Give War a Chance

Work Discussed:

Vietnam: The Necessary War. A Reinterpretation of America's Most Disastrous Military Conflict,

by Michael Lind.

The Free Press, 314 pages, $25.00.

American dominion over the world is the value on behalf of which Michael Lind justifies and upholds the Vietnam War, which he sees as a lost battle in the Western victory in the Cold War. Lind is pleased to make use of Soviet communism to sustain his argument until the U.S.S.R. collapsed in 1989, but for now and the future, too, with no Soviet bloc to justifiably fear and hate, his overriding point is the same: The United States is and must remain, for as long as possible, Number One.

The emergence of an international democracy will be acceptable as long as we control it. Any vision of a world in which other nations and other peoples share the responsibilities of governance is soft-minded. Lind's book thus provides us with an opportunity in a time of relative peace for our country to think again about the Vietnam War in the context of our jingoistic cheerleaders' mind-picture of the world as ours to spin.

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Although he waits until the 277th page of his 288-page text to do it, Lind calls outright for "a strategy of global primacy" enforced by "American global military primacy," by "America's strength--the large-scale industrial production of high-quality conventional and nuclear arms." In a mere aside, he dismisses the United Nations as "unworkable." He consigns balance-of-power theory to the ashcan in favor of "favorable imbalance-of-power" strategy, that is, imbalance in favor of us. "To this end," he writes, "the United States should improve its capabilities to engage in unconventional, low-intensity conflict in wars, including civil wars... ." American global primacy won't last forever, but "U.S. military hegemony might be prolonged for decades, if not generations... ."

The 37-year-old Lind wants such wars as will be necessary to keep America supreme among the nations. His longer-run theory of geopolitics and vision for the human race is of one worldwide empire after another. Readers of his book should start at page 276, read through the last dozen pages, and only then go to the beginning, lest they become entoiled in his tortured meditations about Vietnam before they realize that it's all a screed for Me Big Man.

Literally, Lind wants us to fight wars so we can be "the top dog." If we shove to one side (where they belong) the intellectual pretensions of the foreignpolicy logicians who call the theory Lind prefers "maximal realism," we can cut to the point that clinches the case for him. In pursuit of his muddled argument, Lind asks in what way could the humiliation of the United States in the Vietnam War have brought American defeat in the Cold War closer? Well, Lind answers, in his preferred view, "world politics is like the politics of a pack of dogs. The top dog need only defeat his most credible challenger for the entire pack to fall into line. By the same token, the top dog need be defeated by only one powerful challenger, in only one or a few fights observed by the rest, in order to be deserted by the entire pack... ." (Never mind that the United States was both humiliated and defeated in Vietnam and still, in the military terminology, "won" the Cold War.) Therefore, runs Lind's argument, our young men and, indeed, people anywhere may meritoriously die or suffer to preserve our right to be the Alpha Male Nation.

Why should we be bothered to think about Lind's simple-minded I'm-the-biggest-and-the-best nationalism? Our national interest does not require that the human race shall be dominated by the United States. There is no intellectually reputable case that the United States should dominate the earth any more than there is that a bully should dominate the school yard. In equating U.S. bombing in Kosovo with the U.S. role in the Vietnam War, as Lind does, he misses completely the emergence, after Bosnia and Rwanda and over Kosovo, of a slowly developing multilateral will to intervene militarily to stop mass murder while it is still in progress.

Events in Kosovo suggested, in fact, the potential for a kind of international cooperation that contrasts with the Vietnam experience. For the first time, multilateral military intervention stopped ethnic cleansing and drove the mass-murdering aggressors out of their victims' territory. We should be letting individuals become dues-paying members of the United Nations, and using the revenue to pay for a rapid-response UN force to stop genocidal emergencies. We should be paying our UN dues, not blackmailing the UN. We should be leading the way to replacing the Security Council veto with a two-thirds rule. As the world's richest nation, we should propose the full forgiveness of third world debt. We should propose that the UN levy the miniscule Tobin tax on international business transactions and use the revenue to at once create workable new mechanisms for international economic governance that will first set out to rescue the most desperately poor people in the world. There is a great role for the United States to play internationally, not as a war maker, but as a leader for transnational democracy, economic justice, our common environment, and peace.

Yet here comes a major publisher advertising as a book about Vietnam an ethically and politically disgraceful celebration of "the unipolarity of a world order dominated by the United States" and of our continuing "to be the dominant world power" rather than "ceding world leadership to [another] nation, liberal or (more likely) illiberal... ."

Who is Michael Lind? Materials on the topic have been provided by the publisher. "Michael Lind is 'that rarest of figures: an intellectual with name recognition,' according to Rolling Stone," according, in turn, to Jason Chupick, senior publicist for the Free Press of Simon & Schuster Consumer Group, a Viacom company. "Lind, 37, emerged," Chupick continues, "as one of the most prominent American intellectuals of his generation in 1995, when his writing inspired not one, but two national controversies," which concerned the anti-Semitic origins of the theories of Pat Robertson and a book in which Lind "launched the term 'overclass' into public usage, inspiring a Newsweek cover story with a cover by Gary Trudeau." Lind is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the Washington editor of Harper's; he studied international relations at Yale, served as assistant to the director of the U.S. State Department's Center for the Study of Foreign Affairs, and has written five other books as well as articles for lead-ing foreign-policy journals, including Foreign Affairs.

