Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press

The Perfect War

Technowar in Vietnam

by James William Gibson

“Powerfully and persuasively, William Gibson tells us why we were in Vietnam. This book is a work of daring brilliance–an eye-opening chronicle of waste and self-delusion.” –Robert Olen Butler

  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Page Count 544
  • Publication Date February 19, 2000
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8711-3799-9
  • Dimensions 6.13" x 9.25"
  • US List Price $20.00

About The Book

In this groundbreaking book, James William Gibson shatters the misled assumptions behind both liberal and conservative explanations for America’s failure in Vietnam. Gibson shows how American government and military officials developed a disturbingly limited concept of war, founded on a blind faith in the technology of destruction. One of the first books to question the fundamental assumptions behind American strategies’which continue to guide our foreign policy today”The Perfect War is a brilliant reassessment of the war, now republished with a new introduction by the author.


“This book towers above all that has been written to date on Vietnam.””L.A. Weekly

“A brilliant and disturbing new critical study . . . Gibson argues in massive detail that we did not lose the war because of self-imposed restraints or ‘mistakes’ by politicians. On the contrary, we could never win, because we were unrestrained in our faith in technology.””Harold Evans, U.S. News & World Report

‘mr. Gibson writes with eloquence, clarity, and force. . . . A fine book.””Lewis H. Lapham, The Wall Street Journal

“Powerfully and persuasively, William Gibson tells us why we were in Vietnam. This book is a work of daring brilliance”an eye-opening chronicle of waste and self-delusion.””Robert Olen Butler

“Although many valuable books on the war exist as records of pain and endurance, there is no work that achieves what this does. Because he might just save us from our most comfortable lies and sad delusions, William Gibson should be honored.””Gloria Emerson


In Search of War

Trailing the Beast

IN 1973 the Vietnam War moved from front-page news into a rapidly fading historical memory. U.S. troops came home, a peace treaty was signed, American POWs returned, and the war vanished. Two years later network television news showed us the fall of Saigon. Our sensibilities were stunned by incredible pictures of evacuation helicopters being pushed off aircraft carrier flight decks or ordered to crash in the South China Sea because there was no more room for them on American ships. It was as if an imaginary Western had turned into a horror show – the cavalry was shooting its horses after being chased by the Indians back to the fort. President Gerald Ford said that the “book was closed” on American involvement in Indochina.
The nightmare was officially over. But there was no springtime bliss in late April and early May of 1975, no celebration of war’s end. Something felt deeply wrong. Something had changed forever.
During the mid- and late 1970s no one wanted to talk about the war.

