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The Never-Ending War

Mr. Lind rejects what he calls the “praetorian” argument of men like General Westmoreland and Lewis Sorley that more men, supplies, and money would have prevailed in Vietnam. This view, Lind says, ignores the strategy he favors of continuing to fight in “quagmires” of “low intensity conflict, political chaos, and moral ambiguity.” American political culture must not “paralyze its military policy.” Citizens—so he seems to say—should not object to the unpleasantness of killing people in one village after another. For the Americans to win such wars, its “soldiers must learn to swim in quagmires.”

Mr. Lind attacks McNamara’s Argument Without End. He rightly says that the book’s alleged revelations “dissolve into word games or assertions resting on flimsy or nonexistent evidence.” He underlines the absurdity of claiming that for twenty-five years Hanoi and Washington misunderstood each other and emphasizes that the two sides went to war because each wanted to thwart its enemy.

But Mr. Lind, too, appears to have no knowledge of Vietnamese history, in which wars of resistance to foreigners have been going on for two millennia. Nor has he studied carefully enough American reporters’ dispatches from the Vietnamese battlefields; they were not accounts of heroic Communist guerrillas fighting corrupt Vietnamese gangsters and American intruders. But they did see that on the whole the rural Vietnamese preferred the NLF and the Northern regulars to the Saigonese and American troops. In 1966, in what Mr. McNamara might now consider a “missed signal,” Neil Sheehan, an experienced battlefield reporter, argued in a New York Times Magazine article entitled “Not a Dove, But No Longer a Hawk”:

The men who lead the party today, Ho Chi Minh and the other members of the Politburo in Hanoi, directed the struggle for independence from France and in the process captured much of the deeply felt nationalism of the Vietnamese…. The Communists, despite their brutality and deceit, remain the only Vietnamese capable of rallying millions of their countrymen…and the only group not dependent on foreign bayonets for survival.

In short, Mr. Lind has not adequately informed himself on the origins of the Vietnamese struggle: a long war to get rid of the French (bolstered by tales and songs of two thousand years of opposing the Chinese) during most of which they received very little help from Beijing or Moscow, and nothing like what the French received from Washington. There were indeed Chinese advisers and weapons at Dienbienphu in 1954; but it was the Vietnamese who advanced against the enemy (and sometimes faltered and fled), not on behalf of the international Communist movement but because they hated the French.

Those still trying to find someone to blame for the Vietnam debacle—in the press, in academia, in Congress, in Beijing, or in Moscow—should read Larry Addington’s America’s War in Vietnam. If there is such a thing as an objective account, this is it. A retired professor of military history at the Citadel, he manages in a brief compass to survey traditional Vietnamese history with particular attention to the Vietnamese hostility to foreigners and wars against them. He gives a careful account of the French occupation and war, and the American intervention. His bibliography omits no important works in English that I know of and his judgments are measured. His accounts of the American creation of the Diem regime and of the Tonkin provocation, for example, are exemplary.

Professor Addington praises all five American presidents involved in Southeast Asia, for one big thing: despite a long list of mistakes, they “made the correct decision to avoid a direct confrontation with the Sino-Soviet bloc over Indochina. Such a confrontation might have caused a localized conflict in Southeast Asia to escalate into a global conflict on the nuclear level….” Professor Addington, without the benefit of David Kaiser’s recent sources, could not know that the presidents rejected precisely such a course when it was recommended by the Joint Chiefs. If you want to read one book about Vietnam, read this one.

If Michael Lind is not persuaded by Professor Addington’s historical account, he should read The Sorrow of War, the powerful novel by the North Vietnamese writer Bao Ninh, which suggests that the final Vietnamese victory cannot be explained simply as a matter either of American weakness or of international support for Hanoi. “Victory after victory, withdrawal after withdrawal,” writes Bao Ninh. “The path of war seemed endless, desperate and leading nowhere…the soldiers waited in fear, hoping they would not be ordered in as support forces, to hurl themselves into the arena to almost certain death.” After the war, Bao Ninh also writes, the Northern soldiers were ordered to “guard against the idea of the South having fought valiantly or been meritorious in any way.” To swim in such a quagmire would never have been possible for Americans, even if they were fighting from the most advantageously situated “inkblots” and under the most sagacious and experienced Marine commander.

Another Vietnamese writer becoming known to Western readers is Duong Thu Huong, author of Novel Without a Name and Paradise of the Blind,15 and, now, Memories of Pure Spring. She led a brigade of singers during the war; three out of forty survived. Outspoken in defense of democracy and human rights, she was expelled from the Party in 1989 and in 1991 spent seven months in prison. All her writings are banned, and her most recent novel, completed in 1997, has not been published in Vietnam.

Unlike Duong Thu Huong’s previous books, Memories of a Pure Spring is not a war novel, although it is set in a Vietnam that is still recovering from the war that finished twenty-five years earlier, and many of the characters fought in it. The war is remembered as a time of determination, heroism, and desperation, and does not seem to have been much of a victory. People are very poor; there is not enough of anything, except for the corrupt officials. Fear of the police is everywhere and political prisoners are treated brutally. The central character, Hung, is the director of a performing troupe who marries a sixteen-year-old, Suong, of great beauty and with a magnificent voice. She becomes a star and they are an admired couple. But Hung falls afoul of a political hack and loses his job while Suong’s fame increases. He drinks, takes opium, steals money from her, and is imprisoned for a half-hearted attempt to flee Vietnam by boat.

