OxBlog

Sunday, June 04, 2006

# Posted 10:40 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

HINDSIGHT IS ANYTHING BUT 20/20: If it were, historians would have nothing to argue about. My case in point for today is Vietnam. On the train back from New York I finished reading The Army and Vietnam (pub. 1986) by Col. (Ret.) Andrew Krepinevich, currently the head of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Although I am only beginning to investigate the literature on Vietnam, my instincts say that Krepinevich's book is superb. The writing is clear and concise and the research is extraordinary. As the footnotes indicate, Krepinevich built this book from the ground up with primary sources, since there were very few serious military histories of the war in Vietnam available in the early 1980s.

Krepinevich's book is an extended response to the late Col. Harry Summers' revisionist classic On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (pub. 1982). Summers' book represents the definitive statement of the hypothesis that the Army was winning the war in Vietnam but that the politicians lost it because of their excessive sensitivity to public criticism. Not surprisingly, Summers' book became a staple text at military academies and staff colleges shortly after it was written.

That is what I know from reading about On Strategy, not from reading the book itself. As such, it is now #1 on my reading list, since the only way I can have an informed opinion about Krepinevich's work is to read Summers'. Nonetheless, I found The Army and Vietnam to be so persuasive because of what I know broadly about the history and practice of counterinsurgency. I'll give Summers book a fighting chance when I read it, but it's going to be an uphill battle.

Krepinevich's main argument is that the Army lost the war in Vietnam by tenaciously applying conventional weapons and conventional strategies to unconventional warfare. In short, the Army wanted to refight World War II even though it was facing the Vietcong instead of the Wehrmacht or the Soviets.

Why was the Army so intransigent? The answer is that old saying about the hammer and the nail. When you have a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. The US military's first and foremost mission during the 1950s and 1960s was to prepare for a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Building on its success in World War II, the US military prepared to repel a Soviet invasion by building up a heavily-armed and heavily-armored fighting force.

Unable to match the Soviets in terms of manpower, the US military sought to overwhelm its potential opponent with technology and firepower. As soldiers were fond of saying, "It is better to send a bullet than a man." Yet when fighting insurgents, it is very dangerous to send a bullet to do a man's job. The indiscriminate use of firepower by the US military had a horrific impact on Vietnamese civilians.

Much less known, Krepinevich writes, is that the indiscriminate use of firepower wasted countless American lives as well. (p.201) By littering the countryside with unexploded ordnance, the US provided the VC with the raw materials for traps and mines that killed 1,000 US servicemen in 1966 alone.

Countless lives were also spent during the massive search-and-destroy missions that American generals preferred. Instead of providing security to the Vietnamese population in accord with well-established counterinsurgency doctrine, the Army preferred to chase the Vietcong around rural Vietnam, hoping to force the insurgents into decisive battles.

But the insurgents rarely gave battle, because they understood that guerrillas wars are not won on the battlefield. The one time that the guerrillas did resort to a conventional strategy, during the Tet Offensive, they paid for it dearly. But even then, the decision to engage was entirely the guerrillas. Even with half a million men, unmatched firepower, and technology the likes of which the world had never seen, the US military could not force the Vietcong into battle.

As I know from occasional comments appended to my post, there is a vocal contingent of OxBlog readers who subscribe to the idea that the politicians lost a war in Vietnam that the Army was winning. If you belong to that contingent, I hope you will read Krepinevich's book. My promise to you is that I will read Summers', as well its companion by Lewis Sorley.

Let the debate begin.
(21) opinions -- Add your opinion

Comments:
David,
I tried to play the "you read, I'll read" game with you last year. Your Patterson's "Grand Expectations", my Johnson's "Modern Times". I read Patterson's leftish intepretation of the period, unfortunately you failed to read Johnson's more conservative, and accurate, interpretation.
Anyway, your post seems to conflate the failed VC action to the successful NVA action.
Following the VC/NVA's overwhelming 1968 defeat(TET)the VC was a non-player in the action, with the NVA becoming the inarguably politically protected antogonist. Culminating in
the Democratic Congress's total failure to live up to the "peace agreement" and completely abandoning the South.
 
David,

The more you read about Vietnam, the more you'll find that the military historiography can be divided into roughly four schools:
1)"The Vietnam War Was Never Winnable," espoused by Larry Berman and David Halberstam (amongst others);
2)"The War Was Winnable, But We Lost Because We Didn't Fight an Unlimited Conventional War," espoused by Sumner;
3)"The War Was Winnable, But We Lost Because We Didn't Fight a Counterinsurgency," articulated by Krepinevich and John Nagl; and
4)"The War Was Won, But Congress Lost It By Defunding South Vietnam," expressed by Sorley, and by Melvin Laird in his recent Foreign Affairs article.

