Riding the Night Winds
- Derailed in Uncle Ho’s Victory Garden: Return to Vietnam and Cambodia by Tim Page
Touchstone, 248 pp, £14.99, April 1995, ISBN 0 671 71926 2
- In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien
Flamingo, 306 pp, £5.99, April 1995, ISBN 0 00 654395 2
- In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam by Robert McNamara
Random House, 432 pp, $27.50, April 1995, ISBN 0 8129 2523 8
In the days following the disastrous South Vietnamese incursion into Laos in early 1971, the people of Saigon became increasingly anxious. The ghosts of the thousands of unrecovered dead, it was said, the spirits of the men who’d gone across the Laotian border and never come back, were streaming home on the night winds, seeking answers to their fate.
Twenty years after the collapse of the US surrogate regime in Saigon, the ghosts of Vietnam are still riding the night winds home to America. For those of us who answered the call of America’s false political prophets, only to lose our innocence, our friends, our limbs and far too often the joy in our lives, those ghosts are never far removed.
Three men, each in his own way seared by the war, have recently published books whose central themes revolve around Vietnam, the war and its consequences. Each, in his own way, is introducing us to his own ghosts. Two, former British war photographer Tim Page and former American grunt Tim O’Brien, face the darkness squarely. The third, former US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara, merely pretends to. In his own way, however, each writer tells the story of a quest or a flight, a search for redemption and understanding, a search for the truth, or an escape from it. Each, in his own way, is likewise a cipher for the American purpose and experience in Vietnam and beyond, but only O’Brien’s book, a work of fiction, is self-consciously so.
All three books were published near a date that has far more significance than the 20th anniversary of the reunification of Vietnam and the final, cataclysmic withdrawal of American forces from Saigon – 30 April 1975. April 30 1995 was also the 25th anniversary of the American-led invasion of Cambodia – the day American citizens erupted in a heartfelt but ultimately unsuccessful, month-long nationwide revolt against the war. And it was also the 50th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust and the beginning of the Third Reich’s reckoning with its legacy of war crimes. While they are absent from the pages of these books, the American leaders who played key roles in guaranteeing that Germany’s war criminals stood in the Nuremberg dock were the same men who set America on its brutal course in Vietnam, not to mention in much of the rest of the Third World. They, of course, have escaped any real-life reckoning for their own such crimes. Their successors, McNamara and company, the men who fed Vietnam through the mincer of US foreign policy, seem certain to do the same. America’s war crimes in Vietnam and beyond are absent from the stories told by McNamara and Page – just as they have been absent from American public discourse since the ‘fall’ of Saigon.
In Derailed in Uncle Ho’s Victory Garden, Tim Page – sometimes sad, sometimes mad, often funny and always stoned – leads his readers on a tour of Vietnam, south to north and south again into Cambodia. He frequently visits the DMZ, the old Demilitarised Zone, the symbol of Vietnam’s artificial bifurcation by the Western powers, at American insistence, in 1954. Fittingly, Page’s tale ends in the DMZ, where American involvement began; and, like Robert McNamara, Page finally concedes defeat, admitting that – although in a different context – he, too, never quite understood the Vietnamese.
Page’s modes of transportation are railcar, truck, marijuana and timewarp. He rides the last as often as the first, ripping back to 1965 and points forward while rolling up and down the spine of the country aboard Vietnam’s still rickety national railway in the actual year AD 1990. Three times wounded between 1965 and 1969, Page was one of the fabled Wild Bunch, a semi-crazed, war-loving gang of young, motorcycle-riding photographers and writers. Much of Derailed is the story of Page’s quest to discover the fate of two of his Wild Bunch sidekicks, American photographers Sean Flynn and Dana Stone. The focal point of the book, it sometimes seems, is a long paean to Flynn and Stone, who disappeared into the jungles of Cambodia during the US incursion there, never to be seen alive again by Western eyes.
Page also flashes back to his own personal horror stories. To my knowledge, no other journalist and few combat veterans survived as many ghastly wounds from Vietnam’s ‘acid nightmare’ as he did. Indeed, those wounds, his Wild Bunch membership and his dogged determination to return to the battlefield are the bedrock of the substantial Tim Page legend.
Page’s first brush with combat mortality came in the summer of 1966 when several pieces of shrapnel ripped into his face during the Buddhist uprising in Da Nang. Retreating to Hong Kong to heal his lacerations and restock his courage, Page returned to Saigon a few weeks later, again travelling north to Da Nang. To ease himself back into a warrior’s mind-set, he hitched a ride aboard a US Coast Guard cutter for what should have been a milk-run DMZ patrol. At 4 a.m. three days later US fighter bombers, mistaking the cutter for a North Vietnamese patrol boat, launched a withering attack. In a passage which captures the lunacy of the war and the terror America’s war machine visited on the Vietnamese every day for a decade, Page describes the crew’s desperate and futile attempt to identify their boat, bring the attack to a halt and save themselves. He saw one crewman vaporised, watched the cutter’s skipper get cut in half, and then, stunned and seriously wounded, splashed in the water as the vessel sank, before sinking into a morphine-clouded haze during rescue an hour later.
