Thursday, February 1, 2007

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

Review of The Wrong War: Why We Lost in Vietnam (1998) by Jeffrey Record

The work of Jeffrey Record, now a professor at the Air Force's Air War College in Montgomery, AL, is always worthwhile. But his book on the Vietnam War has particular interest now. Published in 1998, it addresses many of the "lessons of Vietnam" that are now much in discussion in connection with the Iraq War, yet it predates the particular arguments over that war.

This is a longer than usual blog post, so I'll list here the "main causes of America's defeat" in the Vietnam War which he gives (with additional elaboration) in the Introduction:

Misinterpretation of both the significance and nature of the struggle in Vietnam. ...

Underestimation of the enemey's tenacity and fighting power. ...

Overestimation of U.S. political stamina and military effectiveness. ... (my emphasis)

Absence of a politically competitive South Vietnam.
It also worth noting that Record adds just after this list:

... I do not regard the U.S. media and domestic antiwar movement as significant causes of America's defeat in Vietnam, though both remain prime targets of recrimination among those who believe that victory in Vietnam was stolen from the American military.
The more history I read, the less I focus on "lessons" and more on understanding the people and events in the context of their times. That's partially the influence on my thinking of Ivan Illich's approach to history. It's also a result of my increasing skepticism about our ability to learn practical lessons from history. The temptation to read our own current preferences into the "lessons" of the past is often overwhelming.

Errors of policy and perception

In looking at the reasons the US became increasingly involved in supporting the South Vietnamese regime after the French sensibly (if belatedly) decided to give up their Indochinese colonies in 1954, Record stresses the amazing US misjudgment ofChina. The policymakers of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations viewed the Vietnamese Communists as "a stalking horse for Beijing in Southeast Asia". In fact, Ho Chi Minh's movement was a real nationalist movement. The US war in Vietnam actually postponed the widening of the split between the Soviet Union and China and between Vietnam and China. Record writes:

[Chinese General] Lin Piao's famous September 1965 speech, "Long Live the Victory of People's War," though interpreted by the Johnson adininistration as an incitement to worldwide revolution and a declaration of unqualified Chinese support for a communist victory in Vietnam, was in fact a warning to Hanoi not to expect any direct Chinese intervention on the DRV's behalf. Lin characterized Vietnam as a testing ground for both a people's war and American efforts to defeat it; but he also in effect told the Vietnamese that this was their war, stressing the necessity for self-reliance and avoidance of reckless military action. (Lin was preaching a Chinese version of the Nixon Doctrine four years before Nixon had a chance to proclaim it.) China was on the verge of starting its long march toward the disaster of the Great Cultural Revolution, a domestic political upheaval of titanic proportions prompted in part by a bitter dispute within the political leadership over whether the Soviet Union was supplanting the United States as the main threat to China's security. Under such circumstances, and with memories of the horrendous losses the Americans had inflicted on Chinese forces in Korea, Beijing had every reason to avoid war with the United States (and had, in fact, indicated to the United States that it would not intervene in the Vietnam War unless the Americans invaded North Vietnam). (my emphasis)
Notice here that even if the Johson administration had correctly understood the policy signal in Lin Piao's speech, that didn't predetermine a policy decision. It could have been read as a reason not to worry about a Vietnamese Communist victory making Vietnam a Chinese puppet. Or it could have been read as a green light for more aggressive military action against North Vietnam, which in turn could have led to a Chinese policy change.

