September 29th, 2007

Revisiting—and revising—Vietnam

Here’s a great summary of a recent symposium on Vietnam history. It was written by Cinnamon Stillwell, another “changer”—and, in the interests of full disclosure, a friend of mine.

Stillwell writes:

The significance of the Vietnam War, both from a historical and a political standpoint, cannot be emphasized enough. It was the most controversial of all America’s military ventures and it led to a rupture in American society that continues to this day. If allowed to hold sway, this rupture threatens American success in Iraq and beyond.

Speakers at a four-day symposium titled, “The Vietnam War: History and Enduring Significance,” at Hillsdale College this month came to much the same conclusion.

Some of the speakers were of the “Vietnam revisionist” variety. These historians and journalists are challenging the accepted “narrative” of Vietnam, which began to be established in the late 60s and through the 70s. This process of revisiting the recent past in the light of the passage of time is part of historical perspective, but in the case of Vietnam it threatens those with a vested interest in the earlier evaluation of the war and those who fought it.

Even on this blog, whenever the subject of Vietnam comes up, one can see how raw the feelings are and how wide and deep the divisions. The 2004 election, Kerry’s nomination, and the Swift Vet controversy also opened up many of these barely-healed wounds. And of course, as I’ve written many times, Vietnam is the template used not only to evaluate the Iraq War, but to plan the Democrats’ strategy in opposing it (see this, as well).

“Revisionist” has become a derogatory term, conjuring up the Soviet tendency to “improve” on history by making it into a fiction that reflected Soviet propaganda needs. But, as I wrote here:

But sometimes that “first draft” of history–such as the Vietnam War as perceived in real time and told in the MSM–cries out for revision, as in “to revise.” To look at again with fresh eyes and new information, and to question whether the standard viewpoint of the time was correct.

Critical thinking demands it.

23 Responses to “Revisiting—and revising—Vietnam”

  1. Laura Says:

    From the essay:

    In regards to citizen soldiers, Hanson pointed out that Vietnam was the first war in U. S. history in which society had reached such a high level of affluence that asking the citizenry to give it all up and travel across the globe to fight in what appeared to be an obscure battle began to seem less appealing. Bringing the issue back to the present, Hanson warned that, “Americans have to feel that their civilization is under attack” to instill this level of commitment.

    Neo: you know that I feel passionately about this topic, so I will temper my remarks. The whole idea of our civilization being threatened and the need for a sustained committment in Iraq and elsewhere cannot be achieved by such a small fighting force. Just as in the 60’s, American in general is not prepared to make the kinds of sacrifices in order to sustain that goal. You cannot do that with 1% of the population and expect that 1% to make all of the sacrifices. It’s just not possible.

    thanks for the post

  2. sergey Says:

    To paraphrase the old proverb, if you have not hammer, you see no nails. The army that US currently have obviously was not intended to large-scale and prolonged land wars, and certainly not for contra-insurgency operations of long duration. May be, that is why it is so hard to convince the public that their civilization is, indeed, under attack and in a grave danger, as the enemy openly declares.

  3. Cappy Says:

    Hippies and peaceniks: Wrong in the 60’s, wrong now.

  4. gcotharn Says:

    Modern history is inaccurately “revised” in the scant moments after it occurs. To correct initial “revision” is to true up history.

  5. Kelly Says:

    I don’t know that Vietnam caused the rupture so much as deepened and solidified one that was already there. The prospect of being drafted certainly drew more people to the anti-war left (and acknowledging that motive less likely to question their actions since), but the counterculture movement was already existent and gaining steam. The war may have helped it reach critical mass in the US, but the 60’s were a time of upheaval in many countries.
    If I had to pick a single cause for the overdetermined rupture in American society, my money is on the psychic trauma of the JFK assassination. An entire history of alternate versions of reality flows from that event.

  6. neo-neocon Says:


    From my own personal experience of that era, I would say Vietnam far overshadowed any other event in terms of divisiveness. What’s more, the attitudes that stem from that time seem, for the most part, to be set in stone, and greatly influence perceptions today. That’s why I find the revisionist historians so fascinating.

    I discuss the Kennedy assassination’s effect as well as Vietnam in my “A mind is a difficult thing to change” series.

  7. Trimegistus Says:

    A lot of the explanations for why Vietnam was such an unpopular war never sounded convincing. Casualties? It was a drop in the bucket compared to the World Wars and Korea. The draft? We had one in the Civil War, the World Wars, and in peacetime during the 1950s.

    It always keeps coming back to how it was presented to the American people. The Johnson administration tried to pretend it wasn’t a war at all, and thus wound up lying and acting in bad faith. I don’t know if the media were ever really “on board” in the old World War II sense, and as soon as the first cracks appeared in the Administration narrative they swarmed — and have been swarming ever since.

  8. PostLiberal Says:

    I obtained Conscientious Objector status during the Vietnam War. I was prepared to go to jail if the draft board did not grant me that status.

    JFKerry’s views on Vietnam were set in stone by 1970-71. My views changed.

    The genocide in Cambodia convinced me that it was not possible to stand on the sidelines and wash one’s hands of evil, while others got slaughtered. There IS such a thing as the lesser of two evils.

    Having grown up in a small town with a fair number of refugees from National Socialism and Communism, some of whose children I dated, meant that I did not deeply agree with the leftist view of America as the Great Sinner. I did for a while somewhat agree with that viewpoint.

    My working overseas did away for good with any vestige of my support of the America as the Great Sinner viewpoint. Racism, ethnocentrism, and lack of opportunity for the common man are to be found in much greater proportion outside the US than within the US. Mine eyes have seen.

  9. nyomythus Says:

    neo-neocon — what does the ‘manichean divide’ mean, refer to?

  10. Donald Wolberg Says:

    There are as many views about Vietnam as there are authors. But is seems clear that despite a massive military force, politics and policy would not allow a determined victory policy to guide the Nation and instead the “long bleed” substituted for victory. The war was needlessly initiated and 58,000 Americans died and more than 150,000 were wounded, all needlessly. Of interest is that some 300,000 South Korean troops served in Vietnam and about 5,000 were killed in combat. The war needed a new President to bring the conflict to an end.

    The earlier Korean conflict was particularly vicious and intense from 1950-53.. Once again policy dictated a non-victory and a “needless bleed.” Mr. Truman would not win and although the South was saved, the saving was at the price of about 51,000 American dead and more than 100,000 wounded. It required a ne President to end the conflict. The Eisenhower truce, however, meant 54 years of American presence without victory!

    Both wars were hugely unpopular and unnecessary–we had no national interest at stake. But once involved, both wars had no victory option. America did not decide to do what it could, win quickly and win convincingly.

    Mush the same is true of the Iraq mess. AAnother war is upon us that was not necessary and another 3700 American soldiers have died and almost 30,000 maimed in another “slow bleed.” We have managed to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory by a lack of determination to do what was necessary rapidly and get it done. Once again, we likely await a new President to end the waste.

    There are many ironic results from the earlier wars. Vietnam is now a trading partner and hosts American tourists. South Korea was saved and thrives but the North is a Stalinistic legacy that threatens peace of the world because we would not cross the Yalu. Iraq has created a new monster state, Iran, long the real threat, but ignored.

  11. Donald Douglas Says:

    Nice post!

    I trade e-mails with Stillwell regularly. The FrontPage article is excellent, and this “revising revisionism” history of Vietnam is crucial to our ability to maintain national purpose in the face of today’s challenges.

    My new “Blog Watch” post is up, if you’d be interested in taking a look:

    Have a great day!

  12. Donald Douglas Says:

    I like Stillwell. We trade e-mails regularly.

    Nice post!

  13. Laura Says:

    Donald Wolberg wrote:

    “Iraq has created a new monster state, Iran, long the real threat, but ignored.”

    Donald, have you seen this from the New Yorker?

    What concerns me is the over reaching and the go alone policy that tends to be the course set by Bush in the war in Iraq. I fear that a war with Iran is not just a quiet whisper, but a gathering storm.

  14. Laura Says:

    and Dan Friedman wrote in reference to attacking iran:

    “”All the damaging consequences of all the blunders the President has committed to date in Iraq are reversible in 48- to 72-hours – the time it will take to destroy Iran’s fragile nuclear supply chain from the air. And since the job gets done using mostly stand-off weapons and stealth bombers, not one American soldier, sailor or airman need suffer as much as a bruised foot.”

    But wouldn’t that backfire at least as badly as Iraq? Wouldn’t the Iranians strike back?

    Not at all, Friedman insists: “They would stand before mankind with their pants around their ankles, dazed, bleeding, crying, reduced to bloviating from mosques in Teheran and pounding their fists on desks at the UN. . . .

    “Miracles would be seen here at home. Democratic politicians are dumbstruck, silent for a week. With one swing of his mighty bat, the President has hit a dramatic walk-off homerun. He goes from goat to national hero overnight. The elections in November are a formality. Republicans keep the White House and recapture both houses of Congress.”

    I only hope that the same Iran planners aren’t the ones who predicted what would happen in Iraq. The question of whether or not the American people can be convinced on the need remains to be seen.

  15. Donald Douglas Says:

    Donald Wolberg: “We had no national interests at stake?” What, are you crazy? Read Stillwell’s post, and perhaps a book or two from the authors at the symposium.

