a new low in topical enlightenment

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Issue #8 (August 26, 2009)

North of Centennial Valley, Wyoming
Photo by Joe Carducci

Sovietnam and Afghaniscram: According to the NYT
by Joe Carducci

The New York Times is edited as if to steer debate by devising the terms of debate. Their columnists are hired for their skill in Belling the Cat – said cat forever after sounding the Times’ editorial board’s ventriloquist-created voice. And so we get weak soup like Sunday’s “L.B.J. All the Way?” (title changed online to: "Could Afghanistan Become Obama's Vietnam?") by Peter Baker. Certainly Jr.’s steely masthead-minds do not mean to harm President Obama’s chances in Afghanistan, they are mostly looking out for their own reputation. Although the piece has so many qualifiers that it disqualifies its own point, they will tout it as a prediction should there be some meltdown – they saw first that Obama = Johnson. “To be sure, such historical analogies are overly simplistic, and fatally flawed…” And I have just identified the weak force in the cosmology of New York Times analysis. (I didn’t catch what the hope-heads at NPR made of this but let’s assume they’re rightly very concerned.)

But as in Vietnam the Democrats have cornered themselves. Their commitments in both theaters were mere campaign promises. JFK may have meant it but his brothers led LBJ on, and then turned on him in order to return a Kennedy to the White House at all costs. It never happened but had it, such a brother, Bobby or Teddy, would’ve pursued policies the opposite of John.

This is all down the memory hole. So one must ask, What Vietnam is Peter Baker talking about: the actual country fought over in the cold war with real blood, sweat and tears? Or the flashing sign-meme “Vietnam” of the Times’ and others’ rhetorical investment?

JFK had run to the right of then-Vice President Nixon and in Vietnam he initiated an attempt to bring the war to the North. This story is told in a book called The Secret War Against Hanoi, by Richard H. Shultz, Jr. (Harper Collins). Shultz tells how the Kennedy White House tried to foment resistance inside North Vietnam a la Hungary ’56. The CIA had learned from Hungary that Communist states were essentially “denied territory” and resisted involvement and once Kennedy was assassinated Johnson suspended the program in some strange kind of useless theater, tho even then it managed to trigger some amount of paranoid self-abuse on the part of the North.

JFK had settled for a bogus U.N.-brokered neutralization of Laos, which our military observed but North Vietnam used as cover to initiate the supply lines down Laos into Cambodia that came to be called the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The story of this strategic blunder is told in The Key to Failure – Laos & the Vietnam War, by Norman B. Hannah (Madison). He writes:
It could be said that the neutralization of Laos… was the major strategic decision we made with respect to Indochina from 1961 until we departed in 1973. All else was either geared to it or was incremental, barnacled encrustation. That so little attention is devoted to Laos in studies of the Vietnam war and to the role of the 1962 Geneva Accords is more than an intellectual curiosity. It is a profound enigma….
Well, it could be the boomers’ then juvenile hormonal political investment in the many canards that live on in our hearts about the fifties and sixties, the Kennedys and Nixon, require the averting of eyes – entire politicultural identities have been built on them. Hannah, then Deputy Chief of the American embassy in Afghanistan, writes earnestly, “We had to stop the aggression through Laos or we had to stop defending South Vietnam.” (his italics) In his book, published in 1987, Hannah recounts his comparison of Afghanistan to Laos in a 1962 meeting with Kennedy’s “special representative” Averell Harriman. Hannah has Harriman concerned only about slipping a fast one by his own country’s Congress to please international opinion and boot Laos down the road.

I have a lot of Vietnam history on my shelves yet to read but of what I have I’d also recommend as correctives to the prevailing fantasy Vietnam:
  1. Michael Lind’s Vietnam – The Necessary War (Free Press), which dissects the contending strategies and theories quite clearly and thoroughly and concludes that the Cold War was fought in Vietnam and Korea, Africa and Latin America, because another European war was inconceivable all around,
  2. Lewis Sorley’s A Better War (Harcourt Brace), which the author explains was triggered by the odd fact that Neil Sheehan, author of the standard popular history of the war, A Bright Shining Lie (Vantage), “devotes 725 pages to events through Tet 1968 and only 65 pages to the rest of the war, even though John Paul Vann, the nominal subject of his book, lived and served in Vietnam for four years after the Tet Offensive.”
  3. Nayan Chanda’s Brother Enemy – The War After The War (HBJ), for the story of what happened next to the peoples o’er there, and
  4. B.G. Burkett & Glenna Whitley’s Stolen Valor (Verity), for the stories of what happened and didn’t happen next to men over here – those who served and those who didn’t but said they had.

