Skip to comments.Mom, Apple Pie, and the Ghost of Quagmires Past
Posted on 01/21/2004 11:39:19 AM PST by marron
My friend is a veteran of the early war in Viet Nam, when it was not yet an official war, when we were first there on the ground quietly and in small numbers.
He saw the war both from the above-ground military perspective and from the slightly clandestine side when he was loaned over to Air America, hauling mysterious cargos to and from nameless airstrips in areas we never admitted to.
He has all of the usual kinds of stories men tell of their time in the war zone, tales usually punctuated by punch lines not all perhaps fit for mixed company, but funny just the same. But if he talks long enough, his eyes will well up with tears, his voice will crack, and his face will flush with emotion. I went over there still believing in Mom and apple pie, he says leaving it unsaid that he came home no longer believing.
I notice that he always says it that way, never quite specifying what it was he once believed that he no longer believes. No matter. I assume I know what he means.
Forty years have passed since his time there and he is still haunted by what he did and saw, and the feeling that it was all for nothing, that he was used by men who were not worthy and that all of those people, ours, theirs, and all of those people caught in the middle, had died for nothing, their deaths shrugged off and forgotten by the men who ordered it and the people on whose behalf it was ordered.
Forty years is a long time to carry this kind of burden, but there are burdens that perhaps you lay down only in death; there are hurts that become a part of you and you do not simply lay them aside. There are wounds that dont heal.
I am writing this for him, although I may never even show it to him.
The Ghost of Quagmires Past
The pivotal event in the lives of the people of my generation is without doubt the US war in Viet Nam. All of us who lived in that time are marked by it. Some in very direct ways, families whose son or father left and never returned, the men who fought it and came home changed in ways that war changes men.
Viewed in isolation, it was a war that we lost, that brought down at least two presidents, and broke the spirit of the American military for a generation. After our withdrawal from Viet Nam we would not dare to confront our enemies directly on the battlefield for at least a decade, there would be no major battle for almost twenty years. Not until the first Gulf War, when we would go into battle almost frozen with fear, politicians weeping almost to a man as they cast their vote, churches uncharacteristically full as the families of the soldiers brought their fears to the altar. I dont mention this to be snide, or out of any disrespect; it struck me at the time as at once unprecedented, but also natural, obvious; what else would you do? The families sent their kids off to war, in the face of predictions that we would fill 10,000 or 20,000 body bags in the first week. They sent their kids off and then literally, in a way I had not seen before in my life, with the sincerest of tears, and fear, and trembling, prayed them back home again.
It almost seems unnecessary to point out that during the Viet Nam War, our most cynical of wars, led by cynics, and lost by cynics, this never happened.
Some people may be uncomfortable with the notion that God might take sides in war; that God might be induced by prayer to give victory to one side, when that victory almost certainly means the slaughter of soldiers and civilians on the other side, all equally human, all equally deserving of life.
My shorthand answer to that, of course, is that if God is not in this war, you had better not be either, that if the idea of a war under God is terrifying, it cant compare in horror to a war in which God is not present.
And that, friend, almost describes the Viet Nam War when seen through a certain lens.
Who we are
The United States is not like other countries. It is not a nation in the usual ethnic sense, and while it is unmistakably a culture of its own it is not a culture born in the usual way, out of the millennia of tribal evolution. The American nation and its culture are ideological in a way that almost no other culture on earth is. It is born out of the serendipitous combination of a revolutionary doctrine individual liberty, freedom of conscience planted into a frontier reality which both permitted and forced the notions of individual responsibility and bottom-up government.
The citizens themselves even early on were from a variety of countries and eventually settlers arrived from every continent on the globe. Any notion of racial purity or cultural homogeneity was never possible, it was a dead letter almost from the very beginning. A look at the ship manifests of those times would quickly disabuse us of that notion. The only thing that united these people was the uniquely American way of looking at things, which was born out of the desires that brought them here, and the frontier crucible which reinforced the values that brought them; the love of liberty, the drive to obey conscience rather than convention.
