May 12th, 2005

A mind is a difficult thing to change: Part 4C (Vietnam–change and betrayal)

(NOTE: Links to previous posts in the series can be found on the right sidebar, under “A mind is a difficult thing to change.”)

When I try to think of the psychological/political effects of Vietnam, two things come to mind (and I could write them in huge dark capital letters, rather than just italicize them): change is the first, and betrayal is the second.

Back in this essay, I mentioned that therapists consider there are three basic aspects of change: cognition (thought), emotion (feeling), and behavior (action). During the Vietnam era, changes occurred primarily in the cognitive dimension, while the resultant sense of betrayal was mainly an emotional response. Action played a smaller part in the mechanism of change for the country as a whole–although obviously, for those who actually fought the war, it played a much larger part.

All three aspects of change worked in concert with and affected each other. Many people are still heavily under the sway of changes that occurred and perceptions that formed during and after the Vietnam War. So the Vietnam War continues to affect us greatly even today, and wounds and rifts that were caused then have deepened and reopened during the Iraq war and its aftermath.

Change

The Vietnam era represented a watershed of sorts. The resultant changes in attitudes towards the government, the military, the press, and even America’s destiny in the world were so great that, for many people, they amounted to a virtual reversal of previous beliefs.

Prior to the Vietnam War (and for the first few years of that war) the press, for the most part, had been on the same page as the government and strongly supportive of the military. World War II had been a terrible war, and attacks by the allies on civilian populations and the decision to drop atomic weapons had come in for some criticism. But that war had had a moral clarity, nevertheless. The press wrote about it in a way that indicated they considered the US as representing the forces of good fighting the forces of evil. Postwar revelations (such as descriptions of concentration camps) served only to increase that conviction.

It was only the most far-out of fringe groups that thought otherwise, and they were relatively easy to discount. The “narrative”–to coin a post-modern phrase–on which we (and our parents and grandparents) had been raised was a consistent one: America might have made a small mistake here and there, but our leaders were strong and decent, our fighting men moral and courageous, and we fought for justice and truth.

Somewhere along the line in the Vietnam era that narrative changed. In Part 4A I tried to describe the process by which that happened in a span of years so short as to be dizzying–the way we became disillusioned and confused about our goals and our methods, and even our morality. I’ll just touch on it briefly again here: the military kept saying victory would come soon, but the war dragged on; many of the South Vietnamese leaders we supported seemed corrupt; we read in the Pentagon Papers that the government and military had kept some things secret from us; reports came back that the powers that be had never been committed to fighting an all-out war to win; My Lai, and other allegations made by some returning vets (or people who claimed to be returning vets) made us wonder whether our military was committing atrocities on a regular basis; Kent State made us wonder whether we students had also been targeted as enemies; and Watergate made us lose faith in the morality of the President.

What was the mechanism of delivery for all of this news of change? It was the news itself–in particular, television and print journalism. Vietnam was the first war to be beamed instantaneously into our living rooms via the relatively new medium of TV. This fact has been repeated often enough that it has become a cliche, but I think we still don’t appreciate what a huge effect TV had on perceptions of war. Before television, people at home had been much more protected from the reality of conflict, and could idealize it, romanticize it, and distance themselves more effectively from it. Newsreels shown weekly in a movie theater, with grandiloquent narration and footage of far-off blasts, were a totally different thing from what we now saw every evening on TV.

War is not pretty, it is brutal; it involves doing things that most of us don’t like to think about and usually don’t have to watch. The young in particular tend to be softhearted and vulnerable to the sight of human suffering, not hardened by life experiences (unless, of course, they’ve been subject to great violence early in life, which the vast majority of us fortunately had not been). That kind of empathy is a good thing, by they way, not a bad one. But those reactions, which are primarily emotional in nature and go very deep, can short-circuit cognitions about why a particular war is happening, and why it might be “the lesser of two evils,” despite the horror. So the first change was in feelings about conflict: a more widespread horror of, and sensitivity to, war itself. It came from the fact that we were seeing the war every evening on TV, which was a first in US history–and, in fact, a first in human experience.

Another change was in the type of war being fought. Each war that is waged has tactical differences from previous wars–that is why the old adage that generals make the error of preparing to fight the previous war rather than the current one is so apropos. I am not a military expert, and some of you reading this no doubt know a great deal more about the subject than I (and you no doubt will correct me where I’m wrong!). But it is my impression that Vietnam represented a fairly dramatic break strategically from previous wars, offering new and different conundrums and challenges which were part of the reason the war was widely perceived as unwinnable. It seems fairly clear that a war such as WWII, with conventional armies facing each other and fighting large-scale battles over territory, had become outdated in Vietnam, which (especially in earlier years, when the Vietcong were numerous) was basically a guerilla war that even contained some elements of terrorism. There was also indisputably a lack of commitment, for political reasons, to the full effort that would have been necessary to win it. In addition, there was the insistence that much of the war be directed from Washington by civilians (such as McNamara), an idea that led to many misjudgments. These were all innovations, as far as I know.

Still another change was in the way propaganda was used by the enemy. The North Vietnamese were unusually astute and knowledgeable about the psychological and sociological vulnerabilities of the US. By the late 60s, the enemy was well aware that the US press and public were wearying of the war, and that if they could exploit this fact they could prevail. Propaganda tactics had traditionally been used on one’s own people, or on the opponent’s military (Tokyo Rose, for example). Vietnam was the first war (at least as far as I know) in which propaganda tactics were also used relentlessly and effectively to influence the press of the opposite side in order to undermine the esprit of its people. The US was attempting to fight a war of attrition in terms of bodies (we kill so many of you that you run out of willing fighters), whereas North Vietnam was attempting to fight a war of attrition in terms of time (we drag the war on for so long that you run out of the will to fight). In Vietnam, the North Vietnamese won this particular war of attrition. As North Vietnamese premier Pham Van Dong, Ho Chi Minh’s aide, said to French war historian Bernard Fall in 1962: “Americans do not like long, inconclusive wars—and this is going to be a long, inconclusive war. Thus we are sure to win in the end.”

Another change for the US was that this was a war that was conceptually difficult to understand and justify. It was fought for a seeming abstraction: the domino theory, as yet unproven. As time went on (and on and on and on), the question arose in people’s minds (with the help of the press) as to whether this might be a mere civil war of local importance only, one we would do well to stay clear of. The Vietnam War was fought as a nasty guerilla war during the years of heaviest US fighting in the mid- to late-60s, with all the problems, questions, and uncertainties that guerilla conflicts usually entail: who is the enemy? what does the populace really want? how can we kill the enemy without killing many innocent people, if the m.o. of the enemy is to hide among them, uniformless? how can we fight on terrain that we are not familiar with, and with which the enemy is extremely familiar? Never had the US been engaged in such a lengthy struggle of this particular type, and the public lacked a context in which to understand it. Lacking that context, which might have been provided by better communication from the government, and better explanation in the press–how could the American people sustain the stomach for it?

Then there was the fact that, despite this lack of conceptual understanding, all of the young men in the country were vulnerable to being called up to serve because of the draft. This particular combination–lack of a strong belief or clear evidence that the war was in our best interests, coupled with the fact that any young man could be drafted to fight it–led to feelings of special frustration and even rage on the part of those who might be called on to make the ultimate sacrifice (John Kerry perfectly expressed this feeling when he asked his famous question about who would want to be the last man to die for a mistake). The war itself was perceived as being so far away as to be almost irrelevant to America, while the danger to the average young man was potentially huge, up close and personal.

This geographic distance, combined with the lack of cognitive clarity about the reasons behind the war, and the powerful emotional valence of susceptibility to the draft, were a new and volatile mix in American history. For many, the combination led almost inevitably to action: antiwar sentiment and demonstrations, many of them pitting the younger generation against the older, whom they felt were callously sacrificing them on the altar of a war whose purpose was murky and whose execution was inept. So another new element (new, at least, in its intensity) was the idea of a generational war that pitted sons against fathers, and vice versa.

The widespread and new idea of the war as a “mistake” was twofold. For example, when Kerry used the word “mistake,” he was speaking not only of the reasons behind the war, he was also speaking of the conduct and strategy of the war itself. Some moderates or conservatives (or even some liberals), who had no problem with the first (they accepted the domino theory, or felt strongly about the need to keep the South Vietnamese from Communist domination) were angry about the second–the limited war strategy, for example. So the idea of “mistakes” in this war came from all sides–left, right, and center, for somewhat different reasons for each group.