There were several significant errors of perception and judgment by US policymakers toward Vietnam, not least among them a superficial, testosterone-charged version of the "lessons of Munich". (For the latter, see the Lyndon Johnson quote below.) Another was the problem of which we've heard much the last few years, that "if your only weapon is a hammer every problem looks like a nail". US forces were even less organized and trained to fight a counterinsurgency war then than now. So policymakers viewed the war there as primarily a case of North Vietnamese aggression that could be countered largely by conventional warfare, including a massive application of firepower. Record writes that:

...the war was both civil and international, and both conventional and unconventional. It was civil in that it was waged predominantly by Vietnamese (on both sides of a Seventeenth Parallel that had no legal standing as an international border) to determine the future political control of southern Vietnam. It was international because it elicited massive direct U.S. military intervention and substantial Soviet and Chinese indirect intervention. It was conventional in the way it was fought on the battlefield by the United States throughout the war and occasionally by the Vietnamese communists, especially in 1968, 1972, and 1975. It was guerrilla in the way it was waged predominantly by North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front before — and for several years after — the Tet Offensive. It was also a total war for the communist side, whereas it was a limited war for the United States. It was total war against South Vietnam in that Hanoi wished to eliminate South Vietnam as an independent and and noncommunist political entity, whereas the war the DRV waged against United States was limited in that its objective was simply to compel U.S. withdrawal.
This last point is central to Record's analysis of the war. And it's central to understanding the stab-in-the-back theory of US defeat in Vietnam which has had a shelf-life far beyond any rational claim to credibility. The North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front (NLF/Vietcong) forces viewed the war as a total struggle for national independence. The South Vietnamese government (GVN) and it supporters were never able to match the enemy in appealing to Vitnamese nationalism. The American commitment to the war was always limited because real American interests there were always limited, despite the extent to which policymakers and the press inflated the stakes for years. It was not because the Vietnamese Communists were gifted with more abundant natural testosterone. The stakes looked total from their side. From the American side the stakes were always limited. But, as Record observes, policymakers viewed the Vietnam conflict through the lens of "a mindless anticommunism".

It's foolish to discuss this disparity in terms of some abstract concept of Will. Record dicusses a wide variety of factors at work in the process by which a majority of Americans turned against the Vietnam War. Certainly, the other side was aware of that shifting sentiment. He captures the basic reality of the Nixon phase of the war:

By the time of Nixon's inauguration in January 1969, there was little sentiment for a military victory, which most Americans no longer believed was attainable at an acceptable cost, but rather a desire for the war's termination. In fact, the United States was headed for a major debacle in Vietnam with potentially disastrous political and international repercussions. The Nixon-orchestrated U.S. invasion of Cambodia in 1970, the RVNAF "incursion" into Laos the following year, and U.S. mining of Haiphong harbor in the spring of 1972 represented attempts to cover the U.S. withdrawal and to bolster South Vietnam's post-U.S. withdrawal military position. They were acts of a fighting withdrawal, not an agenda for military victory. Hanoi was well aware of the American public mood and of the strategic intent of post-Tet U.S. military operations, although the Politburo could not resist one final attempt to settle the war by force of arms. And, as even President Thieu himself concluded, but for a massive employment of U.S. air power to crush the so-called "Easter Offensive", Hanoi probably would have toppled South Vietnam in 1972 rather than in 1975. (my emphasis)
Real issues - and the "stomach" theory of war

Record provides a reality-based analysis of the war in both South and North Vietnam. And he gives a thoughful analysis of the political situations in South Vietnam and the Pentagon. Up until 1965, the US role was to support the GVN. If Johnson had been willing to say then that we'd done what we could but the GVN wasn't able to prevail in the war, he could have used that moment to withdraw US forces. (The evidence is persuasive that Kennedy had decided in 1963 to begin such a withdrawal andhad quietly undertaken it, but Johnson did not continue that process after Kennedy's death.) As Record says, "What happened in 1975 [the fall of the GVN] would have happened in 1965 but for the war's hurried Americanization".

