Tag: Vietnam

Big Goals and Small Adversaries: Why Grand Strategy Matters

The United States is closing in on the 18th anniversary of its first wartime death in Afghanistan, that of CIA operative Mike Spann, providing a melancholy opportunity to emphasize the role of grand strategy as a policymaking tool. To this end, I ask why the United States has done relatively poorly in so many of its so-called small wars, wars against much weaker adversaries. Its poor record is surprising because the United States has done so well in its major wars, including the world wars, the Korean War, and the Cold War.

Some of the United States’ smaller wars have gone as planned. The invasion of Grenada and replacement of its leftist government in 1983 was quick. The attack on Panama to replace President Noriega in 1989-1990 was also relatively short and low cost for the United States. Some small wars (small from the great power perspective, of course) have not turned out quite as planned, but have also not escalated significantly either vertically or horizontally, or in costs. These include the humanitarian military interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Why should Iraq and Afghanistan still drag on, then, when the United States and its allies are fighting weak non-state actors whose ideologies hold little appeal? Why did the U.S. intervention against insurgents in Vietnam last 21 years? Why did its intervention against the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Movement, which started out stealing and buying its weapons from the Salvadoran military in the Salvadoran civil war, last 13 years?

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Vietnam PS Impressions (2): GDR in the Jungle

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Here is part one, where I noted how much the communist super-idolization of leaders like Ho and Mao weirds me out. Here are a few more social science impressions from our university trip:

4. What is it about communist states and concrete? Ech. It is so ugly and awful-looking. And it looks even worse and more out of place in the tropics. Mozambique and Vietnam look like the GDR in the jungle. The German Democratic Republic was architecturally hideous enough with its soulless, modernist-boxy, steel-and-concrete gigantism. Now drop that model into a third world tropical setting, and the outcome is even more awful-looking, not to mention dysfunctional and individuality-crushing. Vietnam and Mozambique both have terribly scarred their landscapes with countless square concrete box buildings that rise straight up out of the (otherwise attactive) rolling green countryside. They don’t fit the locale at all, not mention that they are often only half-built and/or decaying from all the saltwater in the tropical air. It looks atrocious. Good god. Couldn’t the Soviets do anything right? Did they have to export even lazy, style-less concrete boxes masquerading as ‘socialist realist’ architecture? Where’s Frank Lloyd Wright when you need him?

5. The Indo-Sinic collision in Vietnam makes the local art the most interesting I’ve seen yet in Asia. The national museum of fine art has (above) a wonderful serene Buddha, with his hands clasped and face placid (fairly typical) – plus 30 arms. Wow! That stopped me cold: Buddha + Vishnu = I have no idea. I can only imagine how the monks back in Korea (my wife is a Buddhist) would react. But it is truly unique, and I find Confucian art with all its rigid, formal wise men telling me to be a good son kinda boring. Bring on the wild Champa statuary with bodhisattvas who look like Hindu gurus and dancers with their legs backwardly touching their heads. Awesome.

6. ‘Please, let me make your trip to Vietnam as un-Vietnamese as possible.’ Ech. What is it about tour companies and cultural insulation? We ate most of our meals in Korean restaurants; we meet the Korean ambassador who told us how the Vietnamese have a ‘Korean dream’ and love Samsung; they served soju at every meal; we were shuffled around to souvenir shops explicitly built for Korean tourists where you could buy stuff that you could get at any mall in Hanguk-land, the staff spoke Korean, and even the owners were apparently Koreans; we didn’t even have to exchange any money! I guess flying Vietnamese Airways and eating some spring rolls was a major concession.

6. A few other random thoughts:

a. I never saw a Buddhist-Taoist-Confucian ‘fusion’ shrine anywhere before; again the art in Vietnam was surprisingly unique and engaging. People were half-bowing, full-bowing, waving incense. It was pretty hard to know exactly what to do (three half-bows usually works pretty well).

b. Remember your French textbook in high school telling you that Vietnam was in the ‘Francophonie’? Wrong. About the only French I could find was stuff left over on purpose. There were no exceptional signs or services. No one spoke it. I looked a lot. But English was the dominant foreign language. But there were almost no American tourists – about half Europeans and half Asians (Koreans and Chinese, no Japanese).

c. Yes, you can visit the Hanoi Hilton. Yes, it is extremely disturbing; you can even see the well-maintained flight suit John McCain was wearing when he was shot down and captured (another bizarre and uncomfortable tourist attraction). But post-Abu Ghraib, indignation feels hypocritical. It’s a very hard place to visit. The focus of the museum is on the French repression (complete with a preserved guillotine – very grim). Generally speaking, the Hanoi museums aren’t nearly as anti-American as you might expect. The ire is focused more on the French than us, and the bulk of the attention goes to Ho as a legendary founder like Lycurgus or George Washington.

