"For ten years we have been engaged in negotiations, and yet the enemy's intentions remain inscrutable."
- Hoang Dieu (1829-1882)
A letter from the commander of the citadel of Hanoi to the emperor just before the citadel's surrender to the French and the suicide of its commander.
This is the perfect opening quote of Fire in the Lake, a study of the Vietnam War. The quote is meant to illustrate the mutual incomprehension that characterized so many of the interactions between the Vietnamese and their Western invaders. While the book is a study of the Vietnam War, it is primarily concerned with cultural and political course of the war rather than on military hardware or numbers. That is also one of the main themes of the book, that the Americans viewed the conflict primarily in military terms, while the North Vietnamese and the southern NLF more correctly viewed the conflict in political and cultural terms. Despite being published in 1972, well before the end of the war, Fire in the Lake holds up as a remarkably insightful and readable work.
While the book is fairly long (450 pages), and has a wealth of detail and analysis, the basic narrative of the book is fairly straightforward. The conquest of Vietnam by the French, then the Japanese, and then the French, devastated the Confucian value system that had dominated Vietnam for the previous millennia. This resulted in a sort of mass psychological uprooting, and the search for new values. It's basically what Nietzche thought would happen in the West, before cat gif's armored us against such weaknesses. In the case of Vietnam, a Vietnam adapted version of Communism was the most fit of the available values. It provided an idea or dream that explained the modern world, that encompassed the whole of a person's life, that accorded with many traditional Confucian values, and it was also a national dream that was not limited to just one sect or group of people. This dream allowed the North to unify and organize itself, and then apply unrelenting pressure to the south. In contrast, the south had a number of competing dreams (Catholicism, Buddhism, the religious sects, the military juntas, the Diem's shade of Confucianism), but none of them could rapidly make converts, none of them could conquer the others, and none of them could effectively compromise with the others. The result was a perpetual seethe and confusion that precluded effective joint action. When the American's tried to push colossal amounts of money, troops, and high explosives through this society, it had only had the effect of further frac'ing the society. The vestiges of village life and Confucianism were destroyed, the ancestral ties to land and family were broken, the agricultural economy was ruined through war and aid imports, much of the population was turned into refugees, etc. etc. In a short period of time every social tie of the previous society was dissolved, resulting in a collection of damaged, untrusting, and self seeking individuals. One of the many ways the author phrases this is that it's the difference between an army and a bunch of strangers with rifles. That disunity was ultimately why the South lost despite huge amounts of US aid.
So, that is the basic idea of the book, and I think it is a good idea that the author sells convincingly. In addition to this sort of cultural/strategic insight, I would also commend the book for the tone that it brings to the discussion. Despite its catalog of mistakes, blindness, selfishness, corruption, injustices, atrocities, torture, mega deaths, etc, I don't think the author ever really presents anyone as "bad" or "evil". Rather, she has a more even handed, almost technical approach. The consistent analysis of the people in the book is that they had incorrect mental frameworks with which to understand their situation or their partners in the war. Or that even if they understood their situation, they were operating under impossible constraints. For example, she describes how Diem presided over massive corruption, infighting, and destruction, but her presentation of Diem is not as a monster but as an academic, unsuited to leadership and raised with inapplicable values, who by accident was raised to an enormous position. This is not to say that the book soft pedals the disaster of American involvement in Vietnam. To the contrary, it is an absolutely devastating critique of the South Vietnamese government and the American effort in Vietnam. Basically everyone from the President to the GI to the development worker is dissected, and there are some truly brutal vignettes and turns of phrase in this book. The war effort as a whole is explained as not even wrong, but rather a misapplication of ideas to a situation that they do not at all fit. One complaint I would make is that while she does criticize the Communists, she is generally kinder to them and does overlook some of their flaws. In particular, the Communist's claim to having any great insight into the progress of world history looks particularly silly now.
Ok, that's the main review, now for a collection of random thoughts and quotes:
- One of the original sources of Marxist revolution in the north was that the French educational system in Vietnam produced large amounts of grad students without worrying if there were actual jobs for them. Sound familiar? General Giap basically started off as a disaffected grad student.
- "I ran for the assembly to oppose the government, and now I find that there is nothing to oppose." One of the quotes she brings out that summarizes her criticisms of the South Vietnamese government.
- One of the facts that stood out was that in the three weeks of unrestrained fighting that followed TET, ~165,000 civilians were killed, mostly by US heavy weapons used inside densely packed cities. Wow.
- One of the reasons I like the central insight of the book is that it works just as well to explain the American failures in Iraq and Afghanistan 30 years later. The regimes we are trying to work through lack a basic unifying dream that they can believe in, resulting in partners who are divided and self seeking. This is why the MLP fandom could be so crucially helpful to US strategic interests.