Twilight of the American Century by Andrew Bacevich

Reality demands pragmatism. Idealism too often is illusion or delusion. In Twilight of The American Century (University of Notre Dame Press, 504 pp. $125, hardcover; $25, paper; $10.99, Kindle) Andrew Bacevich makes the case that U.S. foreign and military policy has been flawed since before the Cold War, with mistakes accelerating since 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq.

He argues for a conservative, pro-American, non-interventionist foreign policy—while at the same time being sharply critical of President Trump and his “America First” and “Make America Great Again” policies. Still, Bacevich believes that the President is the embodiment of what millions of Americans believe about U.S. foreign policy today.

Bacevich supported Barack Obama over John McCain in the 2008 presidential election. But in this book the former Army officer, author, and Boston University history and international relations professor criticizes the Obama Administration for not a foreign policy vision. “Seldom have well-credentialed and well-meaning people worked so hard to produce so little of substance,” he writes.

Those sorts of wry comments are peppered throughout the book.

Bacevich graduated from West Point in 1969 and served for a year (1970-71) in the Vietnam War as the “misguided and unwinnable” war, as he puts it, was winding down. He saw his mission as doing everything possible to prevent the men under his command from being killed.

“It did not pay to reflect too deeply about the predicament into which the Army and the nation had gotten itself,” Bacevich writes. “The demands of duty were enough.”

He remained in the Army for two decades before becoming a senior professor at B.U. in 1998. Twilight of the American Century is a broad collection of essays Bacevich has written since 2001. They deal with “American imperialism, militarism, civil-military relations and the changing meaning of freedom.”

He acknowledges two deeply personal influences. His wife’s brother—his closest friend since high school—who “never got his life on track” after he was badly wounded in Vietnam.” And his son, Andrew Bacevich, Jr., who was killed in Iraq in 2007.

The book is organized in four sections. The first, “Poseurs and Prophets,” dissects diverse thinkers such as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Gen. Tommy Franks, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and the novelist Tom Clancy.

Essays in the second and third sections—called “History and Myth” and ”War and Empire”—critique the nation’s foreign policy and military doctrines. The fourth, “Politics and Culture” maintains—without celebration—that that the “Age of Trump” will endure long after the president retires.

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Andrew Bacevich

Even so, Bacevich offers what he terms “a new conservative agenda” that includes making common cause with “tree-hugging, granola-crunching liberals” to preserve Earth and—potentially—with “the impassioned antiwar left,” abandon the “conceit” that the United States should exercise “global leadership.” That term, he says, has become “a euphemism for making mischief and demanding prerogatives allowed to no other nation.”

Weighing in at more than 450 pages of text, Twilight of the American Century is a profoundly intellectual, provocative work. It will leave a bitter taste in the mouths of both Democrats and Republicans.

The book is a tough-minded call for liberals and conservatives to come together to “repair our democracy” in the post-Vietnam War, post-Cold War, post-9/11 era.

—Bob Carolla

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Beyond the Quagmire edited by Geoffrey Jensen and Matthew Stith

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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

Dear Allyanna by Michael Lee Lanning

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After receiving a diagnosis of terminal kidney cancer, Michael Lee Lanning decided he still had a mind full of knowledge that he wanted to share. At the time, he had written twenty-five non-fiction books on the Vietnam War, other aspects of military history, sports, and health. Many were big sellers.

As a result of his response to the diagnosis, Lee Lanning has written Dear Allyanna: An Old Soldier’s Last Letter to His Granddaughter (Hardy Publishing, 238 pp., $18.95, paper).

The book relates ideas and experiences he had yet to share with his offspring. Granddaughter Allyanna became the vehicle for transmitting information that alphabetically ranges from “Abortion” to “Zen.”

The length of each discussion stretches from one sentence to fourteen pages. Lanning has fun with lists such as “Things That I Like” followed by “Things That Irritate Me,” and “Things I Am Pretty Sure Of,” followed by “Things I Still Have Questions About.”

Growing up on an isolated West Texas ranch and serving in the U.S. Army provide background for much of his advice. During 1969-70, he led a 199th Light Infantry Brigade platoon and then a company in the Vietnam War, eventually retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1988. He blends first-hand accounts of the fury of firefights and of 2008 Hurricane Ike with topics such as “Books I Didn’t Write,” “Psychotherapy,” and “Race Relations.”

