Item: After reading an interesting story about Joseph McCarthy’s rise and fall in the 1950s, I came across this headline today at NBC News: “‘I’m not a communist’: Potential Biden running mate Rep. Bass reassures Cuban American voters.”
Explains Congresswoman Bass of California: “I’m not a socialist. I’m not a communist. I’ve belonged to one party my entire life and that’s the Democratic Party and I’m a Christian,” Bass told NBC News.
Isn’t that reassuring? She’s a Christian and a Democrat. And she has to deny strongly that she’s a communist, as if 2020 was really 1952 at the height of McCarthyism.
Why today are we supposed to be so scared of the commie wolf? I thought America won the Cold War thirty years ago.
Item: Speaking of the big bad commie wolf, a friend who’s privy to senior U.S. military thinking (ha!) tells me that this is the “New Era of Great Power Competition,” i.e. a new cold war. How else can you justify rapidly expanding “defense” budgets? Another concept — or opportunistic notion — being kicked around is “unbounded strategic uncertainty.” For the military-industrial complex, this sounds like a very useful concept indeed. In these unbounded, uncertain times, shouldn’t America’s “defense” budget also be unbounded? Who knows what will be the next threat? We must dominate everything!
This reminds me of the story of mask shortages among troops in the U.S. military. The military’s solution, at least in the short-term, was to encourage troops and their families to make their own protective masks for the Covid-19 outbreak. A trillion-dollar military complex can’t afford to outfit troops with protective masks that cost pennies on the dollar. But of course we can fund more F-35s, more aircraft carriers … It’s like the satirical Onion said: Each American should get an aircraft carrier as a stimulus. What better way to protect ourselves while stimulating the economy?
Item: Andrea Mazzarino, a Navy spouse, has a great new article at TomDispatch.com that brings together two subjects that are rarely connected: the U.S. has a global empire with bases in 80 countries, even as Covid-19 cases spike in the “homeland” and affect (and infect) U.S. troops. It’s conceivable that infected U.S. troops, in their worldwide deployments, will emerge as super-spreaders of a sort, especially given the out-of-control nature of Covid-19 cases in the American South, where so many U.S. troops are stationed.
We Americans fancy ourselves as the world’s sole superpower. Will we emerge as the world’s viral super-spreader as well? Yet another example of full spectrum dominance!
And that’s enough items to ponder today. Readers, what say you?
In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I again turn to the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex, inspired by a critique written by J. William Fulbright almost a half-century ago. Given the murderous and disastrous war in Southeast Asia of Fulbright’s time, many Americans back then were willing to be highly critical of the military, especially with a draft still in force. (A draft that privileged men like Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump managed to avoid.) Nowadays, of course, Americans are encouraged to venerate the military, to salute “our” troops, to applaud as various warplanes soar overhead, as they did during Donald Trump’s recent militaristic July 4th ceremony. What we’re not encouraged to do is to criticize or even to question America’s vast military establishment and its enormous power, even though President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us about that establishment in his famous farewell speech in 1961.
It’s high time we Americans listened to Ike as well as to J.W. Fulbright. Let’s give the latter a close listen, shall we?
A while back … I stumbled across Senator J. William Fulbright’s 1970 book The Pentagon Propaganda Machine and, out of curiosity, bought it for the princely sum of five dollars. Now, talk about creepy. Fulbright, who left the Senate in 1974 and died in 1995, noted a phenomenon then that should ring a distinct bell today. Americans, he wrote, “have grown distressingly used to war.” He then added a line that still couldn’t be more up to date: “Violence is our most important product.” Congress, he complained (and this, too, should ring a distinct bell in 2019), was shoveling money at the Pentagon “with virtually no questions asked,” while costly weapons systems were seen mainly “as a means of prosperity,” especially for the weapons makers of the military-industrial complex. “Militarism has been creeping up on us,” he warned, and the American public, conditioned by endless crises and warnings of war, had grown numb, leaving “few, other than the young, [to] protest against what is happening.”
Back then, of course, the bogeyman that kept the process going was Communism. America’s exaggerated fear of Communism then (and terrorism now) strengthened militarism at home in a myriad of ways while, as Fulbright put it, “undermining democratic procedure and values.” And doesn’t that ring a few bells, too? Complicit in all this was the Pentagon’s own propaganda machine, which worked hard “to persuade the American people that the military is good for you.”
Perhaps my favorite passage from that book was a message the senator received from a citizen who had attended a Pentagon rah-rah “informational seminar.” Writing to Fulbright, he suggested that “the greatest threat to American national security is the American Military Establishment and the no-holds-barred type of logic it uses to justify its zillion-dollar existence.”