Concerning Vietnam, Lind (while renaming the Cold War as the Third World War) advances several conventional theses. What was at stake was U.S. "credibility as the dominant global military power and the survival of a regional alliance." And "[t]he U.S. was justified in waging a limited war to defend South Vietnam and its neighbors against the communist bloc." It was "a just, constitutional, and necessary proxy war in the Third World War."

The mistake we made, Lind says, was in exceeding the public's tolerance for casualties. We "piled up American casualties too quickly and destroyed American public support." We should, per Lind, have set a numerical ceiling on the American war dead: "On the evidence of the wars in Korea and Vietnam, the United States could afford to lose only around 15,000- 20,000 soldiers in a superpower proxy war before the majority of the public turned against it... . Washington should have imposed an informal limit on the number of American lives it was willing to spend... ." Correlatively we should have emphasized "pacification" of the Viet Cong areas, he contends, producing "a longer American effort with fewer American deaths."Actually, Lind says, "this should have been a ten- or twenty-year project."

Thus, Lind argues that we should have gone into the Vietnam War knowing we would withdraw our troops after 15,000 or 20,000 of them had been killed. That would be "the cross-over point in American public opinion," the limit of Amer-icans' "tolerance for American casualties." How this would have proved U.S. military credibility better than the actual 58,000 dead did would be a conundrum for most of us, but Lind's point seems to be that with public support for the Cold War still intact, our "weakness" in withdrawing from Vietnam would not then have caused what he asserts was a surge in Soviet power worldwide in the 1970s, which he says was corrected only by Ronald Reagan's military buildup preceding the Soviet collapse in 1989.

Favoring local wars to preserve American control of the world, Lind might be expected to support, as well, the manipulation of public opinion to strengthen public support for those wars, and he does, arguing for strict wartime censorship of the media. Why, he asks, should cameras and reporters "be permitted into war zones? News management and propaganda are an essential aspect of warfare... . Secrecy is also important." He questions the decision of The New York Times to publish "the stolen government documents," the Pentagon Papers. The same author who proposes that the government set a ceiling on its casualties in local wars for the purpose of avoiding public opposition also assures us that the voters "do not need to know the details of foreign policy, to which only a tiny and unrepresentative majority of the public pays attention in any case." When you want your government and its military to dominate the world, the well-informed public necessary for democracy is not your first priority. The boys and young men who will be killed, well, they can vote, but they and their families do not need to know the details.

Lind argues that Johnson did not lie and trick and sneak us into the all-out Vietnam War, but any attentive adult who lived through 1964 and 1965, when I reckon Lind was two or three years old, knows that Johnson did precisely that. Lind also argues that the Vietnam War, which caused our most agonized civil conflict since the Civil War, "was not uniquely divisive." On grounds that Ho Chi Minh was bent on conquest, Lind has little interest in the extensive evidence--as carefully reviewed recently, for example, in Fred Longevall's Choosing War (University of California Press, 1999)--that until 1968, Johnson and his advisers deliberately rejected and thwarted every opening that might have led to peace negotiations.

Lind bases his case for the war on Stalinist Ho's murder, after rigged trials, of at least 10,000 noncommunist Vietnamese nationalists and leftists. Concerning the corrupt militarist autocracy that we were defending, Lind contends that promoting "liberty, democracy, and prosperity in South Vietnam itself" was the "least important of all the U.S. purposes in intervening." Beyond that, any handy argument that shores up the case for the war, he wields. Its opponents were isolationists. And, compared to other wars, Vietnam was not "uniquely savage." And, since many approved the Korean War, and Vietnam was just another battle, like Korea, in the Cold War, it was irrational to be for one and against the other.

Lind's characterizations of those who opposed the war constitute an unprincipled polemic. Civilian casualties in Vietnam made it easier for "pacifists and procommu-nist leftists and liberals" to berate the U.S. "Moscow and Hanoi did their best to promote a Humphrey victory in 1968... ." Anti-Vietnam War activists "recycled both Marxist and isolationist propaganda." Opponents of the war were "leading radical leftist intellectuals and journalists," "the radical and liberal left," "radical leftists and pacifists," "black radicals," "pro-communist agitators such as [Tom] Hayden," "American apologists for communist regimes and movements."

Arrogant, glib, and apparently unfazable, he makes second-guessing history seem as easy as taking a swim. He indulges himself in so many presumptuous predictions about what would have happened if things had been different and so many interpretations based on his slippery manipulation of simplified causation that another review would be required to deal with them. Two examples, to give the flavor of all this stuff: If Britain had appeased Nazi Germany or lost to it before the United States entered World War II, Hitler would have achieved "global hegemony." "The constraints imposed by public opinion in the liberal democracies" prevented the Western alliance from spending the U.S.S.R. into bankruptcy "a generation before 1989."

