BOOK REVIEW: The adults in the room have always been “Reckless”

In the Mel Brooks parody, “Space Balls”, the villainous character Darth Helmet brags to Lonestarr, the protagonist, that, “Evil will always triumph because good is dumb.”

This trope appears in fiction often, and some writers rely on it almost entirely.

The medievalist historian and culture critic Steven Atwell has observed that one of the central differences between George R.R. Martin’s worldview in the fantasy book series A Song of Ice and Fire and that of showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss in the HBO adaption Game of Thrones is that Martin will stack the cosmic deck against his “good” characters to give them more adversity while D&D treat nobility itself as a handicap, where evil is synonymous with competence, cunning, with a willingness to make the hard and necessary choices.

The early 21st-century genre of “prestige television” with its white male anti-heroes is predicated largely on this worldview, from Vic Mackey in The Shield to Frank Underwood in House of Cards, but it continues today and goes back to Kurtz in Apocalypse Now and beyond.

In contemporary reality, though, we have a president and administration that is an ever-overlapping Venn Diagram of racists, incompetents, and grifters rapidly approaching a perfect circle with every new cabinet departure and replacement.

Recently, that administration announced that Vietnam War refugees who’ve been living in the United States for 40 years or more are now subject to deportation. We can and should condemn that as yet another example of ethnic cleansing that it is. It’s the sort of behavior that’s cartoonishly evil except for that it’s actually happening and hurting real people.

That we are currently ruled by schmucks does not make their sadism less painful.

At the same time, there is a syrupy-sweet voice talking from the corners of New York Times opinion columns and conservative “former Republican luminaries” that suggests that everything could go back to normal if we just had the adults back in charge, that if people were a bit more civil and subtle as they went about pursuing policies that irreparably harmed marginalized people, and if they didn’t tweet rude, misspelt things, we’d all be OK.

Reckless: Henry Kissinger and the Tragedy of Vietnam by Robert K. Brigham is a great corrective on that impulse.

The adults in the room of past generations were simultaneously evil and incompetent, too.

Brigham demonstrates how Kissinger’s negotiations were never going to be successful when he cut the South Vietnamese government out of it. It actively harmed the war effort to treat Nguyễn Văn Thiệu‘s South Vietnamese government as a puppet state instead of a peer nation in its own right. That was an autonomy, notably, the North Vietnamese were able to maintain despite their reliance on Soviet and Chinese support.

Kissinger’s strategy was anything but effective realpolitik unless his only goal was narcissistic. When Kissinger cut out the State Department and much of the rest of the White House from Vietnam policy, and then catered to Nixon’s worst impulses of carpet-bombing civilians in multiple countries, it increased Kissinger’s own stature but meant that any policy decisions lacked the pushback to identify flaws in a plan before they were enacted. Once put into practice, they didn’t have broader institutional support they would have if the shortcomings had been hashed out and agreed to.

Kissinger thought the Soviet Union could be helpful in bringing the North Vietnamese to accept less favorable terms to them in negotiations, not realizing that the Soviets were also in an ideological struggle with China in the eyes of the Communist world. Being unable to consider the Soviet perspective outside of relations with the U.S. meant no diplomacy, however amoral, would amount to much.

Brigham writes:

“The Harvard professor who championed realism and linkage did not understand the basic needs of his major adversary.”

By bringing in contemporary accounts and a global perspective, Brigham shows how the North Vietnamese had a much stronger grasp than Kissinger on the realities that American foreign policy would have on the world, including its domestic political situation. When the people of the United States already wanted to withdraw its troops and go home, bombing the heck out of Hanoi and Cambodia-in-general didn’t do anything to change the fundamental structure of the conflict or make the North Vietnamese inclined to capitulate. The North Vietnamese negotiator Lê Đức Thọ understood all of this. Kissinger confused “military might” for “power” and ignored the world-as-it-was in terms of making decisions within a democratic government.

It may not be commonly regarded as brilliance, but there is a true genius in actually being able to think like other people and understand their situation better than they do. In that way, empathy and bothering to consider the perspectives of others dealing with a problem is inarguably a strength.

It’s easier to do so in retrospect than real time, but Brigham’s analysis succeeds in being convincing that it’s fair. Indeed, even with retrospect, Kissinger did not grasp it.

In 1973, after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Kissinger’s analysis of what they should have done differently was: “We should have bombed the hell out of them the minute we took office.”

The most important thing to know going in is that if you’re not already steeped in Vietnam War history, this is going to be a difficult book to read.

That’s not so much a weakness of the book as an aspect inherent in the subject matter. The conflict in Vietnam was one where the United States was but one player of many, and the familiar fictional framing Americans give ourselves as the flawed protagonists or anti-heroes of the conflict is not a deserved one.

Brigham’s writing isn’t showy. I imagine it’s as plain and jargon-free as it can be, but you have to have at least some passing familiarity with the figures and acronyms involved not to flip back to the front section of definitions every three or four minutes.

Clearly, its intended audience is those who already have opinions about Vietnam and Henry Kissinger in particular. The book’s central argument is that the real Kissinger had not even the mephistophelian virtue of ingenious wickedness.

The fictional Kissinger doesn’t mind the characterization of him as a war criminal so long as it preserves the idea that he was the smartest one in the room, restraining other, worse impulses. This is partially the character he created by writing his own draft of history and is preserved in more absurd personifications such as the cartoon Venture Brothers that includes a Marry Poppins-ish, umbrella-flying adviser whose advice nonetheless is always good.

Real evil isn’t always banal. Plenty of times it’s incompetent, too.

When Kissinger dies, some people will rush to defend him as a true statesman, someone who looked at the world to deal with it as it was and not as he’d like it to be. People will mourn Kissinger or equivocate, and many will do so based on the idea that all of the horrible things he helped accomplish were at least done so competently.

As we live in the present moment and see so much brazen, stupid evil, we are right to criticize it. We are right to despise it. But we are foolishly nostalgic to think that abusing people and disregarding what they think is ever the cleverer thing to do.

It’s stupid and bigoted and morally contemptible to expel Vietnamese refugees who fled to our shores to save their lives and the lives of their families decades ago. But the decisions behind them needing to flee were no less stupid, bigoted, or morally contemptible.

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