(Another recent classic on Vietnam, McMasters' "Dereliction of Duty" is harder to classify, possibly falling between arguments 1&2 in its thesis that the Chiefs believed it would require hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops and massive bombing to secure South Vietnam, but said nothing. But McMasters himself proved to be very effective as a counterinsurgency commander in Iraq, so he defies easy classification).
 
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Perhaps the Cold War influenced the way the Vietnam war was fought. Small wars are training grounds. There's no better training than live combat. During the Cold War, the army wanted to train its soldiers to fight conventional war, because those skills might be needed at any moment against the Russkis. Now, the army knows it needs counterinsurgency combat skills for the WOT. In Iraq and Afghanistan, it's developing a cadre of tested veterans that should be very effective in the long war to come. The UAV is getting a good test, too, just like the Stuka did in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.
 
Interesting that the main U.S. counterinsurgency force, the Marines, advocated protecting the population through Combined Action Platoons, where a squad of Marines would live with, help train, and protect the villagers. An interesting perspective on the acrimony between the Army and Marines can be found here.

http://www.chss.montclair.edu/english/furr/Vietnam/pbuncommon.html
 
The arguments don't need to be mutually exclusive.
It could be said the US was not winning but not necessarily losing, either. The result would be dependent on some external factor, such as who quit first. Happened to be us.
Question is why and there's where you get dem congress, anti-war movement, hostile press.

The problem with Viet Nam was the sanctuary in the north. It was said they could generate 100,000 fighting men a year ad infinitum. Resources came from their buddies in Moscow and were free, for all practical purposes.

We were in the position of the boxer who is only allowed to strike the enemy's forearms and only when the enemy punches--i.e. comes south of the DMZ. It will be a long fight, even if the restricted boxer is a heavyweight and the other guy is a bantamweight.

Too much attention has been paid to the conventional operations so that the Army--and not simply the Marines--does not get credit, or is even known to have been working with local forces, providing training, resources, and stiffening. And not just the Special Forces, but regular Army. The Army had a substantial number of officers and NCOs involved in that effort. That was my training, including language.
So the presumption that the Army's only work was lumbering around in large units looking for a big fight is not a correct picture.
The US was able to bring numerous small units to battle and destroy them, the aggregate of which would be a reduction in VC/NVA troop strenght. How effectively this was done was in part a function of the vision of the higher commanders. The First Cav, for example, was known for its attempts to turn any encounter, however small, into a substantial engagement, while the big, laborious fighting positions were known as First Division fighting positions because they epitomized the plodding tactics the Big Red One used. Both presumptions are, of course, not entirely accurate, as all tactics varied over time, and according to situation. However, there may have been sufficient difference to at least partly merit the received wisdom.

In a war of this type, where the enemy runs around in small groups, there is a problem. Run around in a small group yourself, and you may find the enemy has pulled together enough of the small groups to make a big one and kill you. Use large groups, and you reduce the number of places you can be, which is to say, control. Use numerous small groups to find and fix the enemy and then pour on more forces to kill him, and you require good communications, good small-unit leaders, and lots of mobility.

A bit of history.
The Greek Civil War was sanctuaried in Yugoslavia. When Tito decided to stop that, the war fizzled.
The North Koreans, being their own sanctuary, knew they could depend on themselves. But they made the mistake of coming across the border, horse, foot, and guns, and looking so much like a real war that the jaded nations having just finished WW II couldn't ignore it, or consider it unimportant, as had been the case in Greece.

Lesson for Hanoi. Be your own sanctuary and pretend the guys in the south have nothing to do with you. The world will pretend it's true. Worked.

I don't think the truth is that the US was trying to fight a conventional war. I think the US was trying to kill as many of the other guys as possible. Until the sanctuary was closed off, that was all that could be done. THey used big units--frequently as bases for reinforcement and support of small units out on their own--and small units, and worked with local forces to provide local security, and did all the other things we normally do in war.

The use of heavy firepower should be seen in the context of no-fire zones, restricted fire zones, and rules of engagement. When I tried to explain these to my father, an Infantry veteran of WW II fighting in Europe, he asked, "What traitors did this?" Johnson and McNamara, I replied.

Full disclosure. Although, figuratively in the sprinter's blocks--OCS, jump school, hearts&minds at Ft. Bragg, language training--I did not go to Viet Nam, suddenly becoming a sole surviving son with about two months before being due in country.
 
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