Monday, October 07, 2013

Thomas E. Ricks on the Vietnam War

I'm back to my pre-Bouchercon reading, and my respect only grows for Thomas E. Ricks' The Generals. I read Ricks' sections on World War II and the Korean war for my Bouchercon panel on wartime crime fiction. Here are some excerpts from his section on the Vietnam War, the first from another author whom Ricks cites:
"From corporals to colonels, the men whose main job it is to train fighting soldiers and forge them into fighting units find themselves instead mere cogs in the vast machinery of the `system'; martyrs to the American devotion to the idea that the American businessman is the most efficient individual in the world and therefore all American institutions should be `run on business lines.'"
George Fielding Eliot on the Korean War-era U.S. Army 
"'We were beautifully managed and inadequately led,' O'Meara wrote." 
"A popular myth, persisting even in today's military, is that senior civilians were too involved in the handling of the war. In fact, the problem was not that civilians participated too much in the decision making but that the senior military leaders participated too little. President Johnson, Maxwell Taylor, and Robert McNamara treated the Joint Chiefs of Staff not as military advisers but as a political impediment, a hurdle to be overcome, through deception if necessary." 
"Unlike what happened in Hue City, the My Lai massacre has lived in in American memory — but only as an instance of a rogue platoon led by a dimwitted lieutenant. What has been forgotten is that the Army's subsequent investigations found that the chain of command up to the division commander was involved either in the atrocity or in the cover-up that followed." 
"They were led by Lt. Calley, a short, pudgy 1963 dropout from Palm Beach Junior College who had drifted into the Army while down on his luck in Albuquerque and has somehow been sleeked to be an officer." 
That last bit exemplifies one of Ricks' main strengths as a writer. Ricks is a reporter, but his touches of color are light years beyond the typical hyperventilating to which most journalists resort when they follow the dreary rule that says they must humanize their stories by giving the reader more than just process. Ricks' description of Calley could be the sketch of a character in a neo-noir novel.

(Here are my previous posts about The Generals. Click on the link, then scroll down.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Blogger John McFetridge said...

Looks good, Peter, I'm going to get the book. I've been reading a lot about the Vietnam war lately, mostly from the point of view of men who came to Canada rather than be drafted.

I guess it's kind of obvious to say that America has always been very divided, but I did find it interesting how much pro-war pop culture there was. For some reason Buffalo Springfield and Bob Dylan seemed to have survived longer than this kind of thing:

October 07, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's a stunningly good book. And it's no vindication of anyone's one-sided anti-military views, either. The earlier chapters filled me with respect for Marshall, Eisenhower, Ridgway, and other good generals, and the difficult work they have to do.

As to that sick song you cited (the Wikipedia article about Calley says, among other things, that that man of peace, Jimmy Carter, declared a clemency day for Calley and asked all Georgia drivers to drive with their lights on all day). I think Calley was the only man convicted for his role in My Lai, yet Ricks makes it clear that many officers up the chain of command were to blame.

The lesson? The upper military and political classes were content to let the guilty walk and to let all kinds of ugliness, like that perverted song, fester in the name of protecting their own asses.

October 07, 2013  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

I trust your opinion on writing style, but I'm afraid I've never been able to find much interest in military non-fiction (aside from an uncharacteristic fascination with all things Boer War).

October 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

To each his or her own, but this is no mere dissection of military strategy and tactics. It has much to say about the state of the U.S., in this case by way of the military. I, too, never any special interest in military matters until I read this book.

October 19, 2013  
Anonymous tom ricks said...

Thanks! It is nice for an author to come across an appreciative reader. I especially like that you focussed on the Vietnam section of the book, which I think is one of its best parts, yet got little mention in reviews.
Tom Ricks

October 24, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the comment, and congratulations on that splendid book. One is tempted to resurrect the truism about Americans having little respect for history, but in this case it's hard to blame reviewers for thinking more about Iraq and Afghanistan than about Vietnam.

Still, you'll be pleased that I started reading Dereliction of Duty today based on your approving citations.

I should mention that I was pleased to read Vernon Loeb's name in the acknowledments to The Generals. He's a former colleague of mine in Philadelphia.

October 24, 2013  

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