He favors liberal-leaning values and dismisses undeserved recognition of authority such as a bow or curtsy to royalty based only on birthright. At the same time, he scatters tidbits of conservative guidance. At heart, Lee Lanning is a self-made realist who evaluates his seventy-year-plus journey through life to cull the pros and cons for lessons that simplify entry into adulthood.

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Col. Lanning

His target audience is teenagers. Occasionally his advice makes me recall Amy Vanderbilt’s New Complete Book of Etiquette, which is a good thing because Dear Allyanna sets a standard of behavior higher than normally expected of young adults.

It does so, however, without mentioning finger bowls or silver place settings. Lanning’s book might provide the exact guidance that our grand-kids need.

Practicing a regimen of “meds and treatments that nearly killed [him] before the disease could do so,” and fortified by a diet that defies imagination, he beat cancer and is alive today.

Dear Allyanna nicely wraps up Lee Lanning’s two Vietnam War memoirs: The Only War We Had: A Platoon Leader’s Journal of Vietnam, and Vietnam, 1969-1970: A Company Commander’s Journal.

Lanning’s website is michaelleelanning.com

—Henry Zeybel

JFK: The Last Speech edited by Neil Bicknell, Roger Mills, & Jan Worth-Nelson

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October 1963 was a tumultuous month for John F. Kennedy. Contentious negotiations over Civil Rights and tax-reform legislation occupied the president, as did the increasingly troublesome war that was brewing in Vietnam. High-risk plans to overthrow South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem were gaining momentum.

Not surprisingly, on October 26, 1963, when Kennedy spoke at Amherst College at the groundbreaking of the Robert Frost Library, he said: “The problems which this country now faces are staggering, both at home and abroad. We need the service, in the great sense, of every educated man or woman.”

The text of that convocation address is included in JFK: The Last Speech, edited by Neil Bicknell, Roger Mills, and Jan Worth-Nelson (Mascot Books, 363 pages. $27.95).

The book—along with a film of the same name—is the 50th reunion project of Amherst’s class of 1964. The book is made up of remembrances by members of that class who were on campus when JFK visited, along with a wide range of other material. That includes the typescript of an early version of the speech (drafted by the scholar and White House adviser Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.) with Kennedy’s handwritten edits; and articles by the literary critic Jay Parini, the actor/director and environmentalist Robert Redford, and the historian Jon Meacham.

The October 26 address gained resonance in the wake of the earth-shaking events of November 22, 1963. The president’s assassination, his Frost Library remarks, and his famed Inaugural Address (“Ask what you can do for your country….”) melded in the minds of Amherst students, many of whom chose various ways to serve to their country.

Rip Sparks, for example, who joined the Peace Corps, writes that people would tell him that that was “a good way to avoid the draft,” but “it wasn’t that at all.” Gene Palumbo became a conscientious objector and worked with the Urban Action Task Force in Harlem.

Thomas P. Jacobs, Jr. contributes an essay about his service in the war, “My Year in Vietnam with MILHAP Team 20.” In it, he writes: “I received my [draft] notice from the Army toward the middle of my second year of residency in internal medicine at Columbia University, early in 1970. According to the Army, I would be going to Vietnam that summer.”

JFK-at-State-Dept-cropped-1Jacobs opposed the war, but volunteered for the Military Provincial Health Assistance Program. Posted to the Central Highlands, he treated patients at the Kontum Province hospital. Especially gratifying was the chance to work most evenings at a second facility, a large mission hospital that treated Montagnard villagers who, Jacobs notes, “were usually victims of discrimination at the Vietnamese-only province hospital.”

Today Dr. Jacobs wonders if he may have played a small role “in prosecuting and perhaps prolonging the war.” On the other hand, he believes that he is a better person for his Kontum experience and that he saved many lives.

“Best of all,” he concludes, “I recall on an almost daily basis the warmth and welcome of the Montagnards, who may have been the last people on earth to love all Americans.”