Page’s luck and nerve finally ran out in April 1969 when, ‘on a routine Time assignment’, he jumped out of a helicopter and stepped into the killing swathe of a command-detonated landmine. An American master sergeant three paces ahead of Page left his legs where he stood, the man’s torso blasted twenty feet into the air. Page remembers ‘only a strange wet feeling of sitting stunned, changing lenses, then staggering back to the chopper’. Shrapnel shredded his belly and another piece, ‘the size of a tenpenny nail’, lodged itself in the back of his skull. Logged as dead on arrival, his heart stopping three times in the emergency room, Page nevertheless survived, waking up the next day paralysed on his left side, blind in one eye, light ‘200 cc of strategic grey matter’. He was still in hospital a year later, having pieces of his head patched back together, when Flynn and Stone rode their motorcycles into the jungles of Cambodia – and legend. Sean Flynn, son of the legendarily bawdy Hollywood star Errol Flynn, and Stone, his most consistent sidekick, were two of the 19 journalists who vanished in Cambodia that spring. Tramping persistently back and forth through Cambodia’s killing fields, Page eventually unravelled the mystery of their disappearance.
Nearly three hundred journalists died in Indochina between 1945 and 1975. That fact, and Page’s anguish – survivor’s guilt perhaps – propel a new pursuit, and provide the theme for the remainder of the book. He resolved to wrest permission from the Vietnamese Government to erect a memorial in the DMZ to Flynn, Stone and all the other journalists who died.
That quest proves even more difficult than his original search for Flynn and Stone. It takes him north to the scene of Hanoi’s brief but bloody 1979 war with China, a war sparked by Hanoi’s intervention in Cambodia, then south again to the DMZ, then north again. In the course of these journeys, Page, through his various lenses, studies the lingering impact of the war and the resilience of the Vietnamese.
Much has remained the same in the old, American-occupied south. It has maintained its wily entrepreneurial spirit, a spirit that is quickly spreading north. Page describes bribing his way across the country, into and out of hotel rooms, airports, railcars, provinces and just about anything you can imagine with a favoured medium of exchange, 555s, a particularly coveted brand of cigarettes. Rusting carcasses of war still clutter the provinces, hordes of dispossessed scavengers still scramble daily through this landscape in a desperate effort to scratch out their survival. Today, however, the scavengers are not peasant refugees, but reeducated soldiers of the American regime. The refuse is the unexploded US ordnance which litters the countryside.
Through Page’s eyes we see the beauty of Vietnam as well as the horror and the excitement of the war that held so many bao chi – the Vietnamese for ‘reporter’ – with an often blinding fascination. ‘The war days had been the ultimate in experience.’ Page dreamily reminisces, ‘laden with a magic, a glamorous edge that none who went through it can truly deny.’ But despite this inclination to romanticise the war, Page’s recollections are singed with the anger and bitterness every veteran I have ever known feels – but usually keeps to himself. ‘Then,’ he says in a passage following the description of his final, nearly fatal wounding, ‘to have been a veteran instantly got you labelled as a murderer, baby killer, rapist, madman. Nobody wanted to know.’
Although he is often glib, Page at times writes with the stressed-out intensity he shares with GI vets. His story is flecked with images that read like delayed stress flashbacks: images which, if your own, it would feel better to forget. These visions sometimes seem to push their way into his prose unbidden, the way a beautiful glade in the middle of a city park on a Sunday morning suddenly transmogrifies into open ground a vet would not want to cross under fire. ‘There is nothing worse than plodding about squelching in wet running shoes,’ he writes in a passage describing his anxiety to keep his tennis shoes dry during a crossing of the Red River, which separates Vietnam and China. Wet tennies are ‘too akin to wet jungle boots in rice paddies in the war, feet forever damp, prey to rot, immersion disease, blistering and Agent Orange’. Any veteran will recognise such thoughts as our own, old ghosts which intrude uninvited at the least expected, and often, most unwelcome times.
In the end, Page’s memorial to the media’s war dead was not to be. In retrospect, he confesses in the final pages, he probably should have seen it coming. But even he, an old Indo-china hand, had, like the US Government, failed to understand. It was, he was told, ‘a question of sovereignty and perseverance’.
In his latest book, Tim O’Brien, perhaps the most critically acclaimed of America’s Vietnam-obsessed novelists, has written an extended metaphor about Vietnam, American politics, politicians and foreign policy. A veteran himself, O’Brien served in Quang Ngai province in 1969, roughly a year after the My Lai massacre. In the process, he trudged unwittingly through the ruins of My Lai, a place American GIS then knew as Pinkville. O’Brien’s ignorant passage through that place of tragedy and unconfessed truths, has driven him to produce a mystery so clever and mysterious that few reviewers appear to have understood it.
