Rolling Commentary 4/5

September 23, 2017–The latest episodes of the Burns-Novick film “The Vietnam War” are an improvement, in the sense that the vertigo of the first one is replaced by more straightforward storytelling. But this film, the product of a decade of research and interviewing, still demonstrates major flaws. One is its reliance on what is just a level up from newsreel footage to give the viewer her/his entire picture of the top level decisionmaking in the conflict. It’s nice to have a scene of Lyndon Johnson with his NSC ranged around him, and cut to a session of the Fulbright Hearings of 1966, but that’s like being given a whiff of a much deeper narrative without the ability to access it in any way. James Willbanks is a fine historian–and a friend–but he is overused here as the all-purpose commentator. Same with Joe Galloway, whose main knowledge is from 1965. That is also true of the Vietnamese officers interviewed, though on their side, where a “tour of duty” lasted for the entire war, there is some rationale. John Musgrave’s story is heart-wrenching, but, to pull back to a bigger frame, you need to realize that the 9th Marines at Con Thien are here made representative of all Vietnam combat action just as, in the previous episode, Hal Moore and The Cav at LZ X-Ray stood in for everything that happened in 1965. Burns and Novick do nicely at projecting their microcosms, but it’s the bigger picture that suffers.

That’s even graphically apparent. In one scene or another, flashing across the screen are phrases like “body count,” “attrition,” and so on, each a huge subject that could be explored in an entire documentary, here rushed past in seconds, at most with the brief appearance of a talking head. The documentary touches on the hot topics from Vietnam, atrocities and Tiger Teams, search & destroy, Liberation Front local militia, military exaggerations, and so on. It portrays a version of Hanoi’s decisionmaking for the Tet Offensive that is currently popular, but for which we have no actual evidence.

The antiwar movement is again portrayed monochromatically–as a virtual social event of spring and fall when masses of citizens would converge on either New York or Washington, capable of being hijacked in October 1967 to march on the Pentagon instead of listen to music and speeches. That’s a slight to every individual who, at personal cost, went to participate in these events, as well as to the activists who worked long and hard to organize a specific march on the Pentagon, not a jamboree.  Indeed, Burns and Novick trot out Leslie Gelb, who was working inside “The Building” that day on the Pentagon Papers, and Gelb recalls that DOD secretaries were frightened of protesters invading the building to rape them. Robert McNamara would tell a later interviewer, “How could you not be afraid?” Daniel Ellsberg was also there, also working on the Pentagon Papers. He is notably missing from this narrative. In any case, the activists were serious, they were against the war, and, as a movement they were neither communists nor hippies. At Con Thien John Musgrave and his Marine buddies got a copy of Playboy and fantasized about the hippies and the “summer of love,” but those elements of the counterculture were apolitical, tuned out, not available to antiwar organizers. The communists provided the antiwar movement with office space, a modicum of donations, and a certain number of individual protesters, but communists were never the ideologists of the movement nor its leaders.

Burns and Novick are also on thin ground with an aspect of the siege of Con Thien. They frame it as one of a series of “border battles” which Hanoi launched as distractions for American General William C. Westmoreland (“Westy”) as the North Vietnamese prepared their Tet Offensive–which Episode 5 of the film extensively prefigures. The only thing about Con Thien related to the Border Battles was that the post was located on the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the boundary between North and South Vietnam. Con Thien was one strongpoint of what was dubbed the “McNamara Line,” and the North Vietnamese were seriously challenging the defense system–as they had done at Khe Sanh earlier in the year. Westy was always especially sensitive about I Corps–the part of South Vietnam below the DMZ–and Hanoi was taking advantage of his proclivities. The Con Thien siege went on too long and was conducted too fiercely to have been anything other than an independent operation.

The filmmakers are simply wrong where they record that defense secretary McNamara’s December 1967 memorandum to President Johnson warning of an unwinnable war and advising that it be cut back never received any reply. As a matter of fact, on December 18 Lyndon Johnson committed to paper one of the only written memoranda he ever created about Vietnam strategy and his aim was at McNamara. LBJ recorded that he had studied the McNamara paper “with the utmost care” and he had consulted with “certain advisers”–in fact Johnson had demanded written responses from the entire top level of his NSC, plus General Westmoreland and the ambassador to South Vietnam. President Johnson specifically stated that he was reluctant to send U.S. forces into Laos or Cambodia, that he saw no basis for increasing troop levels, but that he would not halt or cut back the bombing of North Vietnam. This key passage in Washington decisionmaking on Vietnam is entirely missing from the Burns-Novick film and there is no excuse–it has been written about, even within the span of the research for this documentary. Its absence shows the fallacy of “newsreel coverage” of the top level of the war.

