BTW, CivCon’s sister group, founded by Gary G. and now led by Jim Z., has a great topic for its January 9th (Tuesday) meeting, FYI. Details here:
Fifty years ago 485,000 American troops were serving in Vietnam, and in November, 1967, alone almost 500 died there (sources 1 2). Since 1968 began our long, cruel exit from that place, we will be inundated with anniversaries over the next few years. Also, many of us saw at least some of the 15-part Ken Burns’ PBS series on the war that ran last month. I thought it would be a good time to discuss an age-old topic: What should we have learned from the Vietnam War, and did we learn it?
Candidates for lesson-hood are many. Off the top of my head, possible ones include (in no particular order ideological or otherwise) the following.
- Don’t take over other countries civil wars.
- Distinguish vital national interests from peripheral ones – and be willing to live with the consequence.
- Don’t abandon an ally after you spend a decade fighting the enemy to a standstill (Congress cut off military aid in 1973).
- Cutting losses beats compounding them forever just to preserve “America credibility.”
- Counter-insurgency is a different kind of warfare – and easy to lose.
- Carpet bombing cities cannot break an enemy’s will.
- Americans can be as brutal in war as anybody else.
- Don’t assume all U.S. adversaries worldwide are united against us (USSR/China/N. Vietnam; Al Qaeda/ISIS/Hezbollah).
- Anti-war protests can – or cannot – stop a war.
- Protests rarely are popular, especially if the most anti-American elements get out in front.
- Military power alone can’t win wars.
- U.S. wars require broad public support or at least “silent majority’s acquiescence.
- Poor Americans shouldn’t bear all the burden of the fighting.
- Huge wars cause huge refugee flows and we need to have a plan.
- The government sometimes tell big, whopping lies.
- The Best and the Brightest often are neither.
- Domino theories are stupid. Or: Sometimes they come true.
- The USA is an imperialist power. Or: No, the Left just thinks we are.
- Journalists reporting war’s ugly details saps public support.
- We shouldn’t let our troops fight with “one hand tied behind their backs.”
- Americans hate to lose so much we create myths when it happens (like one hand behind or stab in the back).
I could list these all night. You probably can, too, since most of us in Civilized Conversation were alive and/or adults during the Vietnam War era and several of us were there. I doubt you need much background material, either. Here are a few timelines and summaries of the conflict, along with some “lessons learned/unlearned” retrospectives. I’m egregiously adding a few readings on the parallels between Vietnam and the wars on terror, Iraq, etc.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Timelines: Basis timeline major stuff only. More detailed.
- U.S. military:
- Our troops did NOT fight with one hand behind their backs.
- It was a war on civilians. Recommended.
- Lessons learned according to General H.R. McMaster, Trump’s Natl Security advisor. Recommended.
- U.S. anti-war movement – All recommended:
- Ken burns series:
- Conservative POVs:
- Lessons for our current wars:
NEXT WEEK: Understanding the Prosperity Gospel.
If you can remember the decade you weren’t there. Wait, that’s the 1960s. Anyway, we did a meeting on the 1960s (pre-blog) and on the 1970s, too. They were pretty good ones, I thought, even though admittedly it is a little arbitrary to consider ten year periods as distinct epochs, especially ones with first and last years ending with zeros.
Still, most CivCon members were alive in the 1980s. Where were you? What do you recall as significant about the 80s? Did the events and trends you thought were important then still seem that way now? If you were not an adult in the 1980s, what did you learn about it and how? What’s the consensus on what came out of that decade?
Below are the usual ABC-level discussion questions, and links to timelines of events to refresh your memories and to some commentary on a few of the big things that happened or trended in the 80s. I will start Monday’s mtg with a “Where were you” question for the group and we can go from there.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Where were you? How did you experience the 1980s? How did the perch you viewed it from affect your perspective?
- Major events of the 1980s: USA + abroad? Which ones were foundational from today’s perspective and which were ephemeral?
- Major changes in U.S. culture and people’s lives, same questions?
- Looking backwards: How inevitable was what happened? What about the 1980s could (should?) have gone differently?
- 30 years from now? What might we infer from our 1980s vs. now assessment about how history develops and how well we can predict what things today will have lasting significance?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- CivCon mtgs: The 1970s. The Reagan Presidency.
- Timelines of the 1980s:
- Overall assessments of the 1980s:
- Special topics of importance:
- Reagan’s presidency:
NEXT WEEK: Is it hard to be a man these days?
[Update Saturday: See above for Ali’s suggested readings for this topic.]
[DavidG’s original post follows]
Ali had this great topic idea for the day before Independence Day. At least I think it’s great. It seems to me like fundamental and long-standing notions of what America stands for are up for grabs. A lot of it is Trump’s election, sure. But I think it goes much deeper than just him.
