Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Blast From the Past: About Vietnam

While organizing some old columns and comments I ran across this Feb, 2007 response to Jack Wakefield on the Forum 4 Ayn Rand Fans, produced during a 'conversation' about the effects of the Vietnam War. It has only slight relevance to things that are going on today — in particular the issues of a military effort 'discrediting' a philosophy, and the weariness of the American public after years of war. I'm reproducing it here mostly because I thought the writing and the ideas were worth sharing.

Note to those (most, I presume) who don't know who Jack Wakefield is. He's a nuclear power plant engineer who lives in Chicago and comments occasionally through and for Robert Tracinski's The Intellectual Activist.

Those facts are all the more remarkable because Jack is not a professional pundit, yet he is one of the finest cultural analysts in America. I don't always agree with him, but he always has something worthwhile reading.

Anyway, without further ado, here's me responding to his claims (I summarize) that the American defeat in Vietnam knocked the wind out of America's sails for a while.

On Discrediting

It's often put about in Objectivist circles (and elsewhere) that President Bush's actions have "discredited the effort" against the jihadists – intellectually and morally.

I'm no fan of George Bush in general, but I think this view is wrong for reasons that go far beyond the current president. No action that the American President, or anyone else, can take can discredit an effort which is appropriate. Even if the view is modified to be 'discredited in the eyes of (some) onlookers', this is incorrect in three ways.

(1) Many are still supporting Bush's efforts – there are die-hard faux-conservatives just as there are die-hard faux-liberals.

Some support Bush because he's not a (so-called) liberal — they use him as a philosophical whip to combat larger causes. The die-hard faux-liberals, interestingly, do the same thing. They are not pro anything; they are simply anti-everything the faux-conservatives are for. Other conservatives genuinely believe in what they think he's trying to do, just as the so-called liberals are genuinely opposed.

(Aside: Large and vocal segments of the two main wings of current political non-thought haven't much in the way of ideas at all, other than 'I hate what you stand for'. In the case of the faux-liberals, they happen to hate what the faux-conservatives partially and inconsistently stand for: everything that makes a human life on Earth possible – reason, individual responsibility and effort, political freedom, etc.)

(2) By and large, people have much the same fundamental view they had three and a half years ago (or three and half decades ago): do it, or get out. They are seeing that the President's team isn't doing it, so they're leaning now toward 'get out'.

Be that as it may, whatever the President does or doesn't do, says or doesn't say, everyone who wants to is capable of thinking for himself. That means he can judge that the right thing was done incorrectly, or for the wrong reasons, or the wrong thing done for the right motives, but incompetently, or any mixture thereof.

George Bush, for example, can — foolishly — say that 'the primary reason we are going to war in Iraq is the threat of WMD which the Iraqis possess or will soon develop'. (This wasn't his initial argument, but it quickly took center stage. Such is the measure of how easily manipulated by the press he is.)

This is the wrong reason to make war on Iraq, or at least far from the best reason. Nevertheless, it isn't too late even now to say 'No, these are the reasons.' and his story has, in fact, evolved over time — especially since the WMD weren't found in abundance sitting on the porch steps of Hussein's palace.

(3) The point is, whether or not he ever states the correct reasons that would objectively justify the effort, the correct reasons still exist and could be identified and voiced now or after the effort by any right thinking person — no matter the actual outcome. The correct moral case doesn't depend on the President carrying out the enterprise correctly, nor what reasons he gives for undertaking it.

That people will, it's true, be affected by what the President says are the reasons, that some will agree others not, doesn't change that. Unless, we have in mind a very different meaning of the word 'discredit'.

If all that is meant by that is that many will disapprove of the past effort and not want to undertake a similar one in the future, then the word is a paltry thing, because it then just refers to a (potentially large) group of individuals subjective whims.

In the latter case, the only proper response is: 'so what?'.

But, I assert that most people at the start, in the middle, and still today are capable of judging well the effort without the President's interpretation of events — nor that of the New York Times.

Thus, the President isn't necessarily discrediting (or crediting) anything by his actions. Failure doesn't necessarily discredit an effort — it depends on how one analyzes the situation after the fact.

Also, importantly, when asserting that the 'effort is discredited', one has to be very careful about exactly what 'the' is — the Iraq War?, battling the jihadists? Most people are perfectly capable of making the distinction, no matter what the majority of newspapers and magazines would have them believe.