That’s enough for today.

 

 

Donald the Menace

September 20, 2017–Forget Dennis. For one thing, he’s an innocent. The Donald is not. Trump’s got nuclear missiles and aircraft carriers and Special Forces to back him up. The only real question is whether Mr. Trump is as full of hate as his rhetoric, or whether all the sound and fury signifies nothing. I predicted in this space a week ago that, with the United Nations General Assembly coming up, we’d hear again from Kim Jong-un. Sure enough, two days later the North Koreans held another missile test. Then, at the UN yesterday, President Trump was fire and brimstone, hurling thunderbolts of biblical language that no doubt stunned the world’s assembled diplomats. Donald Trump says he will wipe North Korea off the face of the globe, that “Rocket Man” Jong is on a “suicide mission.”

Remember all those pundits who assiduously predicted that, once become president, the rigors of the office would temper Donald Trump? Wishful thinking. How about the line that “grown ups” like Reince Priebus would hold Trump to a standard of behavior? Laughable. And the felicitous impact of the John Kelly-James Mattis-H. L. McMaster crowd? Nil. Kelly may have injected a modicum of discipline into the president’s office schedule, but he’s had little discernible effect on the president’s spewing of invective and the consequent careening of American foreign policy. The State Department is adrift, stupidly paring way back the roster of diplomats it sends to the General Assembly each year, people who could have tried to take some of the edge off Trump’s harshness. The Pentagon is upstaged, with General Mattis asserting the U.S. has force options other that all-out attack, only to be outbid by Trump’s seven no-trump threats.

Very serious dereliction of duty is underway at the White House. Intellectually disingenuous–McMaster crafted a contrived argument to accuse the Vietnam-era Joint Chiefs of Staff of not giving their honest opinion to Lyndon Johnson (they did)–on the NSC staff himself General McMaster is guilty of precisely the same currying of presidential favor. Anyone who thinks McMaster a grown up trying to rein back the president should think again. It is dereliction of duty for the general not to tell the president that unleashing war on North Korea will be a disaster for the United States. The general is an enabler.

Here Trump wants to cross the war threshold not to counter aggression but simply because North Korea tests weapons and its leader–like Trump–indulges in fervid and hostile language. I am pleased to see that columnist Fred Kaplan has picked up my “launch-upon-test” criticism as an illustration of the thoughtless so-called “policy” involved here, but the truth is that U.S. government is rolling over and playing dead on the constitutional war powers issue–Trump is in effect arguing that he can launch offensive nuclear war on his presidential authority without reference to Congress, which possesses all war powers under Article I of the United States Constitution. Our elected representatives don’t seem to be grown ups–and certainly aren’t playing them on TV. The country continues full steam ahead into uncharted waters. Take care!

Rolling Commentary 1 : Someone Else’s Vietnam

September 18, 2017–Lyndon Johnson, a font of political aphorisms, used to tell a story of a camel and a tent. It was a lot better, he would say, to have the camel inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick could have used that advice. Their wide reading and wide consultation in the elaboration of this project appears to this historian to have been far narrower than advertised–and indeed intended to fuel a certain vision of the Vietnam experience. My phone never rang. As author of eight books specifically on the Vietnam war, with parts of four others devoted to it as well, I would have been a good resource. Perhaps I was relegated to the ranks of former high ranking government officials, who Burns and Novick deliberately chose not to interview. More likely, I am an exponent of a vision of Vietnam war history the filmmakers preferred not to hear.

So I will exercise the camel’s prerogative to piss into the tent. In keeping with Lyndon Johnson, who ran his bombing of North Vietnam under the nickname Rolling Thunder with numbers to distinguish the successive aerial assaults, we’ll run these as numbered entries of “Rolling Commentary.” Today I’ll make one general point and two specific ones.

