Sympathy for the Devils Within: A Review of Viet Nguyen’s The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Forty plus years after the U.S. abandoned Vietnam to the Communists, Viet Thanh Nguyen captures the duplicity of all sides in the war and its aftermath in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Sympathizer.

Reading Nguyen reinforces my belief that I was on the right side in the 1960s when I joined the anti-war movement before it imploded in the 1970s, exhibiting similar excesses to those perpetrated by the North Vietnamese (and Cambodian) on their own people.

The American anti-war movement morphed into an anti-American movement with groups like the post-SDS Weather Underground waging war on the American working class for failure to take up arms against the American government. In Vietnam, the victorious Communists subjugated anyone and everyone who had not been on their side during the war as well as those who had been on their side for the wrong reason.

It is easy to see in retrospect how the anti-American left could ally itself with the North Vietnamese ignoring their commitment to the same totalitarian ideology that had led to the deaths of millions of Russians and Chinese citizens under Stalin and Mao.

The victorious Vietnamese employed torture methods invented by the Russian and Chinese Communists including re-education techniques where confession is offered as the means to salvation. Smartly, Nguyen employs confession as the format for this novel having his protagonist be made to write a confession to rehabilitate himself for having succumbed to Western ways during his exile in the U.S. The entire novel is that confession.

Nguyen deserves praise for the lack of heroes in his story––especially not his bastard protagonist who is both a captain in the South Vietnamese army and an agent of the Viet Cong, and who commits multiple crimes, including murder, out of this divided loyalty. No one is clean perhaps with the exception of the protagonist’s mother who was forcibly impregnated by a French priest and then abandoned to a slow death of poverty and neglect.

Nguyen holds the French and United States responsible for their part in the war’s horrors, but doesn’t absolve the Vietnamese people on both sides, for each played a part in the war, victimizing their own as the price for the victory that one side failed to achieve and the other converted into a kind of defeat.

For Americans, The Sympathizer reminds us the ideals of our founding are not sufficient to protect us against the arrogance that led us to think no price was too high to prevent Vietnam from falling to the Communists. Unfortunately, we continue to pay that price, often misjudging where our national interest lies. There is no more evident an example of this failure than Barack Obama’s ignoring the Iranian government’s murderous ideology out of some misguided desire to make amends for America’s past sins.

Yes, Communism had to be opposed and American aid for people suffering under Communism or on the verge of falling under Communism’s iron yoke at times required a military response, but we misjudged Ho Chi Minh and the North Vietnamese and drove them into the Communist camp, as we did in Cuba with Fidel Castro, both of whom admired America’s revolutionary commitment to individual freedom. The consequence of our arrogance was both became totalitarians who oppressed their own people, deciding their ideological goals justified any and all means of achieving those goals.

Americans should also read The Sympathizer because we have failed to recognize the price the boat people paid for their freedom, coming to the United States where they were expected to forget the U.S. role in the devastation of their country––the napalm bombings, wiping out villages suspected of harboring Viet Cong agents, the manipulation of the South Vietnam government and more, as Nguyen so skillfully portrays in this novel.

The Sympathizer is above all a brilliantly written story about a man we sympathize with while not absolving him of his crimes, but it can also be read as a form of national therapy. Nguyen offers a lens through which we can examine ourselves and perhaps recognize in ourselves a tendency to betray and murder our own, for who can say for certain they would not have acted like his main character in similar circumstances.

Two Must Reads to Understand International Politics in a Trump Presidency

People spending their limited energy trying to reverse the election results or demonize Donald Trump in hopes he will fail and be impeached are missing a huge opportunity to understand what lies ahead of the U.S. on the world stage.

Two brilliant articles provide insightful analysis of the implications of Trump’s victory for those with the ability to remain dispassionate and advance their personal comprehension of where things stand internationally and what needs to be done.

Start with Ruthie Blum’s “Why Abbas does not emulate Sadat,” which can be found at http://www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_opinion.php?id=17707&r=1.

The title doesn’t do justice to the column which reviews past peace negotiations and explains why any hope that the leader of the “Palestinians” will negotiate a peace deal with Israel is a pipe dream.

Next read the lengthy, but brilliant analysis of the current world order based on Henry Kissinger’s recent book (World Order, 2014) and his own reading of U.S. history by Niall Ferguson, entitled “Donald Trump’s New World Order,” which can be found here: http://www.the-american-interest.com/2016/11/21/donald-trumps-new-world-order/.

Ferguson lays out a potential path for Donald Trump’s administration to re-balance the world order reversing the disastrous policies of Barack Obama and taking a Teddy Roosevelt-like approach, based on existing realities and actual power alignments rather than wishful interpretations.

