Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Vietnam Wars, 1954-1962

These two chapters deal with a myriad of failures. First, there is the complete failure to implement any of the agreements made at the Geneva Conference. There is the sham election in the south, which puts the always unpopular and often difficult Diem in charge of South Vietnam. And then there is the willful ignorance and deliberate misunderstanding of the nature of the conflict by American strategists.

Here, in these two chapters, the tone of the book probably begins to irritate some critics. However, to those who’d cry bias, I would say that the story told here corresponds well with the modern history of Vietnam that I learned, in Vietnam. And that’s as it should be. The American story has been told countless times, in multiple ways: the stories of the American forces, the stories of policy and state department decision-making. Here we have a view of all the parts—not just the American story, but the Vietnamese story, which includes Diem’s government, ARVN, the NLF, and all the other groups and unaligned residents of the country.

And Young does not only skewer the Americans for their absurd strategy. But of course, the strategy is absurd. She notes that, even as they try to apply the Korean insurgency situation to Vietnam, they know that they misinterpreted Korea as well—that the insurgency was coming from within the south, and not only from the north. She also makes it very clear that Diem was no improvement over Bao Dai, in terms of the American choice for a puppet ruler (my words, not Young’s). Even as the Americans, with perhaps good and generous intentions, flood the south with building materials, goods and weapons, they are quickly squandered and appropriated by Diem’s corrupt officials.

Furthermore, neither Diem nor the Americans seem to be able to understand that each killing of a “Viet Cong” creates another NLF supporter from a previously unaligned citizen. As impossible as this is for me to believe, this strategy of removal appears to still be the basis of American foreign involvement (in Afghanistan or Iraq, for instance). Different, perhaps, is the ideological strength of the NLF, and their ability to promote change from within—even within Diem’s government, even in Diem’s strategic hamlets. These changes include land reforms and education for both genders—which makes it much easier for me (personally) to feel more positively towards the NLF than say, the Taliban. Nevertheless, Young’s blunt assessment of our mistakes in Vietnam really ought to inform our modern government-building strategies, if not end them altogether.

Ho Chi Minh's residence, 1958-1969 (MEW, 1996)

Monday, June 28, 2010

Vietnam Wars, 1946-1954

This chapter takes us from the end of the 40s, through to 1954, with a special emphasis on Dienbienphu. Once again, Young’s focus is the obtuseness about, and sometimes the willful ignorance of the west concerning the situation in Vietnam. She also has written several lines, scattered throughout the chapter, which painfully, searingly illustrate this early conflict in ways that few political histories do—and certainly would have been sidestepped by narratives opting for a more “objective” view.

Several problems are intersecting, causing US involvement in the first place. Following the end of WWII, the US is caught up in the restoration of Europe, and in this case France, at any cost—even though that means supporting a colonial regime which the US, at least ideologically, cannot condone. I wondered what was keeping the French presence in Indochina, since it seemed like it would have been all expenditure, with very little economic return. As it turns out, the French were concerned that releasing this one country would lead to a loss of control in their other, more profitable colonies, especially Algeria and Morocco. While this alone would have mattered little to the US, the Americans probably saw a rising expenditure on France, and the possible loss of raw materials traded in the west. These economic reasons were driving US interest and support of French troops, some of which (Young points out) were former Nazi soldiers.

There was also a growing US paranoia of communism. While this book can’t devote much space to this issue, it is a puzzling one. While there is already a history of American fear of communism prior to the 1940s, it still seems strange that the US could fail to see Ho’s continual appeals to the US as anything but an attempt to secure help from a nation he wanted to emulate. The Viet Minh connection to the Soviets, and later to China, was borne out of US blindness and refusal to acknowledge a nationalist, independence movement in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, the US is looking, rather shiftily, at ways around both the French colonial and the Viet Minh rule of Indochina. Here is where we intersect with Pyle, Graham Greene’s dangerous innocent from the state department. While Pyle is a fiction, his idea of a third force is very much a reality to the United States. While it is interesting to sit back and wonder at the decisions of the US state department and military, I find that it’s easy enough to envision being the dangerous innocent in this scenario: Pyle was a product of irrational political and strategic thinking, dressed up as rationality, and enough people in the US were convinced of this—enough to make it a reality.

The chapter ends with the French loss at Dienbienphu, and Young includes some very strong lines from people who were there, about how the heroism of the French in battle was no answer to the (less militarily strong) Vietnamese, who were fighting for an ideal. Furthermore, Young has included General Navarre’s 1953 map, which shows French-controlled and Viet Minh territories, and the situation seems stark, in general. French Hanoi, for instance, is surrounded on all sides by entirely Viet Minh territory (save the Tonkin coastline), and for a moment, can’t you envision yourself as a French citizen, trapped and perpetually at risk?

What this chapter suggests to me, in this initial reading, is that the United States were attempting to think strategically, with increasingly complex goals which were mostly economic in nature. The economic and strategic goals were almost entirely new (based on a new economy) and untested, and required delicate and constant control of everyone involved. It is amazing that the results weren’t even more disastrous than they were. Should the United States have acted based on its foundational principles instead (such as self-government or decolonization), the US might have avoided a long conflict in Southeast Asia, and it would have been unlikely that the Vietnamese would have closely aligned themselves with either the Soviets or the Chinese communist party. But historical speculation is a dangerous thing—it is reminiscent of hubris.

