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I haven’t read this since either Groton or Duke. And now I am trying to re-read it before I make it down to the DMZ and before my visit to Khe Sanh next week. It’s such a good and complete history of this country, and of the war here, that if you want to understand what happened and some of the why behind it, this is the book.

As I sit here in Halong Bay, currently up to the French losing at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 (having suffered over 90,000 dead and wounded at this point) two things have struck me.  First, the Vietnamese were going to fight and win no matter how long it took. And second, the French and later the Americans simply never understood the enemy.

Ironically, in an age where almost all military colleges now teach Sun Tzu, both the French and later the Americans should have consulted the Chinese general because his first rule of warfare was:

“Know thy enemy.”

We didn’t and we lost.

It’s sophomoric to try and sum up the war here in eight words, but if you are ever forced to do so, those eight will work pretty well. We didn’t understand Ho Chi Minh, the country, the culture, the region, the history, anything but our own misconceptions that were skewed by the specter of Communism.

The lack of simple understanding led to two million Vietnamese deaths, the deaths of almost sixty thousand Americans piled on top of the French dead, the destruction of much of the country and a lingering environmental impact from Agent Orange and unexploded bombs – and, of course, the human impact of the latter two as well.

When you read the book, you can literally be stunned by what our country did here. One can’t, of course, go back in time and understand the environment, but the quotes attributed to men like Dean Rusk, ironically a fellow Grotonian, are simply stunning in retrospect. They may have been the best and the brightest of their time, and we all may, if we were in their shoes, have thought the same thing, but here's one quote:

“This is a civil war that has been in effect captured by the Politburo and,  besides, has been turned into a tool of the Politburo. So it isn’t a civil war in the usual sense. It is part of an international war.”
                   Dean Rusk, June 1950
Except there wasn’t any evidence at the time it was driven by the Russians, just the better dead than red hysteria gripping the States at the time. And there never was. And it wasn’t really even ever a civil war – it was a battle for independence from colonialism.

Other than that, Rusk was right on the money.

I wrote about John McCain and visiting the prison where he was held last week while I wore his POW bracelet and in it, not only did I question the whole concept of war, but also what we are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan – especially Afghanistan.

Do we truly believe that the Taliban are going to give up, ever, fighting for their country? Do we even ‘know’ them? I don’t think so. The Islamic bogeymen have been substituted for the Communist dominoes it appears.

The second thing that is interesting is that Karnow writes about visiting Hanoi in 1990, twenty-two years ago when the city is so poor that people are starving and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is “one of the few new buildings built since the war.”

Hanoi through much of the 1990s was a crumbling down city where people got to work on bicycle and beggars filled the street.

Just twenty decades later, Halong Bay, which is beautiful but must have been spectacular, is shrouded not in mist but pollution from the factories on the shore. Hanoi is a packed city of 7 million with more than 3 million motorbikes and failing infrastructure. Ho Chi Minh City is pushing 10 million people, some three times the size of Boston. And these cities are growing and punishing the weak infrastructure that underlies them. It’s amazing water still comes out of the pipes when you turn it on.

The transition is shocking. When the Socialist Government, forever despising capitalism, in turn embraced a doctrine of “supply and demand’ to save face, it unleashed an environmental destruction you can’t even imagine. When they created the Asian Tigers and brought free market economics to a country starved for progress and self-promotion, they let the cat out of the bag and I don’t see how it goes back in.

The sky, the water, the trash everything is just in terrible shape and getting worse. It’s an out-of-control capitalism that is then not only destroying the environment but also is overcoming a culture that isn’t equipped to deal with it.

I met a young Australian woman named Z who is working in Hanoi for an NGO, and she told the story of a program they tried to bring into Vietnamese schools were kids were asked to pick up rubbish, and there is plenty to pick up.

The problem was the kids didn’t even know what rubbish was; she said that literally they were bringing stuff in from their houses or their neighbors. Their parents and grandparents were raised in agrarian societies where everything can essentially become compost or be recycled. The concept of trash, or rubbish collection, is foreign to them.

So plastic bags cluttered the lakes and bags of trash float down the rivers. You watch as they just dump stuff everywhere because that’s what they’ve always done. It’s just now, what they are dumping won’t decompose, the pollution they are pumping into the air won’t disappear and soon, this will be completely destroyed.

In terms of my journey, and my father’s life here, it is clear to me that I will have to go further and further away from these modern mega-cities, so I want to see the DMZ and Hue. I am going to make a quick stop in Saigon where my father spent so much time.

But then it’s off to Cambodia and Laos where the pace of change has not equaled Thailand or Vietnam. The capitol cities are a fraction of the size of Bangkok, Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City.

