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.
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.