Dual Book Review on the American Army's Experience in Vietnam (by me)
Revisiting Counterinsurgency and the Vietnam War
The study of low-intensity warfare is back in vogue, partly because of the protracted American-led counter-insurgency efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. It would therefore be prudent to undertake a serious analysis of the American effort in Vietnam. The lessons from Vietnam are unfortunately often contentious, and the resultant policy prescriptions vary significantly depending on the analyst.
Controversy is not new to American military history; the Korean conflict, for example, has undergone numerous revisions. Viewed through the prism of historical overwhelming American military success, it was generally first considered a defeat. Subsequent reconsiderations, and the experience of Vietnam, contributed to a common reevaluation and many historians now see it as a successful limited war.
The historical debate over Vietnam has also been polemical. If defeat is an orphan, then the Vietnam War, in which a third world peasant society defeated a technologically savvy and physically imposing superpower, is a truly lonely child. Many interpretations of Vietnam reflected the individual and institutional temptation to pass the buck. Blame for the defeat has been placed on various sources, including the military, McNamara’s Whiz Kids, civilian politicians, hippies, the media, the South Vietnamese Army, or even sheer inevitability.
This difference in analysis was apparent when reading concurrently Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr.’s The Army and Vietnam and Harry G. Summers, Jr.’s On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War. Both books undertook to explain why America lost in Vietnam, and suggest diametrically different veins of policy proposal.
Krepinevich primarily addressed the Army’s failure to prepare for, or execute proper counterinsurgency [COIN] methods. Summers discussed what he labeled the environment in which that war was waged. Where Summers addressed military strategy, he lamented the harmful effects of civilian-pushed counterinsurgency dogma and geographical limitations imposed by the politicians. Summers made compelling arguments, but he ultimately missed the mark. The Army’s adoption of his line of thought prevented a more useful examination of its COIN approach in Vietnam.
Summer’s On Strategy used Karl von Clausewitz’s seminal work On War to portray an intricate web of mostly political and civilian failures that crippled an otherwise successful military effort into an ineffective strategy. The strategy was then executed by a piqued, but irresponsibly compliant military leadership. The upshot was a string of tactical and operational successes on the battlefield that floundered for lack of strategic exploitation.
Firstly, the Johnson Administration and limited war theorists, neglected to mobilize the American people, fearing that it would upset domestic reformation, and unleash uncontrollable national passions. The military failed to correct its civilian leadership with judgment, derived through its own experiences in Korea, that war could not be fought without the passion and full commitment of the American people.
Summers contended that a formal declaration of war should have been attained from Congress, as representative of the people. This would have “both insured public support at the outset, and created legal sanctions against dealing with the enemy, thereby creating impediments to public dissent” (Summers 14). Instead, the declaration was seen as a useless piece of paper, rather than the result of historical experience. This failure created a strategic vulnerability between the American people and the war effort, one that the North Vietnamese successfully exploited.
Furthermore, during the Kennedy administration civilian strategists had permeated the military establishment with a disastrous propagation of counter-insurgency doctrine. “Counter-insurgency became not so much the Army’s doctrine as the Army’s dogma, and stultified military strategic thinking for the next decade” (Summers 67).
Engrossed in this dogma, the Army wasted its resources fighting against southern guerrillas - the enemy’s secondary effort, and nation building exercises for which it was not prepared. Moreover, in a display of moral and political arrogance, the US intervened in the South Vietnamese political process to force reforms for which the country was not ready. Instead, Summers argued the US should have allowed the Republic of Vietnam [RVN] to handle its own internal affairs, allowing the Army to focus its efforts against the North’s conventional forces, which were the true threat to the RVN’s independence.
Fundamentally, Summers affirmed, Vietnam was not a failure of conventional methods, for “these conventional tactics were militarily successful in destroying guerrilla forces” (Summers 83). Owing to a misplaced faith in COIN doctrine and harmful geographical political constraints, however, the US lost track of its strategic objectives, and therefore forfeited its victories on the battlefield.
In The Army and Vietnam, Krepinevich attacked Summers’ assertion that the Army’s focus on counter-insurgency prevented a viable strategy. He argued convincingly that the Army’s commitment to counterinsurgency was in fact mostly cosmetic and did not alter its basic approach to the Vietnam War. Krepinevich said Kennedy’s attempt to push counterinsurgency doctrine could be described as a “revolution that failed,” for “the Army could not be forced to adopt his concern for counterinsurgency” (Summers 31). The Army’s rejection stemmed from its investment in what Krepinevich called the Army “Concept.”
