"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 29 November 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.
'Nam de Plume


[Money-hungry bastards]

As with-it Americans, we rarely

miss a chance to kick dirt on

the grave of the 1960s, but now

some of us are taking advantage.

It's OK when Austin Powers

lectures us on "freedom and

responsibility." Only a heart of

stone could resist the kids who

come up to our doors on

Halloween dressed as psychedelic

ragamuffins. Hell, we even call

the Age of Aquarius to account

for the 1970s — as if every

hippie on Haight Street had

authored a Ford-era key party or

facilitated the transmission of

not-so-precious bodily fluids.


But there's always been one

patch of the garden the

Woodstock nation could call its

own: It still had the last word

on Vietnam. Everyone, except for

a few veterans and right-

wingers, seemed to agree that

the war was a mistake. Even one

of its principal authors, former

Secretary of Defense Robert

Strange McNamara, embarked on a

public exhibition of penitence

and self-mortification. Thanks

to a quarter-century of myth and

symbol, the folly of Vietnam has

become second only to the civil

rights movement in the

no-dissent derby. What Vietnam

movie was complete without de

rigeur appearances by psychotic

patriots, divorced-from-reality

commanding officers, or

demoralized grunts, passing a

joint while "96 Tears" played on

the radio? What 'Nam veteran

worth his souvenir K-bar couldn't

liven up a barbecue with

chilling tales of Luke the Gook,

in his dreaded black pajamas,

undoing America's armored might

with low-tech single-mindedness

and cunning? "Charlie didn't get

much USO," Apocalypse Now's

Captain Willard says, speaking

with what would become the

national voice. "He was dug in

too deep or moving too fast. His

idea of great R&R was cold rice

and a little rat meat."


Who would want to be on the side

of The Man in discussing a war

where hubris was so plainly



The answer, of course, is


intellectuals, who have been

rethinking the decade-long

police action in a manner not

seen since skeptical journalist

David Janssen jumped in with the

team for the big win in Duke

Wayne's The Green Berets. Our

current best and brightest,

though, have no investment in

Vietnam. With the Nixon revival

having fallen through thanks to

its hero's indefatigable

vulgarity and spleen, the

defense of the Vietnam War

beckons as the boldest and most

rewarding of undertakings for

the young pundit on the make.


[got their claws in me]

Which is not to say that Michael

Lind, author of Vietnam: The

Necessary War, or Lewis Sorley,

author of A Better War, or any

of the lesser lights in Vietnam

revisionism are not good writers

and true. It may well be,

as Sorley maintains, that the

United States had the war pretty

much sewn up in 1970, in some

abstract military sense.


As for Lind's contention that it

was better to fight a bad war

than to chicken out and thus

encourage Soviet designs on

Monaco and New Zealand, it's

more interesting as a Zeitgeist

pathology than as a subject for

debate. America's reputation for

standing by its allies was

purchased with more than a

million Vietnamese and nearly

60,000 American lives; it's a

little hard to conceive what

worse fate this sacrifice

prevented. By maintaining that

we had to give it the old

college try anyway, Lind

demonstrates the flair for

mental shuffleboard that made

him a 1998 Suck EGG laureate.

His is not a new argument,

Nixon, Johnson, and most of

Washington having said as much

back then. But what's

interesting is that, in the

context of 1999, it now sounds

less like a Cold War nostrum and

more like progressive thinking.

As with the domino theory,

creationism, and the prophecies

of Nostradamus, it's impossible

to say for sure that Lind is

wrong. But you can bet the house

he's reciting the right message

for the moment.


[kill those bastardos, I tell ya!]

But what can you expect?

