on peace (reposted from July 7, 2009)
In "All sides blame McNamara for Vietnam" in Salon, Michael Lind argues that it's not quite fair or reasonable that Robert McNamara receives so much specific blame for the Vietnam War. I think he makes some good arguments, particularly that the presidents responsible for the policies in Vietnam deserve much more blame than they get. Lind writes that McNamara gets criticized from the left, right, and center for the Vietnam War, and he makes the effort to debunk all three criticisms. The right wing criticism, according to Lind, is basically the Rambo idea: the U.S. soldiers/military could have won the war if the civilian politicians would have just let them:
"Just as they had done during the Korean War, however, conservatives denounced a Democratic administration for allegedly holding back the U.S. military. Just as the right accused the Truman administration of needlessly throwing away victory in Korea by restraining and then firing Gen. MacArthur, so the right accused the Johnson administration of needlessly throwing away victory in Indochina by restraining Gen. William Westmoreland. This "stab-in-the-back" theory of the Vietnam War, blaming timid civilians like McNamara and LBJ for forcing the U.S. military to fight with one hand tied behind its back, was popularized by the late Col. Harry Summers after the war and is still the dominant view on the American right."
How does Lind attempt to debunk this view? He essentially argues that the civilian politicians were right to hold the military back because of the threat from China:
"The conservative stab-in-the-back theory of the Vietnam War has flaws of its own. If only the Johnson administration had 'unleashed' the full power of the U.S. military, by invading the North or bombing the dikes, then the war would have ended quickly, with far fewer American and Vietnamese casualties, with a reunified noncommunist Vietnam or perhaps a Korean-style stalemate lasting to this day. What this attractive might-have-been ignores is the fact that the Johnson administration feared that China, which was already supplying North Vietnam with hundreds of thousands of logistics troops, might engage in full-scale war with the U.S. in Vietnam as it had done in Korea. The evidence that has emerged from China since the end of the Cold War suggests that Mao very well might have intervened directly, had the U.S. gone too far. The Johnson administration in retrospect was far from stupid in trying to prevent Vietnam from escalating into a second Sino-American war."
By arguing this myth strategically, Lind leaves intact the essence of the myth: that our soldiers/military could have won the war if only the civilians and politicians back home would have let them. He doesn't challenge this myth: he doesn't suggest that it is itself what was wrong. And this myth is a specific part of a larger, very dangerous belief. It is the belief that the U.S. can win any war it wants, it just needs the proper commitment and will. And that is part of the myth that there is a violent, military solution to any problem.
Lind's debunking of "the antiwar left" or "radical left" is also rather flimsy; I might even call it a straw man. He essentially provides two arguments: First, that "Nobody takes seriously anymore the claim made by many radicals at the time that the Second Indochina War was merely an anti-colonial rebellion that had nothing to do with the wider Cold War." O.K., and what if antiwar radicals even conceded that fighting communism was at the essence of the war? What of the antiwar radicals who still believe the war was wrong even on those grounds (and I might add that communist motivations were not entirely separate from anti-colonial motivations)? Lind does not address this objection. Second, Lind says
"The moral case against the damage done to the Vietnamese population and landscape by U.S. firepower and Agent Orange defoliation is compelling. But the U.S. effort in Korea was even more devastating, and the U.S. efforts in World War II included the incineration of German and Japanese cities by conventional and atomic bombing. To the historian, the case that the Vietnam War was a unique atrocity in itself is hard to make."
I see this as a pretty weak argument: he acknowledges the moral argument against the war because of the death and destruction committed against Vietnam, but basically says other U.S. wars have been vicious and destructive too. Again, what of the antiwar radicals that would concede this: does the overall horror of war, and the specific horrors of the previous U.S. wars, really wash away the moral argument over the destruction of Vietnam?
Lind argues that everybody is wrong in their criticism of the Vietnam War. As he does so, he lets the faith in military solutions to problems stand, and does not meaningfully address a broader antiwar view.