For a while it seemed that Hollywood might come to the rescue, bringing the war to the surface in a way that could conceivably help people understand what had happened. The Boys in Company C, Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Go Tell the Spartans, and Who’ll Stop the Rain? all appeared in 1977-1978; Apocalypse Now came the next year. After the apocalypse, the Hollywood war ended, too. Sometimes veterans made the evening news broadcasts or were characters in television dramas. Either in real life or as fictional characters, they were presented as freaked-out men who replayed Vietnam by committing violence against others or themselves. Veterans were time bombs waiting to go off, a new genre of bogeymen.
Somehow, though, even in news reports about Vietnam veterans, the war itself was never revisited. Debates around the dioxin Agent Orange and post-Vietnam stress-disorder cases made their official appearances in claims for medical benefits or for special consideration in legal contexts. The war thus disappeared as a topic for study and political consideration and instead became dispersed and institutionalized in the complex of medical, psychiatric, and legal discourses. It was as if a new series of medical and judicial problems with no traceable origin had appeared in American society. Or rather, although it was acknowledged that Vietnam was the origin, once the word “Vietnam” was mentioned, the war itself was dismissed and discussion moved on to how an institution could solve the problem.
A similar displacement occurred in the reception of books by Vietnam veterans and journalists. Literally hundreds of memoirs, commentaries, and novels were published from the mid-1960s through the 1970s, but most fell into an abyss of silence: few or no reviews, limited distribution and sales, a quick passage to the discounted ‘remainder” category. Only a handful of Vietnam authors achieved some fame – Gloria Emerson for Winners and Losers, Tim O’Brien for Going After Cacciato, Frances FitzGerald for Fire in the Lake, and Michael Herr for Dispatches. The New York Times review of Dispatches read in part (my emphases): “If you think you don’t want to read any more about Vietnam, you are wrong. Dispatches is beyond politics, beyond rhetoric”. It is as if Dante had gone to hell with a cassette recording of Jimi Hendrix and a pocketful of pills: our first rock-and-roll war. Stunning.”1
According to the reviewer, Dispatches was a book about Vietnam that one could read without thinking about Vietnam – the book for someone who doesn’t “want to read any more about Vietnam.” A new Inferno? Forget that Jimi Hendrix was a Vietnam veteran of the 101st Airborne Division. Forget that the pocketful of uppers and downers (amphetamines and barbiturates) belonged to a man on long-range reconnaissance patrol duty who used them to see the jungle at night. Our “first rock-and-roll war,” the reviewer said. It sounded as if he was expecting a series and Dispatches was the best way for the spectators to get ready for the show.
O’Brien’s work met a similar response. A quote from a review in the Philadelphia Inquirer found its way to the back cover of the paperback version: “Every war has its chroniclers of fear and flight, its Stephen Cranes and Joseph Hellers. Tim O’Brien joins their number.” Or read the New York Times Book Review: “To call Going After Cacciato a novel about war is like calling Moby Dick a novel about whales.”2 Take your pick; either way the reviews see the work as literature and view a work of literature as a text without reference to anything other than literature. Somehow O’Brien’s story about a soldier who leaves his unit and walks from Vietnam to Paris to attend the peace negotiations does not register in the reviewer’s mind as a commentary on the war.
It is not easy to displace war in films about war; it is not easy to avoid war in all news media coverage of Vietnam veterans and their problems; it is not easy for a culture to avoid a very specific war even though book after book is written about it. Nevertheless, the more that was said and written and filmed, the more distant the war itself became.
During the 1970s various liberal interpretations of what happened in Vietnam were considered definitive. Some claimed the great lesson to be learned concerned “the limits of power.” The United States had expended too many men and too much money fighting in a country that wasn’t so important after all. Other liberals viewed the war as a tragic drama fueled by hubris. Our political leadership, the best and brightest of the land, made a series of ‘small decisions,” each decision being ‘reasonably regarded at the time as the last that would be necessary.” But Fate intervened and lo and behold we found ourselves “entrapped in that nightmare of American strategists, a land war in Asia.” It was a sad, sad story, says Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., a “tragedy without villains.”3
Curiously enough, the views of the conservatives were not so different. They offered another way of “getting over Vietnam” without ever searching for the war. In November 1980, President-elect Ronald Reagan declared that Vietnam had been a “noble cause.” The war had been lost only because of American ‘self-imposed restraints.” We had not been sufficiently “tough,” but no longer would we be weak or timid. Reagan promised to ‘rebuild” our ‘defense” capabilities. He announced a new plan for spending $750 billion for the military. A new Rapid Deployment Force was created for quick transport to the Third World. We were ready to go to war again. For months the news media talked and wrote about how the United States had finally gotten over the “Vietnam Syndrome.”4 Never was the question raised about just what it was we were over. The Vietnam part of the “Vietnam Syndrome” was left blank. Perhaps the war was just a normal part of growing up for a young nation, a childhood disease like chicken pox, which leaves behind some small scars but builds character.
In this way a strange consensus developed: it was okay to use the war as a point of departure for almost any discussion – whether on literature or Greek tragedy or foreign policy – but only as long as you didn’t talk about the war itself. In this way the Vietnam War was abolished during the 1970s and early 1980s. In this way the war became progressively displaced and repressed at the same time it was written about.
Then during 1983-1984 the Vietnam War became a major cultural topic. It was as if a legendary monster or unholy beast had finally been captured and was now on a nationwide tour. The tour began in November 1982, with the dedication and opening of the Vietnam veterans memorial in Washington, D.C. In February 1983 the University of Southern California sponsored “Vietnam Reconsidered: Lessons From a War,” the first major academic conference on Vietnam.5 That fall PBS affiliates around the country showed a thirteen-episode series, Vietnam: A Television History. Chain bookstores used the series as a lead-in for thematic displays offering a new round of war novels, memoirs, and histories. The New York Times signed on with two major cover stories: the Sunday magazine featured a lengthy story on college courses about Vietnam and the Sunday book review had a long essay comparing Vietnam War novels to previous war literature.6 Important court trials made the news for months. Vietnam veterans filed a class-action suit against several chemical firms that manufactured the herbicide Agent Orange. General William Westmoreland sued CBS for libeling him in its 1982 documentary “The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception.”7 And finally a special service was held on Memorial Day 1984, when the “unidentified” remains of an American soldier killed in Vietnam were put into the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
All through this period, questions of responsibility for American involvement were assiduously avoided. Although the PBS series had some excellent footage, it echoed every lie told by administration officials of the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford governments. The series showed Vietnam as a war of good men with honorable intentions fighting another set of good men with honorable intentions. Thirty years of warfare appeared as a mythic tragedy dictated by the gods, with the U.S. government merely a passive partner.8 Stanley Karnow, a senior producer of the PBS series, released a companion volume, Vietnam: A History at the same time. Although Karnow had subtitled his book “The First Complete Account of Vietnam at War,” he evidently didn’t think responsibility and causality were important questions: “In human terms at least, the war in Vietnam was a war nobody won – a struggle between victims. Its origins were complex, its lessons learned, its legacy to be assessed by future generations. But whether a valid venture or misguided endeavor, it was a tragedy of epic dimensions.”9