This film was either cut to induce vertigo or to set up the viewer to absorb without questioning some key argument farther down the way. That is, any claim to be detailing this conflict chronologically is just that–a claim. The film hops back and forth across the history with dizzying speed. Geneva 1954 jumps to the late Diem period, Indochina 1945 to the Versailles peace conference of 1919, Dien Bien Phu to the American war and back again, with pauses throughout for participants to relate experiences. –But not experiences necessarily related to the moment the film is describing. David Marlantes gets as much face time to talk about how he and his dear friend never spoke of the war for more than a decade–certainly a post-Vietnam experience, as Burns and Novick devote to the entire origins of the Vietnamese revolution. In an 18-hour film they could have done better. Use of the interviews is also uneven. Mai Elliott’s memories describe specific experiences of her father and family in a way nicely related to the narrative, while Lam Quang Thi–not explicitly identified as a lieutenant general in the South Vietnamese army–is drawn upon merely for a generic comment on Vietnamese facing revolutionary conditions. Since Thi, as a young officer in the French-dominated Vietnamese National Army, had broad relations with Nguyen Van Thieu, who eventually emerged as South Vietnam’s military strongman, the opportunity to gain key insight into a major figure is lost.

On to the specific. The filmmakers’ asserted purpose is to furnish an account of the war that is a people’s story, not an overarching history of the clash of nations at arms. (Thus the avoidance of interviews with senior officials.) There’s an implication here that people have avoided talking about the war, and that presentation of this material is an advance in the story. Actually, look at World Wars I and II, or the Korean war and you will find that not speaking of the horrors of war has been the norm, not the exception. You might even make a case that many young Americans marched off to the Vietnam war precisely because their fathers had not spoken to them clearly of the horrors of war. But in Vietnam, talking about the war began while the guns were still shooting–with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which started in 1967–and continued throughout. At colleges throughout the country clusters of students using their GI Bill stipends had the war with them all the time. High school and college classes regularly have veterans in to tell their stories. Former South Vietnamese, striving for recognition in America, are all about the war too. Today you can go into anyplace where Vietnamese books are sold and find armloads of material on the war and the old country. It is no achievement to get participants to talk about the Vietnam war.

Finally, for today, one point of history. The first episode of the Burns and Novick film, in its coverage of the French war in Indochina, has left wing labor unions in Marseilles mount protests in which members throw stones at soldiers debarking from troop ships returning from the war. Actually the Marseilles dockworkers were guilty not of throwing stones but of refusing to load supplies aboard ships bound for Indochina. Those are two very different things. You can readily appreciate that the stoning charge sets up a parallelism with allegations later in the American war that protesters spat at GIs coming home. The latter charge continues to be controversial today. Establishing parallelism for it represents an attempt to enhance credibility. If this is the way this film is put together it adds up to the very opposite of objectivity. This is someone else’s version of Vietnam, not mine.

Vietnam Veterans Against the War

September 16, 2017–With the sharp-edged sentimentality that seems to go with everything about the Vietnam war, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are releasing their much-heralded documentary film “The Vietnam War” with the slogan that “There is no single truth in war.” There are layers of meaning in that. Burns and Novick set up one such layer by making sure to include many Vietnamese among their witnesses. But there’s a very different meaning from the American side, where this film lays out a story line of conventional, gung-ho heroics, a World War II-style simple-mindedness that proved misplaced amid the complexities of Asia, and which the Vietnam war itself demonstrated to be foolish, even stupid. The Burns and Novick production does for film what neo-orthodox historians have attempted for the written record–to recycle the conventional wisdom of fifty years ago, the lines pushed by MACV spin doctors at the “Five-O’clock Follies,” as supposedly fresh insights from supposedly new research.

Two elements reveal how shallow is the alleged new thinking. One concerns timing. The film’s release coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Long March on the Pentagon (the second big protest there, actually), when 50,000 antiwar demonstrators showed up to denounce the conflict, putting themselves at the heart of America’s military command center. That event was important in crystalizing political opposition to the Vietnam war in the United States. To release a rah-rah praise-the-warrior-and-pass-the-ammunition pic at this moment is to throw down a gauntlet in front of the anguished citizens who had to live through this actual history.

The other element is that the Burns-Novick film slights opponents of the war. Let’s get this straight up front: the United States lost the Vietnam war. Those who opposed the conflict as an imperialist or neocolonialist action or as a military insanity were correct to do so. But the 18 hours of film here contain precious little of that. Ken Burns admits, “I couldn’t tell the difference,” when the audience at an opening at Washington’s Kennedy Center erupted in applause as thunderous for antiwar opponents as for GIs. In the documentary the difference is clear.

