A winnable war?

Last month John and his on-air partners at Fraters Libertas interviewed Mark Moyar about Triumph Forsaken, Moyar’s revisionist history of the early period of the Vietnam war. John noted the interview in “You think you know about Vietnam? Think again.” John’s post has a link to the Podcast of the interview with Moyar.

The new issue of the Weekly Standard that is out this morning carries Mac Owens’s review of Moyar’s book. Mac commanded an infantry platoon as a Marine officer in Vietnam, was wounded twice and was awarded a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts. He is a professor at the Naval War College in Newport, a student of civil-military relations and a contributing editor of National Review Online. He is, in other words, a knowledgeable scholar. Here’s a bit of what Mac writes about Moyar’s new book:

Triumph Forsaken is one of the most important books ever written on the Vietnam war. The first of two projected volumes, it focuses on the period from the defeat of the French by the Viet Minh in 1954 to the eve of Lyndon Johnson’s commitment of major ground forces in 1965. Moyar’s thesis is that the American defeat was not inevitable: The United States had ample opportunities to ensure the survival of South Vietnam, but it failed to develop the proper strategy to do so. And by far our greatest mistake was to acquiesce in the November 1963 coup that deposed and killed Diem, a decision that “forfeited the tremendous gains of the preceding nine years and plunged the country into an extended period of instability and weakness.”

Not surprisingly, Vietnamese Communists exploited that post-Diem instability and adopted a more aggressive and ambitious stance. Moyar argues that President Lyndon Johnson rejected several aggressive strategic options available to him, options that would have permitted South Vietnam to continue the war, either without the employment of U.S. ground forces or by a limited deployment of U.S. forces in strategically advantageous positions in the southern part of North Vietnam or in Laos. The rejection of these options meant that Johnson was left with the choice of abandoning South Vietnam, a step fraught with grave international consequences, or fighting a defensive war within South Vietnam at a serious strategic disadvantage.

Nothing illustrates the orthodox/revisionist divide more than their respective treatments of Ngo Dinh Diem. In the orthodox view, Diem was a tyrant losing control of his country, a Catholic running roughshod over a predominantly Buddhist populace. Moyar contends that this is false. In fact, Diem was an effective leader who put down the organized crime empires that had thrived before his rise to power. Nor was he a democrat: His legitimacy, in the eyes of the people, arose from his ability to wield power effectively and provide security for the people who were the target of the Communist insurgency. Indeed, under Diem’s leadership, the back of the Communist insurgency had pretty much been broken by 1960.

This is a far cry from the orthodox view, but Moyar has some pretty good witnesses: the Communists themselves. Citing Communist documents, Moyar shows that they were honest enough to acknowledge their lack of success in the period leading up to the 1963 coup, as well as the fact that the Diem government was killing and capturing Communist cadres in unprecedented number, leading many survivors to defect.

So why has Diem been depicted the way he has? First, he was a victim of press bias: No one did more to undermine Diem’s reputation in the United States than David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan. Far from providing a balanced picture of the war, they pushed a decidedly anti-Diem view, and their prejudice was so transparent that a 1963 congressional mission described the American journalists as “arrogant, emotional, un-objective, and ill-informed.”

I couldn’t help wondering how these observations bear on our current dilemmas; we seem to be hearing echoes down the corridors. In the same issue of the Standard Reuel Marc Gerecht has the appopriate companion piece to Mac’s review. Mac’s conclusion is in any event of inarguable relevance: “[C]ountries are not destined to win or lose wars. Victory or defeat depends on decisions actually made and strategies actually implemented.” If you have any interest in the subject, you’ll want to read Mac’s review in its entirety.

PAUL adds: One of the things that apparently turned opinion in Washington strongly against Diem was the self-immolation of the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc a few months earlier. David Halberstam witnessed it. President Kennedy saw the picture and it is said to have played a role in his decision to topple Diem. Other monks repeated this act over the next few months. The monks were protesting the treatment of Buddhists by the Catholic Diem regime.

Thich Quang Duc was nothing like the modern religious fanatics who blow themselves up. He committed suicide; they commit murder. However, his act can be seen as an early example of killing oneself for a religious-political purpose.

These acts make a huge impression, but whether they should drive policy is another matter. To topple Diem because certain monks opposed him strongly enough to kill themselves was (or would have been) a dubious move. Abandoning Iraq, or alternatively sending in more troops, because Sunni and Shiite extremists are blowing up themselves and others, would be a dubious move.

Perhaps South Vietnam would have muddled through with Diem. Iraq can probably muddle through as long as we’re around to make sure that the Sunni insurgency doesn’t succeed in taking over parts of the country and that a true civil war doesn’t break out.

UPDATE: Also of interest is Guenter Lewy’s New York Sun review of Moyar’s book: “The war that could have been won.” And Bruce Kesler of Democracy Project writes to add:

There have been numerous self-immolations by Buddhist monks and nuns in Vietnam since 1975, protesting religious repression. They’ve been almost all unreported and all but ignored. (Wonder why?!) I went to a very knowledgeable old-Vietnam hand (a once famous journalist, dating back to the ’50’s in Vietnam) and a former SVN official and scholar, to count and document them. In close to a year of work, they’ve only been able to account for about half, with even one-liners. I think the number stands at somewhere like dozens.

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