Beware of the Evil We Wish For

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gabriel conroy

Gabriel Conroy [pseudonym] is an ex-graduate student. He is happily married with no children and has about a million nieces and nephews. The views expressed by Gabriel are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of his spouse or employer.

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  1. Avatar Andrew Donaldson
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    says:

    This is a very worthwhile post read, re-read, and ponder on, thank you for writing it.Report

  2. Avatar JoeSal
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    says:

    This is why I see you as one of the betters among us.

    I would like the world to be happy, a place in which people enjoy the virtues of each other. I may have missed one, but it appears most of the evils you mention derive from social constructs producing rule by law policy. People are so certain they are right that they codify it in law. I am not saying all rule by law is evil, just that it has a uncanny tendency to move that direction, and when it does, the evil comes in waves.

    I think before we can climb out of the pits of war, conflict and coercion we are going to have to take a hard look in the mirror. I don’t so much include you in this, as you already appear to take stock of the reflection probably better than most anyone I know.

    The question I have of my reflection is; what use is being peaceful in a hostile society? The deeper truths of that question have diverging answers. When I answer it in social objectivity, I get a comforting answer, when I answer it in empirical objectivity I get a cold harsh reality answer. When I answer it in biblical objectivity, there is no peace to be expected in the world and the only path to peace is pretty narrow.

    When I look away from the mirror, at the world I ask; why do we build such hostile societies, is it out of need or fear, or some measure of both?Report

    • Avatar gabriel conroy in reply to JoeSal
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      says:

      Thanks, Joe, for the kind words.

      My answer to your last question is really a non-answer: it’s that, at least as I view it, the societies we live in, and (most of) the social constructs those societies adopt, are so prior to anything “we” choose that we have to start where we are. In other words, I answer your question by saying I don’t really have an answer.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to JoeSal
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      says:

      “it appears most of the evils you mention derive from social constructs producing rule by law policy. ”

      as Jaybird so often talks about, it’s a matter of aesthetics becoming a matter of morality and moving on to a matter of legislation.Report

      • Avatar JoeSal in reply to DensityDuck
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        says:

        Is there any consistent path from legislation back to aesthetics without creating mass graves?

        There is a simple math solution to avoid being ruled by mob rule, but nobody likes it when my answer is to subtract the mob.Report

  3. Avatar Mike Schilling
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    says:

    I knew for a fact that the invasion of Iraq was going to be disastrous, and as things spiraled out of control, despised the Bush Administration’s attempts to deny it (especially Rumsfeld’s stupid word games.) Of course, had the invasion gone well, there would have been far less human misery, which would probably have been a worthwhile trade for my personally being wrong. Did I root for it to fail? Yeah, probably to start with, though not for long, because the horrors of it were so very horrifying.Report

    • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to Mike Schilling
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      says:

      I didn’t know that it would be disastrous, probably because I didn’t pay nearly as much attention or think about it nearly as much as I should have.

      The invasion itself, as far as I can tell, probably went about as well as could be expected. It was the mechanics of the regime change and the occupation that went so poorly. In retrospect, that was probably the most predictable.

      I agree that “far less human misery” would have been a worthwhile trade for being wrong. Would I have recognized it as such, though? I can’t say for sure that I would have.

      Memory, of course, is faulty. And speculating on what I would have done if x had turned out differently is even more faulty.Report

  4. Avatar George Turner
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    says:

    South Vietnam fell primarily because so many US politicians had staked out the position that the war was unwinnable. They were publicly dead certain of it. Yet the US withdrew in 1970, and with US air support South Vietnam stopped a major invasion in 1973, utterly destroying much of the North’s forces. In the aftermath, North Vietnam was receiving massive amounts of military aid to re-equip, while we put a weapons embargo on South Vietnam and demanded that they repaid all our loans.

    If South Vietnam had had normal ammunition levels, and if the US maintained its commitment to provide air support, the ’75 invasion would have been crushed like the ’73 invasion, and they likely could have won without US air support. If that had happened, the North would have needed many more years to repair its re-destroyed forces, by which time South Vietnam would be a long way to becoming another Asian Tiger with a massive GDP compared to its impoverished neighbor. It would have made all the Congressmen in both parties who’d declared the war “unwinnable” look like fools.