For those who, like Robert McNamara, remain necessarily, self-servingly clueless about what really happened in Vietnam, In the Lake of the Woods is that strangest of all mysteries, the whodunnit in which the puzzle apparently remains unsolved. Did O’Brien’s protagonist, John Wade, murder his wife? Or not? And what happens to Wade himself? O’Brien does not tell you – at least not directly. The conundrum has so confounded most American reviewers that, after a few lines detailing the primary components of the central plot – including O’Brien’s discomforting focus on the My Lai massacre – most have quickly segued into discussions of O’Brien’s previous novels.
As the book opens, John Wade and his wife Kathy are ensconced in a remote cabin on the edge of a lake, Lake of the Woods, deep in the Minnesota wilderness. It is, at least from a grunt’s-eye view, a place very much like the remote jungle of Vietnam. ‘There were many trees,’ O’Brien writes, ‘there were no roads at all. There were no towns and no people ... for many thousand square miles, the wilderness was all one thing.’ The Wade cabin, like Vietnam, is a place where perspective and truth are easy to lose.
Wade, the state’s young, clean-jean Lieutenant Governor, is in seclusion after doing the dying swan in the waning days of his party’s primary race for a US Senate seat, a race he had been winning handily until late in the contest. Then, with less than two months to go, Wade’s opponent dug up evidence that Wade had been in Lieutenant Calley’s platoon on the day Calley spearheaded the My Lai massacre – a fact Wade had managed until then to keep secret. Not even Kathy, his wife and high-school sweetheart, had known. Now the election is lost, the secret is out and Wade – and Kathy with him – is ruined. Wade’s reputation is trashed, his prospects few and his future bleak.
In the opening chapters of the novel the reader doesn’t yet know about Wade’s role in My Lai. Instead, O’Brien portrays a husband and wife, their dreams dashed by the revelation of some dark secret, who have retreated from the world to deal with their despair. We learn that trouble – the niggling, unspoken unease that so often precedes explosive marital storms – has been brewing between John and Kathy Wade for a long time.
We spend parts of an afternoon and evening with the Wades as the book opens, while they deal with these disclosures and their impact. Wade is truly devastated by the political loss. His wife is devastated not by the loss, but by its source, her husband’s terrible secret. At the same time Kathy, the dutiful, beautiful young wife who hates politics and the political life, is quietly delighted by the opportunity for escape the lost election offers. This difference is a source of elemental tension between the two; they watch each other warily while discussing their dreams of escape and renewal. Then Kathy goes to bed alone.
On one level, O’Brien’s mystery unfolds around the question of what happens between then and late the next morning, when Wade comes to and discovers that Kathy is gone. But it is not until late that night that Wade decides she is missing and sends out the alarm. By Chapter Two we begin to learn that some people immediately suspect that John Wade, the baby-faced fallen politician with the dark past, has done something awful, a suggestion which ripens chapter by chapter but never seems to fully bloom. We also learn, chapter by chapter, that Wade is a man with many secrets, a life-long fascination with the magician’s arts and sleights of hand, a knack for self-deception, a need to deceive others, periods of lost memory, a haunted childhood, a complex, hidden past and a second identity as the Sorcerer – his other self.
At the centre of Wade’s hidden past is the My Lai massacre. The revelation of that secret, which happens offstage and before O’Brien’s action begins, awakens Kathy to the true character of the man to whom she is married – in much the same way that the public revelation of My Lai awakened many Americans to the reality of what their government had become. This unspoken recognition, one Kathy’s eyes cannot hide, sparks the chain of events at the core of O’Brien’s mystery.
But what really happened? Like McNamara and, some would say, America’s mainstream press, O’Brien does not clearly say. O’Brien’s themes evolve from and revolve around Vietnam and the nature of reality and knowledge – what we know, how we know it and how we are fooled. He gives us chapter titles such as ‘The Nature of Loss’, ‘What He Remembered’, ‘The Nature of Marriage’, ‘The Nature of the Beast’, ‘How the Night Passed’, ‘What He Did Next’, ‘The Nature of Politics’, ‘The Nature of Spirit’ and ‘Where They Looked’. These are alternated and interspersed with chapters which have two recurring names and themes, ‘Hypothesis’ and ‘Evidence’.
O’Brien’s ‘Evidence’ chapters juxtapose lists of raw facts relevant to Wade, My Lai, war or massacres, with quotations from his friends, acquaintances and relatives. These chapters read eerily like a Greco-Vietnamese chorus crossed with ‘the five o’clock follies’, the daily press briefings the Pentagon’s PR flacks held in Saigon throughout the war. It is here that O’Brien reveals his take on true facts. While they may be the best stepping stones to discovery and truth, they are, equally often, uncertain guides. The correct path depends on selection and choice. The selections we are provided with and the choices we make from them often lead us in the wrong direction, often take us to the wrong place.
