Friday, September 27, 2013

Review: Re-Writing History: A Graphic History of the Vietnam War

[The following appeared on September 27th, posted on the web page for Ad Astra Comix up Toronto way. One of the editors asked me to write a guest column review of this odd right wing spin on what the war on Vietnam was about. My take was prefaced by one of the Astra folks, "NMG," who wrote: 

Some discussion has come up around Ad Astra Comix and a recent addition to our stock list– a graphic history of the Vietnam War. Not only does the book gloss over major historical events, like the Gulf of Tonkin incident (and the fact that it never happened, yet was a major cause for the war to escalate). The historical narrative, which has had 40 years of time for reflection, comes to some very troubling conclusions. As a new generation looks back on Vietnam as the war of their Grandmothers and Grandfathers, and as a generation that has been raised far too comfortably around operations in Iraq and Afghanistan being “business as usual“, there is a serious need to dispel this re-write of history in the comic record. -NMG.]

A Review:
The Vietnam War -A Graphic History
Written by Dwight Zimmerman; Illustrated by Wayne Vansant
New York: Hill & Wang, 2009. 143pp 

As the U.S. aggression in Vietnam escalated in the mid-1960s, the liberal Cold Warrior Walter Rostow, an advisor to John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, spoke of the need of “winning hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese, at least those under the control of the US client regime in Saigon, if US force was going to prevail. As the barbarity of the venture -- the toll in lives destroyed and the devastation exacted -- spread, the invaders not only failed on that front in Vietnam, but also lost the campaign for political support, the battle for hearts and minds back in the States.

Some 400,000 assembled at the Washington Monument during the November, 1969 "March on Washington."  "Winning hearts and minds" at home, by then, was out of the question since the turning point in the war had come more almost two years before with the January, 1968 Tet Offensive.

The war makers of course suffered a humiliating defeat despite their firepower. Failing to defeat militarily what was primarily a peasant-based anti-colonial and nationalist movement already decades old, it also lost the war on the political, ideological and cultural levels. Never having them in the first place, it never won the bulk of the Vietnamese people. The war machine murdered, maimed and debased too many and destroyed too much for that ever to happen. 

Those that survived, after all, were not about to buy the nonsense about “freedom” and “liberty” churned out by US propaganda specialists and parroted by a succession of corrupt, murderous regimes in Saigon. All the claims of the American “Free World” mission to save the country from “Communist Peril” rang hollow as that tiny land was scorched by what amounted to in a massive fly-by shooting.

June 8th, 1972.  Survivors flee the napalmed village of Trang Bang,    
26 miles outside of Saigon.

Defeat in some sense became inevitable, a done deal, when the Washington war makers simultaneously lost large swaths of political support at home. They lost the battle of ideas, the claims and justifications, and explanations of what the war was about as the body counts and war costs mounted. 

That loss of domestic political support for the war has never been forgotten, especially by those intent on winning future wars abroad who have come to view that home front defeat as a significant “lesson” of the conflict, not to be repeated.

In their ongoing efforts those still imagining that Vietnam could have been won and those already invested in current and future interventions have utilized every available means at their disposal to revise and reframe the  story. At that level, the portrayals and accounts in the popular culture - television and film, in music, art and print media, even the comic book press - have long been been utilized in the campaign to mold “hearts and minds”, especially among the young and the impressionable, the potential recruits and fodder for future imperial campaigns.

Few recent examples illustrate that fact better than Zimmerman and Vansant’s graphic rewrite of the Vietnam war’s history. Well-illustrated by the clearly talented Vansant and shrewdly scripted by Zimmerman to include the actual words of participants, the book in some ways has more to do with the present than it does with some approximately accurate portrayal of what the US did to Southeast Asia.

Now, of course, it can be rightly argued that the writing and depictions of history are always selective and that all historians make choices and have an agenda, an axe to grind. and that a graphic history could not possibly be comprehensive in any sense of the term. That all remains true since the agenda of this rightward revision of the war on ‘Nam comes clear right in the opener, in the foreword written by the retired Air Force General, Chuck Horner.