The book’s website is jfkthelastspeech.org

–Angus Paul

The Philosophy of War Films edited by David LaRocca

David LaRocca is a university professor specializing in the philosophy of film. When I opened his book, The Philosophy of War Films (University Press of Kentucky, 538 pp., $30, paper; $45, hardcover), I hoped it would have an essay on the large number of films dealing with the Vietnam War. I scanned the table of contents and soon discovered this book did not.

The closest it came was a long, scholarly article on the war films of Werner Herzog, the most important living film director my age or older. So that made me happy. There are essays on Iraq war films, Israeli war films, and World War II films. And one on Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Vietnam War movie, Apocalypse Now.

I found the prose turgid and hard to struggle through. In fact, most of the book seemed that way to me. I decided that this was not a book written for folks like me. This is a serious book.

The article on Werner Herzog, “Profoundly Unreconciled to Nature:  Ecstatic Truth and the Humanistic Sublime in Werner Herzog’s War Films,”  runs forty-five pages and includes five pages of footnotes. David LaRocca, the editor of this book, is the author.

All the criticism you’ll ever need about Herzog’s war films is well-covered in this essay. I highly recommend it—and this book. Of course, there is lots of information on the Vietnam War films of other directors scattered throughout this big, thick book. The excellent index will help you locate that information by searching the titles of the films, the names of the directors, or the name of the war.

I found some great quotations about the Vietnam War in an essay entitled “General Patton and Private Ryan: The Conflicting Reality of War Films and Films about War” by Andrew Fiala, who chairs the Philosophy Department at Fresno State University. The eternal question about whether or not a war film is intrinsically antiwar because of what is shown on the screen is debated. Because the Vietnam War cannot be easily viewed as a just war in the way people look at World War II, it makes it difficult to see a Vietnam War film as antiwar. But folks persist in doing just that.

If you are interested in reading about the concept of apocalypse as it applies to the Vietnam War, read Bard College Philosophy and Aesthetics Prof. Gary Haagberg’s essay, “Apocalypse Within: The War Epic as Crisis of Self-Identity.”  And then there’s “Vernacular Metaphysics: On Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line,” by Robert Pippin,  a Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought in University of Chicago’s Philosophy Department. This is a pip of an essay on Terry Malick’s excellent movie.

Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall), the man who loved “the smell of napalm in the morning” in Apocalypse Now

I believe the essay that tops them all is D’Youville College English Professor Joshua Gooch’s “Beyond Panopticism: The Biopolitical Labor of Surveillance and War in Contemporary film.” Things in that essay will give you pause.  If you’re like me, you’ll read some sentences three or four times and you might scratch your head.

Robert Bugoyne’s essay, “The Violated Body: Affective Experience and Somatic Intensity in Zero Dark Thirty” will cause you to reflect on what the deeper meanings of “somatic” really are. I had to rethink my opinion of that film. It’s a brutal one, so it should have been no surprise to me that it provoked a brutal essay from Burgoyne, a University of St. Andrews Honorary Professor in Film Studies.

I didn’t get any “blood satisfaction” from the essay, no more than I did from the film itself. I feel a need now to see the film again to take further stock of it. I guess that’s a tip of the hat to the power of the essayist.

This paperback edition is much cheaper than the hardcover, which I suppose is meant to make this collection of essays available to the average person in the street. That is, if he or she has ready access to a copy of Webster’s Unabridged.

Good luck with this valuable book of essays.

—David Willson

The Displaced edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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“What is a refugee like?” asks the author Vu Tran, who fled Saigon as a child and grew up in Oklahoma. He poses that question the timely and moving book, The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives (Abrams, 190 pp. $25, hardcover; $15.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle), edited by the award-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Vu Tran offers three answers. Like an orphan, bereft of “the familial bonds of her homeland, her native community and culture and customs.” Like an actor, who often “is one person at home and another person at work or at school or simply in public.” Like a ghost, who “can be invisible even though her presence is felt.”

Viet Nguyen is himself a refugee, having left Vietnam with his family in 1975 at the age of four. Three years later the family settled in California. He has gone on to a distinguished career: professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California; 2017 MacArthur Foundation fellow; and the recipient of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his Vietnam War-heavy novel, The Sympathizer.

“I believe,” Viet Nguyen writes in his introduction, “in my human kinship to those 65.6 million people that the United Nations classifies as displaced people. Of these, 40.3 million are internally displaced people, forced to move within their own countries; 22.5 million are refugees fleeing unrest in their countries; 2.8 million are asylum seekers. If these 65.6 million people were their own country, their nation would be the twenty-first largest in the world.”

