Sunday, September 20, 2015

Vietnam: Disaster or Success? Part 2

Vietnam: Disaster or Success? Part Two
P. Schultz
September 20, 2015

            Continuing my “review” of Gordon Goldstein’s book, Lessons in Disaster, dealing the McGeorge Bundy and his role in the Unites States’ war in Vietnam, it becomes pretty clear that, as suggested in my previous post, the Vietnam War was about more than Vietnam.

            For example, in the spring of 1965, preceding LBJ’s decision to escalate the war, Bundy, returning from Vietnam and a gruesome experience while there, composed a memo for LBJ that rejected a diplomatic end to the war because “The international prestige of the United States, and a substantial part of our influence, are directly at risk in Vietnam . . . any negotiated US withdrawal today would mean surrender on the installment plan.” [p. 157] Hence, Bundy proposed a sustained bombing campaign in Vietnam.

            Now defining the problem as protecting “the international prestige of the United States” illuminates that the war in Vietnam represented a political problem at least as much as a military problem. And the latter was addressed in light of the former. In this light, withdrawal represented “surrender,” even if only on an “installment plan,” because it would change the United States’ position in the world, undermining “a substantial part of our influence” therein, thereby undermining as well the bona fides of those representing the established political order such as Bundy and LBJ.

            So, because the military problem in Vietnam, the war, seemed unsolvable, unwinnable, the issue became how to fight a losing war without undermining the established political order, the order represented by the likes of Bundy and Johnson. Hence, what is labeled the “Fork in the Road memo,” composed by Bundy and McNamara, argued that the US had only one choice, to “apply unspecified forms of military action,” despite the fact that two simulations, SIGMA I and SIGMA II, had illustrated that such military actions would not “force a change in Communist strategy.” [p. 157]

            The other option, to “negotiate some kind of settlement, presumably neutralization,” was unacceptable because the prevailing political order, the prevailing regime, in the US was premised on a rejection of neutralization as being “pro-Communist,” and this throughout the world. To embrace neutralization in Vietnam would be to undermine the legitimacy of the prevailing political elites.

            So, the escalation that the US undertook in 1965 – and thereafter – was not undertaken to win the war in Vietnam. Pretty much everyone agreed that such a victory would not be forthcoming. Moreover, this escalation was not undertaken primarily to fortify the regime in Vietnam; rather, it was undertaken to fortify the prevailing regime in the United States. And to see that such fortification was necessary, it is good to recall the challenges that regime faced in the 60s from various insurgencies, such as the civil rights movement, black power, feminism, and more generally, “sex, drugs, and rock n roll.” As Bob Dylan noticed, the times they were a changing, something our politicians had noticed as well.

            One chapter in Goldstein’s book is entitled, “Politics is the Enemy of Strategy.” Well, not so much. Politics is the source of strategy. But to see this, it is necessary to understand that politics is primarily about forming and maintaining arrangements of power or, as Aristotle would say, arrangements of offices, and not about what we label policy-making. Policies do get made, of course. But to understand them and the men who make them, it is necessary to understand that all such policies are subordinated to the needs of particular regimes.

            And when viewed in this way, the war in Vietnam was anything but a disaster insofar as it was waged – and lost – without undermining the prevailing political order. In fact, insofar as that political order is still the prevailing one today, just so far it may be said that that war was, from a political point of view, a success.


            Goldstein provides enough evidence to support the argument above. Here are two paragraphs worth quoting at some length.

            “Bundy’s projections about the use of American combat troops were conspicuously, if not purposely, vague. . . . Even a failed intervention in Vietnam, Bundy asserted, would be better than no intervention at all. ‘Questions: in terms of US politics which is better: to ‘lose’ now or to ‘lose’ after committing 100,000 men? Tentative answer: the latter.’”

            “The Johnson administration, he argued, should be driven not by the minimal economic or military interests at risk but rather by the principle of protecting its global credibility, the imperative not to be rendered a so-called paper tiger. Fulfillment of that objective did not require the United States to prevail in Vietnam. To the contrary, a military defeat was acceptable provided Washington lost with some demonstrable cost, perhaps even after deploying 100,000 troops. Accordingly to Bundy’s presumptive logic, defeat in Vietnam would protect American credibility globally and the credibility of the Johnson administration domestically.” [p. 167]

            This also implies that “the costs” should involve sufficient deaths to American service men and women, even though these deaths would not advance the military objectives in Vietnam, to amount to “some demonstrable cost.”