O’Brien’s ‘Hypothesis’ chapters offer us just such choices, a selection of alternative scenarios. Maybe Kathy did this. Maybe Wade did that. Is O’Brien taking us in the right direction? Do we really know? How can we tell? Does the answer come down to what we choose to believe? Robert McNamara and the spooks and soldiers he inherited – who then did his bidding – would have you think so. Tim O’Brien would not. That is the point of this book.
O’Brien’s named chapters drive the mystery’s narrative forward. Peering into John Wade’s world, they reveal his philosophy, his background, his fixations, his rationalisations, his history and his conduct before and after his wife disappears. They also reveal his McNamara-Pentagon-CIA-like perspective on the nature of understanding and truth-telling. John Wade’s world, like theirs, is a place where – unless or when one is counting bodies – ‘one plus one always came to zero.’
We learn of Wade’s childhood fascination with the tricks of magicians, of the suicide of his father, and the mind games Wade learns early on to deceive himself and others. We learn of his days spent standing before mirrors perfecting his sleights of hand. Mirrors, which reflect the world backwards, play an important role in Wade’s consciousness and his conduct in the world. Mirrors are the place ‘where miracles happen’. In the ‘big mirror behind his eyes’, Wade could ‘slide away behind the glass’ and ‘turn bad things into good things’. Wade’s need to manipulate the appearance of reality, to show his audience something with one hand while doing the opposite with the other, emerges as an integral element of his character and his life–and O’Brien’s overriding theme.
In Vietnam, Wade’s sleights of hand earned him the nickname Sorcerer, a moniker which becomes his personal cipher. Wade’s Sorcerer identity is so powerful that soon it is the only name by which the other grunts in Charlie Company, Calley’s outfit, know him. The Sorcerer, they all believed, was a man who could make things disappear, just as he made himself disappear from the records of Charlie Company after they massacred the people of My Lai. When Wade vanished from Charlie Company’s books, only the Sorcerer remained in Charlie Company’s memory, a trackless man in a trackless world.
In real life, one and one make two: in the mirrors of Vietnam and John Wade’s mind, one and one always came to zero. This is a book about moral choice, truth and deception, what is and what only appears to be. To put it another way, this is a book about hidden agendas; about the real purpose behind, and the actual conduct of, the American Government’s campaigns in Vietnam and elsewhere.
In the Lake of the Woods draws to an end after a massive, fruitless search for Kathy lasting several weeks has been called off. By then, the net of official suspicion has started to close around Wade. On what seems to be the eve of his arrest, he commandeers a power boat equipped with a radio and lights out into the wilderness, ostensibly in search of his wife. In the days immediately following his – flight? search? breakdown? – Wade radios ever fainter, ever more incoherent ramblings back to the world. And then there is no more. John Wade, the Sorcerer, like his wife, has disappeared into the mist of the Lake of the Woods. Did Wade murder his wife? Or was this their plan to escape together? Was this another of the Sorcerer’s vanishing acts?
The metaphorical resources of O’Brien’s book are wide. Read in conjunction with Robert McNamara’s In Retrospect, it forces you to think about unasked questions, facts not entered into evidence. The long-running slaughter in Guatemala is currently being subjected to a comparable process of silence and omission by the State Department, the Department of Defence, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the rest of the mainstream press. But on a literal level, In the Lake of the Woods has eerier parallels to the career of Colin Powell, the recently retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the man currently being groomed for an Ike-like run at the US Presidency.
Powell’s career, particularly that part of it least examined by the primarily fawning mainstream press, went under the microscope in the 17 April issue of the New Republic. In ‘The Legend of Colin Powell: Anatomy of an Establishment Career’, Charles Lane examined Powell’s ascent to power during April 1969, when the Army’s official investigation into the My Lai massacre was reluctantly creaking to life. Powell, it turns out, was assigned to Americal Division headquarters at Chu Lai. Charlie Company’s parent outfit, in April 1969, more than a year after the massacre was committed. It fell to Powell to provide the Americal’s initial responses to the Pentagon’s inquiries. Was there a place in the Americal’s area of operation called Pinkville? Could a massacre of significant proportions have occurred there in about mid-March 1968?
Those inquiries were driven by a detailed letter of complaint that I sent to Congress and the Army in April 1969. I had trained with men who were subsequently assigned to Charlie Company and heard about the My Lai massacre from them in its immediate aftermath. My letter consisted of the report I constructed from their accounts. It described a massacre of roughly four hundred villagers in mid-March 1968, cited several eyewitness accounts, named Lieutenant Calley and even provided the village’s map co-ordinates. Could such a thing have happened? Every GI in the bush in 1968 and 1969 knew the answer to that one.
Powell, however, did not, or so he told headquarters in Saigon. The then Major Powell had spent little time in the bush and it is conceivable, though barely, that in this instance his inexperience served him not only well, but honestly. He studied Charlie Company’s official report of the massacre, which showed fierce combat, a high enemy body count, almost no weapons captured and a single American casualty. This, of course, is the formulaic official account of a massacre, an element of the Army and the CIA’s institutional sorcery. Given the date of the ‘battle’ and its proximity to the village GIS still called Pinkville, that engagement, Powell reported up the chain of command, could conceivably be the one in question. There was no doubt in his mind, however, that no massacre had occurred. The complaint was surely a malicious fiction.
