Vietnam, Lessons Learned?
One look at the Vietnam war
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat
it.” George Santayana. The historian must, however, seek out
an accurate past. Few, if any, times in history have spawned a more confusing,
more bias-driven plethora of literature than the Vietnam War.
Books by reporters are almost always based on ignorance and are rarely without bias. Reporting of the Vietnam War became so biased that when accompanying units that came under fire the reporters would yell “Bao Chi! Bao Chi!”…”Journalist! Journalist!” in the hopes that the communists would not shoot someone so valuable to their side.
Books by high-level leaders, both political and military, are normally so filled with apologia and self-justification that they are of little value. Even those with the character to try to portray accuracy are often surprisingly poorly informed.
Academia is steeped in bias. It is common for one of the learned ones to assemble or invent “facts” to support his pet theory. Even those striving for truth are handicapped by the mere “closeness” of events lacking the time to sort themselves out.
The “and there I was” war stories offer potential entertainment, and often fantastic flights of fancy, but rarely any historical value. One particular branch of service seems exceptionally gifted in this area.
The historian seeking accuracy about Vietnam will most often find it in the writings of lower level Army officers whose work was done for the purpose of making the Army better and avoiding repetition of mistakes. These are normally well thought out and are often quite caustic. ON STRATEGY by Harry G. Summers, DERELECTION OF DUTY by H. R. McMaster, and SUMMONS OF THE TRUMPET by Dave Richard Palmer are recommended.
THE ADVISORY DECADE 1954-1964
The Eisenhower legacy:
Dwight Eisenhower was elected on the promise that he would bring an end to the Korean War. He did so. He did not want to attempt to match the communist forces man-for-man so he adopted a policy of containment by massive retaliation. As this meant primarily nuclear weapons delivered by air, Army planners were somewhat at loss for a purpose. The Army consequently developed, equipped, and trained for a doctrine of canalizing enemy forces into a killzone and destroying them with tactical nuclear weapons. This policy might have worked well enough while we enjoyed a nuclear monopoly, but left few options short of a World War. Officers expecting only nuclear warfare tend to neglect other aspects of their professional education.
Eisenhower sent some advisors to South Vietnam to organize and train an army to resist an external invasion. Communist forces, either left in place after the war against France, or infiltrated from the North began the first phases of an insurgency against the South.
Kennedy takes over:
John Kennedy tried to bring the magic of Camelot to Washington. He chose a young, dynamic, brain trust of intelligentsia and Ivy Leaguers as his advisors. The Media quickly dubbed them “the Whiz Kids.” The concept of guerrilla warfare seemed new and heady. Kennedy became enamored with it and let it be known that there would be little advancement for military officers lacking expertise in this new and exciting concept. The Whiz Kids rapidly read every academic work about the subject and equally rapidly formed opinions which were given much more credence than those of military men who, while admittedly not giving guerrilla warfare a very high priority, had served in both WWII and Korea and had spent most of their adult lives in the study and practice of the art of war. The number of Army advisors to Vietnam was greatly increased. The Air Force and the Navy quickly developed and deployed “Counterinsurgency” forces. The mission given to the Americans in Vietnam was increased. They were now to train Vietnamese to resist external invasion, to conduct counterinsurgency operations, and to conduct nation building.
The Army had enjoyed great success in the rebuilding of Germany and Japan after WWII. They did not anticipate the difficulties of RVN politics. The Republic of Vietnam proved to be a quagmire of corruption, familial and political loyalties inherited from mandarin and warlord feudalism. Subordinate leaders strived to be competent enough to be retained, yet not so competent as to be considered competition. Those who needed reforming most were in charge of reform. Almost all power was in the hands of a Catholic minority who looked down on the Buddhist majority. All ethnic and religious groups disliked and distrusted the other ethnic and religious groups. They had absolutely no desire to work together. It rapidly became apparent that it was infinitely easier for a nation to build a defeated and controlled nation than to do so while impeded and encumbered with locals who, after all, had to be given a say in what was to be done.
The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) well reflected the problems of the society from which it came. Promotions were based not on competence, but rather on clique or clan. With the exception of a few elite units…Ranger, Airborne, Marine, and Armored units, the ARVN divisions were almost militia-like and were of little use when deployed away from their families and home areas. In the few units that were well led, the individual Vietnamese soldier proved to be brave and capable of bearing incredible hardship.
Despite these problems, progress was made. The Viet Cong had been held in check. Most of their leaders had been killed or captured. Replacement leaders had been sent down from the North, but they lacked the ability to relate to the Southerners as well as the locals had. Defections rose. Pacification projects and “Strategic Hamlets” of the Diem regime began to see success.
This success was squandered when the Buddhists faced Diem with a revolt of sorts. Diem handled it poorly and succeeded in alienating almost everyone… including his American advisors. Diem was overthrown with the blessings of Washington. Diem was assassinated shortly before Kennedy. Then there began an almost comical series of coups and counter coups in the Saigon government.
