From Liberty Street: Repeating History

Over the past couple years there has been a good deal of speculation about whether George Bush's adventure in Iraq is another Vietnam. In the abstract the answer is obvious. In history, no complex event is a copy of another. There are different forces at work and different attitudes in play. That's not to say, though, that there are not similarities between two events or that we can't learn from how they resemble one another.

Before we can learn from the comparison, however, we have to get as clear in our minds as we can what each of the events was on its own. And that, with respect to the war in Vietnam from 1962 to 1975, is not something the American public has done.

There is, of course, in the public mind now a consensus that the war was a big mistake and somehow wrong. But to say simply that is to know nothing. How was it a mistake, and why? And who made the mistakes and why? Until we grapple with those questions, we'll remain just as much in the dark as if we had never heard of the struggle. I can think of no better way to begin to shed light on what happened than to read Neil Sheehan's book, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. It is now eighteen years old and though, when it was published, it did receive considerable notice, it has not attained the status it deserves among those who care about our nation's recent past.

It is first of all an astounding and many-layered story which blends biography and political history in a way that is rare. Quite often when we read history we find a wall between the big events and the psychology of the people caught up in them. It is as though the people are simply tiny chips tossed on very big waves. But history, rightly told, is about what people do and what's in their minds when they do it. And if we don't know what they were thinking, we know little about what occurred.

Sheehan doesn't make that mistake. In the person of John Vann, he shows what America was -- and what to a great extent it still is. In this single extraordinary figure the forces of our past come together to teach us why we have behaved as we have.

Early in the book, Sheehan tells us that John Vann did not believe history applied to Americans. It was something that affected people like the French, but not us. If you were looking for the primary cause of American follies over the past two generations, that attitude would have to be the top candidate. It so seized the imagination of this tortured lower-middle class boy who rose to be the leading civilian figure of the American military effort in Vietnam, that all of his amazing abilities, which were close to fantastic, were cankered and twisted into a lie. 

If you believe a lie, your virtues can't save you. It's a lesson that ought to be intoned before every meeting of every national council. But, then, if it were, it would become just one more bromide.

John Vann knew that the major figures directing the American incursion into Vietnam were ignorant of the country and ill-informed about how their policies were being applied. Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, William Westmoreland were all fools so far as Vietnam was concerned. And John Vann knew that they were. Yet his knowledge of their ineptitude -- and in Westmoreland's case, virtual criminality -- did not carry over into insight about their global policy. He bought into the notion that a pack of corrupt opportunists in Vietnam could be refashioned into genuine statesmen with the ability to found a nation. Though they betrayed him, time and again, he never gave up on the effort to make them into what they were not. Then, after he tried for ten years, he was killed. A Clint Eastwood character would have said he had it coming.

In a book about his tour to the Hebrides in 1773, Samuel Johnson wrote:

A Scotchman must be a very sturdy moralist who does not love Scotland better than truth:
he will always love it better than inquiry; and if falsehood flatters his vanity, will not be very
diligent to detect it.

I suppose we might partially forgive Americans who love their country better than truth if their concept of what they love has either a tincture of accuracy or idealism in it. But the America Johnson and his cabinet were trying to defend by killing tens of thousands of Vietnamese never existed and will never have a right to exist. The whole business was a lie -- a lie unmitigated by any thoughtful aspirations for the future.

Whether that judgment can also be applied to the current incursion and the current killing in a country thousands of miles from our borders is a question we'll be arguing about for decades to come.

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