Liveright, 2018. 715pp.
Biography/American Military History/Vietnam War
Few subjects generate as much passionate speculation as America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The subject of numerous films and documentaries, and innumerable books, 40+ years after its end Vietnam can still peel open old wounds. Arguably, Americans have never learned how to oppose any war since Vietnam because of the way it was executed and the lasting impact of negative treatment many returning service members received.
History reveals a lack of understanding among American political leaders across several administrations regarding everything from leadership in Saigon and Hanoi, to what the Vietnamese people actually wanted, to understanding the terrain of the country in which war was being waged, to a viable military strategy (and why those inherited from WW2 and Korea did not work), and more. One man with a successful history of counter-insurgency thought building relationships on the ground should be explored more fully than it was: Edward Lansdale.
Drawing from personal correspondence and a trove of information until recently classified, military historian and columnist Max Boot paints the picture of an operative who chose to employ relationship building, rather than violent tactics, as often as possible, even in strife-filled countries like the Philippines and Vietnam. When given freedom to operate, Lansdale was successful in implementing US objectives. The promotion of Ramon Magsaysay from little-known congressman to Philippine president in the 1950s, was his greatest achievement. When hampered by red-tape and wrong-headed politicians (JFK, RFK, and Robert McNamara, for example) or rusted links in the military chain of command, results were often less than stellar. Operation Mongoose, designed to instigate a popular uprising in Cuba against Castro, stands out in this regard.
Despite Lansdale’s long, close friendship with South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, Lansdale was never named ambassador to the country. When Diem was assassinated in a CIA-engineered coup d’état, Lansdale—who had warned against such an action for a decade—was disappointed, sorrowful, then filled with rage. For the then-retired operative, Diem was “the man who embodied all of [Lansdale’s] dreams for the future of Vietnam” now overthrown at America’s instigation. Dillon Anderson, who served at Dwight Eisenhower’s national security advisor, wrote to Lansdale,
[Y]our particular skills in dealing with political problems might help us save this salubrious corner of Asia from going from going down the drain. But there’s nothing I can do about that. (p. 415)
Benefit for Pastoral Ministry
Like most people, Edward Lansdale’s life did not lack for complexity. There were things from which to learn (how to treat people) and things to avoid (a lengthy extra-marital affair documented by many love letters). Lansdale was a covert-ops man who eschewed much of the tradecraft involved, but used it when necessary. He was “not averse, if necessary, to assassination as a tool of foreign policy” (p. 391).
As I read The Road Not Taken, these approaches Lansdale took in his work struck me as transferable to the missional-minded pastor.
Lansdale cared about people, and not just as a means to an end.
In the period following World War 2 through the end of the Vietnam era, Edward Lansdale worked with people in numerous countries. Not all of these people were “friendlies.” Some, like the Communist Huk military leader Luis Taruc, were not. Despite the potential dangers, Lansdale was willing to look for the possibility relationships underneath.
Lansdale appreciated the nuances of culture and sought to understand cultures different than his own.
“A regular party-giver, Lansdale used the tinikling, a Philippine pole dance, to break down social barriers” (from a photo description between pages 270 and 271). Lansdale understood that to know people you must know about people. The cultures of Vietnam, the Philippines, and Cuba were not the problem. Edward Lansdale learned how people lived, not just where they lived, and, when possible, built inroads that led to knowing them better.
Many pastors have a woeful misunderstanding of culture. The “evil things in culture” are routinely condemned during sermons. Some even warn against being a part of culture. Throwing rocks at culture is like throwing rocks at people. You may score some points by running down “those long haired hippies” or “those guys with their pants hanging down,” but you will not reach them for Jesus. We do not have to like everything in a culture to learn about it, and, perhaps use the uniquenesses in each culture as a bridge to the gospel.
Lansdale understood that relationships could win.
Long before American committed more than 2,000,000 troops to Vietnam, Lansdale argued the military advisors in Vietnam should participate in combat for relational reasons:
It would make all the difference in the effectiveness of their relationship to the Vietnamese. Comrades are listened to, when they share the risk. (p. 373)
The way to build trust was by working together. Lansdale hoped listening to the specific needs and desires of the Vietnamese people would provides ways to support them and encourage them to reject communism.
One of Lansdale’s prominent nemesis was not in Vietnam, though. He was JFK’s secretary of defense, Robert McNamara. Writes Boot:
One suspects that McNamara’s problem with Lansdale was not that he lacked broad experience but that he lacked McNamara’s own misguided passion for reducing the complex problems of war and peace into easily solvable and greatly deceptive mathematical equations. (p. 368)
In Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary, The Vietnam War, Lansdale is discussed:
[McNamara] asked Edward Lansdale, who was then in the Pentagon as head of special operations, to come down and look this [report]. And so, Lansdale did, and he said, ‘There’s something missing.’ And McNamara said, ‘What?’ And Lansdale said, ‘The feelings of the Vietnamese people.’ […]
McNamara wanted all Vietnam reports quantified. Mountains of data was processed daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly; far more data than it was possible to analyze. (The Vietnam War, Episode 2)
But, as with all people, “you couldn’t reduce it to a statistic.”
Pastors have long joked about the B’s of ministry: baptisms, buildings, and budgets. When we are not careful to maintain the focus on the people and their need for Christ and spiritual growth, we might just find ourselves, like McNamara, reducing them to statistics.
The Road Not Taken is obviously not a book of theology or even the biography of a Christian giant. Lansdale was a non-devout Christian Scientist, by way of his upbringing. Thus, my rating is 2-fold: if you are interested in the history of the Vietnam war: Essential. If you are interested in general American history or biographies of lesser-well-known Americans: Recommended.