This level of dependence on the US insured that the GVN would be seen as the client of a foreign power. The GVN government was chronically plagued after 1965 many problems like corruption, instability and general unpopularity. Their armed forces (RVNAF) were also never a match in competence and motivation for the enemy:

Moreover, from the Republic of Vietnam's [South Vietnam] inception in 1955 until its ignoble collapse twenty years later, its leadership failed to create a military establishment of sufficient integrity and competence to give as good as it got against the PAVN and Viet Cong. If the RVNAF and its supporting Regional and Popular forces enjoyed a pronounced numerical and firepower advantage over their communist adversaries, they also suffered — before, during, and after the war's Americanization — a decisive inferiority in the intangibles that make up genuine fighting power. With some notable exceptions, RVNAF units were poorly led and motivated, and in great contrast to both communist and U.S. fighting forces, did not seek contact with the enemy. They were also, again with notable exceptions, corrupt — from the chicken-stealing private to the national-treasury-looting general — and, by most accounts, thoroughly penetrated by communist agents. A 1967 State Department assessment of the RVNAF concluded that it suffered from poor leadership, poor morale, poor relations with the population, and "low operational capabilities including poor coordination, tactical rigidity, overdependence on air and artillery support arising in part from inadequate firepower, overdependence on vehicular convoy, unwillingness to remain in the field at night or over adequately long periods, and lack of aggressiveness." (my emphasis)
Record also argues that the fall of South Vietnam in 1975 occurred "not for lack of arms and ammunition" but because of the incompetence and "moral cowardice" of the RVNAF. The GVN also suffered severely all along from poor security: "If the GVN [at the end] was little more than a creature of the U.S. Cold War diplomacy and the American taxpayers' largesse, its ranks were also thoroughly infiltrated by communist double agents".

One of the difficulties in discussing the American politics of the Vietnam War is that a notion of American invincibility has such a strong hold on the public discussion. If the US is militarily capable of defeating any enemy, then failure to do so must be the fault of some other kind of weakness - usually assumed to be some sort of failure of fortutude, Will, or courage. Dark Lord Cheney gave us a dramatic example of this in his remarkably revealing
interview with Wolf Blitzer on 01/24/07, talking about the Iraq War:

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Wolf, you can come up with all kinds of what-ifs. You've got to deal with the reality on the ground. The reality on the ground is, we've made major progress, we've still got a lot of work to do. There are a lot of provinces in Iraq that are relatively quiet. There's more and more authority transferred to the Iraqis all the time.

But the biggest problem we face right now is the danger that the United States will validate the terrorist strategy, that, in fact, what will happen here with all of the debate over whether or not we ought to stay in Iraq, with the pressures from some quarters to get out of Iraq, if we were to do that, we would simply validate the terrorists' strategy that says the Americans will not stay to complete the task --

Q Here's the Nouri al Maliki --

THE VICE PRESIDENT: -- that we don't have the stomach for the fight.

Q Here's the problem.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: That's the biggest threat right now. (my emphasis)
Maybe we should call this the Dick Cheney Stomach Theory of warfare.

Not least of the reasons that such an explanation has endured so long is that it gives a blanket alibi to our glorious generals, who thereby can avoid criticism of their own military decisions and performance. As Record makes clear in this book, there were no shortage of those in the Vietnam War.

Those like Cheney who talk about the critical factor being the "stomach" of the American public implicitly assume that any war the US is involved in has to be prosecuted until the enemy lays down their arms and submits to all American terms. But all wars involve some kind of calculation of costs and benefits. Fortunately, ordinary citizens even in the United States haven't forgotten that, even if our political and media elites have a hard time giving up the invincibility posture. In the Vietnam War (as at present even more so with the Iraq War), a majority of the people eventually decided that any gains to be had were not worth the necessary costs.

Record quotes Mississippi's hawkish Sen. John Stennis as saying in 1969 that he didn't consider the GVN to be a dependable ally: "I don't believe they will be able to do it and I believe Hanoi knows this better than we do. ... We'll have to stay there for ten years at best." (my emphasis)

Most of the public did not believe another decade or more of war in Vietnam was worth the costs. For that matter, by 1969 few politicians outside the Deep South who hoped to be re-elected would have been as willing as Stennis apparently was to declare themselves for 10 more years of war. And that unwillingness to continue that war was not a failure of "stomach" but a success of "brains", i.e., good sense and good judgment.