Somewhere along the line–and most agree it had certainly happened by the Tet offensive of 1968–press coverage of the war turned extremely negative. As far as I can tell, this was another huge change; to the best of my knowledge, it seems to have been the first time in American history that the press turned on a war en masse while that war was still ongoing. There are many studies of the role of the press during the war (Big Story by Peter Braestrup and The Military and the Media by William V. Kennedy, to mention two), and it is a subject far too vast for me to cover adequately here. But the general thrust of coverage changed after the Tet offensive, not because it was a military defeat for us (it was actually a military victory, particularly over the Vietcong, who after that were never again to be a major player), but because the press perceived it for the most part as both a military and a psychological defeat and presented it as such to the American people.

The reasons underlying this perception of defeat were twofold. Firstly, the press corps was mostly untrained in military matters; and, since the Tet offensive involved attacks on many of the cities in which the journalists resided (many of which had not previously been the scene of much major fighting in the war), the press corps itself felt vulnerable and frightened. Secondly, right before Tet, the Johnson administration had been boldly stating that victory was almost at hand, and therefore the huge scope of the Tet offensive seemed to indicate that this had either been a lie on Johnson’s part, or a colossal error. The new perception was instead that the North Vietnamese and Vietcong seemed willing to go on forever. This led to feelings of betrayal and depression in the press and in the US, and these feelings only grew stronger as time went on, the war dragged on, and events such as the secret bombing of Cambodia, My Lai, and the Pentagon Papers unfolded.

This article from Smithsonian magazine contains a number of specific examples of the sort of thing I’m talking about. Here it describes occurrences just prior to the Tet offensive:

As the Communists prepared their attacks, the White House was setting itself up for a political disaster with a misguided “success offensive,” claiming that victory was in sight. From the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, President Johnson declared that the war would continue “not many more nights.” Most tellingly, Gen. William Westmoreland, the handsome, square-jawed commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, said before the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.: “With 1968, a new phase is now starting. We have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view.”

To show the magnitude of the change effected by perceptions about and coverage of the Tet offensive, here is another statistic, from an article about Tet, written by Steven Hayward : it is estimated that one-fifth of those who had been hawkish in the US turned against the war between early feb and march of that year.

The Pentagon Papers actually represented another enormous change, a shot across the bow in a new and very significant war, the war between the press and the government. A recent book review of Inside the Pentagon Papers (ed. John Prados and Margaret Pratt Porter), written by Anthony Lewis and appearing in the NY Times Review of Books of April 7 2005, quotes professors Harold Edgar and Benno Schmidt Jr. of the Columbia Law School as saying, “The New York Times, by publishing the papers…demonstrated that much of the press was no longer willing to be merely an occasionally critical associate devoted to common aims, but intended to become an adversary threatening to discredit not only political dogma but also the motives of the nation’s leaders.” This, I think, says it very well: during this time, the press turned from government associate to government adversary, and questioned not only tactics, theory, and judgment, but even the goodwill and motives of those in charge of decisions.

Despite all this change, it’s hard to know whether any of it translated into changes in political affiliation. Did Republicans become Democrats (or vice versa)? I have been unable to find statistics on the matter, but my guess is that there were no major trends in either direction. Congress started out as Democratic at the beginning of the war and continued to be Democratic through the end of it, while the Presidency changed from Democrat to Republican. My sense is that changes in political affiliation were not widespread because the Vietnam War was seen as the product of both sides. The details might have been different–the Democrats presided over the years of escalating troops, and Nixon, a Republican, decreased the number of US troops under the policy of Vietnamization–but both sides were seen as culpable. Both parties were seen as making poor decisions at best, and of purposely dissembling at worst. For many people, this distrust appeared to extend to government and political leaders in general, not to one party in particular.

Betrayal

During the Vietnam War era, strong emotions (fear of the draft, revulsion at the death toll) in combination with cognitions (“we’ve been lied to;” “we’re losing the war,” “this will go on forever,” “the South Vietnamese don’t even want us there,” “you can’t trust the government,” “our servicemen are committing atrocities as a matter of course”), led to one overwhelming feeling: betrayal. Betrayal, in turn, often led to rage, bitterness, pessimism, and cynicism. And these cognitions and feelings were especially powerful in people who were young during that time, because youth and early adulthood are times of great emotional intensity. They don’t call them “the formative years” for nothing–this is when lifelong attitudes begin to be shaped, sometimes as though in cement.

Betrayal is a very strong word, with a great deal of emotional valence. We can only be betrayed by those whom we once trusted; it always involves a loss of innocence, and a feeling of vulnerability. The greater the naivete and trust at the outset, the greater the reversal, and the more intense the sense of betrayal. Betrayal is generally used only to describe extreme cases–traitors, for example, or the discovery that a beloved husband or wife has been having an affair and lying about it.

But I think the word “betrayal” is absolutely appropriate here, and accounts for many of the still-powerful reactions and repercussions from the Vietnam era. Because the pre-existing trust was profound, the reversal, when it came, was exquisitely sharp also. The loss of trust in our government and military had to be dealt with emotionally and cognitively, and people dealt with it in different ways. The vast majority of liberals seem to have taken that trust and re-invested it–this time in the press, who were seen as whistleblowers, the exposers of the government’s lying, cheating ways. That is one way to respond to a loss of faith–by reinvesting in it something else perceived as replacing it (you might say it’s somewhat analogous to starting a new relationship on the rebound). Other people had a more extreme reaction, and decided to withdraw trust from both the government and the press, and to place their trust in nothing and became cynics. Still others (leftists) reacted to the betrayal by supporting whomever and whatever was against the US. Many conservatives, on the other hand, withdrew their trust from the press, previously seen as an ally of sorts, but now perceived as an enemy. They also solidified their anger at liberals and a left seen to have ignominiously betrayed the South Vietnamese people and our nation’s honor.

However, some feelings were more universally shared. Anger at having been lied to by a previously-trusted government, for example, was a feeling shared by many liberals and by some conservatives (I’m exempting leftists, since they started out feeling anger and distrust towards the government–there was no disillusionment there). The feeling of betrayal by the government because of its lack of full commitment to winning the war was shared by some liberals and many conservatives. The feeling that the soldiers responsible for atrocities such as My Lai had betrayed American values and honor was, likewise, fairly universal.

Some feelings were not universal. A very much smaller subset also felt that those soldiers themselves had been betrayed by their superiors and had been given tacit approval for such actions (this, in fact, was the general stance of Kerry towards soldiers guilty of atrocities–he felt it was the commanders and general military policy that bore the responsibility). Many returning Vietnam combat veterans themselves felt deeply betrayed by other returning combat veterans (or men who held themselves out to be such) who alleged (falsely, according to the first group) that atrocities had been commonplace and acceptable in Vietnam. So there was a sort of vet-on-vet sense of betrayal. Many veterans also felt deeply betrayed by leftist activists such as Jane Fonda, and by those citizens at home who had reviled them for having served in Vietnam (I’ll pass over the controversy as to whether returning soldiers were actually spat upon; the point is that they felt disapproval and anger coming from a large portion of the public). A significant number of veterans also felt betrayed by reportage in the press that they felt had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory–for instance, the reporting on Tet. And many South Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans felt that Congress had betrayed them by withdrawing funds from the South Vietnamese military, allowing the North Vietnamese to finally overrun the South after the long, valiant, bloody, and costly struggle.

So, what happens to those who feel betrayed? As I wrote earlier, there are quite a few possibilities: rage, bitterness, pessimism, cynicism. It is human nature to cry, as a result of betrayal, “Never again!” Never again to be deceived. Never again to trust in the person (or institution) that betrayed you. These attitudes, forged in the furnace of such emotions, and at a time of life when emotions are already strong, can become unalterable. If the government is a liar, if the military is a dehumanizing institution inevitably leading to atrocities, if the press is the only trusted truth-teller–well, then, that is the set of beliefs a person has adopted to make sense of what happened, and that set of beliefs can easily be held for a lifetime. That belief system can then be brought to every future situation, applied indiscrimately, and never re-evaluated in the face of new facts about new events (or even in the face of new facts about old events–as we shall see in future essays).

Subsequently, if the press continues to be seen as the truthteller and the government the liar, no number of press releases by the government can ever overrule what the press says about an event. These beliefs have been adopted for a reason–to make sense of a terrible experience, based on the best knowledge available at that time. Part of the “never again” reaction is that it becomes a point of pride to never again let oneself be duped, to never again naively believe. Those who no longer trust in the government are seen as sadder, but infinitely wiser.

