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A Wound That Does Not Cease to Bleed: The War in Vietnam

Amigo of ZP blog, West Point military historian Colonel Gian Gentile, throws down the gauntlet in his review of Lewis Sorley’s new biography, Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam, in The National Interest:

The Better War That Never Was

DID GENERAL Westmoreland lose Vietnam? The answer is no. But he did lose the war over the memory of the Vietnam War. He lost it to military historian Lewis Sorley, among others. In his recent biography of William C. Westmoreland, Sorley posits what might be called “the better-war thesis”—that a better war leading to American victory was available to the United States if only the right general had been in charge. The problem, however, is that this so-called better war exists mostly in the minds of misguided historians and agenda-driven pundits.

In the battle over the memory of the Vietnam War, Sorley annihilates Westmoreland and leaves his character and reputation in smoldering ruins. Yet Sorley’s victory in the fight for the memory of Vietnam has not brought us a balanced historical biography of Westmoreland.  

 ….The better-war thesis argues that if only the U.S. Army had concentrated from the start on building up the South Vietnamese armed forces and winning the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese people through limited applications of military force, we would have won the war. But the question remains: Precisely how could tactical adjustments early in the war have overpowered the political constraints placed on the army by the Johnson administration, which kept it from taking the fight to the North Vietnamese? Or the dysfunctional nature of the South Vietnamese government and military that precluded them from standing on their own? Or the declining popular support and political will in the United States as the war dragged on without a decent end in sight? Or, perhaps most importantly, how could tactical adjustments toward better methods of counterinsurgency have overpowered a communist enemy that fought the war totally while the United States fought it with limited means? In his Westmoreland biography, Sorley essentially ignores these questions.

Could the United States have prevailed in Vietnam? Yes, but it would have had to commit to staying there for generations, not a mere handful of years. The Vietnam War was an attempt at armed nation building for South Vietnam. Nations and their societies, however, are not built overnight, especially when they are violently contested by internal and external enemies. Thus, to prevail in Vietnam, the United States would have needed the collective will that it mustered to win World War II and would have had to be able to maintain it for generations. That kind of will—or staying power—was never a real possibility.

In war, political and societal will are calculations of strategy, and strategists in Vietnam should have discerned early on that the war was simply unwinnable based on what the American people were willing to pay. Once the war started and it became clear that to prevail meant staying for an unacceptable amount of time, American strategy should have moved to withdraw much earlier than it did. Ending wars fought under botched strategy and policy can be every bit as damaging as the wars themselves.

Well worth the read, not least for Gian’s model of how one historian carefully dismantles the thesis of another.

We are a mere three years from the fiftieth anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War, less than two years from the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy that brought LBJ into power and a year from the fiftieth anniversary of the infamous coup d’etat against American client, President Ngo Dinh Diem, that JFK had approved. Finally,  fifty years ago, Kennedy drastically increased the American military advisory mission to South Vietnam to just under 10,000 men and signed off on clandestine operations against North Vietnam.

All those fiftieth anniversaries amount to a golden jubilee of rancor.

The bitterness sown by the lost war in Vietnam still burns in American politics like red hot coals. Less bright perhaps than the open flame of 1968, but if you scratch the surface, you will find with no less heat. The war spawned division and polarization that twisted our politics and poisoned public debate to this day, echoing now as farce as much as tragedy.

During the 1980’s, Vietnam historiography was virtually a cottage industry. It was the subject that ate the profession as a generation of academics who cut their academic teeth during the era of antiwar protest on campus acquired tenure, middle-aged paunches and lost hair while nursing their political grievances in their scholarship. I personally recall, as an  undergraduate, the war being referenced (usually along with vitriolic abuse of Ronald Reagan) in every humanities class, no matter how remote the course, with some professors being known for the quality of their off-topic rants.

While Westmoreland bears heavy responsibility for his part in a losing a war, even as theater commander in Saigon he was only an executor, not a maker, of strategy, much less national policy. Westmoreland did not lose Vietnam in a stunning battlefield capitulation, so Gentile is right to defend “Westy” from being scapegoated for the poor strategic reasoning hatched in the Oval Office. Where Westmoreland was at fault was in his inability to either intellectually comprehend the bigger strategic picture in which he found himself struggling (most likely) or if he did, to effectively articulate the strategic environment in Southeast Asia to a domineering President who was stubbornly determined to brook no contrary advice (possible). Had Westmoreland tried, he likely would have failed (Brute Krulak’s effort in this regard got him physically ejected from the Oval Office by the seat of his pants by Johnson himself. I am dubious that LBJ would have been any happier with contradiction of policy from Westmoreland).

Gentile, much like my professors of yore, is deeply interested in the congruence between events in his own time with those of the Vietnam era., in particular, the salience of counterinsurgency doctrine in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. There is, of course, some continuity between the Vietnam era and today present, a historical thread seized by the COINdinistas themselves in their veneration of Galula and slurping knife-blade portions of soup, but the continuity has limits. I suspect a Millennial generation vet of Kandahar or Fallujah, should they venture to become a historian, will frame and seek to explain their wars without much reference to the societal touchstone that is Vietnam.