 

You don’t have to agree with every point made by Blum or Ferguson to come away with a greater understanding of where things stand in the world and the positions a Trump administration might take to bring restore America’s role as the number one superpower on the world stage.

Debate Lesson: Challenge the Assumptions

How an argument is framed often puts opponents on the defensive. When Barack Obama, for example, says the only alternative to his agreement with Iran is war, his goal is to back his opponents into a corner. Anyone who accepts war as the only alternative to his deal is stuck since no one wants war. A similar tactic is used by those who say you are a racist if you support Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians. Let’s examine that argument more closely.

The racist argument assumes as fact the notion that Israel is “white” and that the Palestinians are a “people of color.” That concept is simply false. There are Jews in Israel who came from Africa, which should give Israel greater claim to being a “people of color” than the Arab Palestinians, but the underlying difference separating Israel and the Palestinians is religion, not race.

If those who say Israel’s existence is racist want to claim Arabs as a “people of color,” the proper response is to challenge the definition of that concept. Is it based on skin color? If so, that by itself is a racist notion. Isn’t the goal of civil rights movements to deny skin color as determining one’s destiny?

The other underlying assumption in the racist argument is the notion that it is Israel that is blocking the Palestinians from having their own state. Israel has as great if not a greater claim on the so-called occupied territories as the Palestinians. The Palestinians’ argument only makes sense if one is unwilling to go further back in time than 1967. That was the year Israel pushed Jordan out of Jerusalem, Samaria, and Judea (the so-called West Bank). Jordan had captured those territories in 1948 after the United Nations affirmed the right of the Jewish people to form their own state. Prior to 1948 those territories were part of the British Mandate which was set up after World War I to prevent chaos after the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled the entire region for more than 400 years, was defeated by the Allied Powers.

Of course, it all comes down to boundaries. Where would the Palestinians place their state? From the statements and writings of the PLO (Fatah) and Hamas, the answer to that question is they want the whole thing––not just the West Bank territories, but all of present day Israel as well. Does that sound like a two-state solution?

What therefore is the proper response when someone says you’re a racist if you support Israel? Attack the statement on both assumptions. First, explain that race has nothing to do with it. Remind them that Hebrew and Arabic are both Semitic languages that came from the same region. Then explain that neither Fatah nor Hamas want a two-state solution. If anyone’s a racist, wouldn’t it be the Palestinian leaders?

Eventually someone will ask, “What is your alternative?” If the United Nations wants to create a Palestinian state, they should do so, but not where Israel presently exists, nor in Jerusalem, to which the Palestinian’s claim is fraudulent, nor in Samaria or Judea, where Israel’s claim is stronger based on the League of Nations Mandate. They ought to create it in Jordan, which was originally part of Palestine and where many of the Arab people who call themselves Palestinians resided before 1948. Also, if Egypt is willing, Gaza, which already is a fully Palestinian territory, could be enlarged to include part of the Sinai desert.

A corollary to that solution would be for Israel to offer to those Palestinians who want to remain in the West Bank or Jerusalem the same deal non-Jews who live in Israel proper receive––i.e., full citizenship in the state of Israel. It is likely that a large number of Palestinian Arabs would accept that solution since Israeli citizenship would raise their living condition above what they are today under the corrupt Palestinian Authority. Those wanting to move would be allowed to do so, going to Gaza or the new Palestinian state in Jordan.

But the key lesson I hope people take away from this essay is not to be pushed into a corner when discussing world events by allowing your opponent to frame the issue in a way that you have no choice but to accept their position. Challenge the assumptions hidden in the way the argument is presented. When Barack Obama or the boycott Israel advocates present an either/or proposition it often means the facts are against them and the only way they can win the argument is by preventing a fact-based discussion, which is why the choice they want to give their opponents is no choice at all.

What is needed to end the Arab-Israeli conflict?

The Albany Times Union published this column under the title “Destroying Israel not the answer” on Tuesday, July 17, 2015. Unfortunately, non-subscribers cannot access it online which is why I’m posting it under my original title.

For decades, the most talked about plan to resolve the conflict between Jews and Arabs has been to divide them into separate enclaves–-a two-state solution. Israel has repeatedly agreed to try that approach: they accepted the United Nations’ partition formula of 1947 as well as terms offered in 1993 at Oslo and at Camp David in 2000. On each of these as well as other occasions the Arabs walked away.

Since the Arab world seemingly has no interest in any “solution” whereby Israel continues to exist, why does this concept continue to be pushed–-in particular by U.S. presidents?

To understand why the two-state solution portends more harm than good requires a quick history of the territories called the West Bank by the Arabs and Samaria and Judea by the Israelis.

