Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Be Careful With Hitchens

A few weeks ago I wrote about Christopher Hitchens in a comment on a post about his spat with Juan Cole. Here is what I said about the much-bandied about theory of Hitchens' conversion from the political left to political right:

I don't get why Hitchens is so hard to understand: he was, is, and always will be a Trotskyite. He's a communist, and as a good communist, he hates fascism and religion. He always has. He sees the Islamic terrorists and their state sponsors as fascists and/or religious fanatics who also happen to be trying to kill us, so he hates them and doesn't have much time for those who do not hate them. He's been consistent all along.
Now check out Hitchens' Slate column from Monday, "The Hell of War: Why Haditha isn't My Lai." Hitchens notes that the American technology and rules of engagement in Vietnam were very different from the technology and rules of engagement in Iraq, which is true enough.

Then he continues:

The other difference, one ought not need add, is that in My Lai the United States was fighting the Vietcong. A recent article about the captured diary of a slain female Vietnamese militant (now a best seller in Vietnam) makes it plain that we were vainly attempting to defeat a peoples' army with a high morale and exalted standards. I, for one, will not have them insulted by any comparison to the forces of Zarqawi, the Fedayeen Saddam, and the criminal underworld now arrayed against us. These depraved elements are the Iraqi Khmer Rouge. They have two methods of warfare. One is the use of random murder to create a sectarian and ethnic civil war—perhaps the most evil combination of tactics and strategy it is possible to imagine. The other is the attempt to alienate coalition soldiers from the population.
A fair enough description of the depravity of the enemy in Iraq today, but I suspect his account of the Vietnamese enemy might raise a few eyebrows, as well it should.

First off, keep in mind that Dang Thuy Tram was a North Vietnamese national who had come down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to treat North Vietnamese soldiers, which means she was almost certainly attached to the North Vietnamese Army, not the Vietcong. That is, she was part of a regular foreign invasion force from North Vietnam into South Vietnam. As such, what she writes about morale has nothing to do with the morale of the Vietcong in the years 1968-1970, when most indications were that it was flagging pretty badly.

Second, and more important, is Hitchens' "exalted standards" of the Vietcong bit, and his outrage that the Vietcong could possibly be compared to the terrorists in Iraq. Here is part of a paragraph from the working draft of my current project, describing Vietcong victories in South Vietnam in the early years of the American part of the war:

The communists enjoyed this success in the South in large part because they employed terror techniques on the population. They eliminated resistance in villages through intimidation and brutal violence. John Prados describes how the Vietcong dealt with the opposition from local landlords early on in the war: “The landlords were beheaded as an example to others. After that, the Viet Cong could come and go as they pleased….” Vietcong units regularly threw grenades into crowds and vehicles, fired small arms into villages at night, assassinated and kidnapped village leaders and teachers, and burned down sections of villages. The Americans estimated that in 1965 alone over 12,000 civilians were kidnapped or killed as part of some 36,000 attacks on the Vietnamese people.*
Sound familiar?

I have no doubt that Dr. Tram's diary is a moving testament to the barbarity of war and her fervor to the cause. And indeed the New York Times article that Hitchens links quotes one passage from the diary that reads:

"Later, if you are ever able to live in the beautiful sunshine with the flowers of Socialism," wrote Dr. Tram, addressing herself, "remember the sacrifices of those who gave their blood for the common goal."
No doubt such committed communism touched Hitchens and led him to his flight of fancy about the nature of the communists in Vietnam. That said, the fact that he is so inclined to whitewash the Vietnamese communist record should serve as notice to those who would mistake his zeal in the War on Terror as an indication of a swing to the right.

Hitchens is on the correct side in this war--and we can use his sharp pen--but keep in mind that he's always had an agenda that most hawks would find disagreeable, to put it mildly.


* The Prados quotation comes from his book Blood Road, p. 21. The rest of the information comes from United States Mission in Vietnam, “Viet Cong Use of Terror,” March 1967, Virtual Vietnam Archive, accessed 2 March 2006. See also Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 272-279.

For the sake of clarity, let me point out that I conclude the paragraph: "It did not help that early on in the war, the Americans and the various inefficient South Vietnamese regimes did little to earn the trust of the village population in the South. Instead of protecting them from the Vietcong, they rounded up the villagers into concentration camps called strategic hamlets, or did great damage to villages with indiscriminate or unobserved bombing or bombardment."

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