The founders were all believers. Their notion of liberty was not a rejection of morality; on the contrary, they believed that liberty was a basic requirement for morality. If each man must answer to God for his actions, each man must also be free to obey God in the way he understands. You cannot be a truly moral agent without the right to make moral judgments. Thus the belief that men must govern themselves, free from the arbitrary coercion of other men. The flip side of this was that moral judgments have consequences, in this life as well as the next; thus the culture of personal responsibility which grew up. The realities of nation-building and frontier living were the laboratory where these beliefs and responsibilities were cured and hardened, as small groups of families built towns, fought small wars of self-defense, and ruled themselves far from any help or authority.
This is who we are. You cannot define what an American is by reference to his genetic code. His DNA is spiritual, ideological. Accept a few basic principles, and you are an American, no matter where you reside or what language you speak. Abandon those principles and the reverse is true, you cease to be an American, no matter the color of your passport. And if America herself abandons those principles, America herself will cease to exist; it would become just an embarrassing spot on the map of no particular importance.
When people say that they believe in Mom and apple pie, they are tipping their hat, with mocking reverence or sometimes just mockingly, at this idea of America as a moral project. It has been such a project because a preponderance of the founders, and their children, and the generations that came after, understood it to be so. The slogan under God may have been an empty trope to some, like a verbal tic, but to many others the words were said in utter seriousness. A preponderance; never all, but always an earnest core of believers.
History is made by such people. The number of colonists who really wanted independence from England never amounted to a majority, maybe not more than a third. But they were the ones prepared to march, and to move, and they changed the world.
Thats the way it works.
Who they are
At about the same time the founders were giving flesh-and-blood form to John Lockes thesis, another group of men were trying out another brand of liberty. While the American founders believed that liberty was God-given, necessary so that men could better serve God, and that the path to liberty lay in placing limits on earthly rulers, another group of men took the opposite approach. They saw God as the enemy of freedom, and saw the path to freedom in the unlimited power of revolutionary government. Their liberation became a bloodbath that consumed France, as they butchered one class of public enemies after another, hunted down clerics and killed them, and eventually took their own place under the axe. Their revolution eventually imploded and from out of it arose the greatest dictator of his day. The horror of it all should have inoculated the world against its heresy, but it would arise again in an even more virulent form a century later.
It differed from the American conception of liberty as night from day. American, John Lockean, Jeffersonian liberty meant that government served only to protect freedom and nothing more. No grand projects, just to permit private citizens to follow their private conscience, and pursue their private projects unmolested by bandits or governors either one.
The competing conception was of a government that would resolve the ills of mankind, that by reason and bayonets the world could be re-made.
The French revolution was reborn a century later in Russia, with new philosophical dressing, but otherwise essentially the same. Again, God was the enemy. Again, the society would be reformed only if enough power were concentrated in the right hands, and again only after all the various classes of public enemies had been killed.
The difference is that the first time, the dictator arose from the chaos to put an end to the fratricidal slaughter. Napoleon took hold, and pointed the revolution outward, and spread the killing across Europe. Eventually, it took a coalition of British, Austrian, and Russian troops to destroy him, and the French Revolution was put down for at least a couple of generations.
Robespierre on steroids
Out of the murderous chaos in Russia a century later arose another dictator, but there the parallels end. The mass executions did not ease but rather accelerated to levels not known in modern times, perhaps to levels not known in all of history.
The numbers are truly staggering, surreal; they are so enormous as to overload the minds ability to grasp them.
For the sake of comparison, Saddam Husseins death toll among his citizens is estimated to be somewhere between a quarter million and half a million. A quarter million corpses, a half million corpses, mean a lot of burial grounds, and they are starting to be exposed literally as families scratch at the dirt looking for the bones of their missing. The Iraqi death toll during 30 years of Baathist rule has been monstrous, and it is shocking to think that this could go on while the world watched indifferently. But then again, 500,000 out of 25 million is a mere 2%. Just two percent.
The death toll under Soviet rule of Russia and its Central Asian colonies was on the order of twenty million. There is no slaughter in all of history to compare it to, nothing at all. And yet even this is dwarfed later by the death toll under the Chinese Communists.