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Vietnam: Disaster or Success? Victory or Defeat?

Vietnam: Disaster or Success? Victory or Defeat?
P. Schultz
September 19, 2015

            This is a review of sorts of a book entitled Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam, by Gordon M. Goldstein. As the title indicates, Goldstein, who was working closely with Bundy immediately prior to the latter’s death, sees the Vietnam war as a “disaster” for the United States and wonders, as many others have as well, how such a disaster could occur while intelligent people such as McGeorge Bundy, the Kennedy brothers, Robert McNamara, Roger Hilsman and others were at the helm of state. As one characterization of these men has it, there were “the best and the brightest” and yet the result was a disaster.

            So for Goldstein the question is, “How did the Vietnam disaster happen?” Of course, this question assumes that that war was a disaster and this seems like an all too plausible assumption. However, as poised this question and this assumption might serve to obscure that war and its purposes. In fact, it can be argued that from a political point of view, as distinguished from a public policy point of view, the Vietnam War was a success. It succeeded in fortifying the established political order, a political order that continues, at least in its essentials, to this day.

            Goldstein, like so many others, treats the Kennedys, Bundy, and LBJ as primarily policy makers, not as politicians. And of course this leads him to ask: How could these intelligent men embrace a policy that led to a “disaster” in Vietnam? But in asking this question, Goldstein subordinates the political context to the policy-making context, assuming that these officials were more concerned with the latter than the former. They were primarily concerned with finding a policy that would “work,” that is, bring victory, in Vietnam.

            However, these assumptions are questionable because, with good reasons, politicians always subordinate policy-making to politics, even to the point of embracing a “disastrous” policy like that evident in Vietnam when it is necessary to ensure political success. For when such a phenomenon occurs, even what is originally perceived as a “disastrous” policy can be redeemed.

            From a political point of view, the Vietnam War was successful in that, as conducted, in served to perpetuate the prevailing political order. In 1964, LBJ was elected in a landslide over Barry Goldwater, a conservative who challenged the prevailing political order. In 1968, after LBJ had decided not to seek re-election amidst significant civil unrest over the war, Richard Nixon was elected president and then re-elected in a landslide in 1972 over the insurgent challenger, George McGovern, despite the fact that Nixon had prolonged the war for four years and even expanded it. And, eventually, after the interim presidency of Gerald Ford and the one term presidency of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan was elected president while proclaiming that the Vietnam War was so far from a disaster, that it was a “noble cause.”  And Reagan was re-elected in a landslide in 1984, illustrating as well as anything could that the Vietnam War had been redeemed. And another part of this redemption took place when President Clinton helped to redeem Richard Nixon as a “statesman,” both before and after the latter’s death.

            The strategy employed in Vietnam, by both Republicans and Democrats, proved to be successful in preserving and even fortifying the established political order and this despite significant challenges from “the right” – Goldwater – and from “the left” – George McGovern. A policy-making perspective obscures such a political perspective by which – as Aristotle noticed a long time ago – all established political orders, “regimes” in Aristotle’s lingo, are inherently unstable and constantly subject to change. Politicians are aware, by virtue of being politicians, of this inherent instability and, insofar as they are part of the established political order, seek to preserve the existing order because it is their source of power and prestige and because it seems to be the best available arrangement of power. Others, not part of the established political order, seek for the same reasons to change, to “overthrow” as people like to say now, that established order and assume power themselves.

            Politicians and the “loyal” bureaucrats or experts that serve them could not afford to look at the Vietnam War simply through policy-making eyes. Because they had to be concerned with preserving the prevailing order, they subordinated policy-making to politics in this sense. Confirmation of this is the sacking of Robert McNamara, who was deemed “disloyal” and expendable, when he allowed his assessment of the existing policy a failure control his advice to LBJ. From a strictly policy-making perspective McNamara was correct; but from a political perspective, this policy-making perspective had to be suppressed.

