in the May 2018 issue the Mekong Review.  In case you don’t know who Max Boot, check out this Wikipedia entry.  He is one of the resident US nationalists at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).  Bass describes the CFR and Boot as follows:  The CFR provides the nabobs who appear nightly on the evening news to discourse on how the Empire is faring in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere among the 177 countries where the United States currently has military forces in operation. The CFR might quibble over tactics or parse strategies in the Hindu Kush, but US wars are invariably good wars. When it comes to counterinsurgencies, wars among the people and winning the hearts and minds of restive natives in far-off lands, Boot is CFR’s cheerleader in residence.
Here is the original Gore Vidal quote in its entirety:  After 1976, I predict (being an optimist) that the word will have gone forth to friend and foe alike that the era of American bullshit is finished and that we will now try to create that society the world has been waiting two hundred years to see: an American civilization.  It appeared in A Special Supplement: The Meaning of Vietnam published in the 12 June 1975 issue of The New York Review of Books.  As much as I admire Gore Vidal and as much as I, too, am an optimist, I believe that history makes it crystal clear that the “era of American bullshit” continues unabated with too many people, both in the US and beyond, all too happy and willing to swallow it.
Subsequent administrations should have listened to President Eisenhower, who knew a thing or two about war, and said 1) “No military victory is possible in this theatre.”; and 2) President Ho Chi Minh would have received 80% of the popular vote had a national election been permitted to take place in 1956 under the terms of the Geneva Accords of 1954.  The US decided otherwise, making the 2nd Indochina War an inevitability.   
Peace, MAA

lansdale
Edward Lansdale in 1963. Photo: WikiCommons

The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam
Max Boot
Liveright: 2018
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The Vietnam War was a dog from day one. This was the scandal revealed by the Pentagon Papers, the forty-seven volumes documenting the lies and fakery that year after year racked up bodies like cordwood. More than 3 million Vietnamese were bombed, shelled, gassed, tortured and otherwise killed in a war that Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford should have ended the day it began, by acknowledging that the Vietnamese beat the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and that colonialism in Asia was dead.

“The word will have gone forth to friend and foe alike that the era of American bullshit is finished,” said Gore Vidal.

Unfortunately, Vidal was wrong. Not even their defeat in Vietnam could keep the US military-industrial pundit class from longing for “a better war”, a winning war, a triumphal return to world dominance. The Vietnam War has produced the best of books and the worst of books, but, as time goes on, the latter are crowding out the former, and only the latter are read at West Point and other US military academies. “The vast majority of senior American military officers … are still refighting the Vietnam War to a far cheerier outcome through the books they read, the scholarship they publish, and (most disturbingly) the policies they continue to pursue,” wrote US Army Major Danny Sjursen in a 2018 posting to TomDispatch.com.

The revisionists refighting the war are divided into two camps, says Sjursen. The Clausewitzians — followers of the Prussian military theorist — believe that the United States should have invaded North Vietnam. The “hearts-and-minders” believe that the war should have been fought at the village level as a counterinsurgency. Leading Clausewitzians include Harry Summers, whose 1982 book On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War “became an instant classic within the military”, says Sjursen. Summers argues that a namby-pamby emphasis on civil affairs prevented a knockout invasion of North Vietnam. The war was lost, he says, by “draft dodgers and war evaders who still struggle with their consciences”.

Opposing the Clausewitzians are the hearts-and-minders, who argue that the US lost the Vietnam War by failing to adopt a small-unit pacification strategy, with soldiers following Mao’s advice “to move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea”. The leading advocate for this strategy is Lewis Sorley, who claimed in his book A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam that the United States had already won the war by the spring of 1970, before this victory was squandered by generals and civilians clamouring for a big-war strategy. Other proponents of counterinsurgency include generals David Petraeus and James Mattis, who co-authored the 2006 US Army field manual on counterinsurgency, before going on to command US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Caught sending mash notes to his mistress, Petraeus was later cashiered as CIA director, while Mattis currently serves as US Secretary of Defense.) The list of those arguing that the US should have emphasised counterinsurgency over conventional warfare includes Andrew Krepinevich (The Army and Vietnam), John Nagl (Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam) and Petraeus and Mattis, whose field manual, FM 3-24, became a bestseller after receiving a laudatory review in the New York Times.

“The danger presented by either school is clear enough in the twenty-first century,” says Sjursen. “Senior commanders, some now serving in key national security positions, fixated on Vietnam, have translated that conflict’s supposed lessons into what now passes for military strategy in Washington. The result has been an ever-expanding war on terror campaign waged ceaselessly from South Asia to West Africa, which has essentially turned out to be perpetual war based on the can-do belief that counterinsurgency and advise-and-assist missions should have worked in Vietnam and can work now.”

The latest addition to this bookshelf is a tome by Max Boot, The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam. The author is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York’s major think tank for the military-industrial complex, where he writes popular military histories. What distinguishes this and Boot’s three previous books is that he has never met a US war he didn’t like. He beat the drums for invading Afghanistan. He beat the drums for invading Iraq and Syria. And now he’s beating the drums for refighting the Vietnam War, this time with a winning strategy. His nostalgia is telegraphed in the title of his book, where the “road” to avoiding military defeat in Vietnam, according to Boot, would have been more civil affairs, psychological operations (psy-ops), PR, pacification teams and other strategies developed by former advertising man and master CIA spook Edward Lansdale.