    Congress seemed to prefer having South Vietnam fall to totalitarian communism, with millions fleeing on small boats, than be proved wrong, and no way was President Ford going to come to South Vietnam’s aid, against strident political opposition, and own the mess from there on out.Report

    • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to George Turner
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      says:

      Huh.
      And it seems like only yesterday that some guy around here was saying that the entire conservative worldview is constructed atop a mountain of bitter grievances.Report

    • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to George Turner
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      says:

      I’m skeptical that air support and ammunition levels made the decisive difference, but there’s a lot I don’t know.

      I strongly suspect that winning (if we define winning as keeping S. Vietnam independent) would have required much more suffering and loss of life for Americans, S. Vietnamese, N. Vietnamese, and perhaps other peoples in Southeast Asia. Was the tradeoff “worth it”? I don’t know. It’s easy for me to say one way or the other because it’s not I who stood to lose much at any rate.Report

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to George Turner
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      says:

      Well, South Vietnamese forces were no well deployed to repel an invasion, having been scattered throughout the country instead of being concentrated near the border. However, they didn’t have any machine gun or artillery ammunition and their soldiers were only being issued 2.6 rounds per rifle per day, due to the arms embargo.

      One South Vietnamese division near the border was completely surrounded, but it stood firm and decimated the four surrounded North Vietnamese divisions. Then it ran out of ammunition and had to surrender. There were some similarly strong performances during the ’72 battles, in which South Vietnamese divisions defeated North Korean forces several times there size. Apparently the North found those defeats far more alarming than US air support, as US air support wouldn’t be there forever but if Southern divisions could defeat multiple Northern divisions, due to superior motivation, weapons, organization, and tactics, the North would never win the war on the battlefield using conventional means.

      However, there were also some other failures in the South. The ARVN officer who was coordinating information for the South’s military response turned out to be a Northern plant, and he misdirected Southern armies, scattering them to go after phantoms and keeping them away from the critical central route where the North’s T-55 tanks were rolling down the highway. But in any event, with such limited ammunition, no Southern force was going to able to stay in the fight very long.

      Creighton Abrams, who took over from Westmoreland in ’68, felt that the South could stand on its own if the US kept training them for two to three more years. But he was never given that time because the US public had already decided we were in an unwinnable quagmire. So the desire to be proved right about a bad outcome was really the follow-up blow the previous problem of being completely wrong about a rosy outcome.

      The number of US failures is long, complex, and fascinating, but the US strategic failure is really very simple. There are only three basic ways a conflict can end: WIn, lose, or draw. We ruled out “win” and the North wasn’t willing to settle for “draw”, so the only option left was “lose”. With “win” completely off the table (though we’d come close with the B-52 bombing of Hanoi but didn’t know it), the only way to ensure a draw was to make sure the South had enough training, arms, equipment, and the proper strategy and tactics to maintain that draw. We knowingly left before they were quite there, and then the arms embargo was the final cut that undermined any chance the South had to stay independent during its transition into a well-armed Asian tiger faced with a threat from a backwards, third-world neighbor.

      But, decades later, things are looking up in Vietnam. Surveys of Vietnamese attitudes show they have more support for capitalism than Americans do! Many in the North, decades later, think they were conned by lying communists and that in retrospect, they should have let the Americans win. But that would mean admitting they were wrong, and also somewhat disgrace all the brave Northern soldiers and civilians who gave their lives for the cause, and probably draw to much attention from government authorities. But as memories fade and new generations take over, and as Western companies shift investments from China to Vietnam, their views should shift even further, especially when China is presenting a direct threat to their territory.Report

      • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to George Turner
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        says:

        I might quibble about the point where S. Vietnamese forces defeat a N. Korean force 🙂

        But otherwise I have to concede that you probably know a lot more about the war than I do.Report

        • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Gabriel Conroy
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          says:

          For more reading, here is George’s source material for his narrative:

          For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to George Turner
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        says:

        Many in the North, decades later, think they were conned by lying communists and that in retrospect, they should have let the Americans win.