I tweeted a series of these sorts of political science impressions from Vietnam here.

Cross-posted on Asian Security Blog.


Even Uncle Ho’s Hand-Weights Contributed to the Revolution (1)

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Our social science faculty association organized a trip to Vietnam last week. It was pretty fascinating. It was my first trip, and I don’t speak the language, so obviously I am qualified to generalize wildly about it now. As Gabriel Almond once quipped, ‘you should never generalize about a country until you’ve at least flown over it. So guess I meet that test at least. Here are some anecdotal, political science-y impressions:

1. Communist hagiography really freaks me out. I have now been to the ‘holy-site’ tombs of Lenin, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh, and they are some of the most bizarre human artefacts I’ve ever seen. (Kim Il Sung has one too. For analogous thoughts on Communist kitsch in NK, try this.) If you’ve never seen a communist mausoleum, you should visit at least one, especially if you are a political scientist. Modeled on the Lenin tomb of Red Square, Ho’s is a large, raised rectangular box, designed in hideously ugly Soviet-esque grey concrete. Ho is inside in-state – even though he explicitly wanted to be cremated (Lenin too wanted to be buried). And yes, they do refer to him as Uncle Ho to your face. Accompanying the mausoleum are two museums – and a gift shop in which you can buy Ho Chi Minh keychains and playing cards. Wait, what?!

I think attaching a gift-shop to a Marxist tomb (there was one after the Mao mausoleum tour too – I have a Mao Zedong tie-clip no less) captures the truly disturbing and contradictory bizarre-ness of these sites:

a. Communists aren’t supposed to believe in God, but these sites show they are basically catering to the religious impulse for legend and transcendence. In Russia, my host family told me that Stalin took God out of Heaven and placed him in Red Square. But doesn’t that violate the whole rationalist intent of Marx? Didn’t Marxists talk for years about how they were making socialism ‘scientific,’ with ‘iron laws’ and ‘stages’ of history and all that? Yet here is something like worship, another ‘opiate for the masses,’ complete with a cathedral with relics that tells the mythologized story to the masses, no? Doesn’t it fly completely in the face of Marxist ideology to build secular versions of religious stories and myths, complete with mimicry cults, ‘holy relics’ like Ho’s walking stick (pic above), and sacred sites like tombs?

b. On top of this ideological confusion is the transformation of these sites into tourist attractions for capitalist westerners. Gah! So not only do these things violate Marxist-Leninist basics of rationality by creating a new set of myths, they then get so widely disbelieved at home, that the only reason they stay is because foreigners will pay money to see them. Again, when I was in Russia, there was talk of finally burying Lenin, per his wishes, except that Moscow city opposed it because of the tourist value. Isn’t that the ultimate capitalist debasement of these famous anticapitalists? Which leads to…

c. You don’t go to actually fawn over Lenin or Ho (I imagine that the Vietnamese and Chinese hardly believe the ‘secular saint’ ideology anymore either). Instead you go to see the act of a cult of personality itself. Every detail becomes worthy of obsession, and the Ho one seems even thicker than Lenin or Mao’s. Right behind the Ho mausoleum is Ho’s presidential palace-cum-museum in which all sorts of personal stuff is retained – even his exercise handweights (also in the pic above) and used cars. (I read that in NK, they rope off benches were Kim Il Sung sat.) In short, the attraction of these sites for us is to see just how awful and perverse communism was in practice, not actually learn anything about Mao, etc. We go to see this completely freaky communist-quasireligious myth-making – and then buy Ho Chi Minh paperweights as Christmas gifts.

2. I guess the first thing you notice as a political scientist is not ‘socialism,’ but the rapid-developer feel of the place. Its evident as soon as you get off the plane, if only from the odor. Unless it rains, the air is always thick with ammonia and carbon; facemasks are everywhere. In fact, it was so bad, it activated my allergies and gave me headaches; it was worse than China, which is the worst to date I’ve experienced. Gridlock, a common curse among second-world developers, is extreme; Hanoi traffic is the most terrifying I’ve ever seen after Cairo. The density of Hanoi is extreme – not India, but close. The streets are filled with people selling everything imaginable. Like other Asian developers, there is a massive small retail sector of mom-and-pop corner stores selling textiles, toys, pirated discs, tchotchkes, home appliances and other gizmos, etc. Scooters are everywhere. Everyone seems busy and is talking on their cell phones. The bustle is palpable. This was in great contrast to what I saw in southern Africa. It seemed to me that we were looking at Korea 40 years ago, which general impression my colleagues confirmed to me.