Halong Bay; it was like swimming in bathwater (MEW, 1996)

Friday, June 25, 2010

Vietnam Wars, first installment

I'll be posting, in the coming weeks, about the readings I'm doing for three different fields: 20th century US, China, and public history. In all three fields, there are some common themes I'd like to address: human experience as addressed through literature, museums, historic sites, and art. And of course, there are some general readings expected for all three fields. I'm posting today about one of the core readings for the US field: Marilyn Young's The Vietnam Wars.

The Vietnam Wars begins prior to 1945, as is appropriate. As with most subjects, no event or circumstance can exist without its historical context. Of course, an author needs to make choices about where to begin and end the narrative. Often these choices determine the message of the book, and in Young’s case, the message is this: while Americans often perceive the Vietnam War (or conflict) as occurring during a discrete period in 1960s and 70s, ending with the withdrawal of American troops in 1974, it is a misunderstanding of the conflict to limit it to these years. Furthermore, American involvement in Vietnam predates the war by (arguably) five decades, and postdates the war until at least the 1990s. Young is also writing at the cusp of the first Gulf War, without knowing the future of our continuing involvement in the Middle East, and so she mentions a possible comparison without full knowledge of just how prescient that comparison might be.

At any rate, it makes sense for Young to mention the politics in Southeast Asia in the first half of the 20th century—particularly Vietnam’s status as a French colony, and Nguyen Ai Quoc’s (Ho Chi Minh’s) appeal to Woodrow Wilson (and America) for self-determination following World War I. The failure of this, and the subsequent French, Vichy French and Japanese suppression of the Vietnamese, bringing us through to World War II, explains or demonstrates several things. First, it demonstrates the ambivalence of American politics and ideals concerning colonies and decolonization. Second, it explains the Vietnamese turn to Soviet-style socialism and the writings of Lenin—but also explains why not all of the Soviet socialist ideas would work in a Vietnamese revolution. Finally, Young’s narrative illustrates the bloody and complicated conflict that was occurring contemporaneously with the more well-known events of World War II, and which are somehow not part of the general American consciousness of world events.

Obligatory photograph of Hanoi, taken by MEW in 1996

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Zen and the Art of... part two

Alright, onward to the Chautauquas I mentioned in the last post about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. And when I’m done here, I had better get to reading and blogging about the history books in my fields. I mean, priorities…

Even though the general tone of the book put me off, I was intrigued by Pirsig’s discussion of Quality. He arrives at this particular Chautauqua while he, Chris, John and Sylvia Sutherland are traveling through Montana. When they stop to visit an artist-friend, DeWeese, Pirsig uncovers more of this mysterious persona which he used to be: Phaedrus. Phaedrus taught at the university years ago, and there’s some rather cryptic discussion of what happened to him then, and why he left the place. Rather than dwell on the mundane reasons for this, Pirsig begins to recall his classes in Quality. Specifically, he remembers trying, and failing, to define Quality in writing, despite the fact that it is the accepted belief that you need a definition in order to teach it—particularly to the students, who clearly expect in Phaedrus an authority figure to imitate.

Phaedrus has a fundamental problem with imitation. Likewise, he sees a certain “squareness” in the attempt to define Quality. And finally, among his students, he notices that the drive to acquire grades, and the drive to imitate are inextricably linked. In order to put an end to this cycle of imitation for grades, he does two things: he asks his students to write about objects or concepts that would be impossible to imitate (such as their own hand), and he eliminates grades, at least until the end of the class. The faculty and the students often react negatively, and the negative response is no doubt due to the fact that all of this is happening before the advent of postmodernism. Even the publication of this book is just on the cusp of it—so these concepts must seem very new indeed.

However, there are pieces of this Quality inquiry which seem still to apply to academia, even in a post-postmodernist age. The first has to do with grades. Really, very little has changed about the student response to grading since Pirsig wrote the book. Children who work for grades become adults who work for grades—and they are aware that imitation provides the best possible chance for an A. Innovation can earn anything from an A to an F. A product of both graded and ungraded education, I feel confident in saying that ungraded education was far superior for me, as Phaedrus hypothesized. Because the drive for learning is internal, and innovation goes unpunished, a true student has an opportunity to push the boundaries of education. Of course, as Phaedrus finds, the unmotivated student simply does not know what to do. However, he speculates, perhaps these folks should not be students.

The second piece of the discussion that still resonates has to do with internal divisions in the faculty, and between the faculty and the administration in the university, or The Church of Reason. Faculty may be guarded about new methods, or unwilling to encourage innovation among students—and this I’ve witnessed again and again myself. I’ve written before about the disconnect between the shockingly innovative writing that we read in class, and the very cautious, careful, and “objective” work we are expected to produce. But some of this professional cautiousness also comes from a guardedness against administrations, who see the university not as a Church of Reason, but as a business venture. And that attitude certainly exists, and is probably more prevalent now than it was when Zen was published.