This approach to fighting wars was already being skewered by Harold Pinter in the speech he gave on winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 2005. The United States “has preferred what it has described as ‘low intensity conflict’,” said Pinter. “Low intensity conflict means that thousands of people die but slower than if you dropped a bomb on them in one fell swoop. It means that you infect the heart of the country, that you establish a malignant growth and watch the gangrene bloom. When the populace has been subdued — or beaten to death — the same thing — and your own friends, the military and the great corporations, sit comfortably in power, you go before the camera and say that democracy has prevailed.”

The communists in Vietnam were promising to break the stranglehold of the Chinese merchants who controlled the rice markets, the Catholic mandarins who controlled the government and the landlords who controlled the land. The US was promising democracy and freedom, while engineering stolen elections, herding peasants into concentration camps, defoliating the countryside and killing everything that moved in free-fire zones. Boot takes 700 pages to explain how a harmonica-playing adman from San Francisco could have flipped this equation into a winning war. His argument is no more convincing now than it was fifty years ago, when Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers and exposed Lansdale as a CIA operative whose black ops and terror teams had suffered one failure after another.

Employed as a copywriter for Wells Fargo bank, Italian Swiss Colony wines and Levi Strauss blue jeans, Lansdale, at the age of thirty-five, in a fit of patriotic fervour following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, joined the Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. After World War II, he began working undercover on agency assignments in Asia. Here he did an excellent job of defending landlords and other reactionary forces that had sided with the Japanese during the war. He helped suppress the Hukbalahap movement in the Philippines, which was fighting for land reform, by labelling them “communists” and financing the military forces that tracked them into the countryside and killed them. The peasant farmers who had fought the Japanese now had to fight the Americans.

It was here in the Philippines that Lansdale perfected his tradecraft. By skimming 5 per cent of the funds allotted for the post-World War II Marshall Plan, the CIA had given itself US$200 million a year for black ops (about US$2.5 billion in today’s money). Dipping liberally into these funds (one estimate says his initial budget was US$5 million), Lansdale financed paramilitary operations, bought elections, published newspapers, mounted propaganda campaigns and engaged in psy-ops that skated into war crimes. In one notorious instance, his men kidnapped a Huk guerrilla, pierced his neck with what looked like the bite marks of a vampire and hung him upside down in a tree to bleed to death. Both Lansdale and his biographer believe that this was an effective method for spooking Huks into throwing down their arms and returning to toil on the estates of their landlords.

It was also in the Philippines that Lansdale acquired the long-suffering mistress, Patrocinio Yapcinco Kelly, who had to wait twenty-seven years — until the death of the first Mrs Lansdale and the end of anti-miscegenation statutes in Virginia (invalidated by the Supreme Court in 1967) — before she could become the second Mrs Lansdale. Boot quotes at length from their love letters, which reveal “Pat” to be the kind of native informant that every anthropologist — not to mention PR pitchman — hopes to find when operating in a foreign culture.

Lansdale was given another Asian assignment when the CIA sent him to Vietnam, beginning with an exploratory mission in 1953 and then for another two-year stretch, starting in 1954. Again, he rallied the right into a neocolonial medley of landlords, Japanese collaborators, Legionnaires, Catholic mandarins and Chinese rice merchants, although even President Eisenhower admitted that communist leader Ho Chi Minh would easily have won election as president over a unified Vietnam, if such an election — as called for in the Geneva Accords — had been held. “No military victory is possible in this theatre,” Eisenhower wrote in his diary.

After the dissolution of French Indochina in 1954, Lansdale began creating a country called the Republic of Vietnam. He took Cochinchina, France’s former colony in the south, and installed Catholic mandarin Ngo Dinh Diem, first as prime minister and then as president. He bribed Diem’s opponents, financed his military, sabotaged Ho’s government in the north, encouraged close to a million Catholics to resettle in the south, drafted South Vietnam’s constitution and then sealed the deal with a “democratic” election that Diem stole with 98.2 per cent of the vote.

Lansdale was a master at surrounding himself with a fog of PR. He even managed to rewrite the script for the original Hollywood version of The Quiet American, turning Graham Greene’s bumbling CIA operative into a celluloid crusader. Our first glimpse into the real nature of Lansdale’s activities came in 1971, when Daniel Ellsberg released forty-three of the forty-seven volumes of the top-secret History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, commonly known as the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg was actually a former member of Lansdale’s team. Between stints at the RAND Corporation, a military think tank in California, Ellsberg had served as Lansdale’s assistant in Vietnam for a year and a half, beginning in the summer of 1965. (This was during Lansdale’s second tour of duty in Vietnam, from 1965 to 1967 — an unsuccessful mission that followed another failed assignment, to kill Fidel Castro.)

The Pentagon Papers include a document entitled “Lansdale Team’s Report on Covert Saigon Mission in 1954 and 1955”, which presents itself as “the condensed account of one year in the operation of a ‘cold war’ combat team”. Lansdale’s team “was to enter into Vietnam quietly and assist the Vietnamese, rather than the French, in unconventional warfare. The French were to be kept as friendly allies in the process, as far as possible. The broad mission for the team was to undertake paramilitary operations against the enemy and to wage political-psychological warfare.”

