Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Irate Codger remembers

If Barbara Tuchman were still with us she would now be completing a second and much expanded edition of The March of Folly. And what a grand cavalcade of fools it is, following haltingly and with mounting panic in the footsteps--nay, strides--of our Lunatic-in-Chief as he leads us over a cliff! At this rate, how many months can it be before the Baghdad Green Zone becomes our own Dien Bien Phu?

Since 9/11 I've felt increasingly like Tiresias, Sophocles's blind seer in the Theban plays, cursed with foreknowledge of all horrors but powerless to avert them. When I saw those airplanes flying into the Twin Towers, the immediate certainty that froze my blood was "Now this country is going to go nuts." An orgy of patriotism. Everywhere, large Old Glory decals on the rear windows of sports-utility vehicles. A nation in arms. America, it was said, "has never been this united since Pearl Harbor."

And then the Senate vote for war in October, 2002, every Republican and a majority of Democrats voting to give George W. carte blanche to wage war at a time of his choosing while pretending they didn't know what they were doing. Biden, Rockefeller, Clinton, Edwards, Dodd, and, most disgracefully, Kerry, getting out of the way of the super-nationalist juggernaut, saving their own political hides for a more favorable day when reason might come back into fashion.

I remember a Republican senator taunting Robert Byrd with the reminder that he had voted for the Tonkin Gulf resolution in 1964, and Byrd responding that, yes, he had voted for that resolution and it was the worst he had ever cast in forty years in the Senate, the one he rued more than any other, and now his colleagues had the opportunity to redeem that wrong by not giving Bush the same power he had so heedlessly handed to LBJ.

The Tonkin Gulf resolution. I was 28 then, the news director at KPFA, and I was stunned by that vote. Four hundred and twenty to nothing in the House, 98 to 2 in the Senate, Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska the only dissenters. I wrote for broadcast a fifteen minute "Special Report" about the North Vietnamese "aggression" the resolution granted LBJ all power to "repel." The story was that two destroyers, the Maddox and the Turner Joy, were on "routine patrol" in "international waters" in the Gulf when, in the middle of the night, they were suddenly and without provocation attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. I had read a story three or four weeks before in the back pages of the New York Times about U.S. Navy SEALS training South Vietnamese counterparts to stage hit and run raids on North Vietnamese coastal installations. There was a North Vietnamese oil refinery on the coast that had been hit and burned. Could it be, as Morse had suggested, that those destroyers were standing offshore to receive South Vietnamese saboteurs returned from such a mission?

Of course it was all so murky. Much later it would be said that there had been no such PT boat attack at all, that a radar man on one of the destroyers had seen some "snow" on his screen and there had been panic firing upon nothing. Whatever the case, Johnson and McNamara had lied to William Fullbright about the circumstances of the case, and the duped senator from Arkansas had floor-managed the resolution to the final vote after almost no debate.

So, in 2002, Tiresias asked himself, "Have we no memory at all? Must we learn all over again the lesson of Tonkin, and again pay in years of treasure and blood, only in the end to face inevitable ruin and boundless humiliation?" And by degrees the recognition dawned on him that many, perhaps most, of the "liberal hawks" so eager for war in 2002-2003 were not even born in 1964! Think of Martin Peretz's stable of hardnosed young smart-alecs at the New Republic---Jonathan Chait, Franklin Foer, Peter Beinert--or George Packer at the New Yorker, all under forty. Two weeks after 9/11 Packer wrote a piece in the New York Times Magazine titled "C'mon in Liberals, the Water's Fine!" It was an appeal to chronic worry-warts on the left to get over their aversion to patriotism and join the rest of the nation in celebrating our new-found unity and resolve. One knew that if given the opportunity to take it to Saddam Hussein, this guy would be all for it, as he was. (And not only that. Packer in 2006 would write in the New Yorker that yes, he'd been wrong about the decision to go to war, but wrong for the right reasons, whereas many of those who had been right had been so for the wrong reasons. They'd been "simplistic" in their opposition to the war, blind to the real danger posed by Saddam; his position had been "nuanced," attentive to ambiguities they'd ignored. Rather like Scott Fitzgerald's saying that the mark of a first-rate mind as its ability to hold dialectically opposed ideas in equipoise.)

Old Tiresias's mind goes back again and again to a moment in January, 1964, a little more than a month after Kennedy was shot. I had the idea for an on-air panel discussion. We have a new president. What direction should Johnson's Viet Nam policy take? The Berkeley professoriat was rich in both hawks and doves. The most notable hawk was Robert Scalapino, the chairman of the Political Science department. I phoned him and asked if he'd care to take part. He had other pressing engagements, but recommended a junior member of the department, Chalmers Johnson. Johnson agreed to appear. Among the doves, perhaps the most qualified was the sinologist Franz Schurmann from Sociology. He too agreed to participate. I can't remember how I got the third--I suppose he was recommended by either Johnson or Schurmann--anyway, he was a young graduate student from Vietnam named Huynh Kim Khanh.