            In other words, the war in Vietnam could be lost, provided it was done in a way that preserved the prevailing political order at home, definitely a tricky proposition given how often lost wars lead to changes in such orders, e.g., in Germany after World War I and in the Soviet Union after Afghanistan. Hence, even while giving up on victory, LBJ could abnegate power for the sake of peace, thereby displacing the other peace movement, the “radical” peace movement that hated the United States. And Nixon would say he was pursuing “peace with honor,” implying that the US had put up a noble fight to achieve an honorable peace, made possible by such “honorable” men as himself and Henry Kissinger, men who were to be contrasted favorably to those “long-haired, hippie radicals” in the streets causing unrest and undermining the war effort.

So, from the vantage of the prevailing political order, it is quite plausible to say that the Vietnam War was a success. And this helps explain what Goldstein takes for the blindness he saw in McGeorge Bundy and others who took us down the path to war in Vietnam. But they were not blind. They were waging, as politicians are wont to do, a political battle for hearts and minds. Only that battle was focused not so much on Vietnam as on the United States. And it was, or so it seems to me, victorious.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Elections, Democracy, and "the Donald"

Elections, Democracy, and “the Donald”
P. Schultz
September 16, 2015

            There are two, rather competing “stories” about the United States and its politics. By one of these stories, our political system is democratic and we the people are a democratic people. Periodically, as prescribed by our constitutions, elections are held, the people’s will is canvassed, and candidates run for offices in order to serve that will once they have been elected.

            By the other story, one most are less familiar with, those with power – political, economic, and/or social power – seek to maintain those powers and to do so, they find it necessary to manage or “massage” our election processes, thereby limiting or even “short-circuiting” those allegedly democratic processes. The “Ins” do not “rig elections” in the ordinary sense of buying votes, but they do try their best to control elections to preserve their power so they can continue to serve their own interests and those of their supporters.

            When there is widespread popular discontent, when the people are dissatisfied, even irate, when there is considerable “civil unrest,” such control or the “massaging” of our elections is of great importance to the “Ins.” At such times, “insurgents” arise, “Outs” trying to become “Ins,” and, if left unattended, just might succeed.

At such times, it makes sense for the “Ins” to adopt the mantle of “insurgency,” to appear as being against the very system that empowered and empowers them and that they control. Hence, these days, the phrase “Washington is broken” is a charge made repeatedly even by those in power, those who control the same “Washington.” Insiders try to run as if they were outsiders and, when they succeed, very little changes, as happened, for example after the 2006 congressional elections were won overwhelmingly by the Democrats. Of course, such a phenomenon often occurs, for example, in the 1968 presidential elections when Richard Nixon ran as an outsider, especially with regard to the Vietnam War, won a landslide victory, but then the war continued for another five years or so.

But what does this have to do “the Donald,” Donald Trump and his campaign for the presidency? On the one hand, Trump’s campaign may be seen as an interesting example of “massaging” our electoral process because while he looks and sounds like an insurgent, seeking to overthrow the established order, he is anything but. Trump is a billionaire businessman, just as Mitt Romney was a billionaire businessman. That he flaunts his wealth while saying allegedly outrageous things makes it seem as if he is “liberated;” that is, makes him seem to embrace “unauthorized” thoughts and would as president propose and implement policies outside the mainstream. In this way, he will “make America great again.”

Yet there is little indicate that Trump has thought much about, to say nothing of thinking in depth, what would help right our politics or, in the current lingo, “fix Washington.” In fact, it is more than plausible to argue that Trump is the perfect establishment candidate because, while he appears to challenge the establishment, he actually is its embodiment. He proudly boasts of his accomplishments, which of course occurred as he played the game within the established economic and social arrangements. Seemingly, Trump’s boasts amount to nothing more than a claim that he knows how to game the system, to have succeeded because he is more “competent,” “smarter,” and a better “deal-maker” that those currently holding power in Washington. The system, that is, the established order is quite capable of bringing America to greatness again, if only people will elect Trump and his cohorts. In brief, Trump is no insurgent; he is merely just another person who thinks that “competence” will be enough to remake or refurbish American society and politics.

How little this veiled argument for competence addresses the anger of many Americans is reflected by the fact that what makes Trump attractive are his allegedly outrageous statements, which illustrate that many Americans sense that the established order is anything but able to restore the United States to something like greatness. “Politics as usual” is not working and, hence, those who talk like Trump, those who claim they would embrace actions deemed beyond the pale by the presently authorized ideology, attract many of the dissatisfied and the disempowered.

