Thursday, 22 July 2021 23:42

CounterPunch Whiffs Again!

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Jim DiEugenio shows how distorted the lens is that CounterPunch writer David Schultz looks through to reach his own interpretation of the lesson of Vietnam that the U.S. should have applied to Afghanistan. The only lesson we learn from history is indeed that we learn nothing from it, if we rely on discredited sources like Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest.

On July 15th, CounterPunch did it again.  The occasion was an article comparing the final withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan with the American debacle in Indochina.  Author David Schultz used the famous line, this time attributed to Hegel, that the only lesson we learn from history is that we do not learn from history. He wrote that as the Taliban now takes over some of us “wonder if this is not Déjà vu all over again and that what we thought we had learned from the Vietnam War proved to be a fleeting lesson.”

Schultz goes on to note the Kent State shooting, helicopters over the embassy in 1975, the domino theory, over 58,000 dead American soldiers, tens of billions wasted.  He then mentions some of the literature on the Vietnam War.  First off is Francis FitzGerald’s Fire in the Lake which tried to accent how different the culture of Vietnam was and how the American military did not understand it.  Then, of course, since this is CounterPunch, Schultz has to mention David Halberstam and The Best and the Brightest.

Here is how Schultz quantifies Halberstam’s book.  He writes that it pointed to:

….the arrogance of the Kennedy administration in failing to understand that Vietnam was more about colonial independence than it was about communism and Cold War rivalry.

As I have indicated too many times to enumerate here, this misses two major points about Halberstam.  First, Halberstam completely revised his view of Vietnam between his first book, The Making of a Quagmire, and his second book on the subject The Best and the Brightest.  In that first book, Halberstam  criticized Kennedy for not being militant enough in Vietnam. In 1965, Halberstam said that Kennedy should have gotten America in earlier. In fact, that book is an utterly coruscating critique of American policy in Vietnam until 1965. The hero of the book is Colonel John Paul Vann.  Why?  Because Vann knew how to win the war! (See Chapter 11) Halberstam is even more explicit about this later when he declares, “Bombers and helicopters and napalm are a help, but they are not enough.” (p. 321)  He then gives us his Schultzian lesson about Vietnam: “The lesson to be learned from Vietnam is that we must get in earlier, be shrewder, and force the other side to practice self-deception.” (p. 322)

Halberstam’s role model in 1965, Vann, thought that if America was going to win the war, American troops were needed. (See the Introduction to the 2008 edition by Daniel Singal, p. xi) Well, Lyndon Johnson gave Vietnam about 500,000 American troops and it did not work out very well. Since Halberstam started writing The Best and the Brightest in about 1968, when this had all clearly turned out to be a disaster, the author decided to cover his tracks.  Back in 1963, Kennedy did not like what Halberstam and Vann were trying to do––which was move toward escalation by criticizing what they saw as JFK’s timidity. (David Kaiser, American Tragedy, p. 261) So therefore, even though America had been involved in Vietnam for eleven years prior to Kennedy’s inauguration, Halberstam focused a large part of 1972’s The Best and the Brightest on the years 1961-63, virtually ignoring what the Eisenhower administration had done to secure a commitment to Vietnam.  Eisenhower had, in fact, created a new country there, one that had not existed prior to 1954. And since America had created it, then America was obliged to defend it.

By relying on Halberstam’s museum piece, Schultz gets the other part he writes about wrong also. President Kennedy did comprehend what the Vietnam war was about.  He understood the true circumstances because of his association with Edmund Gullion going back to Saigon in 1951. (Click here for details) This is why he refused to commit combat troops in theater. During the crucial debates in November of 1961, Air Force Colonel Howard Burris took notes. They are contained in James Blight’s book, Virtual JFK (pp. 282-83)

Kennedy argued that Vietnam was not a case of aggression as was Korea. Therefore, America would be subject to intense criticism from even her allies. He then argued that the French had spent millions there with no degree of success. He also argued that the circumstances were such that even Democrats in Congress would have a hard time defending such a commitment. Further, one would be fighting a guerilla force, “sometimes in phantom-like fashion.” That would mean whatever base of operations American troops had would be insecure. Burris noted that during the debate, Kennedy turned back attempts by Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy and Lyman Lemnitzer to derail his train of thought.