Powell’s handling of the initial My Lai inquiries, by the New Republic’s account, are prototypical of the style and ability which took him to the top of the Pentagon’s chain of command. He was not one to rock the boat, a fact Lane makes much of throughout the piece. Lane also makes it clear that had Powell been one to rock the boat, the rest of us would not now know his name, at least not in a military context.
When Powell’s tour in Vietnam ended, he returned to Washington, attended George Washington University for two years, returned to the Pentagon staff in 1971 and landed a White House Fellowship in 1972. Assigned to Nixon’s Office of Management and Budget, Powell caught the eye of three powerful mentors, including Caspar Weinberger. Weinberger assumed Robert McNamara’s old job, Secretary of Defence, when Ronald Reagan took office in January 1983. In 1983, Powell became Weinberger’s military assistant. From there he became Deputy National Security Adviser to Reagan; and then National Security Adviser, the position held by Henry Kissinger under Nixon. Lastly, he moved to Chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs.
In those roles he had an insider’s view of both sides of the defence and intelligence communities’ looking glass. He had a Washington-eye panorama of My Lai, Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandal. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Powell oversaw Operation Desert Storm and was the prevailing voice in both the Bush and Clinton Administration decisions not to intervene in Bosnia.
Like John Wade and Robert McNamara, Colin Powell and his generation of army officers learned a number of lessons in Vietnam. One of them, in Lane’s words, ‘was the importance of public relations and media control’, a lesson reinforced for Powell by watching the disintegration of the Nixon White House during Watergate. Another ‘lesson’ was that the defeat in Vietnam was a direct result of ‘the failure of civilian institutions – specifically, the failure to provide the Army with a clear political goal’.
So when it came to making choices in Iraq and Bosnia, acts that would be largely played out on the public stage, Powell lobbied for the safest options from the perspective of public relations. The Pentagon’s most important lesson from Vietnam, Lane wrote, was that ‘the media-saturated nation would not stomach prolonged conflicts – they emphasised the importance of clear political goals and of being trained to fight and win quick, all-out victories.’ Thus, when Powell was confronted with vivid television footage of the carnage on the ‘highway of death’, when seven thousand Iraqi troops were caught in the open by US aircraft and slaughtered as they fled Kuwait City, he quickly and forcefully lobbied for, and won, a Presidential order to call off the attack, effectively ending the shooting war against Iraq. When Bush and Clinton raised the possibility of a Bosnian intervention, an opportunity for another high-profile, prolonged engagement with ample opportunity for public disaster, Powell successfully demurred.
These were all acts played on a stage where the curtains are at least sometimes open. Lane doesn’t delve into it, but Powell was also a star player on the clandestine side of American foreign policy. As National Security Adviser, he was well-versed in the closed-curtain intersections of the CIA with Military Advisory Groups (through which pass the strings of military control and assistance for America’s Third World client states), and with the graduates of the US Army’s School of the Americas. The School of the Americas came under Powell’s direct supervision as Chief of Staff. He stood at Reagan’s elbow during the days when guerrillas, neutral peasants and simple democratic opponents of the American-backed regimes or movements in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala were being disappeared, murdered, tortured and massacred. Powell, America’s most popular non-candidate for the 1996 Presidential election, always dons his sorcerer’s smile when asked if he will run. Maybe, he says. Maybe not.
Robert Strange McNamara, the US Secretary of Defence between 1961 and 1968, walked out of the Pentagon for good 17 days before Captain Medina, Lieutenant Calley and Charlie Company marched into My Lai. McNamara, whose name has become indelibly linked with foreign policy deception and duplicity, never again spoke of the war in public. Now, however, nearly three decades later, he is back with In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.
In what has become the book’s most famous mea culpa, McNamara confesses that he and the John Kennedy/Lyndon Johnson brains-trust responsible for escalating and then brutally prosecuting the war were ‘wrong, terribly wrong’ about Vietnam. So far as can be told, McNamara is the only one of the lot to come to such a conclusion. He is certainly the only one to say so publicly. For that – and only that – he is to be commended. The question on many lips is this: why should we trust him now?
McNamara claims that his book is a noble undertaking. It is, he says in the opening line, the book he ‘planned never to write’. He has made the sacrifice, broken the vow to himself, he continues, because he fears for the fate of the country. He is convinced that we began to go rudderless in the controversy over Vietnam. He ‘has grown sick at heart witnessing the cynicism and even contempt with which so many people view our political institutions and leaders’. The seeds of our collective cynicism and contempt were planted, McNamara knows, in the credibility gap he personally laboured so long and hard to create. Only if his fellow citizens finally understand ‘why we made the mistakes we did’, he now asserts, ‘can ... the nation hope to leave the past behind’.
