Empire Fall | The Nation


Empire Fall

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Fall's immersion in the details of war occasionally gave his books a rambling structure. In Street Without Joy, he intersperses straight military history with diary sections based on letters to his wife, and also with quasi-ethnographic chapters on the culture of the war. Still, Fall's asides could be arresting. In a chapter titled "Diary: The Women," he writes of women in the war, discussing not only the French army's very tough and heavily decorated female officers but the North African prostitutes who worked in mobile field brothels patronized by French soldiers. It's hard to believe such arrangements really existed--in today's US military, soldiers deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan aren't even given beer!

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Christian Parenti
Christian Parenti
Christian Parenti, a Nation contributing editor and visiting scholar at the CUNY Graduate Center, is the author of...

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Perhaps it's unfair to chastise Fall for failing to move beyond a technical critique of the war. After all, he was never a man of the left. Like many of his peers, including David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, he was a mainstream cold war liberal who moved left on Vietnam as the US involvement there became both hopeless and horrifically costly not only for the Vietnamese but for US soldiers as well. And Fall paid for his audacity as a reporter, becoming marginalized by an establishment that had welcomed his contributions: After he traveled to North Vietnam to interview Ho Chi Minh in 1962, he found himself persona non grata in South Vietnam, while his funding from pro-Saigon sources began to dry up. Fall's critiques were also stringent enough to incur the wrath of J. Edgar Hoover, who--concerned not that Fall was a Communist but that he was a French spy--put him under sporadic FBI surveillance from 1958 until 1965.

By the late '60s, when opposition to the war had spread to the liberal mainstream, the technical critique favored by the "objective" Fall was merging with antiwar arguments of the peace movement, which tended to be grounded in a political critique of American intervention and infused with moral rage at US atrocities. Just as the establishment earlier had reached out to Fall, so too did the growing peace movement. The war's critics had needs similar to those of the war's planners: They had to understand the politics and culture of this faraway place, Vietnam, and Fall was overflowing with information.

It is the question of intellectual style or form that perhaps most connects Fall to the present--for Fall's style is with us in much of today's "critical" writing on Iraq and Afghanistan. Fall conveyed the impression that his reporting was an act of description rather than of political engagement; he relied on the typical journalistic and academic conceit of "objectivity" and "neutrality." For the most part his view of the conflict lay hidden behind a prose fogged by dense military detail. Insofar as he expressed his opinions, it was through adjectives, innuendo and quiet policy suggestions. For example, he criticized the French for not having prepared the local Vietnamese with psychological operations; later, he floated the possibility that the United States could try to split the NLF off from North Vietnam. But he would never question the reasons the French and the Americans were in Vietnam in the first place. Reasons of state were something he took for granted.

As the United States and its closest NATO allies sink deeper into the crises of Iraq and Afghanistan, Fall's instrumentalist style of critique is again in fashion. Thomas Ricks's anatomy of American failure in Iraq, Fiasco, is a recent example of this, as is George Packer's anguished but ultimately pro-war Assassins' Gate.

There is another way Fall's ghost haunts us today: The cult of war-oriented experiential knowledge is back. Fall's epistemology placed great importance on seeing one's subject up close. "You cannot keep up your convictions if you don't base them on things that you have witnessed for yourself," Fall said, explaining why he kept returning to Vietnam. "Or, if you want to change your convictions, you had better do it on the basis of your own experience." Whether that is true is open to debate. But something else is undeniable: In societies on a permanent war footing, like the United States in the age of the "long war" on "terror," people who go to war have more political capital than those who stay home. This rule applies not only to military and political careers but also to intellectual ones. Since the end of the cold war and especially in recent years, we've seen a return of this logic and of the Fall model of intellectual generalists gaining political legitimacy by taking personal risks--that is, by traveling to the empire's war zones. (I am referring not only to newspaper correspondents but also to intellectuals, among them authors, academics, filmmakers, artists, think tank-linked commentators, activists and NGO researchers, who volunteer to take risks in exchange for the benefits that risk brings.)

The mystique of the war zone intellectual, with his or her privileged claims to authenticity, began to emerge in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Both Susan Sontag and her son, David Rieff (now a seasoned war correspondent from a variety of fronts), went to Sarajevo, and their ideas carried considerably more credibility because of this. Michael Ignatieff, the star professor turned Canadian parliamentarian, is another example, as is the ubiquitous Bernard-Henri Lévy. So too Christopher Hitchens, who, in trying to report from someplace "difficult" at least once a year, has candidly acknowledged his emulation of Orwell. Thus Hitchens traveled to Belfast, Beirut, Sarajevo, Kabul and (in the company of Paul Wolfowitz) Baghdad, before that city's apocalyptic meltdown. When Hitchens began his journey to the right his pro-war arguments had considerable clout, or at least media traction, in part because of where he "had been" and what he "had seen."

Like Fall chronicling the early, disastrous buildup in Vietnam, many mainstream and liberal critics of the current Middle Eastern wars have confined their critique to the tactical errors of the campaigns, the fumbling blindness of the political classes. It is a slippery position whose ambiguities have obvious advantages, since it can be read as a hard-nosed and helpful pro-war policy review or--particularly now that the wheels are falling off the failed Iraq occupation--as a moral and prescient, but ideologically "responsible," case against the war. The instrumentalist critique of America's wars in the Muslim world avoids some central questions, such as: What gives the American-led coalition of industrialized countries that make up the heart of NATO the right to rule the world? Exactly what is the West's real agenda? What are the real human costs of its free-market economic nostrums and military aggression?

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