But what if, at some time in the future, evidence surfaces that that hard-won knowledge may be wrong? How many people, having lost faith because of a betrayal, and having laboriously reconstructed a new worldview, can revise that worldview again? What if that worldview turns out to have been a house of cards? Who can stand two betrayals–trust having been placed in a rescuer, the press, who is now exposed as having been a liar and a betrayer, also? Who can return to believing that the government–although flawed (there is no returning to the initial state of naive, unquestioning trust)–is now to be trusted more than the press, after all?

For some, one betrayal is enough. They can’t even entertain the possibility of a second, or the idea that they may have come to incorrect conclusions about the first one. To say you’ve been wrong once is one thing; to go through it again (“fooled me twice”) is quite another. And the second time it is even worse, because this time you are older and more experienced, and should have known better.

So, just as some generals continue to fight the previous war, so do some people. Over and over.

Action

So far, I’ve talked mostly about cognition and feelings. But action also had its place in reactions to the Vietnam War. The behavior/action component, for those liberals who were not directly involved in the war itself (and that constitutes most of us), was the demonstration.

Getting together with like-minded people in organizations dedicated to stopping the war tended to reinforce the feeling of the rightness of the cause, in the usual way of groups. Ultimately, the actions of the antiwar liberals (and their far more extreme and far less numerous fellow-travelers, the leftists) had its effect: the withdrawal from Vietnam. And so, young liberals had the heady experience of affecting history at an early age–protests seemed to matter; they worked. Liberals considered this a success, perhaps their finest hour, something to be proud of for the rest of their lives. As I wrote here, the terrible scenes of the American withdrawal, the fall of Saigon, the reeducation camps, the boat people, the killing fields of Cambodia–all these things that came after gave pause to some of us, myself included. But rationalization is a powerful tool, and many of us were able to rationalize that it was not our fault because there had been no alternative, that this outcome was inevitable, and that the only thing that would have occurred had we stayed longer was more American deaths, and more Vietnamese deaths at American hands.

So the investment in believing this particular “narrative” of Vietnam was huge for liberals. As the years went by, decades of beliefs, affiliations, and activities were added to the mix, and the stakes grew even higher. To have disbelieved it all at some later date would have meant facing a profound disillusionment, not just with institutions such as the press and the government, but with the self itself.

The bitterness and polarization of that time had deep roots, as we discovered post-9/11. But that’s another story for another time.

[ADDENDUM: For the next post in the series, Part V, go here.]

69 Responses to “A mind is a difficult thing to change: Part 4C (Vietnam–change and betrayal)”

  1. still realizing Says:

    Goesh
    We didn’t believe the reports out of Vietnam because we already knew the government was lying to us. Once you stop believing the government, you don’t believe anything they say.

    To this day almost nobody knows about the 100,000 Vietnamese who escaped, were interned in Hong Kong, were refused entry to the US, and were then sent back to communist Vietnam. The press reported it but in a desultory way. And 100,000 was about the expected number of dissidents under a communist Vietnamese goverment, so it didn’t seem like news.

  2. Tom Grey Says:

    “Lacking that context, which might have been provided by better communication from the government, and better explanation in the press–how could the American people sustain the stomach for it?”

    This is important for Bush, today — who is not doing enough about how hard it is, and how LONG it will take, to democratize a county.

    I think you’d like my own href=”http://tomgrey.motime.com/1121441784#473678″> Harry Potter and the Real World post, on the press, especially.

  3. Richard Aubrey Says:

    George Warburton.

    WRT the point in your third paragraph from the end… if war is right the people will support it, if they don’t, avoid it.

    Too facile. See T. R. Fehrenbach’s “This Kind of War” in which he describes wars which must be fought but which the American people may not support.

  4. George Warburton Says:

    The problem with the Vietnam War, Gulf War 1 and Gulf War 2 is that they were or are not wars. A war is people against people and the people need to be in favour of the war for it to stand any chance of success. The Nazis had the backing of the German people when they went to war and, as bad as this sounds, the Blitz unleashed on the peoples of London and other cities makes sense. The destruction of Dresden by the British makes sense. A war is won when people defeat people.

    The US did not go to war against the North Vietnamese, if it had it would have bombed them as near to extinction as necessary. Bush senior did not go to war against Saddam, he pushed them out of Kuwait and left them to regroup. Bush junior and his allies have not gone to war, they have carried out a military action which, as yet, has proved indecisive.

    If war is right, it is right and will have the backing of the people, if it is anything less it should be avoided.

    There is no collateral damage in war; one people tries to destroy another. The winners celebrate and can either befriend the defeated (USA,UK,Canada,Australia etc) or oppress them (USSR).

    Congratulations to neo-neocon on an outstanding blog.

  5. PatCA Says:

    I read this post later so can’t join the ongoing discussion, but I agree that the sense of betrayal is key–it’s the same feeling of betrayal when one discovers one’s beloved (or feared) parents are mere humans. But if one learns to extinguish that sense of awe and matures to adulthood, to see parents as they really are, it all gets put in perspective. I would say the left has been permitted a permanent adolescence by the safety and comfort of the last 3 decades.

  6. Neo Says:

    I think Dean has his history wrong.
    Nixon did have coattails as the Democrats lost 13 seats in 1972.

    They gained 49 seats in the 1974 election after Watergate broke open in 1973.

  7. Richard Aubrey Says:

    In her masterful (read anything she wrote) “The New Meaning of Treason”, Rebecca West asked why the privileged of Britain turned out so many spies for the Russians.

    She harks back a couple of generations when the righteous fought for nationalized coal mines and other aspects of socialism. They were right. They were lauded, if only by each other. History was on their side. They were heroes, if only to each other.
    It was fun–since the upper classes didn’t duke it out with the police–and compelling and absorbing.
    And by the Thirties, it had all been done. The mines were nationalized, as were other core industries. There was national health care and old-age pensions and noplace for an upper-class youngster to find the legendary fun of being a parlor pink. (As before, it’s the lower orders who get their heads busted in pursuit of revolution.)

    The only way they could move to feel brave and smart and ahead of the rest of the dull and thoughtless society was to move even farther left. Which is to say, work with the USSR.

    I see this dynamic at work in the issue das questions. Why do they do it? Don’t they know that the Muslim sharia is death to all they supposedly hold as true?
    The trump card is that they get to feel special again.
    The cause and the result are unimportant beside being able to feel special.

  8. Das Says:

    Another former lefty life-long Dem, Seattle Branch, weighing in here; only problem is I still feel liberal lefty in that I want peace and justice to reign; my fellow lefty liberals have whooshed past me into some moonbat land where vast equanimity is extended to fascist Islamo killers while unremitting condemnation heaped upon Bush. Maybe this fraudulence was always a part of the left as some of the other posters note. Point is, we’ve got a new fascist threat on our hands; it’s a furnace with a large belly ready to consume our left/right disagreements like a piece of lint. I don’t understand the left’s non-understanding.

  9. Anonymous Says:

    As were arlier installments, Part 4C is thoughtprovoking and insightful.

    Earlier, ShrinkWrapped posted excellent points about the psyche of the baby boomers and how their views of themselves and the world impacted their attitudes and informed the war debate. What has not necessarily been discussed (that I have seen) is simply how, as a result of the demographics of the country, the sheer numbers of that generation as students, protesters and draftees impacted and influenced so much of the discussion of the war and draft in the 60′s and early 70′s. The baby boom generation was, and is, enormous and vocal. The impressionable and idealistic youth of the 60′s and 70′s VietNam era were the front end of the boomer generation. This is not to imply that all boomers thought the same way—they definitely didn’t–but their numbers alone surely helped keep the debate on the front burner and the front pages.

    I have often wondered how different the VietNam debate and even the outcome might have been had the boomer generation been way smaller and therefore way less influential.

    I know succeeding generations are positively sick of hearing about the baby boom, but IMO VietNam and its repurcussions will continue to loom large in this country so long as the boomers live.

  10. Richard Aubrey Says:

    It is true that some fiction is more influential than highly factual monographs. Part of this is the ability of the skilled writer, combined with the freedom fiction provides, to over-write a theme until it seems either more true or more important than it really is. That this may be influential is not saying it is true, necessarily.
    The Protocols of The Elders of Zion are said to be influential, but I don’t think Robert Aldrich would be bragging about how his wonderfulness was informed by them.

