Sunday 7 November 2010

Rolling Thunder

The Vietnam War, like the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in our own era, is often mistaken for being an imperialist war. However, historically, true imperialist wars tend to be won quickly by the ruthless, dedicated imperialists, instead of resulting in interminable, humiliating defeats. What wars like Vietnam actually are is intellectual wars, in that their ultimate rationale derives from theories generated by small cabals of intellectuals in politically-motivated think-tanks, that are themselves dedicated to the maintenance and furtherance of the works of earlier politico-economic philosophers or philosophical schools.

These theories, usually derived from misdiagnosed, exaggerated or even invented threats, are packaged into narratives that derive plausibility by working backwards from the perceived "vulnerabilities" that are usually generated from status anxieties ("they hate our way of life") and are presented to politicians through avenues of influence previously established by corporate or military-industrial bodies that in turn stand to derive secondary benefit from any resulting conflict. Finally they are sold to the public in a series of soundbites ("The Domino Theory", "The Axis Of Evil", "The War On Terror" etc.) that turn what were originally obscure and/or marginal theories into self-evident Manichean inevitabilities.

In world history (as opposed to Western history) this kind of behaviour is a reliable indicator of civilisational decline, as it marks the moment where a society has reached a stage of wealth and comfort where it is unwilling to recognise or act on the principle that war, or any other sustained effort, requires sacrifice. The society therefore adopts the magical axiom that sacrifice can be replaced by intellect, as enacted in finessed strategy and/or technology. Only a nation in the intellectual stage in which belief in the efficacy of brainpower and technology is paramount could contemplate involvement in such wars, and indeed one of the principle self-deceptions involved in them is the belief that the enemy can quickly be overcome with either shock-and-awe firepower (technology), or by inserting small numbers of troops in advisory or policing roles to advance the cause of native allies (brainpower). In short, every effort is made to create and sustain the illusion that no serious sacrifice will be necessary.

"Rolling Thunder" was the name given to the United States’ air offensive against North Vietnam that commenced in 1965, and rolled along under various appellations ("Menu", "Linebacker", "Linebacker II") until 1972. From the start, the policy contained a striking contradiction in that though it was magically believed that sustained aerial bombing of infrastructure would persuade the North Vietnamese to capitulate, it was also considered that certain infrastructural facilities and defensive systems (primarily airfields) should be excluded from targeting for humanitarian or diplomatic reasons. This had two notable results. The first was that American bomber pilots had to fly to their targets at low-level and in clear conditions to accurately hit their targets, making themselves vulnerable to the Vietnamese defences. The second was that the policy clearly set itself up for expansion and compromise on the event that it’s initial targetting conventions failed to gain results.

Within a year of the beginning of "Rolling Thunder", the North Vietnamese had started to collect large numbers of downed American pilots, and this presented them with an opportunity for a propaganda coup, which they initiated by inviting the world’s media to Ho Chi Minh City, nominally to confirm that their prisoners were being well-treated, but with the real motive of re-framing the conflict in sympathy with their viewpoint.

What amazed (and even to some extent appalled) Western journalists was the enormous confidence the North Vietnamese had in their eventual victory. At first this was suspected of being some kind of bluff, but as the sheer ebullience of their hosts persisted, through every rank of official they came across, for the entire duration of their time in the capital, the realisation dawned that the Communists meant it. They really expected to win. And the basis for their confidence was simple - they knew that they were prepared to sacrifice more, to endure more, than the Americans and their allies.

The U.S. could never match the levels of sacrifice of their enemies, even though they had committed themselves far more than they had originally intended. The only way they could escalate their effort was through moral compromise; firstly by loosening their definition of what constituted an acceptable target (by taking in civilian areas), then by increasing the amount of ordnance dropped (by engaging heavy B-52 bombers) and finally by secretly breaking international law (by bombing neighbouring Cambodia). Even today, footage of the destruction wreaked by the American bombing of the Indochinese countryside provokes a kind of hypnotic awe. Like Hollywood, the United States military had become addicted to pointless pyrotechnics.

The lesson, which still hasn’t been learned, and perhaps for many deeply embedded cultural reasons, cannot be learned by Westerners, is that technology has the potential to be utterly degrading, in that it offers both diversions from, and false solutions to, problems that require true personal sacrifice to overcome. The cycle of identifying a problem, attempting to utilise an intellectual or technological method to overcome it, failing, and then blaming oneself is, I suspect, perhaps the underlying source of the terrible levels of depression that underpin technologically advanced societies. Perversely, every failure of technology only increases the almost mystical belief that modern society has in it, to the point where people even expect to be raptured away in Singularity with it.

Nevertheless, somewhere far up a river, deep in the Vietnamese jungle, one United States Army officer truly understood the latent power of self-sacrifice and the Human Will. A heretic to contemporary Western principles, he himself had to be exterminated.

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