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The blades of the knives

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted March 24, 2008

It looks like John McCain has got the Republican nomination for president all-but sealed up, so it's unsurprising that the knives are coming out for him. As of now, the Democrats have largely kept silent about Senator McCain, as have the subcultures long associated with that party. As the general election gets underway later this year, though, and as the prize gets more clearly in the Democrats' sights, this relative silence will change. Electoral competitiveness all-but mandates it.

Right now, though, the bulk of criticism against Senator McCain has been issued by disgruntled Republicans. The accusations of the most vocal, Vietnam Veterans Against John McCain, has gone after his Vietnam war record. When I last surfed their homepage, the headline article described the Senator as the "Manchurian Candidate" of 2008.

When the knives come out, there are times when looking at the blades of them yields a new picture. Specifically, in the McCain controversy, it reveals how Americans were basically suckered by the Vietnamese Communists.

Those of you who were never Cold Warriors, or whose Cold Warrior memories have long faded, will get a glimpse into a time that seems either old or strange. Those who were Cold Warriors, or so I hope, will get a sense of perspective on times that were often emotional – times that are somewhat like the ones we live in now, with respect to the War on Terror. Near the end, an explicit connection between those times and now will be made.

The head Communist State, back when there was still an entire Communist bloc riding high on the geopolitical stage, was the U.S.S.R. It was also called Soviet Russia. When throwing their weight around on the world stage, the U.S.S.R.'s preferred line of attack was, to put it bluntly, a blend of moralizing and plain bullying. "Peace offensives," or concessions, were offered in a manner that was often brazen. In retrospect, given the collapse of the old Soviet bloc and its replacement with more-or-less democratic states, the Soviets were masters of bluffmanship. This mastery was sensed by people who advocated a nuclear first strike back in those days when the Cold War was heated.

What got the first-strikers marginalized, though, was the shock and horror over the effects of the U.S.' use of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs – plus the natural worry that the Soviet bloc's leaders may not be bluffing at any particular moment. It was hard to tell, despite scraps of information revealing (say) fields of tanks parked and unused because they had no engines installed: such scraps did not emerge (as far as I know) about their nuclear materiel. In addition, the deployment of a new and terrible weapon does cause fear and panic if it's a means of "moving the immovable," or destroying what used to be impregnable. Just as the cannon made the previously unbreachable castle walls crumble, so it was that the nuclear bomb made a previously indestructible city destroyable. Whether it be the fall of Constantinople or the destruction of large parts of two Japanese cities, the emotional fallout was similar: fear of bold action and (for a change) anti-war hysteria. In addition, caution was deployed in the high councils of State to the point where effeteness set in. The terror of balance seemed a necessary stance to preserve a newly threatened civilization. More generally, timidity in government often follows periods when, to borrow a line from the original Star Trek, "our weapons [grow] faster than our wisdom."

In addition, the example of Stalin rousing Russia through merely asking for his Russians to save the Motherland, and the resultant war efforts called forth in Russia, stood as a mute warning…even if a Western leader could shrug off any propagandistic consequent affirmation (or antecedent denial with respect to one's own "friendship" forces.) Not only times-driven effeteness but also natural caution impelled the NATO decision to leave the can of worms alone.

The Asians that went Communist, as we know now but weren't very sure of then, had different approaches, or different tactics, which made "international Communism" seem a myth to some. Rather than using the moralizing-bully approach exclusively, North Korea, during the Korean War, tried a strategy that's the geo-political analog to the inside-straight-draw in poker when used on America. They added terrorizing – brainwashing – to the Communists' standard tactic of international moralizing.

It proved to be a huge mistake – similar to the one Saddam Hussein made on the eve of the Gulf War. A lot of the anti-Communist hostility in the United States during the 1950s was a result of the culture shock provoked by the revelation of the North Korean Communists' use of psychological torture techniques. The term "brainwashing," then a neologism, entered the popular culture swiftly, and made for a lot of liberal anti-Communism because the technique was viewed as an assault on the very seat of reason.

Consequently, the North Korean government became seen as the big bruiser with the black hat. Anyone who knows how America ticks would be unsurprised at the consequent reaction amongst the American public. The revelations of brainwashing largely explain why McCarthyism survived McCarthy, and even went beyond Senator McCarthy. One of the pivotal issues of the 1960 election was: which candidate, then-Senator Kennedy or then-Vice-President Nixon, was insufficiently anti-Communist?