    As for Iran, Laura, I’ve actually posted quite a bit on the growing crisis. I support preventive strikes on Tehran’s nuclear developmental program, but I don’t know if we have the forces for a full-scale toppling of the regime, which is what we’d really need to be through, once and for all, with Iran’s challenge to international security.

    Here’s my post on Hersh, from this afternoon:

  16. Laura Says:

    Donald, what I think would be reckless is to go in under the assumption that they won’t strike back. We don’t have the troops to respond to that.

    I will look at your post.

  17. Richard Aubrey Says:

    We use the Army and Marines these days as an alternative to totally destroying an enemy from the air.
    If we don’t have Army or Marine units available, we can still destroy.
    Keep in mind that much of the current debate post 9-11 is how many Muslims to kill. Nuke the Middle East to glowing glass? Arrest a couple of dozen master minds? Somewhere in between? Few are saying that nothing need be done and that no Muslims need be killed, if only in resisting arrest. Al Quaeda in Afghanistan all by themselves, or the Taliban, too?

    Iran can “strike back” to the extent that what they have left will be effective against our interests. Considering the feckless Iraqi army killed hundreds of thousands of them during the Iran-Iraq war, a ground attack on our forces in Iraq would be…just dandy. They’ll have no air force, no navy, no infrastructure for proxy armies and terrorists. No oil. No money. Few commanders.

    But, if they do strike back…. Nobody said we were going to get away with this without any difficulty at all. This is war. Question is, do we come out ahead?

    Even the French have recently made the case that military action against Iran’s nuke work is inevitable unless there is a major change in Iran’s tactics. It wouldn’t be going it alone. But, of course, having a couple of dozen allies consists of going it alone if Bush is president, having few is multilateral if Clinton is president.

    As to unncecessary wars, see Fehrenbach, “This Kind of War” Great history of the Korean war, including a discussion of the place of the military in a liberal society, and of small wars in a big world.

    As has been said before, if Europe had fought a small war in 1936 against the militarization of the Rhineland, we wouldn’t have had WW II–at least in the European Theater, and anybody who tried to write an alt-hist novel about the war we saw wouldn’t get a publisher. And the fight would be, in some people’s minds, “unnecessary”.

    Pshrinking a billion-plus people is a fool’s game. However, convincing a proportion of the world’s Muslims that the umma is about as big as it’s going to get would be useful, and you don’t do that by having conferences in which the West inquires as to the next pre-emptive surrender which is desired.

  18. Donald Wolberg Says:

    Unfortunately, I suspect that Norman Podhoretz is correct in his anaysis of “WW IV” and the need for violent preventive measures regarding Iran, but it is late in the day. Wars, conventional or otherwise are made up of encounters, and some are wise and some are just dumb. Iraq was dumb and needless. The evil thugs who were left in Iraq were contained and living off their graft (with the cooperation of the U.N. oil folks) and the disparate parts of Iraq functioned as best they could. The Kurds were doing quite well as they are now, for example, and here, Mr. Hitchens is on the mark. No fly zones and economic pressure left a helpless and hapless Iraqi military with broken machines and no means to really hurt anyone,much less project terror. They had little if any functioning armor (and none of it competitive); no operational air force to contest the skies above their own country; no functioning navy and a dwindling missile force. So worried about the charge of being a terror state were the Iraqi thugs, and the possible punishmentthat could result, I recall they had Abu Nidal “commit suicide” by shooting himself in the head five or six times and Rasputin-like, one report had him stabbing himself in the back as well.

    While we wasted 3700 American lives and another 30,000 wounded (many horribly), the real devil state Iran, brings new meaning to the word “threat.”
    Podhoretz may well be correct that we are in WW IV against Islamofascism, indeed.

    But wars include wins and losses and stupid tactics along with the brilliant. Wars are fought on the backs of the young and we need to be certain that their lives are not wasted in stupid adventures of old men in arm chairs. If it is not the parents and families of our soldiers who speak out, then who?

    Iraq, a failed state that was never a state and likely can never be a state, was stupid and needless adventure. I do maintain it reflects the hubris and misjudgement of a failed administration. Or sons and daughters and Nation have paid a mighty price. What, unfortunately, awaits us, is the real threat, regional and worldwide, that confrontation with a more determined foe, the looney and ignorant Islamofascists in Iran and Syria, their client state. Of course we can deal with this threat, but the real foe is much more determined and has a false sense of security because of the gross failures of the Bush administration. The consequences of the actions against Iran will be inversely proportional to how badly we can cripple their nuclear program and their military. Half measures will not work and, sadly, only massive violence–silly Rumsfeld’s “shock and awe” tactics–will wor. The Iranians are not the beloved of the Arab world–they are not Arabs and have killed more Arabs than any Western state ever has. Their military capability must be laid waste and they must be humiliated in a region where “face” matters. Half measures will not suffice–again Podhoretz is correct. Unfortunately, the hour is late, and our sons and daughters will pay for the delay.

