Sunday, February 28, 2010

More From Corson

Here are some more interesting arguments made by William Corson in his book, "Betrayal," which I cited in my last post. Corson manages to put our options in Vietnam in a wholly new light. He thinks, or at least seems to think, that by exercising these options we could have won the war there. I am not so sure but at least Corson shows that he can think independently. For example, he criticizes the way the political system characterized our options as either (a) escalate the conflict or (b) pull out. Or as Corson puts it, both sides in the debate over Vietnam viewed the choice as either "to stay" or "not to stay." Hawks or doves, that was, allegedly, our choice. In one chapter in "Betrayal," which is entitled "Birdwatching in Vietnam," Corson enumerates and then elaborates on the many different kinds of birds one can see in Nam, to wit: vultures, parrots, woodpeckers, magpies, dodos, owls, falcons, hummingbirds, and peacocks. This is good stuff. But here is another paragraph from Corson which sheds a light on the situation in Nam that, to my knowledge, no one and certainly no one in power had ever seen.

"Central to this action [withdrawing our total sanction of the GVN, the Government of Viet Nam] is the fact that the general officers of the ARVN are (1) not competent to lead their forces and (2) are considered by the able fighting men to be 'turncoats' an opportunists. The second reason is the key, but it has been ignored by our leadership ever since we have been in Vietnam. Consider if you will how the leaders of George Washington's Continental Army would have reacted if after the successful conclusion of the Revolutionary War the junior officers who served under the British commander, General Cornwallis, had been appointed generals in the new United States Army. That is what happened in Vietnam. Every general officer in the ARVN either served on the side of the French in the Vietminh war or sat out the war in a French university. The highest ranking officer in the ARVN who fought against the French is a colonel. More to the point is the fact that seven out of eight of the elite ARVN battalions [Rangers, Airborne, and Marines, etc.] are commanded by officers who did fight the French - and in many cases they then held ranks two or three grades above the rank they currently hold in the ARVN.

"The ARVN officers who fought on the side of the Vietminh are an interesting breed of cat. As a group they are ascetics among whores....These men have refused, as a matter of principle, to participate in the 'take.'" [pp. 278-79]

Corson looked at Vietnam through the lens of Vietnam, not through the lens of an ideologically focused anti-communism or nation-building. I wonder if anyone is doing this in Afghanistan today, where it seems that once again escalation or non-escalation are the only two choices we are told are available.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Betrayal

Discovery, discovery!! I have uncovered a marvelous book on VietNam entitled "Betrayal" by William R. Corson, who was a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps and was in charge of what is called "the Other War" in Nam, that is, pacification. Colonel Corson retired from the Marine Corps right before his book was published, which is understandable after you have read the book, which is an indictment of how the United States fought both "the War" and "the Other War." Let me just quote at length some passages here, reminding the reader that this book was published in 1968 and therefore written before that. For those who may not know, this was about the time LBJ decided he could not run for reelection because of the war and was the time that US "involvement" in Nam was nearing its peak in terms of men stationed there.

"From the American and Vietnamese point of view what may we reasonably expect if the hawks have their way and there is a massive escalation of the war? The American and Vietnamese people are not going to gain a thing; in fact, they - not the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong - are going to lose all. Bigger and bigger 'victories' will not only hasten the total destruction of South Vietnamese society, but at some time in the future the quest for victory will produce a grievous military defeat for American forces." [p. 286]

"Probably by the time this book reaches print the American eagle will be walking in the mud. The enemy is just a short step away from introducing heat-seeking shoulder-fired missiles, and when that happens the helicopter will be shot out of the sky. The contest between our forces and the enemy has been like a bull fight. Slowly but surely they are wearing us down to where we must fight on their ground and on their terms, and when they succeed we will suffer a military defeat. The Westmoreland/JCS answer to the basic deficiency is more troops. All more troops will do is to put off the final reckoning - but not eliminate it.

