Wednesday, June 18, 2008

What's Past Is Prologue

Matt Weiner, who I didn't know had a blog of his own, points us towards this fascinating review by Rick Perlstein of a book called Jane Fonda's War. I had my own brushes with the Fonda demonology when I went door to door for Kerry--I didn't know then that she was called by the Lost War Boys "Kerry with tits" but I kind of got the feeling that if Fonda came up in the conversation the sad loser at the door wasn't planning on voting for the Democrat when blood was our argument. There's so much in this review, and in the book, that it merits a thorough reading but this caught my eye: More...

Nixon saw a way to bend American rage to his own ends. The pawns he used were people like Fonda, and American prisoners of war. The lot of American prisoners in Hanoi was in many ways worse than that of other pows in the 20th century. The enemy, pointing to America’s refusal to declare war, declared themselves outside the requirements of the Geneva Conventions. They tortured prisoners, at least until 1970, when, most experts agree, international pressure brought such treatment to an end. The lot of those incarcerated in the prisons of America’s South Vietnamese allies, however, was demonstrably worse. They were kept in ‘tiger cages’ that turned them, year by year (according to Time magazine, a reliably pro-Saigon organ, on their release in 1973), into ‘grotesque sculptures of scarred flesh and gnarled limbs . . . skittering across the floor on buttocks and palms’.

Of course our response as a country was to ignore the Geneva Conventions too--refusing to declare war being just one of the things we did in order to refuse to bring the conflict under any kind of rules of engagement. Its when the country started to protest, and people started to grasp the enormity of what was being done in our name, that the Nixon-war-at-home kicked into high gear with the army/troops used (and not for the last time) as the front men in an assault on fellow citizens and their patriotism:

The tiger cages were exposed by the anti-war movement in 1969, the first year of Nixon’s presidency. Shortly afterwards, the Vietcong released two American prisoners. The Pentagon sent them on tour after briefing them to tell stories of torture that journalists demonstrated could not have been true. Lieutenant Robert Frishman said he’d been starved, for example, but he weighed the same after 18 months in the US as he did when he left captivity. Melvin Laird, the defense secretary, told stories of unmitigated horror. Seymour Hersh uncovered a Pentagon letter to pow families reassuring them that this was only a stratagem: ‘We are certain that you will not become unduly concerned over the briefing if you keep in mind the purpose for which it was tailored.’ Hersh also quoted something about Lieutenant Frishman that is key to understanding the Fonda cult as it emerged. An official suggested why Frishman was so useful to the government: ‘He played ball the most’ with his captors, ‘and therefore was the most torn.’ He’d stabbed himself in the back, and was ready to do his penance.

There's an old saying--"twelve white horses and a golden candelabra can't stop it from snowing in Vladivostock." In other words, truth will out. The POW's were not all coming to the conclusion that the main problem was that we weren't bombing enough stuff.

By the time Fonda visited pows in Hanoi in 1972, many more were ‘playing ball’. Using the evidence of their senses, they had turned against the war – especially the bombing war that they, as captured pilots, had themselves prosecuted. Hershberger argues convincingly that ‘by 1971, as many as half of the officers in Hanoi were openly disillusioned about the war.’ Two months before Fonda went to Hanoi, and weeks after the most brutal bombing raids on North Vietnam since the spring of 1968, a group of pows sent a letter to ‘the United States Congress and to all Americans’ demanding a negotiated settlement to end the war. Stockholm Syndrome? Perhaps to some extent. Certainly not torture. These were college-educated, accomplished men, leaders, in a unique position to evaluate the assumptions of the American bombing strategy on its own terms – which were that it would destroy the will of the enemy and make possible an orderly American retreat. ‘No bombing of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam serves to make the withdrawal of American forces any safer,’ they wrote: ‘it only makes it more likely that they cannot be withdrawn at all’ and ‘risks the death and capture of many more Americans, as well as endangering the lives of those already held captive’.

Its often forgotten that the war at home was a "war" because the Government insisted that on it--insisted on the language and tactics of war at home, on the protesters, their families, and their motives and their lives. And that that was in defence of an incredibly unpopular war that by democratic means--the vote--the people had essentially already voted to abandon. People had voted Nixon in precisely because he said he had a "secret plan for peace" and not only didn't he deliver but he violated the implicit bargain with the voters:

May 1970 was when Nixon, having won the presidency promising to draw down the war, expanded it into Cambodia instead. It was a massively unpopular move. Fonda popped up at a moment of maximum political danger, just when the president needed to isolate and destroy his critics.
The POW's who protested the war in the letter above were a devastating critique of the War from within, by soldiers and officers:

The message was devastating to Nixon’s political goals. Massive bombing of North Vietnam, enough to keep the Communists from overrunning Saigon until after the American election, was the only way Nixon would be able to sell what he was calling ‘peace with honour’. ‘Vietnamisation’ was also calculated to shut down the momentum of the anti-war movement – and, to a certain extent, it did. Stalwarts like Fonda made themselves especially dangerous to Nixon by urging that American policy was now more evil, not less. It ‘removed the war from our minds while it is being inflicted on the bodies of others’, she said, asking: ‘Will the American people say “right on,” our hands are clean because our men aren’t being killed?’