In a rousing conclusion on the “dangers of the military sell” that seems no less apt nearly a half-century later, Fulbright warned that America’s “chronic state of war” was generating a “monster [military] bureaucracy.” Citing the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, he noted how “the mindless violence of war” was eroding America’s moral values and ended by emphasizing that dealing with the growth of immoral militarism was vitally important to the country’s future.
“The best defense against militarism is peace; the next best thing is the vigorous practice of democracy,” he noted, citing the dissenters of his day who opposed America’s murderous war in Southeast Asia. And he added a warning no less applicable today: Americans shouldn’t put their faith in senior military men whose “parochial talents” were too narrow “to equip them with the balance of judgment needed to play the political role they now hold in our society.”
Reading Fulbright today, I couldn’t help but recall one of my dad’s favorite sayings, translated from the French: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Sure, the weaponry may be upgraded (drones with Hellfire missiles rather than bombers dropping napalm); the names of the countries may be different (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia rather than Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia); even the stated purpose of the wars of the moment may have altered (fighting terrorism rather than defeating Communism); but over the last 50 years, the most fundamental things have remained remarkably consistent: militarism, violence, the endless feeding of the military-industrial complex, the growth of the national security state, and wars, ever more wars, always purportedly waged in the name of peace.
Sometimes when you buy a used book, it comes with a bonus. This one held between its pages a yellowed clipping of a contemporary New York Times review with the telling title, “O What a Lovely Pentagon.” In agreeing with Fulbright, the reviewer, Herbert Mitgang, himself a veteran of World War II, wrote:
“To keep up the [Pentagon] budgets, all three services compete for bigger and better armaments in coordination with the publicity salesmen from the major corporations — for whom retired generals and admirals serve as front men. Thousands of uniformed men and millions of dollars are involved in hard-selling the Pentagon way of life.”
Change “millions” to “billions” and Mitgang’s point remains as on target as ever.
Citing another book under review, which critiqued U.S. military procurement practices, Mitgang concluded: “What emerges here is a permanent floating crap game with the taxpayer as loser and Congress as banker, shelling out for Pentagon and peace profiteers with an ineptitude that would bankrupt any other business.”
Spot on, Herb Mitgang, who perhaps played his share of craps during his Army service!
As I read Fulbright’s almost 50-year-old polemic and Mitgang’s hard-hitting review, I asked myself, how did the American people come to forget, or perhaps never truly absorb, such lessons? How did we stop worrying about war and come to love the all-volunteer military quite so much? (Thank you for your service!) So much so that, today, we engorge the Pentagon and the rest of the national security state with well more than a trillion taxpayer dollars annually — and the power to match…
Addendum: Along with Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Trump’s July 4th ceremony turned into a military air show of sorts. When you read the Declaration of Independence from 1776, you’re reminded that the colonists wanted to be free of the King’s wars and their high costs. Now, on Independence Day, we celebrate our military weaponry without mentioning the high costs, even as we ignore our unending wars.
It’s time for another political revolution against the king’s wars and their high costs. It’s time to throw off the heavy yoke of militarism in America.
Purely by chance this morning, I came across old notes I took from historian John Lukacs’ study of Adolf Hitler. Lukacs said that Hitler’s genius “lay in his understanding of human weaknesses,” for which he had the nose of a vulture. Lukacs further identified him as a populist who used propaganda pragmatically. He knew what people wanted to hear, and not only the common people at his rallies, but prominent leaders whose illusions he recognized and exploited.
For example, Hitler wasn’t religious, but he presented himself as pro-Christian as a contrast to the atheism of his German communist opponents. He claimed to support families and moral order, what we today term “family values.” Hitler knew people were frustrated with the Weimar Republic, an experiment in parliamentary democracy in Germany after World War I; Lukacs uses the words “schismatic” and “chaotic” and “weak” to describe Hitler’s critique of democracy.
Hitler’s response was to appeal to nationalism (I’m a nationalist, he might have said) and a revival of Germany as a “spiritual community” in which class differences wouldn’t matter. Persecution among the right sort of Germans was to be avoided; instead, “good” (read: Aryan) Germans were to come together against racial and political enemies. Hitler’s goal, Lukacs said, was to achieve a tyranny not simply through violence but through a political majority, and he was incredibly successful at it.
Interestingly, Lukacs points out that Hitler convinced the Nazis in 1926 (when the Nazis were still very much a fringe party ostensibly for the working classes) to vote in favor of the restitution of property to German princes. In short, Hitler appeased powerful conservative elements within German society, Weimar Germany’s version of today’s 1%. He gained power legally as Chancellor early in 1933 by persuading Germany’s aging president, Paul von Hindenburg, that “The Bolshevization of the masses proceeds rapidly.” To an avowed monarchist like Hindenburg, it was worth the risk of appointing Hitler and empowering the Nazis so that the communist “mobs” could be put in their place.