  19. Richard Aubrey Says:

    There is a rumor that Golda Meier knew in advance of the Arab attack in 1973. But she wanted to allow the Arabs to make the first move to allow Israel the moral authority to fight back. Didn’t work. Israel is never given moral authority to do more than clean up the pieces at a suicide bombing.
    The same process Meier is supposed to have gone through is attributed to Roosevelt wrt Pearl Harbor, and for the same reason.

    Problem with Iran is that earlier attacks would have been opposed by the usual suspects whom the Bush admin–hypothetically–thinks would be on board if the situation ripened up a bit. But they won’t. It’s a forlorn hope.

    IMO, the entire thing is related to the folks who think we should dump the Iraq effort and emphasize Afghanistan. Further IMO, once we do that, they’ll be howling for our leaving Afstan. In other words, they’re dishonest.

    And so are many of those who say we should have done Iran first. Had we done so, somewhere north of 99% would be bitching in the same terms you use regarding Iraq. Now, you may be the honest guy in this debate–although the likelihood of encountering that individual is pretty small in any given location–but the fact is, the others who speak like you are lying like rugs.

    Unfortunately for the IDF, if the rumor about Meier’s foreknowledge was correct, they paid a price for moral authority which Meier should have known would not be forthcoming. And if Bush is putting off Iran for the same reason, he is equally deluded.

    IMO, the various delays regarding Iran are actually a positive. They can’t get spare parts for their most useful equipment, their fuel shortage restricts training time–for any equipment still working–and their various sub-constituencies are looking around for their best option, which probably does not include fighting the Americans. So their capacity is probably going downhill. It certainly can’t go uphill.

    In the meantime, air-delivered munitions are becoming more and more effective.

    Iraq was not contained, except to the extent that a conventional invasion of another country was probably not in the cards, at least until a democrat was elected in the US.

    And the various weapons inspectors have made it clear that SH retained the human capital and many of the facilities, and the will to start up his WMD program immediately after the inspectors would be gone and the oil money began flooding in.

    The usual assertion that guys like SH would be deterred by our, say, nukes, is nonsense. He knew that our political process would never allow the kind of response that would actually be bad enough to be a deterrence. Assad is the same, and in the case of the True Believers Iran, there is no deterring those who want to die–or who plan on being in Saudi Arabia when others do–no matter that we insist we will to nuke them.
    They know we won’t.
    And the libs who insist that deterrence will and must work are, most of the time, insisting on actions making that an absurd bit of nonsense to which no bad guy should pay the least attention.
    IOW, the people talking about deterrence so stoutly are those who are working to make it meaningless.

  20. Lee Says:

    Boy, some people catch a pet phrase and they never let go. For example: “A failed state that was never a state”. Must “Iraq” always be followed by that phrase, Donald? You’ve said it so often around here, you could just say “Iraq”, and we all would know what follows, now. Or is it just knee-jerk to you?

  21. My Eyes Have Seen « Sake White Says:

    […] My Eyes Have Seen October 2, 2007 Posted by ymarsakar in History, War. trackback I thought this was an interesting comment from a Neo-Neocon archived post. by PostLiberal […]

  22. Bugs Says:

    I think Aubrey is correct. The usual suspects will support an Iranian intervention, and the usual suspects will not. Even if, after such an intervention, the mullahs all threw in the turban and Iran had free elections and became a beacon of liberal democracy in the middle east, it wouldn’t matter. I don’t think you can improve the military situation without worsening the political situation. Or, of course, vice versa.

  23. Tim P Says:

    It was the most controversial of all America’s military ventures and it led to a rupture in American society that continues to this day.

    While the social/political fracture from Vietnam continues to this day, I would venture to say that historically speaking, the War of 1812 was by far the most unpopular war this county engaged in.

    Due to the great distance in time, the intensity of the opposition to this war has faded from memory, but if you read contemporary sources the opposition to this war was intense and visceral and fractured American politics for a generation and helped set the path towards the civil war half a century later.

    The New England states and several other northern states, which were politically dominated by the federalist party and whose commerce was almost wholly dependent on trade with Britain, seriously considered seceding from the union. “An Address of Members of the House of Representatives… on the Subject of War with Great Britain,” was signed by 34 of 36 House Federalists, was widely circulated at the time.

    The war exacerbated regional tensions with the south and west, who were suffering from British supported Indian depredations and the threat of foreign invasion, strongly supported the war.

    I can only hope that the social/political fallout from the War of 1812 and the types of events it set in motion are not repeated in the 21st century. While today’s differences are not so much geographical, the ideological divide seems to be as great and continuing polarization in society can only lead to yet more polarization and political violence.

    Let’s hope we’ve learned a few things since then.

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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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