For Americans, defending the South Vietnamese was two or three or more steps removed from immediate defense of what we now commonly call the "homeland". For the other side, it was defending their homeland in the most immediate sense. Record quotes Ho Chi Minh telling a French negotiator in 1946, "If we have to fight, we will fight. You will kill ten of our men and we will kill one of yours, and in the end it will be you who will tire of it".

This was not because Vietnamese were braver than the French or the Americans later. It was because their cause was more important to them, not only in an emotional but also a realistic sense, than it was to France, or the United States. Ho was a Communist and a revolutionary as well as a nationalist. But in the end he was far more credible than South Vietnam's leaders in declaring, as he did in 1965:

We love peace but we are not afraid of war. We are determined to drive away the US aggressors to defend the freedom, independence and territorial integrity of our fatherland.
Record devotes a chapter to civilian-military conflicts over the war. There were many issues, such as the caution by civilian officials of taking actions that would encourage China to intervene with their army as they hid in the Korean War. Record argues persuasively that some of the military's criticismswere justified, such as excessive targeting restrictions. He also emphasizes one conflict that is far too little appreciated or even remembered:

But it was the Johnson White House's refusal to mobilize the reserves that more than anything else offended military opinion and hobbled the Pentagon's war effort. Johnson's refusal was not just unprecedented. It was also an act of strategic recklessness: in depriving the United States of the services of over one million men trained precisely for the purpose of bridging the wartime mobilization gap separating active-duty forces and the newly-trained draftees, it accelerated the Pentagon's depletion of the U.S. strategic reserve (uncommitted active-duty forces withheld in the United States) as well as its desperate cannibalization of NATO and other U.S. force deployments overseas, producing the great U.S. military manpower crisis of early 1968. (It is not unreasonable to assume that America's manifest strategic overcommitment to the Vietnam War by 1968 entered the calculations thai prompted North Korea's seizure of the USS Pueblo in January and the Soviet Union's invasion of Czechoslovakia in August.) And because the absence of reserve mobilization necessitated early and heavy reliance on a highly inequitable conscription regime, it also transformed the reserve components into havens for draft dodgers, and the Selective Service System itself into a lightning rod for domestic war critics, in process inflaming ugly class divisions. "For the first time in the history of the United States," observed Don Oberdorfer, "it was considered normal and even fashionable for leading families of government and business not to send their sons abroad to war under the nation's flag. . . . The American elite tended increasingly to think it was a bad war which did not merit their participation or support. Even the hawks were frustrated—win or get out."
A couple of qualifying comments: I don't think it was common during the Vietnam War to refer to men who signed up for the reserves as "draft dodgers" or "draft evaders". The term is now commonly used though I avoid it myself for such cases, even Bush's. And though what Record says in that paragraph about class divisions looks accurate to me, it's worth remembering that, contrary to "culture war" scripts, antiwar sentiment on college campuses at least was more common at state universities than at Ivy Leagueor other elite universities. (The percentage of working-class students was much higher in the state schools.)

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vnrozier said...

I entirely agree with your analysis of the Vietnam war.
I went there purely in the spirit of adventure but stayed because I learnt to love the country and people.
It was though a totally unnecessary war which did more harm than good.
The lack of understanding of the people and their motivations was chronic.
I always maintained that it was a civil war despite lines being drawn on a map in Europe to the contrary.
The question I ask though is why did the United States never see that it was the unifying of the country that was the major factor of the north winning as it had been in their own civil war between the north and south.
Iraq is of course totally inexcusable.

bmiller224 said...

That's a great question why the US policymakers didn't get it.  Part of it was they were caught in a Cold War ideology that was too limiting in its vision.

And once it got going, it was hard not to find was to justify what had been done which then tended to justify keeping on with more of the same.  Part of it was bad intelligence.  Also the sense that the US had overwhelming power.

And just plain old stupidity had probably more to do with it than we might like to think.