Virtually everyone underestimated Hitler and the ruthlessness of his drive to power. He was often dismissed as crude, vulgar, harsh. As lacking class. Yet he knew his audience and he knew how to get his way in a deeply divided Germany.
Food for thought as Americans prepare to go to the polls.
Update (11/6/18): I’ve been re-reading Lukacs; two points I came across yesterday after writing this article:
Hitler said hate was a real strength of the Nazi party. We have learned to hate our political rivals, Hitler said, and that hatred makes us strong. In reading this, I thought of Trump and his efforts to demonize Democrats as a “mob” that wants to allow “invaders” (rapists, murderers) from Central America into the country. Also, of course, Trump’s denunciation of the media as “the enemy of the people.”
Even as Hitler was throwing communists and other rivals into concentration camps by the tens of thousands in 1933-34, he was lying about the growing threat to Germany coming from the left. Hitler knew the power of lies, the bigger the better, and used them to eliminate his rivals in the name of keeping Germany safe (“homeland security,” we might say).
On September 17th, a new TV documentary series on the Vietnam War by Ken Burns (famous for past series on the U.S. Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz, among others) and Lynn Novick begins its run on PBS. Airing in ten parts over 18 hours, the series promises a comprehensive look at the war from all sides, with the catchphrase “There is no single truth in war” serving as a guiding light. Initial excerpts suggest the series isn’t looking to provide definitive answers, perhaps as a way of avoiding political controversy in the Age of Trump.
I’ll be watching the series, but I have ten points of my own to make about America’s war in Vietnam. As a preamble, the Vietnam War (American version) was both mistake and crime. What’s disconcerting in the U.S. media is the emphasis on the war as an American tragedy, when it was truly a horrific tragedy inflicted upon the peoples of Southeast Asia (Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians). Yes, American troops suffered and died in large numbers, yet Southeast Asian casualties were perhaps 50 times as great. Along with wanton killing came the poisoning of the environment with defoliants like Agent Orange; meanwhile, mines and unexploded ordnance from the war continue to kill people today in Southeast Asia. In a sense, the killing from that war still isn’t over.
With the caveat that we should reserve judgment until we’ve seen the series, let’s keep these ten points in mind as we watch:
1. To most Americans, Vietnam is a war. And war is a distorting and limiting lens through which to view cultures and peoples. Will Burns recognize this distortion?
2. The series talks about hearing voices from all sides of the conflict. But will the Vietnamese people, together with Laotians and Cambodians, really have as much say as Americans?
3. The U.S. suffered nearly 60,000 troops killed. But Vietnamese killed numbered in the millions. And the destruction to SE Asia — the spread of the war to Laos and Cambodia — was on a scale that rivaled or surpassed the destruction to the American South during the U.S. Civil War. Will that destruction be thoroughly documented and explained?
4. Whose point of view will prevail in the documentary? What will be the main thread of the narrative? Will the war be presented as a tragedy? A misunderstanding? A mistake? A crime? Will the “noble cause” and “stabbed in the back” myths (the ideas that the U.S. fought for freedom and democracy and against communism, and that the U.S. military could have won but was prevented from doing so by unpatriotic forces at home) be given equal time in the interests of a “fair and balanced” presentation? Will these myths be presented as alternative truths of the war?
5. Which American war in Vietnam will be presented? Even when we talk of the American part of the Vietnam War, there were at least four wars. The U.S. Army under General William Westmoreland fought a conventional, search and destroy, war. The Air Force wanted to prove that airpower alone, specifically bombing, could win the war. The Marines were more interested in counterinsurgency and pacification. The CIA and special ops types were engaged in psychological warfare, assassinations, torture, and god-knows-what-else.
6. The American presence in Vietnam became so overwhelming that by 1967-68 the Vietnamese economy was completely distorted. We brought American materialism and profligacy to a nation that was, by comparison, impoverished and “backwards” (from our perspective, of course). Material superiority bred and fed cockiness.
Consider Meredith Lair’s book, “Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War” (2011). It details the non-combat experiences of U.S. troops in Vietnam. Here’s a telling book blurb written by historian Christian Appy: “Meredith Lair’s fascinating analysis of rear-echelon life among American G.I.s dramatically challenges our most common conceptions of U.S. military experiences in Vietnam. From steaks to steambaths, swimming pools to giant PXs, the amenities provided on large bases not only belie conventional images of that war, but also stand as dramatic testimony to the desperate and unsuccessful effort of American officials to bolster flagging troop morale as the war lurched toward its final failure.”
Will this orgy of American-driven materialism be documented?
7. Anti-war protests and serious unrest within the U.S. military led to the end of the draft and the creation of an “all-volunteer” military. Has this decision contributed to a more imperial U.S. foreign policy facilitated by a much more tractable military of “volunteers”?