Perhaps by then, for American society, Vietnam will have finally ceased to bleed.

3 Responses to “A Wound That Does Not Cease to Bleed: The War in Vietnam”

  1. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    It’s possible to win any war with hindsight, I suppose. But this post, combined with my current reading of Gaddis’s biography of Kennan, suggests a historical context. I suppose the accusations inflamed by memory won’t stop until all who were there have died, but let me try to take a step back from that.
    Although we can look back now and say that World War II marked the end of the European empires in Asia and Africa, it wasn’t obvious at the time. (Stuff that is obvious fifty years on usually isn’t at the time – something to keep in mind about today’s events.) So the French continued their rear-guard action in Vietnam through the fifties.
    Another thing that wasn’t obvious to people at the end of World War II was that the Soviet Union was going its own way, using whatever it took. By the fifties, as the French were losing in Vietnam and their opposition was becoming obviously Communist, it looked like another place where the West would have to stop the Soviet Union’s avant-garde. Or not. Europe was jumpy because it was recovering from its own near self-immolation. The United States was jumpy because all of a sudden it was on the front lines against the Soviet Union, which had been developing nuclear weapons and planting fellow travelers in the US government. So it was easy to believe that yes, we must take up the White Man’s Burden fight against Communism and take over in Vietnam.
    This is not a defense of that point of view, just an analysis of how it might have seemed logical at the time. Our world is stripped of that Communist Menace, so it’s getting harder to put ourselves back in that mindset, even those of us who were there.
    But by the time Johnson became president (which roiled other waters, while remaining consistent with the Communist Menace), things were going badly in Vietnam for the US, and some of that earlier logic was beginning to look thin. But it was less than twenty years since World War II had ended. (Less time than since the Soviet Union collapsed until now!) So upping military force had a certain logic, and Lyndon Johnson was nothing if not macho.
    We still haven’t figured out how to use military force in these small wars – see COIN, 4GW, and all those acronyms I don’t use much. The Kennan book has combined this week with an e-mail exchange with a blogfriend to make me aware that military options seem to be all people talk about in dealing with various problems around the world, where Kennan believed in doing things smart and using diplomatic moves to throw the Soviets off balance. He was very disappointed that containment came to mean, almost exclusively, using military force, and that’s showing up in the few discussions of Iran that suggest containment, the less immediately military response. I’ve written a bit about Iran, trying to use Kennan’s concepts at Nuclear Diner, but, unfortunately, our host has been hacked, and the site is down. We’re hoping to have it up in a day or so.
    I’m describing a hysteresis that is the basis of the axiom that the military always fight the last war. And it’s not just the military. All we can go by is history and the incomplete information we have about today’s threats. Some are better at shucking off the old preconceptions, but it’s always safer to stay with those preconceptions, so those people aren’t much heard by the bureaucracy or the voters.

  2. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    Nuclear Diner is back on line, but some of our material has been lost. Here are posts on Kennan and Iran and Containing Iran.

  3. Joseph Fouche Says:

    A problem with the Cold War and Vietnam War is analyzing them as the “Cold War” and “Vietnam War”. Especially if analysis is combined with deadly Boomer angst. Treating the two as monolithic black boxes obscures the phase changes boiling within. The classic example is lumping all fission or fusion weapons and their use or potential use from Alamogordo to the fall of the Wall together under the blanket categories “nuclear weapons” and “nuclear war”. This obscures the many scenarios for using firecrackers (atomic warfare) and early planet crackers (thermonuclear warfare) that wouldn’t have unfolded along lines set down by MAD scenarios retrofitted back on 1945-c. 1965 following the onset of true MAD after c. 1965. Condemning blind adherence to a mistaken “domino theory” ignores how there was a domino effect in the mid-1950s but not (necessarily) in the mid-1960s. The sinister Dr. Kissenger observed in Diplomacy that the crucial strategic outcome of Vietnam was achieved with Suharto’s successful coup in 1965. That may have been the culminating point of the Vietnam experience. Once the sea lanes were secure, the rest was perhaps unnecessary. The primary difference between South Vietnam and South Korea and the fates of those two client states may have come down to South Korea being an island since it was surrounded by water on three sides and a DMZ on its fourth. If South Vietnam had a similar geographic position, we probably wouldn’t be talking about the intrinsic impossibility of generational transformations of Third World hellholes since South Korea was as much a Third World hellhole in 1950 as South Vietnam was in 1964. Instead we’d be talking about the intrinsic improbability of a maritime power with a military sufficient for annoying a large state, destroying a medium state, or occupying a small state trying to control the populations of states surrounded by equally meddlesome land neighbors on (almost) all sides.

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