Air University Review, March-April 1979
Colonel James L. Morrison, Jr., USA (Ret)
Angered and bewildered, I, an American adviser, watched Nguyen Cao Ky's airplane take off from the Qui Nhon airstrip and disappear in the distance. For no fathomable reason everything had gone wrong. Generally, the staff of my Vietnamese division could be counted on to outdo itself in staging elaborate "dog and pony shows" for VIPs. Yet on this occasion--a visit by the head of state, no less--the performance had been so perfunctory and shabby that it bordered on insult. The commanding general had boycotted the entire proceedings; the honor guard had turned out looking like "Coxey's army," and the section chiefs had delegated their briefing responsibilities to giggling, bashful aspirant-lieutenants. Furthermore, the instant the last speaker had finished his fumbling presentation, the prime minister and his entourage had been hustled back to the airstrip without even being afforded an opportunity to visit the latrine. The more bemused because a week earlier the staff had put on an impressive production for the American ambassador, I turned to my ARVN counterpart and demanded an explanation. With unaccustomed sharpness, the Vietnamese officer snapped, "Ky might look like George Washington to you Americans, but to us he's just another small-time warlord." That comment jarred me into an unsettling realization. Despite lengthy preparatory schooling and eight months on the job, I still did not understand the people with whom I was working.
Unfortunately, such ignorance was the norm. Practically every commentary on the war makes it clear that few, if any, of the Americans involved, from the President down to the private soldier, had more than a cursory appreciation of the Vietnamese people or the complexity of the task we were attempting in their land. The books discussed here are no exception. Each differs from the others in aim, chronology, and scope, but all convey one common message: the chief attribute of the disaster unwittingly concocted by those who made and those who executed American policy throughout the years of our involvement in Vietnam was a deep-seated, persistent ignorance.
Philip Caputo† first went to Vietnam in 1965 as a rifle platoon leader in the Marine Expeditionary Brigade; ten years later he returned as a newspaper correspondent to cover the fall of Saigon. While touching on the unfortunate finale of the war, Caputo devotes most of his book to the year he spent in combat during the initial stage of Americanization. In some respects, his story is merely one more, all-too familiar account of an idealistic, "Camelot-generation" youngster undergoing the pain of progressive disillusionment as he slogs through the jungle. Predictably, beloved comrades suffer mutilation and death; generals make stupid and insensitive demands; military tedium becomes excruciating; and atrocities lose their capacity to shock. In a word, the corrosive effects of time and reality transformed what in prospect had seemed a brave crusade into a meaningless nightmare.
†Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1975, $10.95), 346 pages.
Far more disturbing than the banality of the narrative is the taint of self-service that permeates the book. Caputo strains to convince the reader that the murder of two innocent Vietnamese civilians, an incident in which he played a major part, was the work of some impersonal, battle-spawned demonic force rather than the result of such human frailties as frustration, poor judgment, and lack of discipline. Similarly, he shamelessly plays for sympathy in an effort to vindicate the disreputable means he used to extricate himself from conviction by a court-martial for the heinous offense. Moreover, the author occasionally assumes an irritating Olympian pose, smirking at the social and intellectual faux pas of his associates and demonstrating with ill-concealed delight his disdain for the humdrum of military life. Yet, when an opportunity arises to separate himself permanently from the environment he finds so uncongenial, Caputo unaccountably elects to remain on active duty with the Marine Corps. Such dissemblance and arrogance raise serious questions about the authors motives and values.
Notwithstanding these weaknesses, the strengths of A Rumor of War set it apart from the standard protest narrative. A compelling writer with an acute descriptive eye and a keen understanding of soldier mentality, Caputo imparts a realism that literally transforms the reader into a frontline "grunt." In addition, the author employs black comedy with a skill seldom found among commentators on Vietnam. Who can ever forget the colonel's order to exhume dead Vietcong and arrange them in parade formation in order to impress a visiting general? Of still greater singularity is the honesty with which Caputo views the combat experience. Even though horrified by the suffering and dehumanization the war evoked, he nonetheless acknowledges the close camaraderie, the narcotic exhilaration, and the haunting nostalgia that were also its by-products.
