Gathering the Numbers and Gathering the Facts
Who The Hell Are We Fighting? The Story of Sam Adams and the Vietnam Intelligence War, C. Michael Hiam, Hanover, NH: Steerforth Press (2006), 326 pages, biblio., index.
Who the Hell Are We Fighting? is a biography about Sam Adams, an intelligence operative who fought to convince his superiors at the early stages of the Vietnam war that the number of Viet Cong were two to three times greater than the politically inspired MACV figures. Sam’s story illustrates how domestic American politics and the narrow vision of generals and politicians became the driving force. Their determination was enough to dismiss contrary evidence based on Sam Adams’ in depth knowledge about culture, history and nationalistic feelings in Vietnam. Denial of the truth, as we have seen in Iraq, is guaranteed to produce a disaster.
The larger message of the book is beyond Vietnam. It applies to what happened in Baghdad and continues to happen on a daily basis. You simply cannot defeat or begin to change the attitudes, expectation, and desires of a people you don’t know, refuses to know simply because you believe what you are bringing to them will be good, wise and improve their existence.
There is a tendency for most people to start with a set of assumption and then look for facts that support what they already believe. We all know this kind of person. He or she has weaved a platform from newspapers, magazines, gossip, and people who otherwise share their opinion. The problem is went politicians use this technique in the preclude to go to war.
What Who The Hell Are We Fighting? illustrates is how the intelligence services, military and White House, with a wink and nod, their attitudes shaped by World War II and the Korean War, already had decided the kind of war they wished to fight. The problem was these attitudes were not sufficiently tempered by the motivation, aspiration and expectations of the people on the ground in Vietnam. Adams dug deep into the actual facts on the ground, and when he had evidence that many of the assumption the policy maker had made were based on unreality, no one wished to listen.
There is a collateral point of Sam Adams story. Most of the fiction that is set in Southeast Asia by outsiders has the same reality as General Westmoreland’s figures on Viet Cong troop concentration, determination, and willingness to fight while absorbing enormous losses. A novelist could learn something useful Sam Adams’ dogged commitment to dig deeper, to go beyond the conventional wisdom and into the field where wisdom can be most unconventional. When a writer chooses a subject, he or she should devote careful attention to the underlying assumption of his or her story, the characters, the history of their place, the restrictions or limitations of their culture, the way their language shapes the way they express themselves, and the factors that create identity. Gathering good intelligence is one of the most important goals for any writer. Disastrous wars and books are built on bad intelligence, and no matter how pure your intentions, if the intel is wrong, everything else along the path will fail.
One problem is that many publishers are like those in the Beltway. They have a vague idea about Asia and when they read a manuscript they just assume the author has his facts straight. Often that is not the case. Publishers don’t pick up the errors, neither do readers or reviewers. Of course with a novel – this is not life or death, a question of war – there is a lot less at stake with howling errors getting through.
A review by Richard Sinclair of Who The Hell Are We Fighting? reveals this illuminating story:
“The turning point in the numbers story came with the 1967 national estimate that settled on a narrow definition of the categories to be included in our order-of-battle estimates. Hiam, citing documents and interviews, makes the following case: MACV, following implicit or explicit guidance from Westmoreland himself, would not accept a number that exceeded a certain limit. The fundamental tenet of US policy was that we were wearing down the enemy—that at some not-too-distant point, the communists’ attrition rates would exceed their replenishment capacity. MACV, in fact, was claiming in 1967 that we might be approaching this “crossover point.” Sam’s notion that communist numbers should be pegged higher by a factor of two or three was politically out of bounds by several miles. Hiam, quoting a member of Westmoreland’s staff who agonized over the issue, says that at one point Westmoreland’s own intelligence chief came up with a higher estimate. Westmoreland allegedly reacted by asking, “What will I tell the president? What will I tell Congress? What will be the reaction of the press to these higher numbers?” The intelligence chief was soon sent packing.”