It was the spring of 1971 and Captain Larry McNamara, one of my advisors to the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN), and I were sitting across from each other on a hot, sparsely covered jungle hillside sipping bitter Vietnamese tea. In between us was a fold-up wooden military campaign table.
My other advisors sat silently apart from us under a clump of pine trees pretending not to be eaves dropping on our conversation. They were cleaning and oiling their weapons, preparing for combat, deep in the jungle. Occasionally their eyes wandered toward us.
A week before, Larry had been deserted and left to die out in the jungle by the Fourth ARVN Battalion commander, Major Uy. Uy was a first class coward and Larry’s returning alive was an embarrassment to him. If Larry had died as Uy intended, Uy could have fabricated a story about the fighting having been so intense that he and Mac had been forcibly separated and he had risked his own life trying to find him.
But because Larry had defied all of the odds and come back alive, Uy was forced to explain why they had become separated. According to Uy’s version of events, he had become so deathly sick that he was unable to lead his battalion. So he was forced to make his way back to the rear to find medical help. Most of the other ARVN officers and senior sergeants had followed him. Larry had ended up commanding the encircled ARVN remnant and was able to lead them to safety.
“Larry,” you’ve studied the plan and you know that we’re committing every available combat unit to this fight.”
“Yes, and you want me to go back out with the Fourth Battalion again. Is it still commanded by that coward, Uy?”
“Yes it is,” I said.
“Colonel, you know as well as I that at the first shot fired, he will turn tail and run and the battalion will fall apart, just like it did last week.” He was stating simple, unemotional fact.
After a long pause he added, “If I go, I won’t come back. The North Vietnamese Army won’t let me get away twice.”
“I know,” I replied looking away, feeling pain deep down inside. “Do you want me to go in your place?”
“No,” he countered sharply. “You’ve got your job to do and I’ve got mine.”
Simultaneously we pushed our metal folding chairs back, stood, and shook hands. “Goodbye, Colonel,” he said. “We won’t meet again … at least not in this life. Write my wife, tell her I love her.” I nodded and he was gone.
Militaria from the Vietnam War has a real collectors’ following, and the whimsically-engraved Zippo lighters commonly carried by US servicemen during the Vietnam conflict are popular enough as collectibles to be extensively counterfeited. But trying to sell a collection of 282 Vietnam-era Zippo lighters, even one which had been previously published as an art book (Vietnam Zippos: American Soldiers’ Engravings and Stories (1965-1973) by University of Chicago Press) as a single auction lot would never have been the best way to achieve optimal results, and with the economy in its current condition, there just were no buyers for $30,000-50,000 worth of lighters.
The owner should have sold them, one at a time, accompanied by a certificate of provenance and authenticity on Ebay. But, I’m not sure he could, even then, have counted on getting over $100 for every example.
Conservatives’ favorite metaphor is Munich; liberals’ is Vietnam.
As the Obama Administration continues sinking into disrepute, Neal Gabler, in the Boston Globe, points to the same kind of smug Ivy League hubris that persistently failed in Vietnam as being responsible for the current administration’s woes.
Just like the New Frontiersmen so thoroughly trashed in David Halberstam’s book, Team Obama has demonstrated a “we know better” approach to policy which is distancing them farther and farther from the general perspective of the country.
[According to David Halberstam, the Kennedy and Johnson administration Brahminate] “were men more linked to one another, their schools, their own social class and their own concerns than they were linked to the country,’’ which meant that their sense of the public good was always subordinate to their sense of their own brilliance.
Above all, the best and the brightest believed in their own infallibility. They distrusted politics almost as much as they distrusted the proletariat because politics was about compromise and satisfying ninnies (us) who they felt were much beneath them. They were cold, logical, bloodless, and deeply pragmatic. They considered liberal idealists fools, and emotion a weakness. They knew best, which made them extremely intimidating. They failed because they didn’t think they could possibly be wrong.
In many ways, Obama was a sucker for this kind of coldblooded, upper-crust approach to policy and the elitism that went with it. Half-white, half-black, half-American, half-African, part Kansan, part Hawaiian, middle class and transient, Obama made the primary plaint and question of his book, “Dreams From My Father’’: Where do I belong? That question was posed as one of racial identity, but in the end, whether he fully realized it or not, Obama found himself not in black culture or white culture but in the culture of the best and the brightest. That’s where he belonged. That’s where he seemed to feel most comfortable.
So it is really no surprise that he has packed his administration with what one might call The Best and the Brightest 2.0 — people who are as dispassionate and rational and suspicious of emotion as the president prides himself as being: a bunch of cool, unflappable customers. (The exceptions are Vice President Joe Biden and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.) Like The Best and the Brightest 1.0, these folks — guys like Larry Summers, outgoing budget director Peter Orszag, and Tim Geithner, on the economic side; and William J. Lynn 3d, deputy secretary of defense, and James Steinberg, deputy secretary of state, on the foreign side — are Ivy-educated, confident, and implacable realists and rationalists. Like their forebears, they have all the answers, which is why they have been so unaccommodating of other suggestions on the economy, where economists have been pressing them for more stimulus, or on Afghanistan, where the president keeps doubling down his bets.
The difference between 1.0 and 2.0 is that 2.0 are not all Protestant, white males sprung full-blown from the Establishment as 1.0’s fathers and their fathers’ fathers were. Like Obama himself, they are by and large onetime middle-class overachievers who made their way into the Ivy League and then catapulted to the top levels of class and power by being . . . well, the best and the brightest. But in elitism as in religion, no one is more devout than a convert, and these people, again like Obama, all having been blessed by the Ivy League, also embrace Ivy League arrogance and condescension. On this, the Republican critics are right: The administration exudes a sense of superiority.
