The Magazine

Give War a Chance

Could we have won Vietnam?

Sep 30, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 03 • By CHRISTOPHER LYNCH
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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.