Sunday, October 21, 2007

Winning and Losing in Vietnam -- the Demands of National Honor

This is a paper that I wrote at home in the apartment on N Street during the winter of 1970-1971. I was working on the Lao desk at State, and in the position that covered the Lao part of Indochina in INR, at the time. It was never published then in any way. I thought that it had been lost, which was a matter of regret because I'm very proud of it, but a copy of it recently turned up, and so it's been retyped into a digital text by Norma, and is now entered into the web log.

Washington, D.C.

Winter 1970-1971

Winning and Losing in Vietnam --- the Demands of National Honor

One observer has been struck by the persistent, inextinguishable quality of the American intention not to see ourselves end on the losing side in Vietnam. In a democratic country this drive has expressed itself through three Presidents, drawn from both parties, and through Congress over a period of a decade in the face of major economic costs added to the loss of more than 50,000 American lives and a million non-American ones. Such a sustained policy must tap fundamental roots of our national and individual makeup, and it seems clear that concern for our national honor has been involved.

Peter Lydon
2823 N Street, N.W., 202-339-4251

The idea of honor, even national honor, has come up often enough in American discussion of Vietnam to draw attention to itself as a concept that may have played a significant role in deciding our actions in the war. The expressions “an honorable end to the war,” “an honorable solution,” and “peace with honor” have been used repeatedly in the statements of Presidents Johnston and Nixon, in the declarations of both supporters and opponents of the war effort, and in the conversations of ordinary citizens throughout the country who have felt troubled or threatened by the struggle between us and the remote, dimly understood forces in Asia.

It is interesting that a word which clearly expressed something important in the thinking and feeling about the war of a great many people should be used by different persons for strikingly different purposes. Many doves, perhaps particularly many young people of the country, believe that the war is dishonorable, and that honor will only be found by ending it. Many hawks seem to feel that any ending of the war that is not victory, or at least a non-defeat, will be a loss of honor. For such people, the only honorable course is to keep up the fight with money and machines, if with fewer American troops than in the past.

Different people, at the opposite ends of the range of opinions on Vietnam, apply the word “honorable” to opposite courses of action. Honor seems to be a term with either a very slippery definition, or not much specific content and yet we know that it is not a useless of meaningless word, since it occurs with insistence on an important subject, and usually expresses feelings of considerable intensity.

Let us note, though, that “honor” is not a term used only by advocates of the opposite polar policies for Vietnam. On the contrary, the term also comes up again and again in the conversation of people who belong to the large middle group on the issue. Such people, indeed, are often so much "in the middle” that they have no clear picture of their own of what would be a desirable outcome of the war, but rather cling to a perplexed hope that the President will be able to find an honorable solution, and lead the country to it. These “undecided” citizens, among whom are many intelligent and well informed people, recognize the importance of an honorable role for the United States, but do not know how to apply the concept with assurance in Southeast Asia. They are surely numerous, even though when it comes to exercising influence with practical suggestions they often have little more to offer than the hope that the solution found be honorable, and that an honorable solution be found. The middle group can be seen as the citizens
waiting for a definition of the honor of the country, or at least for discussion of the problem. The following observations are put forward to offer some grist for the reflection of people in this frame of mind. This is of more than abstract importance, because despite the apparent domestic stalemate on Indochina, in a political situation where the hardened extremes are about equally matched, it is the central group, which, when it makes up its mind, can decide the question.

It is indeed perplexing that a single word like honor should bear such heavy psychological freight, and at the same time seem able to bear it off into contrary directions, or no direction at all. How can the notion of honor have no agreed-upon content and at the same time seem important enough to be used by so many people?

Let us suggest that honor is not so much a vague word as it is a highly subjective one. Each person uses it for highly personal purposes. When an individual plays back to himself a picture of his actions and finds that his standards have been met, he sums this up by coming to the satisfying conclusion that he is an honorable man. (This can be done in at least two ways. A person can inspect himself in an external, social way, that is to say, look at the image of himself that is reflected back from his friends’ eyes and if he finds esteem there, conclude that his honor is not in question; or it can be a more interior process, whereby he measures his actions against an internal set of standards which gives him a clear bill of health, or denies it.)

In either case, the judgments of whether honor is safe or dishonor looms, seem very diverse. Two men perform the same action; one finds it upon review to be a high moment of honor, from which he draws comfort and pride, while the other, considering the same actions, may conclude, with a feeling of shame, that it was weak and dishonorable. It is not surprising that opinion should be divided about the honorableness of our national policies, which are the collection actions of all of us.