We just seem to be re-litigating bedrock principles these days. Should the United States remain a world leader and provider of expensive global public goods? Does the 20th century American social contract need to be junked or expanded? Are we still a nation of immigrants? Arguably, even very basic aspects of our democracy are in doubt, like voting rights and federalism. I guess the exact meanings of even basic principles are always in flux in a modern democracy like ours. Still, something sure seems different to me.
Luckily for all concerned, I have no time this weekend to over-think this topic, so I won’t give much of any opening presentation. Instead, I will give Ali first crack at opining. So we don’t just have everybody pontificating all night on their broad (uselessly vague?) vision of America, I will step in from time to time during the discussion to bring up specific points for us to debate. Happy 241st birthday to us.
OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READING –
- The Constitution, note its Preamble
- The “American Creed” and oath of citizenship.
- Presidential opinion: Lincoln’s 2nd inaugural 1865; FDR’s 2nd 1937; Kennedy’s 1961, Reagan’s 1st 1981.
- Obama on patriotism, 2008. Recommended. Obama at Selma, AL, 2015. The silly debate over Obama’s belief in American exceptionalism.
- U.S. public opinion re: America’s greatness, its place in the world, and which freedoms are essential to democracy.
- Global opinion re USA: 2016 pre-Trump, 2017 under Trump.
- Nationalism: The 3 types of American nationalism. Recommended
- Trump: His values-free foreign policy and 19th century view of our global role. Recommended.
- Citizenship: Let’s restore its meaning in America. Recommended, but longish.
NEXT WEEK: Is technology ruining our…attention spans?
Candidate Donald Trump’s explicit appeal to nostalgia, to “make America great again,” was one of the keys to his victory. We never “win” anymore and he alone (!) knew how to return us to our former greatness. It would be essay to do, actually, since the only thing keeping us from a restoring this glorious past was weak leaders. Political sophisticates laughed it all off, confident that, like other populists, he was just telling folks what they wanted to hear, that the best of a gauzily-recollected past could be easily restored through force of will.
Who’s laughing now? More specifically for Monday’s meeting, what did President Trump mean about making “us” “great” “again?” What did the voters that responded to it hear? Why are so many Americans so nostalgic suddenly and why? A sea of ink has been spilled already trying to answer those questions, so I thought we should take our best shot.
I imagine our main focus will be trying to understand why and how Trump marshalled a vague nostalgia and those beliefs’ ongoing role in our current political crisis. But, I think a close look at the phenomenon could be enlightening in other capacities. The study of nostalgia appears to be its own little sub-field in social science these days. According to Professor Google, experts believe that feeling nostalgic about the past (whether a real or imagined past) is common. It’s normal and even healthy. Every generation pines for the good old days. Even these kids today, with the hair and the clothes and the Mary Jane.
But, a lot of people have commented on the dark undertone of today’s highly-politicized nostalgia. Trump’s vision of an American Carnage is of a glorious past betrayed by domestic traitors and rapacious foreigners. It’s zero-sum and divisive, authoritarian, and pretty much unobtainable the way he promised it. Still, in my opinion voters’ desire to go back to happier times should not be haughtily dismissed as only a desire for restored White supremacy or U.S. hyper-dominance and imperialism. I think we could have a great discussion on many aspects of this topic, not just the worst ones. Maybe using these questions.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What is nostalgia? Are there different kinds of it or motives for it? What psychological and sociological functions does it perform?
- Are Americans really more nostalgic than usual these days? Why? Who is the most/least nostalgic and what does that tell us?
- What specifically do (some) people want back? (e.g., personal/physical security? Economic opportunity/independence? Societal respect? Societal morality or hierarchy? Racial, ethnic, or gender privilege? National prestige/domination?)
- Who and what do they blame?
- How did nostalgia get weaponized for our current political era?
- Can politics really restore any of these things? What do people want our leaders to do?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Nostalgia is good for you. Recommended.
- Every U.S. generation…
- Consumerism drives a lot of our nostalgia. Interesting.
- Technology could change nostalgia A LOT. Even more interesting.
- Don’t panic over nostalgia its’ mostly harmless. It’s a misplaced yearning by both Left and Right.
- Panic. Trumpism is…
- The traditional family: “The way we never were.” [link fixed]
- Let’s not yearn for the Cold War.
NEXT WEEK: Sanctuary cities.
It started on June 5, 1967, and was all over by June 10. In response to Egyptian military mobilization and naval blockade, Israel’s air force attacked Egypt pre-emptively. Syria and then Jordan joined in, backed by other Arab countries, and Israeli ground forces fought and won on three fronts. An armistice (not peace) was signed on June 11.
As you know, the Six Day War transformed the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. To quote a 50th anniversary NYT retrospective the war “tripled Israel’s landmass overnight and gave it dominion over the lives of more than a million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” It also gave Israel control of the Sinai desert and Golan Heights, killed off pan-Arabism, and set the stage for five more decades of war and strife. Just for starters.
