Beyond the Quagmire edited by Geoffrey Jensen and Matthew Stith

9781574417487

One should not judge a book by its cover. In the case of Beyond the Quagmire: New Interpretations of the Vietnam War (Texas A&M University, 432 pp., $29.95), one should not judge this fine collection of essays by its title.

That’s because the title suggests that after The Making of a Quagmire (1965), David Halberstam’s seminal account of the Kennedy administration’s move into the Vietnam War;  and after –Into The Quagmire (1991), a history of Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the war from 1964-65; and even Before the Quagmire: American Intervention in Laos (2012), we can now move “beyond” the quagmire.

Beyond strives to move past the Vietnam War “morass,” the editors say, “by providing new ideas and directions,” and it is mostly successful in this regard. But these perspectives ironically deepen the muddle about the war and its remembrance, enhancing the conflict’s well-deserved reputation as “an awkward, complex, or hazardous situation.”

Editors Geoffrey Jensen and Matthew Stith—historians at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the University of Texas respectively—have compiled a collection of thirteen essays that explore many different issues, including rural development in South Vietnam under the Diem regime and the commemoration of the war through comic books. The book is divided into three sections, exploring the politics, the combatants, and the remembrance of the conflict.

The best of the essays are Nengher Vang’s treatment on the Hmong and Xiaobing Li’s review of Chinese involvement in the Vietnam War and Sino-Soviet relations. Ron Milam’s article on the role of military advisers, Susan Eastman’s on the ‘Nam comics, Doug Bradley’s on music and memory, and Heather Marie Stur’s on women, are all noteworthy additions.

Interesting perspectives, but perhaps ones that do not move beyond other scholarly work, include Martin Clemis’ essay on geography, Jeffrey Turner’s on the student movement in the South, Matthew Stith’s on the natural environment, and Sarah Thelen’s on Nixon and patriotism. The last essay would have benefited from an analysis of why antiwar activists seemed to be duped into allowing Nixon supporters to paint them as unpatriotic. Thelen’s contention that the Nixon team conceived the idea that “unity was not necessary for electoral victory” is belied by history.

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Nixon announcing the May 1970 incursion into Cambodia 

Some of the other perspectives are indeed new, but perhaps their originality underscores the limitations of their arguments. Geoffrey Stewart’s analysis on South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem’s rural development programs, for example, is solid in its review of Diem’s plans, but collapses under the weight of Diem’s despotism. The South Vietnamese government was not “struck by” the Buddhist Crisis in the summer of 1963 as he says, but had precipitated it through systematic repression. Even a forgiving understanding of Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu would not suggest that they acted in the best interests of South Vietnam’s peasants.

Geoffrey Jensen’s treatment on the lowering of standards required for induction in the military, McNamara’s Project 100,000, has a provocative but ultimately misguided thesis. Jensen misses obvious connections to the war itself: Both were conceived with the best of intentions, both were ultimately exploited and mismanaged, and neither was adequately reformed due to obdurate and selfish politicians.

In his essay on Vietnam veterans memorials, William Allison proffers a challenging thesis, contending that when the last Vietnam War veterans pass on, those men and women—and the war in which they fought—will be forgotten. Memorials are a physical manifestation to honor the sacrifice of veterans. They are not built as tourist attractions or as a means to foster oblivion about a war. If a memorial fosters solace, this is a positive thing. It does not lead to forgetting, for healing leaves a scar.

Beyond the Quagmire presents a diverse and erudite collection of compositions. It is a welcome addition and a worthy successor to 2002’s A Companion to the Vietnam War.

–Daniel R. Hart

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