We have seen that in the Vietnam debate the notion of honor has been invoked repeatedly, intensely and with perceptible political effect upon large groups, in favor of both sides and the center of the question. What are the looming images of honor and dishonor which have influenced our actions and our views on Vietnam?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

While remembering that almost all real people in fact fall somewhere in the middle, we can, I think, discuss two alternative, polar, conceptions of honor or self-respect.

At one extreme, for certain persons honor seems closely linked to the idea of victory, winning triumph, strength, ascent, straight on: freedom from the necessity to change an established pattern of action. Dishonor, for such people comes from loss, defeat, weakness, descent, agonizing reappraisal, the necessity ot alter a chosen course of action, the admissions of a mistake, the obligation to express regrets, and apologies.

At the other extreme, honor is related by other persons to observance of the rules, to non-sinning, to respect and even love for others, disinterestedness, and control of one’s own aggressive impulses. Dishonor for such people comes from yielding to their own more primal desires, from being egotistical and violent.

At root dishonor for the first type of person is to lose, to have his weakness exposed, to be a victim, while for the second person, dishonor is to kill or hurt another, to be a killer. “Death before dishonor” for the first sort of person means it is better to die fighting than to lose; for the second, better to suffer death than to kill, to impose death on another.

No real person clings to these impossibly pure absolutes. Nonetheless, a man who will explain what he considers to be honorable conduct and what he views as dishonorable will tell a great deal about important balances within himself. The first attitude is the honor of the aggressive aspect of the id, and the second a view of honor generated by a strong super-ego. The first is the honor of a person who seems himself, probably not fully consciously, as struggling valiantly and vitally against a strong hostile, and aggressive world. The second is the code of a person constructed so that he believes, probably also largely unconsciously, that his first struggle is against forces within himself. His code asserts not so much the imperatives of the individual, himself, as the imperatives of society, since for the continued existence of society the first rule for the individuals within it must be “Thou shalt not kill.”

Let us consider our two polar types more closely, and then relate them to the problem of American honor in Vietnam.

Our first person – let us call him Type A – considers defeat to be dishonor If he takes honor and dishonor seriously, such a perspective greatly multiplies the importance of not suffering any meaningful defeats. This outlook will make him a competitive person willing to commit heavy resources from other parts of his life to avoid defeat, or recognition of defeat, in any sphere of his activity in which it threatens. To justify to himself or to those around him the spending of time and energies, and perhaps lives, on the competition in which he is engaged, personally or vicariously, he must give it the weight of an important event. Once this is done, losing is even more to be avoided and victory all the more essential. More resources are therefore committed. With each turn of this commitment cycle, it is harder to back out. For a person who cannot allow himself or herself to lose, the stakes and pressures of any conflict can only go up as long as victory is not found.

If victory cannot be found, and yet to preserve honor it must be found, – and the stakes and importance of finding it are on a rising course – then there is no choice but to commit further resources. These may be resources, for example, of time or of budget, but in every resource eventually an economy of scarcity prevails, and what is committed to one struggle must be drawn from other enterprises or alternative uses. Human attention is of course, such a resource. As commitment to a conflict grows, inevitably attention is drawn from other possible objects of awareness to concentrate on the conflict, and within the conflict, on the crucial question for a Type A person; “am I winning or losing?” When success is elusive there is increasing concentration on the threatening problem, and a closing in, a more and more narrow and intensely focused tunnel vision, progressively excludes attention to other factors. Serious weighing, for example, of what will happen in time ranges beyond the immediate upcoming episode of the battle, becomes difficult or impossible.

We have all observed such reactions in people who believe intensely that because this may be the first time our country has suffered defeat in war, America’s national honor is at stake in Vietnam. The drama becomes very internal and personal. The stakes of genuine effort and sacrifice that such people generate often reach great heights. Considerations, including heavy costs to themselves, that are opposed to pursuing victory are depreciated or blocked out. For consistency of attitude, and due to an inevitable shortage of the resource of attention, an insensitivity or anesthesia develops to aspects of the action that do not have directly and positively to do with the problem of winning, or at lease avoiding losing.

In particular, unintended effects on the adversary and on bystanders to the struggle of the subject’s own actions are ignored. While the pressing internal question of losing or winning remains posed and predominant, the A subject has no attention left, and therefore fails to observe or react to the harmful effects of the struggle on everyone who is affected by it, including himself. As preoccupation intensifies, it becomes as matter of indifference to him that the locale of the war is being damaged that the rules are being broken, and that he himself is paying heavy costs. The relationship of present expenditure of effort to long range plans fades in relevance and importance. Long range difficulties are easily covered with rationalizations, which are not so much lies, as a mechanism to postpone consideration and evaluation of factors for which there is not time available, since they are not directly related to the immediate problem of saving victory, which is essential for self-respect.

