BACKFIRE: American Culture and the Vietnam War by Loren Baritz

BACKFIRE: American Culture and the Vietnam War

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Historian and academic administrator Baritz (former acting chancellor of the State U. of New York and provost of the U. of Massachusetts at Amherst) says that after reading ""every major book and article"" about the war in Vietnam he was disappointed. Other authors ""did not explain the war, or why it happened, or why we waged it the way we did, or why we negotiated the way we did, or why it eventually became a disaster for us,"" so he sets out here to provide the answers by relating the war to ""our American culture."" As it turns out, just about everything Baritz has to offer, some of it quite hackneyed by now, can be found in those books and articles he read. Baritz's main theme is that the course and character of our involvement in Vietnam can be traced to the ""myths"" of America as a virtuous ""city on a hill"" and of technology as our particular pride and hope. Since Baritz himself quotes from Graham Greene's The Quiet American, it's hard to see how he can think that the American innocent on-the-loose, full of virtue, truth, and ignorance, is a new approach to Vietnam. We never understood Vietnam, he says, and points to such things as the widespread view among G.I.'s that the South Vietnamese soldiers were all homosexuals (because of the common practice in that part of the world for friends to hold hands) who didn't deserve American support. It's easy enough to document the instances of American disregard for Vietnamese lives, or the peer pressures upon young soldiers to show their manhood through rape, murder, and mutilation. In a narrative history of American policy toward Vietnam midway in this study, Baritz similarly has little trouble finding examples of American idealism and machismo--the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were full of both. The commitment to technology is manifest in the body-counts, battlefield censors, and sexual delight in helicopters and jets, as well as in the failure of the counterinsurgency program to grip the Pentagon imagination. A correlate of technology for Baritz is bureaucratic organization; claiming expertise, he serves up familiar ideas about interservice rivalries and corporation-man soldiers to argue that we fought the war in accordance with our ""culture"" and were therefore doomed to failure. (We would have failed trying to fight against our culture, too.) Since this is a synthesis presented as an original argument, Baritz doesn't criticize these interpretations, he just repeats them. By now we need weightier stuff.

Pub Date: March 15th, 1985
Publisher: Morrow