HouChron Op-Ed on VN, Afghanistan

What can Vietnam War teach us about Afghanistan, North Korea?

Prompted by documentary, historian examines parallels to current conflict in Afghanistan

By Robert Buzzanco

September 30, 2017 Updated: October 1, 2017 9:10am


On Wednesday, Taliban forces fired rockets at the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, shortly after Defense Secretary James Mattis’ visit. Though Mattis was the target, he had left before the attack and was not harmed.
The U.S. has been at war in Afghanistan for 16 years – a long, tragic and ironic conflict. In the 1980s, the U.S. government funded and armed various mujahedeen groups fighting against the Soviet-backed government. In that era, many of the same people now trying to attack American officials like Mattis were hailed as “freedom fighters.”

In the 1960s, as millions of Americans have been reminded by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary “The Vietnam War,” the U.S. also was supporting other “freedom fighters” in the southern part of Vietnam with huge amounts of money and weapons.

Just as Mattis was a target in Kabul, then–National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy was visiting Vietnam in February 1965 when enemy Viet Cong forces attacked a U.S. airbase at Pleiku, in the Central Highlands. Even in “friendly” territory, American officials were at risk.

The Viet Cong were never recipients of U.S. aid nor American support, unlike many of the Afghan fighters who later joined the Taliban, but both attacks illustrate the peril of intervening in the internal conflicts of another country.

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Hugh Hefner, Cultural Rebel

Hef was as much a cultural revolutionary as America could produce at mid-century. Began Playboy right after the Kinsey studies were published, while McCarthyism was in full swing. Got called a “Communist” for undermining American morals, “weakening” American society against the threat of godless Communism. Insisted sex should was essential and should be enjoyable for all. Gave a lot of great journalists their starts. If you got Playboy “just for the articles” you read about Civil Rights, Ban the Bomb, Vietnam, and homosexuality there probably before anywhere else. He was a good liberal when the term meant something.  Time, Newsweek, or The Saturday Evening Post never gave a long, free-wheeling interview to Martin Luther King.

Gave tons of money to progressive causes. Had a late night show featuring not just celebs, but writers, political figures, philosophers, etc. Today he most assuredly would have Colin Kaepernick as a guest. Loved jazz and created the idea of the Playboy Man, who didn’t just love women but believed in seeing the world, reading, treating people with respect. Trump is the antithesis of the Playboy image. As the best minds of that generation were “destroyed by madness,” Hef offered refuge.

I know he wasn’t a 3d Wave feminist, and Playboy Bunnies worked in often difficulty-if-not-hostil environments,  but few have made American culture more tolerant and created a space for marginalized people in the media and told Americans the truth about power more than Hugh Hefner did.

Media today is in crisis.  So many people read 140 character tweets rather than reasoned articles.  The corporate media is a powerful wing of the ruling class.  Social media spreads contrived information via memes.  But Playboy still  writes about class, poverty, inequality, war, justice, and other issues that are no longer sexy.

Hef’s death reminded me of something a friend said to me about Bob Dylan years ago, “he’s a genius, not a saint.”


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Ken Burns’s War Stories

[Original version at History News Network, 21 September 2017]

I began my first book on Vietnam (Masters of War) with a poem, Adrian Mitchell’s “To Whom It May Concern”:

You put your bombers in, you put your conscience out.

You take the human being and you twist it all about

So scrub my skin with women

Chain my tongue with whisky

Stuff my nose with garlic

Coat my eyes with butter

Fill my ears with silver

Stick my legs in plaster

Tell me lies about Vietnam.

When written in 1968, Americans were finally realizing and tiring of the lies they had been told about Vietnam. And the point of the poem was that, against that flood of lies, was some kind of truth, one that a majority of Americans began to understand as they opposed the American war on Vietnam.