North Korea never faced the "mother of all battles," but its troops were driven back behind the demilitarized zone. The ending of the conflict was the martial extension of containment; given the times, it was counted as a victory for the U.S.-led free world and a defeat for Communism.

The Vietnamese communists learned from it, and in so doing hit upon the diplomatic para-stratagem that does work against the United States when war fever runs high. The Vietminh and Vietcong latched (or lucked) into good cop-bad cop, which always works on a war-heated United States provided that the "good cop" is the senior "cop."

The story of John McCain's capture, including the critical part of it, shows in miniature that the Vietnamese Communists went out of their way to avoid being heavy-handed like the North Koreans. The trap they set was reasonableness, even humaneness, at the top combined with aggression from below, at least in McCain's case. Angry peasants, North-Korean-esque enlisted and junior staff…and reasonable, perhaps easygoing, commanders. Senior men who might put out a little spin to their juniors, in order to make the latter back off. 

The reason why this tactic works on American "on the rebound" from a frightening foe is that Americans tend to trust their eyes and ears, and tend to doubt descriptions that seem stereotypical when conflicting evidence is before them. This is a major virtue, and explains why Americans tend to veer towards an opportunity society and face-level individualism. Its Achilles heel, though, makes Americans particularly vulnerable to the good-cop-bad-cop tactic. That's the angle that the Vietnamese Communist used to great effect in the 1960s.

"No, we're nothing like the others. Do you see me bellowing?"

John McCainIn John McCain's case, it would have been something along the lines of: "No, we're nothing like those Koreans. Didn't we offer you medical help for your broken limbs? Had we been like what you think we are, we would have thrown you right into the tiger cage and you'd never have seen a doctor. We're been humane with you, so why would you expect us to be evil by nature?"

Given this dynamic, it's unsurprising that Prisoner McCain would have let a few things slip. It's simply a matter of the relief reflex kicking in. Any driver who's ever been pulled over in a district known for tough highway cops, and got let off by one of them, has felt exactly the same thing.

Now, look at the advantageous position that the Vietnamese Communists were in with respect to the brainwashing matter. They've good-copped many Americans, including in America, into believing that Vietnamese Communism is nothing like Korean (or Chinese, or Slavic) Communism. Good-copping is everywhere evident; bad-copping isn't. In addition, the relief reflex that the good-copping has engendered has led to a lot of American POWs being "reasonable" in return – specifically, into deviating from the robotic "name, rank and serial number" drill. Observe that going into that mode, after being treated almost as a guest, would have seemed, and felt, plain rude – even as ungrateful to the "hosts." It would take an American with an unusual kind of toughness to stick to procedure, given that psychological dynamic.

In order for brainwashing to succeed, post-North-Korean-War, the brainwashed have to keep silent about it. Simple breaking of them, and extracting ‘evidence' of their ‘treason', has already been seen through. It didn't work for North Korea: Americans understood that any such ‘evidence' was merely the result of torture.

The Vietnamese Communists, though, added a technique that did work: the use of the relief reflex to elicit ‘voluntary co-operation' before the brainwashing began. In addition to the good-copping done for the outside world, the use of the relief reflex makes it much more difficult to claim that all ‘treasons' were the result of torture. Although minor, the initial reasonableness inclined the POW to wonder whether he had been complicit all along. That self-doubt inclines him to keep his mouth shut about it, especially if the initial (pre-torture) meet'n'greet was filmed.

The Vietnamese Communists avoided being stigmatized as monsters by the general U.S. public through a sophisticated and well-executed variant of the plain old badger game, with "nice badger" being their SOP for outsiders. That's what did it for them. John McCain, and anyone else in his shoes during that time, can claim fairly that he was badger-brainwashed. 

To move from the past to the present, I note that Iraq and Iran are becoming confounded from time to time. The open defiance of Saddam "Mother Of All Battles" Hussein was one of the worst moves that an anti-American Head of State could have made: his open defiance made it look as if the "bad cop" was at the top. It also made any attempt at reasonableness by him and his minions look like concessions made in weakness.

Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been bad-copping it on the world stage too: hence the confounding. Here's the secret kicker with respect to Iran, though: bad-cop Mahmoud is not the head of the Iranian State. Someone else is: the Supreme Leader of (the Revolution in) Iran.

That person, Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, hasn't been heard from much by us. We don't know how reasonable he may be, nor how sincere.

We do know, though, that he seems to have a lot to live down…or to fence off. With regard to the latter maneuver, given the typical American's gut-level individualism, it is indeed a case of "the more, the easier." ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is a regular columnist for LewRockwell.com, and has an undamaged mail address here.


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