This, of course, is the predicament that we were meant to face in Iraq with the "success" of the "surge." If it resulted, which it didn't, in fewer American lives lost the self interested rationale for ending the war would be undercut. If American citizens, soldiers in Iraq and the Iraqis themselves didn't have a common interest in ending the unilateral American intervention the intervention would--and will--never end. And this of course underlies McCain's hysteria over the correct attribution of the "hundred years" quote to his campaign--only by obscuring the very existence of a state of war, an occupation, and the failure of the surge to quell violence can he get over on an already disillusioned populace. Who is our modern day Fonda? One could argue that it was Cindy Sheehan, an ordinary woman who had celebrity thrust upon her. And, like Fonda, she has been pilloried and mocked and her womanhood--in Fonda's case qua young girl, in Sheehan's case qua divorced wife and sad mother--attacked.

I was astonished to discover that Fonda's trip to Hanoi was not, in fact, as I had always assumed it to be, "for the benefit" of the North Vietnamese but was a mixture of international political consciousness raising and humanitarian intervention. It existed within the context of the ongoing bombing of the civilian infrastructure of North Vietnam--that thing we are supposed never to think about when we talk about guys like John McCain and their heroic job as bombers.

This was the reason for Fonda’s trip. Again, the timing was devastating. She arrived as US bombers appeared to be making preliminary strikes against North Vietnam’s system of dikes, which if breached would destroy farmland and starve the population. The Pentagon denied the raids. At a press conference in Paris Fonda presented film proving that they had taken place. That same day, the State Department cancelled its scheduled rebuttal. One of the diplomats laid low by the humiliation was America’s UN envoy, George H.W. Bush. ‘I think that the best thing I can do on the subject is to shut up,’ he told the press, after promising them evidence of American innocence. No wonder Nixon was keen to attack Fonda.

But after this public humilation and international scandal nothing could be left of Citizen Fonda or the anti-war movement. They had to be discredited once and for all:

Her visit to the pows provided the occasion. Fonda, who was carrying 200 letters from the pows’ families, was asked if she would like to meet any prisoners personally. All the captives she met were volunteers, all openly critical of the war. Of course this was the opposite of what the urban legends suppose: that they were tortured into seeing her. But that is the reason the urban legends exist. They are a prophylactic against the anxiety that these pows, the symbolic stand-ins for American innocence, had stabbed themselves in the back.

I'd forgotten the timing on all this but of course the entire rationale for the war-fought-by-ground-troops ought to have ended when "Nixon Went to China." Its a grand failure to connect the dots, and of any notion of accountability, that Nixon should be celebrated for the opening to China which, if he'd done it earlier or more honestly should have resulted in no need for continuing any bombing campaign or war to prevent Chinese influence in Vietnam qua satellite state. Still, one has to admire that about Nixon--there's no one smart enough in Bush's cabinet, certainly not Bush or Cheney, to go to Iran to negotiate a separate piece. Perhaps that is only because Iran is simply the next macguffin in the movie of Bush's failed manhood. In the Vietnam context, however, as the war becomes more pointless and incoherent as to goals, the White House and the administration turned their attention ever more towards the war-at-home and the war-as-domestic policy using the war and the POW's as tools in the creation of new myths of ressentiment:

The new rationale was entirely circular: we were fighting in order to protect those pows the war was creating. ‘Following the president’s lead,’ Jonathan Schell has written, ‘people began to speak as though the North Vietnamese had kidnapped 400 Americans and the United States had gone to war to retrieve them.’ The Eden this scenario presented to a guilty American conscience was too tempting to pass up – children began wearing bracelets with the names of pows stamped on them. Fonda was the Eve that threatened it.

Of course, if you remember anything about those days, this is the exact opposite of what was really going on.

The anti-war movement, Hershberger demonstrates, was good for pows. Sometimes it secured their early release. It also kept them in touch with their families, something the US government proved unwilling or unable to do: the government accommodated their needs mostly to the extent that they were useful. In one case, on learning that the Vietcong had released a prisoner, the Pentagon hurriedly sent his family a letter he had written two years earlier – two years during which his now enraged family presumed he’d been dead. The government claimed it had been studying the letter for ‘propaganda context’.

