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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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Conservatism's cherished fantasy of American omnipotence has died once again, this time in the sands of Iraq, and the grieving process has begun. But conservatives mourn differently from you and me. They begin with denial, anger and bargaining, just like everyone else. And that's where they stay--forever paralyzed by a petulant refusal to acknowledge their fantasy's passing, a simple inability to process reality.

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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The denial: Norman Podhoretz, the neoconservative godfather and Rudy Giuliani adviser, confidently posits that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction all along--but somehow surreptitiously shipped them to Syria. The bargaining: The White House's fervent remonstrations that if we squint at the problem in just the right way--counting "sectarian violence" but not car bombs, say--civilian killings are actually declining in Iraq. The anger: How dare the liberals refuse to understand that under our new commanding general, with his brand-new "strategy" that magically wipes the slate clean of everything else that's happened during the past four years, we're actually on our way to victory?

Computers have cut-and-paste functions. So does right-wing historical memory. Eventually, the articles, op-eds, press briefings and speeches now rehearsing these fantasies about Iraq will be complemented by books, and the holes in their reasoning will be big enough to march a combat division through. The contradictions, between them and among them, will be embarrassing to any but the conservatives desperate to embrace them. But embrace them they will, just as they have embraced a recent batch of right-wing revisionist Vietnam books--titles like Unheralded Victory, The Myth of Inevitable U.S. Defeat in Vietnam, Stolen Valor and Lost Victory. Their arguments used to be limited to a rarefied coterie of disillusioned veterans and right-wing propagandists. Now they've gone mainstream, in the Republicans' desperate attempts to justify Iraq. Giuliani recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, "Then, as now, we fought a war with the wrong strategy for several years. And then, as now, we corrected course and began to show real progress.... But America then withdrew its support." Whereupon, said President Bush, veritably completing the thought in his August speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars, "the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people,' 're-education camps' and 'killing fields.'"

The revisionists' books on Iraq will achieve the same thing these specious arguments do for Vietnam: therapy and propaganda. Their readers will say, Someone has finally told the truth. And yes, those quislings on the left really did foul everything up. That's what they're saying about the two books I have before me, two of the most respectable examples of the Vietnam para-literature, both published by mainstream presses and written by historians of considerable industry. Let us read them. It will better prepare us for what we can soon expect on Iraq. It will better prepare us for when bad arguments are used to justify the next generation's wars.

Mark Moyar, a Harvard graduate and Cambridge PhD, is a course director at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. The highest praise a figure can earn in his book Triumph Forsaken is that he has "superb military bearing." Moyar has not served in the military. His service to the fantasy of American omnipotence, instead, has been intellectual. He had originally intended to write a single-volume history of Vietnam from secondary sources. But he found these sources dominated by an arrant liberal "orthodoxy," so he decided to do all new primary spadework himself. He ended up with a project so long he had to break it in two. Triumph Forsaken is the first volume. It is heavy and thickly footnoted, and it bears the imprint of Cambridge University Press on its spine. Here is right-wing Vietnam revisionism at its most respectable.

Moyar's method is simple: Take what the "orthodoxy" says and revise it 180 degrees hard to starboard. For instance, in 1954 the insurgent Communist forces of Ho Chi Minh beat French colonial forces (whom the United States backed) at the French garrison of Dien Bien Phu. Most have discerned in France's humiliating defeat a classic example of a hubristic colonial power foolishly underestimating a nonwhite enemy. Not Moyar. He cites Communist sources--more on this move later--to argue that France barely lost.

What about the subsequent international settlement in Geneva that scheduled Vietnamese reunification elections for 1956? America canceled them, recall, because military intelligence indicated that the candidate who was our puppet, Ngo Dinh Diem, could not win. Moyar argues, more or less, that South Vietnam did elect Diem. They just did it after the Vietnamese fashion. "From the beginning of their history," he explains, "the Vietnamese people had always been very inclined to support whichever political faction appeared strongest." As 1956 approached, Diem effectuated a crackdown. Five hundred "combatants and bystanders" died, Moyar says. Ergo, "Contrary to the predictions of Western diplomats and newsmen, Diem's crushing of his opposition did not alienate the people but instead achieved the opposite result.... The real proof of the people's support for the government could be found in the establishment of well-led armed forces and administrations in the villages, and in the elimination of organized opponents."

Diem is Moyar's hero. His villains are those Western diplomats and newsmen who viewed Diem as a monster, fond of cutting off his rivals' heads. Yes, he allows, Diem employed "many of the undemocratic political methods used by other authoritarian leaders of the twentieth century, not only because they considered Western democracy incompatible with a Vietnamese culture imbued with authoritarianism and a Vietnamese populace largely ignorant of national politics, but also because democracy inhibited the implementation of drastic change and the suppression of subversion." Silly liberals don't understand: That's what it takes.

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