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Vietnam History & Book Reviews

I'll digress now for just a few minutes to tell you a bit about the history of Vietnam, give a few book reviews, and tell you a bit about the dark side of Vietnam. These things aren't all that related to the trip itself, but I want to give a bit of a balanced view, and couldn't quite figure out quite where to put them in the narrative. I decided to lump them all together in one page, and then get on with the cycling. If you aren't interested in these topics, you can skip this page without hurting the narrative.

Vietnam History - The Really Really Short Version

I'm going to crunch 4,000 years of history into a few paragraphs so I will have to leave out a few details.

The Vietnamese ethno-linguistic group formed during the bronze age around 3000 B.C. Most of the people that ultimately gave the racial and cultural control of the region settled in the fertile deltas of the Red River in the north and the Mekong in the south. What is now Vietnam consists of a fairly long plane that runs down the coast with the river deltas making up the most noticeable part, and a mountain range now called the Central Highlands that runs up the center and the eastern side. The northern and southern parts were both settled independently and have been joined as one country and split back apart many times.

Over the years, Vietnam went through a long series of cycles that went something like this:

This cycle continued for quite a while. It is one of the most common cycles in human history. What we now call Vietnam was split and re-unified several times during that period, and the American War as only the most recent war between the North and the South. For example, the kingdom of Champa controlled the south off and on from the 1st to 15th centuries. The borders of this kingdom moved around a lot, sometimes containing parts of modern Cambodia, and sometimes being controlled by Cambodia or China. The kingdom was finally wiped out by the Vietnamese in the 17th century.

Early in the 18th century, the last real feudal dynasty was just reaching it's most corrupt stage when the French arrived. The country was in disarray, the rulers didn't have any moral authority, and they were fat and lazy anyway. If they had mustered even token resistance they had plenty of people and arms to just wipe the French out. Instead, they negotiated with the French under duress. As everyone knows, negotiating with a western power is pointless, because they never keep their word and just want more, more, more. That was the case here. The French kept taking more and more, and eventually controlled the entire country.

For about 100 years, the French controlled the country. They were absolutely horrible and nasty colonial masters, and there were several half-hearted attempts at revolution but nobody ever managed to get organized enough to pull it off. Ironically, during this entire period, all of the great European powers had colony systems (France, Britain, Germany, Belgium, Spain), all of them were absolutely horrible and nasty oppressors, and very few of the colonies were even profitable. The cost of maintaining the colony by force far exceeded all the profits the colony generated, so the average taxpayer was subsidizing a colonial system that was profitable for a very few private companies but not for the country as a whole.

A young revolutionary who would later change his name to Ho Chi Minh (He Who Enlightens) presented a request at the Versailles conference in 1919 at the end of World War I asking for independence, but was shut out as the Great Powers (including president Wilson of the U.S.) sat down and just carved the world up between them as usual.

HCM had been rebuffed by the western powers, so turned to the communist block for support and ideology. His forte was getting disparate groups together and working towards a common purpose, as well as dealing with both the Russian and Chinese communists. Nobody in Vietnam had ever managed to put together a political system that could hold together enough people to make an effective fighting force. During the colonial period, there were plenty of people in Vietnam to wipe the French out to the last man without breaking a sweat but they just couldn't get organized. HCM organized the French Communist Party, and was later sent to Moscow for serious training as an agent of the Communist International.

Around 1930, HCM returned to Vietnam and successfully rallied several competing communist groups to form the Indochinese Communist Party, which would eventually come to be known as the Viet Minh. Even though the communist ideology subsequently turned out to be complete horseshit, it had the elements necessary for people to believe in it. This provided the glue necessary to build an effective fighting force, since ideology was all the Vietnamese were really missing before. The communists were also smart about building the political base to operate from, doing such things as a huge literacy campaign to teach thousands of people to read and write, and going out of their way to try to undo some of the damage of French colonialism. They correctly understood from the beginning that any fight with the Great Powers would require a thorough political and propaganda program, and this was always a significant part of their organizational efforts, and in fact the one thing that allowed them to win in the end.