Intense preoccupation, in blotting out external factors, also blots out the proportions between struggle-concerns and non-struggle concerns, and in this way also perspective is lost. When honor is involved, and victory is elusive, subject A can strain mightily at a gnat. As excitement builds up, he can devote a volume of resources to a problem that in an earlier, cooler moment he would never have conceived of committing to it.

Until the struggle is over, -- and for an A subject it must be prolonged until its ending is satisfactory, effort and further effort is demanded, and the A subject pours it out. But, we have seen that, -- and this is a key element, -- aside from its effect on win-lose, the intensely preoccupied A type does not inspect the consequences of his own effort. What started as rational, proportional, and constructive, can transmute itself through the irreversible double-or-nothing commitment mechanism into an irrationality of widening destructive effect without subject A being aware of the change. For him, since it does not have directly to do with his own victory-defeat, with which he is centrally preoccupied, the transition from conduct that is on-balance constructive, to a policy that is on-balance destructive happens within his anesthetized zone, the perceptual zone for which he has no attention left. The factor is not necessarily beyond his control, but he is not interested in it, ignores it, and so takes little or no action about it as he plunges on in search of the reassuring victory that is essential for his internal self-respect.

If in objective reality the direction of the effort of an A type person in its setting is constructive, then it will gain great thrust and force from the intensity of his subjective preoccupation. Creativity of any sort doubtless draws deeply upon this sort of frequently narrow intensity. But with narrowness and blindness to surrounding aspects comes the liability that the effect of what he is doing may change in time to destructive, with no diminution of his action’s force, or alteration of policies now forming a part, over all, of a nefarious course. In an external or objective situation where most of the terms of the original problem have changed their meaning the Type A person’s quest for an internally necessary victory and honor goes on, and the many other values being lost or destroyed are never really perceived or counted.

I have mentioned a second type of person who is also responsive to the idea of honor but who has reactions quite contrary to those of the Type A man. Type B’s primary internal guards are not against being a loser, against others impinging on him, but rather against his impinging harmfully on others. It is in the struggle against this sort of danger, emanating from himself, that the question of honor arises for him. For a Type B person, the enemy always threatening aggression or transgression is inside him; the potential victim, who must be protected, is outside himself. This is in contradiction to a Type A person, who is always defending an internal weakness, an internal potential victim, himself, against defeat by external aggressive enemies. B sees himself being dishonored by what he does, whereas A fears dishonor from not being able to resist what others would do to him.

Since we are trying to talk about very root patterns of reaction, they my be illustrated perhaps in the sexual domain. Subject A is the kind of person for whom a central case of dishonor would be his own cuckoldry – victimization by his wife which exposed his powerlessness. For Subject B the question of honor would come up not so much in the case of his wife’s infidelity,--which he might regard as something beyond his control, -- coming from her initiative rather than his and being external to him, --but rather from his own infidelity to his wife. He would see this as his failure to meet obligations toward her which he had accepted, or as a form of aggression against her which he had failed to control. He would see it as a blow struck by himself against the lives of his wife and children, in addition to a tarnishing of his own view of himself as a responsible head of family.

Subject B, in a conflict situation, will perhaps be too hesitant, too aware of the risks throughout the entire system, as well as within himself, to move boldly and to exploit opportunities. However, most importantly, he will be willing to accept for absorption within himself in the final outcome a considerable share of the unresolved material, the contradiction, and in a certain sense, the pain of the conflict. He will not require that all these fruits of losing be borne by the other side, or that a pretense be maintained that they do not exist. In many ways then, the Type B is the more fully developed, more assured, stronger and more capacious type of person.

Taking note that no polar personality or pure type of either A or B in real life, collective or individual, would be a normal or desirable formation, it is fair nonetheless to ask the question: which type with its associated notion of honor is more desirable: More specifically which type of reaction pattern is a more suitable ideal for America in world affairs today? Which fits better the realities of our present situation and which perhaps is an anachronistic carry-over from past struggles? Which attitude and idea of honor is more appropriate to what has been called the “burning question” of Vietnam?