"General Vo Nguyen Giap, the North Vietnamese Defense Minister, has said that when the United States has a million men in South Vietnam, North Vietnam will have won the war. Giap's meaning is clear. The presence and the actions of one million US troops will destroy what is left of South Vietnam. The people will finally withdraw what little support still remains for our efforts and the cold, naked brutality of our messianic anti-communism will be exposed. The foretaste of things to come with more escalation was revealed in all of its horrendous irrationality at the city of Ben Tre during the Tet offensive. The American spokesman said, 'We had to destroy Ben Tre in order to save it.' This is the language of madness, a madness which if allowed to continue will destroy not only the people of Vietnam, but also the moral fabric and strength of America." [p. 289]

What makes Corson's book so interesting is that he does not think that the only option was to pull out of Nam, although that was one option. He argues that the government, our government, frequently sets up policies with an "either/or" framework, even though other options exist. Corson talks about these other options in his book and they seem to make sense. What makes the book valuable is the same thing that makes it relevant today when we are "engaged" in Iraq and Afghanistan. It left me wondering what other options we have today that are just dismissed because they don't fit into, say, a bureaucratic model of government and war-making. But anyway, this is a book worth reading.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Ambition, Continued

Continuing on the theme of my last blog, it may be said with some confidence that the differences between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists may be illustrated with their disagreements about ambition. The issue was and, I would say, still is: What is the status of ambition? That is, what should be the relationship between a political order and ambition or ambitious people?

For the Federalists, ambition, while dangerous, is to be sought after when constructing a political order. That is, the political order should be constructed so as to draw ambitious men into the government. Alexander Hamilton in a paper on the presidency pronounced that "the love fame [is] the ruling passion of the noblest minds," and argued based on this psychology that the task with regard to the presidency was to draw the ambitious into the government, that is, to construct an office that would appeal to the most ambitious men available. Of course, Hamilton and others knew that such men were potentially dangerous and so sought to render the government "safe," by means of the separation of powers and even by means of what we call "the impeachment process." But, for the Federalists, it was crucial to get those characterized by ambition, even great ambition, into the government, especially in the presidency and the executive department more generally.

For the Anti-Federalists, it would be accurate to say that they did not want to construct a government, a political order, that would appeal to the ambitious because they thought that such men were dangerous and that once in the government would not be controllable. For the Anti-Federalists, no great talents were necessary or safe when it came to government. Such men would undertake political projects in order to harvest the glory that would come from their success, with that glory being the object of the exercise and not whether the exercise was compatible with the well-being of the nation. Needless to say, these projects would be "great" as it is through such projects that the most glory is to be harvested. [See Abraham Lincoln's speech on "The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions" for another example of this reasoning.]But for the Anti-Federalists, as for many today, "great projects" are fraught with danger, especially danger to the well-being of society. And, moreover, once the glory is harvested, what is to stop the harvester from seeking to undermine the republican character of the government by becoming a "monarch"?

Now, of course, the Anti-Federalist argument makes little or no sense if one has the idea that it is the task of government to undertake "great projects." If this is one's conception of government, then it is only logical to seek those ambitious types who hunger and thirst for glory, for fame, for a kind of immortality - but the only kind of immortality that human beings can be sure of -that is bestowed on those who do "great things." So, to understand the Anti-Federalist argument, one must understand that their conception of government was different than that of the Federalists and, therefore, that their understanding of the ends of political or governmental activity was different than that of the Federalists. For the Anti-Federalists, the political arena was not or should not be an arena for those of great ambition, those seeking fame or today celebrity status, to play out their need for glory or greatness. Rather, the political or governmental arena should be an arena where people of competence meet, not to seek glory or fame, but rather to seek the well-being of a people. And, of course, the Anti-Federalists would argue that those would be most competent who were most like those they were "re-presenting" in the governmental arena. Would anyone today want to argue that the Anti-Federalists were simply wrong? Haven't we had enough presidents who seek "greatness," who seek to be remembered by "history" as "great men?" I for one would settle for and even praise simple competence, perhaps something along the lines of the Eisenhower presidency. But then Eisenhower did not need the presidency to achieve greatness. He had already done that, much like Washington, Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson before him.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Our Government

The New York Times published on Friday, February 12th, a poll that revealed, to no one's surprise, that the American people have lost their faith in their government and especially in the Congress. Only 15% of the respondents approved of the way the Congress is handling its job. Only 42% thought the Democrats in the Congress understood the problems of Americans and only 35% thought that the Republicans in the Congress understood the problems of Americans. As far as offering solutions to the our economic problems only 29% thought that Democrats have reasonable solutions and only 22% thought that Republicans have such solutions.