“Triangulating” (or Teaching?) the War

Now, a half-century later, America’s best-known documentarians and teachers of popular history, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have produced an 18-hour examination of the war for PBS (a “masterpiece” according to George Will, with sponsorship and promotion from the Koch Brothers, Bank of America, and Pentagon, inter alia) which is getting a huge amount of attention already. Like their documentary on the Civil War, The Vietnam War will surely become a major work of public history and be ingrained in our national consciousness. But what do Burns and Novick do, is it anything new, and what consequences will their work have?hochiminh

Burns and Novick, in their public relations blitz for the show (which debuted Sunday night, September 17th) have stressed that this documentary is different than the studies of Vietnam that have preceded it because they focused on the people who were involved in the war and especially representatives of the enemy (the “North Vietnamese” in their parlance, not the “revolutionaries” or “the NLF”). Their goal was to “triangulate” the telling of the war—speak to people from North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the United States. Their main purpose is to “honor the courage, heroism and sacrifice of those who served,” and “we have tried to do this by listening to their stories.” They add that they conveyed the tragedy of the war through “good storytelling.”

In addition to telling the stories of Americans who fought in Vietnam, Burns and Novick talk to partisans from the enemy, who talk of battles and tactics and their simultaneous respect and hatred of the Americans they fought. In fact, the documentarians seem to suggest that the Vietnamese were unaware of much about the war until educated by Americans. In Vietnam, Novick was surprised to see “a willingness, an openness” to talk about the war in a way “they never speak about it in Vietnam, which is the human story . . . . The war there is sort of a grand sort of victorious narrative without people in it.” And the people to whom Novick spoke “want the next generation to know how terrible it was, how difficult it was.” (Emphases mine).

diem on timeI haven’t been to Vietnam, so maybe they’re right. But I’m pretty certain the Vietnamese talk about the war and know how terrible and difficult it was . . . I’ve talked to a lot of Vietnamese about the war, in depth . . . the war fought for decades in their country. They lost 2-3 million people in the American phase of their long struggle, which means that virtually every family had an immediate member die. There are cemeteries and memorials all over, constant reminders of the war. There are museums to honor battles fought and soldiers and civilians killed. There is a museum dedicated to the dead at My Lai. A close friend who spent 3 months traveling in the area told me that remembering the war in general and its victims is “one of the most significant parts of their identity, more so than here.” There are tributes to the dead. There is a replica of the Washington D.C. Vietnam “Wall.” And if they’re somehow not aware of how terrible the war was, the continued loss of life, perhaps as many as 50,000 people after hostilities ended, from unexploded bombs, and the continued impact of Agent Orange in high cancer rates and countless deformed babies, would help them remember. Did the Vietnamese really need two Americans, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, to finally teach them about the bloodshed and devastation their own land suffered because of the Americans?

And therein lies the core flaw of the entire project—it’s a series of stories, but not really a history of the war. That’s the Burns-Novick trademark and it’s worked for a long time, making them famous and I suspect wealthy. But it substitutes vignettes for ideas, personal anecdotes for larger structural factors, bathos for analysis. And it ends up providing a misguided view of the war, one that has politically conservative consequences (ironic because Burns himself is openly liberal) by shifting attention away from the historical, material reasons for American intervention and focusing on 79 people interviewed who were directly involved in Vietnam. Instead of an exposé of aggressive militarism, they give us sentimental stories of survival and perseverance.

Burns and Novick, despite their claims of originality, provide a pretty boilerplate liberal examination of the war. It “was begun in good faith, by decent people.” The people of South Vietnam created a state, the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), which was invaded by “North Vietnam” and precipitated the war because of the American mission to prevent Communists from taking over “free” countries. After the partition of Vietnam at Geneva, the conflict became a “civil war” in which the U.S. became involved to save the “free” southern half of Vietnam according to Cold War logic. Americans made anguished decisions to invade and then escalate the war, they kept blundering further along and then couldn’t get out, there were decisive battles at places like Ap Bac and Ia Drang, Americans turned on the war, it was a tragedy, there are only victims, and so on . . . It’s not a bad history, but in no way original and in its pursuit of “all sides” it creates a false equivalency. The intervention into Vietnam was a war crime, and PBS isn’t going to fund a documentary saying that, and Burns and Novick don’t go beyond the liberal consensus to think about it.33 B52-vietnam