    It appears that fiction is “good” even if false if it agrees with your pre-chosen position.

    Anyway, Ambrose said Heller spoke as stated and those who thought that Catch-22 represented the US at war in some meta-sense were too ignorant to be using up perfectly good oxygen. Nobody’s that dumb. They liked it because…they liked it. They pretended it gave them an epiphany because SOMETHING had to. They couldn’t just say, I think this without basis and so you have to think so, too. Everybody was reading Heller, and so he’ll do.

  11. M. Simon Says:

    Thailand was thankful that the war gave it time to strengthen its position.

    The Thais still believe in the domino theory. They are thankful that only one domino fell.

    =====================

    I was in the Navy til early ’67. I was heavily influenced by the anti-war left.

    One betrayal that was very significant but not mentioned was racism. How could a country that elected Bull Conors Sheriff be any good?

    Then the light at the end of the tunnel became an oncoming train (Tet). Then good ole’ Johnny the K. sold me on the North’s talking points in ’71. 3,000 more murders he promised seemed inconsequential in light of the 10s of thousands already killed.

    Then came the re-ed camps (Johnny said they wouldn’t happen in this Communist revolution – unlike the previous ones), the boat people, Cambodia news later, etc.

    By 1980 my head had cleared and I was back where I started when I joined the Navy. Sort of. I was no longer a Democrat. Couldn’t see myself as a Republican. So Libertarianism it was.

    Then came 9/11 and I couldn’t tell Libertarian foreign policy from Communist. I resigned from the Libs.

    So now I’m kinda a Republican leaning independant.

    I voted Bush/Obama in the last election. Why Obama? Better a Communist than a theocon (Keyes).

    I see better days ahead if the theocons can learn tolerance for those who do not share their beliefs. The youth (my kids included) are pretty much South Park Republicans (small “l” libertarians) so the future seems good to me.

    We shall see.

  12. Steve J. Says:

    MICHAEL B.:”What I specifically stated was that it “had no discernible impact” upon the elections. “

    Yeah, Labour lost 2-3%.

  13. Michael B Says:

    “You have no idea what impact it had on the elections.” Steve J

    This represents but one of the reasons why you’re posts can be so boorish; you might attempt to combine some comprehension with your reading.

    First, I certainly do have an idea about the impact, which is not to say either one of us has any absolute or perfect knowledge about the impact. What I specifically stated was that it “had no discernible impact” upon the elections. The idea I had in mind was derived from the British poll and timeline that can be found at this poll tracking site, which can be loaded from the bottom right of the page and which tracker has a +/-3% margin of error. Hence, that “idea” I have.

    As for the remainder, am happy to let intelligent readers judge for themselves.

  14. Steve J. Says:

    MICHAEL B.:”a reference to a memo which had no discernible impact on the British election since it yielded no new information.”

    1) You have no idea what impact it
    had on the elections.

    2) The information presented in the memo is grounds for an impeachment investigation. Remember “It’s not the sex, it’s the lying”? Well, today we have “It’s the lying and the dying.”

  15. robert aldridge Says:

    Mr. Aubrey – you are a little too dismissive, I think. Some of the most influential books in history have been “mere fiction”. In modern times, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, “To Kill a Mockingbird” (to name but two American novels), “All Quiet on the Western Front”, “Candide”, Dickens’ novels, Joseph Conrad’s novels, and many, many more, all had political messages. I envy your apparent ability to have always been able to distinguish fiction with a pertinant, valuable message from fiction with no significance whatever! We were not all so precocious or unimpressionable. But in the case of “Catch 22″ you appear to have cheated: you heard Heller admit that his officers were all great, and that it was “just a story”. I, unfortunately, didn’t hear that. I suppose that entitles you to a degree of intellectual superiority over me. Grrrr.

  16. Steve J. Says:

    MICHAEL B.:”Taiwan, for one, was never seriously threatened during or after the war, helping to demonstrate the deterence that Korea and Vietnam instilled.”

    Were the Chinese supposed to swim there?

  17. Michael B Says:

    Also, Oliver Kamm comments on propagandists from an updated and a British perspective today.

  18. Michael B Says:

    Steve J., am happy to supply two of the bookends to your ill informed missives.

    So many fingers you’re having to put in the Left’s dike of disinformation. Some non sequiturs, an ad hominem slur and a reference to a memo which had no discernible impact on the British election since it yielded no new information. However, will address two or three items that are germane to the Left’s Vietnam oriented propaganda per se:

    1) “The Domino Theory was easy to grasp and profoundly wrong.”

    This theory was perhaps first suggested in the early 50′s by Eisenhower and it was an all too real concern. More importantly it wasn’t wrong, it was proven to be correct. Could write a few thousand words on this piece of oft repeated propaganda, citing supporting references, but more briefly the following:

    Taiwan, for one, was never seriously threatened during or after the war, helping to demonstrate the deterence that Korea and Vietnam instilled. Obviously, Cambodia and Laos suffered as did So. Vietnam itself precisely because the Western Left was successful in having us abandon our commitments. Too, in the case of the Phillipines and Malaya, neither of which bordered a communist regime (thus negating or greatly mitigating the prospects for a domino effect), communist insurgencies were defeated with little difficulty. Still further, by the end of the Cold War, not one country in the region fell to communist rule that did not border a Maoist or Stalinist regime. The three countries that did fall were South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, thus demonstrating the domino effect, i.e., when the country was contiguous with a totalitarian regime.

    (Further, all this doesn’t even broach the fact that similar theories which were close cousins of the more localized domino theory also proved to be viable in the years, post-1975. I.e., the global revolutionary wave effect (e.g., Nicaragua) and the global bandwagon effect (e.g., Iran, ’79). Direct causation is less obvious and less subject to proof than in the case of the local domino effect in S.E. Asia per se, but there is no question that our failure in So. Vietnam provided encouragement to other movements, especially so Castro’s various involvements in Latin America. That encouragement resulted from the knowledge they, Castro and others, could count on the American and Western Left, not because they could win a military victory per se, minus the propaganda and other supports furnished by the Left.)

    2) Your ref. to the US and South Vietnam Army entering Laos coupled with your instruction, ironically, to read the Pentagon Papers.

    Re, both Laos and Cambodia, the North Vietnam Army (NVA) first entered these countries, only after their entry did the U.S. subsequently enter those countries. See this section of the Pentagon Papers and this section as well, search on “Laos” and “Cambodia”.

    3) Your prescribed reading list is particularly sad, even shameless. It wasn’t words in printed publications that were needed by the populations in question, it was the deterrence resulting from real world commitments that was needed.

    It was specifically those outlets you prescribe, among others, that helped to forward the Left’s propaganda, thus ensuring there would be between 1.5 to 2.0 million Vietnam refugees alone, in the first place, not to mention multitudes of other human tragedies beyond the refugees per se. Most poignantly, the then blithely self-blinded Left wasn’t marching in the streets en masse to protest the regime’s purges, “re-education” camps, etc. post-1975, which essentially were the cause of the nearly two-million refugees, including the “boat people.” To this day the Montagnards continue to be much oppressed, yet do we see or hear the Left on this issue? Or at all, since 1975?

    While there are no easy answers, the Left’s long and storied history of systematic disinformation and accompanying moral insolvency represents another problem to be avoided, not emulated and repeated yet again. Finally, this post, in addition to the references provided, also references info from volumes that were cited at the end of this Neo-neocon post in a related thread.

    To conclude on a more positive note, Open Democracy has a new blog.

  19. Luther McLeod Says:

    Dear SJ, as some others have mentioned elsewhere, your only consistency is in being a bore. How old are you anyway?

  20. Steve J. Says:

    Dear Pancho,

    Try responding to the posts.

  21. Pancho Says:

    Congratulations to Steve J. for posting a comment every two minutes for almost a half an hour.

    Paranoid Compulsives Anonymous meets at 8 o’clock in your area Steve. And try reading something other than back issues of The Nation…..I think it’s compounding your neurosis.

  22. Anonymous Says:

    steve j

    “Yes, body counts! Funny how they added up to more than the entire population of North Vietnam.”

    actually the US governments numbers were fairly accurate. Hanoi admitted as much in the mid 90s.

    brian

  23. Steve J. Says:

    WICHITA BOY:”The administration made the commitment to prosecute the war only within S. Vietnam. “

    I guess you never saw pictures of the Plain of Jars in Laos from the war years. Kinda like the surface of the moon but more orderly due to the tight bombing formations.