Now what is most interesting to me is that the underlying tone of this poll seems to be that the unresponsiveness of the Congress is not endemic to the institution itself. That is, the American people seem to think that this unresponsiveness is due to factors that can be changed within the framework of the Congress as it exists today. But it is far more likely that the phenomena we are experiencing are endemic to the Congress as an institution, not to the demographics of the current Congress. Here a little bit of Anti-Federalism goes a long way.

The Anti-Federalists argued when the Constitution was being ratified that the Congress could not possibly be a genuinely representative institution. For starters, it was just too small to be able to reflect, that is, "re-present", the American people. Moreover, given the length of the terms of office and the lack of any term limits, the Anti-Federalists predicted that the new government would be manned by people who were, above all else, ambitious. And the interesting thing about the debate between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists is that the Federalists agreed with the Anti-Federalists' predictions of what would happen. They just disagreed about whether it was a desirable state of affairs, thinking and saying that ambition and the ambitious in government was a good thing, while the Anti-Federalists thought it would be a detrimental thing. As James Madison said in Federalist #51, "Ambition would counteract ambition" which would, in his mind then, render the new government "safe". For the Anti-Federalists, ambition in public officials was more often than not a dangerous characteristic and they predicted that a governmental arrangement that sought to draw the ambitious into the government, as the proposed constitution did, would be defective. It would seem that they, the Anti-Federalists, had it right. And now we have a government populated by ambitious types, those who hunger for fame or, at least, popularity and celebrity status, who are, as the Anti-Federalists predicted, out of touch with the people. Amazing what the Anti-Federalists could see even before the Constitution was ratified. They saw what we see even before we saw it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Newt the Dope

Newt Gingrich was on the Daily Show and got in trouble for claiming that Richard Reid was read his Miranda rights because he was a US citizen while the underpants bomber was not. So Bush got it right and Obama got it wrong. Turns out that Reid is not an American citizen so Gingrich tried to claim that he confused Reid with Padilla. Well, that might work except that the 5th Amendment, upon which the Miranda warning was based [to protect against self-incrimination], applies to all "persons" within the jurisdiction of the US. The Constitution knows only two categories of human beings, as originally written, "persons" and "citizens." Most of the protections in the Bill of Rights apply to "persons", that is, to all human beings within the jurisdiction of the United States. This is certainly true of the 5th Amendment and the protection against self-incrimination. So it would not matter if Reid was a citizen or not, so long as he committed his crime within the jurisdiction of the United States.

It is quite interesting how little, say, basketball coaches know about the rules of basketball. But it is even more interesting how little our politicians know about the Constitution. But then they, like Gingrich, treat the Constitution as an interesting artifact, as if it were something in a museum. And, of course, to them it is something that is dead enough to be put in a museum.

A Question

Alright, we have Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement and, of course, both of them are easy targets because they both seem so vacuous or empty. This seems especially true of Palin who strikes me as someone who was, as an undergraduate, about as empty-headed as they come.

But, still, here is a question that is troubling, at least to me: What is it about our current political situation and our political order that makes these two phenomena so appealing? That is, they are appealing, even to relatively large numbers of people. Of course, it is all-too-easy to write these people off as ignoramuses or worse. But if we resist that temptation, what does the popularity of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement tell us about our political order? Most generally, the message is, of course, that our political system is dysfunctional. That is, it isn't working and so those who seem to be, according to conventional standards, less than competent or simply incompetent are appealing. Years ago, when my son was agitated about the election of Jesse Ventura as governor of Minnesota, I tried to calm him by pointing out that his election was an indication of just how screwed up our political system had become, because people were willing to elect a type that according to older standards seemed irrational.

