“The Vietnam War was a just, constitutional and necessary proxy war that was waged by methods that were often counterproductive and sometimes arguably immoral. The war had to be fought in order to preserve the military and diplomatic credibility of the United States in the Cold War, but when its costs grew excessive the war had to be forfeited in order to preserve the political consensus within the United States in favor of the Cold War. The Vietnam War was neither a mistake nor a betrayal nor a crime. It was a military defeat.”
So reads the final paragraph of Vietnam: the Necessary War, by the journalist and political analyst Michael Lind, who is the Washington editor of Harper’s and author of Up from Conservatism. Coming at a time when the respectable lunatic Pat Buchanan is declaring that the United States was wrong to fight World War II, an argument that the country was right to fight in Vietnam is a refreshing switch to intellectual seriousness. Lind’s aim is not to glorify the conflict—he calls it “a horrible debacle”—but to assign the Vietnam War the status of historical inevitability, “less like a tragic error than a battle that could hardly be avoided?’ Buchanan believes the world would be a better place if the Nazis ran Europe; Michael Lind believes the world is a better place because the United States fought and lost in Southeast Asia. At least Lind has a chance of making his case.
Page-by-page, this book stomps on toes. It seems likely to cause excruciating frenzies of staged partisan indignity regarding precise usage of loaded words; indeed, the author may have hoped to promote himself by goading people into attacking him. Nevertheless, in many respects, Lind’s book is a masterwork of factual presentation and analytical argument. Its pages are as densely packed with well-researched factual material, and as tightly reasoned, as those of any book I have ever encountered. Lind has done a brilliant job of assimilating and dissecting the events surrounding Vietnam: and even if he worked almost exclusively from other books and documents, as seems to be the case, his was encyclopedic labor. As an accomplishment of thinking and writing, Vietnam: the Necessary War is terrific. Few books can exceed its power-to-weight ratio.
Having stated the merit of Lind’s book, I will use the rest of this space to argue with its faults; fair enough, since Lind employs most of his page length to criticize others. Lind’s most basic argument is that Vietnam was fought to sustain American credibility in the Cold War: “what was at stake for the United States was its credibility as the dominant global military power?’ Credibility as the highest of superpower goals is repeated continuously throughout Vietnam: the Necessary War. Lind acknowledges there was no direct U.S. security stake in Southeast Asia; that the South Vietnamese government was baneful; that many innocents died, at times by our hand. But had the war not been fought, he reasons, Maoist China and the old Politburo (how pleasant to type those words together) would have become much more aggressive on the world stage, leading to greater woes, including more war and more nations falling to Communist dictatorship. In this sense Vietnam: the Necessary War accepts the logic of the domino theory, long sneered at by the left, but rightly revived by Lind as a reasonable fear. Today, with Communism defeated or in retreat nearly everywhere, it is easy to scoff at the rack of dominos. In the ’60s, with Communism controlling half the world and ascendant in many developing nations, the playing board was very different.
To structure his case, Lind dismisses as a series of “myths” practically everything everyone has believed about Vietnam. He shows, for example, that the bombing of the North was not barbarous—targeters went to great lengths to avoid noncombatant areas, releasing huge tonnages but killing far fewer civilians than did bombing of previous wars. Then, lest you think he’s pro-military, Lind spends many pages establishing that the Pentagon was not “prevented from winning,” that, if anything, too much firepower was used, and that LBJ was right to restrain the generals in order to avoid escalating the conflict into a second war with China. On the toomuch-force point, Lind concludes that the intensive use of artillery, helicopter gunships and air strikes in the South—the majority of Vietnam bombs fell on the South—served mainly to devastate the place we were supposed to be protecting, causing many Vietnamese to dread us. Lind’s verdict is that the Pentagon, not the politicians, caused the military disappointments of Vietnam, mainly because of careerism and poor judgment by the officers corps. U.S. forces employed a massed-firepower attrition strategy in the war’s first phase, when the enemy had few conventional formations to shoot at; then shifted to a counter-guerrilla strategy in the second phase, just as the North Vietnamese began to field conventional armored formations. Overall, Lind thinks, America fought bravely but poorly, and the Pentagon has since used the excuse that “our hands were tied” simply to divert attention from its internal failings.
