Friday 4 February 2005

Re-Opening Old Wounds

Courtesy of Normblog, I was directed to an article by Alan Johnson that mocked the Guardian's usual idiotarian line of equating Vietnam with Iraq :
On September 4 1967 the New York Times published an upbeat story on presidential elections held by the South Vietnamese puppet regime at the height of the Vietnam war. Under the heading "US encouraged by Vietnam vote: Officials cite 83% turnout despite Vietcong terror", the paper reported that the Americans had been "surprised and heartened" by the size of the turnout "despite a Vietcong terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting". A successful election, it went on, "has long been seen as the keystone in President Johnson's policy of encouraging the growth of constitutional processes in South Vietnam". The echoes of this weekend's propaganda about Iraq's elections are so close as to be uncanny. (Sami Ramadani, writing in the Guardian, February 1 2005)
Alan Johnson's piece ephasises the differences between the recent Iraqi election and the (to Leftists, hopelessly discredited) 1967 Vietnam election.

But for once I agree with the Guardian.

Readers may now pick your jaws off the floor. Thank-you.

I originally started writing a letter-of-reply to Norm Geras (whose intellectual rigour, humour, honesty and just plain human decency I much admire and try to emulate, especially since he's an avowed an unashamed Marxist). But it soon became too long, so I'm writing it as an article instead.

G'day Norm

Re Chelm Leftists:

Being a RWDB, I have a different slant on things.

The thing is, I think many of the parallels are valid. The election of 1967 was rigged (it defies credulity that it wasn't, though I have no evidence), but the voter turn-out was huge, and certain elements of the VietCong used very similar tactics to those used by the "Insurgents" in Iraq. See Snopes on the subject . The VC's one big fear was that the People would vote - and they did.

A Potted history (no doubt biased) (and with details and dates refreshed via, of all things, an Encarta article) : the legitimate but corrupt (and rotten in every sense) Diem regime was overthrown by the usual Right-Wing Military Junta led by "Big Minh" who "restored order". A coup that the US gave tacit support to when Diem proved a little bit too odious and independant a puppet for them. Given Madame Diem's fanatic and bloodthirsty anti-Buddhism and Imelda-Marcos like habits, it's no wonder. Coup followed coup, some better, some worse, but like the post-Allende Chilean, Argentinian, Greek and current Myanmar military regimes, all incompetent and/or corrupt and/or oppressive. The last was Thieu's mob.

Thieu's regime was supposed to be legitimised by the vote in 1967, and (IMHO) despite the ovewhelmingly probable vote-rigging, he genuinely had enough popular support to be at least as "Democratic" as the VC. I'd say rather more, though you may disagree. That the Tet Offensive in 1968 failed so badly (militarily) because the People didn't heed the VC call to rise up provides strong evidence that I'm correct, IMHO. As does the performance of the ARVN at Xuan Loc in 1975. They were fighting for Democracy, not just a warlord.

Again IMHO the South Vietnamese government of Thieu was as Democratically legitimate as whoever the Iraqis end up electing. Unlike the current pro-Fascist left, I don't think that makes the Iraqis illegitimate, I think with hindsight the Thieu regime was genuinely popular (35% of the official vote IIRC, so not exactly *wildly* popular - especially given that they controlled the voting).

If only the USA and its then-puppet Diem hadn't queered the whole deal in 1955, just because the Communists would have legitimately won a whole-of-Vietnam election. The RWDBs of the time should have been more confident that thay'd win in the end, even if they lost in the short term. I'm sure you know more details about how the US lost its idealogical way than I do. Because we should have stuck by our principles, this was a major and self-inflicted defeat, and not the only one. We became to some degree what we were supposedly fighting against (I say "we" even though I wasn't born then.. but you know what I mean. What the mainstream Left is going through now.)

Still, Stalin was still warm in his grave, and as the Verona tapes have shown, the odious Tailgunner Joe McCarthy was more right than wrong (may his socks rot), though I'm sure we'll disagree on some of the details. You're at least as anti-Stalinist as I am, but I'm less willing to give credit for good intent when it comes to Communist agents. There was still too much Right vs Left rather than Right vs Wrong. At best it was Wrong vs Worse. But I digress.

Reagrdless of what they thought at a very tense time, when it looked like Bolshevik Communist Dictatorship was making steady advances against Democracy, we who called ourselves the "Free World" should have been a little bit less concerned with Realpolitik in the short term. Tens of millions died as the result, the "Evil Commies" eventually won by brute military force while the US was navel-gazing over Watergate, so it was all for naught. But ain't hindsight wonderful?