The sane mind cannot conceive of such evil.
It is perhaps beyond obvious, but worth noting nonetheless, that while Stalin is responsible for the deaths of 20 million, he did not himself pull the trigger. He may have pulled a few triggers in his day, the men who surrounded him and those that followed him certainly pulled more than a few or they could hardly have risen to the heights of Soviet and Party control. But to orchestrate the deaths of so many requires much more than a few enthusiastic headsmen.
The situation is similar in Iraq where, although Saddam was reputed to have pulled many a trigger, as had his sons, it would be impossible to have filled the mass graves they are now unearthing without having created a culture of death.
Such a culture, whether it is revolutionary France, or Russia, or Iraq, requires first an ideology to drive and explain the slaughter, and then you must implicate the entire populace in the killing so that no ones hands are clean.
An incident early in Saddams career illustrates the point. When he seized power, he strode to the podium at a party meeting and read off the names of several dozen party leaders, including some of his mentors. Police were standing by to hustle them out of the hall. Those remaining were required to form up firing squads and shoot their former colleagues.
In such a state, no ones hands are clean.
In the Soviet system, ordinary citizens at every level and in every walk of life were required to denounce their friends, neighbors, colleagues, parents, so that literally, over time, everyone became implicated, everyone shared in the crimes of the state. By the time the original ideology has worn through and no one believes in it anymore, the entire society has been steeped in cynicism and their consciences are seared.
But it is ideology that masks and justifies the process, and it is an ideology that promises liberty, and equality, in a bizarre distortion of their meaning. It is the promise of liberty that is its inverse, a liberty that denies liberty.
Liberty versus power
Liberty, as defined by the Soviets, and the socialists, is the freedom from want. For the fascists, it is freedom from chaos. But to be free from these ills you have to be able to control your social environment; you have to be able to exert control over other men. Liberty, understood in this way, is not freedom but power. This is the common denominator between the Jacobins, the Marxists, the Baathists, and the various other fascists. They all require control of people to achieve their ends. The differences in their ideologies are mere variations on a theme. All of them require a ruling elite and for all of them the citizen is the agent and tool of state power. His own personal projects, his own personal conscience, are but obstacles to the greater good.
This is the striking difference from American liberty, as envisioned by Locke, and Jefferson. For these men, and for the founders, liberty was the freedom precisely to pursue your own personal ends. It was the freedom to answer to your own personal conscience, free of any arbitrary interference from anyone. As for the conflicts that inevitably arise among men, the purpose of government was to act as referee, traffic cop, so that citizens could go about their business without bumping into one another.
And that is all. No grand project to remake humanity. And no piles of bones, no dungeons, no firing squads.
It is, in effect, the anti-ideology, the ideology which seems on first glance to be the absence of ideology. But this is because it was assumed and understood that each individual brings his own beliefs to the table, his own faith, and conscience, and the purpose of liberty was to allow each one to work out his own path answerable to God and none other.
It seems a small difference, freedom from want versus freedom. But the war between these two conceptions of freedom dominated the previous century, and still are front and center. This war has been fought on two fronts, military and spiritual. On the spiritual front, though, simple unadulterated liberty is a tough sell. It is hard to beat a promise of an end to poverty, wielding only a promise to let you work out your own destiny, in poverty if need be. Its hard to beat a promise to remake the whole world with only a promise to let you build your own modest world as you see fit.
The tragic joke is that having given up freedom for an end to poverty, and having suffered decades at the hands of their Soviet masters for the sake of the new order, there was only hunger and the gulag to show for their loss.
How does any of this apply to the Viet Nam conflict of the 1960s?
As a consequence of our temporary alliance with the Soviets against the Hitlerian forces in Europe of the 1940s, half of Europe found itself under Soviet occupation. Its governments were replaced by puppets loyal to Stalin, and a million Soviet troops sat on the line prepared to move forward if given the word.
