Daily Archives: 21 June 2005

Lind on Vietnam as an Ideological Symbol

After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, it took on a second life as a symbol in American politics. For the radical left, the war was a symbol of the depravity of the United States and the evils of “capitalist imperialism.” For the neoisolationists and “realists” of the liberal left, the U.S. war in Indochina was a tragic and unnecessary mistake, brought about by American arrogance and an exaggerated fear of the threat posed to U.S. interests by the Soviet Union and communist China. Conservatives, too, had their orthodox view of the conflict. Conservatives joined many military officers in arguing that the United States could have achieved a quick and decisive victory in Indochina, if only the pusillanimous civilian policymakers of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations had not “tied the hands” of the U.S. military and “denied it permission to win.”

One point of view has been missing from the debate over the Vietnam War. The political faction known as liberal anticommunists or Cold War liberals, identified with the Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations, ceased to exist as a force in American politics in the 1970s, more as a result of partisan realignment than of the Vietnam War. One group of former Cold War liberal policymakers and thinkers sought to ingratiate themselves with the antiwar leftists and liberals who were ascendant in the Democratic party after 1968. Among these were the late McGeorge Bundy and his brother William (who, as part of his campaign to rehabilitate himself, recently wrote a harsh and unfair book criticizing Nixon’s and Kissinger’s handling of the war that the Bundys had helped to begin). Former defense secretary Robert McNamara not only recanted his support for the war in his book In Retrospect but endured the abuse of functionaries of the Vietnamese dictatorship during a humiliating pilgrimage to Vietnam in 1997. Another group of former Cold War liberals joined forces with anti-Soviet conservatives, maintaining their support for the Cold War while jettisoning their prolabor liberalism in domestic politics. The number of unreconstructed Cold War liberals thus dwindled in the 1970s and 1980s, making it easy for radical leftists, left-liberals, and conservatives, in their discussions of the Vietnam War and U.S. foreign policy in the 1960s, to caricature and vilify Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and their advisers with no fear of rebuttal.

Almost everything written by Americans about the Vietnam War in the past quarter century has conformed to one of the three scripts of radical leftism, anti-Cold War liberalism, or conservatism. Each of these three partisan schools has drawn attention to evidence that appeared to support its preconceptions, while ignoring evidence that contradicted them. These ritualized debates might have continued for another generation or two. But two historic developments have now [in 1999] made it possible to transcend the thirty-year-old debates about the Vietnam War.

The first development is the end of the Cold War and its aftermath, including the global collapse of communism and the realignment of world politics around the United States as the hegemonic military power. Only now is it possible to view the Cold War as a whole and to evaluate the U.S. strategy of global containment that led to the U.S. wars in defense of South Korea and South Vietnam, as well as the U.S. protectorate over Taiwan–“the three fronts,” according to Mao Zedong, where the communist bloc met the American bloc in East Asia.

The second development is the demise of the radical left in North America and Western Europe as a political force (leftism survives only in pockets in the academy and the press). [This obituary seems a little premature!] In the 1960s and 1970s, the ascendancy of the radical left in the liberal and social democratic parties of the West–the Democrats in the United States, the British Labor Party, and the German Social Democrats–caused western electorates to turn to conservative, anticommunist parties under the leadership of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Helmut Kohl. The economic difficulties of Swedish social democracy, coming soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, have discredited western as well as eastern Marxism and permitted the emergence of a new, more moderate center-left, variously described as “the Third Way” or “the New Center” and symbolized by President Bill Clinton and British prime minister Tony Blair. As recently as the Gulf War, which the overwhelming majority of Democrats in Congress voted against, foreign policy debates in the United States pitted anti-American leftists and isolationist liberals against interventionist conservatives. But the subsequent U.S.-led NATO war in the Balkans, supported by many liberals and opposed by a number of conservatives, has helped to rehabilitate the legitimacy of military intervention for many left-of-center Americans.

These developments in global politics and western politics have made it possible to write this book, which could not have been written in the 1970s or 1980s. In this book, I examine the Vietnam War in light of the end of the Cold War, from a centrist perspective more sympathetic to American, Cold War policymakers than that of their critics on the left and the right.

