Hawking Vietnam | The Nation


Hawking Vietnam

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Lind realizes part of the absurdity (and depravity) of his position, but he perseveres: "To send troops to their deaths purely for the purpose of reputation, in a war that could not be won by any plausible means, would be murder." He proceeds to square this circle by claiming that "even a well-thought-out and realistic effort to rescue America's Indochinese allies should have been called off, once a critical level of American casualties had been reached." One can only imagine what such an attitude toward conflict would do to the tactics of a determined adversary! It is almost amusing that Lind's bow to morality requires him to rely on the misperception of difficulties on the part of policy-makers and their advisers. That is, if it had been understood from the beginning that the war in Vietnam could not be won without American deaths reaching beyond the Lind threshold of 20,000, then to undertake the war would be "murder." But to do so in the spirit of misguided optimism was not only moral, it was geopolitically necessary!

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Richard Falk
Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law and practice at Princeton University, is the United Nations Human...

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The framing of this argument is most deeply disturbing because of its inhumanity. What never even marginally enters into Lind's calculating mentality is the cost of such a war for the Vietnamese people or the degree to which their struggle was itself just within its parameters. While America was enduring the tragedy of 58,000 war-related deaths, Vietnam was enduring an estimated 3.8 million deaths, as well as millions more wounded, and the displacement of a large proportion of its surviving population. The people of Vietnam also experienced the devastation that resulted from a one-sided high-technology war being waged against their country for more than a decade. Lind aborts the complexities of historical analysis by demonizing Ho Chi Minh and the nationalist cause, which was more central to the struggle than either ideology or geopolitics. He doesn't even bother to distinguish Vietnam from Korea or to take note of the leadership Ho Chi Minh had provided Vietnam in its anticolonial war against France and the degree to which US allies in Saigon were mainly the Vietnamese remnants of collaboration with the colonialists. Even now, it may not be too late for Lind to benefit from a reading of Graham Greene's great, prophetic book The Quiet American.

It strikes me as a badge of honor that Lind singles out The Nation several times in his book as personifying the left, pacifist culture that would doom the sort of geopolitical practices that he is commending. There are many confusions and mistakes in Lind's reasoning, aside from the conclusions drawn with respect to the Vietnam War. Only a very small fraction of the Nation readership is "pacifist" in the sense of being unconditionally opposed to all war. Any careful reading of the magazine or examination of the wider debates on foreign policy in the past decade would take note of the deep divisions associated with the use of force by the United States, with or without a UN mandate. And further back, I would suppose an overwhelming majority of readers supported US participation in World War II and, indeed, even entry into the war prior to Pearl Harbor. If Lind means that criticism of geopolitics--fighting wars for global credibility--is a species of pacifism, it is a strange use of language indeed, as well as a strange doctrine.

Lind's view of the recent war over Kosovo is emblematic. He views the war as subject to the legacy of Vietnam, and he criticizes the approach taken by the Clinton Administration because it neither gave the war its true geopolitical justification (that of demonstrating American leadership in the present global setting) nor adjusted its tactics to the nature of the conflict. In a striking sentence that, unlike most of the rest of the book, offers an important insight, Lind writes, "President Clinton, in what may be the single greatest act of incompetence ever committed by an American commander-in-chief, publicly ruled out the use of ground troops not once but repeatedly." Yet to view the war over Kosovo through a geopolitical prism in light of Serbian atrocities and an unambiguous plan for ethnic cleansing (under way before the bombing commenced) is to distort the debate beyond repair. I am by now inclined to think that the Kosovo war was a "necessary war" (although not a just war as conducted from the air, especially from high altitudes), but its necessity as a war (assuming the unavailability of a diplomatic solution) is justifiable only if undertaken for humanitarian reasons--that is, to rescue an entrapped and abused ethnic community from severe oppression and genocidal dangers. In Lind's geopolitical conception, the NATO war remains illegal, unjust and, hence, criminal.

Lind's position stakes out new ideological ground: It relies on geopolitical extremism to occupy a political terrain self-consciously associated with the political center. Early in the book he informs us that he views the Vietnam War from "a centrist perspective more sympathetic to American Cold War policymakers than that of their critics on the left and the right." But even such a primary architect of the Vietnam War as Robert McNamara now views the entire experience as "a tragedy" for both sides. The only sensible lesson he is willing to draw is to do all that is possible to avoid a future Vietnam. How different is this former warrior's message from Lind's shrill insistence that the United States should proudly gird its militarist loins for future Vietnams! Rarely, if ever before, has the political center in the United States been so frighteningly depicted as a menace to the peoples of the world. By linking Vietnam to Kosovo through the currency of credibility, Lind makes clear that this menace persists beyond the end of the cold war. Now Washington must kill and maim to sustain its hegemonic authority rather than to contain a strategic adversary, which is hardly an uplifting role to foist upon the Pentagon.

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