Thursday, April 1, 2010

More from the Vietnam Wars

A rather lengthy but useful passage from The Vietnam Wars, by Marilyn Young, illustrative of how we Americans "think":

"There were 800 American military personnel in South Vietnam when Kennedy took office and 16,700 when he died in November 1963. The National Liberation Front [NLF] controlled the majority of villages in the South when Kennedy took office; they continued to do so in the year of this death, and basic American policy was also unchanged. After a decade of intense engagement in Indochina, the categories of America's understanding of the Third World remained pristine of historical experience. The abstract mythological model, applicable to any nation, upon which United States policy based itself, reflected not so much ignorance of the history, culture and society of others as indifference. This in turn reflected American history, culture and society, which had always denied that traditions and social constraints had to matter. The United States had created itself and it could help other nations do the same. The United States declared South Vietnam a new nation, born in 1954, and did not take seriously the evidence that this new nation was really half of an old one, whose long struggle for independence against outside invaders informed the social and personal imagination of every Vietnamese. Vietnamese society was insubstantial to U.S. policy makers except as it must be overcome, its cities modernized, its passive peasantry urbanized, its government placed in the hands of strong men, though not too strong to be removed when necessary. In time, no doubt, South Vietnam would even be ready for democracy. Meanwhile, there were technological answers for every problem and managerial solutions to every crisis." [p. 103]

Not only was the United States' policy unaffected by historical experience, it was also unaffected by historical knowledge, as Young makes clear here. Historical experience and knowledge does not matter insofar as one thinks that there are techniques by which one can "manage" or control the world. Robert Strange McNamara, his real full name, was appointed Secretary of Defense because he was a "manager." He knew, or thought he knew, how to manage human beings and, to him, it did not matter if those human beings were American or Vietnamese, auto workers looking for higher wages or soldiers and citizens fighting to unify their country. Management is management by this mindset and historical, social and cultural factors are, ultimately, unimportant. And this is why McNamara could never see himself as an imperialist. Managers don't lord it over others; they just manage them! The means might change - higher wages in one case, napalm in another - but it was still just "management."

This is relevant today, in Afghanistan. Obama thinks he can manage Karzai and his brother....just as McNamara and others, JFK included, thought they could manage Diem and his brother. The world turns and turns and seems to repeat itself almost as if there is really only one human story, a story that is perhaps not so changeable as we Americans would like to think. For real.

No comments:

Post a Comment