The Best Wars of Their Lives

The Best Wars of Their Lives

A historian plugs some suspicious gaps in two revisionist histories of Vietnam.


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.

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.

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!”

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.”

“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.

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.”

Conservatives, in their season of failed mourning for the myth of American omnipotence, can’t get enough of this historian. There is another: Lewis Sorley, a third-generation graduate of West Point and former CIA official whose 1999 book A Better War, which covers the years from 1968 to 1975, has been re-released in paperback after its arguments about Vietnam ended up contributing to military doctrine in Iraq.

Sorley’s plot is even simpler than Moyar’s: Everything was going atrociously in Vietnam until a new general, Creighton Abrams, became the new commander in June 1968, with a nifty new way of war. And by 1970, Sorley proclaims, “the war was won.” Westmoreland, the previous commander of US forces, had defined victory via attrition: “to inflict on the enemy more casualties than they could tolerate, thereby forcing them to abandon the effort to subjugate South Vietnam.” What came to be known as Abrams’s “strategic somersault” was aimed at creating an atmosphere of security for Vietnamese civilians, winning their hearts and minds. Westmoreland’s addiction to reckless search-and-destroy missions was replaced with a “one war” approach integrating “military and civilian approaches to an unprecedented degree.”

It was also, Sorley asserts, a more humane approach to the war. “Compassion for the Vietnamese was something Abrams felt strongly and could express eloquently,” he insists. The doctrine was known as “clear and hold,” and Sorley’s account of it allegedly inspired the November 30, 2005, White House document “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq” and its doctrine of “clear, hold, and build”–which, in turn, is the foundation for the Republican argument that nothing that happened before the installation of General Petraeus should count in evaluating our adventure in Iraq.

Sorley’s claim that the war effort became more successful because it became more sensitive is so surpassingly strange he can’t sustain it. Here he is approvingly quoting an American military briefer on the air assaults launched by the United States to check North Vietnam’s massive 1972 Easter Offensive: “If ther’re any lights burning in Hanoi tonight, they’ll be candlepower.” He boasts that this particular aerial campaign “ruined North Vietnam’s economy, paralyzed its transportation system” and “reduced imports by 80 percent.” He describes Col. George Patton, son of the great general, as one of the commanders who “took seriously Abrams’ message” of winning hearts and minds. And yet this was an officer, as Seymour Hersh reported in the book My Lai 4, who sent out a Christmas card in 1968 in which the message “From Colonel and Mrs. Patton II–Peace on Earth” accompanied a color photograph of a stack of corpses, and who was famous for saying, “I do like to see arms and legs fly.”

In December 2005 in the Boston Globe, Hanoi-based journalist Matthew Steinglass interviewed experts in an outstanding position to evaluate Sorley’s claims about “clear and hold.” Steinglass talked to David Elliot, who interviewed 400 Vietcong defectors during the Vietnam War for the Rand Corporation (and later wrote The Vietnamese War: Revolution and Social Change in the Mekong Delta, 1930-1975). Elliot found Sorley’s claims absurd: “Only the ‘clear’ part was a success.” What was the “clear” part? “Indiscriminate bombing and artillery shelling which led to rural depopulation”–with some villages hit by more than 300 mortar shells a day. Another one of Steinglass’s interviewees was the chief Communist strategist, Gen. Le Ngoc Hien, who has been openly critical of the Communist side’s mistakes. He finds Sorley’s claim that the war effort became more successful because it became more sensitive “completely wrong.”

Sorley is not much of a historian. He did not base his arguments on a canvass of a representative sample of relevant sources but instead on hundreds of hours of tape recordings of his hero General Abrams’s weekly staff sessions. And the number of outright mistakes and misconceptions in the book is staggering. He offers the rise of South Vietnam’s 4 million-strong People’s Self-Defense Forces as prima facie “evidence of both the loyalty of the population and President Thieu’s confidence in their support”; you wouldn’t know from A Better War that this corps was forcibly conscripted. He holds up the 1970 Senate repeal of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution as evidence of a liberal stab in the back. He is unaware, apparently, that Nixon had engineered that vote, the better to prove his point that he didn’t need Congress’s permission to make war. Sorley cites Melvin Laird as a contemporary authority about goings-on in Washington, unacquainted, apparently, with the fundamental fact that during his tenure as Nixon’s Defense Secretary, Laird was utterly out of the loop. Sorley’s Lyndon Johnson is not mercurial, and his Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger are not liars. He thinks “the first Watergate revelations came to light” in April 1973, par for the course for a book so bereft of political context it doesn’t even discuss the 1972 opening to China, let alone the way it fundamentally shattered the supposed strategic rationale for the war.

Here is a book that is massively, consistently untrustworthy. And yet in The Weekly Standard, Mackubin Thomas Owens revisited Sorley’s “remarkable” and “persuasive” A Better War on the occasion of Sorley’s 2004 publication of a 917-page compendium of the transcripts of Abrams’s weekly briefings, finding his debunking of “conventional wisdom about Vietnam” crucial to proving defeat in Iraq was far from inevitable. (The piece was headlined “Lost Victory.”) In 2004, in National Review, that same writer recalled his gratitude to Sorley for providing the “evidence I lacked” in proving his intuition that Vietnam was the right war in the right place at the right time. Then he said that Sorley helps debunk the notion that Iraq “has become unwinnable.”

You have met “Mac” Owens before. He was the reviewer, in The Weekly Standard, who called Mark Moyar’s Triumph Forsaken “one of the most important books ever written on the Vietnam war.” And here’s the remarkable thing: Out of his determination–or desperation–to stay on message, Owens overlooks fundamental contradictions between these two books. Moyar’s hero is William Westmoreland. He is a hero because he rejected the idea of flexible, small, counterinsurgency patrols in favor of “using large conventional forces to search for and engage the Communists.” Sorley despises Westmoreland. Indeed, A Better War was all but written to drive home this single idea: that using large conventional forces to search for and engage the Communists was what almost lost us the war. Sorley’s heroes are heroes because they understand that a key to victory was to monitor and improve the political quality of the South Vietnamese government from top to bottom, the better to abet “their efforts to carry out–carry through–a social revolution.” Moyar’s Triumph Forsaken was all but written to excoriate such people, whose insistence on monitoring and improving the political quality of the South Vietnamese government almost lost us the war.

Triumph Forsaken and A Better War are matter and antimatter. Yet in an op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor titled “Why Bush’s War Plan Could Work,” Owens cites them both within a single paragraph as making fundamentally the same argument. “Military success is a necessary, if not sufficient, cause for defeating an insurgency,” he wrote. “This point is illustrated by an objective analysis of the Vietnam War. As Moyar demonstrates in his remarkable new book, ‘Triumph Forsaken,’ the government of Ngo Dinh Diem had broken the communist insurgency in South Vietnam by 1960 by killing and capturing communist cadres in unprecedented number, leading many survivors to defect to the government’s side. And in his book, ‘A Better War,’ Lewis Sorley shows how the US did the same in the late 1960s and 1970s.”

Here is one of conservatism’s first-call “experts” on military history. He seems to have brazened out the only job requirement: If a book suggests America can never lose, except when meddling liberals forsake the triumph, then that is an “objective analysis,” functionally identical to all other such objective analyses. Denial and bargaining are the order of the day. Does Owens teach this at the Naval War College? Does Moyar at the Marine Corps University? I can only imagine they do. I do know that the former head of Central Command in Iraq, Gen. John Abizaid, is said to have read and heeded A Better War. Is it any wonder they can’t make sense of their loss?

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