Lyndon Johnson inherited Robert S. McNamara and the rest of the Whiz
Kids from Kennedy. He was much more interested in forming the “Great
Society” and readily accepted their proposals for running the Vietnam
war “on the cheap" and making as few waves as possible. The
North Vietnamese had lost faith in the “People’s War”
and had deployed units of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Johnson had
to counter with some US units, but had bought into McNamara’s concept
of “graduated response.” “ The US was obviously so much
stronger that a gradual increase of force should reach the point wherein
the communists would realize that continuation of the conflict was futile.”
This concept was theorized to be more humane, more economical, and would,
of course, interfere less with the founding of the “Great Society.”
Johnson was not told, or did not hear the argument advanced in a quote
from Sir John Fisher, “The essence of war is violence. Moderation
in war is imbecility.” Those who thought that they had a better
idea and were competent to rewrite history also happily ignored other
lessons from the history of warfare.
THE NEW FACE OF THE CONFLICT 1965
American combat units deployed:
The North Vietnamese leadership ordered a conventional invasion of the South. This invasion was launched from sanctuaries in Cambodia and had the mission of cutting the country in two. The invasion was thwarted by the insertion of the US First Cavalry division into the Ia Drang valley and the bringing about the first direct combat between US and NVA troops. The effectiveness of ARVN was greatly enhanced by the assignment of US advisory teams down to battalion level. Perhaps of greater value than the advice they gave, the advisors gave ARVN access to powerful US artillery and air support.
Horrendous NVA losses resulted in their conventional units being pulled
back into Cambodia to rebuild and by the war being continued by very scaled
down guerrilla actions. Encouraged, the US continued their troop build
up. The concept became for US units to sweep the open areas for major
NVA units and for ARVN to concentrate on pacification. This concept sowed
the seeds for a policy that was to haunt US personnel for the remainder
of the war. Very restrictive, politically based, rules of engagement were
decreed. Troops who are being shot at tend to resent rules effecting their
success and survival being written in the comfort of a desk in Washington.
MORE POLITICAL DECISIONS:
Johnson also decided that a full-blown war would detract from the “Great Society” and did not ask Congress for a declaration of war. This sowed the seeds for even more difficulties. Without a declaration of war, there would be nothing to keep various members of Congress from later changing their position and voicing irresponsible, indeed traitorous, statements supporting the enemy. The war could become “Johnson’s War” or “Nixon’s War.” It would not remain “America’s War.” Media were free to report American casualties, knowledge valuable to the enemy and detrimental to morale on the home front.
Johnson also refused to mobilize the National Guard and to call up the reserves. He feared that this action would also detract from his domestic agenda. This denied the war effort the experience of many WWII and Korean War veterans. It also insured that the effects of the war would be localized to only those Americans who had a loved one drafted into service. To most Americans the war remained only an event that occurred far, far away and only on the televised evening news.
Local draft boards abused their power by telling their cronies when their sons should join the Guard. Kids went to college for the sole purpose of avoiding the draft. One result of these inequities was an unfair proportion of Blacks being sent to Vietnam. This sowed the seeds for racial strife that would impact the war effort.
The granting of deferments for education had an even more disastrous effect. Attendance in college might keep a kid out of Vietnam, but avoiding the draft did little for his self-respect and self esteem. He found it easier to salve his conscience if he were to declare the war an unjust one and to oppose it on these grounds. College campuses therefore became literal hotbeds of opposition to the war and became incredibly detrimental to the morale of the troops, the populace, and, most of all, the politicians who needed their votes.
SEARCHING FOR A STRATEGY 1966-1967
Johnson distrusted and disliked the military. These feelings soon became mutual. This problem was exacerbated by McNamara’s policy of refusing the Joint Chiefs of Staff direct access to the President. Many wonder how much of the military’s input was actually permitted to get through. Johnson liked to revel in his control of “Those generals in their damned monkey suits.” He liked to assemble them only for photo-ops of “The coach and his team.” The “team” knew considerably more about waging war than did the “coach” but, unfortunately, lacked the moral courage to resign enmass and thus draw attention to the problem. Such resignations are, and should be, the only way a civilian controlled military has of trying to influence civilian leadership they believe to be wrong.
It had been decided that bombing of the North might encourage them to attend peace talks. Johnson therefore authorized a very restricted air offensive dubbed “ROLLING THUNDER.” ROLLING THUNDER was denied targets near populated areas. It was denied targets that might permantly damage North Vietnam’s industrial base. It was denied targets that might endanger “neutral” i.e. Chinese or ‘Soviet ships or personnel. The brave airmen given this task promptly dubbed the offensive “OOZING FLATULANCE.” (This is not a direct quote.) Johnson delighted in bragging that the military were unable to “even bomb an outhouse” without his express approval. (This too is not a direct quote.)
Wars are won by seizing the initiative and destroying the enemy’s war making potential. The commanding US general, Gen. William Westmoreland at the time, was denied authority to launch a war winning attack on North Vietnam’s ability to wage war. He could not attack North Vietnam. He could not attack North Vietnamese forces in the nominally neutral Laos and Cambodia. The only option available to him was one that every military leader wants desperately to avoid…a war of attrition.
The war of attrition not only denied strategic victory, it also began to deny tactical victories. Unit commanders, overly fearful of taking casualties, would no longer assault enemy forces and pursue them when they withdrew. The method of operation became one of finding the enemy and then trying to contain him and destroy him with artillery and air support. This method of operation appears to lessen casualties at the moment, but causes more casualties in the long run.
DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT:
One reason the Joint Chiefs failed to do their duty in pointing out the errors of their civilian leadership was likely complacency about the outcome. America had, after all, never lost a war. They were, after all, fighting and winning a war of counterinsurgency. They were, after all, fighting a third-rate military power with an agrarian economy and virtually no industrial base.
Both US and ARVN units were inundated with intelligence reports of a massive general uprising in the works. These warnings fell on deaf ears because it was quite doubtful that the communist myth of a great “General Uprising” was anything more than a myth. Also repeated communist offensive operations wherein NVA forces would attack limited objectives from sanctuaries across the border, suffer huge casualties, and then retreat quickly back across the border served as a distraction.
Vo Nguyen Giap, the NVA commander in chief, decided to make yet another great effort. Giap’s willingness to accept casualties was not quite like that of the US commander. “Every minute, hundreds of thousands of people die all over the world. The life or death of a hundred, a thousand, or tens of thousands of human beings, even if they are our own compatriots, represents really very little.” He once said. Villages through out North Vietnam were combed for military aged men. All from the age of 14 to 45 were drafted. Units and supplies were stockpiled in the sanctuaries and preparation was made for an offensive through out South Vietnam that would trigger the great “General Uprising.”
The attack during Tet,Chinese New Year, surprised the US and ARVN forces. ARVN, indeed, was at half-strength because of a generous leave policy for the new year’s celebrations. All years previous had seen the Tet truce more or less honored by the combatants. The superiority of American firepower quickly prevailed. The NVA were beaten back after very limited successes but a great deal of television coverage.
ARVN forces did not fold. NVA successes were few and those few were brief.
The precious remnants of the Viet Cong were wiped out, no longer able
to serve as guides for the NVA units. Many surviving NVA units were literally
wandering around without knowing where they were. The Americans lost 543
dead. The NVA dead were around 75,000.
THE SEARCH FOR PEACE 1969-1973
Nixon moved to swiftly stop the inequities of the draft. The draft lottery was enacted and did away with the abuses by the local draft boards. Many of the exemptions were eliminated. These actions, while correct, came years too late. He formed the “Vietnam Study Group” to investigate the Vietnam problem. This group even included members from the CIA and the Armed Services…a truly novel idea! He authorized the “LINEBACKER” air offensive that bombed actual military targets and sent the North Vietnamese quickly scurrying back to the peace talks.
Melvin Laird became Secretary of Defense and thus Robert McNamara and the Whiz Kids were able to go back to building Edsels and teaching in the Ivy League. The Study Group recommended Vietnamization as the solution and Laird began a phase down of US forces in Vietnam.
THE INVASION OF ’72
South Vietnamese equipment began to deteriorate due to lack of spare parts. ARVN commanders, schooled to fight using overpowering fire support, found themselves trying to fight with rationed artillery ammunition. What South Vietnamese Air Force planes that could be gotten into the air lacked enough bombs. Helicopters were short of rockets.
The NVA invaded once again in 1975. ARVN units, lacking proper support, failed to stop them. Some units died in place. Some units, when threatened with being surrounded, dissolved as the men raced to try to save their families. ARVN had come a long way and was able to withstand many adversities, but they were not able to withstand panic.
The NVA finally prevailed and the television audience was treated to the spectacle of US Marines beating off thousands of desperate Vietnamese and boarding helicopters for an inglorious retreat from the American Embassy in Saigon.
The victorious North Vietnamese took revenge on all the South Vietnamese who had resisted them so well and so long.
It was not our nation’s finest hour.
Some lessons that a study of the Vietnam conflict include:
1. Civilian control of the military is not only constitutional, but it
is desirable. Micro management, however, is taking this control a bit
too far. It is a myth that military leaders are desirous of war. They,
not the civilians, know the price that must be paid. They, not the civilians,
know who must pay it. Also they, not the civilians, know how to fight
wars. Their expertise must be trusted.
AN OBSERVATION---“The government, the press, and the people as a whole had no enthusiasm for the war, indeed failed to understand what the nation was fighting about. This showed in lack of spirit in the troops sent to the east and in failure of the people at home to support the war. Such support is necessary in any war…unless the people are enthusiastic about war, unless they have a strong will to win it, they will become discouraged by repeated deferments of victory…this war shows that wars may be won or lost in the home country as well as on the battlefield and that no government can go to war with hope of success unless it is assured that the people as a whole know what the war is about, that they believe in their cause, are enthusiastic for it, and possess a determination to win. If these conditions are not present the government should take steps to create them or keep the peace.”
This observation was not about the war in Vietnam. It was penned by a Major G.P. Baldwin about the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. There are few historians among our country’s leaders. One party is mostly businessmen, the other mostly lawyers. As B.H. Liddell-Hart said, “We learn from history only that we do not learn from history.”