So the question, as McNamara poses it, is how did these ‘young, vigorous, intelligent, well-meaning, patriotic’ men he served with in JFK and LBJ’s cabinets, the best and the brightest, ‘get it wrong on Vietnam’? Conceding their many errors, McNamara hastens to insist that those errors were errors of the head and not the heart. They were, each and every one, moral men, men who ‘acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation. We made our decisions in light of those values.’ Their errors, he asserts, were errors ‘not of values and intentions, but of judgment and capabilities’. He and his fellows were neither incompetent, nor insensitive. Their mistakes were ‘mostly honest mistakes’.
By themselves these claims have produced plenty of snorting, foot-stomping and rude laughter. But what sent national outrage into orbit is McNamara’s concession that he knew by 1967 that the war was not only wrong, but unwinnable. Although more than two-thirds of the 58,000-plus American and nearly four million Vietnamese lives ultimately claimed by the war were yet to be spent, McNamara, armed with a conviction of its continuing futility, slunk from the scene in silence.
He knew by then, he says here, that Eisenhower’s celebrated domino theory, the philosophical engine driving the US war machine, was wrong. Contrary to what Eisenhower told JFK and his cabinet the day before Kennedy took office, McNamara knew by 1967 that the US could have withdrawn from Vietnam without losing the rest of South-East Asia and the Cold War to the Red Tide. McNamara cites three opportunities to have done so: in 1963, in 1965 and in 1967. Only in the last instance did he make the case for withdrawal. He did so in a now-widely-quoted memo to LBJ on 19 May 1967. It was nearly a year before My Lai, almost three years before Tim Page’s friends Flynn and Stone disappeared into Cambodia, and three years likewise before much of America went into open revolt against the war. McNamara told the President:
There may be a limit beyond which many Americans and much of the world will not permit the United States to go. The picture of the world’s greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1000 non-combatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one.
It is no doubt true that McNamara – the ultimate bloodless technocrat, a World War Two veteran who’d never seen a battlefield fresh with death – could hardly imagine just how unpretty Vietnam really was, or how much worse it would get. Maybe the President understood the criminal implications of such an admission. Whatever the case, before the year was out, in November 1967, LBJ nominated McNamara for the post of President of the World Bank, and McNamara took the job. With that position, he now claims, he was duty bound to refrain from making public political comments. To this day, he writes, he does not know ‘whether I quit or was fired’.
But why tell us all this now, most Americans have demanded to know. Why didn’t McNamara raise his voice in public when it might have mattered? His answers have satisfied few. He maintained a public silence, he now says, because he owed it to the President, a cabinet member’s constituency of one and only one. And what of the country? Ah, that. That’s the President’s job. The President’s responsibility.
McNamara is a man of elevens. His book is 11 chapters long. He chooses not to tell the story of the war, but rather to concentrate on 11 ‘key events or decisions’ and chew on the ‘implications for decision-making process’ of each. Lastly, he concludes that from those 11 events and decisions arose ‘11 major causes for disaster’. Those, in turn, become the 11 lessons he draws from the firebath in Vietnam. McNamara’s key events include the briefing President Eisenhower gave JFK and his cabinet the day before JFK’s inauguration; JFK’s decision in late 1961 to boost the number of US advisers to 16,000; the coup of 1 November 1963 and the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem; LBJ’s response to the political disintegration of South Vietnam’s government during 1964; the Tonkin Gulf incident and the resulting Tonkin Gulf Resolution; LBJ’s decision in 1965 to begin bombing the North and the subsequent decisions in 1965 to boost US troop strength by 175,000 men and in 1966 to add another 200,000; and, of course, 1967’s year-long, ‘acrimonious’ internal debate that led to McNamara’s own departure.
Disaster, already well in the works, mounted into the well-known catastrophe following McNamara’s departure. His next list of elevens – the débâcle’s causes and the lessons he thinks should be learned from them – is an instance of the sort of intellectual sorcery that no doubt inspired Tim O’Brien to create John Wade. Foremost on that list, or so he says, is the misjudging of friend and foe, a fatal error made at each critical juncture by some or all. McNamara laments that neither he, JFK, LBJ nor anyone else on their team understood that Ho Chi Minh and his people were nationalists first and Communists second. Nor did either Administration realise that their hired hands in Saigon were wind-up robber barons and armed thugs first and democrats not at all – although, of course, he phrases it differently. Dissent from the anti-Communist catechism was no more tolerated within the LBJ inner circle than it was in the streets.
McNamara tries to mitigate his crew’s responsibility by complaining that sound, knowledgeable advice on these questions was not at hand. Had it been, he insists, the entire tragedy might have been avoided. Perhaps the JFK/ LBJ brains-trusters might then have understood early on that the South Vietnamese simply didn’t want democracy and freedom badly enough to pay the price.
I deeply regret that I did not face a probing debate about whether it would be possible to forge a winning military effort on a foundation of political quicksand. It became clear then, and I believe it is clear today, that military force – especially when wielded by an outside power – cannot bring order in a country that cannot govern itself.