8. Short of nuclear weapons, the U.S. military used virtually every weapon in its arsenal in SE Asia. The region became a test/proving ground for all sorts of weapons and concepts, from “smart” weapons and electronic fences and sensors to horrendous pounding by conventional bombs to war on the environment using defoliants and massive bulldozers to … well … everything. All sorts of pacification theories were tested as well, along with COIN and “small wars” and unconventional tactics to search and destroy to Vietnamization to … well … again, everything. SE Asia became a laboratory and its peoples became lab rats. Will this reality be fully documented?
9. It’s essential that people realize President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, knew the war was a lost cause no later than 1969. (Their conversations on tape prove this.) All they were looking for was a “decent interval” between a peace treaty (“peace with honor”) and what they saw as the inevitable collapse. They got that (in)decent interval of roughly 2.5 years. The Congressional decision to cut off funding to South Vietnam was convenient for the Nixon/Kissinger acolytes, since it allowed them to shift the blame for South Vietnam’s collapse in 1975 to Congress as well as to the usual “suspect” elements in American society, i.e. the peace movement.
Will the duplicity and hypocrisy of Nixon/Kissinger be adequately documented?
10. Finally, an important aspect of the Vietnam War was the breakdown in discipline within the U.S. military, which helped to drive the eventual elimination of the draft. Part of this breakdown was driven by drugs, a trade in which the CIA was implicated. At The Intercept, Jeremy Scahill interviewed Alfred McCoy, who wrote the book on this drug trade. Here’s an excerpt from their recent interview:
Alfred McCoy: And in 1970 and ’71, there were rumors that started coming back from Vietnam, particularly 1971, that heroin was spreading rapidly in the ranks of the U.S. forces fighting in South Vietnam. And in later research, done by the White House, [it was] determined that in 1971, 34 percent, one-third of all the American combat troops fighting in South Vietnam were heavy heroin users. There were, if that statistic is accurate, more addicts in the ranks of the U.S. Army in South Vietnam than there were in the United States.
And so what I did was I set out to investigate: Where was the opium coming from? Where was the heroin coming from? Who was trafficking it? How is it getting to the troops in their barracks and bunkers across the length and breadth of South Vietnam? Nobody was asking this question. Everyone was reporting on the high level of abuse, but nobody was figuring out where and who.
So I started interviewing. I went to Paris. I interviewed the head of the French equivalent of the CIA in Indochina, who was then head of a major French helicopter manufacturing company, and he explained to me how during the French Indochina war from 1946 to 1954, they were short of money for covert operations, so the hill tribes in Laos produced the opium, the aircraft picked it up, they turned it over to the netherworld, the gangsters that controlled Saigon and secured it for the French and that paid for their covert operations. And I said, “What about now?” And he said, “Well I don’t think the pattern’s changed. I think it’s still there. You should go and look.”
So I did. I went to Saigon. I got some top sources in the Vietnamese military. I went to Laos. I hiked into the mountains. I was ambushed by CIA mercenaries and what I discovered was that the CIA’s contract airline, Air America, was flying into the villages of the Hmong people in Northern Laos, whose main cash crop was opium and they were picking up the opium and flying it out of the hills and there were heroin labs — one of the heroin labs, the biggest heroin lab in the world, was run by the commander-in-chief of the Royal Laotian Army, a man whose military budget came entirely from the United States. And they were transforming, in those labs, the opium into heroin. It was being smuggled into South Vietnam by three cliques controlled by the president, the vice president, and the premier of South Vietnam, and their military allies and distributed to U.S. forces in South Vietnam.
And the CIA wasn’t directly involved, but they turned a blind eye to the role of their allies’ involvement in the traffic. And so this heroin epidemic swept the U.S. Army in Vietnam. The Defense Department invented mass urine analysis testing, so when those troops left they were tested and given treatment. And what I discovered was the complexities, the complicity, of the CIA in this traffic and that was a pattern that was repeated in Central America when the Contras became involved in the traffic.
These ten items highlight just some of the complexities of the Vietnam War and its effects throughout Southeast Asia. How many of these will be tackled honestly in Ken Burns’s new series? We shall see, beginning in two weeks.
Eleven years after my freshman essay on the Vietnam War in 1982, I found myself at Oxford in a Strategic Studies Seminar. For that seminar, I wrote the following paper on People’s War and Vietnam. Based on deeper reading and more reflection than my freshman essay, I concluded that the Vietnam War had been unwinnable for the United States. Note that this paper was written soon after the apparently decisive victory of the U.S. military over Iraq in Desert Storm. This victory had supposedly cured the U.S. military of its Vietnam Syndrome, a claim which I doubted at that time. Again, I have decided not to edit what I wrote in early 1993 about Vietnam. This paper is what one young Air Force captain thought about the meaning and legacies of the Vietnam War in the early 1990s, with all the biases of a serving military officer intact.
