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The Big Muddy

VIETNAM THE NECESSARY WAR, A Reinterpretation of America's Most Disastrous Military Conflict By Michael Lind; The Free Press: 320 pp., $25

October 17, 1999|GEORGE C. HERRING | George C. Herring is a professor of history at University of Kentucky and the author of "America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975."

Much of his criticism of the United States military during and after the war is on the mark, but it is not at all clear that his preferred solutions would have produced better results. Fighting guerrillas and winning hearts and minds were not things that Americans or South Vietnamese did well and, as scholars who have written on the insurgency have made clear, the NLF was so deeply entrenched in many parts of South Vietnam by the mid-1960s that it would have required a massive effort to get it out.

Nor is it clear how the United States could have "lost well." It is difficult to see how any administration could have simply withdrawn once a certain level of casualties had been reached. War is the ultimate act of passion, and it does not lend itself to such fine-tuned rationality. And what would such a withdrawal have done to the credibility Lind attaches such importance to?

The tone of the book is tendentious and polemical. Lind pleads for dispassionate analysis of a war that aroused huge emotions, but he indulges in overstatement. Robert Kennedy's alleged 1963-1964 contacts with Soviet agents are condemned as "acts of insubordination and political treachery with few if any parallels in American history." Lind's analysis of the Vietnam War is closely tied to the war in Kosovo, and he condemns the decision of President Clinton to rule out the use of ground troops as the "single greatest act of incompetence ever committed by an American commander in chief."

Such phrases as "we now know," "it is no longer possible to deny," "nor is it possible any longer to argue," "history reveals" and "history has vindicated" betray the dogmatic tone of Lind's arguments and conclusions. His suggestion of an "outreach effort" to correct the alleged liberal imbalance in the media and elite academia is unsettling. It is also troubling when someone claims the authority to pronounce the "genuine" historical lessons of anything. History can be a tricky and unreliable teacher, its lessons elusive and contested.

Lind's lessons, not surprisingly, are in line with his blueprint for global intervention in the 21st century. The United States must learn how to fight low-intensity wars to uphold its credibility as a world power, and it must maintain an imbalance of world power in its own favor. To facilitate the waging of such wars, conditional declarations of war must be institutionalized and censorship imposed.

Lind's analysis of the war in Vietnam is as one-sided as many of the academic and journalistic studies he sets out to disprove. It should not and likely will not have much impact on the way we remember or how we write the history of America's longest and most divisive war.

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