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Portrait of the enemy.

When the War Was Over Bitter Victory Portrait of the Enemy

Radicals of the sixties used to chuckle overthe irony of the most persistent criticism of the Vietnam war being squeezed between ads for Mercedes cars and Boehm chinaware in the pages of the chic New Yorker. There, long before The New York Times or The Washington Post turned their editorial backs on Lyndon Johnson, the regular dispatches of Robert Shaplen from Indochina hinted at his deep skepticism about American policy in Vietnam.

Shaplen's Indochina was laced with joss sticksand bougainvillaea and peopled with a cast of stone-faced Buddhist monks, bitter CIA agents, upbeat American colonels, shadowy Viet-Cong, and greedy Saigon politicians. Month after month, like dependable characters in some Asian soap opera, they, and we, sank deeper and deeper into a plot of inescapable doom. It was Vietnam as "Dallas,' a war fought, watched, and written about in a state of suspended disbelief.

I discovered Shaplen's Vietnam on the shelvesof the base library in Ft. Bliss, Texas, where, before going to Southeast Asia as an Army Intelligence agent handler, I had been sent to study Vietnamese in 1967. Shaplen's The Lost Revolution (1965) is a gloomy account of U.S. prospects that suggested America had frittered away a natural reservoir of good will among South Vietnamese and blundered destructively into an unwinnable war. On the day North Vietnamese tanks paraded into Saigon, Shaplen writes 20 years later in Bitter Victory,* he felt "remorse and shame' because the U.S. had so badly botched the war and destroyed Vietnam to boot. Afterwards, "like so many other Americans,' he writes, "I wanted to forget--or try to forget--what had happened in Vietnam.' And like so many of us, he couldn't.

* When the War Was Over. The Voices of Cambodia's Revolutionand Its People. Elizabeth Becker. Simon & Schuster, $19.95.

Nor could Elizabeth Becker, who covered thewar in Cambodia as a correspondent for several news organizations, including The Washington Post. Like Shaplen's Bitter Victory, Becker's book* is a return to the scene of the crime where a highly talented and serious reporter attempts to understand what went wrong.

* Bitter Victory, Robert Shaplen. Harper & Row, $16.95.

In Cambodia, teenage revolutionariespersuaded apprehensive city-dwellers to leave Phnom Penh by saying that the U.S. Air Force was coming back to bomb them. Then, behind closed borders, they virtually abolished the 20th century, putting the entire nation to work by hand on massive agricultural projects, and systematically murdering those suspected of having worked with foreigners. Being perceived as being hostile to "the organization,' or having been born to parents who were not peasants, was cause for death.

For this fate, Becker argues, the Cambodianshave no one to blame but themselves. "Ultimately, the Cambodians were victims of their own leaders, traditions and history,' she writes. "The Khmer Rouge revolution was conceived and administered entirely by Cambodians. The war that preceded the revolution was also the handiwork of Cambodian politics . . ..' Similarly, about post-war Vietnam, Robert Shaplen concludes that "it is more the fault of the Vietnamese than anyone else that their victory has not been savored and that they are still struggling to achieve peace, let alone prosperity.'

Such judgments amount to a distinct reversalin the portrayal of Southeast Asian revolutionaries by the American Left. Along with Portrait of the Enemy,* a compelling volume mostly of interviews with former Viet-Cong fighters and political officials, these books provide damaging new information on the Indochinese communists --information that, in the case of Becker and Shaplen, comes from authors with impeccable liberal credentials. There seems to be a clear revisionist theory emerging here, in which America is no longer the primary source of trouble in Indochina.

* Portrait of the Enemy. David Chanoff, Doan Van Taoi. RandomHouse, $17.95.