Intellectually and militarily, the Stalinist ideology appeared unstoppable. Every country in Europe, virtually every country in fact in the world was under attack by forces financed by the Soviets, and ultimately answering to Moscow. The history of the forties, fifties and sixties can be encapsulated in a list of countries whose governments fell under Marxist control, and another list of insurgencies designed to that end.
The Eisenhower administration, sometimes misunderstood as an era of stability, was a period of dogged confrontation between the US and the communist movement worldwide. China had fallen in the late forties, Tibet fell in the early fifties along with North Korea, the surrounding countries in Asia came under pressure. Eisenhower responded by deploying teams of specialists to the Philippines to put down the communist rebellion there. He trained and deployed a Tibetan army to resist the Chinese forces occupying Tibet. As Ho Chi Minhs agents became ever more violent and brutal, killing civilians by the tens of thousands who remembers this any more? killing civilians by the tens of thousands, beheading teachers, civilian administrators and medical personnel, he sent the same team that had been successful in the Philippines to Saigon to work their magic there.
When Cuba fell, he began to train and prepare an invasion force of Cubans to take it back.
Eisenhowers challenge to the communist movement was strong, and it was serious.
Harvard to the Rescue
But Eisenhower left office, and the administration that replaced him was of a completely different nature. They assassinated the democratically elected president of South Viet Nam, to replace him with someone more malleable. They shut down Eisenhowers team in Viet Nam that had been successful in the Philippines, and replaced them with their cronies. They abandoned the Tibetan forces to their deaths. And they handed Eisenhowers Cubans over to a waiting Castro.
From that point, the momentum was lost, and the Viet Nam conflict degenerated into a bloody slugfest, with no victory envisioned or expected. The US death toll was 60,000 men; the Vietnamese death toll probably reached into the millions. But the purpose for which those people died was lost in the shuffle, forgotten. This is a war that, for all its expense in blood and treasure, was fought on the cheap by a government that saw it as a distraction from more important matters.
It is little wonder that the men sent to fight it soon became as cynical as the men who sent them. Drug use among soldiers was rampant. Drug smuggling became widespread. The war itself was treated as a boondoggle by companies with ties to the administration. Back home, the people gradually lost track of precisely why we were fighting, and the result was a fighting force with no faith in what they were doing, a fighting force ultimately with a bad conscience. If your leaders cannot articulate what your purpose is in fighting, and these men never could, how then do you differentiate what you are doing from murder? How do you view the deaths of your comrades except as a senseless waste?
The war was not without purpose, however. The same forces that were responsible for the deaths of ultimately 100 million people worldwide were on the march, and only moral clarity and bullets were going to hold them back. If you understood Viet Nam not as a war, but as a single battle in a larger war, then you would understand the reason for what you did. And you would understand that victory was not optional, that any excuse for not pursuing the war ruthlessly and aggressively was just an evasion.
The genocide that occurred in Cambodia after our withdrawal was no surprise to anyone who had studied the Cultural Revolution, or the Soviet war against the common Russian people. Two million executed, out of a total population of 5 million, was not surprising. The executions among the Vietnamese following the war seem almost inconsequential by comparison, at around 200,000 mirrored by another 200,000 refugees lost at sea.
What might have been surprising was the indifference with which the US turned away from the slaughter there that anyone could have predicted, and that many had predicted. Anyone who had wondered why we were in Viet Nam needed only to look at the refugees pouring into Thailand, or casting themselves into the sea, and listen to their stories. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge they needed only to look at the mounds of skulls that now decorate the landscape to understand why we fought.
But the US leadership that followed Eisenhower was not philosophically equipped to wage such a war. For them it was not about liberty, but calibrating the balance of power. And once you have taken morality out of the equation, the difference between you and your enemy is only one of degree. How much blood are you willing to spill for one tick mark on the vernier, plus or minus?
Shades of Gray
It should be noted that we live in a human world, a political world, a world of flesh and blood people. Moral black and white is not often found in the world of nations, and the political operator must more often than not navigate a world of gray, a world of flawed men, corrupt governments, and toxic political cultures. Some believe that it is impossible to operate in such a world without becoming soiled by it. There are others who believe that because morality is in such short supply that it has no place in foreign policy. But it is precisely because your tools are imperfect humanity that moral clarity becomes an absolute necessity. The practical man must operate in an immoral world, but he must never lose track of his moral purpose and his own guiding principles or he is lost.
