Friday, March 21, 2014

A Disappointing Book

Normally I don't mention when I have wasted my time with a book.  The book list at the left is made up of roughly 50% of the books I've read in my study of communism and related topics.  They are worthy of mention.

Further, I have a deep respect for the discipline and focus necessary to write a book and am sensitive to the fact that a bad book review can be mistaken for a bad author review.  This author put in four years of research, and I don't mean to take away from that in the criticisms below.

I recently  mentioned The Phoenix Program by Douglas Valentine.  I served with a Vietnam Vet who assisted with this CIA program, and I wanted to know more.  I also served in Army Psychological Operations (PSYOP) units in the Army Reserves and graduated from the Army's PSYOP Officer's course.  This book looked like a great source - one of very few on the subject.


I stopped reading at page 49.  Here is why:

Page 42: the author leads the paragraph discussing a Catholic priest who was decapitated by the communists and how the CIA responded:
CIA psywar and paramilitary officers, their brains bursting with big ideas and their Abercrombie and Fitch safari jacket pockets bulging with big bucks, converged on Vietnam from Cuba, Africa, Greece, Korea, the Philippines, Laos, and Indonesia.
Really?  First, it is "PSYOP," not psywar or psyops.  Second, Psychological Operations is a pretty mild, non-lethal, wartime activity.  What the CIA was doing in Vietnam might have had a PSYOP component to it (leaflets, newsletters, education materials, etc.), the act of seeking, then capturing or killing communists was not PSYOP in any way.  Second, why the jacket brand?  Third, why "big bucks" and not a figure of CIA spending (actual or estimated)?  Fourth, why the list of countries?

It appears the author wants the reader to conclude: the CIA is everywhere, they are brainwashing people with "psywar" tactics, and that they all wear the same jackets.

Pages 50-52: the author lists the events during villiage visits by both communists and the anti-communist Moutain Scouts:

1) Start with entertainment,
2) Anti-American speeches,
3) Villager self-criticism,
4) Recruitment,
5) Executions - (In later visits to villages that failed to produce recruits.)

Mountain Scouts:
1) Anti-Communist speeches,
2) Update their maps with villiage location and size,
3) Take communist defectors and leave informants,
4) Leave a head on a pike - (for communist-leaning villiages, the Mountain Scouts would put a Viet-Cong head on a pike as they exited the villiage.  The Viet-Cong solder had been killed in a previous battle.)

These are useful lists to understand the conditions preceding the main Vietnam war.  But the author's presentation suggested these lists as being morally equal when they clearly are not.  The random execution, or the threat of execution, is not the same as using a mutilated body to intimidate.

 Page 49: the author writes about the US Information Service (USIS) and it's "propaganda and censorship functions outside America."

"Propaganda" is a loaded word.  It is best used with the lies and distortions that the Soviets used both internally and in foreign media.  Defined: "information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc."  The author's use of the word "Propaganda" suggests he sees the communist and anti-communists messages in an equal light.  Deeper analysis - ALWAYS - shows that one is full of lies and misleading statements, while the other is not.

"Censorship" is another loaded term.

I'm open to the idea that the US can do wrong, but in this book we're served these loaded words without specific examples.  Had the author presented examples of US lies and censoring, rather than just say these existed, he'd have a better book.


I have no doubt this book is a thorough compilation of facts and stories from Vietnam, however it's reletively few 'blame America first' zingers sap the energy necessary to keep turning the pages.  It also felt unorganized, but having stopped so early in the book I would defer to others for a fair assessment.

According to the jacket cover, the author lives in Boston.  It is not a far stretch to think he was writing some sections as if he was talking to some coffee house liberals. His attempt to steer the reader into forming conclusions without evidence, and with loaded words, failed in 49 pages.  I regret I will not learn more from his research.

My copy is now in the trash.
started The Phoenix Program
started The Phoenix Program
started The Phoenix Program
started The Phoenix Program
started The Phoenix Program
started The Phoenix Program
started The Phoenix Program by Douglas Valentine
started The Phoenix Program by Douglas Valentine

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