Historians batten on the

Zeitgeist more than anyone;

Sorley's and Lind's books are some

of the surest signs yet that the war

on the '60s has escalated. Once

content merely to take Archie's

side against the Meathead or

wish Camille Paglia dead every

time she wrote about the

Dionysian freedom of "my '60s

generation," we now appear ready

for a strongman to deliver us

from the hands of the



This seemingly far-fetched

scenario is already coming to

pass. Silver-haired he-man John

McCain may have started his race

for the Republican presidential

nomination as a Serious Issues

man, but since the publication

of his four-and-a-half-star

opus That Man's Father Is My

Father's Son, he seems to have

realized that ejecting from a

grounded, exploding airplane and

surviving for several years on

the cold rice and rat meat

served up by his NVA captors

make for more dramatic talking

points. In response, the other

candidates have been trying,

with varying degrees of success,

to break out their own bona

fides most ricky-tick. Al Gore,

who served in Southeast Asia

(albeit as a Private Joker–style

news reporter), has taken pains

to point out that he too could

have taken the easy way out, like

some people we know. And

good-time-Charlie George W. Bush

has even made a predictably

lame gesture toward retroactive

jingoism, like the small boy who

plays recklessly with daddy's



Nor is this change of heart

limited to pundits and

politicians. The righteous war

movie has seen a .45 caliber

recrudescence as both old

Hollywood (Saving Private Ryan)

and new (Three Kings) strive

to reaffirm our national sense

of manhood. As for those three

pillars of the counterculture —

sex, drugs, and rock and roll —

they have turned into utter

demolition sites. Post-AIDS

sexual pietism has spawned a

legion of would-be Dr. Lauras,

lecturing us on the ills of free

love. Rock music has devolved

into baroque stylistic turf

wars, with nothing to oppose it

but other kinds of rock music.

And the doors of perception have

been barred closed, as 20 years

of antidrug propaganda has

brainwashed America's youth and

turned what had been a badge of

honor into something akin to the

mark of the beast.


But Vietnam revisionism may have

more to do with our national

history than our national mood.

The image of the Vietnam War as

a crashing failure served our

historical purposes in more ways

than we'd like to admit. During

the '70s, the war's

nearly-Peloponnesian length and

futility provided dramatic proof

that our national malaise was

the real thing, the enfeebling

of a once-proud empire by

crooked politicians and turbaned

oil barons. Unexpectedly (and

inconveniently), the empire

survived and prospered, and

during the Reagan and Bush eras,

the lesson of our debacle in

Vietnam was retooled into fancy

constants such as the Powell

doctrine (never get Americans

killed without a clear mission

and goal) and the Reagan

doctrine (never get Americans

killed in ways that are not

quickly forgotten).


[Money is a crime]

Now, as we try to prove that

Vietnam was in fact not a

debacle at all, we're getting

rid of even this maxim and

coming full circle to more

Vietnams. America's open-ended

interventions in the Balkans,

Iraq, and any other place where

we don't have to face a real

enemy — ordered by erstwhile

pacifists, who since have bucked

up like a raw recruit on the

last page of a Sgt. Rock comic

— evince a Kennedy-esque

cheerfulness about such

Vietnam-era hobgoblins as

incremental escalation and

mission creep, not to mention a

newfound love of the bomb. From

this perspective, Vietnam

revisionism seems not so much

timely as long overdue.


But by arguing away the

pointlessness of the Vietnam

War, the revisionists actually

rob the war of what little

meaning it had. Let's face it:

Where necessary and well-fought

conflicts are concerned, there's

only one war that will fit the

bill. After World War II, all

American military actions have

seemed like cruel jokes in

comparison; but at least Vietnam

was a joke with a strong punch

line. McCain, Gore, and Vietnam

veterans everywhere once had

status as participants in a

great American catastrophe. If

sophists like Lind and Sorley

have their way, they will become

just slightly younger and much

less impressive versions of

their stretch-pants-and-


forebears. Thus, latter-day

efforts to snatch victory from

the jaws of defeat ultimately

make Southeast Asia seem even

less worth fighting over than it

seemed in 1967. The war for the

Vietnam War, like the Vietnam

War itself, remains an

unwinnable conflict.

courtesy ofThe Boob