One more thought as I sit here about to start reading again – as you ponder the war. The death and destruction on both sides, the inevitability of the Vietminh winning, but then sit and watch as people pour into the new Svaroski crystal store in Hanoi, there is only one conclusion:

we may have lost the battle, but  capitalism won the war.

I am following my father's footsteps in Southeast Asia. Follow along.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I read his book years ago and I was angry then. (5+ / 0-)

    Reading your words about what is happening today makes me furious. When will we ever learn?

    I was young during the Viet Nam war and remember how we were told in school the whole 'domino theory'. The idea was that if Viet Nam went communist, all of Asia would be lost. What crap.

    Most of all it reminded me that we really didn't learn that lesson---Iraq and Afghanistan would never have happened if we had.

    And you are right. We do not understand those countries or cultures any more than we did the Vietnamese.

    Instead our war machine makes some people rich. Countless men and women and children die. Cultures are destroyed.

    And for what?

    I am looking forward to reading more about your discoveries there.

    "I think of the right-wing Republicans as jihadists; they’re as crazy as those people. They want to destroy the country that we want to save." Paul Auster

    by zesty grapher on Mon Oct 08, 2012 at 04:55:15 AM PDT

    •  I was thinking today that the VN generation is (4+ / 0-)

      fading away like the WWI and WWII generations before.  Each year there are fewer and fewer who were there and who saw the folly and waste of that war.

      As this generation passes into history, I am struck how willing we are to repeat the mistakes of 1957-1975 (remember when Saigon fell, Ford wanted to reinvest US troops to prop up Big Minh as our new man in VN)

  •  Currently I'm reading (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Wayward Wind, ColoTim

    Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam by Fredrik Logevall.

    Tapping into newly accessible diplomatic archives in several nations and making full use of the published literature, distinguished scholar Fredrik Logevall traces the path that led two Western nations to lose their way in Vietnam. Embers of War opens in 1919 at the Versailles Peace Conference, where a young Ho Chi Minh tries to deliver a petition for Vietnamese independence to President Woodrow Wilson. It concludes in 1959, with a Viet Cong ambush on an outpost outside Saigon and the deaths of two American officers whose names would be the first to be carved into the black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In between come years of political, military, and diplomatic maneuvering and miscalculation, as leaders on all sides embark on a series of stumbles that makes an eminently avoidable struggle a bloody and interminable reality.
     
    It just came our in August of this year. Only about up to 1943 and its a doozy. 76 pages of footnotes!

    White-collar conservatives flashing down the street, pointing their plastic finger at me..

    by BOHICA on Mon Oct 08, 2012 at 05:16:45 AM PDT

  •  If you are going to Khe Sanh, you will see (4+ / 0-)

    first hand the folly of US military policy.  The idea was to fortify a place close to the Ho Chi Minh Trail and invite Giap to invest his forces.  Fire bases were established adjacent to Khe Sanh to provide additional fire support along with air support.

    The concept was called Fort Apache by some, inviting the enemy to attack a strongly defended position and then annihilate them.  The weaknesses of this strategy is it assumed adjacent fire bases could provide adequate, pinpoint fire to keep the VC and NVN out of the perimeter but it was not.  It also assumed we could control the ground from the air and also resupply and reinforce from the air (shades of Dien Ben Phu) and we could not.

    It was a meatgrinder for the men there:
    http://www.ask.com/...

    As usual the wingers have converted this to a victory in their narratives

  •  Thank you for this....... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ColoTim

       I served, and all these years later, don't know what to think......

       Folly, waste, yes, all of that. But also sincere beliefs, raw courage,  and derring-do.......

       I don't have any answers for me, much less for others. But thank you for this.

    Best, HH99

    Compost for a greener planet.............got piles?

    by Hoghead99 on Mon Oct 08, 2012 at 06:21:54 AM PDT

  •  A suggestion (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    truong son traveler, BOHICA, ColoTim

    I was there during the war (69-70) and a few years ago spent several years there managing humanitarian projects for a Vietnam veterans group, one of many such initiatives by veterans in various locations - land mine and UXO removal in Quang Tri, working with AO disabled kids in Hue and Hanoi, etc.

    There is also one in Phnom Penh that I helped initiate way back in the early 90s - a prosthetics and wheelchair project - still in operation today.

    If you would like to add any of these to your itinerary, send me a PM and I will put you in touch with the guys who live there and run these projects.