I, of course, was in no doubt about what Johnson's policy should be: get out while the getting was good. Of course, too, I knew he wouldn't. Here some perhaps tedious background. When I went up to Berkeley in 1961 to pursue an MA, my first contact was Peggy McCormack, a pal who had gone to Berkeley a year earlier to get an MA, but instead had got pregnant, married, and during her pregnancy had immersed herself in a study of Vietnam since 1946 and the gradual involvement in it of the U.S. She'd gone through NY Times microfilm back to 1953 and the Geneva accords and had read every story Homer Bigart, the Times's Saigon correspondent, had filed since, along with a great deal else.

Her lover, now husband, was Bill Plosser, assistant to Gene Marine, the news director at KPFA. I fell in with that lot immediately. I remember a small group of us at a corner booth of Edy's Coffee Shop, downstairs from the KPFA studios on Schattuck, Marine the picture of the hardbitten newsman (he'd become famous a year two before for his exclusive radio interview with Caryll Chessman, the accused "Lover's Lane Killer," weeks before Chessman's execution at San Quentin). I'd never heard of KPFA, the first listener-supported, non-commercial station in the U.S. and the forerunner of NPR. before going up to Berkeley. I began volunteering in the news department almost immediately. In 1962, Chris Koch of KPFA worked up Peg's researches into broadcast form, and that three or four part series was almost certainly the first serious treatment of Vietnam to be featured on any American radio or television station.

In the meantime, Gene Marine left the station to freelance, Plosser succeeded him for a year or so to be followed briefly by John Ohliger, and in January, 1963, weeks after getting my M.A., I became news director. Things were already in a bad way in Vietnam, as anyone could see who had been reading the reportage from Saigon by David Halberstam of the New York Times, Malcolm Browne of the AP, and Neil Sullivan of UPI. Buddhist bonzes were immolating themselves in protest against the rule of Ngo Dinh Diem, "free fire zones" were proclaimed covering vast areas of the countryside over which US aircraft and helicopters bombed or fired on anyone in sight, and "Sunrise Hamlets" were being constructed as containment pens for peasants supporting the National Liberation Front. The week I became news director, the NLF breached the security perimeter at Tan Son Nhut airbase just outside of Saigon and blew up six American fighter jets on the tarmac. Evidently, the ARVN weren't the most reliable guards, weren't, indeed, very good at anything, while "Charlie," the NLF, or Viet Cong, seemed to consist of very determined soldiers.

In February, the State Department put on a public information show for the media at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, and Marshall Windmiller and I went. Marshall, a professor of international relations at San Francisco State, broadcast a ten or fifteen minute program every week on KPFA, also available as a news letter, and he was simply invaluable, as keen and skeptical an observer as I. F. Stone. So there we were in this banquet room at the St. Francis listening to an array of speakers before the star of the show appeared, David Bell, the administrator of the Agency for International Development. A little more than a year ago, Bell said, he'd visited a village in Vietnam where security was frightfully bad and the peasants demoralized and deeply unsure of their government in Saigon. "I again visited that village a few weeks ago," Bell said, "and you would rub your eyes at the recovery of morale of these people, thanks to the security now being provided them." And this was the story wherever you looked in the countryside. Marshall and I rolled our eyes at one another.

A year later, things were much worse. Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother, the defense minister, Ngo Dinh Nhu, had been murdered in an ARVN coup (and Mme. Nhu, a Roman Catholic who had scoffed at the "bonze barbecues," had fled to the Riviera with her lovely daughter), and the country was now being run by a general known as Big Minh. My view of the conflict was by then at bottom pretty simple: in a civil war between urban absentee landlords and rural peasants in an overwhelmingly rural country, put your money on the peasants every time.

This was the situation the evening Chalmers Johnson, Franz Schurmann, and Huynh Kim Khanh came to the KPFA studios. During the week before, I'd scouted out Johnson in the library. His credentials were formidable. His doctoral dissertation at Berkeley had been published two years earlier (Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1937-1945, Stanford University Press, 1962). I read it. Brilliant. On the strength of it and his obvious promise, Scalapino had not only hired him, but advanced him to a tenured associate professorship. This young man, only 32 or 33, had as a student mastered not only Mandarin, but Japanese as well. So the question for me was how a guy as intelligent as he could be so deluded.

I have no memory now of the points debated in that stimulating hour, although I do remember feeling some disappointment in Khanh, who seemed to me excessively deferential to the two antagonists. As I remember, his family was from Hanoi and had moved south after the division of Vietnam in 1954 to Saigon, and I wanted to know what he, who had seen both sides of the conflict, thought of it all. But discretion was his watchword, understandably, given his delicate position. (Twenty years later, watching an episode of PBS's 20-part documentary on the Viet Nam War, I was surprised suddenly to see Khanh, now in Paris at the Sorbonne, commenting on Vietnamese Communism.)