The men who originally went to Viet Nam, under Eisenhower, understood the difference between genocidal monsters and the people and principles they were there to defend. They were there in service to Mom and apple pie, for a higher purpose, to defend their ideals and to protect actual human beings in the process. The leadership that followed Eisenhower didnt believe in those things, or at least didnt believe them applicable. They failed to clearly distinguish good from evil, and quickly lost track of what they were doing, and why they were doing it. They did not believe victory was possible or necessary. And the war degenerated into a bloody embarrassment that we have never gotten over.
And the war was never un-winnable. This is the saddest cut of all. If we have learned anything from the last several engagements, having successfully ejected the Soviet Army from Afghanistan and from Eastern Europe, having successfully beaten the unbeatable Afghans, having beaten the Soviet-trained and Russian-advised Iraqi army twice, we have learned what can be accomplished when American forces are led by competent men who are committed to victory.
To the men who have carried Viet Nam on their shoulders all these years, this vindication of American arms carries with it the realization of what could have been, had moral men been at the helm during their time in hell.
American soldiers are not tools for the use of cynical men. They are motivated by love of country, and love of the ideals that drive them, love for their buddies, and love for the families they leave behind. Such men do not fight for oil or vengeance. You have only to view the film of Americans tending to their wounded enemies, the gentleness with which they receive surrendering soldiers, to know that Americans are not motivated by hatred.
They are a fit instrument only for leaders who are themselves moral men, men of character.
Men do not always see the full implications of what they do. The men who led us into the Second World War did not yet know the full scope of Nazi evil, they only saw a small part of the picture. But they knew enough to act, and they acted. And there has never been any doubt that we were right to do so.
The world has yet to fully face the extent of the atrocities committed by Marxist forces in the world. The death toll under their rule is staggering, and the wars to stop them raged on every continent, and the victims of these wars also number in the millions. When we determined to stop these men we did not all understand what we were up against, but there is no way to look at the grisly record of the Marxists and doubt that it was right to stop them:
100 million dead. Decades of slavery. Whole generations lost to a dream.
The Soviet Empire is no more, and the military threat from the Marxists has abated for a time. But it has also metamorphosed and adapted; it is not dead.
In its pure form it still exists, primarily in the countries where we lost courage, in Cuba, in North Korea, in Viet Nam.
And, despite some evolution, in the first country where we betrayed our principles and our allies, in China.
Marxism continues to thrive in the universities all across the world, which means that it is bound to re-emerge as subsequent generations come to power with no memory of the horror of Marxist rule. It is reemerging in Latin America, where Marxism and narcotics have combined in a bizarre amalgam. And it has re-emerged in the Arab world in another bizarre amalgam, in the nationalist movements that have combined Marxism and Islam, with a heavy dose of Nazism for flavor, and in Islamist fundamentalism that is heavily Marxist in its assumptions. This is not an exaggeration; the Islamists and nationalists openly admire Nazism, and some of the leadership openly admired Stalin. The Baathists were an almost direct offspring from European Nazism, but sponsored and developed by the Soviets. And the radical muslim underground, except for the Saudi-aligned movements (an important exception), was sponsored and trained by the Soviet Union in the days prior to its fall.
And whatever their disagreements on points of doctrine there may be between the Islamists and the nationalists, they have agreed that the US is their primary enemy, and have attacked us again and again over the last several decades. Their attacks culminated in the strikes on New York and Washington in 2001. We have responded by taking their 30-year war against us to them, confronting them on their own turf, and seizing their strongholds. We have overthrown two of the more virulent regimes, and the world is a better place for it.
But now we find ourselves enmeshed in a guerrilla war in Iraq and Afghanistan, part of the predictable aftermath of the overthrow of the Baathists and the Taliban. The press reports coming out of the war are eerily reminiscent of the press reports of another era. And the ghost of Viet Nam walks among us.