The Americans who traveled the furthest in this buffeting of the 60s and 70s were precisely those men and women who went to war–and came home to fight against it. These were the stalwarts of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). They too are having an anniversary this weekend, in New York and Milwaukee, the 50th year of the organization. Starting from the spring of 1967, when a tiny band of these folks marched in New York, VVAW led many in the antiwar movement. They were the first to press for recognition of PTSD, the first to devise means (rap groups) to cope with the malady, they were key innovators of guerrilla theater and creative protests. If in the Burns-Novick you see an antiwar banner hanging from the crown of the Statue of Liberty, that was VVAW. I can hardly do justice to these committed veterans here (I tell the VVAW story in some detail in my book Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War). Unlike almost any of the others, VVAW vets remained in opposition to war long afterwards, becoming the heart of Veterans for Peace and inspiring the vets who created Iraq Veterans Against the War, using VVAW as a model. Yet few of these former servicepeople appear in the Burns-Novick documentary series.

Americans should be celebrating the VVAW anniversary. Their exploits deserve honor. More than the media hype around two filmmakers and their latest documentary, this occasion deserves to be noted. I wish I could be with them to do that.

Isn’t the Korea “Crisis” Odd?

September 14, 2017–Most Americans have spent, perhaps two weeks or more now, practically glued to screens of one sort or another, following the latest developments in the natural disasters–hurricanes, not national security crises–that have befallen our country. During this time the North Korea “crisis” somehow disappeared. Even more striking, the recent North Korean nuclear test took place during the short interval between the end of Hurricane Harvey and the onset of Irma. How ’bout that? It’s evidence that the North Korean affair is being played as a political action. That, in turn, suggests that Kim Jong-un pitches his rhetoric for moments suitable to attracting attention. Readers of this space will know I have expressed concern about a nuclear war begun by the United States as a “launch upon test,” or even a “launch upon speech.” How sad it will be if a huge cataclysm results from a “crisis” that was a deception in the first place. With this year’s United Nations General Assembly session coming up, you should expect to see a next step in the North Korea affair very shortly. Donald Trump would probably think it worthwhile if he can manage to get our eyes off the Russian Caper.

Got the Pyongyang Blues Again

September 8, 2017–There is a troubling quality to the way this North Korea crisis is ballooning before our eyes. Kim Jong Un’s armaments program is not a phony issue, but neither was the Pakistani nuclear program, the Indian one, the Israeli or, for that matter, the Chinese or French. But, with the exception of the Pakistanis, with whom a few hotheads indulged in fantasies of SOF raids; and the Chinese, made the object of higher-level but equally unrealistic maunderings; no one has threatened anyone conducting weapons development with nuclear war. Those who are analogizing the North Korea matter to the Cuban missile crisis are pouring accelerant onto the pile and playing with matches. The Cuban crisis involved real nuclear-tipped missiles, not hypothetical (that is, technology currently still in R&D) ones, and reliable systems that without doubt put the United States in the crosshairs. The North Korean threat exists mostly in the rhetoric of Pyongyang’s ruler.

As if that were not bad enough, people who should know better are speaking of pre-emptive attack as a rational way out of this morass. George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, apart from its many other defects, had the deplorable aspect of suggesting that pre-emption is an admissible form of war. In the bad old days of theorizing about nuclear conflict, analysts conceived pre-emption as a means of blunting the adversary’s nuclear attack by launching upon warning, but in those concepts the war was underway and the pre-emption effectively preserved forces. In its most urgent form this tactic was described as “launch-under-attack.” What we’re hearing today is people talking seriously about “launch-upon-test,” or “launch-upon-speech.” What we’re hearing is ridiculous.

One woman’s pre-emption is another person’s aggression. At Nuremberg an allied world sent people to the gallows for waging aggressive war. The United States helped create the framework of international law that criminalizes aggression. Today there exists an International Criminal Court that could sit in judgment of aggressors. A United States act of force against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) would invite that kind of treatment. Moreover, taken together with Bush administration action against Iraq, it would brand the U.S. as a repeat offender. This is no place for us to be.