Next Lind punctures the left’s dearly held view that Ho Chi Minh and his cadres were patriots motivated by the desire to expel foreigners, forced into the arms of Mao and Moscow when the United States misperceived them. This canard seems to acquire more stature with each passing year, along with its corollary that if only we had befriended Ho, he would have warmed to our side and blossomed into a Jeffersonian democrat. Lind skillfully shows this to be wishful thinking. Ho, like Mao, was heartlessly brutal, executing at least 15,000 rivals during internecine power struggles; his associates would torture and execute thousands more after the fall of Saigon, going so far as to persecute even former Viet Cong, whom northern Communists considered sociological inferiors. Lind is right to point out that if the leader of any U.S.-backed nation had executed 15,000 rivals, American intellectuals would have flipped out; but, when Ho raised the knife for slaughter, Frances Fitzgerald, Norman Mailer, Tom Wicker and others on the New York chardonnayand-trust-fund circuit jumped up to apologize. Further, if Ho’s true goal was the patriotic expulsion of foreigners, why did he soak Vietnamese culture in adoration of Lenin, Mao and Stalin? These were all foreign figures whose orthodoxies inflicted on his countrymen a lot more harm than the French.
Vietnam: the Necessary War sets up and knocks down so many “myths” that readers will have to discover the full inventory for themselves. Although Lind’s myth-cratering often seems correct to me, he fails to acknowledge that his insights work much better in hindsight. He criticizes others for employing what he calls “retroactive determinism,” hindsight-based argument that something had to happen because it did. But almost all of his book turns on the same kind of premise—that great-powers combat in Indochina “had” to occur—a notion that conveniently can never be disproved. In one misuse of hindsight, Lind disparages those who, in the ’60s, thought the United States should have made overtures to Mao, his principal argument being that ’60s history shows Mao never wavered from destructiveness. That’s true, but then we didn’t make overtures, so how can we know what might have turned out differently? Moreover, Lind slides past the fact that as soon as the United States did make an overture, in the form of the Nixon Administration’s China opening, things got better, if only slightly so.
Though in the main a disciplined and judicious book, Vietnam: the Necessary War has its moments. A small, nutty point is that Lind states some statistics in “lakhs,” which in Brit-Indian vernacular means “a multiple of 100,000.” This is at best pretension, at worst unreadable. More telling is his mixed treatment of the ’60s establishment left.
Lind rightly impales those who romanticized Ho or pushed their war opposition to the point of antiAmericanism. In this regard he especially singles out Fitzgerald’s Fire in the Lake, which won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize and whose premise was that selfless Northern rebels would cleanse and purify a depraved South Vietnam. Imagine telling those hanging off the helicopter rails in Saigon in 1975, desperate to escape the advance of the butchers and brainwashers, that Communism was a noble force. Considering the mass murder and depredation that Communism brought to Southeast Asia, Fire in the Lake now looks like one of the most wrongheaded books of all time, and the adoration with which this work was received by the literati does cause you to wonder about the underlying mental health of some American elites.
But as Lind quotes one foolish-sounding ’60s statement about Vietnam after another, he again awards himself the benefits of hindsight. Many of the statements he cites, such as the former bomber pilot George McGovern’s misguided December 1972 assertion that the bombing of Hanoi was “the most murderous aerial bombardment in the history of the world,” were made while events were in progress and nobody knew for sure what was going on. Of course if McGovern had 25 years to think about it, which is in effect Lind’s own condition given the histories and statistics on his desk as he wrote, he would have said something different. Vietnam: the Necessary War was being committed to pages as the Kosovo air assault began, and of it Lind writes, “Even as NATO bombs and missiles rained with little effect on Yugoslavia … .” That’s what everybody was saying when Lind wrote, and we now know it’s completely wrong. Lind’s book surely contains many statements that will seem idiotic in the light of knowledge not yet available. He should temper his opprobrium for other’s errors accordingly.
Of equal importance, when Lind derides antiwar sentiment of the ’60s, in most cases he cites only its worst lights—people like Mailer who were walking self-satires. Vietnam: the Necessary War affords only passing recognition that there was a sensible, patriotic antiwar wing that acknowledged the awfulness of Communism and endorsed America’s need to stand strong before Moscow, but simply considered the Vietnam War wrong.
A strange derailment in Lind’s argument occurs when he pauses for an entire chapter to belabor Whig opposition to the Mexican War, and from this launch pad attempts to establish the concept of a “Greater New England” factor in American political history. It’s true and worth showing, as Lind does, that the Democratic Party became progressively more anti-war as ’60s civil rights campaigns caused its electoral base to shift away from the traditionally martial south and toward the traditionally war-skeptical northeast. But in order to turn this observation into a new law of political dynamics, Lind is forced to claim that during this century’s domestic debates regarding whether to engage in foreign wars, everyone from Pennsylvania pacifists to conservative isolationists hailing from California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Nebraska, Ohio, Oregon and Wisconsin, “were in reality Greater New England progressives:’ California part of New England! That’s some stretch. Greater New England, after Lind is finished constructing it, comprises about two-thirds of the country, and seems about as useful a classification system as saying that any city that consumes a lot of chocolate “in reality” belongs to Greater Belgium.
