Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Vietnam book covers: A plea for photos of something besides helicopters! Plus even more bellyaching from Tom R. today

A plea to book cover designers: Could we not put a helicopter on the cover of every single book? It is getting boring. I mean, I don’t recall transport helicopters playing much of a role in Fields of Fire, or in Marine operations generally — but here you are. This is no knock on the ...

amazon.com
amazon.com
amazon.com

A plea to book cover designers: Could we not put a helicopter on the cover of every single book? It is getting boring. I mean, I don't recall transport helicopters playing much of a role in Fields of Fire, or in Marine operations generally -- but here you are.

This is no knock on the books themselves. One of my favorites, The American Culture of War, by Adrian Lewis, features no fewer than 15 helicopters on its cover. Maybe that's why that book is so damn expensive.  

While I'm on the subject of Vietnam books: Why are there so many oral histories of the Vietnam War, in which veterans and others tell the story of what they saw and did? I counted at least 15 at a Marine library the other day. I suspect it is because we are still trying to understand that damn war.

A plea to book cover designers: Could we not put a helicopter on the cover of every single book? It is getting boring. I mean, I don’t recall transport helicopters playing much of a role in Fields of Fire, or in Marine operations generally — but here you are.

This is no knock on the books themselves. One of my favorites, The American Culture of War, by Adrian Lewis, features no fewer than 15 helicopters on its cover. Maybe that’s why that book is so damn expensive.  

While I’m on the subject of Vietnam books: Why are there so many oral histories of the Vietnam War, in which veterans and others tell the story of what they saw and did? I counted at least 15 at a Marine library the other day. I suspect it is because we are still trying to understand that damn war.

And while I’m bellyaching about the Vietnam War: It is amazing to me how naïve academic historians often seem to be about government memos. I’ve been reading a bunch of books that I have come to think of as “memo histories.” Basically, these claim to offer new insight into the Vietnam War by some poor guy who has waded through thousands of pages of memoranda, reports, and other government documents. Generally these hard-working but perhaps innocent historians accept these documents at face value, as accurate and true records. But in my experience of covering the national security establishment for two decades, memos sometimes are written not to clarify the record but to obscure it. A lot of them are written for the files to show future historians that, “I lost in the meeting but will record here why I still think I was right.” Sometimes I think they are produced also to revise what actually was said in meetings-sort of to “correct the record.”

Government memos frequently are most significant, I suspect, for what is said between the lines, as part of bureaucratic infighting. For example, a Pentagon memo that emphatically states, “We pledge to give our total, unqualified support to State Department points 1 and 3” might mean, But we will fight you to the death on point 2. But that seems to be lost on the revisionist academic historian who triumphantly concludes, “Contrary to the conventional wisdom that the secretaries of State and Defense were in bitter opposition on this important issue, the documentary record shows that the Pentagon gave its ‘total, unqualified support’ to most of the Secretary of State’s proposals.” Likewise, when Westmoreland states that he really supports “pacification,” he may not be defining pacification as you or I might. As in, Them B-52 Arc Light strikes sure pacified the hell out of that corner of the southwestern corner of the province. 

And to finish off my current pet peeves: I am amazed at how often “Ridgway” and “DePuy” are misspelled in books, even in indexes. It is not “Ridgeway,” “William Depuy,” or “William Dupuy.” My book researcher, Mr. Gregory McGowan, the Big Poppy of documents, even found an instance where the Government Printing Office apparently confused Gen. William DePuy with Col. Trevor Dupuy, who confusingly testified in the same set of December 1990 hearings of the House Armed Services Committee.

While I’m at it, I also think baseball writers need to lay off the word “iconic.”

Now I feel better.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.