  24. Steve J. Says:

    RICHARD AUBREY:”I never read the Pentagon Papers”

    Give it a try.

  25. Steve J. Says:

    GOESH:”The voices we hear today over the death of civilians in Iraq were silent when missles were going astray in Kosovo.”

    Try reading back issues of the New York Review of Books.

  26. Steve J. Says:

    GOESH:” these same voices instantly went silent and stayed silent once North Viet Nam took control.”

    Funny, I recall the Boat People being on the front page of the NY Times.

    I think you should also look at back issues of The Nation.

  27. Steve J. Says:

    GOESH:”I vividly recall a small convoy of civilians being pulled by farm tractors that got hit, and a train crossing a bridge full of civilians that got hit, yet not a word of protest from the Left. “

    Try reading back issues of The Nation.

  28. Steve J. Says:

    “So, just as some generals continue to fight the previous war, so do some people.”

    E.g., the Swift Boat Vet LIARS.

  29. Steve J. Says:

    “What if that worldview turns out to have been a house of cards?”

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2087-1593607,00.html

    5/01/05

    IRAQ: PRIME MINISTER’S MEETING, 23 JULY, 2002
    C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime’s record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.
    The Foreign Secretary said he would discuss this with Colin Powell this week. It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran.

    The Attorney-General said that the desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action. There were three possible legal bases: self-defence, humanitarian intervention, or UNSC authorisation. The first and second could not be the base in this case. Relying on UNSCR 1205 of three years ago would be difficult.

  30. Steve J. Says:

    “combined with the lack of cognitive clarity about the reasons behind the war

    The Domino Theory was easy to grasp and profoundly wrong.

  31. Steve J. Says:

    “The US was attempting to fight a war of attrition in terms of bodies (we kill so many of you that you run out of willing fighters),”

    Yes, body counts! Funny how they added up to more than the entire population of North Vietnam.

  32. Steve J. Says:

    “By the late 60s, the enemy was well aware that the US press and public were wearying of the war, and that if they could exploit this fact they could prevail.”

    The end of college deferments had a non-negligible impact on perceptions of the validity of the war.

  33. Steve J. Says:

    “Kent State made us wonder whether we students had also been targeted as enemies”

    Wonder? Noxin called the undergrads at Union College “bastards.”

    Also, you forgot to mention the murders at Jackson State.

  34. Steve J. Says:

    many of the South Vietnamese leaders we supported seemed corrupt

    CORRECTION: WERE corrupt/

  35. rafinlay Says:

    Lichanos,
    The press did not change from a lap dog to a watch dog in the 60′s, it just climbed on a different lap. If you want watch dogs, you need a lot of them, all barking at each other.

    With the blogosphere, talk radio, cable, public and private broadcasting, we are closer to that now than we were then.

    Everybody notices the dogs barking at them, and ignores the dogs barking at others.

  36. Michael B Says:

    Agree with shoshanna, very much so.

    Agree with the Baron, on the KGB and similar angles. Despite the fact Soviet archives have been variously opened and accessible, this has not at all been a topic that has been very well explored and published. With the ideological narrowness and propensities in academe, perhaps that reflects a certain apathy and lack of motivation. Related to just how revelatory Soviet archives can be (though not concerning Vietnam) is Spain Betrayed. It won’t interest anyone unless they have an interest in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell, the COMINTERN’s and more direct Soviet involvements in that conflict, etc., but it very much is a reflection of what can be learned from these archives for it effectively unmasks – in a 100% authoritative manner – the Left’s propaganda that the Soviets were more benign or much less directly involved in that episode, often enough with cited directives signed by Molotov, Stalin himself, and other upper echelon players. A genuine and revelatory historical document.

    Finally, agree with R. Aubrey, concerning Heller’s Catch-22. Yet another prominent piece of fiction that is pivotal is of course Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, which even now is used as virtually a biblical reference and source both within Vietnam and the Left, broadly conceived, to this day (also, Pravda gave it accolades that were rarely paralled). From the perspective of both a subtly and intricately distorted propaganda as well as a more blatantly distorted kind, few artifacts of the Left’s huge corpus of propaganda initiatives can be as revealing as a study of The Quiet American can be. (Though comparing the NYT and WaPo’s version of the Pentagon Papers with the actual Pentagon Papers can be similarly instructive.)

    “Vietnam,” will never reduce to simple, formulaic answers, either pro or con. But what is hugely revealing for those with open eyes and minds is the genuinely vast cache of distortionist propaganda, both of a subtle and intricate kind as well as more blatant set of lies and misdirections, upon which the Left, both then and now, base their arguments upon. The Left’s illusions are a house of cards, their version of “Vietnam” is one of the primary foundation stones upon which that house of cards is founded.

  37. Asher Abrams Says:

    Neo, thanks for another great post in an outstanding series. I was born a little too late (1963) to form an independent opinion of Vietnam; my parents (a bit older than most of my peers’) were old-school liberals who opposed the war but were not anti-American or pro-Red. (My mom, in particular, was strongly anti-Communist.)

    Your series helps me make sense, in retrospect, of the political and cultural events that I experienced during my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood in the Vietnam and post-Vietnam eras. Thanks for this important contribution.

    BTW, have you thought about getting this series published in print when it’s complete?

  38. Andrew Zalotocky Says:

    Neo, your point about the emotional impact of the raw images of war on television reminds me of modern concerns about whether the young are being desensitised by constant exposure to violent images on television and in video games.

    It strikes me that this desensitisation is actually an important defence mechanism, because without it one would be totally debilitated by the emotions evoked by all the real and simulated pain on screen. It also makes it easier to look past the image and ask the hard but necessary questions about why particular conflicts are taking place and what the right position to take on them is. In the media age, a certain level of desensitisation to horrific images is necessary for a person to function as a rational citizen.

    The fact that your generation grew up without this defence mechanism helps explain the impact of the TV coverage of Vietnam. But it was a one-time deal, because once showing the reality of war had become the norm it could never have the same impact again. Indeed, the more shocking the images that the viewing public has to deal with on a regular basis the more they will develop psychological defences to avoid being hurt by them, which means that the more television tries to shock the more it loses the ability to influence people at all.

  39. Baron Bodissey Says:

    Don’t forget the role that the KGB played in the Vietnam debacle. The Soviets fed propaganda and disinformation to the West under the cover of various “peace” groups.

    An individual activist organization was not necessarily aware that it was serving as a front for the Soviets. Information trickled down to the group; it seemed true; it fit into their worldview, so they passed it on and acted on it.

    The Soviets got a big bang for a few bucks from their efforts. The KGB had a significant influence on the outcome of the Vietnam War.

  40. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Ref. Joseph Heller and Catch-22:

    I think it was Stephen Ambrose who interviewed Heller about his WW II experiences. How about those loser officers?

    Well, said Heller, all the officers I encountered were terrific.

    But the book…?

    It’s fiction.

    So anybody who was influenced by the book was influenced by what the author–and anybody with sense–knew not to be true.

  41. WJA Says:

    Fascinating essay. You know, another discussion to raise in all this is the number of civilian casualities from the Vietnam war. You’ve surely seen the number “1 million” bandied about, even “2 million”. (Indeed, in a condemnation of Donald Rumsfeld, bin Laden referred to him as something like “murderer of 2 million Vietnamese.”) Robert McNamara has stated those figures. They seem to be taken for granted.

    But where do these numbers come from? Are they in the least bit accurate?

    That thought came to me, while recently reading David Maraniss’ fine book *They Marched Into Sunlight*, and coming across this passage [p.72-73]:

    “The number of cilvian deaths during the entire war, which lasted another six years [after 1967] has never been resolved. Most estimates placed the number between 300,000 and half a million. Vietnam war expert A. J. Langguth, writing of the situation at the time of the Paris Peace Talks in 1973, six years after [Ramparts author William F.] Pepper’s article, said that the total number of civilians killed or wounded during the entire war to that point, North and South [emph mine], men, women, and children, ‘may have run to a million.’”

    The aforementioned Pepper, Maraniss also mentions, asserted in the far left Ramparts that a million Vietnamese children were war casualties– and cobbled that number together from flawed methodologies and estimates. Meanwhile, the highest figure given at the time was a million, but included victims killed by the North and the Vietcong. Other contemporary estimates were even lower. And yet somehow, the highest figure, or figures even higher, have now been stated and accepted as established fact, and indeed, are employed like they were debate-enders. But how many civilians really died?

