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The Best Wars of Their Lives | The Nation

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The Best Wars of Their Lives

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The story quickens in 1963, when, Moyar claims, American liberals--most prominently two young reporters, Neil Sheehan of UPI and David Halberstam of the New York Times, and Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and envoy Averell Harriman--snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Sheehan produced an influential account of a winter battle between Vietcong guerrillas and South Vietnamese regulars for a hamlet near Saigon called Ap Bac; despite their inferior firepower, the Vietcong prevailed, their first major combat victory against South Vietnamese forces. Sheehan's dispatch was a watershed in convincing the world--and the White House--that our South Vietnamese allies were cowardly and ineffectual fighters against a valiant and resourceful enemy. Diem was said to be terrified of sending troops into combat, for fear it would weaken his hold on power. His officers were said to be so confident that American ordnance and allied numerical superiority would save their bacon that the divisional commander arrived late to the fight. His soldiers were said to have shirked their battle positions, cowering as Vietcong marksmen handily zapped the mighty American helicopters. Col. John Paul Vann, adviser to the South Vietnamese division in question, was said to have shouted, "Goddammit, you want them to get away. You're afraid to fight!"

About the Author

Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, winner of...

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But according to Moyar, Vann "conned" Sheehan into reporting Ap Bac as a harbinger of disaster. Moyar returns to the after-action reports to reconstruct the battle. It might seem a noble enough historiographic impulse--to those unaware, as no historian has a right to be, of how badly a cult of official optimism had already distorted Vietnam record-keeping by 1963. Moyar explicitly aligns himself with the cult, praising Gen. William Westmoreland for issuing an order demanding "the maintenance of an optimistic outlook on the part of all advisors." He would have made a fine Westmoreland subaltern. He buries in a footnote that the only other existing reconstruction of the Ap Bac episode from primary sources reaches "conclusions...closer to Sheehan's than they are to those in this account." He complains that critics who thought Ap Bac foretold bad things ignored "the enormous difficulty of attacking across wet rice paddies on foot against an entrenched enemy" and that "American advisors had not been aware of this problem before Ap Bac."

You might think that American strategists indifferent to the reality that Vietnam had rice paddies that made maneuvering difficult rather resemble American strategists indifferent to, say, the reality that Iraqi Shiites hate Iraqi Sunnis. You might consider a military historian who considers such ignorance to be mitigating a bizarre ideological special pleader. You would be right.

Several months after Ap Bac, restive Buddhist monks--bonzes--led protests against the Diem regime. When Diem's police shot them down in the streets in May, and raided their pagodas in August, American diplomats led by Lodge and Harriman conspired with South Vietnamese military brass to get rid of Diem, leading to the November 1 military coup d'état that ended with his being shot.

The bonzes had taken to the streets after Diem wouldn't let them fly their flag during rallies for Buddha's birthday on May 8, 1963. Moyar acknowledges, only to dismiss, that Diem, a Catholic, had begun enforcing a ban on flags only after Catholic celebrations with flags had occurred a few days earlier, but he seems heartily offended by the Buddhists' taking offense. In a culture where "the flying of flags was an assertion of power that had the potential to undermine the prestige of the political authorities" and would "severely reduce Diem's ability to protect himself from Communists and other subversives," he seems almost to find the subsequent massacre justifiable--though he also proceeds to argue that there were no massacres.

"What happened next has never been determined with certainty," he claims. The Pentagon Papers were quite certain and cited convincing evidence: "The Catholic deputy province chief ordered his troops to fire.... The Diem government subsequently put out a story that a Viet Cong agent had thrown a grenade into the crowd and that the victims had been crushed in a stampede. It steadfastly refused to admit responsibility even when neutral observers produced films showing government troops firing on the crowd."

The instigator was a Vietcong agent, Moyar insists. How does he know? By inference, not by evidence. He claims the monasteries were lousy with Communist infiltrators, even, perhaps, among their highest counsels. And how does he know that? The Communists said so. It is more than passing strange. On one page Moyar knows what every good right-winger knows: Communists are liars ("With characteristic exaggeration a Communist history stated that..."). On others, however--it is one of the reasons conservative reviews have found him so impressive--he uncritically accepts Communist sources as his key proof texts.

Moyar doesn't read Vietnamese. He commissioned a translator to render official North Vietnamese histories into English. Moyar was good enough to send me some of these texts upon my request. A typical passage describes a ten-day march in which "people of all ethnic groups...happily came down from their mountain homes and enthusiastically worked as coolie laborers to support the front lines." To say the least, such Communist accounts do not read like reliable history. They read like ideologically compromised history--written to get past an audience of commissars. And yet Moyar quotes them as reliable documents, freely and uncritically--when they support his own ideological claims.

His most crucial one is that Diem was Vietnam's George Washington, and that when he was ousted, the excellent prospects for defeating the Communists without American troops collapsed. Thus he quotes the reaction of the North Vietnamese Politburo to Diem's assassination: "The consequences of the 1 November coup d'état will be contrary to the calculations of the U.S. imperialists.... Diem was one of the strongest individuals resisting the people and Communism." Maybe this is a transparent window onto what they really thought, or even--as Moyar claims--a transparent window onto what was, objectively, strategically true. Or maybe, being commissars, they were toeing an ideological line--exaggerating for ideological purposes. Moyar doesn't consider the possibility. Meanwhile, he is certain that the first bonze to burn himself to death in protest over oppression by Diem was not evidence that Buddhists felt oppressed by Diem--for his Communists, being Communists, and in control of the monasteries, are also capable of the most mystical feats of deception. "According to some witnesses," he intimates darkly, "the elderly monk appeared to be drugged."

With Diem overthrown and assassinated, Moyar's story ends with the fateful American decision in the spring of 1965 to commit troops, and with our author chagrined but not unhopeful--not least because, after a string of ineffectual warlords forever falling into the trap of listening to American advisers demanding democratic reforms, two generals worthy of Diem's thuggish legacy, Nguyen Cao Ky and Nguyen Van Thieu, acceded to the civilian leadership of South Vietnam. "Ky, Thieu, and the other generals began their rule," he rhapsodizes, "by holding what they termed a 'no breathing week.'" (Ky, Moyar doesn't say, had recently been asked who his heroes were. He said he had only one: Hitler.) "The week's scheduled activities included the imposition of censorship, the closing of many newspapers, and the curtailing of civil liberties." And, thank God, "by this point in time, the factionalism and political disintegration fostered by liberalization since Diem's fall had made these sorts of measures palatable to American leaders as well as to the South Vietnamese."

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