The book originated with the publisher, Viet Nguyen explained during a recent wide-ranging recent interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books:  “The editor there is Jamison Stoltz, and he came at me out of the blue, said, ‘I want to do a book about refugees.’ This was around the time Trump’s Muslim ban had been announced. He came up with half the writers, and I came up with half the writers. The criterion we used was that they had to be refugees and writers.”

Abrams is donating a portion of the book’s profits to the International Rescue Committee.

The seventeen contributors were born in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chile, Ethiopia, Germany, Hungary, Iran, Mexico, the Soviet Union, Thailand, Vietnam, or Zimbabwe, and settled—often with several stops on the way—in Canada, England, Pakistan, South Africa, and the United States.

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Viet Nguyen

“All of these writers are inevitably drawn to the memories of their own past and of their families,” Viet Nguyen writes. “To become a refugee is to know, inevitably, that the past is not only marked by the passage of time, but by loss—the loss of loved ones, of countries, of identities, of selves. We want to give voice to all those losses that would otherwise remain unheard except by us and those near and dear to us.”

It is, he concludes, “a writer’s dream, that if only we can hear these people that no one else wants to hear, then perhaps we can make you hear them, too.”

–Angus Paul

  Other Dreams by Marc Levy

Former Vietnam War Army Medic Marc Levy’s Other Dreams (Telegraphos Press, 361 pp., $18, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is another amazing book from the author of Dreams, Vietnam and How Stevie Nearly Lost the War. I never figured that Levy would produce a dream record to top his first book in this series. But he has done it—in spades.

“You are about to read a rare and valuable gift to human understanding and to dream research,” G. William Dormhoff, the author of The Emergence of Dreaming, says of Levy’s new book.

This is an understatement. Levy has endured PTSD for most of the last fifty years. I can’t help but think of something my mom told me thousands of times when I was growing up. “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” If Marc Levy has done that here by writing about some 250 of his dreams, this lemonade is the best drink ever created from the swamp water of war.

The best friend any survivor of war can have is a dog, and Levy’s first book presented dogs in that loving context. This book, though, boggled my mind with dog references: dogs in general were encountered dozens of times, but also specific dogs—pit bulls, talking dogs, three-hundred-pound dogs, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Shepherd-setter mixes, Huskies, a big blue dog, Siberian Huskies, seal pups, a Degas dog, a huge shaggy dog, a Weimeraner, a black lab, and more.

The poet makes the statement at least once in a recorded dream, “I love dogs, too.”

My only complaint about the book is that it lacks Levy’s fabulous drawings. His word images compensate for this. But still…

Other Dreams benefits from slow, careful reading, like difficult modern poetry. Not since I read Saul Bellow’s Henderson, the Rain King, have I been so struck by the recurring motif of animals in a work of modern literature. Dogs, certainly, as mentioned above, but also cats, seals, a bull with no ears, hawks and eagles, ducks, cattle, horseshoe crabs, polar bears, foxes, butterflies, water bugs, swans, rabbits, mice, a beast man, kittens, goats, rats, ticks—and Jane Fonda.

On December 8, 2016, Levy tells us, he dreamed:

“I’m in a war zone with another person, possibly my brother, walking along a moonlit, snowy path. We pass a wide-open, snow-covered field. I say to the other person, ‘Hey buddy… hey buddy… just keep walking.’ I’m aware that at any moment we may be shot. Each time I say, ‘Hey, buddy…’ the other person tries to crowd me off the path. ‘Hey, buddy… Hey buddy,’ I say, pushing back, ‘Just keep walking.’”

This dream has elements of poetry, story, and song, and I feel fear in every line. Also, mystery and malice.

It was brave of Marc Levy to commit this dream to print, and I honor that bravery. Levy is always just one short dream away from being back in the jungles of Southeast Asia. I thank him for sharing the war he survived in that jungle. It is a scary place. 

Once you have read Marc Levy’s dream books, I recommend his classic volume of short stories, How Stevie Nearly Lost the War and Other Postwar Stories.

Stay tuned for his next work. I’ve been informed it is coming soon.

–David Willson