The report goes on to describe the covert acts of sabotage and terror that Lansdale launched against North Vietnam before his agents were evacuated from Hanoi in April 1954. The team “spent the last days of Hanoi in contaminating the oil supply of the bus company for a gradual wreckage of engines in the buses, in taking actions for delayed sabotage of the railroad (which required teamwork with a CIA special technical team in Japan who performed their part brilliantly), and in writing detailed notes of potential targets for future paramilitary operations”. These operations began the following year, when mercenaries trained in the Philippines were landed on the shores of North Vietnam. After most of these saboteurs had been arrested and put on trial in Hanoi, Lansdale turned to training the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the force that the United States put up against the communists, before engaging 500,000 troops of its own.

Lansdale created a country, began funnelling millions and then billions of dollars into defending it, and laid the blueprint for pacification, psy-ops, black ops and all the other military campaigns that would kill Vietnamese by the millions and still not prevail. “South Vietnam, it can truly be said, was the creation of Edward Lansdale,” Neil Sheehan wrote in A Bright Shining Lie. For Sheehan this proved a tragic mistake, while for Boot it was a heroic struggle for truth, justice and the American way. Boot actually writes prose like this, without irony. When it comes to rounding up peasants and throwing them into concentration camps, we learn from him that “strategic hamlets” are a “tried-and-true pacification technique”. Sometimes his prose is so purple that it’s hard to understand. We learn, for example, that soon after Lansdale’s birth, in Detroit in 1908, the “child of the nascent American Century … would have imbibed, along with his Cream of Wheat and Grapenuts, a sense that American power was spreading to every corner of the globe like milk filling up a bowl of cereal”. Is Boot saying that US power is the mother’s milk of the world? Are other countries nothing more than flakes of cereal floating in this bowl of US benevolence?

While describing Lansdale as an expert in the “cutthroat business” of counterinsurgency, Boot also wants us to believe that the man “would preach ideals of brotherly love”. He calls Lansdale a master “of the art of propaganda that he would later practice in both its civilian guise of ‘advertising’ and its military version, ‘psychological war.’” Here Boot is actually skating close to the truth by describing psy-war as the military version of PR. He admires the realpolitik involved in black ops. For him and other members of the war party, the end justifies the means. It is not with distaste that he says the OSS, “like all intelligence agencies, existed to lie, cheat, and steal for its country”.

Lansdale had a “ruthless streak”, Boot admits, “even if it required murder for hire, but he was so eager to protect his image as an idealist that he was deeply reluctant to admit what he was up to, not least to himself”. The same might be said of Lansdale’s biographer, who has produced a schizophrenic narrative that tries to recommend black ops as a useful tool for winning hearts and minds. After claiming him as the “godfather of counterinsurgency”, Boot also credits Lansdale with the growth of US special forces, the philosophy of “soft power” and the rise of military contractors. One might add to this list the use of mercenary forces, secret armies, terror teams, assassination squads and other ways of waging war while pretending to be at peace.

Boot likes to compare his book to Sheehan’s master work, but the claim is bogus, particularly when one looks at their coverage of the same events. When writing about the battle of Ap Bac in 1963, for example, instead of relying on Sheehan’s first-hand observations and meticulous research, Boot quotes from a couple of neocon lightweights intent on burnishing the image of Ngo Dinh Diem. On the next page, he displays the same bad judgement by attacking journalists for their “sensationalistic media coverage” of the Buddhist crisis (as if monks burning themselves alive on the streets of Saigon was not “sensationalistic”). Boot invariably relies on second-rate sources, dubious interpretations and crowd-pleasing attacks on the press, which he holds responsible for losing the Vietnam War. He is a tub-thumper for the neocon trope that reporting the truth about US brutality and incompetence aids the enemy.

Lansdale was smart enough to know that his attempts at nation-building had run off the rails by the time Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother were assassinated in 1963. (Diem was “cut down in a blaze of bullets”, writes Boot, incorrectly. He was actually stabbed to death on the floor of an armoured personnel carrier with his hands tied behind his back.) Lansdale knew for sure that the game was up in 1968, after the Tet Offensive. The war would last for another seven years, but by this time the US had begun brutalising the Vietnamese population with large-scale operations and committing atrocities such as the My Lai massacre, when more than 500 women, children and other non-combatants were killed in a day-long blood-letting. “We lost the war at the Tet Offensive,” said Lansdale, because US soldiers, thinking every Vietnamese a potential terrorist, could no longer discriminate between friend and foe. “I don’t believe this is a government that can win the hearts and minds of the people,” he added, before leaving Vietnam in June 1968.

This is a Council on Foreign Relations book,” Boot writes in the opening line of his acknowledgments. He is referring to the outfit that pays him as a “senior fellow in national security studies”, but also to the kind of book this is. The CFR provides the nabobs who appear nightly on the evening news to discourse on how the Empire is faring in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere among the 177 countries where the United States currently has military forces in operation. The CFR might quibble over tactics or parse strategies in the Hindu Kush, but US wars are invariably good wars. When it comes to counterinsurgencies, wars among the people and winning the hearts and minds of restive natives in far-off lands, Boot is CFR’s cheerleader in residence.

Boot is a Russian Jew born in Moscow, whose parents immigrated to the US when he was seven. He grew up in sunny Los Angeles, where he teethed on the freedom-loving poppycock of Ronald Reagan.

