Road to Disaster: A New History of America’s Descent into Vietnam. By Brian VanDeMark. Customs House, Harper Collins, New York, 2018.
Reviewed by Mike Fogarty
‘God loved knights and ladies as well as He loved peasants and clergy, and perhaps all the more indulgently because in many ways they were morally more exposed.’ (From Wolfram von Eschenbach’s tale as translated by A.T. Hatto, ‘Parzival’).
As I am not a Vietnam veteran, I may be ill-equipped to review this book. I was an 18 year old midshipman serving in an RAN destroyer which briefly traversed (far from) the South Vietnamese coast in April, 1967. We sailed near some Thai minesweepers, observed a US fighter-bomber pass over our ship towards the Republic and we acknowledged a USN destroyer, USS FALGOUT. I visited Saigon in February 1975 before its sad dénouement. From 1980-1981 I served at the Australian Embassy, Hanoi. Once again, I was an observer and not a participant, safely out of harm’s way. Hence the interest, stoked by studying Vietnam under the late professor Jeff Grey.
Brian VanDeMark is a much published author and a long-tenured academic (from 1990) on the history faculty at the United States Naval Academy. He has written a towering work on Robert McNamara, a Secretary of Defense (sic) under democratic presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War, from 1961-1968. This new scholarship (to 2018) updates another earlier work by David Kaiser, ‘American Tragedy (2000). Road to Disaster’is far superior to it.
This latest book attenuates the decision-making processes (such as they were) throughout the period under review. The author deploys what might be termed forensic political psychology. He delves into the behavioural and cognitive sciences as he attempts to insinuate decision-making models, not always appropriate or even convincingly. The application of clinical tests in a social laboratory is not a perfect fit when describing and explaining how individuals operate in wartime so it duly suffers.
The exegesis of the war occurred in real time and the death of some 58,000 Americans was a foreign and defence policy experiment gone wrong. The war rendered asunder the political, social, economic and cultural fabric of the US. It was hubris writ large. As the author agonises long after the events, how could intelligent men get it so wrong, being crippled by a distracted mind-set whose short-term decisions led to such disastrous long-term consequences, as they were eked out in a continuum they could not arrest?
The so-called ‘best and the brightest’ had failed themselves and their nation they had loyally committed to serve. Robert Strange McNamara was a much-vaunted ‘whizz kid’. Having barely warmed his seat as chief of Ford, he was asked by Kennedy to be his Defense Secretary, on his 1961 inauguration. The former was a ‘numbers man’, being prided for his logic, cool analysis and the objectivity to enumerate his professional career by crunching numbers under critical path analysis.
Vietnam defeated him, too, for he had no command, even less control, over events in a far-away-land which possessed a history and culture not amenable to the decisions of a board or cabinet room in Washington, not more than half, but two worlds away. As VanDeMark laments, many times, how could good men act so badly? The author is repetitive throughout his majestic opus which defaults to a lilting threnody and so he becomes irritating for the clichés which deflect original thinking.
What does it mean, to be Vietnamese? Doug Pike, an American Vietnam analyst and scholar, encapsulated the dilemma, when East meets West. ‘Nothing is ever what it seems and all straightforward explanation is to be eschewed if possible. This is how the Vietnamese have inevitably dealt with foreign occupiers. First Chinese then the French. The problem results, of course, from differing conceptual frameworks. Western heritage is Judaic monotheism, Greek esthetics (sic), Roman engineering and judicial thought … it is Kantian, geometric and rational. The Vietnamese heritage is circuitous, amorphous, and multidimensional.’ (Doug Pike, ‘Vietnamese Voices’,Dyason House papers, 1985). This may be an ethno-centric view.
Our readers will seek out references to Australia, but they will be disappointed. There are but two, as the first relates to President Ngo Dinh Diem and his unpopular younger brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu. ‘Diem had summoned the Australian ambassador (Brian Hill) and asked if his government would issue an invitation to the Nhus to visit the country. Nothing had come of his request.’ It was overtaken by events as the two leaders were assassinated on 1 November 1963, on All Souls’ Day.
That Canberra initially supported the US involvement in Indo China is given. Australia responded to the increasing escalation and augmented its own military, naval and air commitment. By 1965, three years after the tasking of the military training team, combat boots on the ground became a reality with the despatch of the first battalion, Royal Australian Regiment to Bien Hoa. That same year, US marines landed at Danang as ground forces. True, dissenting voices were heard in both nations and they would ultimately be heeded. As casualties mounted, so did opposition to the war, as public opinion reflected it. Vietnam had become a looming electoral liability.
Australia saw the war differently than Washington did. Australia began to distance itself from American efforts in Vietnam, although they would not say so publicly. Some misguided political commentators have trumpeted that Labor pulled all our troops from Vietnam on election in late 1972. They did no such thing. The Coalition government began down-sizing the task force, with naval and air components, by mid-1971. The remaining battalions and associated supporting combat arms underwent a staged withdrawal with most home by December 1971. The residual units followed by the first quarter of 1972. The army then resumed a training role. Another fallacious trope still entertains some critics. The Coalition did not end our involvement in the war. Out of office, they had no capacity to do so, so their argument is as specious as disengenuous. The governor-general formally proclaimed our disengagement in January 1973. Australia kept a small advisory presence in South Vietnam throughout 1972. They were still covered by the Repatriation Act. It is an inconvenient truth to hold that our military role ceased by March, 1972. Some still do.
Brian VanDeMark has written a seminal contribution to the Vietnam studies project. It is a book which should be vectored towards all those veterans who participated. However, some arguably have every reason not to be reminded of the horrors they experienced. Whether in a thin set of greens in the fetid jungles, sweating it out in the glass canopy of an aircraft or in our ships at action stations conducting naval gun-fire support to allied troops or in counter-battery duels. Mostly boomers in retirement, they have time and indulgence to recall those heady days. What were they doing and why were they there? It is fatuous to say it was McNamara’s war. It was and remains a personal war as individually experienced at such a young age so long ago. It is their own war which will never end. ‘The Road to Disaster’ is not merely an American tragedy. This book will inform and educate many. It also reminds us that we need more independence in defence and foreign policy. As we shelter under the ANZUS umbrella in uncertain times, thankfully, we have not reached that stage yet.