These claims are central to McNamara’s tangled combination of critical omissions and twisted rationales. The most fundamental is his relentless reliance on the counterfeit notion that if only the South Vietnamese had had the right stuff, everything could have worked out fine.
In all these years, McNamara has apparently still not come across anyone who knows any-thing about Vietnam. South Vietnam, of course, was never a country. It was the artificial creation of the American-stampeded Western powers, and was invented for purposes directly opposed to the freedom and democracy McNamara and friends talked about so much and practised so little. McNamara’s assertion to the contrary is a classic example of the big lie. That claim was, in fact, the very foundation, the source of war. Like the mythical country of South Vietnam, the war was not something America was involved in: it was something McNamara and his predecessors created. That McNamara dares trot out this bromide again gives the lie to his pretence of good faith. This hollow argument throughout the book is the bedrock of his claimed anguish, his excuse and his escape.
Perhaps most chillingly disingenuous of the items on McNarnara’s list of elevens, however, is his deduction that America’s Vietnam strategy ‘failed to adapt our military tactics to ... winning hearts and minds’. This claim is so thoroughly interwoven with the previous one that they are difficult to separate. Both are tightly intertwined with another elemental truth about the philosophy McNamara’s military brought to his war, another of his crucial omissions. That truth is best illustrated in a comment made famous because it captures the reality behind McNamara’s ‘hearts and minds’ slogan. ‘If you want to win their hearts and minds,’ many US military men liked to say, ‘grab ’em by the balls.’
McNamara played a decisive role in this evil strategy. His compulsion to quantify victory, most coldly and criminally illustrated in body counts and kill ratios – the policy of counting bodies and determining the rate of American success by stacking up their dead against ours – drove the death wagon in Vietnam. Search-and-destroy operations and free-fire zones – deadly and brutal policies which fuelled a relentless series of war crimes – were in large part driven by the need to provide the numbers demanded by McNamara’s thirst for a quantifiable measure of progress.
The fundamental military philosophy from which this policy sprang was that the peasantry in general was the enemy. This belief became the strategic foundation of America’s conduct of the war; and this is the issue McNamara and his supporters dare not address. American military strategy in Vietnam targeted the people – conduct which is, by definition, a war crime. But who else, after all, can the enemy be in a people’s war?
Since General Sherman burned Atlanta and marched to the sea, breaking the back of the Confederacy during the American Civil War, modern warfare has been largely based on the notion that destroying the enemy’s ability to feed and supply its army is easily as important as crushing the army itself. Playing off Mao’s famous premise of people’s war – that the people are the sea in which the revolutionary fish swim – American strategy in Vietnam was designed to burn off the ocean. Everything followed from the marriage of this strategy and McNamara’s demand to quantify victory: the strategic hamlet programme, bombing the countryside, search-and-destroy missions, free-fire zones, body counts and kill ratios. Anybody not on our side was, by definition, on the other side.
Despite the many veils hoisted to hide these realities, as the war continued growing numbers of Americans began to see through the illusions. It is therefore no surprise, as McNamara concedes, that he and his co-conspirators failed to sustain the support of both Congress and the public. Why? Because, McNamara says, they mistakenly failed to engage either in a fully-informed debate on the merits of their case. Indeed. But how could they? What would they have said? Would they have admitted these bitter truths? That the reality of Vietnam, the deliberate campaign of war against the people, was the precise mirror image of the illusion they had created? That in order to save Vietnam for freedom and democracy they had decided to murder everyone who disagreed with them? We’re not thugs, but if you dare challenge us, we’ll kick your ass?
This was and is the other side of the looking glass – and McNamara knows it. Could that truth have been taken to the people? Can the magician show the audience what the unseen hand is up to? Yes, of course, but as soon as he does his ability to create the illusion ends. Could America’s national security state afford to do that? No President from Eisenhower to Clinton has thought so. As McNamara points out in passing, Vietnam may have been centre-stage during his watch, but it was only one of dozens of countries whose fate the US was actively plotting to decide. This, too, makes McNamara’s list of elevens. He concedes that he and his fellow brain-trusters were wrong to think they were omniscient. They believed they had ‘the God-given right to shape every nation in our own image or as we choose’.
Even assuming that McNamara has sincerely abandoned this God-like arrogance – a dubious proposition given his long tenure with the World Bank – his peers in the US national security apparatus have not. ‘Many political leaders and scholars’, McNamara accurately reports, still argue that the Vietnam War was a success, that it helped contain Communism and hasten the end of the Cold War. Men and women who think like that, Colin Powell’s friends and former co-workers, continue to control America’s secret foreign policy establishment. They learned broader lessons in the Vietnamese laboratory than those cited by McNamara, lessons they have gone on to apply in other places in the world. While the public at large believes that Vietnam was a tragic failure, the secret American foreign policy establishment thinks of it as a great success in every aspect except that of public relations. Its problem was that the stage was too large, the play too long, and too many of the audience were let slip behind the curtain to see for themselves what was really going on.