Propaganda, of course, goes both ways. The Government realized it needed to get ahead of the anti-war movement:

The pows were released in the spring of 1973 with the signing of the Paris accord – the same negotiated settlement that the anti-war pows had called for. A carefully selected group of hard-line returnees was paraded around the country in a Pentagon-scripted pageant called Operation Homecoming. These hard-liners were an interesting group. They were older officers, mostly, captured in the early years of the conflict, at a time when its insanity wasn’t quite so obvious. They treated their captivity as an extension of the battlefield. And as the mission to which they had pledged their lives collapsed around their ears, their attitude hardened, their resistance to their captors’ authority becoming ‘a mark of their personal heroism and endurance’. While the nation had been busy losing the war, they were ‘almost desperate’, Steven Roberts, the New York Times reporter who covered the repatriation, wrote, to ‘believe the Vietnam War was worth it and that the president would, in fact, gain “peace with honour”’. They were uniformed prophets of national redemption, preaching, to honour-starved congregations in America’s Knights of Columbus halls and school cafeterias, the message people needed to hear: ‘I want you all to remember,’ they said, ‘that we walked out of Hanoi as winners.’

Matt Weiner linked Perlstein's piece to this article because, of course, that is John McCain in a nutshell--a man terrified to admit that he sacrificed five and a half years of his life, the use of his arms, his first marriage and children, and his honor to a cause that was neither heroic nor just. That he was nothing more than a tool to be thrown away. Far from identifying with, say, Pat Tilman or having the courage of Kerry and even Chuck Hagel, McCain remains frozen in time, the lost boy who comes back a hero from a war he didn't actually fight.

McCain then and the younger generation, the notion of "will" and honor all come together in this sad quote from his War College Thesis (linked from the NYT article)

About a year after his release from a North Vietnamese prison camp, Cmdr. John S. McCain III sat down to address one of the most vexing questions confronting his fellow prisoners: Why did some choose to collaborate with the North Vietnamese?

Mr. McCain blamed American politics.

“The biggest factor in a man’s ability to perform credibly as a prisoner of war is a strong belief in the correctness of his nation’s foreign policy,” Mr. McCain wrote in a 1974 essay submitted to the National War College and never released to the public. Prisoners who questioned “the legality of the war” were “extremely easy marks for Communist propaganda,” he wrote.

Americans captured after 1968 had proven to be more susceptible to North Vietnamese pressure, he argued, because they “had been exposed to the divisive forces which had come into focus as a result of the antiwar movement in the United States.”

To insulate against such doubts, he recommended that the military should teach its recruits not only how to fight but also the reasons for American foreign policies like the containment of Southeast Asian communism — even though, Mr. McCain acknowledged, “a program of this nature could be construed as ‘brainwashing’ or ‘thought control’ and could come in for a great deal of criticism.”

Where was that coming from? Why, straight from the Government's playbook at the time. When the original "perfect POW's" were being paraded as a public rebuke to the dirty fucking hippies they were being contrasted with none other than "imperfect POW's" for every hero, there had to be a villain. Aain, from Perlstein's review of the Fonda book:

This made their younger comrades, the kind that met with the likes of Fonda, no better than VC sappers. They were charged with collaboration. The pows who wished to preserve their honour by maintaining that the war was wrong and that they had had a right to criticise it were cast as the agents of American defeat. One, Abel Kavanaugh, facing a court martial, shot himself. Another, David Wesley Hoffman, had been one of the pows who volunteered to meet with Fonda. He hoped to remain in the military. He met with Pentagon officials on his release; then, on 13 April 1973, all three television networks covered a news conference in which he said he’d been hung from a hook by his broken arm until he agreed to meet with her. He may also have been threatened with court martial. To this day he refuses all requests for interviews.

Parenthetically or sadly enough, his public self criticism session and the story of his "broken arm" was challenged and may not have been true.

Still, at issue for us are the lessons McCain drew from his experiences--since he proposes that his "experiences" are his main qualification for leadership. When we drill down under the romanticized, hagiographic, incantational phrase "johnmccainwasaprisonerofwarforfiveyears" we get a man who is determined to forget nothing, and to learn nothing.

Among the prisoners he was known as a "tough resister" and he deserves a lot of credit for resisting torture and the demands to collaborate. However, of course, he was not superhuman and in fact he did break, at one point:

All of the prisoners acknowledged that everyone had a breaking point. Mr. McCain’s came 10 months after he arrived. With his father taking command of the Pacific Fleet, the North Vietnamese were determined to coerce the son into denouncing the war. For four days they tied him with ropes, beat him every few hours, re-broke his arm, and left him in a pool of his own blood and refuse. Finally, he signed and tape-recorded a war crimes confession.