Myra MacPherson, author of Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation, published in the spring of 1984, sought “neither to prove the rightness or wrongness of the war nor to refight old ideological battles but to illuminate the effect of the war as it was on the generation asked to fight it.”10 How these effects were to be determined without investigating what the structure of warfare was, who was responsible for that structure, and what American political objectives were is truly mysterious.
The New York Times daily reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, chastised novels by Vietnam veterans for paying too close attention to warfare and not enough attention to the problems of literature: “A flaw shared by many Vietnam novels, in fact, is that they do not become works of the imagination; rather they retain the predictable shape and close-up, grainy texture of personal history”. This need to testify to what one has witnessed and somehow to make sense of it through words, however, would have often been better served by a memoir.” In her view, memoir is obviously suitable for personal catharsis, but not much else. In any case neither memoir nor realist fictional narrative can help us understand an event beyond rational understanding: “At the same time, the Vietnam war – which so defies reason and the rules of causality – also resists such traditional prerogatives of fiction as interpretation.”11 If the war is beyond rational understanding, then it becomes the occasion for pure literature, texts with referents only in the literary canon, not the real world of power struggles.
Even Vietnam-related “events’ have studiously avoided the war. Westmoreland dropped his libel charges against CBS before the case went to the jury. Some of his former aides and other military men had testified against him with compelling accounts of official deception. But instead of letting the jury vindicate them, CBS issued a statement testifying to Westmoreland’s honor. Thus nothing was really resolved.
Similarly, lawyers for the Vietnam veterans accepted a $180 million settlement for health damages the day before the trial was to begin. This out-of-court settlement of the veterans’ case against the chemical companies who made Agent Orange meant that the companies successfully avoided a lengthy public investigation of what they knew about dioxin contamination and what the government knew. Many veterans were against the settlement for that reason; they suspected the military and chemical manufacturers knew the potential dangers of exposure to dioxins.
Even the memorial ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier backed away from the war. Read carefully the New York Times account of the ceremonies held for the entombment of the body:
The Pentagon, which waived its informal rule that 80 percent of a body must be recovered for it to be designated an Unknown, has now intentionally destroyed all identification records related to the Unknown to prevent inadvertent disclosure of information that might provide clues to the identity of the man intended to be a universal symbol of Vietnam battle dead.12
In other words, the Pentagon had remains that might someday have been identifiable. The military destroyed this man’s records in order to stage a symbolic patriotic ritual and thus gain support for future battles. At the same time, the Pentagon did not allow Vietnam veterans to march in the funeral procession. These men did not fit into the choreographed spectacle. They were not dressed in regulation military uniforms, but instead wore “combat fatigues and jeans,” topped by the “floppy bush caps they wore in Vietnam’s steamy jungles.” Three hundred veterans marched anyway.
For the most part, the 1985 media retrospectives on Vietnam followed the patterns formed earlier. Newsmagazines and television vacillated between the liberal Vietnam-as-mistake position and the conservative criticism of self-imposed restraints. Hollywood in particular embraced the latter position with a series of films in which Vietnam veteran characters become warriors again and defeat demonic enemies by disregarding restraints imposed upon them by commanding officers and politicians. The resurgence of Vietnam in the news, in literature and history, and in film was a continuation of the old effort to push the real war with all its political implications farther and farther away. The power structure is obviously deeply afraid of what might happen if the war was really explored.
It was the longest war in American history. It was the longest counting from 1945, when the United States equipped a British expeditionary force to occupy Vietnam before France could send troops to secure its colony. It was the longest counting from 1950, when the United States began paying 80 percent of France’s cost in its war against Vietnamese insurgents, the Vietminh. It was the longest counting from 1960, when President Kennedy began increasing U.S. military advisers from several hundred to several thousand. And it was the longest war counting from 1965, when the first American ground combat divisions together with their support units began arriving.
Talking about Vietnam as a “limited war” is misleading. At its peak in 1969, over 550,000 soldiers were stationed in Vietnam. This count excludes thousands of air force personnel in Thailand and thousands of other air force people in Manila and Guam supporting bomber missions. Indeed, the 550,000 count excludes all those people involved in logistical efforts outside Vietnam. An inclusive figure would easily add another 100,000 to 200,000 troops. Viewed as a percentage of total American combat capability, the Vietnam War at its peak involved 40 percent of all United States Army combat-ready divisions, more than half of all Marine Corps divisions, one-third of U.S. naval forces, roughly half the fighter-bombers, and between one-quarter and one-half of all B-52 bombers in the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command.
In 1984 American casualty figures hovered around 58,800. (The exact number changes from year to year as some of the 800 soldiers listed as missing in action are reclassified as dead.) Over 300,000 men were wounded; of these, some 150,000 required hospitalization. How many Vietnam veterans have later died from medical conditions connected to the war is not known, but surely the number must be in the thousands.
Americans are not the only ones who died. The South Korean government lost 4,407 soldiers. Australia and New Zealand lost 469, and Thailand suffered 351 dead.13 Counting casualties among Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians becomes more difficult. The United States government counts South Vietnamese military casualties beginning in 1965 and ends in 1974. For this period it announces a figure of 220,357. Such a precise number seems solid, but it isn’t; 1965 marks only the introduction of American combat forces in large numbers, not the beginning of the war. The United States established the Diem regime in 1954 and completely financed its civil and military activities throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. Surely those who died in those years should be counted. Saigon “fell” in 1975. The casualties of that debacle should also be counted.
In Laos it is even harder to count. It was public knowledge that the United States was fighting a war in Vietnam. But despite the few news reports that surfaced from time to time, it never seemed to sink home that a major war was also being fought in Laos. This war was organized and directed by the Central Intelligence Agency, using tribespeople living in the Laotian mountains. A large number of those people died. Their deaths should be added, too, but there is no official tabulation since the war in Laos did not officially exist.
Making a count in Cambodia (now named Kampuchea) presents a similar problem. For a long time Cambodia managed to stay out of the Indochina war. However, the United States did not like the “extreme neutralism” practiced by its ruler, Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Sihanouk had not approved of North Vietnamese and Vietcong use of Cambodia as a staging area, but he wanted to avoid open warfare. In 1970 the United States supported his overthrow. War subsequently came; the Cambodian army fought and suffered casualties. American fighter-bombers and B-52s dropped hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs. Much bombing went unobserved; no one even bothered to watch where the bombs fell. Cambodia’s dead were never counted.
