Give War a Chance
Could we have won Vietnam?
Sep 30, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 03 • By CHRISTOPHER LYNCH
The Myth of Inevitable U.S. Defeat in Vietnam
Steel My Soldiers' Hearts
Real Lessons of the Vietnam War
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.