Re-Reading Stanley Karnow’s “Vietnam” In Vietnam

I haven’t read this since either Groton or Duke. And now I am trying to re-read it before I make it down to the DMZ and before my visit to Khe Sanh next week. It’s such a good and complete history of this country, and of the war here, that if you want to understand what happened and some of the why behind it, this is the book.

As I sit here in Halong Bay, currently up to the French losing at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 (having suffered over 90,000 dead and wounded at this point) two things have struck me.  First, the Vietnamese were going to fight and win no matter how long it took. And second, the French and later the Americans simply never understood the enemy.

Ironically, in an age where almost all military colleges now teach Sun Tzu, both the French and later the Americans should have consulted the Chinese general because his first rule of warfare was:

“Know thy enemy.”

We didn’t and we lost.

It’s sophomoric to try and sum up the war here in eight words, but if you are ever forced to do so, those eight will work pretty well. We didn’t understand Ho Chi Minh, the country, the culture, the region, the history, anything but our own misconceptions that were skewed by the specter of Communism.

The lack of simple understanding led to two million Vietnamese deaths, the deaths of almost sixty thousand Americans piled on top of the French dead, the destruction of much of the country and a lingering environmental impact from Agent Orange and unexploded bombs – and, of course, the human impact of the latter two as well.

When you read the book, you can literally be stunned by what our country did here. One can’t, of course, go back in time and understand the environment, but the quotes attributed to men like Dean Rusk, ironically a fellow Grotonian, are simply stunning in retrospect. They may have been the best and the brightest of their time, and we all may, if we were in their shoes, have thought the same thing, but here’s one quote:

“This is a civil war that has been in effect captured by the Politburo and,  besides, has been turned into a tool of the Politburo. So it isn’t a civil war in the usual sense. It is part of an international war.”

                   Dean Rusk, June 1950

Except there wasn’t any evidence at the time it was driven by the Russians, just the better dead than red hysteria gripping the States at the time. And there never was. And it wasn’t really even ever a civil war – it was a battle for independence from colonialism.

Other than that, Rusk was right on the money.

I wrote about John McCain and visiting the prison where he was held last week while I wore his POW bracelet and in it, not only did I question the whole concept of war, but also what we are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan – especially Afghanistan.

Do we truly believe that the Taliban are going to give up, ever, fighting for their country? Do we even ‘know’ them? I don’t think so. The Islamic bogeymen have been substituted for the Communist dominoes it appears.

The second thing that is interesting is that Karnow writes about visiting Hanoi in 1990, twenty-two years ago when the city is so poor that people are starving and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is “one of the few new buildings built since the war.”

Hanoi through much of the 1990s was a crumbling down city where people got to work on bicycle and beggars filled the street.

Just twenty decades later, Halong Bay, which is beautiful but must have been spectacular, is shrouded not in mist but pollution from the factories on the shore. Hanoi is a packed city of 7 million with more than 3 million motorbikes and failing infrastructure. Ho Chi Minh City is pushing 10 million people, some three times the size of Boston. And these cities are growing and punishing the weak infrastructure that underlies them. It’s amazing water still comes out of the pipes when you turn it on.

The transition is shocking. When the Socialist Government, forever despising capitalism, in turn embraced a doctrine of “supply and demand’ to save face, it unleashed an environmental destruction you can’t even imagine. When they created the Asian Tigers and brought free market economics to a country starved for progress and self-promotion, they let the cat out of the bag and I don’t see how it goes back in.

The sky, the water, the trash everything is just in terrible shape and getting worse. It’s an out-of-control capitalism that is then not only destroying the environment but also is overcoming a culture that isn’t equipped to deal with it.

I met a young Australian woman named Z who is working in Hanoi for an NGO, and she told the story of a program they tried to bring into Vietnamese schools were kids were asked to pick up rubbish, and there is plenty to pick up.

The problem was the kids didn’t even know what rubbish was; she said that literally they were bringing stuff in from their houses or their neighbors. Their parents and grandparents were raised in agrarian societies where everything can essentially become compost or be recycled. The concept of trash, or rubbish collection, is foreign to them.

So plastic bags cluttered the lakes and bags of trash float down the rivers. You watch as they just dump stuff everywhere because that’s what they’ve always done. It’s just now, what they are dumping won’t decompose, the pollution they are pumping into the air won’t disappear and soon, this will be completely destroyed.

In terms of my journey, and my father’s life here, it is clear to me that I will have to go further and further away from these modern mega-cities, so I want to see the DMZ and Hue. I am going to make a quick stop in Saigon where my father spent so much time.

But then it’s off to Cambodia and Laos where the pace of change has not equaled Thailand or Vietnam. The capitol cities are a fraction of the size of Bangkok, Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City.

One more thought as I sit here about to start reading again – as you ponder the war. The death and destruction on both sides, the inevitability of the Vietminh winning, but then sit and watch as people pour into the new Svaroski crystal store in Hanoi, there is only one conclusion:

we may have lost the battle, but  capitalism won the war.

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