Parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan
by Ingrid Naiman
A friend asked me to compare Vietnam and Afghanistan.
I would like to do this in a highly personal way because I am not
an historian or war correspondent.
I majored in Asian Studies and then got a master's degree in development
economics in 1964. In the summer of 1964, my Japanese roommate
and I came home after a night out in New York City. We turned on
the radio and I spit out some involuntary words, "That 'blinkity
blank' Johnson just got us into a war." Michiko thought I
was overreacting (and disagreed with me.) I spoke to a friend in
Communist Studies at Columbia University, another Japanese lady.
She thought I had not put the pieces together properly. All was
strangely silent in the press, and life continued as normal. I
felt no one understood what I thought I knew.
Michiko married and one of her friends asked if she and I could
be roommates. Fusako worked for the Japanese delegation to the
U.N. and we used to play Mah Jong all night Saturday night with
a bunch of Japanese diplomats. One night, instead of playing until
dawn, which was our custom, they apologized saying they had a lot
of work and had to leave early. I said,
"Working on the balance of payments to see how an expanded
war in Vietnam would affect the Japanese economy?"
Though I was working on Wall Street where no one seemed the slightest
bit interested or aware of what was happening in Vietnam, the Japanese
not only knew but thought this was highly confidential so their
only reaction to my rhetorical question was, "How did you
It's not because I spoke Japanese and had overheard anything but
because I know geography and realized immediately that if the event
described as the Gulf of Tonkin incident even happened, it was
because we were provoking attack so as to have an excuse to start
Time dragged on. Then, one day a man
named Paul Langer bumped
into my father at a party in Los Angeles. I had met
Dr. Langer at the airport in Honolulu when I was an exchange student
on my way to Japan for a year. He was traveling
with someone from my father's office (at Hughes Aircraft), a man
named Bernie Jaeger whom I had known for years. Bernie and
I had recognized each other and stopped to chat. He then
introduced me to the famous
Asian scholar, an awesome event for a 19-year old. Dr. Langer asked
a few questions and then whipped out an airline ticket and asked
me to read it in Japanese. He corrected my pronunciation
on one word, a memorable incident but hardly one that portended
an impact on my destiny.
Naiman is not a common name so Dr.
Langer asked my father if he was related to the Ingrid Naiman he
had met on her way to Japan in 1962. He then asked my father
if I were still interested in Asia. My father, never the meddler,
"Ask Ingrid" and gave him my phone number.
He called on a quiet weekend when I was creating masterpieces in
the kitchen. He asked if I would meet him for breakfast on Monday
in NYC. I said, "Certainly." Then, he called back and
proposed meeting for lunch in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. This
took more effort to arrange, but I met him. He was working for Rand
Corporation and Rand was ostensibly analyzing
the psyche of the North Vietnamese to find the Achilles heel, basically
what motivates a soldier to surrender or defect.
As I gradually came to understand, there are theories of war in
which a certain number of losses or a certain lowering of morale
results in surrender. I.e., a war cannot be won if morale is low,
if the war is unpopular, or if the enemy cannot find the recruits
to carry on its defense (or offense.) Beyond this imaginary
line in the psyche, there is a highly unpredictable terrain in
which furor at the enemy galvanizes the will so even losing armies
will fight to the last man, woman, and child. No one wants to cross
that line. Rand was trying to define the line so the U.S. could
build its policy around this occult knowledge, and it was trying
to determine what motivated a Viet Cong to surrender.
Rand tried to recruit me but after shaking hands in one office
building after another in DC, I suddenly had a lot of job offers.
Awed and confused, I returned to my apartment in New York, to my
kitchen, and when my hands were completely messy, the phone rang.
It was the White House. I said, "You must have the wrong number." The
person placing the call said, "If you are Miss Naiman, there
is a call from Robert Komer for you." Komer had the title
of "Special Assistant to the President for Non-Military Aspects
of the Vietnam Conflict."
Now, this is where the parallels are interesting because if you
speak French and you listened to Jacques Chirac and the President
make their joint statements to the press shortly after September
11th, you will have heard the American President refer to the "War" and
the French President say, "C'est ne pas la guerre, seulement
One of the journalists, I think Helen Thomas, immediately asked
the French President a question in what sounded to me like very
good French. Pres. Bush interrupted saying, "Helen, I didn't
know you spoke French." He obviously planned to stay in control
of the press.