“I am white. I am Jewish. I am an immigrant. I am a Russian American. But until recently I haven’t focused so much on those parts of my identity. I’ve always thought of myself simply as a normal, unhyphenated American,” Boot wrote in an article published in the Washington Post in September 2017, entitled “I came to this country forty-one years ago. Now I feel like I don’t belong here.”

“Not even Trump and his nativist attorney general, Jeff Sessions, have yet figured out a way to strip naturalized American citizens of their legal status,” Boot wrote in his article, before asking — like a lot of Vietnamese immigrants and refugees currently facing deportation — “What would I do now, at age forty-eight, if I were deported to a country that I have not seen in more than forty years and whose language I no longer speak?”

After his recent wake-up call, one wonders if Boot might start writing different kinds of books, less full of patriotic gore. In the meantime, his Lansdale tome is a battle cry from the past. It is a history of neither the Vietnam war nor Lansdale’s role in that debacle. It is a love letter from the happier days when flag-draped patriots and scoundrels ruled the roost, and no one had to worry about the chickens coming home.

Thomas A. Bass is the author of Vietnamerica, The Spy Who Loved Us and Censorship in Vietnam: Brave New World (reviewed here).
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“Losing Hearts & Minds” Say What?

(US) American-Iranian Relations & International Education during the Cold War

The question remains about how institutions of higher education can thrive economically and promote responsible internationalization. On the one hand, educational exchange can help generate change around the world and enhance American influence and prestige. On the other hand, schools, like nations, should not compromise principles such as academic freedom to acquire financial gain or a global reach. American schools today should work to internationalize, but they should avoid getting involved with authoritarian states in a way that would damage, rather than bolster, long-term interests and the prospects for future dialogue.  (Matthew K. Shannon)

  There is nothing obscure about the objectives of educational exchange. Its purpose is to acquaint Americans with the world as it is and to acquaint students and scholars from many lands with America as it is–not as we wish it were or as we might wish foreigners to see it, but exactly as it is…  (J. William Fulbright)

NOTE:  No, this is obviously not a post about Viet Nam, at least not directly, but it is about overseas study as an integral part of international education.  (It is most definitely is true to the blog’s subtitle of Information, Insights & (Occasionally) Intrigue.)  I haven’t read the book with the above title only this Inside Higher Ed interview with the author of the book.  Since I’m not one to shoot from the hip and review books without having read them, this is only some reflections about some of the answers.

Iranian Students Against the Shah

When I was an undergraduate back in the mid-70s, I had some friends from Iran, who were against the Shah.  I remember some of the discussions we had, including about the CIA-engineered coup d’état in 1953 and the overthrow of a democratically elected prime minister.  (Stephen Kinzer, among others, has documented this centerpiece of US foreign policy since the late 19th century in Overthrow:  America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq.)

I also remembered an on-campus demonstration of masked Iranian students shouting “Down with the Shah” and “US advisers, CIA agents out of Iran”.  It was of course the CIA and the Israeli MOSSAD that helped to establish SAVAK, the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s much-hated and feared secret police, domestic security and intelligence service.  That was months before the overthrow of the Shah.

I was studying in Germany when the hostage crisis began at the US Embassy in Tehran.  All my friends were either German or other international students, including one from Iran.  We talked about that incident not as representatives of the countries whose passports we carried but as human beings.

The Purpose of International Educational Exchange

I’ve always viewed overseas study as an opportunity to learn about the good, the bad, and the ugly of the host country not for that country, in the case of the US, to “generate change around the world and enhance American influence and prestige.”  What kind of change is Mr. Shannon referring to, I wonder?  The kind that only serves US political, economic, and military interests?  The kind that spreads more “democracy and freedom,” at least on paper and, in reality, code for US domination, economic and otherwise, at the barrel of a gun?

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Courtesy of Cornell University Press

I hold this view because I’m a one-time patriot and a longtime global citizen not a US nationalist.  The US has done some good in the world but it also has a long, bloodstained track record in many countries, including Iran and the country I have called home since 2005.  Its leaders and a majority of its citizens have yet to overcome their country’s past in the spirit  of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a “struggle to overcome the [negatives of the] past.” I wonder if Mr. Shannon, the author of Losing Hearts and Minds, is a patriot or a nationalist?  Like anyone, his world view, and the values system in which it’s rooted, clearly informs his work. 

I also wonder about his statement that the US should avoid getting involved with authoritarian states in a way that would damage, rather than bolster, long-term interests and the prospects for future dialogue.  That would eliminate the majority of current international student enrollment in the US, which is currently in steady decline, the result of a variety of factors that include, but also transcend, the current administration. 

Of Hearts, Minds, & US Nationalism

As someone who has lived and worked in Viet Nam for nearly 13 years and whose first-hand experience with the country dates to 1996, I’m not sure if Mr. Shannon chose the best title for his book.  I wonder if he’s also aware of its rather nasty connotation, given how it was used during the American War in Viet Nam, where not many “hearts and minds” were won by the foreign invader du jour and its client state.   

Finally, this whole notion of “winning hearts and minds” is not a justification for real international educational exchange, unless you represent the US government, the US Chamber of Commerce, or you’re a red, white, and blue true believer aka nationalist.  (We’re #1!  We’re the greatest!  USA, USA, USA!  You get my drift.) 

fulbrightMr. Shannon may want to learn more about J. William Fulbright’s views on this subject, including the one contained in the quotes above and below about the Fulbright Program, taken from this page of Selected quotations by J. William Fulbright on international educational exchange on the US State Department website, no less.  (Obviously, no one from the Trump administration has gotten around to deleting it yet.)   