A combat pilot during Vietnam,  Horner later commanded the U.S. and allied air assets during Desert Shield and Desert Storm. According to the publisher’s boilerplate accompanying his account of the Gulf War co-authored with fiction writer Tom Clancy, he, Horner “was responsible for the design and execution of one of the most devastating air campaigns in history.”

Horner, in one page casts Vietnam in terms clearly pitched to the novice, the young high schooler or working class kid, perhaps.“Like other wars,” he tells us, America’s war in Vietnam, “began with a premise of good versus bad and which was which depended on whom you side with.” Well, okay for the obvious, war as some shape shifting morality play. 

He then proceeds to explain that,“As the conflict dragged on, those views changed into the reality of a dedicated, committed North Vietnamese enemy and the committed-but-not dedicated US led-coalition.” The implication is simple (and simplistic): The US and its junior “coalition” partners (Who they were, he doesn’t say) lost because they weren’t dedicated enough, didn’t have the endurance or the will to win. Or, by implication, one running throughout the book, that their determination was undermined not so much by the tenacity of the Vietnamese adversary but by the falling away of support at home.

He goes on: “President Kennedy had committed our nation, but then President Johnson instituted polices that lacked dedication.” Here, immediately, one of the main themes of the conservative accounts creeps in: the war came to be lost because the civilian leadership, especially the politicians back home lacked the guts and the determination to see it through.

Following Johnson, “President Nixon became dedicated to getting us out of our commitment (to whom or what, Horner doesn’t say), but at “great cost to our honor.” Apparently even Nixon, known during the height of the war as the “Mad Bomber,” is viewed by this former Air Force lifer as aiding and abetting the commission of that sin of sins among the military, dishonor. (In some sense Nixon ended up getting a dishonorable discharge, but not for the major war crimes for which he should have been tried.)

What might be drawn from all that? Horner lays it out: “Years later, in Desert Storm, our politicians and our military, remembering the lessons of Vietnam, set goals and conducted operations that deserved our unqualified commitment and dedication.” That matter of dedication and steadfastness, once again.

Horner then raises a second read on the history commonly forwarded by the right: “In the case of the Vietnam War, the divergence of political will and goals resulted in constraints on our military operations.”  Disregarding or not knowing that war is the extension of politics, he seems to suggest that the whole thing could have been “winnable.” If only the military didn’t have to fight with “one hand tied behind its back” and they weren’t “stabbed in the back” by the peace movement and their allies in the “liberal” media.  The old canards die hard.

Horner all tells us, as well, that “our South Vietnamese ally’s leadership could not rally the dedication of it’s own people.” As venal, repressive and as illegitimate as the US-bolstered Saigon sham of a government was, could it have been any different?  Horner may think so, but few others versed in the history appear to hold that peculiar line.

The Good General asserts, in closing, that Zimmerman and Vansant have come together to present the history, “in a clear and comprehensible way.” He concludes his foreword by describing the work’s present day purpose: “It serves to enlighten those for whom Vietnam is only academic history, so that we may be armed against making the same mistakes in the future.” 

Interspersed with occasional accounts of heroic efforts by troops on the ground, the bulk of the narrative is loaded with half truths and craftily retooled tellings.  Parts of it read as if it was selectively scripted by someone with the suppressed memory of a sleepwalking amnesiac. 

This tale -- an illustrated comic after all -- might seem “comprehensible” to the novice, those unfamiliar. After all, if Vietnam was nothing but a series of mistakes made mainly by a civilian leadership at home unwilling to fight to win, then a further mistake, perhaps, might be made by one looking to this work for some understanding, today, of what that criminal enterprise perpetrated against the people of Southeast Asia actually was about.  


Monday, September 16, 2013

Guilt by Association Abroad? The University of Wisconsin in Kazakhstan

[The following originally appeared on Huffington Post on September 13. It came in response to University of Wisconsin-Madison Poli. Sci. Prof Howard Schweber, who took issue with an earlier article written by Yale's Jim Sleeper. Since Steve Horn and I wrote earlier pieces from which Sleeper drew information regarding Wisconsin's dealing with the Nazarbayev regime, I thought Schweber's words demanded a riposte. -AR] 

The good professor Howard Schweber’s  recent criticism (Innocents Abroad? The University of Wisconsin in Kazakhstan) of Jim Sleeper’s piece on the questionable international dealings of a number of our major universities demands some response. Especially since he, Mr. Schweber, returned not long ago from two years at Kazakhstan’s recently launched Nazarbayev University (NU). 