I don’t see how one can locate a more defining moment, or show how well Kennedy really understood what the facts of the war were than this.  One can argue that Ed Lansdale had been the first person to suggest inserting combat troops into Vietnam, something Kennedy refused many, many times. (John Newman, JFK and Vietnam, first edition, p. 20; Gordon Goldstein, Lessons in Disaster, p. 52) After Kennedy’s death, when Lansdale returned to the White House, he recommended sending John Paul Vann back to Vietnam. Vann did return in 1965, when Lyndon Johnson overturned Kennedy’s policy by sending tens of thousands of combat troops into Vietnam. (David Kaiser, American Tragedy, p. 384). Using David Halberstam today as any measure of what happened in Vietnam would be like cranking up a Model T Ford to make a cross country trip.  Halberstam was the author who called 1964, the “lost year” in Vietnam. Geez Dave, wasn’t the Tonkin Gulf Resolution kind of important? (For more on Halberstam click here">)

Another issue with the article is its comparison with how America got into Vietnam and how America got into Afghanistan. Schultz writes that America got into the latter as a result of the attacks of 9/11. Which is only partly true.  America was involved even before the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in December of 1979. President Carter had allowed the CIA to operate in the country at his National Security Advisor’s request. The late Zbigniew Brzezinski predicted that such aid would likely induce a Soviet invasion and that would give the USA an opportunity to hand Russia its own Vietnam. (January, 1998, interview with Le Nouvel Observateur)  As most people know, the CIA now began to back the struggle of the Islamic radicals against the Russians. This included Osama Bin Laden. Much of this aid went through Pakistan.  And in return, America agreed to look the other way as that country built a nuclear weapon. (James DiEugenio, The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today, p. 386)

Unlike America’s commitment to Vietnam, the Russians never had more than 120,000 troops in theater. Mikhail Gorbachev recommended a peace agreement before the Russians formally withdrew in 1989. The concept was to leave behind Mohammad Najibullah as president and he would form a coalition government with some of the more moderate tribes. The goal was to marginalize the Islamic fundamentalists. For whatever reason, the USA would not sign onto this sensible agreement. (The New Yorker, 9/29/2009, article by Steve Coll) There were warnings from people like the late Benazir Bhutto that were quite frank and accurate.  She said, “You are creating a Frankenstein.” (Newsweek, 10/1/2001, article by Evan Thomas)

Bhutto was correct.  Unlike the Tom Hanks depiction of the late congressman Charlie Wilson, the congressman backed this decision. (DiEugenio, p. 387) America actually gave aid to some of these deplorable fundamentalists, e.g., Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The one decent tribal leader in the area, Ahmad Shah Massoud, only got a fraction of what those two men received. (Alternet, 12/20/2007, article by Melissa Roddy)

As Bhutto and Gorbachev predicted, the country descended into a horrifying civil war. After three years, Najbullah was dislodged.  Pakistan then sent in its own charges, the Taliban, who backed Sharia Law. Najbullah was taken prisoner, mutilated and killed in late 1996. Massoud held out for years until he was assassinated two days before the 9-11 attacks.

This is not just an interesting story for what it says about Tom Hanks and his cartoonish movie Charlie Wilson’s War. But also because, after Massoud’s demise, the Taliban took over the country.  It became a hiding place for Osama Bin Laden.  More specifically, the Battle of Tora Bora, featuring American special forces, took place there in December of 2001. The result was, again for whatever reason, Bin Laden escaped into Pakistan.

On October 7, 2001, George W. Bush launched his invasion of Afghanistan, which dislodged the Taliban. President Obama reduced this operation significantly. And now President Biden will, perhaps, finally end it.

One can argue that, in all this, America was still fighting the Cold War, except this time it was in Afghanistan, not Indochina.  But was there really a reason to do this? Especially in light of Gorbachev’s peace offering? To me, that is the real resemblance of the two situations. In the first instance, America created a country in the name of the Cold War. In the second, America decided to radically Islamize a country in the name of the Cold War.

In the first instance, we know Kennedy did not agree with the policy and was withdrawing at the time of his death.  With what this author has discovered about Kennedy and the Middle East, I doubt very much he would have sided with the radical Moslems. (Click here as to why )

But that is a story CounterPunch could never tell.

Last modified on Tuesday, 03 August 2021 20:18
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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