A probing, timely study of wrong turns in the American conduct of the Vietnam War.
A historian of America’s “small wars” with a keen eye for the nuances of counterinsurgency, Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Boot (Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present, 2013, etc.) finds a perfect personification of America’s Vietnam in Edward Lansdale (1908-1987), much as Neil Sheehan did with John Paul Vann 30 years ago with his book A Bright Shining Lie. Lansdale was even less inclined than Vann to make nice with the top brass; as Boot writes, “he viewed the bureaucracy as an enemy and, by so doing, turned it into one.” Never underestimate the power of a bureaucrat to thwart one’s aims. But Lansdale, an architect of the policy shorthanded “hearts and minds,” had a number of convictions hard won in the field, including the truth that no insurgency can be resisted if it has popular support. The idea, then, is to battle official corruption—no easy task given that Boot’s narrative takes off during the coup that, to John Kennedy’s consternation, ended in the assassination of Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem—and to make sure that the leaders of villages, military cadres, and so on are worth following. Fighting corruption and bureaucracy were battles enough, to say nothing of a huge communist army. Furthermore, the American military, mistrustful of South Vietnam and packed with careerist officers, took over the fight from the people whose war it was, making it “an increasingly Americanized war” as early as 1965. Like Lansdale, Boot understands the role of nation-building in such struggles as Iraq and Afghanistan, and he takes to heart Lansdale’s pointed lesson in shunning vast compounds of invading foreigners that “overwhelm the recipients” of American aid, as happened in Vietnam and beyond.
Controversial in some of its conclusions, perhaps, as Lansdale’s arguments were in their day, and essential reading for students of military policy and the Vietnam conflict.