        Lol.Report

        • Avatar George Turner in reply to Stillwater
          Ignored
          says:

          That even leaked out in an interview for the last episode of Ken Burns Vietnam War documentary. 🙂

          Many in the North sacrificed so much to achieve “unification” (Vietnam had never been a single country except under French occupation) and create a socialist paradise, but what they got was extreme poverty. Malnutrition was so bad that the government was shamed into provided vitamin pills for children because Vietnam was unable to produce soccer players big enough to play against Thailand. Vietnamese-Americans would go visit their family’s old villages and stand a head taller than everybody else. The villagers realized that Vietnamese were supposed to be as tall as those big American soldiers the whole time, but their diet was inadequate. ^_^

          US veterans who would travel back to Da Nang and Saigon often commented that nothing in the country had gotten a new coat of paint since they left. But Vietnam finally started free-market reforms and the place started booming, mostly in the South where people remembered how to make money.

          But when we were deeply involved in there the 60’s, the North was dirt poor and the South was dirt poor, but at least improving. Everybody in the countryside was living in grass huts, and the state of development was perhaps much like Afghanistan. Maybe communism would seem like an improvement. But whereas the North would’ve stayed at the grass-hut or Soviet/North Korean apartment block level of development, the South would’ve become like modern Japan, South Korea, or Singapore, with little to fear from a bunch of starving rice farmers with AK-47’s conducting human wave assaults. Without the loss in ’75, that probably would’ve been set in stone by the 1980’s.

          But a great many Americans, including politicians, wanted to be proved right about Vietnam, confirming their foresight, wisdom, and perceptions, or confirming their turn of heart upon finding out how badly the war had been conducted, as if they’d been conned.

          Much of the public had gone all out in declaring the war a lost cause and completely unwinnable, either by protesting US imperialism on the left, or on the right, getting disgusted with our government elites for throwing away soldier’s lives without any coherent plan or goal, basically just having them muck around in a swamp because the generals can’t think of any better approach, much like the public’s impressions of WW-I.

          The defeatist narrative meshes with Southern “lost cause” nobility, mixed with notes of sour grapes. “We were stabbed in the back by incompetent bureaucrats and poor leadership.” Many of those views were set in stone by reporting prior to 1970, and stories by returning vets relating stories about the insanity of how operations were being conducted, as if we’d looked at the manual on how to conduct successful military operations and did the exact opposite at every turn.

          The US approach radically changed in starting when Westermoreland left, but by then the narrative was written. The war on the ground after ’68 was highly successful and bore little resemblance to what occurred prior (though the scenery was the same), but nobody paid much attention to the change because McNamara’s metrics (body counts and such) were stuck in everybody’s heads.

          It was described as a national nightmare, and everybody wanted to end, and end in a way that confirmed everybody’s pessimism. When people watched coverage of our helicopters finally evacuating the US embassy as Saigon fell, it was likely with a mix a horror, sadness, and a whole lot of schadenfreude. And yet the North’s victory brought all kinds of horrors to the South Vietnamese survivors, millions of whom fled the country by foot or in boats, and countless numbers of whom died. We could have stopped all that from happening, yet we also had an clandestine interest in having the darkness descend because we’d predicted it so often.Report

          • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to George Turner
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            says:

            “We could have stopped all that from happening, yet we also had an clandestine interest in having the darkness descend because we’d predicted it so often.”

            Those damned Americans. They really are a shitty bunch, aren’t they?Report

          • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to George Turner
            Ignored
            says:

            dude, pearls before swine. the people here are going to one-line reply to these comments and high-five over how hard they imagine they’re dunking on you. just don’t even bother. “Vietnam wouldn’t have fallen if the US had stayed”, it’s not even possible to have a discussion about that because the people you’re talking to can’t not give you the dogmatic feelsgoodman response. It’s like asking a devout Christian whether Jesus was resurrected, they don’t even understand that there can be a discussion about it.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to George Turner
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      says:

      I think you’re talking about the 1972 Easter offensive. The North captured and held enough territory to change the situation — eg, the government in the South suddenly had to deal with upwards of a million refugees. The North retained control of those areas when the cease-fire-in-place was signed in January 1973 and US air operations stopped.Report

      • Avatar George Turner in reply to Michael Cain
        Ignored
        says:

        Yep. That’s it. The US failed our treaty obligations by allowing the North to hold a critical part of the central highlands. The communist forces were, however, spent. They had to have some rebuilding years with massive amounts of aid flowing in.

        And this all assumes that there was a country called “Vietnam”, whose creation by the French made about as much logical, cultural, historical, and linguistic sense as creating the Astro-Hungarian Empire. The north had a heavy Chinese influence, and had spent about a thousand years unsuccessfully trying to conquer the south, which was often part of a Khmer (Cambodian) empire.Report

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