3. The poverty did not look as bad one would expect from the numbers. Average GDP per capita is only $1000 per annum, but I was pleasantly surprised to generally see straight teeth and bones, healthy looking skin, reasonably middle class attire (jeans, tennis shoes, socks, baseball caps, etc), cell phones and headphones, scooters and bicycles, etc. Women wore make-up and heels. Even the cops were wearing Ipods. No one seemed to be living on the street, wearing everything they own, as is immediately evident in India; nor did we see any massive shack-slums as in Mumbai. Even in the countryside, where infrastructure was noticeably worse, this basically held-up. I imagine that deeper in the jungle and mountainous regions, like the central highlands, it is much worse. But Hanoi was more bustling, wealthy, and functional than places like Mumbai, much less Windhoek or Maputo. The difference between the countryside in Namibia and Vietnam was huge.

Part two will come in 3 days.

I tweeted a series of these sorts of political science impressions from Vietnam here.

Cross-posted on Asian Security Blog.


Kandahar and My Lai; Drone Strikes and Carpet Bombing

 The New York Times recently posted reports about the U.S. military’s trial of soldiers accused of randomly killing civilians in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, “for sport.”  Apart from the horrors of the alleged crimes, there is a terrible irony in the stories.  This goes beyond the fact that these kinds of incidents are hardly news.  They are completely predictable in any war, even among the best-trained and most disciplined armies—let alone those in which governmental and military leaders provide signals that make incidents like Abu Ghraib possible.  

The irony also goes beyond the coincidence that this story appeared in the New York Times the same day as another, titled “CIA Steps Up Drone Strikes on Taliban in Pakistan.”  That story re-emphasized the open secret that Pakistan has become the new Cambodia.  Like that other unfortunate nation, Pakistan is being targeted because another of America’s wars is not going well.  But rather than accepting the original war’s folly, our military and civilian leaders, in their consummate wisdom, have expanded it to nearby countries.  Supposedly, it is these nations’ failures to control their populations and borders that explains the war’s failures.

But the real irony is the prosecution of these soldiers, when the architects of the war–responsible for placing the soldiers in Kandahar to begin with–are taking actions that predictably lead to large civilian casualties as well.  It is, of course, true that from a legal standpoint, there are differences in the intent of the killers:  in the first case, intentional; in the second, unintentional.  It is also true that in the first case, the soldiers allegedly knew their victims to be innocent.  In the second, military officers believe themselves to be targeting Taliban or al-Qaeda fighters—though of course their information is often faulty.  And, of course, the soldiers should be prosecuted for their alleged crimes.
But the strategic effects of these incidents is little different.  Who would you hate more if your home was destroyed and your children killed by Predators?  The Taliban fighters who the missiles were intended to kill and who were conducting operations in your area—or the American military and CIA personnel sitting at their desks in Creech Air Force Base?  Perhaps both equally—but, more likely, those who pulled the trigger.  Nor is a grieving Afghan likely to care about the legal niceties that help the drone controllers sleep at night–or be assuaged by the payments the U.S. government sometimes disburses to relatives of its collateral carnage.
To my mind, the closest analogy to this situation comes from Vietnam:  The well-deserved prosecution and conviction of Lieutenant William Calley for the My Lai massacre–at about the same time that the U.S. government was carpet-bombing Vietnam and Cambodia to the tune of untold thousands of civilian deaths—all with the broad rationale that we would thereby win hearts and minds.

No doubt our new smart bombs and drones kill fewer innocents–though still far too many, given the futility of the “war on terror.”  But if I were an Afghan grieving over a drone’s dismemberment of my family, would I care about this sign of “progress?”


Be careful what you wish for

Several days ago, Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-MI) returned from a visit to Iraq and called for the ouster of Prime Minister Maliki, calling him “non-functional.”

On the one hand, Levin makes a critical point. The main problem in Iraq is political, not military, and the dysfunction of the Iraqi government is not really helping to solve the problem. Indeed, the Iraqi parliament is indicative of the sectarian and political conflict that continues to plague the country.

On the other hand, be careful what you wish for. In the on-again, off-again, on-again, off-again,
its not but it is comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam, (this debate and policy reversal is so rich, it could and probably should be the subject of a separate post, but my syllabus isn’t done yet and classes start Monday. So maybe someone else will do it or it will just have to wait….) I wanted to bring up one historical lesson that seems somewhat relevant and foreboding in this instance.