On May 15, 1948, when David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the birth of the state of Israel, there were 650,000 Jews living throughout Palestine, including in Samaria and Judea. On that day five Arab states attacked with a goal of crushing the new state, but Israel was ready and the attacks were repulsed.

Before the fighting stopped, thousands of Jews were driven from their homes and more than 1,300 civilians and soldiers were killed. Pressured to accept armistice boundaries, Samaria and Judea (the West Bank) fell into Jordan’s hands. Then, in June1967, as Arab armies amassed on its border, Israel struck preemptively and drove the Jordanian army out of Samaria, Judea, and sections of Jerusalem that had been held by Jordan since 1949. At that moment in time, when Israel could have incorporated Judea and Samaria into sovereign Israel, it was pressured into accepting terms that made those territories neither fish nor fowl, a result which has cost thousands of deaths and wasted billions.

Creating a Palestinian state on the West Bank of the Jordan River would result in 650,000 Jews being displaced en masse because although Arabs can live in Israel as full-fledged citizens, Jews live in Arab countries at their peril.

The 1994 agreement that ceded government functions for the West Bank Arab population to Yasser Arafat made matters worse. Arafat used this base from to carry out terrorist attacks while claiming Israel occupied their homeland. Nothing could be less true.

The Palestinian Authority suppresses dissent and launched a campaign of terror in 2000 that resulted in hundreds killed; it pretends to be more moderate than its rival Hamas, but rewards terrorists with money and names streets after “martyrs.”

The only viable solution is for Israel to incorporate Judea and Samaria into Israel. Much of the international community will object, and some Palestinians will revolt, but Israel can stand up to those problems.

The most critical factor determining whether this solution can succeed is support from the United States. Some critics argue that Israel has failed at the bargaining table to show that it appreciates the support it has received from the U.S. over the years.

That U.S. has aided Israel in many ways over the years is very true, but Israel has acted in our interest as well. Israel’s defeat of Jordan, Syria, and Egypt in 1967 was a defeat for the Soviet Union, which had sought to add the Arab League states to its sphere of influence. Taking out Iraq and Syria’s nascent nuclear reactors prevented both rogue nations from joining the nuclear club.

Today, Russia once again has ambitions in the region while ISIS and the disintegration of Iraq and Syria bode ill. Israel stands as a beacon of stability in a region where state lines have become meaningless and governments can change overnight. Israel is also a model of development and democracy, showing the Arab street how they could live if they give up jihad.

There is a path to peace in the Middle East, but it is not dividing Israel in half. Palestinian nationalism needs an outlet that doesn’t involve the destruction of Israel, but that’s not Israel’s problem to solve. American policy makers can address that problem down the road. Defeating ISIS, eliminating the threat of a nuclear Iran, and assuring a secure future for Israel could set the stage for that issue to be addressed.

The Israeli Solution: A Review (Part Two)

The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East by Caroline Glick (Crown Forum, 2014)

In Part One of my review of Caroline Glick’s The Israeli Solution, I describe her rationale for rejecting the two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict that has been a leading policy objective of presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama.

Glick argues that advocates of that “solution” incorrectly claim that giving the Palestinians their own state will reduce violence in the region. Events, including the escalating Sunni-Shi’a conflict, the rise of ISIS, the dissolution of Syria, and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, should put that thesis to bed.

Under Barack Obama, the U.S. has increased pressure on Israel to accept a two-state solution. In his “New Beginning” speech in Cairo in June 2009, Obama described the lack of a Palestinian state as ‘intolerable,’ and equated the Palestinian’s aspirations for statehood with those of the Jewish people.

Notwithstanding the fact that the Palestinians as a distinct national group is a recent construct, the main reason the two-state solution won’t succeed Glick argues is that it has never been the goal of the PLO or its successors to live side by side a Jewish state.

Evidence that their demanding a state of their own has functioned mainly as a component of their strategy to attack Israel in the international arena is the fact that they have walked away from the table each time Israel has accepted terms that would have led to a Palestinian state. Their true objective from the beginning to today has been the destruction of the Jewish state as the so-called moderate Mahmoud Abbas made clear as recently as the 2013 anniversary of the founding of the PLO.

The One-State Alternative

Caroline Glick’s alternative solution is to incorporate Samaria, Judea, and Arab Jerusalem into the state of Israel. Israel’s legal claim to those territories stems from a 1922 resolution the League of Nations that defined the British Mandate as extending to the Jordan River. That boundary remains in force Glick argues based on United Nations Resolution 242 that stipulates all states have the “right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries.”