    I am a warrior for peace. And not a gentle man... Steve Mason, 1940-2005

    by Wayward Wind on Mon Oct 08, 2012 at 07:11:52 AM PDT

  •  Some previews if you are interested (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Wayward Wind, BOHICA

    Orwell - "Political language ... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable"

    by truong son traveler on Mon Oct 08, 2012 at 07:31:54 AM PDT

  •  It is interestng that you see the pollution (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Wayward Wind, ColoTim

    I was in Hanoi in 2004 and again in 2009 and I saw a city that was on the move for sure and all of the bicycles were turning into motorbikes but still with the zen like flow of masses in the street where you walk out in faith and were delivered in trust with all of the motorbikes swerving around you in concert.  It was miraculous and seemed a symbol of a deeply harmonious society.  I wish I could have seen the city when it was bicycles.

    I went to see Ho Chi Minh of course and was in awe of this man who brought the greatest military force to its knees. I had to go because I am of the generation that had no choice - well the choice was to go or to face the wrath of our society. Being a female gave me an out as to personal endangerment, but we all paid - didn't we? My generation knows what it is like to defy the government.

    I love Vietnam - I love the spirit of the people. I guess I did see the pollution but that is not what I remember when I think of that incredible country. Funny. We go with the eyes we have...

    Keep constant watch on your mind. - Dalai Lama

    by redstella on Mon Oct 08, 2012 at 07:48:06 AM PDT

    •  I first saw Hanoi in 1984 (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      redstella, ColoTim

      when it was indeed a city of bicycles and cyclos...the very few motor vehicles were almost exclusively government vehicles...it was a great city for walking...

      One memory from that time is that there was almost no electricity available for homes, so kids would study under the streetlights...dozens of young people, very quiet, and reading their textbooks intensely under every streetlight...

      And now, crossing the street is a real leap of faith...I used to advise folks to walk steady...don't stop, don't speed up...the motorbikes will avoid you...kind of like swimming in a school of fish...heh

      I am a warrior for peace. And not a gentle man... Steve Mason, 1940-2005

      by Wayward Wind on Mon Oct 08, 2012 at 07:55:34 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  oh wow - must have been beautiful! (0+ / 0-)

        I think that Hanoi is so pretty with the old shophouses and the lake in the middle of the city. I can't imagine how great it was in the early 80's - I know - no electricity and all but still.  

        In 2004, there were the incredibly loud street speakers singing out horrible 'patriotic' music and talking at early early hours. It was enough to blast you from your bed. That had changed all ready in 2009 - softer music and not quite so early.

        I still see that grandparents walking their grandchildren around the lake - I could not help but wonder at the miracle of their life (still alive) and what they must have gone through.

        One story I have heard but did not see was the individual manholes around the city where people could shelter from the US bombs (imagine that!) but these are now gone.

        I can 'see' your streetlights with the students - I wonder what they are doing now?

        Keep constant watch on your mind. - Dalai Lama

        by redstella on Mon Oct 08, 2012 at 08:44:44 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Some of the bomb shelters are still there (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          redstella

          A lot of them have been removed, but if you see a row of trees along one of the main streets and look closely, you will see that the trees appear to be in planters sunk into the ground - those are the old bomb shelters.

          In the 80s it was not only grandparents walking toddlers around Hoan Kiem lake, it was the place where young people would go to meet.  Hundreds of young women, all in white ao dais, equal numbers of young men dressed in their Sunday best, all just walking around the lake.  That's how they would meet.  Now it is the strip of land between White Silk and West Lakes - you will see two girls on a motorbike carrying on a conversation with two guys on  one; after a few circuits around the strip, they pair off and sometimes head off to one of the swan pedal boats for a bit of privacy.

          I remember the loudspeakers well - they not only put out propaganda, but also were one of the few sources of news.  Quieter now in the main cities, but alive and well in a lot of the smaller cities and villages.

          I have always said that of all the cities that I have visited, Hanoi was my favorite.  Bit different now, and has lost some of its charm, but still a great place to live or visit.

          I am a warrior for peace. And not a gentle man... Steve Mason, 1940-2005

          by Wayward Wind on Mon Oct 08, 2012 at 04:11:36 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  The first time I tried to cross the street (0+ / 0-)

        an old(er) woman took me by the elbow and guided me. I was terrified but then realized that this was the way to do it. Just start out and keep walking. I can't think that could still work now with cars....

        Keep constant watch on your mind. - Dalai Lama

        by redstella on Mon Oct 08, 2012 at 08:47:37 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  I'm interested that this book, which has been out (0+ / 0-)

    awhile now, is still recommended.  I would have thought more recent books, with more updates from government sources and more open Vietnamese sources, would have made sections outdated.  Glad to know that it's well sourced enough that it's still a worthwhile read (I have it on my bookshelf, but haven't read it yet).

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