Had Lieutenant Caputo and his marines read Herbert Schandlers The Unmaking of a President,† they could at least have enjoyed the solace of learning that the highest American officials shared their perplexity about Vietnam. With the 1968 Tet offensive as a base point, Schandler surveys the varied and complex forces that influenced the conduct of the war, his goal being to portray the intricacies of presidential decision-making in an era of prolonged crisis. Combining exceptional expository talent, scholarly research, and insights gained from service in the Pentagon at the time, the author advances a thesis which, though dispassionate in tone, is frightening in its implications. As he sees it, there was no coherent, agreed-on national strategy for prosecuting the war from the earliest days of American intervention until after the Tet offensive. Up to that point, strategy had evolved largely by default. In the absence of useful guidance from the President and the Secretary of Defense, the military professionals had at several critical junctures sought to impose their own schemes for victory. In each instance, however, the civilian leadership demurred, neither approving nor disapproving the plans of the military but at the same time refusing to suggest workable counterproposals. The result was chaos, with bureaucratic whim, executive hubris, domestic politics, and other peripheral considerations determining the manner in which the war was fought. It was in this climate of indecisiveness and confusion that the nonsensical on-again, off-again bombing pauses, the crazy quilt approaches to tactics and pacification, and the cavalier disregard for the strategic requirements of other important areas were all engendered. Small wonder that Caputo and his men failed to see the logic in what they were doing!
†Herbert Y. Schandler, The Unmaking of a President: Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1977), 419 pages.
According to Schandler, the Communist attack launched during the New Year's holiday of 1968 proved to be a turning point. A costly tactical blunder for the North Vietnamese, the assault nevertheless served their strategic purposes well. At one fell swoop the ambiguity, ineffectiveness, and duplicity of American policy were laid bare. The outcome was a loss of public confidence, which neither President Johnson nor his successors could regain. Ironically, the pain inflicted by this exposure forced the President and his advisers to devise a strategy that, given sufficient time, might have eventuated in victory, but by then it was too late; the military and political leadership had irrevocably forfeited their trust.
The foregoing synopsis makes it clear that Schandler's book contains little new information. Rather, what makes The Unmaking of a President valuable is the author's facility for isolating, analyzing, and explaining with lucidity the labyrinthine factors that affected decision-making in the Johnson White House. Schandler also displays a remarkable capacity for exploring the abstract without losing sight of the human. For that matter, his judicious depiction of the ways in which sycophancy, jealousy, fear, and ambition prejudiced what should have been disinterested judgments would of itself be sufficient to warrant careful study of the book.
This is not to say that The Unmaking of a President should be taken at face value. Schandler is unduly kind to the military leaders with whom he deals, particularly with regard to their professional integrity. To be sure, he dutifully records the sometimes sordid machinations in which the Joint Chiefs engaged to win the support of civilian politicians, but the author appears to believe that altruistic ends somehow justified their clumsy Machiavellianism, an untenable premise in this reviewer's opinion. In a related vein, he passes lightly over a question which is of fundamental significance: What is the correct course for an officer to follow when called on to execute policies he knows to be unsound? An inexperienced civilian scholar might be forgiven for failing to appreciate the relevance of that question, but not Schandler. A "Duty, Honor, Country" West Pointer and a hard-bitten regular himself, he knows better, and his reluctance to deal candidly with the matter vitiates the quality of an otherwise excellent piece of work.
At First glance it might seem that Our Great Spring Victory,† written by the commander of the Communist forces that conquered South Vietnam in the summer of 1975, would prove a worthwhile supplement to the books by Caputo and Schandler; however, this is not the case. General Van Tien Dung's primary aim is less to illuminate than to tout his ideology, his party, and himself. Only inadvertently does the general shed light on the strategy and tactics that culminated in the surrender of Saigon. Thus, the professional reader in search of clues to the astonishing swiftness of the North Vietnamese success will find himself sifting through page after page of puerile bombast only to discover he could have spent his time more profitably studying a field manual.
