Lessons Unlearned: Gabriel Kolko's Anatomy of a War

by Kenneth Champeon, Dec 14, 2001 | Destinations: Vietnam / Ho Chi Minh City

Review of Kolko, Gabriel. Anatomy of a war: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience [Phoenix Press, London, 1994].

"We had to destroy the town to save it." - American colonel quoted in Anatomy

When the last recoverable Americans involved in the Vietnam War left Saigon on April 30, 1975, I had been alive for a little over a year. This should be confessed at the outset, that because I did not experience the war as it took place, I can encounter it only through books, conversation, and the occasional personal experience of the war's innumerable aftershocks here in Southeast Asia.

Yet I have always wondered if being born between the first revelations of Watergate and Nixon's resignation did not mark me for life with skepticism of the official reasons for all the wars occurring since then, especially if the reasons are superficially convincing.

There is a sense in which nations exist in the American consciousness only when America is involved in a war there. For a while, all attention is focused on one place, and a great deal is learned about it. But once the war is over, attention turns inward - or, as has been the case in the post-War era, to the scene of the newest American war. It is not necessarily that Americans lack an attention span, but that, in trying to administer a growing global empire, their attention is necessarily scattered. While they are trying to put out a fire on one side of the Earth, another fire inevitably begins to rage up from the sparks and tinder of history neglected.

Vietnam is a case in point. For while America rightly mourns the some 50,000 Americans killed in the conflict, it tends to dwell not on the millions of Vietnamese that died, nor on the cluster bombs and Agent Orange left behind, nor indeed on the regular maiming and killing of Vietnamese by unexploded ordnance. In short, it tends to think, contrary to all evidence, that the Vietnam War is over, when it is only over for America.

The best antidote I have found to this tragic, and ultimately self-destructive amnesia is The Anatomy of a War by Gabriel Kolko, a professor of history at Toronto's York University. Anatomy provides an alternative to the books, like those of prolific Robert McNamara, former US Secretary of Defense, that, as Kolko writes, "have been obsessed mainly with the traditional issues of why the United States lost or how it might have won the war, and with the lessons to be learned from it."

And by "lessons" I think it safe to assume Kolko means military ones, not the potentially more valuable lesson that it is "impossible, undesirable, and dangerous for...any state to seek to guide the development of another nation or region." Much the same lesson was conveyed by Graham Greene's 1955 The Quiet American, but the book was roundly dismissed at the time as anti-American, when it was in fact chiefly pro-human.

The uniqueness of Anatomy lies not simply in its distaste for war or imperialism, but in the equal attention it gives to the three main entities in the conflict. These were the United States, the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), and what Kolko, in order to avoid the essentially belittling term "Viet Cong", calls "the Revolution". While Kolko's sympathies are obviously with the Revolution, the simple fact that he tells its story distinguishes his book from the likes of McNamara's In Retrospect. Kolko adds something resembling history to a literature consisting mainly of memoirs by American statesmen, either self-congratulatory (Kissinger) or self-expiating (McNamara).

Vietnam was first placed under colonial rule when the French seized Danang in 1858, and remained a colony until it was "liberated" by Japan in early 1945. By September of that year, Ho Chi Minh had declared Vietnam independent, British troops had occupied Cochin China (the southernmost of Vietnam's provinces), the French were returning, and China occupied the land north of the 16th parallel. Vietnam's subjection to global powers went back a long way, but not until December 1946 did the war for independence begin.

The actual beginning of the "American War" - as it is known in Vietnam - is hard to pinpoint, but as early as 1950 the US was giving military and economic aid to the French, and by the end of 1960 there were 900 US military personnel in Vietnam. Thus began the longest and most disastrous conflict in American history. But to the Vietnamese, it was merely an escalation of a century-long occupation by imperial powers that would do, writes Kolko, "more damage to an entire society than other colonial nations...accomplished over generations."

But to its great detriment, America did not see things this way, because it "had no concept of historical trends." Instead, writes Kolko, "Washington had by 1947 become wholly convinced that the Soviet Union was in some crucial manner guiding many of the political and social upheavals in the world that were in fact the outcome of poverty, colonialism, and oligarchies." America saw Ho Chi Minh as a Communist, not as a nationalist using Communist techniques to build a power base necessary for achieving independence. Arguably, America continues to confuse the two in its hostile attitude toward North Korea, Cuba, and a host of leftist guerilla groups fighting for self-determination all over the world - a first lesson unlearned.

Another is that, as Kolko puts it, "victory in war is not simply the result of battles." Economic, social, and political factors are ignored at one's peril. The Revolution itself went further, saying that "the morale factor is the decisive factor in war, more than weapons, tactics, and technique" - a sentiment, incidentally, straight out of the ancient Chinese text The Art of War, which places "the moral cause" chief among the principles of warfare. The Revolution had the stronger moral cause - self-defense against a foreign invader - so, despite being outnumbered, outgunned, and outspent, it prevailed, but not without enormous costs.

All wars waged by a nation of the global North against a nation of the global South tend to share certain characteristics.

First, there is a disproportionate loss of life, because Northern nations tend to be democracies, which cannot abide many casualties, and therefore try to achieve "maximum effect with minimum loss of personnel."

Second, there is a catastrophic disruption of the Southern nation's economy caused by the sudden introduction of Northern money, and by the customary bombing and displacement of the farmers upon whom the South's agrarian economies depend.

Third, incalculable amounts of munitions - cluster bombs, mines, and defoliants - are dumped on the Southern nation, which the Northern nation subsequently makes only symbolic efforts to clean up. (Kolko notes the reaction of the New York Times to the Christmas bombing of Hanoi: "terrorism on an unprecedented scale.")

Fourth, the Northern nation seeks to "spin" its invasion by making the invasion appear to be support of a friendly, legitimate nation facing conquest by a hostile power. It does this by installing a corrupt, despotic, sybaritic, but pliable surrogate government - the RVN of Vietnam - that is ultimately undermined by its contempt for and mistreatment of its constituency.

Finally, the Northern nation's intervention tends only to galvanize opposition to it: the net, unintended effect of the CIA's Phoenix program was, according to a Kolko source, "to create new Viet Cong rather than to 'root out' established operatives."

The Vietnam War differs from similar North-South conflicts only in its monstrous scale and duration, not in its basic characteristics. Yet it tends to be regarded as an isolated mistake, a "quagmire" never again to be repeated. Kolko is skeptical, even positively gloomy: "All that the United States has the ability to accomplish today is to impose immeasurable suffering on people whose fates its arms and money cannot control." This is accomplished by an "addicting mixture of tough-minded massive force and amorphous liberal rhetoric" and by "an intense, even pathological desire to appear unsoiled to itself."

Far better, he says, would be for the United States to allow "the people of the world to develop their own future", but this can happen only if the US solves its "primary problem: the conflict between its inordinate desires and its finite resources."

Anatomy of a War is, I think, part of the solution, because it shows the other side of a war that many Americans lament only because it caused the "Vietnam syndrome" - a reluctance to use military force. Indeed, on September 11th, 2001, some media pundits cheerfully declared the Vietnam syndrome "cured". I am sure that the Vietnamese took enormous comfort in their words, and I suppose I needn't repeat that those who know no history are doomed to repeat it. But then, as Samuel Johnson once wrote, and I paraphrase, "People do not need to be taught, so much as they need to be reminded."