In 1972 a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground…

No, wait, wrong Vietnam parallel….

In 1963, a crack commando unit of the ARVN Army overthrew and subsequently murdered South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in a coup sanctioned by the US Government. The Kennedy Administration was frustrated with Diem’s government as they were not making sufficient progress in the fight against communism, autocratic, ineffective, and such. To make a long story short, what they failed to appreciate was that sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know. The successive Vietnamese governments after Diem were no more effective in fighting the communists, while US participation in the coup gave the US a deeper responsibility and commitment to the successive Vietnamese governments. Indeed, many historians see the 1963 coup as the moment when Vietnam went from bad to disaster for the the US.

So, perhaps in this instance, the Bush administration’s backing of the Maliki government isn’t such a bad idea. Its a problematic government, to be sure, but Maliki is the devil we know, and we might want to be wary of engineering a transition to the devil we don’t know, especially when any alternative to Maliki seems no better at ‘solving’ Iraq’s current political crisis.

UPDATE I: It seems that Intel Dump has similar reservations.

UPDATE II: It seems that the Intel community has added some fuel to the anti-Maliki fire with the release of its latest NIE (.pdf of the NIE).


Film class — week 4

Film #4 “The Quiet American” (2002). We viewed it Tuesday.

Readings for Thursday: Wilson, Woodrow, “Fourteen Points Speech,” 1918.

Kagan, Robert, “Power and Weakness,” Policy Review, June/July 2002, pp. 3-28.

After several films about World War II and discussion about political realism, it was time to move on to a film about a post-war conflict and liberal idealism. Wilson’s address, of course, is a classic statement of American liberalism. This is his conclusion:

An evident principle runs through the whole program I have outlined. It is the principle of justice to all peoples and nationalities, and their right to live on equal terms of liberty and safety with one another, whether they be strong or weak. Unless this principle be made its foundation no part of the structure of international justice can stand. The people of the United States could act upon no other principle; and to the vindication of this principle they are ready to devote their lives, their honor, and everything that they possess.

Realists like John Mearsheimer think this is essentially “cheap talk,” providing marketable cover for naked pursuit of interests and power.

In this film, the American Alden Pyle works somewhat covertly to create a “third force” in Vietnam independent of both the communists and the French colonialists. He talks often in the film about “liberty” and the “freedom to choose,” though he is obviously also interested in containing the communists. At one critical moment, Pyle declares, “It’s not that easy to remain uninvolved.” He emphasizes that his goal is to save Vietnam.

When Graham Greene wrote the The Quiet American, European states were losing their colonies and America was in a pre-eminent position of world power. The parallel to 2002 — when this film and Kagan’s article were released — is not perfect, but it is interesting. Kagan basically says that Europeans emphasize multilateralism and law over military force because they are weak. Americans and Europeans share essentially the same broad ideals. They are divided about power.

The film’s central conflict, concerning the fate of Vietnam and America’s role there, is not unlike the US-European divide over the fate of Iraq, and America’s role there.

In this film, at least at the beginning, the British reporter Thomas Fowler is made out to be a cynical European:

I offer no point of view. I take no action. I don’t get involved.

Of course, the French colonialists are involved in Vietnam and England still has a colonial empire. Given the action Fowler takes late in the movie to secure his own personal interests, viewers might be tempted to think of him as a realist critic of Pyle. On the other hand, after witnessing a horrific bombing in a public square, which he blames on Pyle, Fowler seems genuinely moved to principled action.

The bombing makes Pyle seem like a brute — perhaps even a terrorist. He seems to embrace illiberal means to achieve his supposed democratic goals.

Perhaps Fowler is the genuine idealist — and Pyle the realist? Maybe Fowler simply embraces order over ideals?

A personal conflict between the men mirrors (and complicates) the political tension. Pyle and Fowler compete for the affections of a beautiful young Vietnamese woman named Phuong. Their battle is framed in terms that directly coincide with the political struggles:

Let’s just look at Phuong. There’s beauty. There’s daughter of a professor.

Taxi dancer. Mistress of an older European man.

That pretty well describes the whole country.

Phuong is Fowler’s lover at the beginning of the movie, but is drawn to Pyle when Fowler’s personal deceits are revealed.

Which man wins in the end? Does either earn her love?

It’s a provocative and well-done film, but you’ll have to watch it to seek the answers to those questions.

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