All That Glitters

by Kenneth Champeon, Aug 22, 2004 | Destinations: Vietnam / Ho Chi Minh City

"Love is like war: easy to begin but very hard to stop." - H.L. Mencken

Chances are you would be foolish to think that you have read even a small percentage of the books written about the Vietnam War. According to scholar John Clark Platt, the novels about the conflict alone number over five hundred. The war was America's Waterloo; and because Americans are accustomed to thinking themselves the best at everything (even though they are not the best at geography, soccer, or even GDP per capita) to be second-best at war is not to be borne, and must at all costs be explained.

Once again the United States seems convinced that military technology alone suffices to establish military superiority. Vietnam knew better. It knew that victory in war is as much about the morality of the cause and the desire to win. North Vietnam had both; America lacked the first and South Vietnam lacked the second.

A few years ago the Modern Library created a list of the 20th century's top 100 nonfiction works -- published in English. An important distinction, because most of the titles are by or about Americans or Britons, and only a few are about Asia. The book about Vietnam making it into the top 100 is Neil Sheehan's 800-page tome A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. The subtitle's ordering is accurate: Vann, then America, then Vietnam. But the sheer scale of the book entails that those with an interest in Vietnam beyond what Vann and America did to it will find much to ponder. More generally, the book is a history of American wars on the Asian mainland in the last century.

The Vietnam War was something of a novelty. It was a war between two very different sides. On one side were tireless men willing to engage in hand-to-hand combat, using knives or whatever was available. Sheehan relates a joke of the time in which a North Vietnamese, having hauled a few shells almost the entire length of Vietnam, watches them fired off immediately and is told to return for more.

On the other side of the conflict were bureaucrats, flying high above any actual battle when they were not safely ensconced in air-conditioned offices in Saigon or Hawaii, or even further away in Washington. Every bureaucrat had his own pet theory on how to win the war. Each seemed to believe that if millions of bombs could not do the job, then maybe millions of reports would. It was the first war to have been fought as though war is a science, when Sun-Tzu had known all along that war is an art.

Yet perhaps it was the Nazis who had first treated war as a science, by rounding up their state enemies and methodically killing them off. This would find its parallel in Vietnam with the use of statistics to determine the progress of the war. There were the notorious "kill ratios", of course, but the Pentagon also counted how many "structures" it had destroyed. Sheehan points out that the term "structures" covered everything from factories and bridges to peasant homes and pigsties. It scarcely mattered whether the pigs had Communist leanings: the point was partly to convince the American public that their expensive bombs were not always splashing mindlessly into rice paddies.

Under American direction, the government of South Vietnam (SVN) also undertook a project that involved rounding up not state enemies but state friends. This was the so-called "strategic hamlet" program. Peasants were herded into camps surrounded by barbed wire to prevent them from falling under the insidious influence of the Viet Cong. "By mid-June 1963," writes Sheehan, "67 percent of the rural population of the South" was in such a hamlet. The plan bore a startling resemblance to the very Communist collectivization the Americans were ostensibly there to fight; later, Vann and others would end up adopting other, essentially Communist tactics and policies to win over the Vietnamese people. These included providing food, medicine, schooling, and so on: all part of what the Americans called "pacification". But their efforts tended to be ham-fisted. One typical example was their belief that the Vietnamese would rush to eat imported bulgur wheat. Instead the Vietnamese fed the wheat to hogs (often also American imports) and then sold the hogs for rice.

A complex condition whose symptoms include a reluctance to use military force, the so-called Vietnam syndrome had a predecessor. Sheehan calls it the "disease of victory". World War II had made the United States and its generals cocky and mentally sclerotic. The stalemate in Korea was humbling but it had involved a formidable foe, China's People's Liberation Army, whose "human wave" tactics should have proven the futility of fighting wars of attrition against Asians under any circumstances. But attrition was the very strategy employed in Vietnam. Having seen the light, one General Krulak calculated that 175,000 friendly troops would have to die to diminish North Vietnam's manpower by a mere 20 percent. He showed this third-grade calculation to then Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who ignored it despite his usual adoration of "quantitative measurements".

The usual rationale for the war was that it was intended to contain Communism and specifically Communist China, which had conquered Tibet, saved North Korea, and eyed Taiwan. But the Americans generally failed to realize how deeply the Vietnamese resented their Borg-like northern neighbor. Instructed by a historically minded teenage Communist, one historically ignorant American POW concluded that the Vietnamese were in fact the best possible defense of Southeast Asia against the Chinese. (The POW probably wouldn't have known about the little less indomitable Thais.) If anything, Vietnam became a satellite of Russia and not China. But most Americans preferred to think of the mutually suspicious Communist countries as one homogeneous mass. Only a few were able to see the similarities between Ho Chi Minh's vision and that of Tito's socialist but independent Yugoslavia.

Another persistent myth about the war is that if only the Communists had stood up and fought like real men and with no foreign help, the Americans would have pummeled them. Real men fight with cluster bombs, napalm, and defoliants - not booby traps, camouflage, and Soviet artillery. By this logic, the Americans of the Revolutionary War were not real men, because they used terrorism, guerilla tactics, and plenty of foreign help. And the fact is that the Communists proved many times over that they could fight and win traditional battles: their victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu was textbook encirclement.

Sheehan painstakingly recounts the battle at Ap Bac, another largely traditional encounter in which the Communists humiliated the South Vietnamese and their American advisors, including John Paul Vann. For Vann the battle proved that firepower and tentative South Vietnamese troops would fail. Eventually he decided that the war could be won only if South Vietnam effectively became an American colony, and that American reluctance to become a European-style colonial power would have to be overcome if America was serious about furthering its ideals. It barely seems to have occurred to Vann and his friends that they should have just taken all their pitiless enthusiasm back home and let Vietnam determine its own fate.

Graham Greene's complaint against the Americans in Vietnam was not that they did evil things. Everybody does evil things, especially during war. What bothered Greene was their congenital inability to see in themselves malign or selfish motives. One cannot necessarily fault Vann for cheating on his wife with truly heroic regularity, sometimes sleeping with three different Vietnamese women in one day. Or for maintaining two Vietnamese mistresses, one of whom was underage, would lose her virginity to him, and would thrice carry, and once bear, his soon-to-be-fatherless child. (Vann died in Vietnam in 1972, in a helicopter crash.) What is astonishing is his apparent belief that all this irresponsible lechery and duplicity would be forgiven by all the wonderful things he had in mind for the Vietnamese people. Had he said instead that he remained in Vietnam to further his career, or to have fun playing war, or to bed down with easy women (something a Frenchman might say) then the Greenes of the world might have been less critical. But no. Vann was there to fight the Reds.

Or was he? In 1965 one of McNamara's underlings, John McNaughton, wrote a memo stating that 70% of the reason for committing American troops to Vietnam was to "avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat (to our reputation as guarantor)." Only 10% was "to permit the people of SVN to enjoy a better, freer way of life." One is thus inclined to ask: a "guarantor" of what, if not a "better, freer way of life"? To his credit, Vann was on to this depreciation of ideals by 1965. He wrote, "There is a revolution going on in this country - and the principles, goals, and desires of the other side are much closer to what Americans believe in than those of" the government of South Vietnam. But this was a minority view, held mostly by those closest to the action, who were perforce farthest away from the decision-makers in Washington. Vann was saying things that two decades earlier might have brought him before the House Un-American Activities Committee: "If I were a lad of eighteen . . . I would surely chose the NLF" - the Communist front in the South. In the same paragraph, Vann predicts that the Vietnamese would eventually be "disappointed" by their hard-won Communism; in this he was also right.

But he was ignoring something fundamental, which continues to be ignored by those who wish to bury Communism once and for all. Though it may not be a viable economic system, its emphasis on populism and self-sufficiency will continue to appeal to movements resisting foreign domination or domestic tyrannies. In Vietnam as in China, Communism acted as a bridge between abject colonial status and entrance into the global market economy as a sovereign state. Those countries that made the transition without Communism instead made use of forms of fascism (Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea). Tyranny by another name is still tyranny.

Sheehan's book is filled with instances of wanton destruction carried out by the American military machine and its Vietnamese proxies. They include the televised burning of Vietnamese peasant homes by U.S. Marines in 1965, with which the American viewing public soon became bored. The Rules of Engagement in Vietnam specified that peasants running away from South Vietnamese aircraft could be assumed to be Viet Cong. "The threatening sensation of a spotter plane buzzing them for a look," writes Sheehan, "caused many peasants of both sexes and varying ages to run." One day some peasants didn't. They were napalmed anyway. The one survivor, a pregnant woman, had her arms, eyelids, and nipples practically burned off. In an instance of Sheehan's controlled writing and dark wit, he writes: ". . .Operation Masher had been appropriately named. The peasants were mashed. Fifteen hamlets were torn up. About 1,000 houses were blown apart or burned down in the three hamlets I was able to reach most easily. . . ." The POW mentioned earlier was brought to one such disaster area; the farmers there asked if they could kill him. (The Viet Cong said no.)

Sheehan's book does have its bright moments. Pham Van Dong, Prime Minister of North Vietnam, prods a Polish official to tell him whether the American generals actually believe that they are winning the war in the South. The Pole says yes. Pham is astounded. "Surely," he says, "the American generals cannot be that naive." They were. Are they now? It is a sobering and terrifying thought. But one can take some comfort in this book. It will help you to know a bright shining lie when you see one.

* * *

Review of Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, Random House, 1988.

* * * * *