In World War II, the Japanese whipped the French in about five minutes, and took control of the country. They let the French administrators stay in control while reporting to Vichy France (the guys left in control in France after the Germans whipped France in about five minutes. Makes you wonder how the French ever managed to build an empire in the first place). For most of the war, the Vietnamese people were paying tribute to both the French and the Japanese. During the same timeframe, HCM and his group both rescued downed allied pilots, and fought against the Japanese in southern China. They did this while working with the OSS (the precursor to the CIA), and in my opinion HCM could have been the best friend the U.S. ever had if they had treated his group seriously.

Near the end of the war when it became obvious that Japan wouldn't be able to keep control, they jailed or executed all of the French administrators they could find and declared Vietnam an independent country, hoping to not have a strong French presence right off their shore.

At the end of the war, HCM's group which was now named the Viet Minh saw their chance and took it. Both the French and the Japanese were gone, so they marched into Hanoi and took over. HCM declared their independence in a speech and document that borrowed some phrases from the American Declaration of Independence. This makes perfect sense, since they were doing exactly what the Americans had done 200 years before, and because he foolishly still believed that America would help them. The Viet Minh took over all of the north, and a sizable portion of the South. The British came in and took control of parts of the south, and held it until the Great Powers could figure out what to do with it.

After the war, the French wanted to take control of their colony back. At the same time, it seemed to the political leaders of the time that Communism was swallowing up the world in great swaths. There was lots of evidence supporting the anti-communist paranoia, but unfortunately the leaders of the western countries both overreacted to the threat, and did so in a way that was not effective in dealing with the actual threat. Harry Truman agreed to help the French take over the country, and started financing the French effort to take it back.

The Viet Minh fought the French for seven years, with about 80% of the money for the French side coming from the U.S. During that period, France was the biggest single recipient of U.S. foreign aid, and it was all being used in Vietnam. The Viet Minh finally beat the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. A peace conference established the rules for the end of the war, which were that the Viet Minh would give up some of the land they controlled back to the 17th parallel. A demilitarized zone would be set up between the North and the South. The South would be administered by the French for two years, until free and fair elections were to be held in 1956 which would reunite the country under a single government.

The U.S. cooked up a plan to get the French to bug out of their responsibility for administering the south until the election, and instead had a Vietnamese named Diem who had been out of the country for years take charge. He turned out to be totally inept, and brutal besides, which naturally made him hugely unpopular. It became obvious the communists would win in any fair election in 1956, so the U.S. blocked the elections and started pouring money into the corrupt regime it had set up in the South to try to keep it afloat.

Early in the Kennedy administration, the U.S. got tired of Diem, and helped a military coup that ousted Diem from power, killing him and some of his associates. He was replaced by a long series of totally incompetent military leaders, each taking their turn at the big chair and lasting a few months or a few years but never substantially changing how things were done. In 1965, it became obvious the South couldn't hold on any more, but the U.S. was still obsessed with stopping Communism. It started pouring more money and U.S. ground troops in large numbers and started a full scale war. This war continued until 1973, when the U.S. public had finally had enough. The U.S. troops left the South Vietnamese to defend themselves, theoretically with American support. In 1975, what was left of the South Vietnamese army disintegrated, and the communists basically rolled into the country and took over.

The communists immediately proved that their communist rhetoric was a lot of crap, and that they were totally inept at running a country besides. They embarked on a disastrous series of land reforms, collectivization, invasions of neighboring Cambodia and Laos, and reprisals against Chinese residents that started a bloody war with China. The land reform caused an immediate drop in rice production and created an instant and artificial famine. They also showed themselves to be as brutal and ugly as the people they were replacing. They executed thousands of people that they thought cooperated with the Americans, put millions in reeducation camps (that means hard labor prison camp where they add insult to injury by making you listen to communist propaganda all day). Their invasions of Cambodia and Laos ostracized them from the international community, so they ended up only being able to trade with other communist countries.

The communists went out of their way to pick on intellectuals, entrepreneurs, educators, professionals and anyone else that did or even could oppose them. This resulted in millions of people leaving the country at just the time that they needed their best talent for rebuilding. They tied themselves hand and mouth to the Soviet Union, and had to receive huge amounts of Soviet foreign aid just to keep afloat. Naturally, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the gravy train was over and they didn't have any of the skills of infrastructure necessary to build a sustainable economy.