Trying to count “enemy” dead and civilian casualties is even harder. The official American military statistics for the 1965-1974 period claim 950,765 Vietcong and North Vietnamese regulars killed.14 Other government estimates say this figure is inflated by one-third. Even disregarding the time frame for counting, these figures are questionable. Artillery barrages and air strikes were often conducted virtually at random. There is no way of really knowing how many people were killed. The roll call of the dead, the wounded, refugees, and all those driven insane by decades of war will never be completed.
If nothing definitive can really be said about the massive destruction, if one cannot readily find the basic parameters of a war, then how can one talk about it? Perhaps Vietnam really was a “tragedy without villains,” an unfortunate compendium of ‘small decisions’ that just turned out very badly. The United States should be more alert next time it becomes militarily involved. There are limits to the power of even the most powerful country. Or perhaps, as the conservatives say, the United States should learn to hit harder, faster. Do away with all ‘self-imposed restraints,” no more fighting with one hand tied behind our back. Avoid the folly of political negotiations.
Perhaps it is also true that Vietnam veterans suffer only from problems of adjustment to civilian life. Their problems can be explained by the various intellectual disciplines of adjustment – psychiatry, psychology, social welfare, the law. Here as well, the objective is to adjust to the present; it is useless to dwell in the past because nothing can really be learned there. The search for war ends at its beginnings. It finds nothing. The conventional paths are all small circles. There is no exit from the tunnel. There is only darkness, no light at all.
If you are setting up an ambush, you must first pick a place where men are likely to walk. A well-trodden path is an excellent choice since most Americans are averse to slower, more difficult movement in a dimly lit jungle. Having selected a frequently used trail, you then position your mines and grenades and automatic weapons to achieve overlapping or intersecting “fields of fire.” The area where the fields of fire are the most dense is known as the “killing zone.”
Search-and-destroy sent many Americans down the trail to the killing zone. Over 80 percent of the firefights were initiated by the enemy.15 Although high command eventually came to know this, military practice never changed. The old trails continued to be used. “There it is,” as the grunts used to say.
Similarly, conventional paths in search of war lead only to destruction of serious intellectual inquiry. War as mistake, war as failure of nerve, war as collection of dates and statistics that are somehow supposed to make it rational and compact enough to readily talk about – none of these definitions can account for the paradox of the ambush that is known lurking, but rarely avoided.
It must be recognized that knowledge neither falls from heaven nor grows on trees, but is instead created in specific social contexts involving political and economic power. Politically and economically powerful people make decisions on the basis of studies produced by professional economists, systems analysts, and political scientists, and they utilize more informal kinds of knowledge, such as the reports created by bureaucracies. It is best, then, not to think of a political and economic power structure making decisions about Vietnam and intellectual knowledge about the war as two separate categories, but instead to approach the search for war in terms of how power and knowledge operate together at a deep structural level of logic. As the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault indicated, the study of modern societies is best approached as a study of ‘regimes’ of power and knowledge, since the two can no longer be thought separate.16
In thinking about Vietnam, two specific relationships must be considered immediately. First, the United States lost. The tendency to displace Vietnam into political or literary contexts that never really confront the war represents a flight from recognizing the final outcome. American defeat seems “unreal” to Americans; thus the war itself becomes “unreal.” Since previous knowledge about Vietnam provided neither the conceptual frameworks nor the information necessary to comprehend the defeat of the power structure, the war has remained invisible. Displacement hides intellectual bankruptcy. Displacement hides the political and military failure of the power structure.
Second, much primary knowledge about the war was produced by military and other governmental bureaucracies. Bureaucracies produce knowledge for utilization by bureaucracies. Military bureaucracies have no interest, for example, in estimating civilian casualties caused by bombing and air strikes. Civilian casualties detract from their efficiency as military units, and military units are rewarded for efficiency. High civilian casualties also make the actions of military commanders illegitimate to the public. There are many other absences of knowledge. Some are simply blank spaces; others indicate places where knowledge about the war was discounted and ignored for various reasons. Such absences constitute problems only if one takes current structures of power and knowledge to be sacrosanct, as having a monopoly on defining reality. Ultimately, though, questioning the definition of reality provided by the United States leads the way out of the tunnel.
The search for war begins in this country, at a time when defeat anywhere appeared unthinkable– the end of World War II. The United States emerged from that war as the only true victor, by far the greatest power in world history. Although the other Allies also won, their victories were much different. Great Britain’s industrial strength was damaged and its empire was in disarray. France had been defeated and occupied by Nazi Germany. Much French industry had either been bombed by Britain and the United States or looted by Germany. The Soviet Union “won,” but over twenty million of its people were killed and millions more wounded. Many of its cities and large areas of countryside were nothing but ruins. China “won,” but despite American funding, the warlord Chiang Kai-shek and his subordinate warlords lost to the peasant Communist revolution led by Mao Tse-tung. Even before Chiang Kai-shek’s defeat, post-World War II China was largely a wasteland, suffering from famine and civil war. In other words, the United States won World War II and everyone else lost.
It is important to comprehend the changes that occurred within the United States that made its success overseas possible. Before World War II, both the world economy and the American economy had been in severe crisis. Unemployment was extremely high. Many factories and other businesses closed; those that remained open had underutilized production capabilities. Compared to 1986, the economy was decentralized. Even as late as 1940, some 175,000 companies produced 70 percent of all manufactured goods, while the hundred largest companies produced 30 percent.
Relationships between the economy and the state changed during the Depression. The United States had long practiced “free-market” capitalism. Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic-controlled Congress attempted to regulate capitalism in their “New Deal” program. Some endeavors, such as the minimum wage. Social Security, and laws making it easier for labor unions to organize, had impact and became enduring features of advanced capitalism. Federal efforts to organize the economy, however, did not succeed. The Supreme Court declared the National Recovery Act to be unconstitutional; the Court in effect ruled that state powers to regulate and organize the economy were limited. In any case, the New Deal did not succeed in its economic revitalization program. Unemployment levels in 1940 were close to what they had been in 1932, when Roosevelt was first elected.
Then came Pearl Harbor and the Second World War. Phenomenal changes occurred within a few short years. By 1944, the hundred largest manufacturing firms produced 70 percent of the nation’s manufactured goods, while all the rest produced only 30 percent.17 Economic mobilization for war necessitated radical state intervention in the economy. State war-managers favored awarding huge contracts to the largest industrial firms. These administrators thought that only the largest firms had truly ‘scientific” production lines and that only the largest firms had managerial expertise to produce huge quantities of goods. By the end of the war leading manufacturers had received billions of dollars from the state. Contracts were awarded on a “cost-plus’ basis, meaning that the state financed machinery and other production facilities, as well as the costs of labor, and beyond that guaranteed specific profit rates. The federal government thus violated the customary operations of the “free market” and created a state-organized and -financed, highly centralized form of capitalism in which a few firms dominated the economy. The gross national product increased from $91 billion in 1939 to $166 billion in 1945. Such tremendous economic expansion was unprecedented in world history.