Insurgencies and America’s Defeat in Vietnam (Written in January 1993)
A revolutionary war is a war within a state; the ultimate aim of the insurgents is political control of the state. Nowhere is Clausewitz’s dictum of war as a continuation of politics more true than in a revolutionary war. It typically takes the form of a protracted struggle, conducted patiently and inexorably, a variant of Chinese water torture. Educating or, more accurately, indoctrinating, the people – gaining their sympathy, cooperation, and assistance – is paramount. And all people have a role to play: men and women, young and old. After World War II, insurgencies have been guided by Mao Zedong’s concept of People’s War, and inspired by a complex combination of nationalism, anti-colonialism, and communism. They have bedeviled France, Great Britain, and the United States. This paper addresses the strategy of People’s War in terms of means, ends, and will, and details some of the reasons why the United States lost the Vietnam War.
The strategic end of People’s War is simple in its boldness: the overthrow of the existing government and its replacement with an insurgent-led government. The means are incredibly complex, encompassing social, economic, psychological, military, and political dimensions, but it must be remembered that all means are directed towards the political end. Strength of will usually favors the insurgents, partly because a major goal of People’s War is to mold the minds of its followers to convince them of the righteousness of their cause.
People’s War passes through three stages. At first the insurgents get to know the people as they spread propaganda and build a political infrastructure. Every insurgent is an ambassador for the cause. They create safe havens while intimidating opponents and neutrals, and they commit terrorist acts to undermine the legitimacy of the government. They build their safe havens on the periphery of the state, usually in rural or impoverished areas where they can feed on the misery of the people. The more difficult the terrain, the better, whether it be the mountains of Spain and Afghanistan or the jungles of Malaya and Vietnam. They extend their control over the countryside and into the urban areas during the second stage of People’s War. They use guerrilla tactics and terrorism to further undermine the political legitimacy of the government. The main target is not the government’s troops but the will of its leaders. As they extend their physical control over the countryside, they install their own political structure to control the people. With the government’s will fatally weakened, the insurgents move to the final stage: a conventional military offensive to overthrow the government.
The three stages are not rigidly sequential, however. For example, while conducting guerrilla operations against the government, the insurgents continue to build their infrastructure, conduct terrorist acts, and spread propaganda. Even during the last stage — the general offensive — the insurgents continue stages one and two. This aspect of People’s War was well expressed by John M. Gates in the Journal of Military History in July 1990:
American conventional war doctrine does not anticipate reliance upon population within the enemy’s territory for logistical and combat support. It does not rely upon guerrilla units to fix the enemy, establish clear lines of communication, and maintain security in the rear. And it certainly does not expect enemy morale to be undermined by political cadres within the very heart of the enemy’s territory, cadres who will assume positions of political power as the offensive progresses. Yet all of these things happened in South Vietnam in 1975….
Flexibility, judgement, and comprehensiveness of methods are the keys to success. If the insurgents overestimate the weakness of the government and lose large-scale battles, they slip back into the earlier two phases and continue to work towards weakening the government for the next general offensive.
It bears repeating the primary goal of insurgents is political control. Military actions are only one tool for obtaining this control. As Mao cautions, guerrilla operations are just “one aspect of the revolutionary struggle.” The insurgent appeals to the hearts and minds of the people. He is, after all, one of them. Too much can be made of Mao’s “fish and sea” analogy. The insurgent is not just a fish that swims in the sea of the people: his purpose is to convert the sea to his purpose. He employs any method to command the sea to his will. He would prefer ideological converts, true believers, but converts through terror are acceptable. Those who can’t be converted he ruthlessly kills. That his methods produce squeamishness among some in the West only accentuates their value to him.
As a strategy, People’s War is difficult but not impossible to counter. The United States defeated the Philippine insurrection in the first two decades of this century, and after World War II Great Britain put down a communist insurgency in Malaya. More famous, however, have been the stunning successes of People’s War: Mao’s victory over Japan and the Nationalists in the 1930s and ’40s, and Ho Chi Minh’s victories over France and the United States in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Perhaps most unsettling was America’s defeat in Vietnam. How could the world’s foremost superpower lose to, in the words of General Richard G. Stilwell in 1980, a “fourth-rate half-country?”
There are no simple answers to America’s defeat, although Hollywood tells us otherwise. A theory still believed by some in the US military is a variation of the German “stab-in-the-back” legend of the Great War. Our hands were tied by meddling civilians who didn’t let the military fight and win the war. One American soldier is the equal of hundreds of pajama-clad midgets, or so it appears in the Rambo flicks. A wretched, dishonorable government also abandoned our POWs to the godless communists, now rescued several times over by Stallone, Chuck Norris, and other martial arts experts. That such films make money is an affront to the genuine sacrifices of Americans represented so tragically by the Vietnam War memorial in Washington.
