Defeated in war, victorious in therapy

Twenty years after they left Vietnam, Americans still haven't understood their miscalculation
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Having, 20 years ago, lost the Vietnam war on the ground, the Americans have since been winning it in their heads. Their mental victory has been one of domestication - Vietnam is now a popular holiday destination - and of therapy. The war is now routinely seen as a national rite of passage, a triumph for the psychobabbling, therapeutic society - OK, we lost, but now let's work with that defeat, use it to reach the true American self. Vietnam becomes a growth experience.

The Hollywood Vietnam movies - with the noble exception of Apocalypse Now - all said the same thing. The war was a mistake, but redemption was at hand. Not, admittedly, for the Vietnamese, but for the American soul. The liberal establishment looked within and found a new strength on the dubious basis of the posturing of the likes of Oliver Stone. Meanwhile, even the hard right found consolation when Communism finally collapsed and the American military re-established some of its tattered reputation in the Gulf - see, we won in the end.

The whole trap of delusion - liberal therapeutic and conservative patriotic - was brilliantly, if subhumanly, captured by William Colby who ran the CIA's operations in Vietnam. "The war," said Colby, "was a terrible shock to the American culture. But I think I have finally gotten it out of my system." Oh, well that's all right then. Bill's fine.

But deep beneath all this lie the true errors of Vietnam. These were not merely strategic, they were intellectual. And they resided in the mind of Robert McNamara.

McNamara provided the theory for the war. He insisted that the Americans had to fight to hold the line against expansionist Communism and to forestall the "domino effect" which, in theory, would have led to a mass of other states falling into the grip of the Reds. And he persuaded Kennedy and then Johnson that it was winnable. With 500,000 men and all this technology, how could they lose against an army of tunnelling, cycling, peasant guerrillas?

Now, finally, McNamara has admitted what sane people have known for at least 20 years - he was wrong. Therapeutically breaking down in tears on American television, he said: "We were wrong. We were terribly wrong." But does he mean it? Does he really understand? I suspect not.

McNamara now blames miscalculations. Nobody at the time realised the extent to which the war was against nationalists rather than Communists. Plus America had allied itself with a corrupt and incompetent South Vietnamese government - "It became clear," he said, "... that military force ... cannot bring order in a country that cannot govern itself."

The result of defeat, for McNamara, has been a widespread cynicism towards American politics and institutions "that makes Americans reluctant to support their leaders in the actions necessary to confront and solve our problems at home and abroad."

The first thing that is missing here is a wider sense of the impact of the war. For a generation Vietnam made McNamara's America loathsome. Sixties and Seventies teenagers certainly loved America, but theirs was a dissident, anarchic culture in revolt against the military-industrial complex. The war had made disciplined, hard-working, protestant America disgusting. Vietnamese hearts and minds were only one side of the equation; American hearts and minds were the other, bigger side.

For the essential spectacle was of a rich, powerful nation inflicting slaughter on a poor, weak one. No matter how vile the Communists were - and they were, indeed, vile - the simple television images told only one story. And it was a story that allowed the free world to be portrayed as imperialists and totalitarian tyrannies as liberators, a stupidity that persists in the mind of the lumpen left to this day. As a result, the war was a vital element in the West's loss of faith in itself - yet again the Enlightenment project had foundered in mud and blood. A bit of cynicism in America is nothing compared to the disaster of this global impact.

The second missing element is an admission of the real narrowness of the strategic thinking. Certainly Communism at the time was expansive and dangerous. But fighting it on a series of local fronts could achieve either nothing or something worse - the strengthening of local resistance through the identification of Communism with nationalism.

The reality was that the Bomb had destroyed the basis for direct military confrontation. However many local wars were fought, it remained the guarantor of tyranny as much as of freedom. Defeating Communism was a good and just cause. But, with both sides in possession of a massive superfluity of nuclear weapons, it could not be achieved militarily unless the West was ready to die in the attempt.

And, finally, what is missing is any deeper awareness of why the Americans miscalculated. McNamara was the supreme rationalist. His manner, even his haircut, advertised the belief in efficiency and the overwhelming, superhuman power of his specialised conception of reason.

In truth he came from a strategic and intellectual culture that was, potentially, as cold and inhuman as the Communism it aspired to defeat. This was the culture of body-counts and winnable nuclear war. It was a culture that believed that technology had rendered wisdom obsolete. It was, in effect, a culture that was attempting to defend itself by denying the best of itself, its history and its accumulated self-awareness.

The reality of McNamaran rationalism - and of a good deal of hi-tech thinking at the time - was astonishingly crude. In essence, it hinged on a simple belief in numbers. What all the technology and the strategy boiled down to was the conviction that, if you killed enough people, you must eventually win.

In many wars this may be true, but in Vietnam, as in all such tautly confined situations, it was the precise opposite of the truth. The more you killed, the worse it got because it fired more Viet Cong recruits and further diminished your diplomatic standing. The only solution would have been to kill almost everybody and that would have meant nuclear weapons and a real, as opposed to a spiritual, apocalypse. It would be nice to think Vietnam had destroyed such crude thinking for ever, but I can't help feeling that the current American enthusiasm for capital punishment signals that it is alive and well - kill enough people and you must eventually defeat crime.

The point is that if McNamara was really recanting he would see that his detailed points about the South Vietnamese government and the nationalism of Ho Chi Minh are almost trivial. After all, to acknowledge these as mistakes is to say no more than that things could have been done differently; other calculations could have been made. It is not to admit that the whole mind-set was wrong, that the deliberate cultivation of hard rationality - and this is where the unique greatness of Apocalypse Now lies - will lead only to the emergence of an even harder irrationality. Coppola's Colonel Kurz with his army of painted savages is Robert McNamara through the looking-glass.