Friday, November 17, 2017

Book Review 404: The Army and Vietnam

THE ARMY AND VIETNAM, by Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr. 318 pages, illustrated. Johns Hopkins paperback

In 1986, Andrew Krepinevich, then on the faculty at West Point, published his devastating critique of the ignominious American defeat in South Vietnam. It was then 14 years since the retreat, and Krepinevich thought that the Army had never learned why it was so badly beaten.

He concluded: “. . . the Army (may) again (find itself) attempting to fight a conventional war against a very unconventional enemy.”

Within less than 20 years, Krepinevich was proven to be a prophet and the Army lost two more wars, ignominiously.

Firepower and aircraft turn out to be useless in a place where the population is disaffected or indifferent and the local government is corrupt/incompetent (which is why the populace is disaffected).

What has the possibility of working is saturation of inhabited areas by light forces who live among the populace, build up relations, gain intelligence and give the citizens confidence that the central government can protect them.  That requires a lot of infantry,

The Army doesn’t have any infantry. Its so-called infantry divisions have more tanks than World Wr II armored division. Plus hundreds of helicopters.

It is not possible to develop relationships with the inhabitants from inside a tank or a helicopter — still less a drone.

The Army did not and does not care. During the Vietnam defeat, the slogan was, “If you’ve got ‘em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.” This is not true.

The Army had plenty of opportunity to learn this, since it financed and observed the defeat of the French by the Viet Minh. Yet in 1962, it adopted French methods.

The Americans were arrogant. They thought the French had failed because they weren’t real men, like ‘Murricans. Nor did the ‘Murricans have any use for the South Vietnamese armed forces or police.

Or the South Vietnamese civilians. Krepinevich says:  “For MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam), people living in rural areas represented barriers to the creation of free-fire zones.”

The American officers were uniformly incompetent. It took only three years for the Communists to run the Americans out. Even the despised French had hung on for eight years.

There are some omissions in “The Army in Vietnam.” The most serious, but understandable, is the omission of any discussion of corruption in the American armed forces. As anyone who came in contact with the Army in those years will attest, it was pervasive.

As anyone who reads the daily papers today knows, it still is.

A little book tells a story



While listening to the Christian Broadcasting Network, I heard a commercial for a hate book about Muslims. The pitch started like this:

“We Christians with our commitment to tolerance may have difficulty understanding a religion dedicated to intolerance . . .”:

Although no cult has a good record when it comes to toleration, there is no question which religion is the most intolerant. It’s Christianity.

Toleration is a secular idea; no religion, while holding civil power, has ever shown tolerance, although there are examples of lesser or greater intolerance.

Christians do not know their history; I have never met one who did. But I know it. The story of  little prayer book called the Sarajevo Haggadah demonstrates. (I take this story from Chapter XIV: Convivencia Under Fire,” in “The Holocaust and the Book” (which was reviewed here on November 8.)

The book was made in Toledo around 1350 when under Muslim rule a policy called convivencia allowed, perhaps even encouraged, Muslims, Jews and Christians to live together in peace.

When the Christians took over, Jewish books were burned (and numbers of Jews along with them) but the Haggadah escaped along with refugees who ended up in Bosnia.

The pasha in Sarajevo inaugurated a new form of convivencia, bending the cult rule to allow construction of a synagogue and making other concessions to intolerance.

Historian Andras Riedlmayer comments: “As in medieval Spain, convivencia in Sarajevo did not imply an absence of hierarchies of status or of periodic friction between individuals and groups, but the fact of pluralism itself was taken as a given.” Under religious government, that is as good  it ever gets.

The Haggadah survived the burning of Sarajevo by Christians in 1697, though many of the residents, Muslims or Jews, did not. It survived the burning of the Jewish books and most of the Jews by Christians again in 1941-44, and — though no one knows exactly how — the burning of the Jewish and Muslim libraries by Christians in 1992-3.

It is almost the only relic of the great period of Jewish bookmaking in Aragon in the 14th century.

The only time that the little prayer book passed through a period of political change without being endangered was in 1878, when the new government (of Austria-Hungary) was committed to secular values of pluralism and toleration.

 That, of course, was just an episode. It didn’t last.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Which direction do prayers go?

When Christians — and here I am speaking particularly of rightwing Christians who typically care nothing for the this-worldly condition of other people — offer thoughts and prayers following a disaster, what does it mean?

Are the freethinkers right, that it just means “I don’t really care about what happened to you and I am not going to do anything to help you, even if it is in my human power to do it”?

Yes, they are right. But there is more to it than that.

Notice that these stiff-necked Christians always offer their prayer to the others, never do they ask for prayers for themselves.

Several things are going on here. On the spiritual level — about which I care nothing — they are committing the sin of pride, the worst one.

On the worldly level, the first thing is that these people assume they are morally superior. Yes, I know what they say about this in their sermons. What I am talking about here is what people reveal about their genuine thinking in their thoughtless statements, and “thoughts and prayers” is a thoughtless statement if ever there is one.

Two, the intention is not to help the sufferers but to make the observer feel good about himself.

Although Christians, especially evangelical Christians, constantly participate in communal prayers, they almost never ask for prayers for themselves. They don’t genuinely think they need it.

Radio preachers always offer to pray for their listeners but they never ask their listeners to pray for them. From them, all they ask is money.

Among the prominenti, it is hard to think of examples of persons asking for prayer for themselves. The one example that comes to mind is Harry Truman, who after Roosevelt’s death begged his friends for prayers.

