Thursday, November 22, 2018

Road to Disaster: A New History

Road To Disaster: A New History
Peter Schultz

            Last week I went to my local library to pick up a book and I stumbled upon another book entitled Road to Disaster: A New History of America’s Descent Into Vietnam, by Brian Van DeMark. So, even though I was skeptical that anything much new could be written about Vietnam, I checked it out and am glad I did.

            It is well-written and in the prologue DeMark clearly lays out his argument, viz., that “It [the history of America’s descent into Vietnam] is the more complex and sobering tale of well-intentioned individuals making bad decisions.” [xiv, italics in original] And he elaborates a bit more later in the prologue:

            “I wanted . . . to go beyond the powerful cliche’ of arrogant and ignorant men stumbling blindly into danger and disaster, to search for a deeper and more fundamental truth that explained their mistakes and failures in a way that took account of what I knew to be their essential decency and humanity.” [xxvii]

            Well, to save some time, let me just cut to the chase and ask: Can imperialists be “decent and humane?” Can they be “well-intentioned?” That is, is that allowed to them? Once you choose imperialistic policies, it could be that your attempts, your desire to be decent and humane are meaningless or irrelevant. That is, if you think that imperialism and decency and humanity can go together, you are, in all likelihood, delusional. Just consider in this regard not only Machiavelli’s politics but also that of Plato and Aristotle.

            It really is quite simple. If you want to be decent, humane, well-intentioned, you must forego imperialism, that is, the desire to rule the world. To see the people who took the United States into Vietnam as decent and humane is to miss the forest for the trees. As General Giap once pointed out to Robert McNamara when they got together to discuss the war: “The war was a tragedy for the Americans because they were imperialists trying to impose their will on the Vietnamese people. It was not, however, a tragedy for the Vietnamese as they successfully defeated the imperialists.”

            Without a recognition that (a) imperialism is necessarily and always indecent and inhumane and (b) that American foreign policy was imperialistic, it is impossible to understand why American leaders made “bad decision,” indecent decisions, inhumane decisions, over and over and over again, until they were defeated. Other explanations may be interesting but they do not, they cannot get to the heart of the matter.

Recommended reading: George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant.” 

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