Lind's practice of his profession as a controversialist seems to be based on the theory that you slam so many balls to the outfield so fast and so wildly that nobody can field them all. Ferociously he abuses almost an entire generation of journalists and historians, saying that for the past generation, except for military specialists, most of them writing about Vietnam use "the perspective of the procommunist or anti-anti-communist left." He annotates George Kennan's prose with an exclamation point and writes that Kennan wanted "to cede South Korea to Stalin." "It would have been disastrous if" the advice of Kennan had been followed on force levels among our allies, or the advice of Walter Lippmann on Germany, or the advice of George Ball on the communist threat in the Caribbean and Central America. David Halberstam is accused of writing a fawning book about Ho Chi Minh. Senator Mike Mansfield and Kennedy aide Kenneth O'Donnell have both attested that Kennedy told them he intended to withdraw U.S. forces from Indochina after the 1964 election. In effect Lind simply accuses Mansfield and O'Donnell, both dead, of lying about this: Lind refers to their "remarkable cases of recovered memory syndrome" and what they "claimed to remember" that Kennedy had said. On the basis of incomplete information that requires him to qualify his accusation with two caveats, Lind says that if thus and so, and if thus and so, then Robert Kennedy was guilty of "urging America's Soviet enemies to stand firm" until he could get elected president and "pursue a policy more to Moscow's liking." Liberals like Martin Luther King, Jr., "repeated the lies and half-truths spread by the communist enemies of the United States."

You might expect that an American who is so certain that the United States has a right to dominate the earth would have the highest confidence in his fellow citizens, but Lind regards about half of them as soft on warfare. He devotes 24 pages to spinning out a shaky theory of sectional cultural determinism to account for the insufficient martial spirit of the population in "Greater New England."

Readers must decide for themselves whether these pages contain prejudicial undertones; they definitely contain Lind's statement that "[a]part from Jews, few American students in the sixties were radical" and Lind quoting "one member of SDS at the University of Wisconsin ... in the 1960s" as having written that he was struck by "the massive preponderance of New York Jews" at that university. In contrast, Lind chooses the University of Dallas, "this Catholic school in Texas," to symbolize what he calls "the rival southern/ Catholic intellectual tradition during the Cold War."

More broadly speaking, Lind says "Greater New England," by which he means New England and New England people migrating westward through the upper Midwest to the Pacific Northwest, has been "the heartland of opposition to foreign wars," whereas in the Tidewater and Highland South, "prowar, promilitary attitudes have been strongest." For the foreseeable future, he concedes sadly, "political support for ... a strategy of American global primacy will probably require reliance" on southern and western members of Congress.

Lind makes errors, some in the way of tendentious misinterpretations. Escalation was not "practically a foregone conclusion." Robert McNamara has not claimed that the war "was a mistake from the beginning," though to realize that you must read his recent book on the war through to the end just as you must read Lind's to the end. The case is not closed on Johnson's credibility gap, as Lind seems to think it is, simply by identifying the Gulf of Tonkin resolution as a "conditional declaration of war." The Great Society was sacrificed, as to the budget and as to the presidency, to the Vietnam War, Lind's denial notwithstanding. The United States did not "give up the policy of global containment for the better part of a decade."

Missing in Lind's book is any serious consideration of the ethics of his proposal that we "spend" American lives, although only up to 20,000 per small war, to dominate the world. Evidently he assumes that since so many of our leading national politicians preach that we are, should be, and will forever be the world's Superpower--the one Hyperpower--he doesn't have to think that proposition through. Foreign dead really don't count, and American lives are well spent in an ethically selfish and nationally self-centered endeavor. "The costs of the war in Vietnam" in the American context, per Lind, were "chiefly the costs in American lives, though the costs of Indochinese lives and the costs to America's global military infrastructure and its financial hegemony were also important factors." Compared to 58,000 dead American soldiers, Lind acknowledges, the Vietnamese lost "around two million" people on both sides and had "devastation" visited on their landscape. The mass brutality of the nation-centric way of thinking about war is explicitly embodied in Lind's conjuring of 58,000 dead people as a more important cost than two million dead people and his keying his recommended casualty ceiling for American wars only to the total of American dead.

At one point Lind argues, on the basis of the selective tapes of Johnson in the White House released by the Johnson Library, that President Johnson was not a militarist and "was far more dovish than his major advisers." This is absurd: As any serious follower of Johnson's career knows, he was a lifelong militaristic hawk; he alone chose his advisers, and it was he, not his advisers, who escalated the Vietnam War. Lind then compounds the absurdity with another one by maintaining that Johnson's comparisons of Vietnam to the Alamo, whose defenders died to the last man, were mere "illustrations of the need for determination." To these passages the author has attached the following footnote: "As a fifth-generation Texan and the author of a narrative poem entitled 'The Alamo' (1997), I shall no doubt be accused of being a bloodthirsty Texan warmonger." No doubt; and correctly. ยค