The Proud Duck
Sunday, January 25, 2004
The Corner on National Review has been tossing around the idea, now that John Kerry appears to be the Democratic presidential frontrunner, that his Vietnam service may re-ignite old arguments about that war. It's an interesting thought, since the two sides on the original arguments have largely gone on to remain politically opposed, although on different questions.
My view on the question is that the great flaw in the Vietnam war was lack of judgment (the worst of all "ills afflicting men," according to Sophocles.) In retrospect, the decision to fight a war that might have been expected to do more harm than it could have been expected to prevent, the conduct of the campaign, the acceptance of an attritional strategy, and the domestic political considerations that led the Johnson administration to escalate the war were all ill-considered decisions that caused great harm.
But it's not for lack of judgment that the most vocal of the Vietnam protestors, and their latter-day ideological heirs, faulted America for its participation in that war. Rather, they largely defined the war as arising from unjust motives. It wasn't that the decision to fight was ill-considered, but rather that we were on the wrong side. Even Martin Luther King, right on most other subjects, couched his opposition to the war in terms that described America as an aggressor. Others accused the United States of seeking economic advantage (although it would seem that we had all the rice and coconuts we needed).
Part of this problem, I think, went back to McCarthyism and its embarrassment of the anti-Communist cause. The unspoken rationale was that a communist insurgency really wasn't that bad; that it was essentially a revolt against oppression and therefore shouldn't be opposed. (Arthur Schlesinger once remarked that if McCarthy and his merry men had gone after undercover Nazis, nobody would have objected.)
One of the defining distinctions between a conservative and a liberal is that, by and large, the former views Nazis and Communists as equally evil totalitarians, while the latter tends to see some features in Marxism that at least partially mitigate its butcher's bill (which is often attributed to the ideology's never having been "properly applied.") Keep in mind that I'm referring here most to the hard Left, as opposed to the average NPR-listening, PBS-watching conventional wisdom liberal, who probably hasn't thought things this far through.
So the conservative is inclined to think that opposing communist attempts at conquest or insurgency as a good thing in principle, with the degree of opposition to any particular campaign a matter for judgment.
Things get interesting because a nation's exercise of collective judgment is affected by the conduct of individuals, which conduct may be immoral in a way the actual exercise of judgment is not. In other words, government officials may place career advancement or ass-covering foremost, and may be less than truthful in their presentation of facts, or less than forthcoming about the reasoning behind their conclusions. There was enough of this in the 1960s military and government culture that there are individuals who do bear moral guilt for what happened there.
But that moral guilt does not attach to the United States as a whole, because it's hard to see how the ultimate American aim in Southeast Asia was anything but legitimate, even noble, namely, the prevention of the spread of a tyranny with a clear record of inflicting human misery. Maybe the "domino theory" was flawed; maybe communism wouldn't have spread beyond Indochina, or if it had it wouldn't have mattered. (Although the "dominos"in Laos and Cambodia did topple in short order after the fall of South Vietnam, with horrific results in the latter case, and I'd imagine there would have be plenty of Thais, Malaysians, and Indonesians who'd take exception to the idea that it didn't matter if they'd gotten the Khmer Rouge treatment.) Yes, after 1989, it became conventional wisdom that communism was inherently flawed and couldn't endure, but that wasn't clear at the time.
And even if one described the Vietnam war as "somebody else's civil war" (and it was largely a case of one country conquering another, the Viet Cong having been largely destroyed by 1968), it's not as if liberal conventional wisdom opposes intervening in civil wars; witness Bosnia and Kosovo. (Although the hard-core Left is happy to oppose those things, too; witness Michael Moore on Kosovo -- i.e. we were dropping bombs on people who hadn't done anything to us. Of course, he complicates things by endorsing for president Wesley Clark, who commanded the Kosovo expedition Moore once condemned. Keeping up with these people isn't easy.)
Bottom line, after extended unedited stream-of-consciousness ramble -- The problem with the Vietnam war was poor national judgment, not malice or greedy motive. No nation will ever be free from mistakes, although a free nation, by preserving the means of correction from within, will probably make fewer of them.
This brings me to the theme which a lot of Democrats are making with respect to the present war -- i.e. that their patriotism is being questioned for their opposition to the war. I hear a lot more Democrats insisting that their patriotism is not in question than I hear Republicans actually questioning it; in fact, nobody has yet to provide me with an actual example of a Democrat's patriotism being impugned by a major Republican figure. (On the other hand, Wesley Clark and Howard Dean have both explicitly impugned President Bush's patriotism.) Maybe they protest too much; maybe they've found it to be an effective political tactic, or maybe the Left has never gotten the British "Khaki Election" of 1902 (in which the Liberals were characterized as being on the side of the Boers in the Boer War) out of its collective mind.
Most of the Democrats, especially the celebrity kind, who protest this phantom questioning of their patriotism, in fact have nothing wrong with their patriotism. They may be underinformed or sophomoric in their criticisms, but it's entirely possible to be an underinformed and sophomoric patriot; there are plenty of those on the pro-war side. However, I do think there comes a point where a person's criticism of his country becomes so constant, one-sided, and malicious, that to call him a patriot -- a friend of his country -- is to destroy entirely the meaning of friendship.
While a friend may see his friend's faults and strive to correct them, a friend does not automatically take the opposing side every time his friend has a quarrel. A friend does not invariably believe the worst of his friend, and impute to him the worst possible motives in every case. A friend's friendship is not conditional on his friend's conforming himself in every respect to what the first person thinks the friend should be.
So while a dissenter may well be a true patriot, and in many cases one who does his country the highest service, I also think it's fair to say that someone who thinks behaves towards his country as described above, is not his country's friend. Especially when, in ascribing to his country the worst possible motives, he's consistently wrong. I may occasionally misjudge my friend, and do him wrong, suspecting him of some weakness; if so, it behooves me to apologize and try to avoid making the same mistake. But the chronic, self-proclaimed dissidents who wrongly judge America time after time, and will only think kindly and behave decently towards their country if it is a socialist utopia, are not patriots if the word is to have any meaning.
Maybe that doesn't mean anything. Maybe to be patriotic is nothing more morally significant than to like chocolate. A true liberal internationalist might well say that patriotism, far from being something that one should object to have questioned, is actually a negative trait. But then, that person should not object when his patriotism is questioned; if patriotism is a bad thing, then someone who questions yours is paying you a compliment.
Ironically, after having written way too much about this, the practical result of the above is negligible. If a person is actually no patriot, that's his business. I believe patriotism is one of those deeper things that is strongest when least spoken of. Patriotism, or the charge of its lack, should not be used as tactical leverage in political maneuvering or reasoned debate. A democratic country operates best, and makes its most informed and legitimate decisions, when discussion of the country's course is reasoned and deliberative. To accuse a critic of a particular policy of lack of patriotism does nothing to refute the merits of his argument -- and it's the whole point of democratic debate is that it takes all available facts and viewpoints into account. (By the same token, of course, mature Democrats ought to avoid waving the bloody shirt of "you're questioning my patriotism.")