More Reconciliation and Healing

Burns and Novick talk a lot about reconciliation and healing, sort of a Vietnam War version of Dr. Phil and Oprah. “For more than a generation, instead of forging a path to reconciliation, we have allowed the wounds the war inflicted on our nation, our politics and our families to fester,” they claim. “ . . . alienation, resentment and cynicism; mistrust of our government and one another; breakdown of civil discourse and civic institutions . . . so many of these seeds were sown during the Vietnam War.” The war wracked American society, pitting generation against generation, even family against family. These are troubling issues to be sure, and Burns and Novick seem to easily pin them on Vietnam. But their explanation is facile and self-serving. Continue reading

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Vietnam: The Commodity

(Talk given at Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston, for The Propeller Group exhibit, 13 September 2017)

I’m not an artist nor an art historian, yet art is necessary to any reasonable and meaningful examination of the past. The way people view and represent their past—culture, struggles, social relations, work, wars—is an essential part of understanding where the world has been and maybe where it’s going.ak47m16

I’ve also spent a lot of time studying the American war on Vietnam, which began after World War II and continued into the early 1970s. I know a good deal about the historical episode that we call “The Vietnam War,” but this exhibit isn’t about that . . . except when it is.

The Propeller Group [TPG]—an art collective-cum-ad agency—has created an exhibit that tells us something about the Vietnam War, something about Vietnamese culture, and a lot about the way ideas and indeed the past itself becomes contested and commodified. And that’s the immanent lesson I’ve taken from this collection of art, performance, and video.

At first look, I saw/experienced a recreation of a conversation between a Fedex worker and one of the collective members.

Fedex: The staging of history is happening around us all the time. We basically live in a staged version of the past . . . As if the past was a mall where you could pick and choose a lifestyle as easily as choosing a new wardrobe.

 Tung: I’m not sure . . . I don’t even care much about authenticity.

 Fedex: That’s exactly my point! You should care. Stop being so ironic and use something real for your show.

As soon as I read this exchange, a lot of thoughts came to me, ideas I’ve used in my classes and in my own writing. I thought of Guernica and Confederate statues, of internet memes that today constitute a large part of our public education. Of Antonio Gramsci and bourgeois cultural hegemony.  And I thought a lot about the intersection of art, politics, history, and revolutions and wars. What we call “The Vietnam War” was in the first instance “The Vietnamese Revolution,” in which nationalist/communist forces led by the Viet Minh (later Viet Cong) fought against the occupation of French and Japanese forces, and then fought a long war of revolution and liberation against the most powerful nation on the globe, the United States. The Propeller Group leaves this unsaid, and lets us see what the war brought—not why it happened or why it was fought. It’s up to us to fill in all those spaces.

I thought of Leon Trotsky, the Bolshevik revolutionary, who in Revolution Betrayed wrote that “. . . a protest against reality, either conscious or unconscious, active or passive, optimistic or pessimistic, always forms part of a really creative piece of work. Every new tendency in art has begun with rebellion.” Or the Dada idea of upsetting the bourgeois world created by affluent and artistic Europeans, and making us question the very point of art and what artists do, most relevantly in the case of TPG by incorporating everyday objects (like the Honda Dream) and happenstance into their work, making a mockery of the established hegemonic culture as a way of resisting it. Or Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapping the Reichstag or Pont-Neuf Bridge . . .