Recognizing that her solution will face fierce opposition, Glick examines each of the potential opponents and finds them wanting in terms of their ability to prevent Israel from formally declaring those regions part of the state of Israel. None of the Arab League nations are likely to go to war over the issue, Europe is already engaged in supporting the Palestinian Authority and Hamas in myriad ways, but Israel could tolerate more boycotts and other likely interference. The key to the one-state solution is the United States must support it.

Glick makes a case that Israel’s staking its claim to the disputed territories would be in the best strategic interest of the United States. For one, Israel represents a counter-balance to Iranian and Russian ambitions in the region. In addition, Israel represents the only country in the region whose society is also modeled on the rule of law and democratic rights. The connection is one of people-to-people, while the U.S. relationship to other countries is largely regime-to-regime.

The Price for U.S. Backing

The price the U.S. would pay for backing a one-state solution would be more noise than substance. If U.S. stopped giving Palestinian and Arab leaders hope that it would appease them on the Palestine issue, we could deal with them more honestly on the conflicts I cited above. In terms of aid, it would eliminate the millions of U.S. tax dollars being used to prop up the Palestinian Authority.

Questions have been raised as to whether Israel would want to add the approximately 1.6 million Arabs currently living in the disputed territories to its population. Glick answers these concerns to my satisfaction, including the claim that the Arab population would eventually outnumber the Jewish population and win the war by having more babies than the Jews. She disputes Arab census and birthrate data and while she doesn’t discount the likelihood that there would be considerable problems, she argues the alternatives––continuation of the status quo, or giving Israel’s enemies a free hand to attack at will––are worse.

There is a model for what would happen were Israel to shut down the Palestinian Authority and declare the disputed territories formally part of Israel. That model is the Golan Heights where many Druze who once vowed to resist Israeli rule today apply for Israeli citizenship.

Over time the Arabs living in Judea and Samaria would see improvements in their living standards and economic well-being. They would learn to appreciate, as Arab Israelis have come to appreciate, the benefits of living in a society based on equal treatment under the rule of law––as opposed to arbitrary treatment where laws are made up on the fly––and where one can accomplish legitimate goals without resorting to arms.

Those Arabs who would not want to live in Israel would be able to move to Gaza, which would not become part of Israel, or elsewhere. Then, freed from having to focus on creating a Palestinian state in Israel, the U.S. could pressure Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the other Arab states to offer the Palestinians citizenship so they could move out of the refugee camps. The world also needs to free the Palestinian people from the autocratic rule of Hamas, the PLO, and other terrorist groups. Palestinian nationalism should not be ignored, but it needs to find a home of its own and not look to what belongs by history and by international law to Israel and the Jewish people.

A Modern Never-Ending Story

I think you’ll want to read this story even if I warn you at the beginning that I don’t know how it’s going to turn out.

This is the story of a family––let’s call them the Yids, who decided to move back to a place they’d left some time before. It just so happened when they arrived back in their old stomping ground that a 20-acre farm went up for sale at a price that suited their pocketbook. The farm had been repossessed due to lack of tax payment and although it had been woefully neglected, the Yids thought it had potential.

Yet, when they started moving onto their new farm, the Yids discovered the old tenants had not moved out. They were squatting there, and they put up quite a fight when asked to move on. While they had no reason to be mad at anyone except themselves, the Rabs (short for rabble rousers) decided the Yids were to blame for their plight. As a result, they started doing lots of nasty things, like poisoning the Yids’ wells, killing their animals, and stealing farm equipment and crops. To protect their land, the Yids had to put up fences and send out night patrols. They also contacted the sheriff who said he couldn’t do anything because there was no evidence that the Rabs were at fault.

When the Yids tried to discuss the matter with the Rabs, they were told to get off the land, refusing to accept the fact that the Yids had paid for it fair and square. The Yids tried to be sympathetic. They even offered to hire Rabs to help at harvest time, but the Rab leaders announced that anyone who went to work for a Yid would never live to spend his pay check.

Because the Rabs refused to give up their claim and the Yids refused to back down, the mayor came out and tried to talk them into finding a way to live as neighbors. The Rabs were living on the Yids’ border on poor quality property owned by relatives, but the relatives weren’t willing to give the Rabs a decent place to live and encouraged the Rabs to try to get their old place back.

When the mayor told the Yids it was up to them to compromise, the Yids decided to give the Rabs three decent acres that were on the other side of a road and thus hard to farm anyway.

The Rabs didn’t even say thank you. They moved onto those three acres and continued their harassment activities. Since the patrols and fences stopped them from going on the Yids’ land, the Rabs tried to tunnel under the fences, but they got caught. Then they tried to toss poisoned bales of hay over the fences at night to poison the Yid’s animals. They just wouldn’t stop.