    None of this to deny the horror and the magnitude of civilian casualties in Vietnam. Like most wars of that time, and certainly before, they were appallingly high. Nor would lower figures ultimately justify a war fought on behalf of an abstract principle of containment, and in large part with a conscripted military.

    But then, if we have a more accurate tally, we’re able to employ a striking comparative calculus. For if the moral cost of our fighting in Vietnam was several hundred thousand innocent civilians dead, what was the moral cost of our leaving? Well, 2 million dead Cambodians, who surely would not have died, had we still been there for the Khmer Rougue to fear. Plus how many hundred thousand or more dead, when the North Vietnamese won, and imposed its dictatorship? If fighting the Vietnam War is still wrong, might it turn out that not fighting it was also wrong?

  42. greeneyeshade Says:

    i’d like to suggest that one problem with the way we fought vietnam wasn’t the draft, it was the draft *exemptions.* the system was so easy to game … i managed myself, for reasons i’m not proud of … that it had to spread toxins. james fallows wrote this over 20 years ago. and isn’t it funny that the people who are calling for a draft want it because it would be a *restraint* on military action?

  43. Michael B Says:

    Great post, very nice, like it. Maintains its center of gravity and suspense around the human and the descriptive; keeps final judgements, for now at least, on the periphery, at arms length. Socratic, keeps things in a state of suspense, tension. Eventually though warranted conclusions and judgements have to be reached, else the moral never enters the gravitational field, is permitted to forever float, remain abstracted, which would be a repetition of perhaps the most fundamental error and fantasy of the Left.

  44. Pancho Says:

    Another change was in the type of war being fought……

    True in the main, the concept of taking and holding ground was applied by some of the less forward thinking military leaders, i.e. many of those senior leaders who came from the WWII and Korean conflict experiences. The VC and to some degree the PAVN forces preferred to hold the hearts and minds [and pocketbooks] of the people, by whatever means necessary, over territory.

    However, be reminded that contrary to the general U.S. civilians perception that the whole war was fought by pajama clad small units of VC, there were some very intense pitched battles of large mainforce units. One of those being the battles in the Ia Drang Valley very early in the war, which in some ways set the tone for the rest of the military action. My good friends Joe Galloway and Gen. Hal Moore noted in their bestseller, “We Were Soldiers Once…and Young” that the battles at LZ XRay and LZ Albany in November of ’65 were pivotal in shaping the course of the war and the way in which it was fought.

    From these engagements in November of ’65 the NVA learned that to defeat American firepower they had to “grab the enemy by the belt buckle” to avoid the deadly air and artillery support that US forces could call in. i.e. fight close in. From these engagements, senior US military leadership developed the dubious “body count” methodology of discerning victory. As we now know, bodies and the loss thereof were not a high priority with the North Vietnamese.

  45. David Says:

    ShrinkWrapped..very interesting analysis.

    Granularity..one *positive* example of civilian “interference” with the military is Abraham Lincoln. Without his constant meddling, the Union probably would not have won the Civil War.

    But Lincoln was an unusually intelligent man who was willing to learn.

  46. Alex Says:

    jonny:

    If you haven’t noticed, this is an ongoing series. We are now up to 1975 or so. Presumably, as she has promised, NNC will address your questions about the here and now when the narrative reaches the here and now.

    And as for the rest of what you wrote it’s, well, it’s sort of unintelligible.

    “…the rest of the world with their war-torn histories have come to be emasculate, or the converse, refusing to be so.”

    ??

    And, I know this isn’t what you meant, but… NNC is a nation? I guess she does have a “collective timeworn consciousness”…

  47. jonny-no-stars Says:

    NN:

    And the effects of Vietnam on your collective timeworn consciousness is…?

    And more importantly, where does that take you as a nation, in today’s here and now?

    The only thing I’ve really got from this is that you now see how the rest of the world with their war-torn histories have come to be emasculate, or the converse, refusing to be so. And America’s form of universal consciousness is as fragmented in many respects as most other nations.

    But so what? That’s the history of the human race.

  48. Lichanos Says:

    BARRY:
    I have my own problems with the press. And I seem to recall one of those leading newspapers writing stories about weapons of mass destruction and then finally printing apologies and retractions after it realized it had been lied to and failed to do its (adversarial) homework.

    Sounds to me like you view the world from the conspiracy theorists’ point of view. Nothing could be simpler.

  49. qoz Says:

    Great post. One cautionary quibble on the sidelines: the meme that civilian involvement in strategy and military decision-making was to blame is a furphy, and a pernicious and dangerous one at that. Civilian control of the military is essential to a democracy; that means civilians have the right to direct the military as they wish–and they must bear they responsibility for doing so. The problem with McNamara et al was that they exercised weak control–they had little understanding of what they were doing, misunderstood the media, and shirked responsibility–while strong civilian control requires knowledgeable civilians and civilian leaders willing to take hard decisions and bear the consequences. The general lesson, however, taken by the military and many civilains from Vietnam is that civilians stay out of the military and military strategy. But we’ve been down that path too, in the slaughter in the WWI trenches in France and the recalcitrance of the British War Office. And Vietnam led to a generation of policy-makers with little interest in (if not abhorence of) things military, politicians not wanting to be tarred as interfering, and the Powell Doctrine. Thankfully, exceptions such as Wolfowitz persisted.

  50. John Moreschi Says:

    Another great post, thank you.

    What you are talking about is one of the deep woundings of America, and the pain of that wounding. Pain is the separation from and longing for something. Intellectual pain is the separation from and longing for an intellectual understanding of the world. Emotional pain is the separation from and longing for a betrayed trust. When we felt betrayed by the government, we no longer knew the world. We constructed the new narrative that you describe so beautifully. Many aren’t willing to be separated from that intellectual model of the world. And the world has passed them by. So, they are stuck with pain anyhow because a part of them knows that they are the modern equivalents of the flat earth society – they believe something that once everyone believed, but is now obsoleted by new knowledge.

  51. ShrinkWrapped Says:

    A wonderful and eloquent post, neo. I would add a couple more factors. During WWII, the world looked into the abyss and to paraphrase Robert Oppenheimer, loosed “Shiva, the destroyer of worlds.” When the GI’s came home their immediate reaction was to marry and have children, an assertion of life after so much death. Their children were miracles, raised from the ashes of the nuclear holocaust and the human holocaust of the concentration camps. We could truly destroy ourselves and everything was affected by that. Further, the children of the 50′s were the first generation to be raised in the enlightened, permissive style; the child centered world had arrived. This augmentation of the narcissism of the young was a powerful factor in the questioning authority ethos of the 60′s (which occured in Europe as well as the States.)
    Once these baby boomers hit adolescence, it was natural for them to refuse to sacrifice themselves for their country. After all, there was nothing in the universe more important than they were, so how could anything be worth dieing for. Grace Slick said it best:
    “War’s good business, so give your son,
    But I’d rather have my country die for me.”
    The elevation of the individual to iconic status is also why the left never cared about atrocities committed by “their” side.

  52. WichitaBoy Says:

    Thank you for a truly excellent installment.

    One thing that got mentioned on a previous thread and tangentially mentioned here needs to be strongly emphasized. The administration made the commitment to prosecute the war only within S. Vietnam. That was prima facie absurd. No enemy can be defeated without bringing the war home forcefully to that enemy. Imagine trying to win the Civil War while refusing to fight in the South. We were practically broadcasting to the N. Vietnamese that we didn’t want to win the war, not really.

    The absurdity of the situation was apparent to me even as a child. This led me, and countless millions of others, to believe that fighting the war was completely futile because we could never win, because we had decided never to win. This heavily emphasized to young potential cannon-fodder like me that I would be dying for nothing. That led me to oppose the war.

  53. colagirl Says:

    *Great* post, neo-neocon!

    I wasn’t alive during Vietnam (born 1977). To me it was always a sort of vague affair, and I wasn’t really sure what it was except that it was the one war we lost. I remember reading somewhere some commentator talking about that time, and saying that class issues revolving around college deferments during Vietnam would split the country for generations to come, and thinking, “No it won’t. My generation’s already forgotten about it.” That’s how distant the war seemed from me. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I started coming to the conclusion that the sixties and Vietnam still played a very large role in modern politics and society, although sometimes in ways that aren’t immediately apparent.

