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A History of What Ifs

Thank you to everyone who responded to my Facebook pestering. It's not much of a marketing strategy, but it does offer some instant validation which is always appreciated.

I had hoped the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War would have generated a few more column inches to augment my efforts. Apparently our news organizations forgot the event entirely. Liverpool vs Blackburn Rovers received more coverage in the United States it seemed.

I didn't get the dates wrong. So are media outlets holding on for April 30th and the fall of Saigon's 40th anniversary? Or did Uprooted chance upon some uncomfortable truths in subliminal form that our news editors don't want shared.

Maybe if you read the book backwards it becomes very pro-Communist. Thousands are liberated from labor camps. Class enemies are resurrected. Chairman Mao approves patch-less pants. I'm sure there was a Red Dwarf episode like that.

In the absence of news features to stimulate interest I resisted the temptation to visit all the city's Barnes & Noble stores to load the Uprooted onto screens at the Nook table. Instead I checked Amazon hourly and found the book made it into the Hot New Releases/History/Asia list.

Further investigation revealed that I had managed to categorize my book into the most densely populated shelf on the site. Turns out there are not more teen vampire romances than history books. Lesson learned.

Conceivably, I can also still refer to myself as an Amazon top 100 selling author ... with a heavy dose of eyebrow and chaser of sarcasm.

If you're curious to know how many copies have been sold, then you must remain like me, still curious. I don't get numbers for a month or so. Could be good not to know. I'm conservatively hoping to have shifted 50-100 copies.

The peril of living your life by stats. They didn't help McNamara very much and I'm not going to let “what if” conundrums rattle my foggy brain.

How's that for a segue? I did promise more than a sales flow-chart this week, and must address one of the perennial “what if's” of the Vietnam War. What if Johnson had invaded North Vietnam? Would that have brought victory, where his slow-squeeze approach in the North, and body-count in the South, brought stalemate.

Histories of “what if” are a quagmire of easy speculation and pat blog-sphere conclusion. This will be no different. You can read fifteen books and find fifteen angles, but I believe the evidence was there already. The American's chose to ignore the French experience.

Westmoreland was unable to win a guerrilla war in South Vietnam, there is no reason to think invading the North would have turned the conflict into a more traditional battle. The Communists would have surrendered ground, dug into the hills under triple-canopy jungle, hit American patrols and supply lines, and waited. They would have waited ten years if necessary and made their people suffer by making them the front line.

What's more, by 1965 there were Chinese forces on the ground in North Vietnam. And it was Johnson's fear that Mao would send hundreds of thousands to fight as he had fifteen years earlier in Korea. The Chairman had warned Washington with purple rhetoric already that “once the war breaks out, it will have no boundaries.”

As I did my research, every critical step of escalation had its own particular logic that seemed correct at the time. Johnson and McNamara's slow-squeeze approach was – given what we now know – never going to succeed in destroying the North Vietnamese will to fight. Nor were China likely to enter the war after its grievous losses in Korea.

But Johnson put his faith in a bombing campaign because it appeared to offer a solution while bypassing the South Vietnamese military who were perceived as weak.

They were weak for many reasons not of their own making, but that is another post.

I believe the war was winnable. But in order to do so, the South Vietnamese needed a coherence and a reason to fight that their own government and the Americans hadn't given them.

The front line surrounded every village. So it was the village defense teams, the horrendously under-prepared, under-supplied and under-supported Regional and Popular Forces - so derided by the American soldiers - who were critical in cutting off the Communist guerrillas from their supply base – the villagers. They were the lowest rung of the military ladder, and yet the most crucial.

In addition, the population needed a government, and government administrators, they could trust. The government was venal, while good administrators were assassinated and the corrupt left to create a fertile recruiting environment for the VC.

None of this fitted with the “big-unit” military model that General Westmoreland saw as the solution. To take the same fight north of the border, even to occupy Hanoi, would have doubled American problems, not solved them.

Despite all the above bluster, Uprooted is not a history book. It tells the story of a villager, not of a soldier or the politicians.

'This is not "great man theory" history; it is the history of average people faced with unspeakable situations, and the courage and heroism that people can summon.' - Read more of Uprooted's reviews on Amazon.

While dithering and delay followed the mistakes made by the generals and politicians, the ordinary American soldier was also put in an untenable situation. Next week I'll talk a little about a section of the book that didn't make the final draft, which tells the story of one GI, Mitch, to whom the book is dedicated.

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