Van Tien Dung, Our Great Spring Victory: An Account of the Fall and Liberation of South Vietnam. Translated by John Spragens, Jr. (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977, $15.00), 275 pages.
Dung begins with the assault on Ban Me Thuot in early March. He follows this with a brief and superficial exegesis of the 55-day onslaught that swept the ARVN forces from the Central Highlands, engulfed the major coastal enclaves, and finally overwhelmed Saigon. In classic Marxist-Leninist style, he attributes these lightning victories to the justice of the cause, the spirit of the North Vietnamese people, the élan of the troops, inspired leadership (presumably including his own), and to that mystic strategic sixth sense with which Communism allegedly imbues its disciples. Not surprisingly, Comrade Dung either discounts or denies the importance of several other factors that tipped the scales in his favor: a demoralized and poorly led enemy army, a Saigon government abandoned by its only ally and plagued by impotence, a South Vietnamese population paralyzed by despair, and, certainly not least, a bountiful supply of captured materiel.
Obsequious cant is by no means the only serious flaw in Our Great Spring Victory. Whether through ignorance, gullibility, or political affinity, the American editor disregards gross distortions, fails to explain esoteric military terminology, and refrains from reducing the reader's burden by excising repetitive and irrelevant passages. For example, he sees fit to point out that "Ho Chi Minh was especially fond of leading groups in singing 'Unity' " but does not bother to define "special technological unit." A competent editor like Liddell Hart, Burke Davis, or Martin Blumenson might have been able to salvage Dung's memoir; in its present form, however, Our Great Spring Victory is almost worthless.
Caputo, in A Rumor of War, foretells that future generations of West Point cadets will not be taught the truth about the Vietnam conflict. To permit the fulfillment of that prophesy would constitute the ultimate folly of the whole dismal venture. Admittedly, now that Comrade Dung and his cohorts have re-educated the girls on Tu Do Street and Dr. Spock's young paladins have exchanged their jungle boots for platform shoes, it is tempting to consign the bitter experience to oblivion or write it off as an aberration that never should have occurred. But the professional soldier cannot afford such indulgences. Wars similar to the one in Vietnam are being fought in many areas of the world today, and if, as all the evidence attests, the trend continues, the United States, sooner or later, may again find itself embroiled in another murky and exotic struggle. Faced with that likelihood, the military officer is duty-bound to learn all he can about the kind of warfare Vietnam typified, especially why the Herculean American effort went for naught. Granted an accurate comprehension of the reasons for our downfall in that particular conflict will not necessarily provide a blueprint for operating successfully in some future struggle, but, even so, a searching, objective analysis of the Vietnam debacle should, by enhancing the student's perspective and sharpening his powers of judgment, enable him to think more creatively and act more effectively when the time comes.
It is in the hope of prompting just such contemplation that this reviewer presents the reflections that follow. In no sense are these musings definitive, nor, for that matter, are they entirely original. Instead, they embody a synthesis of the experience, thought, and study of one fallible man. As such, they invite challenge from others more knowledgeable and perceptive. Indeed, if the ideas do provoke reasoned criticism, an important mission will have been accomplished.