Perhaps such sentiments seem out of place in a paper devoted to a dispassionate strategic analysis of America’s role in Vietnam. Yet my feelings are perhaps typical of the emotionalism that still surrounds this topic among Americans. A dispassionate critique from an American, let alone an American service member, may still be impossible; nevertheless, I’ll give it a shot.
The United States lost the war for several related reasons. First, we fought the wrong kind of war. As the Navy and especially the Air Force built up their nuclear forces, the army chaffed against its “New Look” and diminished role in the 1950s. Under Kennedy and Johnson, the Army had a new doctrine – Flexible Response – and an opportunity – the Vietnam War – to prove its worth. Vietnam was to be the proving ground for a revitalized Army.
The opposite proved to be the case because the Army pursued the wrong strategy. From 1965-68, when we sent more than half a million troops to Vietnam, the US Army tried to fight a conventional war against the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA). As LTG Harry Kinnard, commander of the Army’s elite 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), put it, “I wanted to make them fight our kind of war. I wanted to turn it into a conventional war – boundaries – and here we go, and what are you going to do to stop us?” Obeying Mao’s teachings, the VC and NVA wisely avoided stand up fights. The Army responded with search-and-destroy operations to find, fix and kill the enemy. The goal was attrition through decisive battles, reflected by high body counts. Nothing illustrates the bankruptcy of American strategy better than the idea of body counts. In theory, a high body count means you’re killing the fish in the sea, without hurting the sea. In practice, a high body count is a measure of the success of the insurgents: they’re recruiting many fish to their cause. And in killing the fish, Americans poisoned the sea with defoliants, bomb craters, unexploded artillery shells, the list goes on. Americans were stuck in Catch-22 dilemmas: they had to destroy villages to save them, they had to destroy villagers’ crops while pursuing guerrilla bands. Such an approach flies in the face of Mao’s “Three Rules and Eight Remarks,” which exhibit a profound respect for the people and their property.
After killing, or perhaps more often not killing, the guerrillas, the Army left, and the guerrillas regained control of the area. This did not disturb LTG Stanley Larson, who observed that if guerrillas returned, “we’ll go back in and kill more of the sons of bitches.” But the VC and NVA retained the initiative, had plenty of manpower, and time was on their side.
Why did the Army pursue such a faulty strategy? In part due to the legacy of World War II, particularly American experience in the Pacific. In island-hopping to Japan, Americans gained faith in massive firepower and lost interest in controlling land. The islands were a means to an end, not the end itself, and success could be measured in some sense by the number of Japanese casualties. Such was not the case in Vietnam, where control of the land was essential to winning the support of the people. Part of the Army’s problem was its lack of experience in counterinsurgency (or COIN) operations. Ronald Spector reports that in the 1950s, COIN operations were limited to four hours in most infantry training courses. What little was taught focused on preventing a conventional enemy from holding raids or infiltrating rear areas. But in the end, the Army fought the war it was trained to fight: a conventional war of maneuver and massive firepower. This worked well in Desert Storm, but failed in Vietnam.
In contrast to the Army, the Marines were far more aware of the nature of the war they were fighting, reports Andrew Krepinevich. They combined 15 marines and 34 Popular Force territorial troops (who lived in and provided security for a village or hamlet) into combat action platoons (CAPs). These CAPs sought to destroy insurgent infrastructure, protect the people and the government infrastructure, organize local intelligence networks, and train local paramilitary troops. In other words, they adopted traditional COIN tactics. But the Army ran the show in Vietnam, and its leaders rejected the Marines’ approach.
The Marines were not alone in their appreciation of the multidimensional aspects of COIN. Robert Komer’s Phoenix program also targeted the Viet Cong infrastructure, but the efforts of the CIA were not well coordinated with those of the military or the State Department, let alone the South Vietnamese. In fact Westmoreland refused to create a combined command to coordinate American actions with those of the South Vietnamese. The latter were an especially neglected resource.
Admittedly, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) was corrupt and at times incompetent, but part of the problem was caused by American mistraining and the Army’s contempt. In the 1950s, American military advisors trained ARVN to repel a conventional invasion from the north, using North Korea as a model. From 1965-68, the US Army gave ARVN the static security mission, judged to be of low importance by the Army. US advisors assigned to help ARVN recognized their careers were endangered: they would advance far quicker if they had “true” combat assignments. After years of neglect, ARVN was built up with billions of US dollars during Nixon’s Vietnamization policy (and that’s exactly what it was – a policy, not a strategy), but by 1969 the rot had gone too far. ARVN lacked a unifying national spirit, VC agents had penetrated the ranks, and the officers were thoroughly politicized. Our ally always thought we’d be there if they ran into trouble, but they didn’t understand how American government worked. As Ambassador Bui Diem explained in 1990, “Our faith in America was total, and our ignorance was equally total.” South Vietnam paid the price in 1975.