But if we are going to invoke the memory of Viet Nam, we owe it to ourselves to remember it as it was. Viet Nam haunts us because we lost heart, because we lost track of the why, and because we walked away from the sacrifice of a generation of American soldiers. Not because we were beaten on the battle field, not because we could not win, but simply because we forgot why we were there. We told ourselves we could not win, and went home.
But we were wrong. We could win, and ultimately we did win.
We re-grouped under other leadership, and we took the fight to the enemy. Because Viet Nam was only one battlefield of several, and we continued to confront the Soviets and their proxies where ever they came out to fight, in Africa, in Latin America, in Central Asia. In Europe itself. And by the end of the eighties, they were reeling, and by the early nineties they were only a bad memory. Men of less faith had signed treaties recognizing that the Soviet Empire was inviolable, but with more resolute men in the White House the Soviet Empire crumbled and disappeared.
This is what the ghost of Viet Nam must teach us, if we listen:
If you lose heart you will lose. If you win every battle, but you lose track of why you are doing it, you will lose. If you entrust leadership to men who are not worthy, you will lose.
If you listen to cynics you will lose heart and you will lose.
But if you choose moral men as your leaders, if you hold fast to your principles even in the midst of a fight, you will change reality. Walls will come down, empires will fall, and men will walk free.
Quagmires of the soul
Quagmires are moral long before they are military.
You find yourself in a quagmire when you lose sight of who you are, and what you believe in, and when you lose the courage of your convictions. And this happens precisely when you allow your enemies to define you. America is not a country in the ordinary meaning of the word, it is spiritual or it is nothing at all. The day we lose sight of that, the day we lose the courage to live the principles that drive us, the day the music dies, is the day we cease to be.
And no one will mourn us, because no one left will believe we ever were what we once believed we were, and what we once aspired to be. No one will believe we ever were, or ever could have been.
Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, "Are you for us or for our enemies?" "Neither," he replied, "but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come." Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, "What message does my Lord have for his servant?" (Joshua 5:13-14)
Does God take sides in war? The question is wrongly conceived. The challenge is for us to determine where God stands, and to make sure we stand there also. Once certain of our position and our direction, our job is to hold our ground, stand for what we stand for, and to move forward in the direction we know we must. God has granted us liberty, and we owe him courage in return.
No way. It is polished professional work, tight as a drum, a clarion call.
You put up the source link of this piece this minute!
Long, but inspiring--and written by someone who is or should be a pro.
Oh marron, this is glorious, sublime! Kudos!!!
Truly, it's never a question of "who's side is God on?" As you note, it's ever a question of do we stand with God?
This essay ought to be an excellent tonic for the "No more Viet Nams!" crowd -- who so simple-mindedly equate the then with the actual now. Unfortunately, folks this simple-minded probably won't understand a word you wrote.... Sloganeering standing in for rational throught seems to be all the fashion.
Thank you so much for this beautiful essay!
Indeed, I went looking for the URL with a view to sending the link to a scoutmaster and serious Christian who is also a shop steward--and a hereditary Democrat whose mother had a picture of JFK on the wall. It's probably hopeless, but . . .
Forty years have passed since his time there and he is still haunted by what he did and saw, and the feeling that it was all for nothing ...
My immediate response was to say that it WAS for something. It was to oppose the spread of communism, it was to honor our protection commitment to SEATO (the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) of which both the U.S. and South Vietnam were members. It was part of a larger battle against communism which eventually we won - even though we did not conduct and conclude the effort in Vietnam as we should have.
And then I continued to read and low and behold you said essentially the same thing - only much more eloquently.
I experienced the Vietnam conflict first hand - three times - near the beginning, the middle and the end. At first we were very successful with small units protecting the countryside from the Vietcong terrorists. Then it became more conventional and the costs started to rise. Then it became prolonged and we eventually had to leave with the job not done. I will always remember the statement from General Giap, commander of the communist North Vietnam forces saying that he could never have won without the help of the protesters back in the United States. That was not the only reason for our failure, of course, but it certainly gave help and comfort to our enemy.
Anyway, great article. Thanks.
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