Moreover, Trump’s alleged insurgency, while reinforcing the idea that our political system is democratic or open to significant challenges, actually undermines the possibility for such change. Those in positions of power, the politically pre-eminent, are quite willing to tolerate Trump and his antics because they know that, in the longer run, he will fail, that they will be able to defeat him. And when that happens or is made to happen, as it will, those in power will be able to reassert their indispensability, claiming that insurgency is a pipe dream and that the current system is the best that is available or even simply the best. Again, this has happened in the past, for example, when the establishment Republicans tolerated Goldwater for president in 1964, shortly after the Kennedy assassination, knowing he would go down to defeat against LBJ. Similarly, it is plausible that a similar phenomenon was arranged in 1972 when the Democrats tolerated George McGovern, knowing that Richard Nixon would beat him in that presidential election.

Trump then is useful to the politically preeminent, those who hold power in the currently established order insofar as he makes insurgency look inane, if not downright insane. As a result, no significant changes will be forthcoming in the aftermath of this presidential election and this will be regarded by the established powers as proof of their indispensability, even of their excellence. It is or will be a strange situation.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Populist Moment

My Latest “Gold Mine:” The Populist Moment
P. Schultz
September 12, 2015

            Just a few days short of my birthday, I have “discovered” a wonderfully insightful book on the Populists, entitled “The Populist Moment,” by Lawrence Goodwyn. I am going to quote two paragraphs from the introduction, offered as an incentive to get you to read this book.

            “For a number of reasons, all of them rather fundamental to historical analysis, the Populist movement has proved very difficult to Americans to understand….

            “There are three principal areas of interpretive confusion that bear directly on the Populist experience. First, very little understanding exists as to just what mass democratic movements are, and how they happen. Second, there are serious problems embedded in the very language of description modern Americans routinely employ to characterize political events. These problems particularly affect commonly held presumptions about how certain ‘classes’ of people are supposed to ‘act’ on the stage of history. Third, and by all odds most importantly, our greatest problem in understanding protest is grounded in contemporary American culture. In addition to being central, this cultural difficulty is also the most resistant to clear explanation: we are not only culturally confused, our confusion makes it difficult for us even to imagine our confusion.” [p. ix, added]

            Goodwyn goes on to point out that “the reigning American presumption about the American experience is grounded in the idea of progress.” Hence, in the face of “sundry movements of protest,” explanations are needed that are consistent with the idea of progress. Commonly, it is said that people protest when there is “a temporary malfunction of the economic order,” when “times are hard.” When things return to normal, people no longer protest, and, of course, “progress is resumed.” [pp. ix-x]

            It is then the idea of progress, that is, the presumption of progress as a fact, which makes protests appear as responses to intermittent economic “malfunctions.” However, to understand the Populists in this way is to make them and their movement disappear. Moreover, this understanding of American history also makes the arrangements against which the Populists were protesting disappear as well. As Goodwyn puts it: The Populist revolt “points to a deeper reality of the modern world itself: industrial societies have not only become centralized, they have devised rules of conduct that are intimidating to their populations as a whole.” Hence, because the Populists came to understand this, or at least some of them did, they were not interested in a return to “normality,” but were looking forward to “a wholesale overhauling of their society.” [p. xii]

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Trump: Ally of the Republican Establishment

Trump: Ally of the Republican Establishment
P. Schultz
September 6, 2015

            The link below is to an article in Salon entitled “5 ways Donald Trump is blatantly sabotaging his own party.” Not so much. Rather, Trump is helping, whether intentionally or unintentionally, the Republican Party’s establishment types by making the “insurgents” in that party look like losers. And this is fine with these establishment types, even if it means that the Republicans will lose the 2016 election because that will solidify their power at the head of that party.

            This has happened before. Precisely, it happened in 1964 when the Republicans let Barry Goldwater be nominated, who went on to be crushed by LBJ in one of the biggest landslides in American political history. So much for the appeal in the Republican Party of the Goldwaterites, as they were consigned to the dustbin of history. And this prepared the way for Nixon's nomination and election in 1968. Most have never known or forgotten that Nixon probably outpolled Kennedy for popular votes in 1960 but you can bet Nixon and the establishment Republicans did not forget.

            Moreover, this “loss” had another upside: It allowed the debacle in Vietnam, which the Republicans and others as well knew was coming [if it hadn’t already arrived], to fall on the shoulders of a Democrat president, viz., LBJ, which was and still is a boon to the Republican Party. It is to this day the Democrats who look “weak” on national security and this is in part a reflection of what happened in Nam between 1964 and 1968.

