The Best Wars of Their Lives | The Nation


The Best Wars of Their Lives

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"Americans are a free people, who know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world. It is God's gift to humanity." President George W. Bush intoned those noble words in his State of the Union address in 2003, the overture to invading Iraq. Moyar disagrees. You might call Moyar's ideology "multiculturalist authoritarianism." You might imagine that his book would be read as an affront by those self-described democrats who peddled the war in Iraq.

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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Instead they have shouted his name from the rooftops. In The Weekly Standard's review, Naval War College professor Mackubin Thomas Owens called Triumph Forsaken "one of the most important books ever written on the Vietnam War." (In the same issue, neocon guru Reuel Marc Gerecht complained that "much of Washington would have gladly compromised democratic principle [in Iraq] for dictatorial strength.") The Wall Street Journal welcomed Moyar into its pages to debunk Jimmy Carter's claim that the Bush Administration's foreign policy was the worst in history. The New York Sun ran a long feature on Moyar's struggle to find a tenure-track job at a university--"an example, some say, of the difficulties faced by academics who are seen as bucking the liberal ethos on campus." A National Review blogger turned Moyar's Wall Street Journal op-ed into an occasion to endorse Triumph Forsaken's invocation of the destruction of the Indonesian left in 1965 as an object lesson for how America should have succeeded in Vietnam.

Here's how Moyar tells that story: "The nation's leader, the eccentric Sukarno, was flirting with the Communists.... Bolstered by quiet financial and moral support from the Americans, anti-Communist generals under the leadership of General Suharto ultimately took over the government. With a brutality that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, the anti-Communists wiped out the huge Indonesian Communist Party," the PKI. "A new and long friendship between Indonesia and the United States thus took form.... This vital domino, tipping precariously, was transformed into a huge boulder standing squarely in the path of Chinese and North Vietnamese expansionism."

Here, on the other hand, is how the CIA summarized these events--in which possibly 1 million people died, most having nothing to do with Communism, some whose only crime was being ethnically Chinese: "In terms of the numbers killed the anti-PKI massacres in Indonesia rank as one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century."

It was a genocide. Moyar is wistful for it, and right-wing intellectuals have embraced him. Finally someone has told the truth.

Moyar, in short, occupies a moral black hole, and conservatives are glad to join him there. And yet, in his own confused way, Moyar is also onto something. Americans, even "neoconservative" ones, are prone to liberal sentimentalizing about the possibility of "good" wars. But war is not good. War is the attempt of one group to violently impose its will on another. Fields of blood and fire are no kind of workshop for Jeffersonian democracy. But why not be generous, strip this strange book of its moral confusions and evaluate its instrumentalist argument about good wars? Moyar claims the American-backed government in South Vietnam was doing a damned fine job of imposing its will and maintaining legitimacy among the populace until certain Americans made that impossible. On those terms--is he right?

The facts he adduces to get there, and the judgments he derives from them, are either untrustworthy or incoherent, or both. Consider Diem's consolidation of power in the period before the emergence of the Vietcong in South Vietnam in 1960. Moyar concedes that between 15,000 and 20,000 Vietnamese were detained during that period in what the government called "re-education centers." He concedes, too, that they "might be subjected to torture during interrogation," but that the fact is not relevant: Torture "was a common practice among Vietnamese of all political stripes." What's more, "No one will ever know how many people were wrongly accused...but there is strong reason to believe the number is small." Actually, there is strong reason to believe that the number was enormous. The Pentagon Papers reported that a British expert on Vietnam, P.J. Honey, who was invited by Diem to investigate the re-education centers in 1959, had surveyed the countryside and found the "consensus of opinion" of rural Vietnamese was that "the majority of the detainees are neither communist nor pro-communist."

When the Vietcong insurgency began in 1960, Saigon's response was to exile millions into fortified encampments. Moyar insists that this strategy--the Strategic Hamlet Program--was the war's finest hour: "a new strategy employing military, political, and economic resources in symphony." Here were millions of villagers marched at gunpoint by soldiers to new homes behind barbed wire, as their former villages were razed--in a Confucian society where ties to the land were so sacred that peasants had buried their ancestors' umbilical cords in the fields they had just been forced to leave behind. The reporters he reviles pointed to such deep-rooted allegiances as evidence that Saigon could not possibly win a counterinsurgency war, that the insurgency grew out of these very attempts to stop it.

But it is one of Moyar's main contentions that Vietnam was not a counterinsurgency war. He quotes another of his heroes, General Westmoreland: "Ignore the big units and you courted disaster. Failure to go after them in at least comparable strength invited defeat." Vietnam was a war of these "main force" battles, in other words, and we won all the important ones. Why did reporters say otherwise? For one thing, "patriotism was not a prerequisite in their profession."

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