Remember, Chirac was the first foreign dignitary to appear in front
of the White House to "show his solidarity" -- I presume
this solidarity was with the American people in a time of grieving.
The next press briefing that I recall was with the Indonesian head
of state, Megawati Soekarnoputri, a very guarded lady whose words
and body language clearly showed that she and the American president
had not agreed on much at all. Her statement was not even given
the courtesy of a proper translation. I happen to speak Indonesian
also so I was miffed at what our President was doing in terms of
foreign policy. Basically, despite his fine tailoring, he was exceptionally
rude and my long years in Asia suggest to me that rudeness never
brings good results. In the days that followed, everyone who visited
was referred to as a "friend,"
this president's hokey way of communicating difficult issues always
begins by the reassuring reference to friends, and only later did
his speeches contain the terrifying and bitterly resented use of
the word evil in reference to the countries "next on the list."
back to Vietnam. To make a long story short, I had six job offers
that would have resulted in my going to Vietnam and I ended up
taking a job with the Department of State. As soon as I accepted
the job, I went to a bookstore in Greenwich Village and bought
every book in the store on Vietnam. While I had majored in Asian
Studies, I had specialized in Japan and Indonesia and did not
know nearly as much about Vietnam though my mother and I had
visited a former roommate in Saigon at the time the Buddhist
monks were immolating themselves on the streets.
Despite the unrest, I remembered Vietnam as
exceptionally beautiful, hospitable, Confucian, and precariously
poised. My mother felt the cuisine was the best in the world.
She had prepared for her trip by studying all the recipes from
famous restaurants from Singapore to Hong Kong but concluded
that Vietnamese cuisine combined the best of French and Chinese
The first thing that leaped out of my crash
course on Vietnam was that in the previous 1000 years, they had
had two years of peace. Every statue was to a war hero and with
the endless conflicts, they had never developed the richness
of culture of some of their neighbors. For instance, they did
not develop the architecture of either Cambodia or Thailand,
the literature or philosophy or religion so typical of traditional
cultures in Asia. Rather, their language was merely a dialect
of Chinese, written in an alphabet learned from Christian missionaries
and adapted to the tonality of the language. My undergraduate
studies had been in anthropology and philosophy and I realized
this meant that the sense of identity that comes from culture
The second point to emerge in
my studies was that the "plan" the US was using in
Vietnam had been tried in Laos. . . where it failed, but the
people to implement the doomed plan were trained so they would
use that "plan"
whether it worked or not. There was apparently no effort to determine
why it failed in Laos nor any effort to perfect it so that it might
work. In other words, from day one, there never was any serious
intent to win, just to meddle in the affairs of a country that
most people in the States had never heard of before.
This point is in deep contrast to the situation in Afghanistan.
While the vast majority of Americans probably hadn't heard of Afghanistan,
much less the Taliban Regime, prior to 911, the US does have a
purpose in Afghanistan and it does plan to win. It wants a pipeline
from Central Asia to the sea. It wants to control
natural gas and petroleum for as long as possible and pursuant
to this plan, a lot of other diabolical measures are in place.
For instance, there has been ruthless suppression of alternative
energy for countless years but more so since this administration
came to office. There is also this heinous spraying of the skies
with aluminum to forestall global warming and thereby reap the
benefits of fossil fuels for another half a century. There is suppression
of information on alien
visitations because the technology of the space craft would
apparently be easy to emulate and render the petroleum industry
and its stepchild the pharmaceutical industry obsolete in an instant.
It would also shift the paradigm of power from a hierarchical structure
with extremely rich and powerful people at the top to a more equitable
and egalitarian structure that brings all villages in the world
a nearly costless supply of energy. It would change not only the
economics of power but also the philosophy of resources for switching
to renewable or inexhaustible resources would void all the Malthusian doctrines that have dominated for so long.
So, unlike Vietnam, Afghanistan is
for real. Vietnam had very few resources. Its principle export
was duck feathers and this company was owned by an Australian who
was kidnapped shortly after he married. I was at a party at his
home and was greatly relieved to hear from his bride that he had
been ransomed and would be safely released.
Of course, Vietnam had natural rubber and this industry was completely
ruined by Agent Orange, an
extremely nasty chemical now sold as Round Up and soon to found
in chemotherapeutic drugs due to a no longer secret agreement between
Proctor and Gamble and Monsanto (signed in the Netherlands and
somehow leaked to the press.)