Let us look at the problem from the point of view of world society as a whole, and momentarily inspect from the outside the arena in which we normally compete. Any society consists of stronger and weaker members. We have defined the Type A person –or group – as one primarily concerned with the damage that may come to him or it, and the Type B person or group as one primarily concerned with damage that may emanate from him or it. The overall objective of minimizing damage throughout the system implies that a Type A attitude is functional for those most likely to be damaged, that is the society’s weaker members, while a B approach, with strong emphasis on self-control rather than control of exterior environment, behooves the members with the greatest capacity to inflict harm, that is to say the stronger members.

Framing the question that way allows us to say that a Type A view of honor was indeed appropriate to America when we were a relatively weak country. When the motto “Don’t tread on me” was on our flags, it was appropriate to our situation as a fragile new country in a world dominated by European power. The accompanying figure of a snake, a clear symbol of readiness to strike and to kill, was legitimate and appropriate. Now, however, we are incontestably the most powerful country on earth, Overall social concerns which as human beings we all share before we share national concerns indicates that the Type A honor code of the weak nation objectively no longer fits us. The maintenance of a small country’s mentality in the same country after it has grown large and powerful resembles the mind of a child persisting in the body of an adult.

Aside from its lack of harmony, in the strictest sense such a person or group becomes anti-social. Its behavior will tend to run counter to the imperatives of the larger group in this case the world population, in at least two sense.

The values of a Type A character, when they are outdated, and physically outgrown, tend to release increased violence and damage into the larger environment because a member with a greater than average capacity for violence is organized in a pattern designed to release that force without great attention to its consequences (Type A) rather than being organized to contain it., and pay attention to its consequences (Type B). The net flow of violence, therefore, stands to be high.

Further, active Type A behavior is intended to defend or increase power in direct physical terms, and usually does so. If we believe in the desirability of a system tending toward equality among its members rather than predominance, gains of power by those who have less of it than the average help the overall system toward the desired balance. But further gains of power by the most powerful member of the group strengthen and accentuate concentration, monopoly and unequal distribution of power. While this may be gratifying to the already strong person or nation which is growing stronger, such gains based on Type A behavior in a powerful subject work against the equality objective of the overall system taken as a whole.

The type A conception of honor and its associated behavior then, is the response at root of the fearful victim. Its single-mindedness, perseverance and intensity can be functional and appropriate, and lead to what a reasonable man must salute as honor, when the real issue is in fact victimization, subjugation, or threat to survival. These are often the outcomes facing the weaker of the parties to a conflict if he should lose the struggle.

When a conflict threatens a subject with such outcomes, such a view of honor is objectively central and primary. Then a tunneling of the subject’s vision onto the fight and the withdrawal of attention from other issues which are secondary, or less immediate, is justified, not only in terms of the subject’s survival but also in the overall perspective of the values of society as a whole.

However, for the stronger participant, perhaps even in the same conflict, honor may not lie along the same road. A thoroughgoing, uncompromising search for victory in the self-same struggle may have very different meaning for the stronger adversary. If the threat in the case of the stronger participant is not to survival, but to amour-propre, or expansion, or some other marginal value, then we must have another look, under new proportions, at the question of potential damage received, or damage feared, which stimulates a Type A reaction.

Further, if the retaliatory damage released upon the environment, upon the subject himself, and upon the adversary is a percentage of the strength of the stronger, rather than the weaker, party to the conflict, its effects will be greater than in the other case. The obligation to keep attention on these effects, rather than draw attention away from them, as a Type A struggler typically does, will be different and presumptively greater for the stronger party to the conflict

The question then of which definition, Type A or Type B, of the word “honor” is appropriate for a perplexed and undecided America as we grope toward an “honorable’ solution of the war in Vietnam, can in some sense be measured against objective realities. If we are the smaller party to the conflict, if it authentically threatens our survival, if the bad effects of what is done to us and to the environment by others are greater than the harmful effect of our own actions on the environment, on ourselves, and on our adversaries, then let us choose and stick with confidence to a Type A pattern of response.

If, however, as we really exist in the present time, we are the stronger combatant with the greater powers of destruction, then Type B, the honor of balance and self-control, would seem to be the conception of honor that is applicable to us.

The Soviet Union and China have neither sent troops to fight in Indochina, nor have they healed their breach in the process of sending material aid to North Vietnam, material aid which has been small fraction of our expenditures in favor of the other side. The disparate relative strengths in the struggle between us and North Vietnam are clear, and give the answer quickly.

With a better anchoring in the realities of our own period not the past, with more lucidity, and with more generosity we will recognize that in the burning question of our time our own people who live the most in the present and future and carry the least baggage of the past, the young, who have sought self-respect in peace rather than victory, have had the truer instinct about American national honor all along.