Science had always been involved in the production process; you can’t produce steel without detailed knowledge of physics, chemistry, metallurgy, and so forth. But in some ways, during the prewar period, science was not fully integrated into the economy. During World War II, however, thousands of scientists were hired by the government and large corporations. As Gerald Piel, a former editor of Scientific American, says, “The universities transformed themselves into vast weapons laboratories. Theoretical physicists became engineers, and engineers forced solutions at the frontiers of knowledge.”18 Science was enlisted in the economic production process and military destruction process to an unprecedented degree.
So-called managerial science also was incorporated into the war effort. The original master of ‘scientific management,” Frederick Taylor, had won many adherents among businessmen in the 1920s and 1930s, especially among larger industrial firms confronted by massive unionization. For workers, scientific management meant progressive dissolution of their control over work processes.19 By the 1940s, management had become a more esoteric discipline. For example, during World War II, Professor Robert McNamara of the Harvard University Business School developed statistical techniques of systems analysis for the War Department as management tools in controlling large organizations. McNamara became famous for organizing flight patterns of bombers and fighters in the air war against Germany. After the war, in the 1950s, he served as general manager and vice president of Ford Motor Company. In 1960, President Kennedy chose him as secretary of defense. Advanced ‘scientific” methods thus took root in both government and business.
This radical shift from a capitalist economy organized around small to medium-sized firms to an advanced capitalist economy organized around relatively few firms with high-technology production thus occurred through federal government intervention and was directed toward war production. Politics, economics, and science were now united in a new way. Just as the state changed capitalism and changed the practice of science, so too did the now vastly expanded economy and scientific apparatus change the nature and practice of politics, particularly the conduct of foreign policy. As the possessor of an advanced technological system of war production, the United States began to view political relationships with other countries in terms of concepts that have their origin in physical science, economics, and management. A deeply mechanistic world view emerged among the political and economic elite and their intellectual advisers.
The writings of Dr. Henry Kissinger provide a good introduction to modern power and knowledge relationships as they shaped American foreign policy in the post-World War II era. Kissinger was national security adviser to President Richard Nixon from 1969 through 1972 and was later secretary of state under Nixon and then Gerald Ford from 1973 through 1976. Before his ascension to formal political power, he was an important adviser to Nelson Rockefeller and a key intellectual in the foreign-policy establishment. His books and essays were held in great esteem.
Kissinger writes that since 1945, American foreign policy has been based “on the assumption that technology plus managerial skills gave us the ability to reshape the international system and to bring domestic transformations in “emerging countries.” “20 He indicates that there are virtually no limits to this technical intervention in the world: “A scientific revolution has, for all practical purposes, removed technical limits from the exercise of power in foreign policy.”21 Power thus becomes measured solely in technical terms: political power becomes physically embedded in the United States’ large, efficient economy, its war production system capable of creating advanced war machines, and its economic-managerial science for administering these production systems. By this standard the United States has virtually unlimited power to control the world.
Moreover, since these physical means of power were created in large part through science, the United States also maintains a highly privileged position of knowledge. The United States knows more about ‘reality” itself, reality being defined in terms of physical science. Power and knowledge thus go together. Knowing ‘reality” is also “hard work.” The West, in Kissinger’s view, had been committed to this hard epis-temological work since Sir Isaac Newton first formulated his laws of physics. Although Kissinger never speaks of “virtues’ in connection with the hard work of the West, such connotations are implicit in his writings – Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is tacitly enlisted in his program.22 Power, knowledge, and virtue all accrue to the United States. Its foreign-policy endeavors are thus blessed. From this perspective Kissinger discusses the differences between the Third World and the West. Ultimately, he claims that the West knows reality and the underdeveloped countries live only in their own delusions:
As for the difference in philosophical perspective, it may reflect the divergence of the two lines of thought which since the Renaissance have distinguished the West from the part of the world now called underdeveloped (with Russia occupying an intermediate position). The West is deeply committed to the notion that the real world is external to the observer, that knowledge consists of recording and classifying data – the more accurately the better. Cultures which have escaped the early impact of Newtonian thinking have retained the essentially pre-Newtonian view that the real world is almost entirely internal to the observer.
Although this attitude was a liability for centuries – because it prevented the development of the technology and consumer goods which the West enjoyed – it offers great flexibility with respect to the contemporary revolutionary turmoil. It enables the societies which do not share our cultural mode to alter reality by influencing the perspective of the observer – a process which we are largely unprepared to handle or even perceive. And this can be accomplished under contemporary conditions without sacrificing technological progress. Technology comes as a gift; acquiring it in its advanced form does not presuppose the philosophical commitment that discovering it imposed on the West. Empirical reality has a much different significance for many of the new countries because in a certain sense they never went through the process of discovering it (with Russia again occupying an intermediate position).23
By this theory, American intervention in the Third World not only brings technology and consumer goods into play but also brings reality to the Third World. In claiming the West’s radical monopoly on knowing reality, the Third World becomes unreal. Those who live there and have retained “the essentially pre-Newtonian view that the real world is almost entirely internal to the observer” are therefore totally unlike the West and its leading country. Those who are totally unlike us and live in their own delusions are conceptualized as foreign Others. The foreign Other can be known only within the conceptual framework of technological development and production systems. For instance, the Other may have bicycles. Bicycles can be readily comprehended by the West as a form of “underdeveloped” transportation, as opposed to the trucks and automobiles found in the ‘developed” West. Bicycles are “less’ than cars by definition. In this sense the Other can be known. Insofar as he is like us he is far down on the scale of power and knowledge; insofar as he is not like us, he remains the foreign Other living his self-delusions in an unreal land.
Who defeated the most powerful nation in world history? Who defeated several hundred thousand troops equipped with the most advanced weaponry that the most technologically sophisticated nation had to offer? Who defeated a war budget more than one trillion dollars? For the most part, peasants of underdeveloped agricultural economies defeated the United States. The insurgents of what was called ‘south Vietnam” were peasants. What was called “North Vietnam” was also a relatively primitive, agricultural economy with little industrial base.