These policymakers – people close to the hearts of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, as was Colin Powell – learned to conduct their campaigns of Third World intimidation and annihilation more efficiently and quietly. It can all be done with American money, training, tactics, techniques, technology and planning. As long as yellow, brown and black men from other nations man the death squads, blindfold the prisoners before the torturing begins and pull the triggers during the massacres, America’s press and public will buy into the trick. Just keep those big, burly, white American advisers far enough away from the actual mayhem so that they will never be seen splattered with blood on the evening news. Witness, for instance, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
Guatemala, where questions of Vietnam-style puppeteering by the US have recently been raised, is a case in point. America’s deadly meddling there popped up on the front pages in March. Many US dailies headlined the revelation that a Guatemalan army intelligence officer, Colonel Julio Roberto Alpirez, a long-time paid agent of the CIA, orchestrated the murder of an American innkeeper in 1990 and a Mayan guerrilla leader in 1992.
Much weighty tedium – quite reminiscent of McNamara’s best and brightest credibility-gap days – has been made of CIA and State Department protestations of shock and ignorance at the apparent calumny of Colonel Alpirez. The Colonel, in a similar piece of déjàvu, has spilled untold gallons of ink indignantly declaring his innocence. But, except for a series of pieces in the Nation, beginning with a carefully-documented article on 17 April, nary a whisper has appeared in the mainstream press about the long-standing roles of the CIA, Defence and State Departments in Guatemala.
During a thirty-year counter-insurgency campaign there, the Guatemalan Army, using the tactics, techniques and technology honed in Vietnam and taught at the US Army’s School of the Americas, have systematically annihilated, according to the Army’s own figures, at least 662 Guatemalan Indian villages. Similarly, 110,000 civilians have been murdered by elements of the intelligence unit to which Colonel Alpirez has long been assigned. That unit has also long been funded, advised and assisted by the CIA.
Colonel Alpirez, it turns out, is one of 59,000 Latin American officers and NCOs who have been trained at the US Army’s School of the Americas since 1954, the same year the US invented South Vietnam and staged a coup against Guatemala’s last democratically-elected government. Officially, the purpose of the School of the Americas is to ‘professionalise’ the armies of our Latin allies. What it does is teach them to make war on their own people, à la Vietnam. All their training is for wars fought within their own borders. Like Colonel Alpirez, at least three hundred of its graduates have been linked to, or are the proven villains of, a swathe of Vietnam-style death squads, massacres and atrocities. School of the Americas spokesmen, of course, indignantly deny any link between their training and the excesses of their graduates. They also like to claim that counter-insurgency is out and ‘low intensity warfare’ is in. The actual difference between the doctrines is the new name, and the application of the lessons learned in Vietnam.
In the end, in the final passages before he closes with a poem by Kipling. McNamara returns to the meat of his plea. Three Presidents, he concludes (forgetting Eisenhower), committed Americans to Vietnam ‘to protect our security, prevent the spread of totalitarian Communism, and promote individual freedom and political democracy’. Those decisions, of course, ‘demanded sacrifices and, yes’ – drumroll, please – ‘inflicted terrible suffering in light of those goals and values’. While hindsight now ‘proves us wrong’, these decisions were made, the blood let, for ‘good and honest reasons’. As for the Americans who answered the call and never came home? ‘Let us learn from their sacrifice and, by doing so, validate and honour it.’
So what, finally, is McNamara’s real agenda here? Should we believe that this bean-counting Sorcerer, a man who spent his life cajoling the many into sacrificing themselves for the interests of the few – in whose service he toiled and whose rewards he reaped – now bares his soul and confesses his sins so that we might all be saved?
Maybe. Considering the weight of his sins, perhaps it is not surprising that a mere mortal’s knees might buckle under the effort of publicly shouldering them. If so, the question so many have already asked, still waits. What took so long? Why indeed tell us now, oh Truth Teller?
While it defies reason, maybe McNamara really does think that this intellectually limp, morally dishonest tome will help restore the country’s faith in a government leadership which has an unbroken, thirty-year foreign policy record of deceit, duplicity and hidden agendas. If so, the man’s arrogance, his undiluted hubris, is quite literally incalculable.
But what if that is not true? What if the answer is one more attuned to the practices and allegiances of a lifetime? What if this is the leading edge of one more hidden agenda? And what might that be?
Given the fact that the first war crimes trials in half a century loom large on the European and African horizons, might McNamara still be carrying the torch for the forces of darkness? Might he be laying down the first line of defence for any such future war crimes questions which could and should be asked of American policy-makers?
Can McNamara be believed? Was My Lai an operation or an aberration? Did John Wade murder his wife? How long must Tim Page wait to erect his monument to Vietnam’s dead and missing truth-seekers? Are the dead still riding the night winds home? Did America learn us lesson in Vietnam? What kind of President would Colin Powell be?