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Monday, August 27, 2007


Rereading Vietnam

From the Atlantic.com. I doubt if the Virginian Pilot would understand.
In December 1967, a prisoner was dumped in Day's cell on the outskirts of Hanoi, known as the Plantation. This prisoner's legs were atrophied and he weighed under 100 pounds. Day helped scrub his face and nurse him back from the brink of death. The fellow American was Navy Lieutenant Commander John Sidney McCain III of the Panama Canal Zone. As his health improved, McCain's rants against his captors were sometimes as ferocious as Day's. The North Vietnamese tried and failed, through torture, to get McCain to accept a release for their own propaganda purposes: The lieutenant commander was the son of Admiral John McCain Jr., the commander of all American forces in the Pacific. "Character," writes the younger McCain, quoting the 19th century evangelist Dwight Moody, "is what you are in the dark," when nobody's looking and you silently make decisions about how you will act the next day.

In early 1973, during a visit to Hanoi, North Vietnamese officials told Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that they would be willing to free McCain into his custody. Kissinger refused, aware that there were prisoners held longer than McCain, ahead of him in the line for release. McCain suffered awhile longer in confinement, then, once freed, thanked Kissinger for "preserving my honor." The two have been good friends since. McCain blurbs with gusto Bud Day's memoir. The senator writes: "I recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand the dimensions of human greatness."
There is little sense here that the war was lost. While historians cite 1968 as a turning point because of the home front's reaction to the Tet offensive, the My Lai massacre, and the protests at the Democratic party convention in Chicago, on the ground in Vietnam, 1968 marked a different trend: William Westmoreland was replaced by Creighton Abrams, population security rather than enemy body counts became the measure of merit, "clear and hold" territory replaced the dictum of "search and destroy," and building up the South Vietnamese Army became the top priority. "There came a time when the war was won," even if the "fighting wasn't over," writes Lewis Sorley, a West Point graduate and career Army officer, in A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam (1999). By the end of 1972, Sorley goes on, one could travel almost anywhere in South Vietnam in relative security, even as American ground forces were almost gone. Retirees I know in the armed forces affirm how much more benign an environment South Vietnam was during this period than the Iraq of today. Still, as one veteran told me: Everyone has different memories of Vietnam, depending upon where they served, and what time they were there.

Sorley's book was reviewed prominently by the major liberal newspapers and foreign policy journals. They gave it generally respectful write-ups, a sign of a reassessment of Vietnam based less on ideology than on paying more attention to the second half of a war: a period to which, as Sorley notes, Stanley Karnow's Vietnam: A History (1983) devotes only 103 out of 670 pages, and Neil Sheehan's Pulitzer Prize-winning A Bright Shining Lie (1988) devotes 65 out of 790 pages. Sorley told me he isn't sure what would have happened had Congress not cut off aid to South Vietnam at about the time the ground situation was at its most hopeful. He felt that a respectable case might be made that it would have survived. His book has seen a rise in sales among military officers eager to know how the ground situation in Iraq might be improved to the level it had been in Vietnam, thanks to Gen. Abrams's change of strategy.

A similar thesis emerges in The Battle of An Loc (2005) by retired Army Lt. Col. James H. Willbanks, who describes a 60-day siege in mid-1972, in which heavily outnumbered South Vietnamese troops and their American advisors (including himself) rebuffed several North Vietnamese divisions. This gave Nixon the fig leaf he needed for a final withdrawal. Optimism then might not have been warranted, but it wasn't altogether blind. Lt. Col. Willbanks said he wrote his book, published by Indiana University Press, for the same reason Sorley did: to give more attention to the second half of the war.

By all means, let's not have another debate on Viet Nam, right? The MSM has its story and is sticking to it. [sarcasm]

UPDATE: Victor Davis Hanson in NR Online:
In all the hysteria over the Bush Vietnam evocation, people are losing their sanity. Now those in Vietnam are being dragged out and quoted by the mainstream media to prove Bush’s lunacy. But what are subjects of a police state supposed to say — “I wish our present Communist dictatorship had lost”? Do we think Cubans routinely give widely publicized interviews criticizing their Castroites — and live?

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