Could the United States have won the Vietnam War if we had followed a proper strategy? This question may be unanswerable and ultimately moot, but it’s worth discussing. First, one must admit the war may not have been worth winning. Hannah Arendt has stated the Vietnam War was a case of excess means applied for minor aims in a region of marginal interest. In retrospect this seems irrefutable, but in the climate of the Cold War and Containment Vietnam seemed a critical theater in which communist aggression had to be stopped. Second, one must admit the United States was not protecting a viable government in South Vietnam: we were trying to create one. But we were creating one in our image. We ignored the Vietnamese culture and destroyed their economy with our hard currency. Rear area troops with money to spend spread prostitution and drugs in the streets of Saigon. In short, we alienated the people instead of winning them over to our cause. The few people we did win over were terrorized and often killed by the Viet Cong. Even following a proper COIN strategy, victory would have taken 5-10 more years at least. With weak support from the American people, (the “Silent Majority” was silent due to its ignorance and ambivalence), which waned dramatically after Tet, we never had a chance in Vietnam.
The one strategy that would have succeeded for the United States, I believe, is Mao’s People’s War. We must not deceive ourselves: if free elections had been held as promised in 1956, Ho Chi Minh would have won and unified the country. His was the legitimate government; we were trying to overthrow that government and replace it with almost any non-communist regime. In that effort, we should have formed an alliance of military, state department, intelligence, and academic resources to educate Americans in Vietnamese language and culture. These experts, with a suitable, politically-indoctrinated military force to protect them, would win the hearts of the people. Our main weapons would be our ideas and the ideological fervor of our troops, whether civilian or military. Diplomacy and military strikes would be used to cut-off the flow of arms to the VC and NVA from the Soviet Union. The political infrastructure of the enemy would be targeted, including Ho Chi Minh himself.
But this is ridiculous. Our very arrogance blinded us to the war’s complexities. We attacked the symptoms of the disease – the guerrillas and NVA -without examining what caused the disease in the body politic. Our can-do attitude was reinforced by our military traditions and our pride in our nation as being more moral than the rest of the world. We became our own worst enemy as we tried to manage the war. The commitment was there (at least among the soldiers), the energy was there, the money was there, the technology was there -the strategy, intelligence, and leadership wasn’t. People’s War proved superior to search-and-destroy, the VC and NVA intelligence proved superior to ARVN and ignorant Americans, the brilliant Giap out-thought the dedicated but shortsighted Westmoreland. The Vietnam War was ultimately unwinnable.
In the aftermath of the American-led victory over Iraq in Desert Storm, many Americans predicted the stigma of our defeat in Vietnam had finally been exorcised from our minds. Such was not the case, nor is such a result even desirable. The “dreaded V-word,” as the London Times recently described it, is being whispered again in the endless corridors of the Pentagon. If this breeds an aversion to the use of military force, harm may result; but if it leads to more thought and a more subtle study of the efficacy of military force as applied under different conditions, the dreaded V-word will have served a useful purpose, and those names engraved on the Wall in Washington will not have died in vain.
Much like my father, I can be a pack rat. Going through old files, I found a “blue book” exam that I took as a college freshman in 1982. The essay question I had to answer was whether the U.S. could have won the Vietnam War. Recall that in 1975, South Vietnam had fallen to the communist North Vietnamese invaders, with U.S. diplomats ignominiously escaping by helicopter from the roof of our embassy in Saigon. In the 1980 Presidential Election, Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter, with Reagan declaring that the unpopular Vietnam War had been “a noble cause.”
I have not edited my answer (except for a few additions, in brackets, for clarity), which follows below. This is what one U.S. college freshman thought about Vietnam and the U.S. involvement in that war seven years after the defeat in 1975. (You can’t even call it sophomoric, since I was only a freshman.) I think my answer reflects a certain naivete as well as can-do optimism: That we were fighting for the right reasons but in the wrong way, and if we had followed a better strategy, and bossed around the South Vietnamese more, we could have, in some sense, “won.”
Today, I don’t believe the Vietnam War was winnable, and I lament the enormous amount of destruction we visited on the Vietnamese and their country, which I’ve written about in other articles, here and here for example.
Update (8/27/2014): Having watched the recent HBO documentary Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words, it’s now glaringly obvious that the Vietnam War was unwinnable. Indeed, that’s precisely what Nixon and Kissinger (secretly) concluded. As they talked publicly about “peace with honor,” Nixon and Kissinger were privately conceding that the war was lost. They were looking only to deflect blame from themselves, for “a decent interval” between when US troops withdrew and when South Vietnam collapsed, which is exactly what they got — roughly three years, by which time Nixon had resigned in disgrace due to Watergate. Nixon and Kissinger also cast about for scapegoats; at the time, they planned to blame the inevitable defeat on the corruption of South Vietnamese leaders.
