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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.