Schweber actually avoided the central question of the ethics and propriety of such “partnering relationships” by our universities, all self-proclaimed bastions of the “liberal tradition,” with outright authoritarian, anything-but-democratic regimes. He did so by finessing the University of Wisconsin’s  involvement at NU, named for Kazakhstan’s “Leader of the Nation” and “President for Life”, the ex-Soviet boss, Nursultan Nazarbyev.

Pointing out that the University of Wisconsin-Madison in its involvement at the NU School of Humanities and Social Sciences is but one of ten major universities engaged at Astana, he stated that each of the partners “offer advice, consultation, and services in the form of specified deliverables based on contracts with limited terms.” He did not mention that unlike Duke, with its “brand” closely associated with the NU Graduate School of Business, or the National University of Singapore with its long-term “strategic partnership” with the NU Graduate School of Public Policy, Wisconsin as a public institution had to forge a different “fee-for-service” relationship with the Nazarbayev state, the developer of the NU.

All the fine points aside, Prof Schweber, clearly is a believer in America’s liberal “democratizing”  gospel and the accompanying mission of his home university’s “Wisconsin Idea”. And certainly, it must be granted that some NU students, busy on their way to becoming the next generation’s professional-managerial and technical elite, might indeed imbibe some of those “Western values” along the way. 

But the evidence strongly suggests that Kazakhstan, with its well-ensconced and fortified kleptocracy, its state-run development plans, and its current trajectory as a rising star in the constellation of energy-rich capitalist dictatorships, is not about to become the center of some Central Asian version of the “Arab Spring” .   

Eager to defend Wisconsin’s presence at the NU School of Humanities and Social Science and apparently convinced that it will help plant the seeds of some future liberal democratic reform, Prof. Schweber avoided discussion of the actual repressive anti-democratic and illiberal nature of the Nazarbayev regime. 

Every major international monitor of human rights, political freedoms and corruption has consisterntly criticized Kazakhstan as a major serial abuser. Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, Transparency International, Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International, etc., and the US State Department have long chronicled the repressive and intolerant character of the Nazarbayev dictatorship. In their recent reports, they all have documented the fact that the record of abuses has actually gotten worse in the aftermath of the December, 2011 massacre of striking oil workers in the Caspian town, Zhanaozen. Occasional news stories from independent journalists confirm that reality on a regular basis.

We’re basically talking about a one party-state based on rigged elections where all authentic political opposition is systematically stifled and repressed. We’re talking about a society where the dominant media system is owned directly by Nazarbayev family members or close cronies; where any critical opposition papers and websites have been closed down, their editors and reporters beaten, jailed and fined under the nation’s all encompassing anti-defamation laws. (Laws that basically make it illegal to say anything critical of Nazarbayev or his family, or the ruling party, etc..)

We’re talking about a country where judges are hand picked by those in power; one where the broader legal system is honeycombed with corruption, and bribery is a fact of life. It’s a country in which police regularly act with impunity and those taken into custody or imprisoned are routinely subjected to physical abuse and torture

We’re speaking of a state that has recently stepped up its persecution and prosecution of those congregations practicing their religious faith without first registering with the proper authorities. (Such regulations, ostensibly stepped up to stem the growth of “Islamist extremism,” recently have been used to shut down Baptist congregations!) 

Prof. Schweber did not mention that the major university involvement in the creation of NU came about through the coordination of the World Bank, currently branding itself as the “Knowledge Bank”. WB “education reform” specialists, intent on coordinating the restructuring the Kazakh education system to bring it in line and integrate it with those in the West, shepherded Kazakh Ministry of Education types on a round-the-world tour of potential “partnering institutions” in 2009. 