A pool of gasoline

Few have been harmed so thoroughly by theIndochina wars as the unlucky Cambodians. The mass executions carried out by the victorious Khmer Rouge in the "killing fields' of Cambodia struck most people as an anomaly; Cambodia's had seemed such a peaceful and, more importantly, homogenous culture. Few experts believed the early reports of a bloodbath. Elizabeth Becker demonstrates, however, that Cambodia was highly susceptible to a home-grown strain of fascism that led to the mass de-urbanization and genocide of 1975-78. As early as 1970, beneath its placid Buddhist veneer, Cambodian society was boiling with class and cultural resentment: city vs. country, peasant vs. landlord, taxi driver vs. bartender, bureaucrat vs. petitioner, light skin vs. dark. In the first draft of a constitution that took a page out of Mein Kampf, the U.S.-supported dictator, Lon Nol, paid homage to his own Cambodian Aryans: the so-called "Khmer-Mon,' who were allegedly descended from a mythical "Angkorian era' of Asian political hegemony. Becker leads the reader to wonder if the Khmer Rouge hadn't come along, maybe the Lon Nol regime, which overthrew Prince Norodom Sihanouk, would have taken a crack at mass murder.

This, along with Becker's recounting of PhnomPenh's collapse and the heart-rending confessions of bewildered Cambodian peasants as they faced beheadings at the hands of "the organization,' provides gruesome reading about a subject which has too long been overshadowed by the liberal obsession with the secret U.S. bombing of Cambodia, the importance of which in the rise of the Khmer Rouge Becker can't seem finally to determine.

Where Becker falls short is in her ambitiousattempt to analyze Khmer Rouge ideology in an intellectual framework. Were Pol Pot and his cronies the Marxist-Leninists they proclaimed themselves to be, or did they just cynically employ communist buzzwords to dazzle their recruits while exploiting the darker impulses of Cambodian society? Were they secret fascists born of a particular mutation of Cambodian society, as she sometimes suggests, or did they merely arise in the tradition of Asian millenarian cults? Becker says that because Stalin and Mao Tse-tung murdered people in the name of the party, "the communist tradition suited' the systematic murders of the Khmer Rouge, which is a less than satisfying explanation. Not all communist dictators launch holocausts.

Becker does succeed in demonstrating thatCambodia was a pool of gasoline waiting for the torch; with our bombing, we ignited all the cultural, social, and ideological ingredients later at work in the Cambodian killing fields. But the question of whether the violence was intrinsically Cambodian or communist remains important, and unanswered.

"We stabbed her in the chest'

As a serious journalist, Robert Shaplen bringsextraordinary gifts to bear on the question of why, after having fought for 40 years, the Vietnamese can't seem to capitalize on their victory over the U.S. With the self-assurance that is the due of an observer who first arrived in Saigon in 1946, he succeeds brilliantly in answering it. Returning for a five-week visit in 1984, he discovered a Vietnam just emerging from a deep ideological struggle. In the first years following the end of the war, hardliners in Hanoi had ruined the southern economy with collectivization and had led the army into a quagmire in Cambodia. "Coupled with Chinese hostility and bad luck, including bad weather,' such miscalculations had driven a million desperate Vietnamese into boats. Left to their own devices, the communists had wrought upon themselves what no amount of American money, troops, airpower, artillery, or diplomacy could: mass domestic discord and international isolation.

This was Marxism-Leninism at work, "theapex of human though,' as chief North Vietnamese theoretician Truong Chinh had put it. But Shaplen discovers that the "most significant postwar development in Vietnam is the economic turnaround that began in 1979-80.' The Vietnamese, proving resilient once more, simply rethought their Marxist economic ways. In interviews with top Hanoi officials, Saigon bureaucrats, and peasant farmers, Shaplen elicits "Vietnam's bold-if-belated acceptance of its failures to date and of the need to overhaul the foundations of its economy.' Not surprisingly, the overhaul meant introducing profit incentives to rice growers, allowing capitalists to exist alongside the "socialist' economy, devaluing the currency along realistic rates, and establishing a system of "pay according to work.' Just in case the ideologues hadn't gotten the message, Le Duan, a top Vietnamese official, declared in a major speech that a worker's main motive should be "personal interest.' Economic egalitarianism, he sniffed, "was an erroneous tendency alien to Marxism.'

