How the novels of Neal Stephenson illuminate the present and the future.
I missed most of the Vietnam War, because I was too young to follow the news and it was too recent to be covered in my American history classes. I was thus glad to have the opportunity to read Mark Bowden’s Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam. Bowden is a superb writer and he makes the reader feel present for the house to house combat needed to take back Hue from the North Vietnamese and National Front forces during the Tet offensive. And he persuasively makes the case that a battle won by our Marines marked the beginning of decline in popular support for the war that led to America’s ultimate defeat.
The book has important lessons for today. First, the generals in charge of our troops did not understand the war because they were still fighting the battles of their youth. This retrospection led them to overestimate the importance of armor and underestimate the effectiveness of the Vietcong whose lack of advanced weaponry made less difference in the jungle and urban areas than it did the more open fields of Europe.
Similarly today, it seems that the generals have not mastered the art of war in Afghanistan, relying on tactics like the surge that succeeded in Iraq but have not beaten the Taliban. Whether President Trump’s new more focused counter-terrorism strategy will work better is beyond my capacity to judge. But I was heartened that the President demanded to speak to non-commissioned officers who had spent a lot of time fighting in Afghanistan. Bowden shows that noncoms, platoon leaders, and company commanders had a much greater grasp of how to counter the enemy’s tactics than their commanding generals.
The other lesson is even more important: Political polarization can blind people to great evil. Bowden shows that the Vietnamese communists were ruthless murderers. They executed about 2,000 civilians and captured South Vietnamese soldiers during the battle of Hue alone. The extrajudicial killings of civilians were a failed attempt to terrorize the population into rising up in their support. And they killed in barbaric ways, after torture and by burying people alive. At an orphanage they even bashed in the skulls of toddlers of mixed Vietnamese and American birth. To be sure, the South Vietnamese and even American soldiers were sometimes guilty of excesses, but there is no comparison between the morality with which the two sides fought.
And yet in America many in the antiwar movement extolled the Vietcong as freedom fighters and denounced the United States as the evil power. To be sure, there were many plausible reasons to oppose the war in Vietnam. It could be argued that the war was too costly in blood and treasure for what it could achieve. And the domino theory, which asserted that a victory by North Vietnam, would lead to a communist takeover of Southeast Asia, was of doubtful validity. But many Americans, particularly on the left, were not content with pragmatic arguments. They instead whitewashed great wrongdoing and indicted their own society.
Political obtuseness follows from polarization: dividing the world into friends and enemies flattens the capacity for moral discrimination. Unfortunately, American today reminds me of America in the 1960s.