Schurmann had a rather easier time of it than Johnson because--well, because he was right and Johnson was wrong, but Johnson very ably argued for the view that the expansion of the "Communist bloc" must be stopped in Vietnam, and that it was America's duty to do so. But at the very end of the discussion, his earnestness became intense, agitated, and in the face of Schurmann's increasingly persuasive case that in the end "pacification" in Vietnam was a lost cause, Johnson's voice rose as he said, "I simply cannot believe, I refuse to believe, that with the caliber of our forces there, some of the best trained, most disciplined, and prepared officers and men we have ever sent into conflict anywhere, that victory is not achievable. I just don't believe it." I looked at him, and behind his horn-rimmed glasses, his eyes were almost imploring. All I could make of it afterward was, "He must be CIA."

Twenty years later, Chalmers Johnson moved from Berkeley to the University of California at San Diego, where he had his own Asian Studies department, and he poured out a series of books on Japanese economic history and East Asian politics. Then in 2000 he published Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, a repudiation of everything he had believed thirty-six years before. Everything. In the prologue, forthrightly titled "A Spear-Carrier For Empire," he described how he had become that, first as a young Naval officer in the last year of the Korean conflict, and later, unwittingly, as an academic. "I believed," he wrote, "that the United States could not afford to lose in Vietnam. In that, I was distinctly a man of my times. It proved to be a disastrously wrong position."

When the student protest against the war erupted at Berkeley in the Spring of 1965, Johnson was outraged by the ignorance of student protesters who simply knew nothing of Asian communism and didn't care that they knew nothing. "As it turned out, however, they understood far better than I did the impulses of a Robert McNamara, a McGeorge Bundy, or a Walt Rostow....In retrospect, I wish I had stood with the antiwar protest movement. For all its naivete and unruliness, it was right and American policy wrong."

I won't bother describing what a brilliant, impassioned, and necessary book Blowback is--and its sequel, The Sorrows of Empire. The point I want to make at the end of this very long letter is that Johnson's firmly anti-imperialist stance is so far out of the "mainstream" of legitimate American discourse that Blowback went unreviewed by most of the press, including the New York Times, and was dismissed by Foreign Affairs as "reading like a comic book." You won't find op-ed pieces by Chalmers Johnson anywhere (he used to appear in the LA Times, but that fine newspaper is no more; it was replaced by an imposter when the Chicago Tribune Company acquired it). His utterly disqualifying fault is that he opposed the invasion of Iraq from the outset and years ago described accurately its inevitable consequences.

Molly Ivins, Paul Krugman, and Bob Somerby of the Daily Howler blog have all noted the ruthless exclusion of premature naysayers from the "where do we go from here?" discussion. Whom did Tim Rutten invite to discuss our Iraqi predicament on "Meet the Press" last Sunday? Tom Friedman and Davids Brooks. Yesterday on NPR's ATC, the sought-out expert was Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, whose book of 2002 was titled The Case For War. And everywhere one sees and hears Michael O'Hanlon, also of the Brookings Institution, a hawk from the outset--but, as he always notes, a liberal hawk, a Democratic hawk. O'Hanlon is listened to with such grave respect by Scott Simon of Saturday Weekend Edition, Leanne Hansen of Sunday Weekend Edition, and Neal Conan of Talk of the Nation that you'd think he was a revered parish priest, the beloved Faddah Mike.

The two most-consulted military experts appearing on the TV networks are General Barry McCaffrey and Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, both of whom affect a blunt, even somber realism, but both of whom surely know that if they ever were to utter the obvious, namely that the jig's up, their usefulness as consultants would immediately come to an end. Thus, Cordesman wrote an op-ed for the NYT last wednesday titled "One War We Can Still Win," the tag of which was "The situation in Afghanistan is dire, but not yet hopeless." Keep your chin up, Tony.

In the Sunday Week in Review section for December 10, the Times produced a smorgasbord of twelve expert views of the Iraq Study Group's report that it thought "worth considering." The second was by Richard Perle. The fifth was by Fouad Ajami, whitey's favorite Ay-rab, who wrote a heads-up in the NYTimes Magazine in the early days of Al Jazeera warning that although that network posed as moderate, it was in fact a nest of sinister Islamists to be shunned at all costs, and on The News Hour With Jim Lehrer just before the invasion told us not to worry about a negative Arab reaction; actually, the Arabs favored the invasion, they just couldn't say so openly for fear of the Arab street. The only voice among the twelve who opposed the invasion at the outset (at least, I assume he did; it would be consistent with his sober German skepticism concerning US policies) was Josef Joffe of Die Zeit.

No Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment, who wrote on the eve of the invasion that if Vietnam had been a quagmire, Iraq would be a maelstrom. No General Joseph Hoar, USMC Ret., head of Centcom from 1988 to 1993, who said before the invasion that Donald Rumsfeld was deranged and the venture bound to fail. No Chalmers Johnson, and certainly no Scott Ritter, who is about as far from the mainstream as Pluto is from the Sun, who warned beforehand that the grounds for war were utterly baseless, and who recently reaffirmed his extremism for all to see by publishing a book warning of Bush plans to bomb or invade Iran. Such views as theirs are definitely not "worth considering." Only certified spear-carriers for empire need be heeded.