    As I’ve been trying to find out more about the social and political climate at that time, and the influences it has on modern life, I’ve found your posts to be intensely interesting and useful. Your thoughtful analysis and step-by-step exploration of what it actually felt like to live through those tumultuous times and the ways in which societal pressures shaped an entire cohort’s outlook on life is fascinating to me because I feel like it’s helping to explain a lot of patterns I have noticed about society but haven’t really understood. I can’t wait for your posting on how this affected your views on 9/11.

  54. Barry Says:

    Lichanos-

    Yes, the press ought to be a watchdog. However, when time after time our nation’s leading newspapers and TV news networks can be shown to be mouthpieces for particular political groups, and to lie, yet attempt cover up those lies when they are discovered, it is clear to me that “the press” in idealistic terms, and the modern commercial news media are not the same animal.

    So, we look elsewhere for the watchdogs, or it is clear that we just like paying to be fed the stories we like to hear.

    Your worldview appears to be quite simplistic.

  55. Daniel Says:

    I would put a very, very heavy emphasis on the impact of the draft during the Vietnam war. The U.S. has a strong underlying ethos of individual freedom, so it takes a lot to convince young men (and their parents) that it’s okay to FORCE them to fight and often die in a foreign war. There must be a great over-arching cause (e.g., self-defense and revenge for Japanese aggression, fighting back against Nazi tyranny and genocide, etc.). And the goal must be to WIN and defeat the evil enemy, thereby protecting their loved ones from the horrors that defeat would entail.

    Instead the U.S. government was telling young people they had no choice but to give up their lives for a nebulous cause in a seemingly endless struggle that our nation had optionally involved itself in.

    If we’d had a volunteer army, the dynamics would have been entirely different. Young men who didn’t want to fight would not have been threatened by the war. They could have safely ignored it and all the associated news coverage, and gotten on with more important things in their lives. Those who volunteered for the military would have done so knowing the risks, so their deaths could have been viewed with detachment rather than the emotional reaction of “that could easily be me”.

    I managed to stay out of the military with a student deferment and then a high draft lottery number. Others I knew weren’t so lucky. There was a continuous underlying tension and fear which fed the anti-war movement and the college demonstrations. On the one hand young men don’t want to die, but on the other hand they don’t want to be seen as cowardly. The anti-war movement enabled them to rationalize their opposition.

    The lack of conscription was a big reason why anti-war activists failed to gain much traction during the 1991 Gulf War and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. For many people, 9/11 would have been a sufficient causus belli to re-institute the draft had it been needed. But for those not so motivated, the lack of a draft meant there was no immediate personal threat. They could ignore rather than actively oppose U.S. military action.

    Of course the corollary is that the U.S. government would have had to fight a very different war in Vietnam if it had lacked the draft and a steady stream of cannon fodder. It would have had to convince potential volunteers that the cause justified risking their lives. It would have had to prosecuted the war more effectively and with clearer goals and fewer artificial limitations. It might not have been able to go to war in the first place, or it might have had to pull out sooner. In which case communism might have overrun all of southeast asia and ultimately led to Western Civilization’s defeat in the Cold War and the worldwide loss of liberty.

    Or not.

  56. Lichanos Says:

    INDY:
    “And that [lack of context] is still one of the major problems with the main stream media today.”

    Hey, I agree with you! But who’s version of the context, eh? I bet my newspaper would present a very different context from your newspaper.

    It boggles my mind how preoccuped with “The Media” you people are. The only people I’ve read or heard who sound like you are…THE MARXISTS! They too are always going on about how people are “brainwashed” by the media.

    Betrayal and discontent breeds strange bedfellows.

  57. KeithM, Indy Says:

    Sounds to me like the press went from being a lapdog to (finally) doing their job. Do you agree?

    ***********

    Nope.

    They were commenting about some things that were beyond their knowledge or experience. 5 blind man describing an elephant in the room.

    If the media had put things in their proper context, and reported on them objectively, there would have been a far different view of the war.

    And that is still one of the major problems with the main stream media today.

  58. KeithM, Indy Says:

    I guess I should count my blessings that my prime formative years were 79-86. (High school through college).

    Post Disco thank God.

    And punks were going to not rule the world. Trust no one but yourself was the popular sentiment, and my favorite t-shirt said “If you’re loosing the game, change the rules.”

    Most of my frieds were apolitical. No cause was worth getting off the couch. And once we hit the job market we were off and running, with most of us to busy to start a family.

    Not until politics intruded on things important to me (gun rights) did I take notice. And in that, the press failed to present the truth, the Democrats failed to present the truth, many Republicans failed to stand up for the truth, but advocacy groups on my side of the issue ruled.

    That was also around the time the internet, and talk radio started gaining steam. And while not trusted sources to begin with, the internet let you explore and find the facts (if not the truth) of matters. So you could decide for yourself if you trusted a particular person.

    Trust the institutions, but not the people running it. America has a great foundation, but sometimes the inmates seem to be running the asylum.

    Take care…

  59. Lichanos Says:

    Ooops, forgot one thing. The vehement opposition to the war in Vietnam, the ‘sympathy’ for the enemy, the violence of the demonstrations, the in-your-face attitude of the demonstrators, lefties or not, the superficial commitment of many of the young to so-called left wing causes can be explained by two words: THE DRAFT. Start a draft for the Iraq war, and you’ll start to see the same thing. Young people don’t like having their lives disrupted and possibly ended in wars, the rationales for which are anything less than crystal clear and compelling. Especially when they have other plans that are within their grasp, e.g. college, buying houses, marriage, decent jobs, etc.

  60. Lichanos Says:

    Just wondering here about this quote from your blog:

    “… during this time, the press turned from government associate to government adversary, and questioned not only tactics, theory, and judgment, but even the goodwill and motives of those in charge of decisions.”

    Sounds to me like the press went from being a lapdog to (finally) doing their job. Do you agree? Or do you prefer a press that does and says what the government wants. Isn’t a bit of journalistic jackal barking (like Rush Limbaugh, perhaps?) what we pay for a free press in a democracy?

  61. submandave Says:

    Another huge factor in the Vietnam War was that it was the first time a large number of Americans not only among the general population but perhaps more importantly in the press were somewhat sympathetic to the ideology of the enemy. The naivete of the young of which you speak makes them more open to utopian ideals such as the promise of Communism without critically evaluating that this promise had never been delivered despite the millions sacrificed upon its alter. Many on the left, including much in the press, perceived that we were not only interfering in a civil matter, but interfering on the wrong side.

    This has special significance in light of the phenomenon goesh addressed, because for the true believers the ideal of Communism exists seperate from the implementation. In their eyes the killing fields of Cambodia were the result of Pol Pot, not Communism. It is this disconnect and belief in a concept as separate from the application of that concept that allows the International Socialists of WWP to still, today, entice some idealists even with the blood of a hundred million still fresh on their hands.

  62. Joseph Says:

    Neo-neocon, awesome! Thank you for taking the time to make such a thoughtful addition to your wonderful analysis on both Vietnam and change.

    I do not have the time to go to my “War Room” and get into much detail right now, but the trend toward liberalism certainly continued from FDR through Civil Rights. (Eisenhower slowed the liberal surge down just a bit in the 1950′s much like Clinton did in the 1990′s for the other side) Conservatism definitely started a strong upsurge not only during, but due to Vietnam. This surge was temporarily stalled because of the fallout of Watergate, but this only obscures the truth. I know this trend to be true because I did much hands on work organizing and funding a lot of polling for Congressional Democrats during the 1980′s and 1990′s

    There is no doubt who benefited from Vietnam and who the country held more culpable. Due to lacking evidence you determined to call it a wash or attribute very little but that is not near the case. Neo-neocon, to understand this one must cast aside Party Affiliation as the way to determine winners and losers, and realize that shifts in ideology is. We came out of Vietnam, though somewhat obscured due to Watergate, with a trend on War and Peace matters that hardened the public every bit as much as 911 did. The public for sure became more cynical of government, but they also become much more hawkish about how to fight and the attitude we should take when we fight, There is no doubt the Democrats most suffered as they have never been able to shake critical images that still haunt them. There is a public assumption that Democrats are weaker on defense issues, this is even held by a surprisingly large number of Democrats. This perception has been hardened by Ronald Reagan and now George W. Bush.