It especially made me think of the idea of the spectacle.   In all that I read about and by TPG, their videos and manifestos, they never made reference to the society of the spectacle, but they had to have been thinking about it. The Marxist philosopher Guy Debord, writing amid the global uproar sparked by decolonization but especially the massive resistance to the Vietnam War as well as the careening consumerism that had grasped control of postwar Western culture, developed the idea of “the spectacle,” his encompassing term for the way postwar capitalism created the cultural devices—advertising, television, film, celebrity, media, scandal, and others—to foster, and yet conceal, “the autocratic reign of the market.” The spectacle shifts our attention and soothes us from the reality of consumption, struggle, wars and so on.  Debord himself was a founder of the Situationist International, a collective of artists and others who opposed postwar capitalism and played a prominent role in the 1968 May uprising in Paris, where their motto, “Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible” summed up their vision of the world they wished to create (and also helped create the Sex Pistols via Malcolm McLaren).

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Cuba, Race, and African Liberation


Twenty-six years ago, on May 25th, 1991, the last Cuban troops left Angola.  Beginning in 1975-76, Cuban forces (eventually numbering around 350,000) entered Angola in support of the the ANC’s struggle against apartheid and, more specifically, to support the Angola Revolution and help create an independent state in Namibia.  Today, as Cuban relations with the U.S. are  in a period of transition and the global Left in a far weaker position than it was in the latter 20th Century, the legacy of Cuban, and 3d World, global solidarity is worth remembering.


Mandela and Castro

For Fidel Castro, race played an important role in his analysis of Empire and Capitalism and South Africa’s apartheid government was perhaps the most visible example and symbol of the intersection of race, power, and global capitalism-cum-imperialism (though surely not the only one–Castro and the Cubans spoke in support of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panthers, and Black Lives Matters and at the U.N. helped sponsor a resolution equating Zionism with Racism). Castro and Nelson Mandela and the ANC had a long relationship, and he often cited the significance of Castro’s 1959 victory —“I read the report of Blas Roca, the general Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, about their years as an illegal organization during the Batista regime . . . I read works by and about Che Guevara, Mao Tse-tung, Fidel Castro. . . .”

Cuba’s most important support came not inside South Africa, however, but in Angola, a Portugese colony when, in 1961, the Marxist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) began a war of national liberation, which resulted in independence in 1975. The South Africans, supported by various U.S. governments and agencies, did not go away gently, however, and intervened with army, naval, and air force units, with arms provided by Washington, D.C. and other western governments as well as mercenaries funded by the CIA. The new Angolan government asked Cuba for help.

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Rope-a-Dope Trump (Don’t Get Rid of Him)

If you’re a fan of the Sweet Science, ali foremanor were alive in the 1970s, or even just heard of Muhammad Ali, then you’re familiar with “The Rumble in the Jungle,” his epic bout against then-Heavyweight Champ George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire in October 1974.  Ali may have been “The Greatest,” but he  stepped into the ring as a 3:1 underdog (not exactly Tyson-Douglas [42:1] or even the first Ali-Liston [8:1] odds but a risky wager by any means).  Ali was 32 at the time and had lost three prime years when he was suspended for resisting the draft, while Foreman, a big puncher, was 25 and undefeated in 40 fights, with 37 knockouts.

Ali, however, surprised, if not stunned, the boxing world by dispatching Foreman in 8 rounds (here).  Ali knew better than to wear himself down trying to outpunch Foreman, so he employed a much different strategy, known to the world today as the Rope-a-Dope.  Ali fought passively, often retreating to the ropes where Foreman would unleash a barrage of body blows that Ali, and the ropes, were able to catch and brush off.  By the middle rounds, Foreman was spent and Ali was able to finish him off and regain his Heavyweight belt.