The communists gradually figured out that what they were doing wasn't working, and started introducing various reforms aimed at building a market based economy. Some of these have been successful, and some have not. Vietnam is still one of the poorest countries in the world, but it's GDP and the average person's standard of living is gradually increasing. The Vietnamese don't seem to be obsessed with "saving face" like a lot of Asian cultures, so this particular communist government is at least willing to admit to mistakes and try to correct them within the narrow framework they've set up.

The communist party is still in control today, and for the most part all political decisions are made by a bunch of old men that don't show any signs of either introducing seriously meaningful reforms, or grooming anyone to replace them. Like China, they're trying to make a relatively free market, while keeping control of the political system. They seem to be doing a much better job of loosening up the economy than China is, but their political control is still absolute. Of course, the old men will die off fairly soon, and it remains to be seen what the new leadership will do, or even who that new leadership is going to be.

Vietnam's Dark Side

I have a lot more to say about Vietnam (I haven't even left Hanoi yet), but thought I'd like to digress a bit to it's dark side. I really loved the place, but it would give an unrealistic picture if all I did was talk about the good stuff while ignoring the bad, which a lot of travel writers seem to do.

First off, I should point out that Vietnam is one of the poorest countries in the world. Average income is 370 USD per year. That's right, $370 per year or $30 per month. Wages are somewhat higher in the big cities, but the cost of housing is also higher, and the higher wages attract people from the countryside in droves so the unemployment is very high. Most people I talked to in the cities make 50-100 USD per month. Add to the low wages the fact that nearly everyone works seven days per week to make that low wage, and you have the result I mentioned. Most people I talked to only take off 1-3 days per month, and in the country it's not all that common to not have regular days off at all.

You might say something like "yeah, but their cost of living is really low too so it evens out". You would be wrong. I even out cost of living by taking the wage of someone doing a particular type of job, and then see how long they would have to work in hours to pay for basic rent, books, transportation and the like. It's the only way I can remove the exchange rate from the calculations. So I might calculate that someone needs to work two weeks per month to pay rent, or something like that. It's not exact, but it's easy to do and gives some useful information.

What I found in almost every case is that the people have to work a lot more to pay for both basic necessities and luxuries. For example, one of my friends in Saigon named Little Linh (her name isn't really "Little", but that's how we distinguish her from the other three Linhs working at the same place) is reading Harry Potter. I worked backwards from her salary and the cost of the book to how many hours she would need to work to pay for it. Then I worked forward from someone in the U.S. making a typical salary for the same work to see how much the book would cost for the same hours. The result is that the book would have to cost $80 to take the same amount of hours to buy. I did the same thing for rent and various other things, and always came up with a similar answer, and that's even optimistic because I only worked the math for someone that spoke enough English to talk to me, and they make more than the average Vietnamese. Rent on a very small flat in Saigon costs more than the average service industry employee makes in a month. The cheapest moto-bike you can buy costs about what an average city person makes in a year (gross), and about 2 1/2 years wages for the overall average person. In the country, a ten dollar bicycle would be considered a luxury.

As I went through the country, I saw lots of examples of what is called "Traditional Vietnamese Living". In fact, a lot of the artwork shows people doing work the way that it's been done for centuries. A good example is what I'd call the world's worst water pump. Quite a few times I saw two people scooping water up out of a canal using something that looks like a cone hat, hooked to a series of four ropes. The two people dip it down in the water, and then pull the ropes to bring the water up to the irrigation ditch, and dump it there. Two people can easily spend all day moving the amount of water that a pump costing about a hundred bucks could do in a half hour, but the farmers cannot afford a hundred dollar pump. I could go on and on, but the upshot is that I saw lots of people working very hard to do things that could quite easily be mechanized. I also saw water buffalos pulling plows, people breaking rocks with sledge hammers, and all kinds of other work that I would definitely characterize as the hard way.

This particular phenomena isn't unique to Vietnam, and in fact most third world countries suffer from the same lack of capital in one way or another. You can find a partial explanation for the phenomena back in my page on Egypt. I read a book recently (reviewed below) that tries to explain why this happens. I'm not even sure if Vietnam is better or worse than the typical Third World Country, but it's the only one I've looked over extensively.