How could a nation of peasants with bicycles defeat the United States? By Kissinger’s theory such a defeat is unthinkable. Kissinger’s claim to a monopoly of true knowledge for the West turns into its opposite. Classifying nations and peoples purely on the basis of their possession, or lack, of technologically advanced production and warfare systems leads only to radical reduction of what can be considered as valid knowledge about the world. This regime of power and knowledge thus creates a world that is “almost entirely internal to the observer.” Kissinger writes that “the West is deeply committed to the notion that the real world is external to the observer, that knowledge consists of recording and classifying data – the more accurately the better.” He calls this the “Newtonian” view of the world, after the eighteenth-century theoretical physicist Sir Isaac Newton.
However, Newtonian mechanics is a theory about nature. It says nothing about society, about human social relationships. Newtonian mechanics says nothing about societies where millions of peasants are dominated by a few hundred landlords; it says nothing about countries where the population may be yellow or brown or black in skin color, but their rulers have white skins and come from distant lands. It says nothing about social conflict, about social relationships of domination and subordination; and in particular, Newtonian mechanics says nothing about social revolution.
Instead, the deeply mechanistic view of the world can see bicycles of the Third World only as compared to the cars of the West. Bicycles cannot “beat” cars and trucks and planes and railroads. But in 1954, the Vietnamese beat the French in a battle at Dien Bien Phu. Thousands of peasants cut trails through jungles and across mountains; thousands more dug tunnels close to French fortifications; thousands more walked alongside bicycles loaded with supplies for the Vietminh army. Social relationships between the Vietminh soldiers and the peasantry were such that thousands of peasants could be mobilized for the war effort. Social relationships that are rendered invisible by the modern regime of power and knowledge can defeat a system of power that conceives the world only in terms of technological-production systems. At the time, the French were amazed at their loss. The Americans were similarly amazed years later. They did not learn from the French because they thought that the French simply did not have enough tools of war; the United States had many more.
What is at issue concerns conceptually mapping “nature” onto society, of rendering the social world invisible. This false scientific project has historical precedent in the theory of capitalism, the famous naturelike “laws of supply and demand” that govern the market. Adam Smith, eighteenth-century author of The Wealth of Nations, is usually awarded credit for positing capitalism as economic nature, the true discovery of the actual order of things, the social organization that imitates nature best. Viewing capitalism as nature, this theory of immutable laws of supply and demand, was later criticized by Karl Marx.
Marx contended that the production process constituted a social relationship between those who owned the means of production (the capitalist) and those who were employed by capitalists as laborers (the working class). The working class collectively produced all wealth, but received only a fraction back as wages; the rest went to the capitalists. Capitalism was based on a specific kind of class domination, not a “natural” order. However, structural relationships of class domination are rendered invisible by the phenomenal form of capitalist production, the commodity. Everything appears as a commodity to be bought and sold, even the workers. A loaf of bread appears as an object to be eaten, which is sold in a store for a price. No relationships of class structure are written on the package cover. “The commodity is a mysterious thing,” wrote Marx. “In it definite social relationships among men assume the fantastic form of relationships among things.” Marx called this project of mapping nature onto society “commodity fetishism.”24
Ironically, Marx thought that the phenomenal force of commodity fetishism would be attenuated when science became a ‘direct force of production, integral to the operation of all basic industry.”25 Science to Marx represented the collective knowledge of society. Although individual bits of knowledge could be privately owned – as in patents – basic scientific advancement resulted from social “poolings’ of thousands of individual efforts to know the world. Thus, when science became a ‘direct force of production, integral to the operation of all basic industry,” the relationship of knowledge to the production process would make the social character of production more evident.
Men and women would more readily see that since knowledge was a collective product of the human species, then the goods produced by privately owned industry (using scientific knowledge in the production process) rightfully belonged to society as a whole, not only to the capitalist class. People would see both the moral right and logical necessity for collective ownership and control of the society. Because people would be organizing economic activity together, the goods produced would not appear as independent entities obeying naturelike laws of supply and demand. Collective social organization and decision-making about social development and resource allocation replaces the market. No longer do ‘definite social relationships among men assume the fantastic form of relationships among things.” With the transition to socialism, commodity fetishism and other forms of falsely mapping a model of nature onto society would end. Scientific rationalization of capitalist production was thus a crucial stage in Marx’s theory of the transition from capitalism toward socialism.
This prediction for radical social change in advanced capitalist countries did not come true. Instead, a new kind of fetishism came into existence in the post-World War II period. The scientific rationalization and expansion of the production process occurred during wartime; it was directed by the state toward the production of war. The largest industrial firms became quantum levels larger, and their owners and top executives entered into new relationships with the government. Privately owned production facilities still dominated the economy, but these firms were state financed to a considerable degree and their products were used by the state to wage war and conduct foreign policy. C. Wright Mills called this new social organization rule by “the power elite.”26 Seymour Mel-man has used the term “the permanent war-economy.”27 Both men have written works of great merit, but neither fully conveys the transformations of power and knowledge that mark American foreign policy since World War II.
Whereas Marx saw the locus of fetishism and naturalization as structurally situated in the system of commodity production, this new fetishism involved rationalized capitalist production as it was organized for war production. Political and social power became conceptualized and practiced solely in terms of how high societies ranked in their ability to produce high-technology warfare. To those in command of the system, the world’s international political and economic relationships appeared as a series of technical or physical problems to be solved by the correct, scientifically determined administration of force: how much war production or threat of war production was necessary to achieve American policy objectives in other nations.
This new fetishism is thus a kind of social physics, a metaphorical transposition of Sir Isaac Newton’s world of physical forces and mechanical interactions onto the social world. War-production systems become the units of this social physics. To appropriate Marx’s phrasing, in this new fetishism definite social relationships among men assume the fantastic form of relationships among high-technology production systems for producing warfare. And when relationships appear as warfare systems, then social relationships disappear from view just as they do with the system of simple commodity production. For example, how can complex social revolutions be understood by war-managers, when for them the highest form of political power is an atomic bomb that could literally vaporize the revolution? At best, war-managers can only translate social revolution into their own fetishized, technical categories of control and production. How many weapons does the revolution have? What is its structure of command, control, and communication? How do enemy war-managers instrumentally manipulate their people? In this way, Kissinger’s claim that the West in general and the United States in particular have an epistemological monopoly on “the notion that the real world is external to the observer” turns back on itself. The question must be asked, who is the foreign Other for whom “the real world is almost entirely internal to the observer”?