Never will you hear a Christian gun nut pray: Guide me, is it possible that my love for guns is greater than than love for my brothers and sisters? Did I contribute by my mistaken views to these deaths of innocents?

After the latest mass murder by a gun nut — this comes up in our decivilized country every 24  hours or so, on average — a relevant prayer for the humble Christian would be my favorite, Cromwell’s Prayer: I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A request to the gun nuts

I suppose it is too early after the child murders in California today to talk about gun control. I don't know how long we are supposed to wait. However long that is, could you gun nuts please call a moratorium on mass child murders for the appropriate length of time so we can get on with it?


Book Review 403: The Maisky Diaries

THE MAISKY DIARIES: Red Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky. 584 pages, illustrated. Yale

No insurance underwriter in the late ‘30s would have considered a policy on Ivan Maisky, a half-Jew Menshevik with bourgeois tastes who worked for Joe Stalin as ambassador in London.

Yet Maisky survived to live to 91. His was one of the most improbable careers of the 20th century.

His diaries do not provide any startling revelations about “the low, dishonest decade,” but they do offer another perspective to that terrible time. Probably their most interesting aspect is the personal and psychological.

At the beginning, Maisky seems like an attractive fellow, especially compared to the people around him. Arriving in London even before Hitler became chancellor, Maisky already understood what nazism meant for aggression and peace, and he (in alliance with Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov) worked tirelessly to put some skeletal structure into collective security. One of the few others in England who shared his alarm was Churchill.

Neither man had any sympathy for the underlying politics of the other. Fear of German militarism was their only bond.

It is still unclear, at least to me, whether it should have been obvious at the time that both sides were so mistrustful of the other that this effort was hopeless. Maisky knew he had to persuade not only the bourgeois states of France and Britain but the Bolshevik one in Moscow. Much of his maneuvering involved putting ideas into the heads of English ministers, then passing them along to Moscow.

A fundamental difference between Churchill and Maisky was that Churchill never attempted to trick his government into an alliance. Of course, Churchill was never a member of government, unlike Maisky.

The diaries are, understandably, circumspect, so not much is said about the purges. Editor  Gabriel Gorodetsky, using other documents, asserts that Maisky was distressed to see colleagues disappear, which seems likely, although from what is available in this abridged volume, it seems he agreed that the accusations in Moscow were legitimate.

Did he really think so? It seems hard to believe from a man of his discernment, but then he spent much time hanging out with the Webbs and similar Stalinist dupes. This is why the psychological question is so interesting, though there is not enough material to venture a judgment.

Maisky had a high opinion of his discernment, and often enough his predictions turned out to be correct, and his plots worked, but he also reveals some odd blind spots.

Perhaps the oddest was his belief that landlords controlled British government and politics. Apparently he never heard of the repeal of the Corn Laws.

By the ‘30s, most English landlords were hanging on by  thread, but Maisky seems to have thought they were no different from the Polish-Lithuanian landlords he had known in his youth.

As an old Menshevik, Maisky had reason to be terrified during the purges, but he seems not to have thought very deeply about the direction of communism. Many times he asserts his belief that the restructuring after the war would be done in an almost entirely communist milieu. He appears to have forgotten what collective security was supposed to preserve.

Thus, he looks less and less attractive as he justifies the war against the Finns and drops any pretense of defending anything more universal than Russian imperialism when he blandly refers to “Soviet Karelia.”

After June 1941, Stalin presented himself more and more as a Russian imperialist and less and less as a revolutionary. Maisky arrived at that position much earlier, at least by 1939.

The diary ends with his recall in 1943. Gorodetsky provides a thumbnail history of his last 30 years, in which he narrowly escaped being shot but was (at age 70) brutally tortured, perhaps even by Beria personally.

There is no suggestion that he ever wavered in his devotion to communism.

Some of Gorodetsky’s commentary seems to contradict what the diaries say, but his interpretation of the low, dishonest decade it sharply different from what American and British historians have understood it to be. I found him unpersuasive.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Hoping for Armageddon

The Guardian has an interview with the survivors of the famiy that had had members murdered thanks to the fact that the United States does not have any gun laws. It will sound unbelievable to sane people, but I grew up among these fanatics and I can assure that you out in the reality-based world that people in the South really think this way.

“It’s just not a problem to us,” said Holcombe, 86, adding that he and 84-year-old Claryce believed their dead family members were now alive again in heaven. “We know exactly where the family is, and it’s not going to be long until we’ll both be there,” he said. “And we’re really sort of looking forward to it.”

The Holcombes were upbeat and full of good humor in a telephone interview, and they were not an exception in a deeply evangelical part of Texas.
When I listen to my favorite Christian radio program, "To Every Man an Answer," I frequently hear callers yearning for Armageddon. My Bible says that would usher in  a thousand years of misery, but some folks love misery, I guess.

The folks in Sutherland Springs are not, perhaps, the most sophisticated exponents of Southern Christianity, but the most sophisticated ones are just vapid. On the whole, the simple fanatics are more attractive. Take, for example, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary:

 When we say our “thoughts and prayers” are with them, we are not washing our hands of duty; we are expressing our heartfelt urgency to pray. We are affirming the power of God to save, to heal and to comfort. We are praying for human agents, doctors and first responders, friends and neighbors, to do what we cannot, prompted by the leading of God.

Yeah, well, when god brings those 26 people back from the dead, I'll admit that prayers were meaningful.


Saturday, November 11, 2017

Ramblin' man

Wow! 

WBD enters the Twilight Zone.

And as long as I'm running through pop-cult items, there's this: