With the twenty-fifth anniversary of the American withdrawal from Vietnam hard upon us, readers and viewers may well be treated to a multitude of reprises of the arguments surrounding the war and its legacy. Already a chilling interpretation appeared a few months ago, which resonates even more strongly now: Michael Lind has written a wild, dangerous book that pretends to offer a sober, scholarly rethinking of the Vietnam War that is, or should be, of decisive relevance to current issues of war and peace. The perverse tone and substance of Lind’s argument is expressed in concentrated form by the following observation: “If American radical leftists, pacifists, and libertarian isolationists prevail in promoting a pacifist political culture in the United States, then it is only a matter of time before the world is dominated by a military superpower whose leaders have an ethos like that of today’s Serb leaders.” Such a juxtaposition of allegations and anxieties is positively surreal in its remoteness from any plausible understanding of either the United States or global trends.
What makes Lind’s book important, and dangerous, is the extent to which it has caused a stir, evoking mainly laudatory reactions from establishment figures such as Dan Rather and Fareed Zakaria (managing editor of Foreign Affairs) and favorable reviews in the mainstream media. As a society we remember little of the experience of the Vietnam War and remain vulnerable to an array of twisted interpretations. Lind, too young to remember Vietnam, presents its reality in a most manipulative manner so as to present his highly polemical views about how American power should be used today and tomorrow. By deploying some scholarly apparatus, the outrageous is made to appear reasonable, even sensible.
Central to Lind’s perspective is the assertion that the United States “fought the war in Vietnam because of geopolitics and forfeited the war because of domestic politics.” Lind contends that the war was “necessary” as a means of assuring America’s cold war allies in the sixties that it was a credible ally, and that failure to oppose Hanoi in Vietnam would have led many Third World governments to shift their allegiance to Moscow. In most respects, Lind’s justification is one more rendering of notorious domino imagery that linked the outcome in Vietnam to a chain reaction of regional and global effects. In most respects, too, but with greater subtlety and flexibility, Lind’s argument was fully formulated by Leslie Gelb (now, appropriately, president of the Council on Foreign Relations) and Richard Betts in their book The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked, published more than twenty years ago. Mercifully, Gelb and Betts understood far better than Lind that it would be dangerous to draw from Vietnam doctrinal lessons about when and in what manner to engage the United States in a war, although they too accept as reasonable the geopolitical rationale for the early stages of the Vietnam War.
The distinctiveness of Lind’s position is his acceptance, even in retrospect, that the politicians were right both to fight the war and then, in the late sixties, to try to end it. In fact, Lind faults Nixon for not ending the war sooner and disagrees with militarists who contended, and still do, that once a decision to intervene had been made, then victory was the only acceptable outcome regardless of costs and risks. Lind argues against such a militaristic argument not because of its international risks or immorality but, typically, because it would have undermined domestic support for the global containment strategy central to US cold war foreign policy. In effect, Vietnam was a necessary war, but it was not necessary to win it. Astonishingly, at a certain stage it became necessary to give up, and lose it!
With a stunning degree of detachment, going beyond even the heartless abstractions of Kissingerian realism, Lind unabashedly rests his case directly on bloodshed and body counts. The Vietnam War was worth as much as 20,000 American lives, not much more or much less. As such, in the early stages of the war US leadership was pursuing a correct foreign policy essential for alliance credibility, but in the late sixties and early seventies it went too far, risking the cold war consensus as the casualty figures climbed up toward their final total of close to 58,000.
To give the flavor of the argument, I can do no better than to quote Lind:
A war to defend a great power’s military credibility might be compared to an art auction, which is, among other things, a competition among the rich for prestige. The fact that one stops bidding for a painting when its price reaches $9000 does not mean that the painting was worthless all along; it merely means that one has reached the limit imposed by one’s budget.
Aside from the appallingly bad taste exhibited here, the approach recommended would provoke even harsher backlash against a foreign policy that was seen to be sacrificing the lives of young Americans for the sake of such a dubious abstraction.
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!
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.