To keep this post from being absurdly long, I will hold back my final comments on the book for a third post.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Zen and the Art of... part one

Over the years, many have recommended Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I kept putting it on the back burner, until a friend mentioned in passing a remark made by a U of C professor in the book, “We are not here to learn what you think . . . we are here to learn what Aristotle thinks!” Because he mentioned it, and because it involved thinly disguised professors from the U of C, I decided to give it a shot. It was not quite what I expected. I can’t say that I particularly like the book, but there are some interesting moments—and a number of moments which were provoking enough to warrant a journal entry.

I started the book at nearly the end, having skimmed through it looking for references to the University. So I started with Phaedrus’s experience at the U of C, and followed it to the end, and then decided that I’d better start from the beginning and work towards the middle. However, no matter where you start, Pirsig’s consciousness (written as the narrator) and the experiences of Phaedrus intersect. It doesn’t take long to discover that a large part of the book is grappling with mental illness, most likely schizophrenia, and what happened after electroshock treatment. “Phaedrus,” in other words, is Pirsig before treatment, and a large portion of the book is devoted to Pirsig’s journey to recover this lost person. I almost wish I had known that going into the book, because I had rather a different expectation.

Possibly, the book is interpretable in several ways, and different people choose to take away different elements. Ultimately, this exploration of mental illness is more interesting to me than a series of Chautauquas about technology, quality, classicism and romanticism, rhetoric and dialectic. However, I believe this is for what the book is really known. This set me off right from the start—not the Chautauquas themselves, because I like to think about troublesome topics—but the author’s need to force them on other people, especially his own family, and particularly his son Chris. There’s an honesty to the presentation, though. Pirsig seems to be aware of the problem, but can’t stop himself. This makes the narrator unlikable, to me, and I find I’m frustrated with what I see as self-absorption and spotty parenting.

Pirsig recognizes in Chris the beginnings of mental illness (possibly—I see mostly anxiety in his portrayal of Chris, and none of the mania or delusions that he hints at with Phaedrus). He also sees some of Chris’s posturing, “YMCA egoism,” and other behavior that troubles him. Pirsig’s method for dealing with this is puzzling—but I’m also aware that the relationship between fathers and sons is often a bit of a war. On the other hand, Pirsig seems only to reinforce some of the same values that he claims to dislike.

Generally speaking, the readers and recommenders of Zen have been men. I wondered, while reading, if there is a gender difference in both the interpretation of the book, and also enjoyment of the book—much like there is for The Giving Tree. (Incidentally, if you want to know why many women loathe The Giving Tree, I will explain in the comments) At any rate, it occurred to me that perhaps some fellows might identify with Pirsig, Chris, Phaedrus, or all three of them. While I often identify with men in literature, I can’t identify with these men. And perhaps the people who like this book have less of a problem with a sort of aggressive pedagogic tone.

I’d planned to write a little about the Chautauquas themselves, as there is quite a bit of philosophy in this book, but I think I’ll have to devote a second post to that. I’d also like to discuss in further depth the segment of the book I liked the most: Phaedrus’s experiments with Quality, and the absence of grades. And the Church of Reason. Perhaps this segment resonates with me right now, just as I’m back inside an institution that drives me crazy (academia, of course). Read onward, then, in the next post.

Monday, June 14, 2010

This is how you make me angry

In one recent email, informing me and a bunch of other folks that we won't be interviewed for a $9/hr job, the writer feels it necessary to include this final paragraph (as if the rejection itself weren't enough):

(and at the risk of being an obnoxious advice giver, I'd like to just make sure that your luck is supported by what I think is the best book ever for job hunting -- _What Color Is Your Parachute_ by Richard
Bolles. It stood me well over my twenty-three years as a software engineer, but never better than when I got laid off from my last software job, before I came to work here.)

Yes, yes, we know that you have employment, and are happy in your employment. But I guarantee you that 100% of the people who applied for your part-time, $9/hr job are just trying to eat, not trying to find their life's career. Frankly, the color of my parachute is professional history, which I happen to be pursuing while also trying to eat. And to be honest, the bank, and the electric company, and the grocery store do not care about my dreams. They care about how much cash is in my account. And if you, dear writer, could have seen my parachute when your email reached me, you would have seen that it was purple with rage, and so it's best that you were nowhere near my parachute. However, a few days have passed, and I'm back to mood-ring blue again.

Also, while I was perusing Craigslist, I came across this interesting post:

Proect Manager (Western Mass/Ct/Vt)

Engineer Architect with significant project management experience - Part time position, may lead to full time. Individual must have at least 20 years of large scale project management experience. Green or LEED projects desired. Health center/Medical/ School experience also preferred.. Please send resume/references/and availability

You will notice that the poster missed the "j" in project, put two periods after preferred, and no period after availability. All this, and there's really very little detail about the kind of work being offered here anyway. What eats at me about these posts is that someone with questionable basic writing skills is posting an ad that requests 20 years of experience in a highly specialized area which requires higher education. There's just something wrong with that.