The excellent Vietnam documentary series is a reminder that we need to learn from history

The excellent Vietnam documentary series is a reminder that we need to learn from history

Picture credit: The CIA

In Ken Burns’ documentary on the Vietnam War, President Kennedy is quoted as saying: “We don’t have a prayer of staying in Vietnam.  These people hate us.  But I can’t give up a piece of territory like that to the Communists and then get the people to re-elect me.”  LBJ felt much the same.  And yet, a President who – more than Kennedy – deserved to be called great, both for the breadth of his social reform ambitions and achievements – was reviled and cast off course because of the hospital pass he inherited.

For all sorts of honourable, if misguided, reasons, he felt unable to say “No more”.  The damage to the US – its economy, its self-confidence, its social cohesion, its belief in itself as a “shining city upon a hill”, its reputation abroad was serious and long-lasting.  It was only the first Iraq war which slew Vietnam’s shadow, at least as far as US military ability was concerned.  That in turn led to a hubris which ended disastrously with the second Iraq war and its consequences.

It is bleakly ironic that Rumsfeld failed to follow his own advice about learning from previous administrations: “They know the ropes and can help you see around some corners.  Try to make original mistakes, rather than needlessly repeating theirs.”  He certainly did that, as well as the latter.  But much like previous US administrations, by seeing – or deliberately casting the issue – as part of a larger problem: the Cold War in the case of Vietnam (in reality a post-colonial civil war) or the War on Terror (in Iraq’s case) –  the US painted itself into a corner from which it was unable to extricate itself, without considerable damage.  Energy was focused on avoiding defeat and on presenting this as a victory, the original aims having long since been abandoned or forgotten.

The violence we have seen in Catalonia in 2017 is, for now, on a completely different scale and will, one hopes, stay that way.  But here too there is a central government which, by viewing the issue through one, limited – if legally and constitutionally correct – prism is in danger of missing the larger political and social reality and making a difficult situation worse.

The steps which the Catalan regional government have taken may be illegal but is it really wise to take away Catalan self-government and impose direct rule?  Is this tenable long-term and, if not, might it not be better to get to the solution sooner rather than later?  It was Seamus Mallon who described the Good Friday Agreement as “Sunningdale for slow learners”.

Pride, a desire not to reward those who behave badly, not to be seen as giving in, an insistence on one’s own rectitude can delay obvious, practical compromises.  As can a lack of courage and imaginative empathy with the other side.  And, all too often, at the expense of others’ lives.  But if a solution is right for you,  who cares whether the other side can also crow about it or claim that they’ve won some great victory over you.  Selective deafness can be as helpful in politics as it is when living with teenagers.

And so to poor Mrs May.  Whether or not reports of her dinner with Juncker are true, you’d have to be blind not to see that she is struggling with how to sell one potentially unpalatable part of what she hopes will be an overall deal, namely, Britain’s exit payment.  But a figure, however large, taken in isolation is meaningless.

What matters is the overall result, a result which because of the way the discussions have been structured may be some considerable time off.  Added to that is a lack of courage to face down those who see this as some sort of negotiating Maginot Line or as a means to advance their own position.  The brutal reality is that, whatever the inconsistencies, inanities or illegalities there may be in the EU’s demands and how often or loudly they are pointed out, Britain will have to pay for Brexit, whether as part of a divorce bill or otherwise.

And this remains the case even if the medium/long-term consequences of its decision turn out to be favourable.  There is always a price to be paid for any decision, good or bad.  The sooner Britain realises this, the more likely it is to get a viable long-term solution in place.

The UK and Spanish leaders are no LBJ.  Nor are Brexit and Catalonian independence like Vietnam.  And yet.  The Defence Secretary, McNamara (a man of whom it might be said that, like too many management consultants, he measured everything and understood nothing) admitted years later in his book “In Retrospect” that he was wrong about Vietnam.  The NY Times’s harsh judgment was that his book’s only value was “to remind us never to forget that these were men who in the full hubristic glow of their power would not listen to logical warning or ethical appeal.”  A lesson there for May, Rajoy, Puigdemont and all aspiring leaders.  Let’s hope they learn it in time.



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