In fact, it can be argued that the dysfunctional character of our political system has been evident for some time in the results of our elections. Sure, a lot of those elected seem to fit the conventional model of a "good politician," educated, focused on issues and conversant in those issues, relatively "well-off", articulate, and even sophisticated. But we seem to have been searching over the past few decades for a new model, even while we reject some of those we have chosen, e.g., Jimmy Carter. After Watergate, it was not surprising that we would seek a new model, settling first on Carter and then on Ronald Reagan. Papa Bush was a throw back, one could argue, having made his name through government service in the national government, just as Richard Nixon had done. But we were done with him in one term and turned to an apparent "outsider," even an inexperienced outsider, Bill Clinton, who as a governor of a small state could be seen as a new model as well. After Clinton, we went with Shrub [the little Bush] who had even less governmental experience than Clinton, and none at all at the national level. And after Shrub, we went with another new model, Obama, who even looks like a new model in the most apparent way. You just can't miss his "newness." And still we are looking, apparently desperately so, for another model. Perhaps it is time to spend some time looking at our political order for its defects, rather than seeking a "savior" in the form of a new kind of president. That is to say, perhaps it is the presidency itself that is defective and not so much the people we elect to fill that office. Could our dissatisfaction be so simple to explain but so difficult to "fix?"

Friday, February 5, 2010

"Progress" in Afghanistan

The New York Times reported today that General McCrystal reports that there has been "progress" made in Afghanistan. Of course that is what he thinks because all he gets from his subordinates are "progress reports." What would one expect to get from "progress reports" other than reports of progress? And, of course, those subordinates know that their promotions hinge on them making progress so what else would you expect to report? A lack of progress? Not likely.

Seriously, though, this is the same general that told Congress just a short time ago that Afghanistan was in danger of being "lost." Although it is unclear to me how it could get lost when we know where it is, the president responded by sending more troops to Afghanistan. So here is another reason why reports of "progress" are entirely expected: Did anyone think that after the general got his requested troops, he would report a lack of progress? Don't think so.....

But the real question is: What is the relationship between "progress" and success? Everyone assumes that making progress brings success closer, brings victory closer. But it only takes a few seconds thought to see that this is not necessarily the case. One can make progress, over and over, without necessarily coming any closer to success or victory. A student can make progress toward an "A" and yet never receive or earn an "A" grade. U.S. forces made "progress" continually in Vietnam but still were defeated. The same could be happening in Afghanistan. In fact, I suspect it probably is.


An article in the Washington Post was commenting on bipartisanship and how people in Washington did not know what it means anymore. Well, that is one way to look at our political system. But another way, more persuasive way, is to note the collusion that takes place between the two, apparently opposed parties. This is most often obfuscated by the apparent rivalry between the two parties. But this "rivalry" is most often over details which obscures the agreement over the underlying principles to which both parties adhere. For example, no one of any significance in our political discourse argues that we have to revamp in significant ways our economy. All argue, despite evidence that suggests this argument is a pipe dream, that we can reform our economy by focusing on productivity. Wealth is good and more wealth is better. And we can go on seeking great wealth without (a) creating great inequalities in society or (b) without ruining our environment. The last president to suggest that this is a pipe dream was Jimmy Carter and, of course, he is viewed with almost universal disgust. Again, in the foreign realm, it is universally agreed by Republicans and Democrats that an interventionist, aggressive and militaristic foreign policy is the only "realistic" foreign policy available. The last president to suggest this is a pipe dream, Eisenhower, is almost universally dismissed as a poor president. And both candidates, Nixon and Kennedy, ran against Ike in 1960 and argued that he did not understand the presidency or the need for as aggressive, even imperialistic foreign policy. Yes, there are arguments over "torture" but none over the basics of our foreign policy.

This aspect of our political system is evident once again in Scott Brown's decision to make a Washington insider, a man who once worked for Colin Powell, his chief of staff. Nothing really new here and the advice Brown will get will be nothing new either. Here is my definition of "normal": Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. This is of course also a definition of "dysfunctional"!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Fucking Retards

Rahm Emmanuel has been "called out" by Sarah Palin for using the phrase "Fucking retards" even though he used it to describe Democrats, i.e., those who are members of his own party. Of course, Palin might be accused of being "politically correct," something she claims not to be. But personally I think the explanation is simple self-interest. Sarah Palin does not want this phrase "Fucking retard" to become an accepted part of our political discourse because, well, it is so descriptive of her!!!!