Another aspect that seems to come up an awful lot is that the Vietnamese government is one of the most corrupt in the world. The corruption exists in every level from the traffic cop up to the prime minister. When you ride a moto-bike in Vietnam, you always carry 50,000 VND (3.33 USD) in a pocket separate from the rest of your money. If you get pulled over, simply pull it out and you'll be on your way (the seperate pocket is so the cop can't see how much you have because they might ask for more). If you don't pull it out, you will be asked for it. By this, I don't mean that this is some sneaky thing that the policeman will tell you with some kind of hand signal or a whisper or code word. They will outright ask you for it, and this is absolutely business as usual. It happens every single day, and in fact the system seems to be designed that way. Government officials are paid what amounts to slave wages, and way below what could be called a good living. Supplementing that with bribes is the only way someone like that can make a decent living. The same thing applies all the way from bottom to top. If you want to start a business, you end up paying a little "extra" to get your permit application approved in a day instead of a year or never. If you have any kind of technicality like a small accounting error, you end up paying to stay open. The court system is basically in shambles, so there is no mechanism for resolving these kind of things, so it just goes on and on. Owning a business there is risky, because the right bribes in the right places can result in you losing the whole thing overnight, particularly if you are a foreigner. Needless to say, this doesn't do much for building the economy.

The other disturbing thing that I ran into every day is that the disparity in income between Third World countries in general and westerners, tends to make foreigners a big target. I talked about this in my page on Egypt, and I have to say I ran into places in Vietnam that were both better and worse. In the "worse" category, I have lots more people hustling me for money all the time in Vietnam than I had in Egypt. In the better category, I'd have to say that the vast majority of people hitting me for money in Vietnam were at least offering a service for the money, where most people in Egypt were just hustling me. As a visitor, sometimes I'd just like to walk down the street in peace, but that's essentially impossible everywhere I ever went.

The other thing is that after you hang out and start getting to know people, you always end up wondering if they hang out with you because they enjoy your company or if they are just after money. I've talked to some expats that believe almost everyone is after your money. I got to know quite a few people there, and I'm convinced that is not the case. I did have friends in both categories: some were scamming me and some were just being friends. Most of the people I because friends with were the non-scamming variety. However, it is something you always have to keep in the back of your mind, and I don't like that. I generally trust people immediately, and continue to do so until they do something to show they don't deserve that trust. You can't be that trusting in most third world countries, because you'll get fleeced a dozen times a day. I don't like having to carry around that bit of suspicion with me.

So having said that, I still loved the place and would recommend a visit. I just wanted to give a bit of balance to the narrative.

Book Reviews

I haven't done nearly as much reading on this trip as I thought I would. It's flat out amazing how much time you can burn just goofing off once you get the hang of it. Goofing off seems to be like riding a bicycle: you never quite forget how to do it. I have read a few, and I'll you a bit about them:

The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else
Hernando De Soto

This is an excellent non-fiction book that I picked up randomly in Brisbane. De Soto is a Peruvian economist, and this book attempts to explain exactly why capitalism seems to work great in the western countries (U.S., Canada, Australia, Western Europe, Japan), but seems to be a complete dismal failure for the other 80 percent of the world's population.

Most third world and former communist countries are not seeing the benefits of capitalism, and in fact there is a strong movement in Russia and some of the former Soviet countries to go back to communism. Nearly every such country has the same list of problems: stagnant economies, very low wages and GDP, poor infrastructure, abundant corruption and mafias. Outside observers blame this on all kinds of things including inflexible governments, bad monetary policies, cultural problems, lack of education and the like, but none of these explanations rings true, particularly when you look at the broad diversity of the countries that are having trouble. For example, it's hart to attribute it to culture when the same problems exist in Latin America, Asia and Russia.

De Soto's explanation which rings very true to me is that what all of these economies are missing one key ingredient, and that is the ability to raise and use capital. In this sense, he doesn't mean capital only in the form of money, but capital in the form of the ability to take some kind of asset and use it to borrow money, or split it up among different people, or any number of other avenues that one can take to make the value of the asset increase. In the west, we have a very well defined and codified set of property rights that apply to land, housing, factories, inventories and many other types of hard assets. These are defined, codified and standardized well enough that they can be used to generate capital.

For example, despite the fact that I live on a bicycle, I can buy property on the other side of the world with a high degree of confidence that the purchase will go more-or-less as I expect, and that once I buy it I'll have clear title to it. This same thing applies to a whole bunch of other activities, and this is what allows us to extend the value of capital and increase it. The best example is that by far the most common source of money for setting up a new business is taking out a mortgage on the principle's home. It goes way beyond that though. We can set up corporations that can split the cost and risk of a big project, we can do long term financing, and a whole bunch of other activities that allow us to make money from our purchases. The underlying structure allows us to abstract capital into a concept that can be batted around and use to advantage, and using it to advantage means generating more capital from it.