I don’t really have an agenda on this one. I know there is a lot of historical controversy concerning a number of revisionist histories of the Six Day War and its immediate aftermath. I just don’t follow these issues closely enough – nor do I have the time – to link to all of the major POVs and arguments. I just thought it would be interesting to try to take a half-century perspective on the war’s legacy. Perhaps some of you are well-versed in this particular era.
Here is some general background on the Six Day War and a few retrospectives.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- [Update: Here’s a good article recommended by Ali.]
- ABCs: Wiki’s Six Day War entry.
- NYT on anniversary, inc. new scholarship on the war and its legacy. Recommended
- Six Day War was a watershed moment in Middle East history in ways you might not guess. Recommended.
- The War changed Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Recommended.
- But, was it a “just war?”
NEXT WEEK: What should Americans be nostalgic about?
It might seem odd to discuss a subject like this these days. Our current president embodies White grievances against minorities and foreigners and he has elevated outright White Nationalists to key government positions.
But, I’ve got some reasons. First, this topic compels us to examine American history from a different perspective than most of us are used to doing. The case for reparations for some form of reparations for African-Americans is not intended as a kind of punitive damages or monetary apology for slavery. As reparations’ most articulate recent advocate argues, it is about the edifice of exploitation that today’s White privilege stands atop right now and going forward. Maybe it’s a bad, wrong argument. But, it is about the present and future as much as the past.
Another reason is that acknowledging the truth of terrible historical injustices and in some instances and in some form compensating the victims is an accepted principle of international law in the 21st century. It’s called “transitional justice,” and it has been tried in a number of countries, such as Germany (reparations to Holocaust victims) and South Africa (truth and reconciliation commissions).
Lastly, the subject of reparations for African-Americans had a brief moment of prominence a few years ago for a reason that is erfect for this group: Because of a single, extraordinary article. “The Case for Reparations” in the June 2014 Atlantic Monthly was written by a brilliant young African-American intellectual named Ta Nehisi-Coates. I linked to it below, and to some representative critiques of its conclusions and recommendations.
If you have never read the Nehisi-Coates piece I highly encourage you to do so before Monday’s meeting. His argument – which are entirely about what happened after slavery ended, BTW – are not above criticism, obviously. But, at the least he makes a strong case for seeing our country’s history in a new (for many of us) light.
I am out of town this week. Be nice to each other.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Restorative justice has been / is being used –
- Wiki entry on transitional justice.
- It’s been used in different countries.
- U.S. Govt paid $4 billion to Native Americans recently, but it wasn’t reparations.
The Case for U.S. Slavery Reparations –
- The Case for Reparations, by Ta Nehisi-Coates, The Atlantic Monthly June 2014. Your sole must-read, even though it’s long.
- In support of his argument and reparations. Okay, okay – includes a short summary of Nehisi-Coates article.
- His argument does NOT rest on calling today’s White people racists. Recommended.
- Reparations by one estimate would cost less than Trump’s tax cut.
The Case Against –
- From the moderate Right.
- From the Right. Nehisi-Coates rebuts it here. Both recommended.
- From the pissed-off-at-the-very-idea Right.
- From somebody on the White Left. Meh.
NEXT WEEK: Encouraging healthy lifestyles – How much govt activism is too much?
We love to talk about the lessons of history in this group. Searching our website I count half a dozen meetings on the “lessons of” some particular historical event. We have had meetings on judging the successes and failures of various U.S. presidents, and we discussed which were the best and worst ones. (I think we may have to update the Worst list pretty soon.) We even spent an evening asking “how will future historians judge us.” I always enjoy these meetings.
Monday’s topic is about historical judgment, too. But, it is a little more challenging, I think. By asking us which moral standards we should be using to render historical judgments, the topic asks us to judge ourselves as well as the past. It compels us to make explicit the moral values that always lie behind our historical judgments, even if they usually are left unspoken. History only has lessons (and heroes and villains) if we supply the moral metric.
Also, there’s a sub-field of philosophy that wrestles with issues like what history is, to what uses it can be put, and how the present colors our perceptions of the past. It’s called the “philosophy of history.” I believe. I will try to learn a little bit about the field’s basic concepts and use it on Monday to guide our discussion. I think the true art of the meeting will be if we can learn to think about this stuff in different ways.
I will also make a short list of historically-controversial people and events and ask the group about them as needed (e.g.; Jefferson, the Confederacy, Truman/Hiroshima, Malcolm X, etc.).
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Our 2011 meeting on how will future historians judge us and last year’s mtg on Thomas Jefferson’s legacy..
- Should we condemn our ancestors’ moral failures?
- The problem of “presentism.” Recommended.
- Useful perspectives:
- The past is so distant to us that it is hard to imagine what people were like – or should be expected to have been like. Fascinating.
- Ask yourself this: How might our descendants judge us? Recommended.
- Conservative POV: Howard Zinn and other leftists distort history to teach moral lessons, leading to bad history.
NEXT WEEK: Jewishness – Faith, ethnicity, culture, or nationality?