Why did the U.S. lose in Vietnam? A big reason, I think, is the dishonesty of our own government in consistently misleading the American people about the war and the region as well. This dishonesty started just after World War II and extended to LBJ and Nixon as revealed in “The Pentagon Papers.” In other words, Nixon’s “silent majority” wasn’t silent because it supported his policies. It was silent because it had been lied to by Nixon and his predecessors. If the U.S. government had had the guts to level with the American people, the worst of the war may have been averted. Even Watergate would have been averted, since you can draw a clear line from Daniel Ellsberg and “The Pentagon Papers” to attempts to “get” Ellsberg to the “dirty tricks” of the Nixon Campaign in 1972 that ended in his resignation. Lies begat crimes that begat more lies that begat more crimes…
[Winning the Vietnam War, as written in March of 1982]
The Vietnam War was a costly struggle involving over 500,000 U.S. troops [at peak deployment strength] and billions of dollars of equipment. The war was attacked both at home and abroad, and when the U.S. finally did pullout in 1972, the South Vietnamese government and the ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam] collapsed in three years. The Vietnam War was a failure of U.S. foreign policy making, but if other alternatives had been pursued, the results would have been much better for the United States.
The U.S. became involved in Vietnam to contain communism, to prevent the takeover of South Vietnam by North Vietnam, and to contain China. Unfortunately, the U.S. underestimated the strength of the North Vietnamese will, and turned a local civil war between two conflicting ideologies into a major conflict. The U.S. believed that South Vietnam was a vital area of American interest, but it really wasn’t.
The South Vietnamese government was politically inefficient and corrupt. Most of the natives did not support the government, which was why the Viet Cong were able to succeed the way they did. U.S. foreign policy concentrated on defeating the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, not realizing that the reform of the South Vietnamese government and the pacification of the local villagers were of more importance.
What could we have done, then, to “save” South Vietnam from North Vietnam? The answers are not concrete or exact. Most people believe that if the U.S. Army had had fewer restrictions and more men, North Vietnam would have lost. This pedestrian view is wrong for two basic reasons. One is that the U.S. Army fought the wrong type of war. Instead of conducting counterguerrilla activities, the U.S. Army adopted tactics intended for conventional warfare in Europe. The U.S. tried to defeat North Vietnam by sheer firepower, but superior numbers and materiel lose their advantage against a determined guerrilla enemy. Employing hit-and-run tactics, the Viet Cong fought only when they wanted to fight, and on ground of their choosing. Cincinnatus [Cecil B. Currey], in his book Self-Destruction:[The Disintegration and Decay of the United States Army during the Vietnam Era] stated that the U.S. Army could not have won the war because of the way they fought it.
The second reason is that each escalation of American troops in Vietnam could be easily matched by North Vietnam. Each year over 200,000 men [in North Vietnam] became eligible for the draft. When General Westmoreland asked for 200,000+ troops to launch a major counteroffensive after Tet [in early 1968], he was denied them on the grounds that more numbers would have had little or no effect in ending the war.
What can one conclude from this? A definite conclusion is that U.S. tactics were totally unsuited to the type of war fought in Vietnam. This suggests one change in our policy that would have improved the result. If we had pursued a policy of counterguerrilla warfare, and if we had protected the local villagers better, then we could have concentrated on the main problem—reforming the South Vietnamese government and creating an ARVN that didn’t lose every battle they fought.
The Vietnamization policy [under Nixon] was a step in the right direction, but it was implemented haphazardly and inefficiently. U.S. foreign policy should have recognized that the support of the government by the people was of paramount importance, but needed reforms [in South Vietnam] were not carried out and the people became disillusioned and bitter. If the government cannot protect us, the people thought, what good was it? The U.S. should have forced the various South Vietnamese governments to implement reforms, and it also should have pursued a more vigorous pacification program.
The handling of ARVN was also a mistake. ARVN came to rely upon the U.S. Army to great extent, and when the U.S. Army withdrew, the ARVN desertion rate reached an all-time high. The U.S. should have realized that giving the South Vietnamese billions of dollars in equipment and, among other things, the fourth largest air force in the world, was not enough. It did not cure the disease that afflicted ARVN, which was corruption and the lack of experienced officers.
What conclusions can be reached? U.S. foreign policy was definitely flawed, but we could have attained better results if other policies were implemented. A more effective pacification program, combined with counterguerrilla activities and increased defense of local villages, would have eroded the support of the Viet Cong, since a guerrilla war needs the support of the populace to succeed. The most basic flaw in U.S. policy, however, was ignoring the faults and corruption of the South Vietnamese government. Needed reforms of the overbearing totalitarian government would have gained the support of the South Vietnamese people, and this more than any other factor might have changed the results of 1975 and “won” the war for the United States.