            More generally, it is always useful to remember that it is a myth, a widely endorsed myth but still a myth, that political parties are committed to winning each and every election, even each and every presidential election. “Say it ain’t so, Joe?” Well, it ain’t so. Parties will lose elections if necessary to preserve the power of those in control, e.g., 1964, 1996, and perhaps 2016.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

"Unmanned" Technology, Killing, and War

Blinded by the Light: “Unmanned” Technology and War
P. Schultz
September 3, 2015

            Unmanned: Drones, Data, and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare, by William M. Arkin, is a book about the increasingly “perfect” vision that has been and is being acquired by our military thanks to drones and other such technology. And without going into detail, I was amazed at the capacity of our technology to see, it would seem, everywhere as that technology proliferates, seemingly without end.

            There are, however, some implications of this technology, as Arkin points out, that are or should be troubling. First, as Arkin puts it quite directly, our military has become “assassins.” The goal of this allegedly “unmanned” technology – which of course is anything but “unmanned” if account is taken of the thousands of human beings who fly these devices, those who interpret the data produced, and those who determine whether or not to kill a target – is to kill or “eliminate” a particular “target,” which is quite different than the goal of winning a battle. The goal is, to put it most simply, to kill targets.

            On the other hand, the goal of a military, any military, is to win wars. How much killing is to be done in order to win a war is or should be a secondary concern. Soldiers kill only in order to and only as much as it is necessary to win wars. Killing is not the essence of what soldiers do or, at the very least, it shouldn’t be. What Arkin labels “the Data Machine” changes this: “When something is found, when something is heard and geolocated, is it a clue to follow and understand, or is it a target to kill? In immediate self-defense, the answer is always ‘kill’….” [p. 239] And this despite the fact that it is not at all clear that anything much is being accomplished: “Given the efforts expended to reach this level of seeming perfection and equality, the numbers still don’t support the image of a terrorist and insurgent class being eliminated.” [p. 248]

            And this forces us to wonder how what we are doing is changing us. “Drones and their puppeteer, the Data Machine, may have developed from some sense of need and good, but no matter what, this Machine is going to kill, and its going to make godlike decisions. In the end, having the Machine between us and the killing makes us less human. The illusion of perfect warfare is little more than a blaring video game endlessly played to higher and higher levels and higher scores, but one being played in a crumbling crack house.” [p. 283]

Secondly, as our “vision” becomes more and more “proficient,” to the point now where individuals can be targeted and killed with great efficiency, our eyesight becomes weaker and weaker or, as some might say, we “miss the forest for the trees.” That is, while we can pinpoint the position of an individual we want dead, target him, and then kill him, we are no better and are probably worse at seeing “the big picture.” So, as weird as it may seem, as we can more clearly “the dots,” as it were, we see less clearly the context in which these dots exist. And it should come as no surprise that “connecting the dots” is a task we are unable to do well. In fact, it shouldn’t be surprising that given the “soda straw” view provided by our allegedly “all-seeing” technology, even those who need to know the bigger picture do not. “By June 2008, [Robert] Gates let loose in a videoconference: ‘I don’t have a feel for how the fight is going!’ he said. ‘I don’t think the president has a clear idea either….’” [p. 239]

            So, while it would seem that our technology allows us to make “god-like decisions,” the truth is that this technology and our reliance on it is actually making us blind, both metaphorically and literally. We cannot see who we are fighting and  even forget why. As Arkin puts it so well:

‘”Understand the village and its mood, find the anomalies, not just a hot spot or a patched roadway that wasn’t there before, but also the qualities of people’s stares, the level of nervousness of bystanders, the behavior of young boys, the identities and presence and attitude of key leaders. Learn the signs, smell the threats, pick up on the signals, know what to look for and what to see. Most important, do the right thing when you are the foreign organism introduced into the scenario  . . . This is not just the laws of warfare or politics or the stuff of commendation medals; it is also intrinsic to orderly existence and self-preservation, a chain of understood behaviors . . . that goes back as far as these stories of mankind and persists even in war, where even though the enemy does not honor any creed, the honorable fighters do. And they do so not just to live with themselves and maintain their humanity in the face of sanctioned killing, but also to forge a peace, to create a space for peace to return, for the sake of every good.” [p. 243]