Duong’s novel provides a recent view of the Vietnamese life—whether in cafés, bars, theaters, or peoples’ houses—that is invisible to tourists and Western businessmen. Most people seem unhappy. Hong remembers how, during the war,

the troupe had received orders to perform for a unit of nearly three hundred young women volunteers who lived on the opposite side of the mountain. They lived in the jungle, far from their homes, their villages, without a shadow of a man, and they were known to go into fits of mass hysteria. The troupe’s scout had already been to this part of the jungle twice. And both times he had been scared out of his wits when the entire horde of women had swooped down on him like a swarm of bees, teasing and flirting with him. Once, running for dear life, he had hidden in a crevice in the mountain and looking back had seen them seated, hugging their knees, weeping and sniffling on one another’s shoulders, huddled together in one sobbing mass. It was a sight that could make your skin crawl.

Passages like these and others in Duong Thu Huong’s and Bao Ninh’s novels show how much nonsense about North Vietnamese and “the revolution” was written by some of the Americans who opposed the war, and how little if anything the carefully guided foreign guests of Hanoi in those years—like those visiting China then—saw that was genuine.

That is why Dragon Ascending, Henry Kamm’s report on Vietnam, published several years ago, provides a particularly valuable perspective. The New York Times correspondent in Southeast Asia for twenty-five years, Kamm knows Vietnam as well as any other journalist. One of his most telling points is that Vietnam, for most Westerners, is a war, not a country. “What would a Vietnamese make of a phrase that uses the name of his country to stand, not for his nation …but for a debacle in another nation’s history?” He points out that Americans as a whole bear much responsibility for the war. Unlike Vietnamese, who lived in a dictatorship, they could punish the politicians who made and escalated the war by voting against them. Many antiwar Americans, Mr. Kamm recalls, expressed anguish for the Vietnamese who suffered during the war. But those voices “were strangely silent during the next period of their suffering, when hundreds of thousands felt that their best choice was to entrust their lives and those of their children to tiny, unseaworthy boats on the treacherous South China Sea.”

This evasion by Americans is exposed further when Kamm talks to Bao Ninh in Hanoi. Bao Ninh was sympathetic to Americans for their search for MIAs, but observed:

We have mothers and widows who know where their sons or husbands died, but they can’t afford to visit their graves…. A Vietnamese mother who lost three or four sons in the war without knowing where they are buried may be helping to dig for Americans missing in action, because she knows where they were buried.

Some of Kamm’s accounts recall the grim scenes in Memories of a Pure Spring. He describes a police state where, as in China, the Party apologizes for past mistakes but does not “for a moment allow that having committed such errors should disqualify them from continuing to govern.” He found a pervasive system of surveillance in which informers spy on their neighbors in every village and in every city street. Vietnam is a country of centuries of resistance to foreigners, Mr. Kamm observes, but with no tradition of organized internal opposition, although there are plenty of individual dissenters, many of them either in jail or survivors of jail. These dissenters, suffering in silence, “step outside their restrictive system only by thinking and speaking to their friends as though they lived in a free, civil society. They live in truth, surrounded by many a lie.” In a country of 73 million, it is hard indeed to find open dissenters such as Duong Thu Huong.

Michael Lind could learn from Henry Kamm’s book that Vietnam has never been a pawn of the Chinese and Russians, even if at Geneva, in 1954, Ho’s envoys followed their advice and believed there could be a political settlement of the war. During the American phase of the war, “North Vietnam received extensive assistance from the Communist world,” Kamm writes, “but its will and ability to make its vital decisions independently were never in doubt.” The greater the rift between Beijing and Moscow, Mr. Kamm says, the more adroitly Hanoi played them against each other, unlike Ngo Dinh Diem, who “was never able to step out of the large American shadow that enveloped him.”

That shadow has now been replaced in the South by Hanoi, which, Kamm’s Southern informants told him, confirmed the fears of many that the North would shove them aside. The NLF learned quickly, as Truong Nhu Tang wrote in Journal of a Vietcong, that they now numbered among the conquered. Dr. Duong Quynh Hoa, the NLF’s Minister of Health, told Kamm that as soon as the war ended,

Hanoi decreed the unification of the country and the elimination of all institutions through which the southern revolutionaries intended to achieve gradual reconciliation after twenty-one years of war and prepare a smooth joining of the two disparate entities.

Contrary to the view of Mr. Brigham that the South was short of experts, Mr. Kamm writes that Northerners replaced “qualified southerners eager to serve now that peace had finally been restored.” Thousands of such experts, who could have fled with the Americans but chose to stay to build a new society, were harshly confined for years in concentration camps. Two million other Vietnamese, many of whom could have built a modern country, fled abroad in unsafe boats. “To tell the truth,” Bao Ninh said, once the Americans had gone, “the victory of the north, by any accurate description, was an attack by the north on the south…. We soldiers from the north feel sad today…. We feel sorry for the southerners….”

In such a place, the open resistance of the novelist Duong Thu Huong is poignant. The official who signed her arrest warrant before her seven months in prison asked her why she bothered speaking out; very few Vietnamese had ever heard of her, he observed, and within a week of her death she would be forgotten. She replied, “I am not like you. I don’t do what I do in order to be remembered. I oppose you because I want to, and it pleases me to oppose you. Earlier I volunteered against the Americans, against the Chinese, and now I’m volunteering against you with the same force.”

  1. 15

    Morrow, 1995 and 1988, respectively; reviewed by me in “No Trumpets, No Drums,” The New York Review, September 21, 1995.

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