Exactly how threatening natural rubber was to synthetic rubber,
I personally do not know. Perhaps Michelin can answer this since
they were the main consumers of natural rubber and they surely
used to make far better tires. Environmentally speaking, what happened
in Vietnam is unforgivable. What happened to those who were exposed
to Agent Orange is
as unpardonable as what happened to those in Desert Storm who now
suffer from Gulf War Syndrome. It's clear what happened to Monsanto:
it has grown to become one of the most politically powerful companies
in the world. It was a former lawyer from Monsanto,
Clarence Thomas, who cast the deciding vote to give the White House
to George W. Bush.
evil designs on the world, but why executives engage in evil is
another matter. Anyone can understand scientific curiosity and
the desire to discover, to understand, and to create, but no one
really can fathom the desire to dominate the world with terminator
seeds that can be used to trigger crop failures, scarcity, global
famine, pestilence, and genocide. This, I fear, is actually the
plan. For reasons that make no sense to anyone of sound mind, genetic
manipulation is for the purpose of systematic destruction of certain
populations. It is a political plan, not an economic plan; for
it makes no sense to decimate the world if this destroys markets.
On the surface, and I have almost no expertise here, it would appear
to be a shortsighted plan designed to maintain the base of power
of a few individuals and their families at the expense of the rest
of the world, people who do not count for anything . . .
. . . because what is different now than before is the capacity
to genetically engineer foods and medicines that are specific to
certain genetic traits and presumed to be harmless when such traits
do not exist. These genetically modified substances are already "everywhere." They
are in your food, on your plate, and in your garden. Nothing can
prevent cross-pollination with native species. Worse, these species
have been created using terminator seeds. Unlike self-propagating
species or species that surrender fertile seeds at the end of their
season, crops grown with terminator seeds are self-destructing.
Farmers have to go back to Archer Daniel Midlands and Monsanto
to buy new seeds, giving these companies virtual monopolies over
the global food supply . . . for the first time in Planetary history.
Folks, it's wrong.
We could argue until the end of time about economics and politics,
about air quality, pollution, and the rights of governments or
agents of governments to engage in activities that impact the entire
planetary community, but giving a monopoly over staple foods would
be like selling the right to breathe to a corporation that happened
to make large campaign contributions to certain candidates.
parallels to Vietnam are there and yet not exact. The war in
Vietnam was a war fought senselessly and almost without purpose.
It conferred promotions on many officers and brought politically
fatal shame to others. For instance, one might have thought that
Lodge was a viable presidential candidate but not if he sank
with the ship in Vietnam. There were dark horse candidates; and
positions on the Vietnam "conflict"
determined political fates. As the war accelerated, the US became
increasingly unpopular abroad, especially in Europe. I personally
believe this is already happening due to the war in Afghanistan.
In Europe, it is totally understood that the war in Afghanistan
has nothing to do with the events of September 11th. The British
foreign secretary, Jack Straw, and prime minister, Tony Blair,
have (reluctantly) admitted this and addressed the issues Parliament
raised. Would they have acknowledged these embarrassing facts if
a story hadn't leaked from India to the German press to the Guardian?
I don't know, but the cat is out of the bag and has been out for
So, while everyone agrees that there is a need to reduce/eliminate
terrorism, there is less consensus as to who did what and why and
whether this justifies dislocating millions of people in Afghanistan
and the neighboring countries.
It took many years for Americans to realize there
was a war in Vietnam. I arrived in Vietnam on December 3, 1966,
and the war hadn't yet reached Wall Street at that time. It became
news later and lost front page for a few days when things heated
up in the Middle East. Then, it stayed in the papers. Johnny Apple
was the chief correspondent for the New York Times; and he perhaps
did more than anyone else to make the war unpopular. We used to
talk about his stories. His wife was injured in an attack on the
US Embassy in Saigon. He said that when he made love to her and
his fingers touched her scars, he wrote the articles that would
make the war unpopular.
When we think of the convolutions of karma and what it takes to
put a person in a particular place at a particular time, we realize
how the coincidences can become hugely important if they are taken
seriously when they occur.
