Entry from October 13, 2009

Some years ago, Michael Gove wrote, a propos of the emerging debate over the Iraq war, that

scientists have a phrase for the point at which the known universe ends, and a black hole begins. They call it the event horizon. In recent months it has become clear that a similar phenomenon is at work in media coverage of foreign affairs. There is a particular point at which knowledge appears to end and a huge black hole begins. It seems to occur somewhere in the 1960s. The specific event beyond which most commentators now find it difficult to see is the Vietnam War.

Now, it seems, we’re back in the same neighborhood again, as both those in favor of an escalation — the word in this context is another of the legacies of Vietnam — of American troop levels in Afghanistan and those opposed trot out rival Vietnam analogies to support their different views of the matter. But, as Mr Gove suggested back in 2005, it is not knowledge that they are bringing to the table but ignorance.

The ignorance is of two kinds. We don’t know whether, in fact, as Lewis Sorley claims in the Weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal, the fragile South Vietnamese government and army could have withstood the North Vietnamese onslaught of the Spring of 1975 with the material support of the United States that Congress had withdrawn. All we know for sure is that they couldn’t do so without it. On the other hand, neither do we know, as various anti-warriors have argued, that no politically expedient alternative to the Johnsonian escalation of the mid-1960s would have been any more successful — in other words, that our adventure in Vietnam was doomed from the start. We do, however, thanks to the benefits of hindsight, have a pretty good idea that Johnson’s policies themselves were misconceived and, therefore, doomed from the start. Add to these two kinds of ignorance a third — about what will happen in Afghanistan if we do or don’t escalate — and then a fourth — about the relevant degree of similarity between the easy equivalences of Taliban with Viet Cong and the Karzai government with that of Ky or Thieu — and the metaphor of the black hole begins to look even more appropriate.

Since the analogists see in Vietnam whatever they want to see — either the “Triumph Forsaken” seen by Mark Moyar’s book of that title or the “Apocalypse Now” of Francis Ford Coppola’s dreadful, and dreadfully pretentious, movie — and not anything that represents a consensus (i.e. knowledge) the analogies themselves must be worthless. They are not a rational instrument but an expressive device, to proclaim an allegiance to one or another of the unreconciled and irreconcilable opinions — the drop-off point of knowledge — that continue to form the event horizon for our whole culture.

Yet it is, as usual, the left that gets a particular kick out of going through the motions of rational argument. Eric Etheridge in The New York Times’s “Opinionator” blog yesterday laid out the alleged argument of the analogies, ending with an approving citation of another blog run by the leftie Tom Englehardt (author of The End of Victory Culture) on behalf of the Nation Institute. Mr Etheridge doesn’t mention this affiliation, but he does William J. Astore’s essay, to be found there, so inviting us to contemplate how Mr Astore (who teaches history at the Pennsylvania College of Technology) has advanced the new art of analogization. “To whom, we may ask,” writes Professor Astore, “is Obama listening as he makes his decision on Afghanistan strategy and troop levels?”

Not the skeptics, it’s safe to assume. Not the free-thinkers, not today’s equivalents of Mary McCarthy or Norman Mailer. Instead, he’s doubtless listening to the generals and admirals, or the former generals and admirals who now occupy prominent “civilian” positions at the White House and inside the beltway. By his actions, Obama has embraced the seemingly sober, conventional wisdom that senior military officers, whether on active duty or retired, have, as they say in the corridors of the Pentagon, “subject matter expertise” when it comes to strategy, war, even foreign policy.

Good God! You mean he’s taking military advice from generals and admirals rather than some latter day equivalent of Norman Mailer? Talk about not learning the lessons of Vietnam! And yet the gentleman — who, I reiterate, teaches history — serenely goes on to ask, “What if LBJ Had Listened to Mailer in ‘65?” and finds nothing but hypothetical good results.

To be honest, I’m not sure what to make of Mailer’s analysis here, more emotionally Heart-of-Darkness than coolly rational. But that”s precisely why I want someone Mailer-esque — pugnacious, free-swinging, and prophetical, provocative and profane — advising our president. Right now.

Analogizing, it seems is only one of the ways in which we are being recommended to turn the rational into the emotional. But Professor Astore is wrong. We do have a “Mailer-esque” figure close to the President, someone who also once spoke of a “more immediate, ecstatic and penetrating mode of living.” Hillary Clinton emerges from Mr Gove’s black hole with flowers in her hair and seems to reassure us that we shall never, never be free of the 1960s and their ecstatic modes of knowing.

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