Thais may have a different opinion - the US, Australian, Korean, Phillipino etc dead may have saved Thailand the agony of a proxy-war, even if we did lose Laos and Cambodia. Laos has sort-of turned out alright - though their unbroken record of convictions for everyone whose ever been accused of anything in court doesn't fill me with confidence in their legal system. Vietnam has turned out rather better than we feared, no more oppressed at its worst than, say, Poland circa 1960, and currently well on its way to Oligarchical capitalism-by-osmosis, like China. With luck, they'll become like Taiwan/South Korea, then Singapore, Democratic even if not perfectly so. And we can still hope for even better, in the long term. But Cambodia was exactly as bad as we'd - or at least I'd - feared Vietnam would be (based on the thousands of teachers, priests, and intellectuals executed in Hue in 1968). Vietnam wasn't nearly as bad - though hundreds of thousands of Boat-people risked and in many cases lost their lives to escape, and although few in Vietnam today aren't proud of "their" performance in the Anti-American Imperialist War, Vietnam is by no means an "enemy state" like North Korea, or even Cuba. Or Saudi Arabia for that matter.

My point is that to us RWDBs, Thieu's decidedly imperfect regime, born from a military Junta and with perhaps 25% of the true vote, was nonetheless Democratically elected. That Force Majeure later overhrew it - that we of the right lost - doesn't alter that. If you like, he was our Allende (also a Democratically elected but less-than-perfect regime).

I therefore am forced to agree with Sami Ramadani, the parallels are striking.

The differences are equally striking - on one hand a National Socialist Dictatorship overthrown by military force, followed by a temporary Military Governor, then a local but unelected administration and a genuine (but imperfect) election for a genuine (but imperfect) Democratically elected government. With imperfections removed as circumstances permit in the future. Step-by-step, doing all that is possible as soon as possible.

On the other hand, a military junta controlling an election designed to "legitimise" it, with the US hoping that true Democracy would somehow take root, when most of the populace didn't really give a damn about which bunch of Oligarchs controlled them, and many of the remainder wanted both National Unity and Marxist Social Justice.

Maybe if the US had used the same tactics and strategy in Vietnam as they've used in Iraq - a 100% professional rather than a partial conscript army, and one whose field officers were rather more professionally competent and rather less "show ponies" interested in getting good efficiency reports and not caring about their men and their cause... Maybe if we'd have been more concerned about civilian casualties, and had had the technology to be more surgically precise... but mainly, if they'd have made a greater effort to make sure they were on God's side rather than God being on their side. If some of their opponents had not had a lot of justice on their side too (despite the instances of some VC lopping off arms of any kids that had been vaccinated by Americans. This happened, especially to minorities like the Hmong, there were racist psychopaths on both sides.) Maybe....

Conversely, if they'd had conscript armies, filled with disgruntled and disaffected troops, led by untrained and incompetent officers - "90-day wonders" - in Iraq, many unsure of their cause, then the Internet would have meant the US would not have had the will to fight as long as we have done. Cannon-Fodder is no longer an option, when the soldiers can write their own blogs, and tell it like it is.

Regards, AEB
Military Historians reading this will recognise that I was being grossly unfair to the US military in Vietnam, and especially to the many thoroughly competent officers and men who fought there. They were the majority, amongst them people like Colin Powell - but there were enough of the no-hopers, some in senior positions, to taint the institutional memory of events 40 years ago. McNamara had some really good ideas, but didn't grasp the essential difference between management and leadership. The militarily incompetent but genuinely caring Johnson was tippy-toeing trying to avoid "escalation" and WW III, and the Joint Chiefs didn't have the intestinal fortitude to resign in protest at some of his ignorant blunders, or alternatively, they were so unwise as to try to reform from within. Johnson, I can forgive. McNamara was an utter disaster, but maybe I would have made the same mistakes, metrics of performance are important when not misused.

An example, a wing of B-52's based on the coast in Thailand were given a "norm" of bomb tonnage to drop per month, regardless of circumstances. The bombs had to be dropped, or the Commanders would have been relieved, and more compliant (and less competent) replacements installed. The numbers had to add up. So at the end of the month, B-52s would take off, and while still in the circuit go a little way out to sea, drop their loads, return, refuel, re-arm, and continue until they'd "fulfilled their quota", just as if they'd been in the Soviet Air Force. Tonnage and sorties up, maintenance requirements down (due to the short trips, basically "touch-and-go's"), medals and commendations all round.

Oh well, it gave the Royal Thai Navy an excellent mine-disposal exercise area (which is where I came in, two decades later. Out of 12 exercise mines, our sonar found 14 - including 2 bombs which had evaded detection for all those years.)

I cannot imagine anything like this happening in any of the Coalition armed forces today. But that's why the US military has an almost superstitious fear of performance metrics like "body counts". Never again.

Readers should feel free to correct my errors, either by e-mail or in the comments section. It's a complex and painful subject, and I'm bound to have been unjust or just plain wrong in places. There was so much heroism and self-sacrifice, so much incompetence and duplicity in that costly and mismanaged war.

No comments: