Skip to comments.Give War A Chance: Could we have won Vietnam?
Posted on 10/04/2002 7:21:51 AM PDT by Stand Watch Listen
The Myth Of Inevitable U.S. Defeat In Vietnam. By C. Dale Walton. Frank Cass, 176 pp., $45
Steel My Soldiers' Hearts: The Hopeless To Hardcore Transformation Of The U.S. Army, 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry, Vietnam. By David H. Hackworth and Eilhys England. Rugged Land, 512 pp., $27.95
Real Lessons Of The Vietnam War: Reflections Twenty-Five Years After The Fall Of Saigon. Edited by John Norton Moore and Robert F. Turner. Carolina Academic, 536 pp., $60
By Christopher Lynch
THE WORD "tragedy" is perhaps the most frequently intoned about the Vietnam War, and usually what is intended by it is a sense that American involvement in the war was a mistake and American defeat was inevitable. That kind of proposition, however, is like a gauntlet thrown down to historians, and an interesting turn has begun to take place in recent years as more and more historians start to suggest the exact opposite of the conventional understanding of Vietnam--namely, that the war was just and necessary, and that an American victory was entirely possible.
So, for instance, C. Dale Walton, in "The Myth of Inevitable U.S. Defeat in Vietnam," catalogues the errors that led to the fall of Saigon in 1975, persuasively--if inelegantly--arguing that they could have been avoided. Walton maintains that Vietnam "has consistently been the most strategically misappraised of all U.S. conflicts." His work shows the path by which the experts' "tendency to view operational difficulties . . . as insurmountable barriers to U.S. victory" and their corresponding "reluctance to acknowledge that the United States had compensating advantages" have led us into moral as well as strategic confusion.
Walton rightly resists the temptation to pin American failure on a single problem--political, cultural, or military. But he turns that point around to make it a stinging indictment: "There were numerous roads to victory, but . . . Washington chose none of them." Victory, according to Walton, was attainable by means ranging from a slightly modified version of the limited-war strategy actually adopted to a full-blown invasion of the North. Properly aware of the limits of counterfactual arguments, Walton offers considerable evidence that his preferred alternatives (the hot pursuit of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army forces into their Cambodian and Laotian sanctuaries and the effective coordination of the bombing campaigns in the North with the ground war in the South) were genuine possibilities at the time. A fear of Chinese intervention prevented leaders from availing themselves of either option.
The high point of "The Myth of Inevitable U.S. Defeat in Vietnam" is its analysis of how an independent and sustainable South Vietnam could have been attained relatively early by an intelligent prosecution of the ground war. Walton shows that the American commander, General William Westmoreland, was dealt a bad hand and then played it poorly. Washington refused him sufficient troops for simultaneously defeating both the enemy's main forces and their small, widely dispersed guerrilla cells. Westmoreland chose to put all his eggs in the search-and-destroy basket, first in the hopes of repeating early successes in major engagements, then in order to "attrit" an enemy constantly replenished by the North. Walton argues that Westmoreland should have instead cut his army's disproportionately long logistical tail and aggressively trained the South Vietnamese army in order to tap into its vast manpower; at the same time, he should have built up successful counterinsurgency programs. By so doing, the United States could have fought well in the big war and the small war, destroying "main force units" while "pacifying" rural areas.
MEANWHILE, for another recent author--Colonel David H. Hackworth--Vietnam was all about beating the guerrillas at their own game. "Steel My Soldiers' Hearts," Hackworth's account of his third tour in Vietnam, is as riveting and profane as Walton's strategic analysis is sober and clinical. The book chronicles Hackworth's four-month transformation of a demoralized, ragtag battalion fighting in the Mekong Delta into a staggeringly effective force. Hackworth seems a combination of General Patton, Mel Gibson's stolid Colonel Moore in "We Were Soldiers," and "M*A*S*H"'s gung-ho and slightly demented CIA officer, Colonel Flagg. But Hackworth's self-promotion and occasional recklessness can be forgiven in light of his well-attested tactical brilliance, devotion to his men, and ability to inspire by "leading from up front"--not to mention his (and his co-author and wife's) narrative gifts.
Hackworth's desire was to out-guerrilla the guerrillas. He put to good use the rule of thumb--anathema to doctrinaire Clausewitzians but heartily recommended by Machiavelli--that it's more important to avoid being hit by the enemy than it is to hit him. In the wrong hands, this principle could lead to the wasteful "search-and-avoid" tactics practiced by soldiers disgusted with Westmoreland's strategy of attrition. In Hackworth's hands it meant properly training his men to set ambush after ambush of their own, resulting in an astounding 100-to-1 ratio of enemy to friendly killed in action. Had commanders come within hailing distance of that rate, the Ho Chi Minh trail operating at full bore could never have supplied enough soldiers to threaten the independence of South Vietnam.
Hackworth's caution regarding the lives of his men didn't extend to himself. When in his absence several of his troops became trapped by heavy fire in an open field, Hackworth returned toward nightfall to find the thorniest tactical problem of his career: how to save them before dark without losing more men to an enemy lying in wait beyond a tree line offering perfect cover. Rather than order any of his 800 troops to attempt a dubious rescue, he commandeered several helicopters to provide covering fire. His helicopter riddled with bullet holes, Hackworth whisked the awestruck men away, an action that won him a recommendation (still pending) for virtually the only decoration he has yet to receive, the Medal of Honor.
Such stories sustain one into the second half of the book, but at that point Hackworth inserts into "Steel My Soldiers' Hearts" a long chapter on the heroism of the war's medics (already amply recounted) and another on the effects of wartime VD that reads about as well as a textbook description of a bad head cold. Curiously, the book is most wanting when it comes to describing what motivates soldiers. Hackworth repeats the by now well-worn military refrain that men fight and die not for patriotism or principle but only for each other. But such motivation seems insufficient, even for Hackworth. He describes a Viet Cong soldier who, as Hackworth's helicopter narrowed in and wounded him, continued firing long enough for his comrades to escape. Hackworth wonders, "How can you beat such fighting spirit? One man against a war machine. In a small way, his stand symbolized the war: a small backward country taking on a superpower and winning because its people believed their cause was right and stubbornly refused to give up." With this nod to the conventional belief in the inevitability of defeat, Hackworth seems to forget not only his own outstanding successes, but also our failure to nourish our soldiers' will to fight on the principles at stake in the war.
JOHN NORTON MOORE and Robert F. Turner's "Real Lessons of the Vietnam War," a compilation of papers from a conference held in 2000, has more to say regarding the principles guiding American involvement. The book's only serious defect is that it appears to be a record of the conference containing superfluous material such as several brief, contentless "papers," and others wholly lacking supporting evidence. The result is a remarkably uneven volume. But summaries by five authors--including B.G. Burkett on the media, Lewis Sorley on the war's winnability, and Michael Lind on its necessity--of their book-length studies are useful to general readers.
The remaining chapters are aimed at serious students of the war. For instance, in a study of the legality and constitutionality of the war, Turner explodes the assumption--pervading nearly every other account--that the war arose from extra-constitutional executive usurpation of congressional authority. The historical case that the war was well authorized by a Congress aware of every major escalation is accompanied by a persuasive constitutional argument that war-making is an essentially executive function.
In the book's final chapter, Gregory H. Stanton takes aim at the standard portrayal of the bloodletting that swept Indochina, especially Cambodia, after the war. These atrocities are usually cast as a tragic turn in the cycle of violence initiated by American carpet-bombing of civilian areas. Though Stanton condemns this bombing, he rightly directs most of his moral fire at those who fail to see the perversity of blaming the United States for the Khmer Rouge's systematic killing of millions.
After our military success in the Gulf War, the first President Bush announced that we had kicked the "Vietnam Syndrome"--our sense that we could not, or even should not, win again. But for all its successes and difficulties, the Gulf War was less a test of our abilities and our endurance than was the Vietnam War. We need not balk at the fact that the current war on terrorism has more in common with Vietnam than with the Gulf War. By showing that our national failure arose not from blind fate but from deliberate policies and actions that could and should have been otherwise, these three books can help us to face it squarely and learn its real lessons well.
Christopher Lynch is assistant professor of political science at Carthage College.
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Of course we could have (The US military did not lose one battle in Vietnam):
1. Invade North Vietnam
2. Invade Laos and cut the Ho Chi Min trail
3. Use SF to train up indigenous forces to the Nth degree
Arguably we could have won even without support from the South Vietnamese, but as soon as we personally pulled out, the Communists would have reasserted themselves against the South and the whole ugliness would have restarted.
One of our problems was the difficulty of fighting a ground war against guerrillas in a country in which we had little familiarity, no language skills, weak popular support, weak support back home, lots of local opposition, and even lots of antipathy within our own ranks for the locals. We discovered that North Vietnam was so underdeveloped that bombing them into the stone age was actually a step forward for them. Winning in a serious way might have necessitated dropping a nuke or two on NV cities, but the worldwide reaction would have been more costly than the victory.
You can't do it by placing the seat of government and it leaders off limits to attack and by taking land in the morning and giving it back in the evening.
The article only scratches the surface of the needed destruction of myths about the war, carefully constructed by the left during it and afterward, and embraced as excuses by many not on the left since. Blame is happily laddled out hither and yon with precious little regard for facts or plausibility. Any theory that puts the blame somewhere besides the sensitive point - that we abandoned them for essentially domestic reasons - is bound to be peddled by someone.
Take for instance the idea that we couldn't defeat guerillas with conventional warfare means, that the war was lost because it was fought with our hands tied. The problem is, the guerillas did not win, they lost. After Tet the VC were a spent force. They were capable of only low level actions, and required more and more stiffening by NVA regulars, who carried the war in the second half of US ground involvement. The much maligned Westermoreland attrition strategy beat the guerillas.
Or take the idea that sanctuary was the critical issue, forwarded by quite respectable figures like General Moore. The idea that the US lost because it refused to employ hot pursuit into Laos and Cambodia has one minor problem - we did not refrain from fighting in Laos and Cambodia. We not only bombed in them on a large scale, and sent in LRPs and special ops, Nixon also later on authorized incursions into Cambodia with ground troops, specifically to remove the NVA hope that this factor alone would let them win. Which was militarily successful. It brought domestic political heat from the left precisely because it threatened a northern victory in the war, which they had already decided was their only acceptable outcome. (NLF is gonna win, remember?)
Or take the idea that domestic public opinion would not put up with even the modest casualties we took, and that therefore the strategy was doomed even with its military attrition success. The idea here is that attrition may be militarily useful but it is expensive and time consuming, and expense and time destroy popular support, and without them defeat follows, and therefore attrition never works politically even when it is militarily successful. This view is peddled by maneuverist strategists in particular, who are dead set against attrition methods for tangential reasons.
The problem is, public support for the war did not evaporate. In case everybody forgot, McGovern lost in a landslide. It was not the country that split over the war, it was the democratic party. Johnson was indeed politically destroyed by the war, because his own party split wide open over support or opposition to the war. But the result was his party lost power. Nixon's strategy of Vietnamization was perfectly workable on the military side (precisely because attrition had already defeated the VC, and the south could be backed by US airpower against conventional attack), and popular domestically. Nixon pulled out the ground troops, ended the draft, and was fully supported by the American people. The anti-war left was livid about Nixon precisely because he had basically succeeded in defeating the NLF and in keeping the support of the American people while doing so.
In 1972, when the NVA attacked across the border, US airpower destroyed their massed forces. You have to bunch up to fight conventionally, and they did not have guerilla forces sufficient to threaten anything left in the south. The NVA hoped that with US ground forces already gone, teh ARVN would be pushovers and could be defeated in an all-out conventional invasion. But US airpower remained, and defeated the attempt. Bombing of the north further showed that the costs of continuing such attempts indefinitely would be unacceptably high for the North.
