It would be hard to exaggerate the Left’s evasiveness, before the fall of the Soviet Union, about the evils of communism. In this centenary year of the Bolshevik Revolution, there are other anniversaries we could note. One is that, 35 years ago, Susan Sontag shocked and dismayed her fellow leftists with her famous declaration that “Communism is in itself a variant, the most successful variant, of fascism. Fascism with a human face.”
Journalists often claim to write the first draft of history, but that statement raises the question when a story turns from current events into history. The Vietnam War now stands closer to World War II than 2017. A formative experience for the baby boom generation, those who came of age after 1990 see Vietnam as an episode in history. Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns captures the immediacy of the conflict in the ten episode series The Vietnam War airing on PBS. The series also raises larger questions about American foreign policy that resonate today.
I missed most of the Vietnam War, because I was too young to follow the news and it was too recent to be covered in my American history classes. I was thus glad to have the opportunity to read Mark Bowden’s Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam. Bowden is a superb writer and he makes the reader feel present for the house to house combat needed to take back Hue from the North Vietnamese and National Front forces during the Tet offensive. And he persuasively makes the case that a battle won by our Marines marked the beginning of decline in popular support for the war that led to America’s ultimate defeat.
The book has important lessons for today. First, the generals in charge of our troops did not understand the war because they were still fighting the battles of their youth. This retrospection led them to overestimate the importance of armor and underestimate the effectiveness of the Vietcong whose lack of advanced weaponry made less difference in the jungle and urban areas than it did the more open fields of Europe.
Similarly today, it seems that the generals have not mastered the art of war in Afghanistan, relying on tactics like the surge that succeeded in Iraq but have not beaten the Taliban. Whether President Trump’s new more focused counter-terrorism strategy will work better is beyond my capacity to judge. But I was heartened that the President demanded to speak to non-commissioned officers who had spent a lot of time fighting in Afghanistan.