Wednesday, October 7, 2009

a Battle of Two Books Rages

The struggle to set the future course of the Afghan war is becoming a battle of two books -- both suddenly popular among White House and Pentagon brain trusts. The two draw decidedly different lessons from the Vietnam War. The first book describes a White House in 1965 being marched into an escalating war by a military viewing the conflict too narrowly to see the perils ahead. President Barack Obama recently finished the book, according to administration officials, and Vice President Joe Biden is reading it now. The second describes a different administration, in 1972, when a U.S. military that has finally figured out how to counter the insurgency is rejected by political leaders who bow to popular opinion and end the fight. It has been recommended in multiple lists put out by military officers, including a former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, who passed it out to his subordinates.

The two books -- "Lessons in Disaster," on Mr. Obama's nightstand, and "A Better War" on the shelves of military gurus -- have become a framework for the debate over what will be one of the most important decisions of Mr. Obama's presidency.

Lesson's call number is 327.7305 G; Better's is 959.7043 S. Interesting divergence in call numbers: 300s are social sciences, 327 international relations; 950s are general history of Asia, 959 Southeast Asia.

I read (most of) "Lessons" and came away with an abiding anger at McGeorge Bundy for his arrogance. Until his very end he refused to admit the mistakes that were made, and his lack of courage in examining his own thinking.

A better war's subject heading is Vietnam War, 1961-1975 -- United States. and that has 265 entries. Lesson has numerous subject headings; the first two are United States -- Foreign relations -- Vietnam (56 entries) and Vietnam -- Foreign relations -- United States.(also 56; duplication?).

The impact of all the book-reading on the Afghanistan decision isn't clear. The administration's review of its Afghan strategy is expected to last until the end of this month, and views are likely to evolve. "A Better War" shaped the debate over the 2007 troop surge in Iraq: Military commanders and top Pentagon civilians pushed the book ardently on surge skeptics, winning important converts.

Oy. Better was written in 1999; Lewis Sorley is described in the book's bio as a "third-generation graduate of West Point" with a Ph.D. from Hopkins, who served in the Army for 20 years, taught at the Point and the Army War College, and had Pentagon staff duty, as well as civilian official duty at the CIA. The book's cover states that tit draws "on newly available information" and "revises our knowledge of the war and its conclusion." Its subtitle is "the unexamined vistories and the final tragedy of America's last years in VietNam."

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), long an advocate of the narrative detailed in "A Better War," warned that while Vietnam may appear to have some parallels to Afghanistan, the better comparison is Iraq, where many of the same commanders now managing the Afghan war learned the value of surging more troops into a battle zone. "Vietnam fell to a conventional invasion of the North Vietnamese military," Mr. McCain said. "The closest parallel to Afghanistan today is Iraq, the strategies that succeeded and the generals that succeeded."

Conventional military invasion? What about the guerrilla war?

There are striking similarities between the debates of today and yesteryear. Now, as in the 1960s, the discussion in the administration is how to best defeat a perceived national-security threat. In both periods, the U.S. had partnered with corrupt governments with tainted leaders.

For opponents of a major troop increase, led by Mr. Biden and Mr. Emanuel, "Lessons in Disaster" -- which traces the hawkish war stance and eventual disavowal of it by Vietnam-era national-security adviser McGeorge Bundy -- encapsulates their concerns about accepting military advice unchallenged.

"Bundy said we debated a number and not a use," said Gordon M. Goldstein, the book's author, referring to troop deployments. "That's a really critical observation which goes to the heart of what's going on right now in the White House."

A shift in focus remains anathema to commanders at the Pentagon. Gen. Stanley McChrystal voiced that view during a speech in London last week, saying he doesn't support a strategy that only focused on using unmanned drones and elite forces to track down al Qaeda terrorists.

[His] view is shared by the bulk of the senior military leadership, which has signed on to Gen. McChrystal's 66-page war assessment that calls for a large increase in force levels.

It is a view echoed by Lewis Sorley, author of "A Better War," which argues that once Gen. William Westmoreland was replaced in 1968 by Gen. Creighton Abrams, the war began to turn.

I'm going to read (some of) the book, and see. The idea that the VietNam War could have been won by the US is, was, and remains, preposterous.

Crew members ride a U.S. Chinook helicopter over the mountains after leaving Cop Cherokee base in Kherwar district in Logar province Tuesday.

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