De Doto's thesis is that this codified and uniform property management system is the essential ingredient that's missing in most third world countries. Most have a bewildering array of overlapping agencies that control nearly everything, most are understaffed and corrupt, and once you manage to work your way through them you are never quite certain you really have what you think you have anyway. For instance, as an experiment he tried to set up a small business in Lima, and follow every legality. It took 207 steps, consuming 269 days working six hours per day, and cost 30 times the minimum monthly wage to set up a small business that would have one employee with a sewing machine. It's the same in most of the countries that are struggling, so a very large percentage of the people just set up ad-hoc extralegal systems for living and working. These extralegal systems allow them to live, but don't allow them to generate and increase their capital. If you go survey real things that exist on the ground, he found that the poorest nations in the world have lots of stuff, but no way to convert it into capital. For instance, in Haiti, the total real value of assets belonging to the poor is 150 times the total of all foreign aid they've received since World War II. However, most of it isn't documented or well enough protected to allow it's use as collateral, or for any other wealth building purpose.

He backs this up with some history that shows that the problems most of the developing world faces now existed in England, the U.S. and other developed countries during the early phases of the industrial revolution, and the solutions were worked out over time in such a way that it's tough to see the whole process. The developing world has to go through the same process, but with much bigger numbers and in a much shorter time.

I like what he has to say in this book, and it all makes perfect sense. It particularly makes sense when you consider that a lot of the explanations others make for the failure of capitalism in the third world don't add up. The people in third world countries are intelligent, hard working and as I've seen quite good at making a living from the framework they have to live in. This can be easily proven by looking at immigrants to the west. For the most part, they fit right in after only one generation. It also makes sense of why the suggestions the west (the IMF, World Bank, etc) keep making don't work. These suggestions are sort of like diets. They don't work, but everyone keeps trying them over and over, despite the fact that they never work.

I only have two quibbles with the book. First off, he repeats himself a lot so the book is twice as long as it needs to be. Second, for most of the book he operates on the unstated belief that capitalism is the only game in town, and that just about everything about it is good. He addresses this in the very last page, but a bit of the book is a little too glossy for me. For example, he completely skips over some of the well known problems of capitalism, such as the inevitable concentration of wealth and widening gap between rich and poor that always comes along with it. Basically, he's saying "capitalism works for the west, so the third world should emulate it."

Having said that, I think this book is well worth reading, if you are at all interested in bringing some kind of equality to the world. Even if you're not, you should consider that there are a lot more people in the countries where capitalism isn't working than in countries where it is working, and we have so many ties between all countries in the world that what affects one affects all. Sooner or later, if these countries don't get their act together, the west will have some kind of price to pay.

Vietnam, A Long History
Nguyen Khac Vien

This book covers Vietnam from the Bronze age starting around 3,000 B.C. to the early 90s. It was written by a modern Vietnamese with a distinctly Vietnamese communist point of view. I found it quite fascinating, and it covered a lot of ground that I didn't know about. Most westerners seem to forget that history was well underway in Asia thousands of years ago, and a lot of the cycles that European history took were repeated any number of times during that period.

The most interesting part of reading this book is that the writer is very pro-communist and anti-western. All history books have a certain amount of built in bias, and most have a lot of built in bias. If you don't believe this, dig out one of your old textbooks and read up about the genocide of Native Americans, if you can find it. I don't mean "if you can find your textbook", I mean "if you can find any treatment of it". Every culture colors it's official history a lot, and the U.S. is no exception.

Everything in this book was definitely slanted toward the communist side, and the author fervently believes that the communist mechanism can work and will ultimately succeed. Most true communist believers tend to think that what everyone in the world now thinks of as communism is just a temporary step that a culture has to go through for some period of time before "true communism" kicks in. I've never read a book that was so blatantly on that particular side of the fence. I've read lots of books that were blatantly on the other side of the fence, but the pro-communist view doesn't seem to get a lot of traction in the U.S. The slant appeared a tiny bit excessive. The author chose to omit just about all of the communist excesses, while maximizing all the western excesses. He did however seem to give a good and balanced view of Vietnamese history before the western powers showed up, and this helped quite a bit in understanding how France managed to conquer a country with millions of people using a few thousand soldiers.

