Fighting Intangible Enemies

“Never before did the people of Vietnam, from top to bottom, unite as they did during the years that the U.S. was bombing us.”

— Tran Quang Co, Vietnamese diplomat

Addison WigginDear Reader,

Even virtual reality offers no escape from the reality of 9/11 remembrances.

Earlier this week, we warned that the airwaves were about to be inundated with one-sided recollections of the terrorist attacks. Sure enough, all the Today show could talk about this morning was the impending anniversary.

Later we learned that even video game systems have joined in on the grim nostalgia.

Last night one of our staffers fired up his Oculus VR headset, no doubt intending to shoot robots, slay dragons or whatever else one does in 3D cyberspace. The second he logged on, however, he was presented with an advertisement for a brand-new “immersive” experience — a short documentary about the last survivor pulled out of the Twin Towers’ rubble.

Overcome with morbid curiosity, he sat through the 20-minute film. “I’d never heard this story,” he explains. “Not sure I needed to see the second plane strike in 3-D to relive the horror of it all, though.”

Those lingering memories of the burning towers are the reason Americans so readily backed U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. The words “9/11” were all the justification needed to keep the military there for the next 20 years.

The 9/11 planners, at least, provided a more visceral enemy than the boogeyman that drove the Vietnam war — communism.

In 1954 — just after the French had their croissants handed to them at Dien Bien Phu — President Dwight Eisenhower warned that the fall of French Indochina would give communists a foothold. As the ideology took root in one country, he said, it would spread to all the others… and soon all of Asia would be under red flags.

This “domino theory,” as it became known, was so popular that it crossed political party lines. Today, the idea is about as fashionable as poodle skirts or brogues with spats… mostly because it doesn’t make a lick of sense.

How could anyone believe that a state — an abstract as well as physical thing — of 35 million people (in 1965) of various cultures, languages, religions, ethnic and racial groups, political preferences, modernization and sexual preferences, living in a land of 127,000 square miles (about the size of New Mexico), including mountains, swamps, beaches, plains, jungle, hamlets and cities, could be understood as a small, three-dimensional object painted in two colors?

The idea was not stupid. It was just absurd. Einstein had said that things should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler. America’s empire builders of the 1960s had gone too far. It was as if they had simplified the Old Testament as: “Jews kick butts in the Holy Land.”

They had lost the nuances and details that made it interesting.

Whether Laos or Cambodia would be affected by events in Vietnam, no one could say. But what they could say with complete assurance was that Vietnam was not a domino.

If proximity caused nations to change their political systems, why hadn’t West Germany become like East Germany? Why did Switzerland keep its federal system when it was surrounded by centralized governments?

And who ever heard of dominoes that fell only in one direction? If the presence of a communist South Vietnam might cause Thailand to topple toward communism, mightn’t the presence of Thailand on its border cause South Vietnam to topple toward constitutional monarchy?

Perhaps most importantly of all, if the people of Southeast Asia wanted to “go communist,” who were we to tell them not to? It was only because America presumed itself to be an empire that the question even came up. Empires are involved in constant warfare — the struggle to control vassal states on the periphery.

Typically, they do so to maintain order throughout the empire, as well as to obtain new sources of tribute. But our answer presumes a logic that isn’t there. Empires fight for dominoes — not for any particular, logical reason, but merely because they are empires.

Could not Vietnam have been independent, but neutral in the Cold War? Why did it matter anyway; Vietnam was still a primitive, mostly agricultural nation. Whichever side gained her allegiance, what did they gain?

Nobody ever seemed to ask — either themselves or the other side.

In retrospect, it looks as though the whole conflict — or at least the bloodiest part — could have been avoided, simply by sitting down and exploring a few issues. But the lunkheads running U.S. foreign policy at the time did not even bother to ask. It was arrogance, no doubt, that prevented anyone from seriously considering conversation as an alternative to brute force.

In the end, the United States was fighting an ideology — not an actual enemy. But the harder it fought, the more misery the Vietnamese people suffered… giving them a reason to embrace the opposite of whatever was causing them to suffer.

Again, it’s easy to see how these mistakes were repeated in Afghanistan. Terrorism is a tactic, not a physical foe. Sure, we needed to go after the guys who planned 9/11. But did we need to overthrow the Taliban to achieve that goal?

Yes, said the American empire builders… who eagerly leapt at the chance to try once again to remake a country in its own image.

Regards,

Addison Wiggin

Addison Wiggin
Founder, The Financial Reserve

Addison Wiggin

Addison Wiggin

Addison Wiggin is founder and executive publisher of Agora Financial LLC, an independent economic forecasting and financial research firm. He and Bill Bonner began writing the firm’s flagship Daily Reckoning in the midst of the tech boom and bust. It was one of the first widely distributed email newsletters on the Internet. The publication’s critical eye on finance and economics continues today. He’s also creator and editorial director of Agora Financial’s daily missive The 5 Min. Forecast.

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