The essence of intercultural education is the acquisition of empathy–the ability to see the world as others see it, and to allow for the possibility that others may see something we have failed to see, or may see it more accurately. The simple purpose of the exchange program…is to erode the culturally rooted mistrust that sets nations against one another. The exchange program is not a panacea but an avenue of hope…. [From The Price of Empire]

Peace, MAA

The New College Guide: How to Get In, Get Out, and Get a Job – 100 Questions to Ask About College

How to Get In, Get Out, and Get a Job – 100 Questions to Ask About  College – by Marguerite J. Dennis, who has been recruiting internationally for over 25 years, first at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. then at Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Follow this link to read her bio on the MJDennis Consulting website.)

Book-Cover-The-New-College-Guide-by-Marguerite-J-Dennis-231x300As the publisher’s website points out, The New College Guide: How to Get In, Get Out, and Get a Job is a different kind of college admission and financial aid book because it offers the reader information to consider before college admission, to financing college with manageable debt, to graduating in four years and getting a job after graduation.

On a personal note I  have known Marguerite Dennis since my IIE-Vietnam days (2005-09), when she was Vice President for Enrollment and International Programs at Suffolk University.  I was excited when I learned that she was writing this book and, after seeing a draft, was happy to offer the following testimonial:

The New College Guide is a practical and readable book that addresses questions on the minds of millions of anxious students and parents not only in the United States but overseas. It gives readers a golden opportunity to benefit from Marguerite Dennis’ insights and wisdom about U.S. higher education gained from decades of professional experience.

It’s a great resource not only for domestic (U.S.) students but also for international students, of which there were 819,644 last year, according to the 2013 Open Doors annual report, an increase of 7%, including those from a country that ranks 8th among all places of origin, i.e., Vietnam.

MAA

“Review” of Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam

katm2Haunting.  This is the title of a “review” I recently posted on Amazon about Kill Anything That Moves:  The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse, which is available in paperback today.  Actually, it’s not so much a review as it is a rebuttal to every criticism – or at least all of the ones I have encountered since the book’s publication almost a year ago – leveled against the author and the book.  If there any criticisms I’ve overlooked, please let me know and I’ll post them here.  ‘Tis human to err.

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Enough has been said, here and elsewhere, about the content of KATM and the meticulous archival and field research on which it is based.  It is a brilliant (a word I use sparingly) work about one of the most tragic periods of Vietnamese and American history.  It is also without a doubt the most painful book I have ever read.  This might have to do with the fact that the subject matter is intensely personal for me.  I still have vivid recollections of many of the scenes Nick Turse describes in excruciating detail.  I am haunted by them.

Many of the comments in the 1 and 2 star category are eminently predictable and also reflect the views of some veteran Vietnam observers and scholars who should know better.  The categories into which they fall are presented here in A-Z order.

Atrocities Committed By The “Other Side”

They did it, too!  Whenever I hear this sophomoric comment, the first thought that comes to mind is that the Americans and their allies, including the Australians, South Koreans and others, had no right to be there in the first place.  This is not an issue of moral equivalence.  The “other side” was fighting against yet another foreign invader and its collaborators in the name of national liberation.  It’s that simple.

Fallacy of Generalizing from Personal Experience

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve read “I didn’t witness any atrocities during my tour”…  So because you didn’t witness it first-hand means it didn’t happen, right?  Turse does not claim that every US combat soldier was a war criminal who was out raping, torturing and killing civilians. I know many veterans who, if they didn’t know before they went, quickly realized after they arrived that the war was a colossal mistake. From that point on their goal was to stay alive and not go home in a body bag. There were many others, however, who were involved in the wholesale abuse and murder of civilians.  You know who you are.  Some of you are tormented by what you did or did not stop, others – the minority? – have no conscience.  Perhaps justice will be meted out to you in the next life.

KATM/Turse Bashes Veterans!

It’s fairly easy to dispense with this old canard.  Since I have many friends and acquaintances, both in Vietnam and the U.S., who are veterans, I know that many have welcomed KATM.  While the truth sometimes hurts, it can also be liberating.  Those who were there, whether they participated in the acts Turse describes, observed them or heard stories about them, know the score, as do the survivors.  KATM is not an indictment of all veterans who served in Vietnam only of those who were involved in the abuse, torture and murder of civilians and the “kill anything that moves” policy of the U.S. military and their superiors who oversaw the implementation of this brutal policy.  Why do you think so many veterans are so troubled, dysfunctional and worse?  What do you think many of them see and hear at night when the demons come?

Nothing New Here

According to whom?  What Turse tells his fellow Americans and the rest of the world is breaking news to most of them. Most are not Vietnam scholars who have read hundreds of books and thousands of primary source documents.  I am more familiar than most with the information Turse presents yet KATM fills in many gaps and connects a lot of dots that – collectively – form a damning indictment of the U.S. policy du jour.

Shooting from the Hip

I’m not gonna read da book `cause I read da summary and already know what  he’s gonna say.  He’s un-American, anti-American, and anti-military.  (And besides, I’m blinded by the ideology of U.S. nationalism – as distinct from patriotism).  Even tho I didn’t read da book I’m gonna put my two cents on Amazon anyhoo.  The lament of the close-minded and the refuge of the intellectually lazy.  Next…

Sin of Omission?