While stopping off at Cambridge and University College of London in the UK, and crossing the Atlantic for campus visits in Boston and elsewhere, the group also stopped off in authoritarian Singapore for a visit and meetings at the National University of Singapore. Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev and the Singapore city state’s emeritus autocrat, Lee Kuan Yew have had a long association. Lee actually encouraged the Kazakh kingpin to make English the main instructional language at NU. 

The delegation then proceeded on to Qatar, lorded over by the petrodollar drenched Bin Khalifa autocracy. There, they visited the Qatar Science and Technology Park  at “Education City” outside Doha, the home of a cluster of joint projects with US-based universities including Cornell, Georgetown, Northwestern, Texas A&M, Virginia Commonwealth and Carnegie Mellon created through World Bank assistance. It was a model in some sense of things to come in Astana.

Importantly, a number of former World Bank operatives came to occupy key positions at Naz U. Most notable has been Shigeo Katsu, currently the NU Rector. Aslan Sarinzhipov, just recently appointed by Nazarbayev to head the Kazakh Ministry of Education and Science, previously worked as the Bank’s in-country liaison before becoming a key figure in the NU’s administration. 

Another long-time World Bank hand, Dennis DeTray, was the former head of its operations in Indonesia during the latter years of the Suharto dictatorship. He subsequently became an apologist for that regime before taking a post as an adviser to Nazarbayev on the NU project. (When a high-level Kazakh delegation headed by Deputy Foreign Minister and former Nazarbayev aide Yerbol Orynbayev came to Madison in March, 2010 to finalize the first of a series of partnering contracts with Wisconsin’s then-Chancellor Biddy Martin, DeTray was there.)         

Wisconsin’s Schweber not very long after took his two year sabbatical to go forth on  Wisconsin’s mission. In his response to Jim Sleeper, he spoke of the new laws, granted by a parliament dominated by Narabyev’s Nur Otan party, which have granted NU its own “autonomy” thereby granting students and faculty “academic freedom” and freedom of expression.  He failed to mention that numerous legal protections and guarantees, already on the books, are systematically and regularly violated and abused in practice across the country.

Does this professor of political science imagine that an authentic opposition movement encouraged by the teachings of the good missionaries from Wisconsin will be tolerated?  What does he expect will happen to those who take seriously those “Western values” that he and others lecture on at NU ?   

Schweber wrote of his ability to speak of liberal values and the need for democracy openly and candidly at various fora sponsored by the national Parliament, Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan party, the Ministry of Education and Science, and other Kazahkstani universities.  As an American, he was afforded that luxury, clearly an example of “repressive tolerance” in extremis.

After all, the regime certainly would not want to generate some cause celeb and international press by possibly manhandling and bouncing out some well-intentioned Mid Western academic who happened to speak a bit too much truth to power. 

Nazarbayev & Co. at this point in time certainly is not about to alienate the US, now seen as a strategic counterweight to Kazakhstan’s Russian and Chinese neighbors and an important and growing source of direct foreign investment.  (While keeping a tight lid on things at home, Nazarbayev has gotten what he wants from each of the major powers by skillfully playing his “multi-vectored” foreign policy.) 

Overarching all, the real “partnering relationship,” not to be tampered with, is the strategic one between the energy rich, strategically located regime at Astana and those in Washington who have already defined the country as vital to short and long term US “national interest”. 

In the same period that reps from various American universities were busy setting up shop and designing “liberal” curricula and “best practice” governance at Naz. U, US military personnel were busily coordinating military-to-military programs, providing equipment (some of which was used against the strikers at Zhanaozen in 2011); and carrying out joint maneuvers

In much the same way that the US, in the name of “national security,” can turn a blind eye to the abuses of university-sponsoring dictatorships in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere, Uncle Sam is not about to push for meaningful reform, democratic rights and protections in Kazakhstan.  

In the meantime, those traveling from Madison intent on globalizing the gospel of some distorted “Wisconsin Idea”  can say what they want at home or while “stylin’” in Astana. In the meantime, the US strategic dalliance with the corrupt and repressive Nazarbayev regime will take continue to take precedence.

Stylin' at Naz U.: The Good Professor Schweber  takes a brief  pause while bringing "liberal values" to the Kazakhstan steppes.