Monday, October 12, 2009

Dueling books in the Obama White House

There's a great piece by Tom Englehardt on his site TomDispatch in which he suggests a reading list on the Vietnam War for the Obama administration as it debates whether to escalate the war in Afghanistan. Here is an extract from the piece:

"Now, according to Peter Baker of the Wall Street Journal, a "battle" of two Vietnam histories is underway at the White House and the Pentagon. Think of them as dueling books. The president and a number of his advisors have just finished reading Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam about a White House "being marched into an escalating war by a military viewing the conflict too narrowly to see the perils ahead" and backed by a hawkish national security adviser. The other, a Pentagon favorite, A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam, focuses on a military that by the early 1970s was supposedly winning its counterinsurgency struggle only to be "rejected by political leaders who bow[ed] to popular opinion and end[ed] the fight."

If it's a battle of Vietnam histories that Washington wants, should the contest really be limited to these two books?

....... If it's a Vietnam syllabus you're looking for, President Obama, why not start with The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam's brilliant dissection of the Vietnam disaster? Having covered Vietnam as a New York Times reporter, he knew a bankrupt war when he saw one. Or why not consider what an American "counterinsurgency" war really meant on the ground? Nothing will give you a more visceral sense of the destruction visited on Vietnam and the Vietnamese in those grim years than Jonathan Schell's double-barreled classic The Real War.

....Or you might check out William Gibson's devastating, sardonically entitled post-war book, The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam. It's a history of what the war managers did and, believe me, it gives the World War II acronym snafu new punch. Or you could pick up Patriots, Christian Appy's unique oral history of the war as seen from all sides. It provides a perfect way to explore why, faced with overwhelming American firepower, the other side so often refuses to quit.

Not long ago, your special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, picked up a phone in Kabul and called Stanley Karnow, who got a Pulitzer Prize for his 1983 middle-of-the-road, one-volume history of the war. We don't know how that consultation -- in the presence of Afghan war commander General Stanley McChrystal -- went, but Karnow did offer this comment to an AP reporter later: "What did we learn from Vietnam? We learned that we shouldn't have been there in the first place. Obama and everybody else seem to want to be in Afghanistan, but not I."

My own suggestion to you and your staff for a single-volume history is Marilyn Young's cautionary tale, The Vietnam Wars: 1945-1990. And then give her a buzz, too, and see what she thinks about the present moment. (Notice, by the way, that "s" on "wars" in her title, since she includes the U.S.-backed French war. When a good history of the conflict in Afghanistan is written, its title, too, will undoubtedly have the plural "wars" in it. After all, we've been fighting there on and off for three decades now.)"

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