So what’s that have to do with Donald J. Trump?  Well, right now there’s blood in the water, the sharks are circling, the vultures are overhead, the clock’s about to strike midnight, A Hard Rains’ A-Gonna Fall . . . well, you get the point–Trump is in trouble.  A series of almost-daily scandals, the most important which revolve around his relationships with Russian government officials, have set off a frenzy of political opposition unseen in modern times (yes, even the Clinton Impeachment ordeal wasn’t as intense as this).  It’s like Guy Debord’s society of spectacle, the use of commodities and information to maintain social control, has reached full maturation.  The United States, hell, most of the world, is transfixed by Trump.  This has led to calls in the media and among political rivals, particularly Democrats and Liberals, for his ouster, perhaps by DACDnzOXUAAoWRUImpeachment.  Indeed, Slate, something of a Better Homes and Gardens for the liberal elite, has even spared Congress the effort of writing up the terms of impeachment by doing it ahead of time for it.   Impeachment odds on PredictIt, a gambling book based in New Zealand, have soared in the past few days to over 30 percent, a four-fold bump in barely a week.

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Does Russia Matter?

Memes aren’t great ways to learn a lot about history or politics, though they’re used that Alan_Arkin_in_The_Russians_Are_Coming,_The_Russians_Are_Comingway a lot.  Still, some are funny and make a good point in a few lines in a way that might take paragraphs otherwise.  Today I came across one that I put up on Facebook:

“People in my community who are nervous about Russia:  0

People in my community who are nervous about next month’s rent: most everyone”

For months now Americans, especially Democrats and Liberals but mostly everyone who hates Trump–and that includes much of the establishment media and economic and political elites–has been obsessed with the Russia story.  I haven’t been.

So my comrade and colleague Clayton Lust, with whom I agree on almost every political issue, responded, “Are you suggesting Russia doesn’t matter? Are you?”  Despite the vociferous nature of his question (he’s an honorary Italian so doesn’t have an inside voice, even when he’s writing), I knew where he was coming from and figured he deserved an honest answer.  And since everyone has an opinion and a platform on Social Media to share it (and just how did Juan Cole and “The Mary Sue,” inter alia, become famous?)  I might as well share my thoughts with the world, or at least the high two-digits of people who read this. Besides, I’m a professor so that means I’m an expert at pretty much everything.

So, am I suggesting Russia doesn’t matter?  Well, that’s a broad question, so the answer is easy . . . “No.”  Surely, if Trump and his cronies were cutting some kind of political deals with the Russian government to get “intelligence” on his opponent’s campaign (and here it strikes me that “stealing” the election in 2016 makes as much sense as Nixon breaking into the DNC headquarters to stave off the Democratic juggernaut that awaited him in 1966-Russians-are-Coming-The...-04the 1972 campaign . . . “Who’s Afraid of Edmund Muskie?”) then of course it matters.  Indeed, there are rumors flying all over the place about arrests, indictments, subpoenas, Trumps getting shackled, and even a future Orrin Hatch presidency.  Anything is possible and everything here could be irrelevant the minute I hit “Publish.”

But that’s obviously not a very gratifying response, nor a valuable one.  And it’s not the real point of the issue.  Trump’s relationship to the Russian Federation’s President Vladimir Putin is about economics (probably Trump’s personal finances) and politics and became the dominant issue in the United States even prior to January 20th, 2017.

There’s a lot going on right now: a cabinet of mega-millionaires creating a 21st-Century Gilded Age; an intensified assault on immigrants with ICE agents gone wild like college kids on spring break; GOP attempts to destroy “Obamacare” (a terribly inadequate health care program to begin with) and, more importantly, trash Medicare and Medicaid; efforts to get rid of the mostly-weak regulations that exist on Wall Street and other corporations; GOP hoping for an orgy of tax cuts for the top 1 Percent; a reinvigoration of the War on Drugs (the deescalation of which was one of Obama’s few graces) and pursuit of a Nixonian commitment to “Law and Order” which surely will mean more poor people, especially Black and Latino poor, will end up in jail or on the wrong side of a cop’s bullet; gutting environmental laws; and making it harder for most everyone to pay his or her rent . . .

So, back to Russia . . . (and even if Trump is forced out as president for this issue, much of the stuff below remains relevant and real . . . at least in my mind).

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