Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Book Review: American Reckoning by Christian G. Appy

American exceptionalism - the belief that Americans really are different [read: better] than the rest of the world is an idea that is older than the country itself. In American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity, Christian G. Appy takes aim at that concept and how [according to him] it led us into Vietnam and guided us in the 50 years thereafter. It's safe to say that there won't be any book signings for Mr. Appy - a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst - at your local VFW anytime soon.

Appy defines American exceptionalism as the belief that Americans are inherently good; act with only the best of intentions; and - most importantly - that an American life holds more value than any other human life. Appy argues that this hubris remains as strong in 2015 - if not stronger - than it did in 1975 when the last U.S. personnel left Vietnam.

One of Appy's main goals in writing this book is to debunk what he sees as the numerous 'myths' surrounding Vietnam. Among those:

*The U.S. dropped a disproportionate number of bombs on South Vietnam during the war, as compared to those dropped on North Vietnam. For one thing, according to Appy, while the bombing of North Vietnam lasted from 1965-68 and again in 1972, the bombing of South Vietnam lasted the length of the war [1962-75].  As such, again according to Appy, the United States dropped 4,000,000 tons of bombs on South Vietnam, compared with 1,000,000 tons on North Vietnam.  Indeed, Appy claims that no other country in world history has been attacked with as many bombs for as long as South Vietnam was - at the hands of the United States of America.

*According to Appy, a search of the New York Times database from 1851-1946 using the phrase "Communist aggression" yields exactly 8 articles.  As you would expect, it then jumps after 1946-1960 to 2,714 articles. What's amazing, though, is that during what was claimed by American officials to be a major war whose purpose was to fight that communist aggression - the phrase appeared in only 833 articles from 1961-1975.

*Appy argues that it is a myth that - had he lived - President John F. Kennedy would not have gone full-bore into Vietnam like President Lyndon Johnson did. Obviously, we'll never know. But if you can predict a man's future behavior based on a study of his previous actions and reactions, Appy makes the believable case that JFK was just as firm as LBJ in his belief that he would not be known as the President who "lost" Vietnam.

*Appy places the blame for the Cuban Missile Crisis almost solely on Kennedy. Putting aside his almost universally-praised handling of the crisis once it started, Appy said that JFK blamed himself for boxing America in. Before even knowing about the missiles, Kennedy had said that the U.S. would not tolerate nuclear missiles on Cuba. Once the presence of the missiles was known by the government, Kennedy's own national security team considered the missiles a 'domestic political problem" not a military problem.  Indeed, no one on the secret Executive Committee [ExComm] thought the missiles in Cuba meant that Americans faced any greater threat to their lives than they had before the missiles were in Cuba. The world was just as dangerous with or without the missiles. But JFK had publicly stated he wouldn't tolerate the missiles. If he backed down now, JFK feared, he'd be viewed by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and - worse, by his own people - as a 'paper tiger'

Small cracks in the belief in American exceptionalism occurred years before Vietnam.  But the first significant change occurred in September 1965 when U.S. Senator William Fulbright [D, Ark.] addressed the Senate for two hours to denounce a U.S. Cold War policy based on the idea of American exceptionalism.  Appy claims it was one of the first times that a member of the establishment publicly questioned the validity of both the policy and the idea that underpins American exceptionalism. Appy cites Fulbright's speech as a major epoch - the start of a change that led to the eventual backlash against the war and even against the United States by its own people.

The following year, Fulbright chaired televised hearings on both the war and the Cold War policies of the U.S.  One of the witnesses was George Kennan who - as a U.S. diplomat 19 years earlier - had written a seminal article that coined the term 'containment'.  In that article Kennan wrote that U.S. policy should be a long and firm "containment of Russian expansive tendencies." Now, however, in 1966 Kennan would say that, "The spectacle of Americans inflicting grievous injury on the lives of a poor and helpless people ...is profoundly detrimental to the image we would like [the world] to hold of this country."

As indicated by the second half of the subtitle of the book, "The Vietnam War and our National Identity", Appy looks beyond Vietnam to how we currently identify ourselves.  He argues that the belief in American exceptionalism is alive and well. A significant staple of this argument is the most controversial aspect of Appy's book - the way he looks at the American veteran. According to Appy, we have raised the American soldier to exalted status. Without even thinking, when we see a soldier we are programmed to say "Thank you for your service to our country" without knowing exactly what that 'service' was. Without knowing  what - if any - killing they did, whether they killed innocent civilians. Without knowing anything.

This was particularly true after 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Appy argues that 9/11 restored any cracks in the edifice of American exceptionalism. President George W. Bush couched the invasion of Iraq not only as a preemptive strike against Saddam Hussein's 'weapons of mass destruction' but as the United States coming to the aid of an oppressed people with the aim of helping them establish a democracy. Throughout both wars, whenever U.S. soldiers did commit atrocities or violated the Geneva Convention - something that Appy neglects to mention occurs in any war ever fought in world history - American exceptionalism remained intact by ascribing these as the acts of "a few bad apples" being responsible. Instead, Appy argues, whether it is in Vietnam or Afghanistan, American soldiers have acted no differently than German soldiers did in World War II.

To buttress the idea of American exceptionalism in the face of these atrocities, a key phrase was born: "This is not who we are". This became a mantra repeated by American officials time and time again.  When six American soldiers burned at least 100 copies of the Koran in February 2012,  U.S. General John Allen said, "This is not who we are." When an American soldier entered two villages in Kandahar [Afghanistan] in March 2012 and killed 16 civilians, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, "Like many Americans, I was shocked and saddened by the killings of innocent Afghan villagers this weekend..... This is not who we are."

Indeed, Appy points out that - even when U.S. officials acknowledge the wrongdoings of U.S. soldiers, it is in the context of how the act(s) damages America - not how it damages the victims. Essentially, Appy argues, when lecturing U.S. soldiers on why they should not commit these acts, they are told not to do so because it will undermine the idea of American exceptionalism.

And that, according to Appy, is who we are.

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