Groundless criticism about what he supposedly left out: It’s about war crimes committed by US soldiers in Vietnam as a frequent occurrence and the policies/conditions that led to those war crimes being committed. Turse proves it using U.S. government documents and stories from U.S. veterans and Vietnamese survivors. It was widespread and officially sanctioned. Therefore, there is really no basis on which to criticize him for not including everything you wanted him to include. If someone were to write a book that included everything Turse left out, it wouldn’t be the first.

The True Place the American War Holds in the Memory of South Vietnamese vs. North Vietnamese? It Ain’t that Simple…

This is a claim that some make.  To which South Vietnamese are they referring? The ones who hitched their cart to the American (war) horse? The ones who benefited financially and in other ways from the U.S. occupation and the influx of billions of dollars? The ones who left in the nick of time with the assistance of their American benefactors?  Or the ones Turse writes about – the targets of bombs, bullets, torture and other forms of abuse, the ghosts and the survivors?

Turse Wasn’t There!

He was born in 1975;  what does he know about the war in Vietnam?  Most historians weren’t around in the eras that they’ve studied and on which they are experts.  Does that make them any less knowledgeable?  (That’s a rhetorical question, folks.)  Turse’s age is irrelevant.  He was able to use U.S. government documents, travel to Vietnam to interview Vietnamese survivors of U.S. military attacks and interview U.S. veterans.  Therefore, even though he never smelled the smoke or heard the artillery fire, he knows more than most people who were there.  So much for this lame and illogical critique.

War is Hell

All wars are the same.  Civilians suffer, are caught in the cross-fire, become “collateral damage.”  As the bumper sticker says “Shit happens.”  Read about “kill anything that moves” as a policy that was conceived of and implemented at the highest levels of the U.S. military and political establishment.  That, combined with hatred for the Vietnamese and the fear and frustration of not knowing when or where the next attack would occur, the essence of guerrilla warfare, created the conditions for the perfect (war) storm in which millions of civilians suffered grievously.  Then there’s the argument that the Americans had no right to be in Vietnam in the first place, which would have prevented the deaths of 3.8 million Vietnamese, including 2 million civilians, and a long list of war legacies.

MAA

Du học không khó (Study Abroad is Not Difficult)

book launch image (28.12.13)

This is the matter-of-fact title of a new book written by Trần Ngọc Thịnh, who earned a Master’s degree in 2011 from the Harry S. Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri with the support of a Fulbright scholarship.

Du học không khó is a unique A-Z Vietnamese language resource that’s chock-full of valuable information, advice and tips to guide young people through the sometimes daunting process of preparing for an overseas study experience, including in the U.S.  Best of all, it was written by someone who speaks from first-hand experience, a young man who earned a Master’s degree in the U.S. and returned home to contribute to a dynamic and rapidly changing Vietnam.

The U.S. remains the preferred destination for young Vietnamese who want to study overseas, ranking 8th among all places of origin, according to the latest update.  The American higher education system is large and diverse, which means students have literally thousands of choices.  In addition to the many other resources available, both on- and offline, Du học không khó will help young people and their parents navigate this path, find the most suitable institutions for them and be in a better position to benefit more fully from the experience, academically, socially and culturally.

Recognizing the reality that most Vietnamese enlist the aid of an educational consultant, I made this point about identifying qualified and ethical companies:  The best ones have your best interests at heart in guiding you through the selection, admission, and pre-departure process.  They will look for a match between your qualifications, interests, goals, ability to pay, etc. and a short list of colleges and universities (i.e., not chasing after commissions).

duhockhongkhosoha8-98c10
Click on the photo to read a Vietnamese language article about the event.

Capstone Vietnam, of which I’m managing director, and our International Academic Center (IAC) members, Kansas State University and Lane Community College (Eugene, OR), are proud to be sponsors of the book launch, the first event of which took place last Saturday afternoon in Hanoi.  I participated in a panel discussion with the author and a representative from the Vietnam Education Foundation (VEF).  As I mentioned in my concluding remarks, Du học không khó is a labor of love that Thịnh wrote as a means of giving back and, to borrow a slogan from VietAbroader, a way to “pass the torch” to younger people, some of whom will follow in his footsteps.

MAA

Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam

KATM front jacketThis post is quite obviously NOT about education or US-Vietnam educational exchange.  It’s about history, its impact on the present, and the United States’ (in)ability to overcome its past.  The German word that describes this process, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, implies dealing with, learning from, but also overcoming the past. 

It’s about a horrible truth that Nick Turse tells his fellow citizens and the world about the murder of civilians as official policy during the American War, as it’s known in Vietnam, in Kill Anything That Moves:  The Real American War in Vietnam (KATM).  KATM, which will be released tomorrow, is unlike any book that’s ever been written about the war.  It brings to light what survivors, perpetrators and eyewitnesses know but rarely, if ever, talk about.  Below is a related excerpt from an article by Mr. Turse entitled A My Lai a Month that appeared in the 1 December 2008 issue of The Nation (the bold is mine): 

In late 1969 Seymour Hersh broke the story of the 1968 My Lai massacre, during which US troops slaughtered more than 500 civilians in Quang Ngai Province, far north of the Delta. Some months later, in May 1970, a self-described “grunt” who participated in Speedy Express wrote a confidential letter to William Westmoreland, then Army chief of staff, saying that the Ninth Division’s atrocities amounted to “a My Lay each month for over a year.” In his 1976 memoir A Soldier Reports, Westmoreland insisted, “The Army investigated every case [of possible war crimes], no matter who made the allegation,” and claimed that “none of the crimes even remotely approached the magnitude and horror of My Lai.” Yet he personally took action to quash an investigation into the large-scale atrocities described in the soldier’s letter.

