Monday, April 14, 2014

A Conflicted War

We Americans like our wars simple. A good side and a bad side. We win, they loose. We can see this in how we remember the American Revolution (liberty verses tyranny), the Civil War (freedom verses slavery), World War II (justice verses Nazis), and the Cold War (free capitalism verses despotic communism). And those conflicts legitimately lend themselves to such interpretations.

Of course, there are positive elements to this. We desire to ensure that we are "right" when taking such a drastic and horrible step as war. This could probably be directly tied back to the Just War Theory. And there is an idealism underlying this as well that we have been permitted to hold as a result of particular geography. We have oceans on either side, and friendly neighbors above and below. We've never faced a serious invasion by a neighboring country. We've never been truly attacked on home soil by another country since 1812 (9/11 is a category of its own, and Hawaii was a territory on December 7, 1941). So we can, to some extent, afford to hold to these ideals in a way those living in other countries may not.

There is a danger here as well. Once convinced we are "right," it is easy conclude that the ends justify the means. Even these good/bad wars, which do lend themselves to such a dichotomy view, have been whitewashed to some degree. War brings out the worst in everyone, which we would rather forget. The founders, upon establishing a country based on freedom, adopted the Alien and Sedation Acts. Sherman marched to the sea. And during WWII, the United States was still segregated and we set up concentration camps for people of Japanese descent. And lets not forget that the nation that holds itself out as the epitome of liberty and justice is also the only nation to have used nuclear weapons against another.

Each of these can be defended on military grounds, and I'm not here to debate their merits, but will say that none of these on their own, whether black marks or not, invalidate the larger purpose of the wars. They simply demonstrate that wars are awful all around.

There are other wars in our history that demonstrate this complexity even starker. These are the wars we do not highlight. The Indian wars are deliberately ignored, WWI is hardly understood, Korea was forgotten, and our small wars are largely lost to history. These types of wars are more complicated than we're comfortable with.

The largest of these uncomfortable wars, however, is the one that more than any other still overshadows our current geopolitical relations: Vietnam. Which leads me to the object of this book review: Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam. (Obtained through Goodreads First Reads program.)

In this book, which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in History, Fredrik Logevall examines the events leading up to the United States involvement in Vietnam. Logevall begins his account with the end of WWI, and ends with the first commitment of US troops. Along the way we learn that like WWI, the Vietnam conflict had its origins in European-esque boundary disputes. Like WWII, it erupted over unresolved issues in the wake of WWI. Like the Cold War, it ended up being treated as part of the larger ideological global conflict between capitalism and communism. But underneath all those narratives, the good guys and the bad guys were difficult to distinguish.

Along the way we learn that the communist revolutionaries had their origins in Wilsonian anti-colonialism. Vietnam (French Indochina) was a French colony prior to WWI and watched many of its neighbors obtain independence in the wake of that war. The future communist leader Ho Chi Minh was actually at the Versailles Peace Conference attempting (unsuccessfully, so far as we know) to obtain an audience with President Wilson to make a case for Vietnamese independence. But France wouldn't release the colony.

Then, during WWII, the colony was overrun by the Japanese. At the end of that war, again there was the opportunity for independence, again the opportunity passed and France reacquired its former colony. Roosevelt indicated he might be willing to push back against France and in favor of independence, but his death in office brought an end to that hope. All the while the spirit of independence was growing across the country.

Rebuffed by the Americans and occupied by the French, the Vietnamese turned to the only voice that was speaking for independence. Unfortunately, it was the voice of the communists. Rebellion happened, France threw troops into the colony for a decade and then wore out, a truce was signed dividing the country, the communists got the north but violated the treaty, the United States committed troops.

It is a story of a part of the world slipping from tragedy to tragedy. Of opportunities lost combined with a lack of clear "good" choices. Of the inability to distinguish between an independence movement and a communist revolution. In short, it is a story of  human history in all its complexity. But it's a story that we should learn from more, and maybe soapbox on less.

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