It made for interesting reading, and if you're interested in the area I'd recommend this book. My only caution naturally is to not make this your only source (no history book should be your only source on any subject). I couldn't find this on Amazon or Barns & Noble, so if you want to read it ask for my copy.

There To The Bitter End - Ted Serong in Vietnam
Ann Blair

Ted Serong is an Australian guerilla warfare and counter insurgency expert that was involved at a high level in the war effort from 1961 clear through the end in 1975. During that time, he kept a personal daily diary, which appears to be the only daily diary about what was going on in the war for nearly the entire duration of direct American involvement.

Serong was a solid believer in the Domino theory, and his Catholic background made him very staunchly believe that communism had to be stopped at any cost. He made his reputation in Burma, and may get some credit in keeping Burma from going communist. He spent nearly 15 years in Vietnam, in various roles from training troops for counter-insurgency, to crafting strategies, to briefing the President. He worked for everyone from the Australian military to the CIA to the Rand corporation.

He has a long history of warning the U.S. military/state/spy machine about what was going wrong in Vietnam from a strategic and tactical perspective, and predicted a lot of the blunders and failures in U.S. policy well in advance. His role changed over time from someone that believed the war was winnable and trying to help the U.S. win it, to believing all was lost but trying to build up a strategy to stay behind and continue the fight. In 1964, he was pretty well convinced that the U.S. would ultimately lose the war, but set about to delay that by 10 years to give the western democracies time to prepare the rest of the region to fight communism, and to exhaust the Soviet Union and China through their continued involvement in the war.

The author worked from the Serong diaries and interviews with him, and then went searching for the paper trial necessary to back up what he said. This book is the polar opposite of the long history book, and well worth reading, as it gives the complete opposite perspective. The entire book is written from Serong's perspective. As such, it details Serong effort to do his part to combat the insurgents and protect South Vietnam from the communists, and all of the writing is geared in this direction. For example, they will casually talk about "Armed Propaganda and Assassination Squads" as a good and noble strategy for doing what needed to be done to educate the population against the communists and kill enemies as appropriate, but when talking about the exact same kind of groups on the communist side she calls them terror squads. Our guys are good and noble assassins, and the other guys are terrorists.

Don't take this to mean that the book is as one sided as the long history book was. Serong was well aware of just how badly everyone in Vietnam from the Diem regime right on down the line was bungling the job, and frequently points out things that they did that would definitely have to be called terror tactics. These are pointed out in a detached way as something that was a bad part of the execution of a good plan, where the long history book omits such things altogether. He's continually critical of the U.S. execution of the war which was muddled and incoherent at best, but most of that criticism is a criticism of their inability to get their act together and do what needed to be done from his perspective.

All in all, I found this book a bit more balanced than the long history book, but far from neutral. Of course, since it's a personal story of one man's part in the war, it's not supposed to be neutral so I don't mind that so much. It is well worth reading if you want another piece of the whole puzzle, but again I'd say if you don't really know much about the war there are better books to start with.

Michael Herr

This book is a compilation made by a guy that followed the war for years as a freelance writer. He didn't have daily deadlines, and made a living writing articles for various magazines. It's an interesting read, because he doesn't really try to explain the war so much as to give a feel for how it is to be in it. He spent a lot of time riding around on helicopters with other reporters that were also apparently insane looking for heavy action. He knew several reporters and photographers that were killed in the process.

I quite enjoyed this book, because he gives a peek into how people think and act under these conditions, and doesn't bother to try to make rational explanations. For example, his attitude about the war can be summed up as "We're in it". He spent most of his time talking to grunts out on the front lines, and didn't pay all that much attention to the out of touch officers back in Saigon.

Herr has a real knack for giving short quotes from real soldiers that kind of gives a feel for what was going on. The most memorable for me was a quote from an unidentified Helicopter Door Gunner. When asked how he could kill women and children, he replied "It's easy. You just don't lead them as much". Another was a very famous quote by an American general who said "In order to save the town it became necessary to destroy it". Herr's ultimate description of the Vietnam experience ultimately became "Vietnam! We've all been there."  That enigmatic bit of prose perfectly describes the book, and I recommend it.