The Other is the man mesmerized by his own system of production, his own system for the production of destruction, his own “technology plus managerial skills,” which creates the possibility of bringing ‘domestic transformations in “emerging countries.” “The Other is the man who writes, “A scientific revolution has, for all practical purposes, removed technical limits from the exercise of power in foreign policy.” The history of modern foreign policy is the history of this power and knowledge regime. It is the history of a system totally enclosed upon itself, the history of a regime whose basic assumptions of knowledge are never questioned by those in power. At the same time, these men legitimate their decisions and subsequent actions in terms of a radical monopoly of knowledge: they have a scientific right to intervene in the Third World.
Kissinger is but one man. He has been cited both because of his position and fame and because his writings are so clearly concerned with the questions at hand. Still, he is not solely responsible for the modern regime of power and knowledge. To the contrary, the basic assumptions about power and knowledge articulated by Kissinger were shared by thousands of academics and policymakers. Much of the literature on international relations and development or ‘modernization” of the Third World shares these same mechanistic assumptions. Fetishism is not an individual problem; it is a characteristic of particular social structures and how those social structures are conceived by members of the society.
In the 1950s, there was one contradiction in the regime of power and knowledge that worried political elites and defense intellectuals. The problem had to do with using the atomic bomb, especially the difficult situation created when both the United States and the Soviet Union had the bomb. Using the atomic bomb became more dangerous to the United States, because the Soviet Union could retaliate in kind. In this event, the vast systems of production on both sides would be destroyed. During the 1950s, this projected scenario was called mutually assured destruction. The scenario placed limits on American ability to intervene militarily in the world. Much effort was expended in attempting to solve this contradiction of virtually limitless technical power that now seemed highly limited.
The most renowned scholar who helped solve this problem was, again, Dr. Henry Kissinger. His book on the subject was entitled Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957). Kissinger was opposed to all-out nuclear war because such war destroyed the American advantage: “We have seen ” that the power of modern weapons reduces the importance of our industrial potential in an all-out war because each side can destroy the industrial plant of its opponent with its forces-in-being at the very outset. With modern weapons [atomic weapons], industrial potential can be significant only in a war in which it is not itself the target.”28 From the necessity to preserve American industrial potential, Kissinger derives a strategic doctrine in which this potential can be best used. By virtue of its technological production system, the United States can achieve its foreign-policy objectives by limited wars fought as wars of attrition:
As a result, limited war has become the form of conflict which enables us to derive the greatest strategic advantage from our industrial potential. It is the best means for achieving a continuous drain of our opponent’s resources without exhausting both sides. The prerequisite for deriving a strategic advantage from industrial potential is a weapons system sufficiently complex to require a substantial production effort, but not so destructive as to deprive the victor of any effective margin of superiority. Thus the argument that limited war may turn into a contest of attrition is in fact an argument in favor of a strategy of limited war. A war of attrition is the one war the Soviet bloc could not win.29
Kissinger even said that the purpose of limited war was to demonstrate the capacity for destruction by our advanced war-production system, not literally to destroy an enemy: ‘strategic doctrine must never lose sight that its purpose is to affect the will of the enemy, not to destroy him, and that we can be limited only by presenting the enemy with an unfavorable calculus of risks.”30 In another formulation of the same theoretical point, Kissinger wrote: “In a limited war the problem is to apply graduated amounts of destruction for limited objectives and also to permit the necessary breathing spaces for political contacts.”31
All that remained necessary was to reorganize the American military so that it could fight limited wars of attrition. Kissinger gave great priority to preparing the military for this new kind of warfare: “One of the most urgent tasks of American military policy is to create a military capability which can redress the balance in limited wars and which can translate our technological advantage into local superiority.”32
For the army these were golden words. When preparing for nuclear war during the 1950s, the air force had received most of the money allocated to the Department of Defense; the navy came second and the army got what was left. Prospects for a new mission involving a capital-intensive, technologically sophisticated army were exciting! Now the army, too, could speed up its transformation in organization and doctrine to fit smoothly into modern warfare. This transition had started in the Second World War with Chief of Staff George C. Marshall’s decision to adopt the corporate model of organization as a means of managing military logistics. Corporatization of the military continued in the fifties. Close association with business and science in preparing new weapons systems accentuated the trend.
However, the full implications of this transformation go far beyond matters of management and weaponry considered as just parts of the American military. The same “fetishism” of technological production systems found in foreign policy similarly occurs within the military. The social relationships within the military disappear and all that remain are technological-production systems and ways of managing them. In the early 1950s, Morris Janowitz, a military sociologist, detected conflict between the traditional idea of the officer corps as being composed of “heroic” combat leaders or “gladiators,” and the emerging career path of the ‘military manager.”33 Combat leaders inspire troops to fight in dangerous battle; social relationships of loyalty from top to bottom and bottom to top are crucial. Managers allocate resources. As two other military sociologists, Richard Gabriel and Paul Savage, say, “no one expects anyone to die for IBM or General Motors.”34
Second, in a world where only technology and production count, the enemy begins to be seen only in those terms. The bicycle example in Vietnam was no joke. Limited war fought as a war of attrition means that only information about technological-production systems will count as valid knowledge about the enemy. For the military as well as civilian policymakers, the enemy becomes a mirror image of ourselves, only “less’ so. Military strategy becomes a one-factor question about technical forces; success or failure is measured quantitatively. Machine-system meets machine-system and the largest, fastest, most technologically advanced system will win. Any other outcome becomes unthinkable. Such is the logic of Technowar.
The search for war now leads to the enemy. The enemy, of course, is communism. Although it is self-evident that Communist countries, particularly the Soviet Union, have been the enemy of American foreign policy in the post-World War II era, this same self-evidence tends to obscure just how this Communist enemy is conceptualized. Much debate could well ensue: the merits of “private property” capitalism versus ‘state-planning” of the economy; ‘representative democracy” versus ‘democratic centralism” in the Communist party; a privately owned “free press’ versus a state-owned and state-censored press. All of these issues are worthy of great scrutiny, research, and debate. Only one subject will be considered here, though, and that is the question of Communist “expansion.”
By the end of World War II, the Soviet Unions army occupied Eastern Europe. In most countries except Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, the preexisting internal Communist movements were relatively weak. The invading Red Army with its accompanying Communist party political officers proceeded to establish a series of “puppet” or ‘satellite” governments, all under relatively firm control by the Soviet Union. In Yugoslavia, a large Communist movement, led by Marshal Tito, had fought a guerrilla war against the Nazis and had much popular support. Yugoslavia consequently did not become a “puppet” regime of the Soviet Union. Czechoslovakia did not retain its independence.
