"Where Do We Get Such Men?"

The question posed in our title rings historical and true, and nine out of ten readers might surmise it refers to the Marines at Khe Sanh, or perhaps the boys of Pointe du Hoc, or possibly the lost battalion almost 90 summers ago in the fields of France.

But it is artifice, a quote from a movie based on James Michener’s novel, The Bridges of Toko-ri. It rings true because we think it ought to be true: because it tidies up the sordid and disjointed reality of violence in the name of a cause.

This process is behind the confidence trick of how the state mystifies and glorifies its underhanded acts. In war, we are supposed to think of Audie Murphy, or Alvin York, or Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain as typical exemplars. We should indeed think of such men, and honor their deeds. But due diligence requires we think of other men, whose acts in the name of the state, the state that acts in your name, were more important–meaning more consequential for our history.

Men like John Buchanan Floyd, Secretary of War in 1860, whose arguably treasonable acts armed an insurrection against the Constitution he had sworn to protect. Or Woodrow Wilson, possessed of messianic ego and pathological dishonesty, who fed American youth into the furnace of a senseless war even as he rammed through a supine Congress a law making criticism of himself punishable for up to ten years. Or Donald Rumsfeld, a disastrously incompetent successor to John Floyd Buchanan’s portfolio: a man who arrogantly and inflexibly defends the quagmire in Iraq because it got rid of the supposed Devil Incarnate Saddam Hussein, even as he feigns amnesia regarding his 1980s diplomatic mission to assure Saddam of U.S. support.

Where, indeed, do we get such men? Why do they always seem to choke the upper levels of government like kudzu on a Georgia hillside? What is the structural morphology of human society that ordains such creatures shall insert themselves into the body politic and determine its fate?

The latest example of such men–that is, men whose relation to their country is that of a tapeworm to the large intestine–comes to us courtesy of a conference on the Vietnam War held by the John F. Kennedy Library on 11 March 2006.

Among the array of self-justifying participants, the choicest quote was offered by former Chief of Staff to President Nixon and later Secretary of State Alexander Haig. He said that military leaders in Iraq are repeating a mistake made in Vietnam by not applying the full force of the military to win the war.

“Every asset of the nation must be applied to the conflict to bring about a quick and successful outcome, or don’t do it,” he said. “We’re in the midst of another struggle where it appears to me we haven’t learned very much.”

Haig, whose swansong in public office was a borderline hysterical (and unconstitutional) statement that he was “in charge” after the attempted assassination of President Reagan, made a sententious declaration at the Kennedy Library that sounded reasonable–until one subjects it to a moment’s analysis. Notice that once the decision for war is made according to the Haig formula, every asset of the nation should be brought to bear. But who makes the decision for war? Is it a wise one? Is it even an honest one? A skeptic would suggest that the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Incident was a fraud, as was the declaration that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

With his silence, Haig implies that Americans are supposed to give a pass to “leaders” who lie the country into war, so long as those leaders direct it like berserkers. Is it the duty of Americans only to make every sacrifice necessary (and with a GDP of over $13 trillion, there are a lot of assets to be sacrificed; unfortunately they involve our children’s standard of living), and never to question the rationale and the principle behind the war?

Haig does not expatiate on that question. Neither does he expound on precisely what it means to apply every asset. Would that mean fire-bombing? Nuclear weapons? Poison gas? These have been military means from time to time. Apparently the 57,000 U.S. military and up to two million Vietnamese deaths were not, in Haig’s mind, a sign of serious warmaking.

Really? The United States dropped more bombs on Southeast Asia than in all the theaters of war in World War II. The basso profundo roar of a B-52 arc light mission shook the earth as it rent eardrums and pulped the internal organs of those military or civilians unfortunate enough to be in the immediate vicinity. Quang Tri Province may have been the most blasted and bombed real estate in the history of war.

Millions of acres of coastal mangrove forest (protecting the shore from typhoons and anchoring the way of life of the local peasantry) were wiped out. The Agent Orange defoliation campaign was a lasting success, as the Vietnamese population’s scientifically interesting genetic mutations can attest even unto the present day. [2]

For an impressionistic portrait of a mere sideshow of the Vietnam War, we quote at length Simon Jenkins in the Times of London [3]:

“The bombing of Laos ranks among the most obscene acts of war. It was wanton destruction, power without restraint divorced from the purpose of battle, which is to take and hold territory. . . . Like medieval armies salting fields and poisoning wells, modern air forces leave behind them weapons which they know will sprout death for decades to come.

“By the time Nixon and Kissinger sent the Air Force’s ‘strategic’ B52s to the Plain of Jars in 1970–against the pleading of local commanders–the Vietnam War was lost. But punitive bombing exacted a terrible revenge on Laos, as on Cambodia to the south. Laos suffered a monsoon of destruction, with a peak of 500 sorties a day. The B52s used napalm, defoliants and weapons which, on any definition, were ‘chemical.’ They bombed the plain’s neolithic jars, like bombing Stonehenge. At night they hosed anything that moved with cannon.”

What was the physical effect of the bombing?

“The beautiful plain, in reality a long valley flanked by high karst mountains, is still a morass of craters, each containing unknown horrors. Its settlements were more blasted than the Somme, more flattened than Dresden. The 500-year-old provincial capital of Xiang Khouang saw its temples reduced to dustclouds by B52s, described afterwards as ‘looking like Hiroshima.’ Nobody knows how many people died. The only memorial I saw was to the 320 villagers of Tham Piu, forced from their homes into a cave, where a direct hit from a T28 rocket incinerated them.”

And more than three decades on, the dying persists:

“Still the war continues, killing and maiming hundreds. Every other day, someone treads on a bomb, plays with it or hits it with a hoe or a fishing line. Instantly the years roll back and blood and guts are everywhere. There are far too many bombs ever to be cleared.”

This is the war Al Haig thinks the government, which succored his bank account, fought with one arm tied behind its back. This is the war our resident wise man says the government conducted with a blameworthy excess of moral scruple.

Where indeed, in which circle of hell, do we get such men?

WERTHER is the pen name of a Northern Virginia-based defense analyst

[1] “Ex-policymakers see Vietnam errors in Iraq,” Associated Press, 12 March 2006.

[2] “The Legacy of Agent Orange,” BBC, 29 April 2005

[3] “Bombs that Turn Our Leaders into Butchers,” by Simon Jenkins, The Times of London, 17 January 2001