I stayed in Vietnam until July 1968. I was there
during the Tet Offensive and I ran
one courier mission to the Paris Peace Talks. I was in my mid-twenties,
not important in the scheme of things, but I was a conduit for
information and passed a lot of material on to people who could
do more with what I saw through my eyes.
My former grad school professor, Ruth Mack, was a high level advisor
in Washington. In the summer of 1968, she picked my brains for
every shred of information I had, constantly reassuring me that
every word would be used well. She didn't need to beg me for my
time. I remember sitting in her garden by the sea in Connecticut.
I told her the war wasn't worth one drop of anyone's blood. I told
her it would be difficult to make movies about the war because
there were no heroes and no heroic deeds. I told her that no mother
should lose a son and no wife should lose a husband over such a
The conversation ended the way many such conversations do. Ruth
was Jewish and she asked how I would have addressed Hitler if I
had been alive then. This question may perhaps never die, and I
don't have the answers. Ideally, people would refuse to give such
power to anyone. I'm a pacifist, unequivocal pacifist, no exceptions.
We do not solve problems through murder. We solve them by refusing
to empower those who misuse their power. We do this through boycotting,
through voting, through information and perhaps even civil disobedience,
but two wrongs do not make a right.
I feel my reminiscing has gone on too long,
but those who aren't interested will have hit delete by now anyway.
There are major differences between Vietnam and Afghanistan and
some similarities. Legally, Vietnam was a "conflict" not
a war; and as Bush made clear from day one, Afghanistan was to
be a war, not a "conflict." This confers many powers
on the president that neither Johnson nor Nixon had, and it doesn't
take much of a wizard to see that this administration is using
these powers to the limit and then some.
If Chirac had prevailed—and we have to assume he made the
trip so as to prevail, not because he personally wanted to wipe
tears off American faces—the events of 911 would have remained
and Congress would not have been disemboweled by the White House.
If justice and/or truth were even of the slightest interest to
the president, the terrorism would have led to a thorough investigation
of criminal deeds, the way any other act of violence is dealt with
through normal police and FBI channels. However, the president
obviously wanted a war. I am not a lawyer, but I personally doubt
that an individual or even a gang of individuals or cells of terrorists
can declare a war on a country. Wars are between sovereign nations,
not dissidents and governments. There are many ways to prevent
terrorism—if we seriously intend to prevent it—short
of telling terrorists what we are going to do and then bombing
There are also ways to build pipelines short of Kosovo and now
Afghanistan. What concerns me is that right relationships are really
the only key to global survival and this includes relationships
between all peoples everywhere and between all kingdoms of Nature
as well as crowns and heads of state. While
sympathy for America was never higher than on September 11th, we
are squandering the goodwill by actions that are considered excessive
and perhaps even useless.
My suspicion is that the reason we are no longer interested in
either bin Laden or Mulah Mohammed Omar is not that their bases
of power have been eroded but the power was never what it was purported
to be. I personally seriously doubt the Taliban had anything at
all to do with 911, but their fundamentalism stood in the way of
US ambitions. We indicted them with human rights violations while
ignoring that no matter how many women wore burquas before our
troops arrived, many of those women have now lost husbands and
children and others have fled to neighboring countries to escape
bombing. Again, two wrongs do not a right make and what we are
doing is wrong.
Vietnam did not end until our own casualties
reached the line our government felt would apply to the Vietnamese.
We did not have the stomach for war or for losses. Why anyone
does have a stomach for war is another thing. It was not all
that many years ago that Gandhi achieved independence for the
subcontinent of India without firing a single bullet. The film
about his life's work won many Oscars, but there can be no doubt
that the Oscars in the next season of awards will go to blow
'em up, shoot 'em up pictures.
This is because at the root of our national conscience, there are
no clear ethics. We pray on Sundays and compete on Mondays and
kill on Tuesdays. Survival is about cooperation, harmony, and mutual
respect. If we do not listen to the views of others, we risk the
loss of healthy relationship that stems from our own unilateral
behavior and the biases that function as rationalizations for this
behavior. I am not suggesting that we do not hunt down the perpetrators
of the crimes committed on September 11th, but I suspect this is
not even the goal of the administration. The fact that it wants
to hold nations accountable for deeds committed using our own aircraft
and operating out of our own airports and using our own airspace
suggests that the agenda is completely different than is being
by Ingrid Naiman 2001
Written in the Fall of 2001
Originally entitled "Snowing and Reminiscing"