After one million combat fatalities against theAmericans, the Vietnamese also had scores to settle. One estimate indicated that communist officials executed 65,000 people for "political crimes' between 1975-1983, and the regime undoubtedly still maintains a vast prison system for recalcitrants. The officials unemployment rate is 20 percent, but unlike in a comparably weak economy in the West such as, say, Jamaica's, people are afraid to complain about it. Shaplen evocatively transmits the general sense of fear and uncertainty.

It is a relief, though, that Shaplen declines tojam Vietnam's lack of civil liberties down our throats; he expects his readers to understand that Ho Chi Minh City is not Washington, D.C. Instead, he takes us inside the revolution and lets the Vietnamese explain it themselves. Over cocktails and dinner on the roof of the old Majestic Hotel in Saigon ("Ho-ville' to foreign visitors), Nguyen Ngoc Dung, a middle-aged former diplomat assigned to implement Hanoi's political program in the south, tells Shaplen that she tries to inculcate "socialism' through everyday tasks, such as getting all the neighborhood organizations in the city "to eliminate their own slums, to build new houses where they could, to put in new drainage pipes.'

"We learned from experience,' Dung went on,"when the [hardliner's] reforms failed several years ago, that we can't be too rigid or dogmatic. By getting people to work together in the right way, we can help them overcome their hostilities. We're still finding things out about economic efficiency--what works and what doesn't-- through trial and error. All this is not made easier by our many shortages and scarcities, but it's all part of the transition to socialism.'

Disenchantment with socialism is also thefocus of Portrait of the Enemy. Somehow, David Chanoff and Doan Van Toai (who after the war briefly served in the communist government before being jailed and later escaping) have managed to track down former Viet-Cong and assemble a riveting collection of oral histories. One that stands out is the account of a VC assassin sent to execute a woman who had been arrested by the government and then had betrayed her comrades to interrogators. Knife in hand, he and another assassin slipped into her house one night disguised as government soldiers.

She was sleeping and obviously pregnant,near term. But I couldn't afford any indecisiveness. I had orders to kill her. So we woke her up . . ..

Once we got her out into the open I toldher, You have harmed the Liberation Movement a lot. The people have sentenced you to death and I have been given the job of executing you. Before, you were my friend. But now you are my enemy. If I spare you, I will be killed myself.' She didn't say a word. Then I asked her if she knew she deserved her death. She replied in quite a normal voice, "Yes, I realize I will die. Go ahead with your mission.' No begging for mercy. We took her over to the road and stabbed her in the chest. She slumped down without a moan. She knew that it was a consequence of what she had done against the Front.

That was in April, 1970. I regret that Ikilled her while she was pregnant. I should have waited for her delivery.

By the accounts in Portrait of the Enemy,relatives in North Vietnam rarely, if ever, got a single letter from their loved ones at the front. Not even death notices were sent. Both VC and NVA troops alike were literally expected to anonymously "water the south with their blood.' And for decades they did. It was always puzzling to me why so many VC began defecting in 1968-69, when from our perspective they seemed so close to winning; the account of one VC guerrilla lends evidence to the revisionist view that the U.S. might have forced a stalemate in the war with even heavier bombing. "One of the things that demoralized a lot of guerrillas were the B-52 attacks. The fear these attacks caused was terrible. People pissed and shat in their pants. You would see them come out of their bunkers shaking so badly it looked as if they had gone crazy.'

But, of course, they hadn't. They hung on towin. But then the party that had forged Vietnamese peasants into the world's most disciplined army, that during wartime had orchestrated international public opinion like a symphony, suddenly lacked the sophistication to manage a nation at peace. With the onset of hostilities from Peking, the party further alienated the most skilled merchants and managers among its own Chinese population and plunged the country into mass paranoia--and more war. The irony is that Vietnam, according to Shaplen's account, seems to have veered from complete economic disaster only by taking steps toward greater individual liberties and small-scale capitalism, very much like the Chinese, whom they despise for their ideological deviation and cooperation with the West. The Vietnamese might well take the latter step themselves.
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Author:Stein, Jeff
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1986
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