Just as bad, a pre-emption against the DPRK invokes the issue of war powers in U.S. law. I hate to add to the pile of things which Congress hasn’t done, but the muddled constitutional issue of authorization for war should be high on the list. The Constitution gives the Congress the sole power to declare war. Consider this: if Donald Trump launches a pre-emptive attack on North Korea he will be making war, aggressive war–and if he uses nuclear weapons he will be breaking a taboo that has existed since the one time the nuclear threshold was breached–and that will be without any approval from the body with the constitutional authority for war. It will also be in the face of the War Powers Act. The way this is usually pitched in the U.S. is the president relies on his constitutional power as commander-in-chief of the military. So you can have an aggression, even a nuclear attack, unleashed without congressional approval, by a president with little skill or knowledge of foreign affairs, in “launch-upon-test” mode. What a mess!

Today’s papers contain more deplorable news. The New York Times actually discusses pre-emption as one of the possible remedies to the DPRK weapons program. But its casting of the action involves the idea that U.S. attackers would blow up single North Korean missiles on the launch pad, sort of like kicking over each ant hill as it is built. No doubt some dim official or military officer retailed that idea as an option for arresting the DPRK program. But how do you think Kim is going to respond when the DPRK is struck by force? When you’re speaking of military “practicality,” it is clear that the only feasible option is to simultaneously destroy all North Korean test facilities, all nuclear plants, command centers, air bases, potential weapons bunkers, and more. Since the DPRK’s missiles are road-mobile, the pre-emption would have to include total area destruction of all potential deployment zones for Kim’s missiles. The only way you accomplish that is with nuclear weapons. This is not “tank plinking” in the Gulf War it is massive aggression.

Not to be outdone, today’s Washington Post carries a piece by former CIA deputy director Michael Morell that argues the DPRK already has a functional intercontinental nuclear attack capability. He suggests that former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper, Jr. shares that view. Readers of this space will know we have long labeled Clapper the “Fearful Leader” for his propensity to maximize the perceptible threat. He may be hedging against the CIA being accused of an intelligence failure in the case of North Korea–I was asked just yesterday whether I thought such a failure has occurred. Morell correctly argues against a pre-emptive attack–but he comes out saying that pre-emption may lead to just what Americans want to avoid, a nuclear strike on a U.S. city. There are two points to be made about that statement–first, Morell is thinking of pre-emption as nuke-plinking (as above); second, he confirms our sketch of the “practical” pre-emption option. You can see why we have the Pyongyang Blues.

 

Painting the Corner on North Korea

September 4, 2017–Not long ago I wrote about Donald J. Trump painting himself into a corner on North Korea, into a place where he cannot exit without unleashing the dogs of war. Kim Jong Un’s nuclear test has led our president into issuing yet more dark threats. I’m not going to take up your time this Labor Day with some extended commentary on this idiocy, but I will make a few points:

First, you have to suspect our top people have forgotten–or chosen to ignore–longstanding practice in the military and intelligence business. In engineering development it used to be that our missiles were not considered “ready” until each system had performed to perfection twenty times. Even our intel people, hedging against threats, waited until an adversary missile system had toted up ten successes before considering it had reached “Initial Operating Capability.” Up to now there appear to have been five long-range missile shots from North Korea, three of them partial failures.

Put aside the question of whether Pyongyang is progressing faster, slower, or as expected by U.S. intelligence–something no one will know until the secret estimates are made public, the concrete evidence does not indicate a current global threat from North Korea. The North Korean claims to a hydrogen bomb have the feel of a deception, with a staged photo op and a missile nosecone cowling in the picture to suggest successful weaponization, but a yield the scientists will shortly tell us was only in the moderate kiloton range.

Second, as I’ve written here before, there is no international law or other standard that justifies use of force against a nation for simple weapons development. Indeed, in the 1960s the Soviet Union considered pre-emption against the People’s Republic of China for its nuclear weapons program, and the jury is still out on real (but ambiguous) evidence the Soviets and/or U.S. each considered enlisted the other in the same enterprise. In the U.S. in the early 1950s there were also those who counseled a pre-emptive attack against the developing Soviet atomic capability. Fortunately wiser heads prevailed in every one of those cases.

The military minds that surround President Trump have been counted on to restrain his cruder impulses, but like H. R. McMaster, have often aligned with him instead. Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy used to talk about the “effectiveness trap”–the idea that your options are to stay with the president no matter how irrational he may be, in hopes of accomplishing the kind of restraint necessary here, or resigning in protest to sandbag a president with political concerns. Those considerations stopped many Vietnam war-era officials from doing the right thing. The effectiveness trap is functioning again right here. The supposedly wiser heads have done nothing to prevent Mr. Trump from painting over the actual corner on which he’s been standing.