SOURCE: Vietnam, the Necessary War: A Reinterpretation of America’s Most Disastrous Military Conflict, by Michael Lind (Simon & Schuster, 1999), pp. xii-xiv (reviewed in the NYT here and here)

Lind is the author of The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics (with Ted Halstead) (2001, reviewed here); Hamilton’s Republic: Readings in the American Democratic Nationalist Tradition (1997); Up from Conservatism: Why the Right is Wrong for America (1996); and The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution (1995). I’m far less comfortable with Lind’s nationalism than I am with his anticommunism.

Finally, Lind is decidedly not for the latest U.S. intervention in Iraq.

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Filed under China, Korea, Vietnam

In a Haiti Hospital, 1993: No Rules

I was debating whether to post excerpts from Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures, but after viewing the CBC documentary Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire this weekend, I lost any qualms I might have had. (And it has only been six months since I saw Hotel Rwanda when it premiered in NYC.) The abject failure of the U.S. and UN interventions in Somalia and Haiti in 1993 practically guaranteed an even more pusillanimous effort to stop full-on genocide in Rwanda a few months later. So here, without pity, is the first of a short series of excerpts from the memoirs of UN workers in Haiti and Somalia in 1993.

After a short briefing, my new boss sends me straight to the [Port-au-Prince] city hospital. The UN’s mission here is to gather enough evidence of brutality to convince the world to reverse the coup and force the military from power. All over Haiti, 250 unarmed observers are investigating and documenting atrocities against the civilian population. Most of the victims are too terrorized to talk to foreigners or provide any meaningful evidence, but I have an advantage and the boss is happy to exploit it: victims need doctors and doctors get access.

My task at the hospital is to interview a beating victim, see whether there’s anything we can do to help him, and take a statement. The sleepy receptionist thumbs through a grubby admissions book. He’s in the surgical ward, she says in French, throwing her arm in a wide, unspecific arc, in the general direction right. So I head off down a series of endless corridors and soon get lost. Clouds of flies lift off the chipped floor tiles, resettling behind me as I pass. When I finally find the surgical ward, I give the victim’s name to a nurse.

He was here but now he’s not, she says. I look at her, waiting for more, but she just stares off somewhere over my shoulder. She’s uneasy. The ceiling fan turns slowly, cobwebs dangling from its blades. No air moves.

Well, where is he now? I need to talk to him. She shrugs.

I start to lose patience.

I tell her I’m a doctor with the UN and I need to talk to the treating doctor now. She goes away and doesn’t return.

There’s no one around except patients and orderlies. I linger for half an hour until finally a slight man in his fifties appears. It’s the surgeon. He invites me into his office and closes the door behind him.

Look, he says, I know why you want to talk to him, but he’s gone. He was brought in several days ago after they’d beaten him terribly, for hours. He was barely alive when I first saw him, skull fracture, both arms broken, multiple rib fractures, smashed kneecaps, urinating blood. We did what we could for him, he says sighing, set the fractures, dressed the wounds. He did well, but he was weak and couldn’t afford to buy any blood for a transfusion.

So where is he now? I ask. When they heard he was still alive, they came in here last night and just dragged him away again, he tells me.

And no one did anything to stop them? I was in the operating theater when I heard the screams, he says, and I ran down here in my greens and gloves to plead with them. But one of them just stuck his gun in my face and told me he’d turn me into a patient if I didn’t back off. There was nothing I could do, they have all the guns. I have to go, he says wearily, there are patients waiting. A bitter look crosses his face as he opens the door to leave. They should have just finished him off the first time, he adds, it would have been much more humane.

I sit staring through the cracked pane of the office door at the post-op patients in their beds. I should write up a report, but I can’t think straight, so I drive back up to the villa and gaze out past the bougainvillea at the pool. I can’t quite believe what I’ve just heard.

In Cambodia I treated children who stepped on landmines, villagers stabbed in their sleep, shoppers shelled in the marketplace, drivers shot up at roadside checkpoints. The victims all made a beeline for our hospital and I was usually able to help. We didn’t care who they were or how they got there; everyone knew that the killing stopped at the red cross on the front gate. Once you made it past there, you were safe, a custom of war so accepted that I never even heard it discussed. Check your weapons in at reception, get a receipt. Do whatever you must to your enemies out in the killing fields, but do not ever bring that shit inside my hospital.

Maybe there are no rules here.

SOURCE: Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures: A True Story from Hell on Earth, by Kenneth Cain, Heidi Postlewait, and Andrew Thomson (Miramax Books, 2004), pp. 112-113

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Filed under Caribbean, NGOs, U.N., war