Thursday, February 1, 2007

Jeffrey Record's "The Wrong War: Why We Lost in Vietnam" (Part 1 of 2)

Lyndon Johnson and the generals

He also gives a good if brief picture of the often good reasons that civilian officials were suspicious or even disdainful of military advice. Some readers might be surprised to read that Lyndon Johnson "distrusted generals as much if not more than Kennedy [had]; he regarded them as narrow-minded, even as warmongers".

But that's very credible. Johnson saw himself as restraining the crazies, both civilian and military. But he also thought fighting the Vietnam War was necessary because, among other reasons, he feared the fall of South Vietnam would unleash a new wave of McCarthyism similar to the original after the "loss of China". Johnson told Doris Kearns [Goodwin] in the interviews she published in Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (1976):

Yet everything I knew about history told me that if I got out of Vietnam and let Ho Chi Minh run through the streets of Saigon, then I'd be doing exactly what Chamberlain did in World War II. I'd be giving a big fat reward to aggression. And I knew that if we let Communist aggression succeed in taking over South Vietnam, there would follow in this country an endless national debate - a mean and destructive debate - that would shatter my Presidency, kill my administration, and damage our democracy. I knew that Harry Truman and Dean Acheson had lost their effectiveness from the day that the Communists took over in China. I believed that the loss of China had played a large role in the rise of Joe McCarthy. And I knew that all these problems, taken together, were chickenshit compared with what might happen if we lost Vietnam.
LBJ was given to exaggerated talk. But it still gives an idea of how he viewed the domestic consequences of "losing Vietnam".

The mythical "lost victory"

Record clearly distinguishes himself from the stab-in-the-back argument by, for instance, reminding his readers that all US wars have featured some kind of civilian restrictions on the military. He also describes how the Gulf War of 1991 was taken by many Americans "as almost everything the Vietnam War was not, including in the arena of civil-military relations, a more or less tension-free conflict". ("Tension-free conflict" is a clever phrase.) But it wasn't. In a prescient discussion, he cautions against seeing the Gulf War as the opposite of the Vietnam War in terms of doing things right. Then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney put some targets off-limits to the air war, one of the best-known military complaints about the Vietnam War. And on the whole, he argues, Old Man Bush's administration did not set clear political goals for the air war, either. There was extensive bombing inside Iraq, with highly questionable results, although the goal of the war was to remove invading Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

Record also points out the problematic conclusion of the Gulf War, with a unilateral US ceasefire. Although it's outside the scope of this post to elaborate on it, the conclusion of that war carried the seeds of the current Iraq War - which is not at all the same as saying that the goal of the 1991 war should have been to seize the whole country and bring on the current nightmare at that time.

He illustrates his rejection of the notion that our glorious generals were undercut by politicians back home with small stomachs (in the Cheney sense) by quoting with approval Edward Luttwak from The Pentagon and the Art of War (1984):

It was not the civilians who insisted that the war be shared among all the bureaucratic segments of the armed forces. ... It was not the civilians who willed the hundreds of daily sorties of the fighter-bombers and the almost 4 million helicopter-gunship sorties of 1966-1971, whose bombs, rockets, and cannon shells would have destroyed all the armies in history had even a small fraction been aimed at worthy targets. ... It was not the civilians whose poverty of operational thinking and atrophied tactics were revealed by such futile use of so much firepower. It was not the civilians who condemned the enlisted men to fight and die among strangers by making every unit a mere transit pool for individual soldiers, each on his own twelve-month Vietnam tour. It was not the civilians who laid down six-month duty tours for unit commanders, thus ensuring ... the constant renewal of inexperience. ... It was not the civilians who impeded the improvement of Vietnamese forces by denying promotion to officers who chose to serve as advisers instead of "punching their tickets" in the customary command slots needed for career advancement. Finally, it was not the civilians who decided that every service unit and base, every headquarters and depot, be built on a lavish scale and administered by crowds of desk-bound officers...
Record devotes a brief concluding chapter to the question of whether the Vietnam War was a "Lost Victory?" In his tendentious 1985 book No More Vietnams, disgraced former President Richard Nixon wrote:

On January 27, 1973, when Secretary of State William Rogers signed the Paris peace agreements, we had won the war in Vietnam. We had attained the one political goal for which we had fought the war: The South Vietnamese people would have the right to determine their own political future.
Nixon then argues that the unwillingness of the Democratic Congress to allow unrestricted American air support to the RVNAF and refusal to grant each and every dime the Nixon and Ford administrations requested for aid to South Vietnam snatched a South Vietnamese defeat out of the jaws of victory. With Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney being Ford's two White House chiefs of staff, this toxic viewpoint has particular influence on the Cheney-Bush administration's positions on war and Executive authority.

Record points out the obvious, which is that no one can really say with certainty whether the Vietnam War was ever "winnable" or not. But he sensibly refuses to buy into the stab-in-the-back argument (he uses the term "stab-in-the-back" in this book to characterize that position):

The United States could not have picked a more intractable enemy and a feebler ally than it did in Indochina, and while the United States was never prepared to accept the Vietnam War's permanent Americanization, neither was it able to build a South Vietnamese nation capable of surviving without a massive U.S. military presence. In Vietnam by 1965, permanent defeat avoidance meant permanent Americanization of the war.
Which is another way of saying that it was a doomed cause to begin with, unless the US public and the military were willing to pay a much higher price than either considered reasonable - with, of course, the inevitable exception of those who professed to be for victory at any price.

On the one hand itis true, as Record points out, that US forces were able to defeat the PAVN (North Vietnamese Army) in conventional warfare and thus deny final victory to the enemy. And presumably if Americans had perceived it important enough to sustain the military effort for, say, at least an additional 10 years after 1969 as Sen. Stennis suggested, the US could have held off the PAVN for that time.

On the other hand, Record looks at some of the military alternatives, such as an invasion of North Vietnam or an earlier mining of Hanoi and Haiphong harbors. But of none of them can it reasonably be said that they would have solved the fundamental problem The US had limited goals in the war and were unwilling to take on such costs as a direct Chinese entry into the war.

The South Vienamese government was unpopular, corrupt and chronically unstable. And the North Vietnamese and the their southern allies were capable and determined, and they successfully claimed the cause of Vietnamese nationalism. They saw their interests as requiring fighting for as long as it took to expel foreign forces and overthrow the GVN. Of the counter-factual military alternatives held up by the stab-in-the-back crew, Record writes:

Finally, it should be observed that the military's desire to increase U.S. forces' operational effectiveness via greater operational authority was not accompanied by a willingness to tackle its self-imposed obstacles to operational effectiveness. It was — and remains — disingenuous of the military and their conservative political supporters to whine about civilian intrusion upon potential U.S. military effectiveness in Vietnam when the U.S. military itself was hobbling that effectiveness through disunity of command, a faulty attrition strategy, rear-area bloat, and idiotic personnel rotation policies. The military's appeal to civilian authority for more operational latitude in Indochina clearly would have carried with it greater moral force had the military first put its own house in order. (my emphasis)
I appreciate his very appropriate use of "whine" in that quote.

Record's own conclusion, which I share, is "that the United States lacked any strategically decisive and morally acceptable war-winning military options in the Vietnam War".

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