    Now another reason why I said ideology and not Party Affiliation is the more critical measurement because in the 1970′s Democrats still held the majority of neo-conservatives, Southerners and Mid-Western Catholics in their Party. There was a huge majority of Democratic Party affiliation in those days, today we are at parity but a new study shows Republicans with a decided edge on two major independent groups that declare as independents, Bush carried 3 out of four of these people…

    http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=242

    Now back to those many that still supported Democrats, some followed Scoop Jackson, some followed others but there was a better balance pre-Vietnam for this “Harry Truman” type Democrat. Reagan made it very difficult for these type of Democrats to not cross over and what Nixon had started now became near irreversible. Many of these “Reagan Democrats” are now just Republican. Neo-neocon, I would submit that Vietnam is the very catalyst that hardened the trend against leftist-liberalism.

    I mentioned is a previous thread a truth that Democrats must understand if they desire to get some of these people back. First while there is a grain of truth in most stereotypes the real truth is Democrats lost the South not over race issues, but over War and Peace issues. Vietnam served as a critical component of this trend as the first of many ‘War and Peace’ meltdowns by Democrats. The subsequent meltdowns during Reagan and now Bush has just sealed this reality for another generation.

    Only a hawkish Democrat will ever be able to win and while America as a nation was the biggest loser in political terms Democrats were by far the biggest losers not only in perception but reality, the reality of losing a critical balancing wing of their coalition, the South and much of the Hawkish Heartland and as such they have been not only geographically reduced but in electoral terms as well. Small States have as many Senators as large ones and Republican hold a 3-2 advantage on such States. During the days of FDR it was the opposite, but remember that during Vietnam the Democrats still held this advantage and the Democrats must increase their ‘Conservative Wing’ to have any chance to gain it back but unfortunately this wing of the Party is still shrinking. The sad truth is most of this shrinkage can be attributed to political fallout for standing for the very things that the liberal left not only stood for in Vietnam, but now reaffirming in Iraq.

    I will add that Democrats having lost me, formerly a very partisan Democrat, is indeed not a very good sign.

    Neo-neocon if you’d like me to dig up the numbers concerning the political trends tied to Vietnam email me at…

    j_s_friedman@hotmail.com

    If you request I will get back to you, I know I have them somewhere.

  63. robert aldridge Says:

    Anon, I agree; Catch 22 was a very good book, but the implications were indeed subversive. A very dangerous book, but why was I taken in by it? Because it was brilliant.

  64. Anonymous Says:

    I graduated from high school in 1959 and from college in early 1964, just before the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley. The cultural, social, and intellectual changes that occurred over that short time were tremendous, and many of them fostered/increased a mistrust of all authority figures. One event that stands out for me was the publication of Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” published in 1961. The book may seem mild by today’s standards, but I can still remember how we reeled from the picture of the utter insanity of war presented in that book. Die in a mud puddle in Vietnam after that? Many of us declined.

  65. meander Says:

    Very definitely a worthwhile read. You give valuable insight on the emotional and psychological reactions of people like yourself who were really paying attention back then. There are so many layers of irony for our country from Vietnam on and you helped me understand things much better. As someone who was not paying attention to the news with the kind of intensity you were, I’ve not carried the burden of anger and extreme cynicism towards my goverment. Actually now, I probably come closest to those feelings when I read about the latest take the New York Times has on some issue that relates to Bush. Isn’t that just something…the liberal press inspiring in a conservative me the same response they have towards the goverment. Anyway, thanks for a wonderful post.

  66. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Beautifully done. I asked where you were and how you got there, and you answered. Excellent.

    I was particularly impressed with the insight about the young trusting.

    One of my fraternity brothers dated Linda Evans (the Weather Underground L.E., not the Dynasty L. E.) for a bit. She had the air of being not quite on the ground. I thing the term “naive” would crumble beneath the weight of her otherworldliness.

    I was of the opinion that this was partly an act, since so many of the hippy wannabes on campus, upon hearing of yet another outrage (parking fines or My Lai) would widen their eyes and say, “Oh, wow!” as if their innocence could not accept one more horror.

    Nobody I grew up with ever did that. I always wondered where that particular sub-demographic came from. To the extent it was a genuine expression of somebody who was uneducated–and how did that happen–in the simplest knowledge of how the world works, then the betrayal might have been particularly keen.

    I never read the Pentagon Papers, but I am told that most of the noise comes from deliberately obfuscating “plan for” and “plan to”.

    The commitment to win was another nuanced issue. T. R. Fehrenbach, in his “This Kind of War” used the Korean War to set out the ground rules for war in the nuclear age. “Winning” in the WW II fashion wasn’t part of it. The American people, he said, will respond to the call for jihad–he wrote this a long time ago–but are reluctant to fight inconclusive wars in the mud of frontiers.
    Problem was, he said, that the former might go nuclear, while losing or giving up the latter would surely result in one side being so tied up in geo-political chains that the adversary’s next move would mean surrender or nuclear war. You could give away pawns in chess without the King being concerned, but when the enemy calls Mate, you can either surrender or kick over the board. You see the metaphor, I’m sure.

    I had no problem with a limited goal, which would have been confirming the independence of South Viet Nam. For me, as for most of the folks I knew, that was good enough.
    Problem was that a number of despicable types, neither beginning nor ending with McNamara, wouldn’t even go that far.

    However, I got to know some Luftwaffe guys (don’t ask) who were glad the Battle for The Fulda Gap wasn’t being fought in the Fulda Gap (which would mean they’d be in it) but in Southeast Asia. If that’s what the US would do for an artificially divided country ten thousand miles away, what would they do if the Warsaw Pact came across the InterGerman Border? They and we hoped the Politburo was worried about this. Apparently they were.
    With a few minor exceptions, I never felt betrayed by the Establishment. It was the lefties who betrayed a good many people.

    Neo-neocon refers to lefties who oppose the US no matter what. In addition, we have the phenomenon of those who oppose George Bush so vehemently that they are in bed with some of history’s most vicious individuals. The enemy of my enemy is my friend will have you waking up in some very strange beds.

  67. Peg C. Says:

    Neo, wonderful post. I agree with Goesh, also. Having undergone my own personal mind change and paradigm shift in 1998 (former lifelong lefty Dem here), I do know how difficult and painful it is but I also have zero patience for those who refuse to see reality and change. I have also lost all faith in the press, and quite a bit of trust in not only our judicial process but our electoral process as well — both of which I blame on lefties and libs (including myself) who systematically set out to up-end and destroy institutions underpinning our democracy. Meanwhile, lefties and libs have aligned themselves with our enemies, including Islamofascists, anti-Semites, and all anti-Americans in general, because the enemy of their enemy is their friend. Now there is the betrayal I feel by my own former party!

    Anyway, I love your posts because I identify with them. Please keep them coming.

  68. Goesh Says:

    What has always amazed me is given the power and vehemence of the anti-war movement and the violent outrage over civilian deaths in South Viet Nam, these same voices instantly went silent and stayed silent once North Viet Nam took control. In a relatively short time, word began to leak out from refugees and other sources about North Viet Nam’s treatment of the the people – camps for educating them, revenge killings, discrimination, expulsions, confiscations, etc. etc. Yet there was not one damn peep of protest from the Left over this, not one. This to me was the most fraudulent, hypocritical and callous aspect of the American Left. I think this has haunted the Left and continues to haunt them and cost them dearly in the political arena. The voices we hear today over the death of civilians in Iraq were silent when missles were going astray in Kosovo. I vividly recall a small convoy of civilians being pulled by farm tractors that got hit, and a train crossing a bridge full of civilians that got hit, yet not a word of protest from the Left. There were no human shields for Serb civilians because the darling of the Left, Bill Clinton, endorsed that war. Callous, hypocritical and fraudulent – who could support any cause or candidate put forth by people like this? Certainly not I and certainly not a bunch of people that voted Bush back into office over a fraud, fake and callous hypocrite from that era and his camp followers.

  69. David Markegard Says:

    Narcissism. The intended and unintended results of “self” preservation.
    As I age (51 soon), I tend to try and “look at the forest for the trees”. but yet, the all knowing me struggles to know that I am really no different than just one of those trees down below.
    A farther view would show that history points it’s finger back to me and could say, “How dare you”?
    Hubris is a short term pat-on-the-back.
    Yep. I am grateful for humility. It has freed me to see myself. Yuck and horay both.
    BTW. I’m only half- way thru your articles, need time to digest, and this is only an interjection. Thanks for the thinking time! o:) david

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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