I uncovered that letter and two others, each unsigned or signed only “Concerned Sergeant,” in the National Archives in 2002, in a collection of files about the sergeant’s case that had been declassified but forgotten, launching what became a years-long investigation. Records show that his allegations–of helicopter gunships mowing down noncombatants, of airstrikes on villages, of farmers gunned down in their fields while commanders pressed relentlessly for high body counts–were a source of high-level concern. A review of the letter by a Pentagon expert found his claims to be extremely plausible, and military officials tentatively identified the letter writer as George Lewis, a Purple Heart recipient who served with the Ninth Division in the Delta from June 1968 through May 1969. Yet there is no record that investigators ever contacted him. Now, through my own investigation–using material from four major collections of archival and personal papers, including confidential letters, accounts of secret Pentagon briefings, unpublished interviews with Vietnamese survivors and military officials conducted in the 1970s by Newsweek reporters, as well as fresh interviews with Ninth Division officers and enlisted personnel–I have been able to corroborate the sergeant’s horrific claims. The investigation paints a disturbing picture of civilian slaughter on a scale that indeed dwarfs My Lai, and of a cover-up at the Army’s highest levels. The killings were no accident or aberration. They were instead the result of command policies that turned wide swaths of the Mekong Delta into “free-fire zones” in a relentless effort to achieve a high body count. While the carnage in the Delta did not begin or end with Speedy Express, the operation provides a harsh new snapshot of the abject slaughter that typified US actions during the Vietnam War.

The substantiated assertion in bold forms the basis of KATM, which consists of archival research and interviews with survivors of US attacks in Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as  interviews with US veterans.  Efforts to “achieve a high body count” are summed up in this slogan on the walls of the U.S. Army’s Ninth Division helicopter headquarters during Operation Speedy Express (December 1968-May 1969):  Death is our business and business is good.

The Truth Shall Set You Free? 

If the truth can sometimes hurt, the truth revealed in KATM is excruciatingly painful and traumatic.  It is one of the reasons why PTSD afflicts so many US veterans who fought in Vietnam.  One clinical psychologist found that one in three soldiers reported killing the enemy (my italics), others found that one in five acknowledged killing a civilian; two in three handled or uncovered dead bodies, and the same number saw wounded and sick women and children they were unable to help.  (This applies to Vietnam and Iraq.) 

Most US Americans don’t have a clue as to the scale of killing carried out in their name in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s and many don’t want to know the truth because it doesn’t mesh with the image they have of their country and its place in the world.  They obsess over the 58,000 US Americans who lost their lives and are shocked to hear about the estimated 3 million (as in 3,000,000) Vietnamese who were murdered.  (That’s the modern-day equivalent of about 22 million US Americans, in case you’re counting.)

I often ask those who have been to the “Vietnam Veterans Memorial” in Washington, D.C. to close their eyes and imagine, just for a moment, The Wall X 50 with the inscription of 3 million Vietnamese names on it:  mothers & fathers, sons & daughters, brothers & sisters, aunts & uncles, grandmothers & grandfathers, lost generations who died at the hands of the US military and its client state, South Vietnam, which together turned large swathes of Vietnam into a charnel house.   

“…If They Learn About the Wartime Suffering of People in Vietnam, Do You Think They Will Sympathize?”

Here’s a quote from one of the many interviews that Nick Turse conducted with Vietnamese survivors of US military attacks.  It was excerpted from a 8 January 2013 article entitled “‘So Many People Died’ – The American System of Suffering, 1965-2014.”   

As I was wrapping up my interview, Pham Thang asked me about the purpose of the last hour and a half of questions I’d asked him.  Through my interpreter, I explained that most Americans knew next to nothing about Vietnamese suffering during the war and that most books written in my country on the war years ignored it.  I wanted, I told him, to offer Americans the chance to hear about the experiences of ordinary Vietnamese for the first time.
 
“If the American people know about these incidents, if they learn about the wartime suffering of people in Vietnam, do you think they will sympathize?” he asked me.
 
Soon enough, I should finally know the answer to his question.

He is, of course, referring to the reaction to KATM.  What do you think the answer(s) to Mr. Thang’s question will be, dear reader?   

Thanks to Nick Turse for telling the stories of those who perished and those who survived, and to Henry Holt (under its Metropolitan Books imprint) for publishing KATM.  While I would very much like to see this book translated into Vietnamese, I won’t hold my breath given the political sensitivities involved and less than favorable “market conditions.” 

MAA

P.S.:  Be sure to read the letters in response to The Nation article, including these two: 

To the veterans who are offended by this article, look harder. We need more scrutiny into how we were used as a military force. Most of my fellow C7 cargo pilots would be offended, no doubt, by my assertion that we laid waste to terrain and populace. The urge to conformity and mainstream honor is the greatest barrier to the truth about the Vietnam War. The abuses of military power we brought down on many innocents, who were no threat to America or the world.

and

This is more detail than I have ever seen before about Operation Speedy Express, but the basic outlines of this story have appeared in various books, all citing Kevin Buckley’s story. (I’m thinking of The First Casualty, Fire in the Lake and various books by Noam Chomsky.) But it goes completely unmentioned in many books on the Vietnam War. It’s amazing that people think we live in a self-critical society, when an atrocity like this can remain unknown to the vast majority of Americans for forty years, even though the basic facts are available if you happen to stumble across them.