Another suspicious void in the discourse has been the lack of any discussion of the Korean War’s bearing on any Vietnam metaphor. South Korea after all, was even at its roughest military dictatorship, a far less rough place than North Korea and once it became a democracy and a first world economic power there should have been a revised look back at Vietnam – we now know by the example of Vietnamese-Americans that the Republic of South Vietnam would have made it as well. Only Lind makes much of South Korea’s success as possibly analogous.

One more book key to lifting the veil on all this is James Piereson’s Camelot and the Cultural Revolution (Encounter), which makes the case that it was John F. Kennedy’s assassination itself that “shattered American liberalism.” In his reading, Jackie and the keepers of the Kennedy flame would immediately begin to bend the story away from the truth, “He didn’t even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights. It had to be some silly little communist. It even robs his death of any meaning.” (quoted from Jackie After Jack by Christopher Andersen) Piereson writes about the New York Times’ coverage:

The fact that the assassin was actually a communist did not enter into the equation or alter Reston’s judgments as to who was ultimately responsible for the crime, even though an extensive report on Oswald and his communist affiliations appeared in Reston’s own newspaper adjacent to his article. He seems to have reached an instinctive conclusion about the cause of the event without any reference to the actual identity of the assassin.

He also notes that Arthur Schlesinger’s thousand-page history of the Kennedy administration does not mention Oswald by name though he “allocated several paragraphs to a description of Dallas’s hate-filled atmosphere.”

As for Afghanistan, whether it is the promising-but-besieged democracy it seems or not, we were told by the Democrats that it was the good war, and further, that the Clinton Administration should have intervened in Rwanda. President Clinton has apologized for not having done so. Whether the U.S. should or shouldn’t is debatable; I’m agnostic on these questions. However, we should not throw away American lives on moralistic gestures; America should profit from these costly actions, whether that profit be defensive as in Cold War calculus in Vietnam or the War-on-Terror calculus in Afghanistan. These are all wars of choice for America; so too WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, et. al. That’s our special providence, luck and perhaps burden. We do not live under jeopardy as, say Poland does. Perhaps we owe something to Poland therefore. I don’t know; I can’t do the math.

What I do know is that the Democrats have supported wars in Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan, and then had schizophrenic meltdowns. Their crime against the Republic of South Vietnam was not repeated elsewhere because the baby boomers’ generation-wide teen tantrum occurred only once. We can be thankful for small things. President Obama is sending 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan…

Drawing by James Fotopoulos

Chips from the woodshed:

A comic book which glories in its untruth to life

Blogger Steve Sailer recently characterized Woody Allen as coming out of the "pre-1960s American highbrow/middlebrow culture," when people associated "'soul' with Russian writers rather than with Motown singers." In the 90s, our generalized pop culture evolved past interest in any form of soul in favor of a style-hopping Warholian cool best exemplified by... the messiah of trash formalism and Hubert Humphrey lookalike, Mr. Quentin Tarantino.

Tarantino seems to have been raised in isolation from the natural world while being fed volumes of commercial electronic media. His cinematic flash-and-bang skills occasionally turn out an edible pastiche from these ingredients. For those who don't intend to find it out about his latest, here are two stodgy pre-post-literate scolds to tell us what we're missing: David Denby and James Bowman.

Extra: The film design team discusses the various films and film-related things which are referenced in the film


Miki Dora was one of a cadre of L.A. beach bums who surfed Malibu while avoiding the draft and productive labor in 1950s. A girl from that circle had a father who turned their adventures into a novel called Gidget. It became a hit movie in 1959, thereupon transforming this odd Hawaiian beach sport into a mass media fad.

Dora was distinguished by the easy grace of his longboard style, and his matinee idol looks and charm helped him in slinking along the fringes of Hollywood. He apparently also lived from one scam to the next, ripping off every other person who crossed his path. After years spent in Europe on the run from the authorities he returned to the US to serve time for fraud in the early 80s. He was released, and died of cancer in California in '02.

Sheila Weller wrote a detailed account of Dora and some rich kids who fell in with him at the height of his fame: Malibu's Lost Boys

Here's original footage of Dora surfing Venice in '74


Addendum to Joe Carducci's piece on San Francisco punk in Issue #5:

Jon Savage writes a history of the Sleepers.

On his blog Savage also links to this vintage film of the Saints playing two songs, including their epic "Nights In Venice.": "This is one of the few clips that capture what punk felt and sounded like in 1977: a relentless aural assault that leaves the group and the audience exhausted."

(Chris Collins)

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• The New Vulgate
• Joe Carducci, Chris Collins, James Fotopoulos, Mike Vann Gray, David Lightbourne
• Copyright retained by the writer, artist, or photographer

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