The original American concept of Communist expansion comes from Soviet occupation and control of Eastern Europe. Expansion meant “foreign” Communists occupying a country and ruling it without any consent of the native population. This original concept of Communist expansion thus had great historical truth. But historical truth is sometimes detached from its historical context. Communism as the ultimate foreign Other had a theoretical position already prepared for it by the capitalist West.
Capitalists, both the old variant called “laissez-faire” and the new capitalist order coming into existence during the war, understood themselves as being modeled on nature. If capitalism was nature, then communism by definition had to be antinature. By logical extension, if capitalism represented the natural economic structure of all nations, then by definition a Communist movement could only be foreign; it had to come from the outside because nature itself occupied the inside. In this way the historical truth of the Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe moved into a theoretical position of communism as the inevitable foreign Other.
This fetishized concept of communism as foreign Other, antinature itself, did not permit the United States to comprehend the Chinese revolution in 1949. Parts of China had long been occupied by the capitalist West. Its sovereignty as a nation had been diminished by imperialist conquest. Where the West did not rule, feudal landlord-warlords governed. The United States had special “trade agreements’ with China, and sent troops and gunboats to maintain its economic position. Communist-led peasant revolution began in the 1920s in this milieu. Peasants wanted land for themselves and sovereignty from foreign governments.
Japan displaced Western powers in 1939 when it invaded China; the country now became subject to Japanese imperialism. When the United States entered World War II, it supported those Chinese political factions that had benefited from previous business arrangements with the West. These forces, led by Chiang Kai-shek, were known in the United States as the Nationalist Chinese. The very semantic construction of the phrase meant that the Communists were “unnational,” and therefore “foreign,” not a real Chinese movement by any means. Consequently, the internal social dynamics of the Chinese revolution disappeared. When the Communist-led peasant revolution won in 1949, it appeared to the United States not as an internal social revolution, but as another instance of external Communist expansion ultimately controlled by the Soviet Union. Ironically, the Chinese Communist party had long been in severe conflict with the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin had not supported the revolution during the war because it conflicted with his own policy of a “united front” with the West against fascism! Some members of the United States State Department knew about the internal dynamics of the Chinese revolution, but they were purged during the 1950s because they were held responsible for the “loss of China” to communism.
In 1950, war began in Korea. The country had been provisionally divided into a Communist northern region and a right-wing military regime in the south. After a long period of military probes by both sides along the provisional boundary, North Korea invaded South Korea. The Korean War will not be explored in depth here; it is sufficient to say that the Korean War consolidated the notion that all Communist movements inevitably come from outside a country’s borders and are ultimately controlled by Moscow. Subsequently the United States began massive funding to the French to help them retain their colony, Vietnam, against internal national and social revolution led by Communists. When the French were defeated in 1954, the United States announced a doctrine which would make Vietnam contested grounds for decades.
The domino theory has been much discussed, but rarely scrutinized. ‘domino’ is a metaphor, but the nature of that metaphor has not been seen. On April 7, 1954, the original dominoes – the nations of Southeast Asia – stood up to be counted. President Dwight D. Eisenhower said: “You have a row of dominoes set up, and you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly, so you could have the beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.”35
The falling dominoes were soon joined by a popping cork. On April 26, Eisenhower said that Indochina resembled “a sort of cork in the bottle, the bottle being the great area that includes Indonesia, Burma, Thailand, all the surrounding areas of Asia.” Secretary of State Dulles added his verse a few days later in an address to a Senate and House Committee: “If Indochina should be lost, there would be a chain reaction throughout the Far East and Southeast Asia.”36
“Falling dominoes,” “cork in the bottle,” “chain reaction” – what theory is being proposed here? According to one radical historian, Gabriel Kolko, the domino theory constitutes a theory of modern history: “Translated into concrete terms, the domino theory was a counterrevolutionary doctrine which defined modern history as a movement of Third World and dependent nations – those with strategic value to the United States or its capitalist associates – away from colonialism or capitalism and toward national revolution and forms of socialism.”37
The failure of Kolko’s analysis concerns translation. He has translated the domino theory into the Marxist theory of society, a theory in which concreteness, history, national revolution, and forms of socialism – emphasis on the plurality – exist as elements of a conceptual framework for understanding the social world. However, in the domino theory, none of these concepts exists: the domino theory effectively abolishes the possibility of history, national revolution, and forms of socialism. The conceptual order it elaborates is entirely different.
“Falling dominoes,” “cork in the bottle,” “chain reaction” – these terms find their theoretical reference not in the social world of history, where men live and die, but in the lifeless world of Newtonian mechanics. The foreign Other, Communist antinature, invades and destroys the natural order of Vietnam (capitalism). If Vietnam “falls’ to communism, then the rest of Asia will surely follow, each fall from grace faster than its predecessor – an inevitable, inexorable mechanical process. Countries no longer have real histories, cultures, and social structures. The names of Asian countries become just that – names marking undifferentiated objects. And these names are inscribed upon a vast ledger, debit or credit, Communist or anti-Communist.
It is now time to name this ledger, to tie together constituent elements of the domino theory and other ideas that conceptualize the social world in terms of nature. The universe of post-World War II American foreign policy will be called mechanistic anticommunism. The demonic machine that lives outside of the natural capitalist order is the foreign Other. Technowar or the production model of war designates the military mode of strategy and organization in which war is conceptualized and organized as a high-technology, capital-intensive production process. The military and civilian executives who command the foreign policy and military apparatus are war-managers. History for them becomes a series of static points, each point measuring the balance of technological forces between the United States and the foreign Other. Some countries belong on the “credit” or capitalist side of the ledger; other countries belong to the ‘debit” or socialist side of the ledger. And still other countries, particularly Third World countries, become abstract sites for confrontation. No movement of a Third World country into the ‘debit” column is ever permanent: the ledger can be transformed by the introduction of more forces. To the war-managers, the policy of mechanistic anticommunism and Technowar against the foreign Other will ultimately produce victory. Since the United States has the most technologically advanced economy and warfare production system, then defeat by a nationalist social revolution in a peasant society becomes unthinkable.
There were no ‘mistakes’ made during the Vietnam War. Nor was there a failure of will; the ‘self-imposed restraints’ were only on official paper, not in Technowar practice. Instead, the Vietnam War should be understood in terms of the deep structural logic of how it was conceptualized and fought by American war-managers. Vietnam represents the perfect functioning of this closed, self-referential universe. Vietnam was The Perfect War.