Then Hussein Barak was elected sheriff. One day, the new sheriff came out to the farm and told the Yids that they would have to give the Rabs more of their property. “We’ll sell them a few more acres, if they promise to stop harassing us,” the Yids’ leader said, “but why should we give it to them?”

The sheriff said the Rabs were homesick for the land they used to live on and as a result, they should be allowed to move back on it without payment. The Yids refused. Then Sheriff Barak said he was going to give the Yids a deadline to move their belongings off a valuable strip of land that the Rabs wanted. The Yids had some houses on that land and if they gave it up, their property would be cut in two, making much easier for the Rabs to do more damage to their crops and animals and people, but the sheriff wouldn’t listen. It didn’t matter that the Yids had lived in that area years ago or that they’d paid for the property or that they took what had been neglected and made it productive or that they saved the life of a young Rab who’d been almost gored to death by a bull he was trying to steal. None of that mattered to Sheriff Barak. “I don’t want to have to come out here every week to investigate another incident,” he told the Yid leaders. “Give them what they want and I’ll have more time to work on my golf game.”

That’s where things stand today. Will the mayor let Sheriff Barak have his way? Will the United Nations judge rule that the Rabs have a right to the land based solely on the fact they wanted it? Will the Yids who would rather not fight, give in in hopes that the Rabs will be satisfied? Stay tuned to find out the rest of the story.

Should the U.S. recognize Palestine?

Matthew Duss of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and Michael Cohen a fellow at the Century Foundation argue peace in the Middle East would be advanced if the U.S. recognized Palestine (Washington Post, March 29). Placing the blame for the failure of the U.S. to bring about a two-state solution on Israel in general and Prime Minister Netanyahu in particular, Duss and Cohen go so far as to assert such an act would “strengthen the Jewish homeland’s security.”

The authors state that a two-state solution has been U.S. policy since 2002 when George W. Bush called for the creation of a Palestinian state. Failure to realize this policy has in their view undermined U.S. credibility and contributed to regional unrest.

While admitting the Palestinian Authority President Abbas “has at times been an obstinate partner in the peace process,” Duss and Cohen ignore the times that Abbas walked away from the table after Israel had agreed to a mediated formula, raising doubt as to whether the Palestinian Authority actually wants a negotiated settlement which includes the continued existence of the state of Israel.

The authors suggest the Palestinians need a leader different than Abbas has proven to be. In doing so, they undermine their claim that recognition will lead to peace by documenting the extent to which the Palestinians are far from being ready for nationhood. Not only do they lack a strong, credible, and legitimate leader, but they are divided to the point where Palestinian Authority officials dare not venture into Gaza given Hamas’ record of assassinating opponents.

The authors further expose the flaw in their own logic when they remind us that George Bush called for “an economically sustainable, demilitarized Palestinian state.” It’s one thing to call for a demilitarized Palestine. It’s another thing to articulate a path to such an end, something they don’t even attempt. Why not? I’d venture to say that if the U.S. informed Israel that we will recognize the Palestinian people’s right to their own country on the day an inspection certifies Hamas, Al Aqsa Brigades and the other terrorist groups have been disarmed, I am confident Prime Minister Netanyahu would applaud.

The problem is no one is stepping forward to disarm the terrorists, least of all the Palestinian Authority. It is well-known the reason the PA has failed to hold scheduled elections in 2009 and 2010 is because they knew Hamas would win and the price of losing would most likely be their lives and the lives of their families.

Ironically, the primary reason Duss and Cohen want the U.S. to recognize Palestine has nothing to do with Palestine. They favor it to “protect U.S. national security.” This is nothing more than a corollary of the Obama doctrine, the primary principle of which seems to be the dubious theory that U.S. security is protected when we withdraw from conflicts.

The authors also fudge on a key matter. Recognizing Palestine is not the same thing as recognizing a Palestinian state. The latter cannot exist without borders and since defining its borders is a central problem, recognition can only be theoretical.

While it would be a public relations victory for the PA and Hamas for the U.S. to recognize the existence of nation called Palestine, it would not lead to an end to the conflict, which can only come when the Palestinian people recognize they cannot achieve their goals by force and that the outcome of negotiations is that neither side get everything they want.

Netanyahu and Likud have placed security above all else for a reason. To do otherwise is to jeopardize Israel’s existence as past history has demonstrated. At the same time, Israelis desperately want peace.

Recognition of Palestine by the U.S. would harm Israel––the authors’ claims notwithstanding––and it would do nothing to end the hostilities. As Golda Meir often said, “Peace will come to the Middle East, when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us.