Tuesday, May 01, 2018

The political price of war (War is Hell, part 2)

I believe most of what I write will focus on soldiers and what we do to them, but I saw a different side of it, too.

The most shocking revelation for me in The Vietnam War was that Nixon prolonged the war when he wasn't even in office, and was in fact running on an anti-war platform.

A successful resolution to the 1968 Peace Talks would have given Johnson - and thus Hubert Humphrey's candidacy - a boost, so Nixon had an aide convince the South Vietnamese to walk away, and then Nixon would win and give them a better deal.

(There is a brief write-up here: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/nixon-prolonged-vietnam-war-for-political-gainand-johnson-knew-about-it-newly-unclassified-tapes-suggest-3595441/)

It worked out for Nixon; he won the election. It didn't work out great for the South Vietnamese. It must have also been a disappointment for the voters who supported Nixon in order to end the war; he instead spread it to Laos and Cambodia. That meant an additional loss of 22000 US lives.

I don't even know that it would be possible to tally the suffering that it caused for the people of South East Asia. That's not just the deaths, though there were a lot of those. It's also displaced people, and refugees, and maimed children because the land mines stay long after, and economic oppression and re-education - because there would be some people who survive the re-education camps and stay in their country, but it takes a horrible toll on them.

Probably in a few weeks I will write about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, and how pain ripples out from one bad act more than you can ever fully know. That will be a different topic, but the extending consequences applies here, and I want to spend a little more time on that. First, I need to take a tangent.

Shortly before the documentary series aired, I finished reading K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude Starring Nikita Kruschev, America's Most Unlikely Tourist,  by Peter Carlson. I read it because Kruschev had come up so often in Hannah Arendt's The Origin of Totalitarianism, and there had been reminders of that in The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman, and I thought - this book has been on my reading list for a while, let's just get to it.

My purpose is not to defend Kruschev, who participated in and led many terrible things. He also really did try to improve the Soviet Union, especially focusing on agriculture, but also on disarmament, which he had successfully started. Then there was a coup.

Reaching back very far into my knowledge, I actually saw Thirteen Days in the theater, back in 2000. I remember that the US and the USSR both gave some concessions, but part of the deal was that only the Soviet concessions would be made public. That's the kind of thing that can make a leader look weak, so that he could be both unpopular enough and apparently vulnerable enough for a coup.

What would the world have looked like if the Cold War had started rolling back twenty years sooner? What if nuclear proliferation had been arrested that far back? Sure, there's room for a lot of things to go wrong, but that seems like a valuable opportunity thrown away largely for the sake of appearances.

I also do not wish to paint LBJ as a saint. He had his own bad deeds, including bugging his own allies so that he knew about Nixon's backroom dealing but was in a position where he could not reveal it. 

I do believe he wanted to build a better country, and that included strengthening civil rights and working against poverty. I also believe that part of his continuing to escalate in the quagmire of Vietnam was because looking weak is the kind of thing that loses elections, and would keep him from continuing the work he wanted to do.

Pulling out was never going to be easy, and was always going to result in a loss of human life. Trying to avoid that led to a lot of loss of life too. I'm never going to call it an easy decision. 

What I do know is that once in office, Nixon fired the housing administrator (George Romney) who was trying to eliminate redlining and improve fairness in housing. His Supreme Court nominees worked to maintain school segregation. He was a strong supporter of Southern Strategy politics, racially coded language, and took steps toward the War on Drugs that Reagan would later run with. He tried to consolidate presidential power at a level that some of the same advisers would have more success with under George W. Bush. And yes, he may not have known about the Watergate break-in before it happened, but that was his team, and they had been assembled to get revenge on his enemies. A country that was already becoming cynical about their government would end up much worse.

And I kind of started out writing this as if the toll these war decisions take on society is a separate issue from the toll on military personnel, but I am pretty sure that it is all the same. The society that sees backing down from doing harm as weakness is a society that is going to damage its young in a multitude of ways, and that often includes sending them to kill and be killed.

What I would like to know is what a country would look like if it was composed of citizens who valued human life and happiness above macho posturing, blood lust and greed.

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