The Vietnam war was not lost in 1965 we we got into it. Nothing was lost then. The war was not lost in 1968 with the Tet Offensive - only Johnson's presidency and the internal unity of the democratic party was lost then. The country, the US, the war - they were fine. The result of the loss of the Johnson presidency and the dem's splitting was simply that Republicans took over. Revisionist Dems portray that as implying "inevitable" defeat, because they equate themselves with the country. But that is a self serving delusion. The war was not won with the opposition to Nixon, or with withdrawl of US ground forces. The ARVN were strong enough to hold with US airpower to help, still.
No, the war was only lost between 1973 and 1975. It was lost when the Nixon presidency, not the Johnson presidency, was destroyed. It was lost when the post Watergate congress outlawed continued support of the ARVN by US airpower. Then it took a large scale conventional invasion, with armor, to defeat the ARVN. Would were not "rotten" or unwilling to fight - they fought longer than anybody else. They were simply defeated by masses of Russian-supplied armor, when we would no longer counter-balance and trump that Russian support with our airpower.
The reason we refused to do so - after our ground forces were gone, so no Americans boys were dying in foreign rice paddies - after the draft had been ended, so no young people were being hauled off to war - after the civil rights movement had succeeded - after McGovern's pure peacenik platform had been smashed in a landslide - was entirely that the US congress and the democratic party controlling it hated the war in Vietnam, hated Nixon's successes there, hated the loss of power they had experienced since splitting over the issue in 1968, hated the US military they had been opposing more and more openly throughout the Nixon years, and due to Watergate had the power to act on these hatreds.
Nixon's stupidity and criminality in the Watergate scandal destroyed his presidency, not the war in Vietnam. But the triumph of his domestic opponents as a result of that scandal is the only thing that doomed South Vietnam. And only because they freely chose to sell out South Vietnam, as a pure choice, because they had come to hate everything involved in standing by the side of the South Vietnamese. They had convinced themselves the war was immoral and that we were on the wrong side of it, or wrong to fight it, and that the NLF *ought* to win. And win they did, because of that conviction. But not because such convictions won popular support when openly presented as policy, in the form of McGovern's candidacy in 1972.
We flat sold them out, or rather changed our minds about wanting South Vietnam to remain independent. It was our fault. The war was winnable, and largely won, when we threw away 8 years of effort, blood, and treasure - freely.
Notice how in all the other versions and dodges, the critical period and the decisions made during it are never in the limelight? Are always presented as some inevitable aftermath? Explanations are allowed to discuss the decisions of 1964, or 65-67, or 68, or even 69-73. Some may even tag Watergate, or admit that 68 wasn't the turning point for the country (as opposed to the Dems), or know that 72 was still a success. But never is the focus on the free choices made *after* Watergate by the congress between Nixon's resignation and the 1975 invasion. That, however, is when and where and by whom the war was decided. It wasn't really even the war that was decided, it was the policy.
We flat gave up, because we did not believe in the goal anymore. Freely, and long after it involved any high cost in blood or treasure. The decision was not coerced. And those who decided this for us - those responsible for that decision - will accept any narrative about the war *except* that true one.
In fact, the guerilla portion of the war proved in the end to be unwinnable for both sides. Final victory for the North Vietnamese was effected through a conventional armored blitzkreig, unstoppable because of lack of U.S. air support - the South Vietnamese army had, after all, been trained and configured for a decade for unconventional warfare, not direct armored confrontation. That part I saw for myself, and I haven't forgotten it.
I talked to pilot who flew over North Vietnam. He was forbidden to fire on Chinese munition trains, without getting permission from Washingon DC. This, of course, took days.
Actually, I have a Time Life Series on Aircraft, that begins with Viet Nam. Even here, there is an the acknowledgement that we never lost this war...we gave it away.
I believe firmly that Walter Cronkite was a direct contributer to the ultimate outcome of this tradgedy. Too bad he was never called to account for it.
From someone who fought and bled in that hellhole...