Talking Nationalism, Patriotism and Global Citizenship with US Students in Vietnam

Last month, I was invited by a colleague from Augustana College (Illinois) to meet with a group of her students who were in Vietnam on a short-term study abroad program.  The students had spent five weeks at Augustana, followed by another five weeks in southern, central and northern Vietnam.  The website describes the program as follows:  Vietnam is an exciting destination for a U.S. college student. This international learning community draws upon multiple disciplines – political science, literature, economics, business, and history among them – offering students a rich interdisciplinary context in which to study Vietnam.

One of the assigned readings was a co-authored book chapter of mine entitled “Developing Globally Competent Citizens: The Contrasting Cases of the United States and Vietnam” (with Duong Thi Hoanh Oanh) that appeared in The SAGE Handbook of Intercultural Competence (2009).  Frankly, I was surprised and delighted to learn that undergraduates were reading this chapter in a book that is probably read mostly by graduate students and academics.  Here’s a brief description:   

The aim of this chapter is to consider global citizenship and intercultural competence, widely debated and often overlapping concepts, against the backdrop of nationalism and patriotism, “isms” that are rarely discussed in the same context. Yet they are the proverbial elephant in the room, towering issues that profoundly influence the methods and means by which global citizenship and intercultural competence are transformed from theory to practice.

This chapter explores ways in which global citizenship and intercultural competence complement and conflict with the national identity of two diametrically contrasting cultures—the United States of America and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. What U.S. Americans and Vietnamese share, according to anecdotal evidence, the binational experience of both authors, and the results of World Values Surveys, is a deep national pride. Yet as we shall see, this national pride is radically different qualitatively for reasons that are rooted in history. Thus, we examine barriers in both cultures that may inhibit the development of globally competent citizens, as well as factors that may smooth the way.

What are the implications of global citizenship in an interconnected world in which nationalism is still very much a force to be reckoned with? To what extent is global citizenship problematic in countries in which nationalism in its more virulent incarnation forms the mind-set of the majority of citizens? We posit that the path to becoming a global or globally competent citizen may be strewn with more obstacles in some societies than in others as a result of potent historical and cultural forces that have shaped national identity and the dominant ideology, the psychic glue that holds societies together.

Differences Between Patriotism and Nationalism

According to a standard dictionary definition, the distinction between patriotism and nationalism is clear. Patriotism is defined simply as “love for or devotion to one’s country.” This is generally thought of as a benign, sentimental, and inward-looking form of national pride. As such, it does not exclude an openness to and even embrace of other cultures, their values, and the concerns and needs of their members.

In a 2003 essay titled A Kinder, Gentler Patriotism, (the late) U.S. historian Howard Zinn speaks of the need to redefine patriotism and notes that “if national boundaries should not be obstacles to trade—we call it globalization—should they also not be obstacles to compassion and generosity? Should we not begin to consider all children, everywhere, as our own? In that case, war, which in our time is always an assault on children, would be unacceptable as a solution to the problems of the world. Human ingenuity would have to search for other ways.” Patriotism, as defined above, does not preclude the globalization of compassion and generosity.

In contrast, nationalism is described as loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups. It is the second italicized part that distinguishes nationalism from its less strident and bellicose cousin, patriotism. Exaltation of one nation over another automatically assumes a degree of cultural superiority, a lack of openness and objectivity, and the assumption that “others” wish to be like us and, by extension, the desire to mold them in our image (i.e., missionary nationalism).

Discussion

Most of our discussion in the engaging 1.5 hours that I spent with them and their professors on a rainy February morning in Hanoi revolved around these concepts as they apply to both countries and how to create globally aware and competent citizens, especially given the fact that most young people do not have the opportunity to study overseas.  (Study abroad is no guarantee that this transformation will occur.)  The students asked a range of thoughtful and thought-provoking questions. 

Nationalism is a type of ideology, defined as “a: a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture; b: a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture.”  Irrational and rooted in emotion, it consists of seemingly unchallengeable and commonsensical assumptions, “eternal truths,” believing in something that does not exist or does not reflect reality and empirical facts.  To question the precepts that form that basis of US nationalism, or any nationalism for that matter, is to challenge a very potent ideology, a black/white world view that resists contradictory facts and conflicting views that could begin to dissolve this psychic glue.  In this respect it represents a formidable obstacle to the development of global competence and citizenship.

While I’m well aware that these students are certainly not representative of most US Americans in terms of social class (tuition, fees, housing and meals for the 2012-2013 academic year at Augustana are $43,398), education and world view, I was encouraged by the thought and reflection that many had invested in these important issues. 

As a side note, I noticed that most were women, a trend described in this 19 February 2012 Chronicle article entitled In Study Abroad, Men Are Hard to Find

As a bonus, check out this 19 February 2012 essay entitled The American Century Is Over—Good Riddance by Prof. Andrew Bacevich, who has written extensively about the notion of American exceptionalism and the origins and effects of US nationalism. 

MAA