Friday, July 04, 2008
Gabriel Kolko's Anatomy of a WarGabriel Kolko's Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience (1985) is an impressive account of the Vietnam War. Kolko's approach is broadly chronological. But his focus is to describe the war from the perspectives of three groups: the Vietnamese Communists (which he calls "the Revolution" as a way to talk about the southern guerrillas and the ruling party in North Vietnam together); the RVN (Republic of [South] Vietnam); and, the United States. In doing so, he does an unusually good job of talking about political and social trends and how they interacted with the conscious decisions of the three major parties.
The Communists led by Ho Chi Minh won the position of being the main group representing the patriotic struggle against foreign domination during the Second World War occupation by the Japanese. They never lost it. Kolko discusses in some detail their strategies for keeping the support of the peasants through land reform, which greatly aided their cause against the RVN. But it was their role as the only national group carrying on the fight against foreign domination against the Japanese, the French and the Americans that was the critical factor in their ability to win the necessary popular support the achieve their goal. Kolko makes it clear that the Communist Party very much saw the world through Marxist-Leninist categories. But they were also very realistic and even cautious in their evaluation of forces and situations, and were pragmatic and flexible in adjusting to changing conditions.
Kolko says that understanding the RVN perspective was the hardest. The RVN went out of existence and many of the relevant documents were lost, destroyed or otherwise unavailable. But he put together a coherent account.
In his view of the RVN, there was a continuity of strategic weakness from the rule of Ngo Dinh Diem (1954-1963) to that of Nguyen Van Thieu (1967-1975). Diem built his armed forces with primarily political aims, not in the broad sense of being able to wage a political-military campaign but in the sense of protecting his own personal power. Fearful of military coups, he created a complex system of overlapping authorities that made conspiracies against him difficult, but also made coordinated military action against the Communists difficult, as well.
The only real social base of Diem's regime was the ethnic Chinese who dominated business in Saigon, many of whom were Catholic as Diem was. His system even int he 1960s was dependent on being able to spread rewards via corruption out of generous US aid. When Thieu became the dominant leader in 1967, he basically ruled the way Diem had. By the end, corruption had reached astonishing levels. One of the most surprising things the RVN did was to hold down soldiers' salaries to the point that soldiers in 1973 earned only a fraction in real terms of what soldiers in 1963 had earned. This in itself battered the troops' morale and led to widespread desertion and looting. Basically, the RVN was fundamentally dependent on the US from 1954 until the end in 1975. The RVN government never established any widespread legitimacy during its existence.
And that became a fundamental problem for the US. Kolko explains how the unrealistic notion of the US in the post-Second World War period about the possibilities of its dominant economic and political position in the world gave it led to the vague and dangerous concept of defending "credibility". This created a self-destructive logic of escalation. It also established a fatal symbiosis in which maintaining US credibility committed it to defending the Diem-Thieu system of governance in the RVN. The bigger the role the US played, the more Diem and later Thieu concentrated on using their armed forces for purposes of personal power, further entrenching corruption and blocking the development of military professionalism.
The huge US presence also set in motion a wave of urbanization that was heavily dependent on American dollars, including a large service sector that could not be sustained when American troops withdrew. The "Vietnamization" program that began in 1968 but mostly occurred under Nixon in 1969-73 was a bust. Apart from the fundamental weakness of the RVN system, the Americans trained an army in the American image, reliant heavily on artillery and air power, much of which the RVN was never able to staff adequately. Not only the Americans but the Vietnamese Communists were surprised at the rapidity of the RVN collapse in March-April 1975. In the end, it went down like a house of cards.
Kolko's narrative is heavy on analysis, very light on anecdotal scenes. But the varying perceptions and priorities of the three major entities lends a sense of historical drama. His account of the complex diplomacy among the US, Russia, China, the Vietnamese Communists and the RVN is a big example of this. Come of Kolko's judgments are surprising. For example, he argues that Nixon's notorious Christmas bombing of 1972 was not intended by Nixon to force peace terms more favorable to the US, but rather to show the DRV (North Vietnam) and Thieu that he was willing to use air power heavily even after the peace treaty was signed to support Thieu's regime. Kolko concentrates on the historical account and doesn't try to force grand lessons out of them. Although some things, like the massive corruption and social disruption a heavy American military presence can bring to a developing country, sound painfully current. He writes that:
... given all the social and human dimensions which will affect the outcome of warfare between the United States and radical movements and nations, it is scarcely imaginable that another massive encroachment in some recalcitrant revolutionary nation would have an end different from that in Vietnam.Which brings to mind that famous William Faulkner quote that Barack Obama paraphrased in his major speech on race earlier this year (from Requiem for a Nun ): "The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past."
Tags: gabriel kolko, vietnam war
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No subject for immortal verse
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse."
-- Cecil Day-Lewis from Where Are The War Poets?
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