Though in the end Lind may be right to maintain that the Vietnam War deserves greater standing than it now enjoys in American public thought, perhaps ultimately to be seen as a noble failure, I left his book troubled by two concerns. The first is just how much of the “geopolitics” Lind extols is driven by decisions of state, as he contends, and how much by larger trends. Consider that Lind takes the be-aman tack of calling Vietnam a “defeat,” a word Americans are raised never to allow to pass their lips. But China, Vietnamese Communism and many other players were defeated on the paddies as well. Ultimately, Lind concludes, “the only clear winner of the Vietnam War was the Soviet Union,” because it invested relatively little, while seeing the United States driven to “humiliation and paralysis?’ Yet in the year of the collapse of Saigon, the former Soviet Union signed the Helsinki Accords, which planted the seeds of the dissolution of the Kremlin. Within a few years Moscow would initiate its own Vietnam, the Afghan war, then be spent into the ground by the Reagan arms race, and not long after that, collapse completely. If the United States suffered geopolitical “humiliation and paralysis” because of Vietnam, this condition sure didn’t last long—it didn’t even last through the Carter years, for while Carter may have been tentative in his dealings with Moscow, he was dynamic as regards the economy, enacting the deregulation legislation that made the ’80s boom and defense buildup possible. Meanwhile from the standpoint of geopolitics, everything turned bad for Moscow pretty much from the day it emerged as the “victor” in Vietnam. All this makes you wonder just how much geopolitical thinking is worth.
Most troubling about Vietnam: the Necessary War is Lind’s premise that credibility is, in and of itself, worth human lives. There’s no doubt a strong United States is good for the world, and no doubt those Americans who fell in Vietnam did not do so in vain, for the world they left us is one in which freedom has tyranny on the run. But Lind is strangely antiseptic when he talks about “credibility,” adopting the ruling-class view that it’s fine for someone else to die. A striking, almost weird percentage of the book is devoted to Lind’s contention that the United States is too timid about casualties, whether other country’s civilians or its own soldiers. Lind approvingly quotes Stalin (several times!) as saying America lacks the stomach for expending its soldiers’ lives, and spends too much time “weeping”: In his own voice, Lind repeatedly complains that military deaths here and there are nothing in the grand scheme of things, yet these small matters make the United States hesitant to flex its power. These soft, spoiled Americans don’t want to die for credibility!
At one level, this argument is simply false. During the period since World War II, the United States has employed military power more often, and more decisively, than any nation on Earth. Three major wars, in Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf, have been fought with great valor and determination, despite no direct threat to American homes or families. Other live-ammo military actions have occurred in Bosnia, the Dominican Republic, the Iranian desert, above Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Panama, Serbia, Somalia and elsewhere. The former Soviet Union and China, nations where, Lind almost admiringly writes, leaders think nothing of wasting whole divisions, have not attempted military actions anywhere close to the ambitious level of the United States, let alone succeeded in almost every case. No nation has ever spread its forces around the globe like the United States; no nation has ever fought harder or more often for the cause of freedom. If America works so hard to spare civilians and dreads the thought of shedding its soldiers’ blood, these are reasons we are so strong, not pantywaist weaknesses as Lind contends.
Perhaps it is agreeable to announce that lives should be traded for credibility when you know you personally will be exempt. Lind has never served, yet he not only repeatedly tell us casualties are nothing much to be concerned with, he pronounces that soldiers are pampered. Provisioning of troops in Vietnam cost too much, Lind scoffs. “The logistical requirements of United States forces would have been greatly reduced by a strategy that compelled American soldiers to live in small units among villages, rather than in bases like those stateside,” he writes. Pretty easy to say when you’re sitting in an air-conditioned office with a latte and a chicken Caesar wrap, with no chance that your situation will change. Lind seems to think of Vietnam bases as places of indulgence. The thing soldiers liked about them is that they were defended and had hospitals.
Lind goes so far as to object to honoring war dead, saying that in the future, American soldiers should be “thought of as the equivalent of firemen. We have parades for firemen now and then, but do not have a parade every time they put out a fire.” The fighting men and women who will die for credibility in years to come won’t even be memorialized; presumably the elites will be too busy e-trading. One of the worst notions of world history is that it’s fine for soldiers to go off and die, so long as no one from the comfortable classes is affected. In Vietnam: the Necessary War, Michael Lind throws his arms around this idea enthusiastically.