He recaptured his manhood and the respect of the other prisoners by finding the strength to reject his confession later and, as he puts it, he used resistance and defiance as a kind of narcotic to obscure his own feelings of guilt and self doubt.

His fellow prisoners say his capitulation only redoubled his determination to provoke his captors. “Acts of defiance felt so good that I felt they more than compensated for their repercussions,” he wrote, “and they helped me keep at bay the unsettled feelings of guilt and self doubt my confession had aroused.”

After the war he has ping ponged, personally, between recognizing that his experiences were simply on a continuum of those experienced by other prisoners and the conviction that there was some absolute standard, or absolute moment, by which prisoner's experiences and actions could be understood and condemned. For example one of his closest friends was parolled and McCain went from honoring and trusting that man to rejecting him. Others broke early but were apparently able to rehabilitate themselves in the correct amount of time for McCain to consider themselves not guilty, in some sense. The lines between McCain and the officers and men who did not resist in the way McCain thought they should resist, or who took a dimmer view of the war, or who had a different view of the duties of prisoners and officers of prisoners, were, I'd argue, part of McCain's own struggle with his position as a prisoner, as the son of a famous father, as a downed flyer, as a man who had himself bent to torture at one point. He could not forgive in others the cowardice and fear that he projected onto them from his own experiences of it.

At the War College the thesis he wrote focused on his own experience almost exclusively, and he clearly saw the country as a whole and his fellow citizens as failures because of their perceived inability to fight McCain's war as McCain thought it should have been fought, to exalt McCain qua prisoner as McCain thought he should have been exalted and, concomittantly, to debase other former POW's as McCain thought they should have been debased. From the Times Story:

Some officers fresh from Vietnam questioned the premise of the war. “The vast majority of generals who had experience in Vietnam will tell you we should never have gone past the advisory level,” said John H. Johns, a retired Army general and a student at the college that year. But in Mr. McCain’s paper, he instead focused on the failure to sustain public support for the fight. The paper was obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and provided to The New York Times by Matt Welch, an author of a book about Mr. McCain.

He cast a cold eye on the public sympathy for prisoners like himself. “Two and a half million American fighting men served in the Vietnam conflict, and more importantly 46,000 sacrificed their lives,” Mr. McCain wrote. “Yet in the latter stages of that war millions of people were more actively concerned about the plight of 565 P.O.W.’s in Hanoi than in any bigger issue of the war.”

This observation, of course, is itself a kind of myopia--"millions of people" were actually "concerned about" lots of "bigger issues" than the P.O.Ws but to McCain and other Military types the concerns of civilians, and peaceniks, and those asking why we should be fighting at all, were beside the point. Still, McCain was arguing about American elected officials and what they chose to do, not on larger questions of whether the war was worth continuing. And so he faults these American officials accusing them of:

American elected officials, he argued, had fostered a myopic focus on the prisoners by forsaking the goal of unconditional surrender in favor of a negotiated peace, enabling the North Vietnamese to turn their hostages into a bargaining chip. “Many Congressional resolutions, favorable to the enemy, were based solely on the guaranteed return of Americans from North Vietnam,” he wrote.

With prisoners returned, he argued, ambivalence about the war was protecting the minority of American prisoners “who did not keep faith with their country or their fellow prisoners.”

Court-martial charges were filed against two officers and seven enlisted men, he noted. “Probably more would have been charged if the Vietnam War had been like other wars in which this country has engaged,” Mr. McCain wrote. (Top military leaders quickly quashed charges against those nine.)

Anyone else see the circularity here? For fear of letting the North Vietnamese use the prisoners to end the war we ought to have demonstrated our intentions of never ending the war by ignoring the plight of the prisoners. Whether the war was going to be won or lost militarily utterly ceases to matter when every sacrifice is presumed to require a further sacrifice to legitimize it, and when the chief flaw of one strategy (concern for the prisoners) is that it leads to a failure to punish enough prisoners after they are no longer prisoners.

Well, I've got no ringing conclusion to this blog post. Just an observation. What's past is prologue. Somewhere in Iraq some officer or some admin staff or some blackwater jerkwater is preparing his stinging critique of how the people let him down and wouldn't fight his war the way he wanted. And somewhere less subtle and mysterious--say the AEI or the Heritage Foundation, or a vault somewhere, some Conservative deep pockets are getting ready to fund him. This lost cause shit, this "honor the troops" by insisting they continue to fight and die for the last trench, has got to stop. But it won't stop until we drive a stake through its heart. A good place to start would be with the long pathetic career of John "I collaborated but thought better of it" McCain who has been insisting that some war and some warrior, somewhere, be fought to excorsise his lost honor for far too long.