The War that Keeps on Teaching

Reviewed by Shmuel Rosner

Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam
by Gordon M. Goldstein
Times Books and Henry Holt, 2008, 300 pages.

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ordon M. Goldstein, an expert on international relations and the author of Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam, certainly deserves credit for a job well done. Not only did he write a fascinating story, not only is the story pertinent to decisions being made in Washington today, and not only has that story been passed from one administration member to the next, but Goldstein even manages to proffer what appear to be the lessons he himself has learned from the book, and which he believes President Obama ought to learn as well.
Yet Goldstein’s conclusions are not always so clear-cut. That, at least, is the impression one gets from reading an article he wrote in the Los Angeles Times on November 12, 2009, just weeks before Obama announced his decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan and outlined his strategy for the overall campaign:
[General] McChrystal has predicted that without more troops and resources, the war in Afghanistan “will likely result in failure” within a year. Is his prediction of collapse justified?… Can Obama deploy existing resources more effectively without substantial escalation?… Should the United States pursue a military strategy with a historically low success rate—one that in Vietnam proved to be open-ended in its duration?
Questions of this sort, claims Goldstein, are “why presidents like Obama study history”: In learning the lessons of the past, they may find answers to “the core questions the commander in chief must resolve.” Yet Goldstein himself has yet to find these answers. Indeed, all he provided in his Los Angeles Times article were further questions, to which his book adds one more: Do the lessons McGeorge Bundy learned from America’s misadventure in Vietnam, the regrets he harbors regarding his role in it, and the errors he admits to making—do all these really have any relevance for the current U.S. administration as it weighs its upcoming moves in a different country, against a different enemy, and in a very different political milieu?

Shmuel Rosner is a columnist for the
Jerusalem Post and Maariv. He is the nonfiction editor for Kinneret-Zmora-Bitan-Dvir and a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute.

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