So what difference does it make if our policy-makers think they are above criticism? As Halberstam shows in “The Best and the Brightest,’’ people who are concerned not with the fundamental rightness of something but with its execution, because the rightness is assumed; people who see what they want to see rather than what is; people who see things in terms of preconceptions rather than of human conduct; people who are incapable of admitting error; people who lack skepticism and the capacity to grow beyond their certainties are the sorts of people who are likely to get us in trouble — whether it is an ever-lengthening war in Afghanistan or ever-deepening economic distress here at home. After all, we’ve been there once before.
I think the similarity Gabler identifies of a dogged advance into political destruction on the basis of a mistaken sense of Ivy League superiority is dead on, but there is the difference that those establishment experts of nearly 50 years ago were merely conventionally liberal in the same basically empty and purely formal way that they were also Episcopalians or Congregationalists or Presbyterians.
The Obama Administration’s determination to pursue a massive expansion of spending and of governmental expansion in defiance of an economic crisis represents the opposite of 1960s liberal pragmatism. Its hubris is not merely the hubris of the well born, the well-connected, and the talented. Theirs is the hubris of the enlightened initiate of the left’s theory of History, of the committed believer in the ideology of socialism and statism which is today more radical, and even more deeply entrenched in America’s elite universities, than it was so long ago.
Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy believed their policies would succeed and they would win. The Obama Administration is willing to die on the barricades in order to leave behind socialized American health care.
Robert Tracinski argue that comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam are a losing argument for the Left.
America’s defeat in Vietnam, for example, was seemingly a triumph for the anti-war left, which had long proclaimed the war to be unwinnable quagmire. Yet the years following that defeat—the era of American retreat and “national malaise”—proved so traumatic that the American people have never wanted to repeat them. Thus, what the anti-war radicals regarded as a vindication ended up discrediting the left on foreign policy for a generation. You could say that they won the political battle over the war—but they lost the peace.
Today, we may be seeing the final chapter of that process. The left is losing the Vietnam War itself—losing Vietnam, that is, as a rhetorical high ground from which to pillory any advocate of vigorous American military action overseas.
Robert D. Kaplan, in the Atlantic, discusses in detail a number of Vietnam War books exemplifying the warrior ethos which are widely admired in professional military circles (just check the prices of those out-of-print Jean Larteguy titles), but which are not nearly as well known by the general public as they deserve to be.
Kaplan, over his career, appears to have become someone who is too fond of war.
Andrew J. Bacevich:
If Kaplan is a romantic, he is also a populist and a reactionary.”
Mr. Kaplan is the first traveler to take us on a journey to the jagged places where these tectonic plates meet, and his argument—that our future is being shaped far away ‘at the ends of the earth’—makes his travelogue pertinent and compelling reading.”
This is breathtaking. Here is a serious writer in 2005 admiring the Indian wars, which in their brutality brought about the end of an entire American civilization.”
Victims’ skulls on display at the Cheoung Ek “Killing Fields” memorial on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
John Podhoretz, in the New York Post, comments on the remarkable effusion of indignation resulting from George W. Bush treading on a sensitive spot in the collective conscience of the leftwing Establishment.
And so the world of conventional wisdom is even now rearing in horror at the mere thought of President Bush daring to compare the war in Iraq to the war in Vietnam – or, rather, describing the consequences of losing the war in Iraq by discussing the consequences of our loss in Vietnam and asking the American people if they want to see that disastrous past repeated as our inglorious future.
You could almost feel the outrage rising like steam heat from the left side of the blogosphere: Why, doesn’t that evil moron know that Vietnam is our analogy?
Doesn’t he know no one should be permitted to mention Vietnam in any context other than the one we use – as an example of an immoral, pointless and stupid war, a quagmire from which the nation was saved not by heroes on the battlefield abroad but by political opposition at home?
Russ Vaughn has some reflections on Vietnam War draft resistance that would do a lot of my classmates good to read.
I have just read a mea culpa by Vietnam War protestor, novelist and poet, Pat Conroy, who possesses the literary skills to express what I am willing to bet many other older American males, his former brothers at the barricades, also feel, but lack the skills and the honesty to articulate. It is left to men like the politically born again David Horowitz and novelist Conroy to speak for these old troupers of the Left’s long-haired legions, to reveal their long hidden recognition that they were possibly misguided in their protesting but more often than most will ever admit, motivated more by fear of serving in combat than by any sense of moral/political rectitude.
At the end of last month, for reasons of his own which are difficult for the rest of us to fathom, John Kerry launched a new campaign of press statements replying to the charges about his awards and military record made by fellow Swift Boat Veterans during his 2004 presidential campaign.
The Swift Boat Veterans’ attacks on Kerry’s record, and the associated book, unquestionably demolished Kerry’s “reporting for duty” campaign theme, and Kerry’s failure during the course of the campaign to release his military records and to reply effectively to the veterans’ charges did not go unnoticed by the voters.
More recently, Kerry seems to have decided that everyone has discarded his copy of Unfit for Command, and forgotten all the details, and he evidently thinks it’s now safe to go around striking martyred poses in front of the obliging liberal media.
Well, John Kerry is wrong. Not everyone has forgotten, and it is not safe, as Thomas Lipscomb demonstrates with a detailed review of Kerry’s first-Purple Heart-producing skimmer mission.