Leaving aside such egregious military sins as piecemealing forces and dividing command responsibility, those who guided the American effort in Vietnam committed several other blunders that, if perhaps less flagrant, were equally devastating. As observers like S. L. A. Marshall and Frances Fitzgerald have noted, and as Caputo and Schandler imply, the force structure from beginning to end was not tailored for the job at hand. Nor were the commanders chosen because of their ability to deal with the special requirements that the situation necessitated. On the contrary, while paying lip service to counterinsurgency, the United States and its clients fought the entire war with conventionally organized units, utilizing techniques designed to combat a technologically advanced enemy on the continent of Europe. Likewise, American generals in Vietnam, with rare exceptions, were men whose experience and professional education predisposed them to think in terms of World War II and the Korean conflict. Under conditions that called for a George Crook, a T. E. Lawrence, or an Orde Wingate, the field commands were given to hard-charging paratroopers, officers whose simplistic, "can-do" attitudes made it veritably impossible for them to understand the ambiguities and subtleties of the upheaval in Vietnam. These fallacies of organization and leadership were then magnified by adopting mechanistic and immaterial yardsticks for measuring success. At best the emphasis on body count and "increasing the blue spots on the map" produced a dangerously unrealistic picture of progress; at worst it gave rise to false official statements and atrocities, indelible blots on the honor of the officer corps.
With similar persistence American policymakers relied on force alone to solve a problem that was as much political as it was military. All but ignoring the transcendent issues of pacification and governmental effectiveness, the Americans waged war in a manner that more often than not seriously impeded the feeble efforts that were being made to restore tranquility and maintain order in the countryside. Surely, no great degree of sensitivity is required to see that destroying an Asian peasant's ancestral home, driving him off his land, and leaving him to the tender mercies of inept and rapacious bureaucrats is hardly the most efficacious way of "winning his heart and mind." Sad proof of this contention is to be found in the stark truth that at the end of a ten-year period, during which the Armed Forces of the United States won every battle they fought, pacification and governmental effectiveness were no further along than they had been at the beginning.
In a way it would be comforting to maintain, as Fitzgerald and other commentators do, that an unbridgeable culture gap foreordained the disaster. However, the fact of the matter is that the failure stemmed from two deficiencies that common sense and proper education could have prevented. On the one hand, presentmindedness blinded Americans to the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary streams flowing deep through their own past, thereby depriving them of the historical perspective needed to place the modern-day, Vietnamese counterparts of those streams in proper context. How ironic that twentieth-century Americans felt obliged to coin the ugly phrase "counterinsurgency!" How incredible that military educators could construct courses to prepare American officers for this so-called "new" form of war without once calling to mind Francis Marion, Tecumseh, Osceola, or Aguinaldo!
On the other hand, cultural myopia distorted the American perception of the way the Vietnamese viewed themselves. One fatuous outgrowth of this defect was our ceaseless demand for increasing participatory democracy in a nation fractionalized by anarchy. Another was the childish assumption that those Vietnamese who related well to Americans were the best men to command their armies and head their government and, further, that they were recognized as such by their compatriots. Reminiscent of the manner in which agents of the United States government had once appointed Indian chiefs, the Americans in Vietnam sustained those native functionaries who spoke good English and drank martinis, meanwhile overlooking honest, dedicated patriots who may have lacked these accomplishments but who, given the chance, might have unified the country and expelled the Communists.
In Keeping with the keynote of this article, it seems appropriate to close with an anecdote epitomizing American ignorance. On a visit to Saigon in the early days of our intervention, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara gave a speech honoring General Khan, the current winner of the "coup sweepstakes." Lifting the general's arm in the boxer's salute, the Secretary proclaimed in English, "Here is the little guy who is going to win this war!" Then, carried away by the well-rehearsed cheers of the crowd, McNamara shouted, "Long live Vietnam!" in what he thought was the indigenous tongue. But the Secretary, as unversed in the language as in Vietnamese politics, missed a couple of tonal inflections and actually bellowed, "The southern duck wants to lie down." Had the Communists not destroyed the allied war memorial when they overran Saigon, they could have inscribed McNamara's malapropism at the base. It would have made an eloquent epitaph for the American experience.
Colonel James L. Morrison, Jr., USA (Ret) (Ph.D., Columbia University) is an associate professor of American History at York College of Pennsylvania. He has taught history at the U.S. Military Academy and served as an adviser with the 22nd Infantry Division, Army of Republic of Vietnam. Colonel Morrison is editor of The Memoirs of Henry Heth (Green-wood Press, 1974) and a previous contributor to the Review and other military and historical journals.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.