On Vietnam and Its Aftereffects

"Military defeat in Vietnam opened up a hole in the American culture and the New Left dove [sic] a wedge deep into that hole. The defeat influenced good people, undermining their self-confidence and moral assertiveness, causing them to grow silent and withdraw...and evil advanced with little obstruction into the political culture." Jack Wakeland

I disagree from many perspectives with these views.

A military defeat of the sort that occurred in Vietnam can make one angry, sad, (temporarily) depressed, or any number of things. It can not cause good persons' self-confidence or moral assertiveness to waver, in general. Some may, but the majority will go on much as they were before. The American people in the 1970s were not similar to Germans between 1918 and 1935 in this respect.

The American people were, rightly, tired of the debacle in Vietnam — an undertaking which should never have been undertaken and (like so many military efforts begun by Democrats) one in which the U.S. had no self-interest to assert.

Thus, they were largely glad to be out of it. That many had a largely negative view of the military afterwards is a different matter. The press certainly had a field day advertising My Lai, the Tet offensive, the withdrawal, and other actions in which the U.S. allegedly didn't look so good. This has been the bread and butter of U.S. journalism since the 1930s and it accelerated in the 1960s, as so-called leftism became more prominent in American culture.

It took another 15-20 years or so for most people to catch on to the fact that, on the whole, journalists are worse liars than the average politician. (One way they're worse is that one expects politicians to lie, journalists are supposed to tell the truth.)

But that doesn't show that the American people lost 'assertiveness'. It means the media were successful, to a degree, in their (still ongoing) campaign to paint the facts a certain way, in order to achieve their cultural agenda: the permanent alteration of American culture to look like Europe.

The result was not a lack of self-confidence, nor moral assertiveness. It was, as it had been for the period of most of the 20th century, a failure of the majority of Americans to hold their government accountable — a trend which has only been slightly reversed in recent years.

What did happen after Vietnam?


With respect to the majority view of the military, the conclusion is simple. During, and therefore afterward, the majority thought (rightly or wrongly) that the military were doing wrong. They thought the military had no business being there and that while there they did many bad things. My Lai was the poster child, but the general view was pretty much the same before and after that.

(Unfortunately for the military, the average soldier who was there also thought much the same thing. Any 'gung-ho' captain was a good candidate for getting his head blown off by his own men. They had no interest in or intention of dying for what they thought was a ridiculous cause. Such is only one result of the draft.)

That view continued largely intact until the Gulf War. (Though Reagan did make some difference in restoring respect for having a strong military.) When the cause was considered just, the American people were behind it. The military gained swift, sure victories and looked like heroes (as they were). The American people were glued to CNN like it was a Tuesday Movie of the Week.

In this sense, a just cause carried out correctly did 'credit the effort'.


Economically, the period after the Vietnam war was a disaster for about 10-15 years, it's true. But the Vietnam war didn't cause, nor exacerbate, that situation. It wasn't expensive enough to account for such a major effect, and it didn't cause people to suddenly lose their will or ability to produce. The Vietnam War didn't produce bad economic philosophy or policies.


The defeat in Vietnam didn't produce hippies, it didn't produce New Ageism, and it certainly didn't create New Left philosophy, nor give it something to feed on that wasn't there already. The roots of that philosophy, as I'm sure you know, go back much further.

Even looking largely at less fundamental causes, New Left influences were not fed by the defeat in Vietnam. After the war, there weren't large groups, nor influential voices saying, "See we lost the war, so we should do X."

The blatant hostility to science, technology, and civilization that gave growth hormones to the environmental movement didn't grow out of the defeat in Vietnam. The amoralism that took hold of American culture for about 20 years didn't grow out of the defeat in Vietnam. The pragmatism that engulfed American culture wasn't given birth nor fed by the defeat in Vietnam. The egalitarianism, multiculturalism, and puritanism of politically correct thought that came along soon after didn't grow out of the defeat in Vietnam. None of the real-world instances of these abstractions was caused by the Vietnam War, nor America's defeat.

All those things have something in common: they are all 'anti' ideas, anti-actions. I.e. they are not positive ideas or actions undertaken for a positive goal; they are rebellions. That rebellion was extant and grew with the Vietnam War, but wasn't caused nor fed by it. Quite the contrary, to a large degree the defeat in Vietnam was the effect of these things, not their cause.

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