In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam
Robert McNamara (Secretary of Defense for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson)

The American War (or Vietnam War if you prefer) was frequently called "McNamara's War", because as Secretary of Defense he was heavily involved in it during the Kennedy and Johnson years. After he left office, he kept completely silent for 27 years about what went on there for various reasons. However, he eventually decided he wanted to put down his side of the story and explain why as he put it "otherwise capable and intelligent men made such bad decisions".

This book was a very interesting read, but somewhat frustrating. I could tell by reading it that McNamara was really making what he thought was an effort to come clean and explain all the things that went wrong with the whole operation. He did in fact explain how a lot of the decision at the white house happened, and he laid out in detail exactly where he thought they went terribly wrong, and very specifically what he thought were the biggest blunders they made, as well as 11 places where someone with enough cajones could have exited from Vietnam somewhat gracefully.

However, I didn't find the explanations very satisfying. It would be sort of like if someone wrecked a car, and at the time explained that it was because of a blown out tire. Everyone is a bit suspicious of that, but can't do anything about it. Years later, his conscience gets the best of him, so he comes completely clean and mentions that the tire blew out because he ran into a rock, and he ran into the rock because he was driving way too fast and carelessly to impress his girlfriend. This seems like a gut wrenching explanation. However, he still fails to mention that he also drank a quart of whiskey first. That's the feeling I got about the McNamara book. If you take the basic assumption that the U.S. absolutely had to fight communism, then his book would make some sense. He gut-wrenchingly explains why the conduct of the war was so bone-headedly stupid, but never bothers to explain why the whole idea of the war was bad in the first place. In the end, even though he's apparently trying to give a valuable lesson on how government and politics works, it left me feeling like he left out an important moral lesson that he had a good chance to give. To be fair, I should mention that he's written other books that I haven't read that may well address this issue.

He also tries to make the case that he thinks Kennedy would have pulled the plug on Vietnam if he hadn't been assassinated. In my view, a second term Kennedy is the only U.S. president who might have managed to pull it off if he decided to do it, but I have my doubts. Kennedy apparently knew that the U.S. was getting bogged down in a quagmire that there was no way to win, that much is fairly certain. However, pulling out would have taken a huge political toll on him, and I'm not certain he would have done it. The only thing that's certain is that at every single decision point where he did have to make a decision, he escalated.

All in all, I think it's a book worth reading if you're particularly interested in the war, but be sure you know your real history first. If you're not a history buff, there are many better books to start with.

Blind Man's Bluff : The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage
Sherry Sontag & Christopher Drew

This is another non-fiction book, but on quite another topic. This book chronicles the highly secret submarine war that took place between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the 40 years of the cold war. This book was a real eye-opener, and a very good read as well. They styled sort of like a cross between a bunch of short stories, and set of technical articles all mixed together. It makes the story flow quite well, while imparting what appears to be a lot of good information.

The book was compiled from declassified sources, as well as interviews with a lot of the sailors that participated in it. For good or ill, the Navy submarine force was exceedingly good at keeping it's secrets for the entire period of the cold war, and is very reluctant to let a lot of them out even now. For that reason, a lot of the information in the book isn't readily verifiable, even if I wanted to bother.

The very-very short version of it is that the submarine force spent 40 years pushing their luck a lot to spy on the Soviets, and were highly successful at it. In the 50s, Eisenhower was extremely reluctant to authorize U.S. spy planes flying over Soviet airspace, but was apparently completely unaware that U.S. submarines violated Soviet territory all the time. U.S. submarines quite regularly ran into Soviet waters, and sometimes up Soviet rivers right to the docks where new subs were built. They went into harbors where the Soviet Navy was active, and even managed to tap two underwater phone lines right under the Russian's noses. Submarine commanders were graded on how far they pushed the envelope.

One thing he points out that I hadn't quite realized, is that after the cold war a lot of the old veterans got together and tried to understand each other. Most people think that aggressiveness was what drove the Soviets in everything they did, but in a lot of cases it was plain old fear. A good number of them really believed that the West was going to do them in, and we always managed to have a very good technological edge on them no matter what they did. It's hard to say how much of that is true or untrue, but it's a point of view that's well worth considering. All in all, I'd recommend this book.