CRB: The Vietnam War revisited

We continue our observance of the week of Charles — Charles Kesler, editor of the Claremont Review of Books and recipient of one of this year’s Bradley Prizes last night in Washington, DC — with the second preview from the new (Spring) issue of the magazine that is hot off the press. Buy an annual subscription including immediate online access here for the modest price of $19.95. It is an invaluable magazine for those of us who love trustworthy essays on, and reviews of books about, politics, history, literature, and culture.

The new issue features the essay/review “The Vietnam War revisited” by Mackubin Thomas Owens. It is a retrospective occasioned by the Ken Burns documentary history of the war. Mac is himself a Marine Corps veteran of the war, though Burns was somehow unable to find a vet like Mac who is proud of his service. Mac served as an infantry platoon officer and company commander in 1968-1969. He was wounded twice and awarded the Silver Star.

Mac is a scholar and a gentleman. He recently retired as Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College in Newport. At the War College he specialized in the planning of US strategy and forces, especially naval and power projection forces; the political economy of national security; national security organization; strategic geography; and American civil-military relations. He is at present Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and editor of FPRI’s quarterly journal, Orbis.

Mac introduces his essay this way:

Though North Vietnam defeated and absorbed South Vietnam 43 years ago, Americans remain divided over their role in that country, as responses to last year’s ten-part PBS documentary, The Vietnam War, made clear. A veteran proud of my service in Vietnam, I watched the series—purportedly an even-handed examination of the war—and saw one more rendition of the antiwar case, made by those who didn’t even acknowledge the existence of counter-arguments.

he series, produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, has several problems. First, it isn’t really about the war. At the end of the program, the producers tell us, “The Vietnam War was a tragedy,” one they call “immeasurable and irredeemable.” Still, “meaning can be found in the individual stories.”

Second, the documentary downplays the patriotism of those who fought. Contrary to Burns, Novick, and most interpretations, the U.S. military in Vietnam was not an army of unwilling draftees, in which minorities were seriously overrepresented. In fact, two thirds of those who served—and 73% of those who died—were volunteers.

Third, Burns and Novick do not do justice to the war’s purposes, which were serious despite the flawed strategy to achieve them. Vietnam’s geographic position and cultural strengths made it, as historian David Halberstam wrote years ago, “one of only five or six nations in the world that is truly vital to U.S. interests.”

Fourth, The Vietnam War persists in describing the conflict as a civil war. But as surely as North Korea invaded South Korea, North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese and their American supporters have consistently dismissed American scholars, such as the late Douglas Pike, who long ago stated this fact. But in 1983, Vo Nguyen Giap and Vo Bam, North Vietnam’s chief strategists during the war, admitted that the country’s Communist Party decided in 1959 to begin the armed struggle against the Saigon government. The North Vietnamese subsequently built the “Ho Chi Minh” trails to move men and supplies to South Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia, violating those countries’ neutrality. These events, long before American combat units came to Vietnam in 1965, confirm the U.S. justification for its action in Vietnam.

But by far the biggest problem with the PBS series is that it ignores much of the revisionist scholarship that casts the Vietnam war in a different light. These interpretations contend that the United States, far from being destined to lose the war, had a number of opportunities to win it.

I am grateful to be able to bring Mac’s essay to the attention of Power Line readers (whole thing here).

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