The Concept described the Army’s perception of how its wars ought to be waged, and was derived from an organizational history that focused primarily on the Army’s big war experiences. It focused on conventional war, and the use of unlimited firepower to minimize casualties. According to the Army’s thinking, “there was scant difference between limited war and insurgency,” and attempts to make a distinction risked detracting from readiness for limited or general war (Summers 43). Most important was a potential war against the Soviets in Europe.
This led to an approach to Vietnam that was in many ways the antithesis of a successful counterinsurgency effort based upon “a primary support system anchored on the population” (Krepinevich 9). For instance, instead of designing a South Vietnamese army with a light force structure for internal defense, the Military Assistance Advisory group [MAAG] created a Korea-style force that looked, thought, and acted like the US Army. This handicapped the Army of the Republic of Vietnam [ARVN] throughout the war. Moreover, after the arrival of the first American divisions, the war was increasingly assumed by American forces, to the growing dependency of the ARVN. It also put a low-emphasis on the South’s Regional Force and Provincial Force militias, localized units most suited to protecting the people and pacifying the populated areas.
A mid-intensity war of attrition, supported by the lavish use of firepower killed many of the enemy, but guaranteed the replenishment of its ranks by alienating the rural South Vietnamese citizens. Moreover, large scale operations diverted substantial friendly troops away from providing security to the population. This “was exactly what the insurgents wanted.”
Summers’ claim that an obsession with a secondary guerilla effort doomed the South was therefore incorrect, because our strategy emphasized precisely the opposite. By blaming North Vietnam for the guerillas’ successes the Army failed to address the internal causes for the insurgency, in particular the decrepit state of the South Vietnamese government. According to Krepinevich, the Viet Cong was self-sufficient and not dependent on North Vietnamese assistance.
Contrary to Summer’s contentions that civilians dictated military strategy, Army leaders crafted attritional search and destroy tactics, and thereafter insisted they were working. The Army was given a free hand to escalate violence within the RVN. In doing so, it swept aside the doubts of its civilian leadership, Marines, British advisors, and many of its own lower-level officers and advisors, who saw firsthand the debilitating effects of the American tactics.
The rare attempts to operationalize COIN doctrine, such as the ill-fated Strategic Hamlets program, were usually badly implemented. Those attempts that worked, such as the Civilian Irregular Defense Groups [CIDG], were often the product of organizations such as the CIA, institutions not hostage to the Army’s “Concept.” Consequentially, they were seen as threats to the Army’s strategic monopoly, and hastily brought under its control wherever possible, usually to the detriment of the operations in question.
According to Krepinevich, Vietnam was essentially a failure of army strategy on the battlefield. Krepinevich considered Summers’ tactical and operational “successes” in killing the enemy, as counterproductive. He asserted that the army focused on destroying the enemy units, without alleviating the conditions that allowed their recruitment, the vulnerability and political grievances of the South Vietnamese citizenry. Summers was primarily concerned with the parameters within which the Army went to war, namely the lack of political mobilization and the geographical limitations. Krepinevich instead blamed the Army’s failure to apply COIN tactics and ultimately, his was a more constructive approach.
Summers elucidated many of the causes for the gradual loss of American support for the war effort in Vietnam. He failed, however, to explain why the Army did not make more effective use of the amount of time it was given, both to advise the South Vietnamese and fight its own war.
Nonetheless, his contention that civilian leadership erred by attempting to prosecute the Vietnam War “on the cheap,” is most likely correct. It is also, in this author’s opinion, a mistake that our leadership continues to do today in Iraq and the wider “war on Terror.” Defense spending today is still relatively modest in relation to GDP, and the Army is roughly as large as it was on September 10th, 2001.
On the other hand, in spite of the potential benefits of a declaration of war, it is unclear that it was truly necessary. As Max Boot has noted, historically, “declarations of war have been the exception, not the norm, when the U.S. committed its armed forces to combat overseas” (Boot 291). Summers treated dissent as an aberration. To an extent, however, the unanimity of World War II was the aberration. In the American system, dissent is generally a factor, and in our politically contentious times, it will remain prominent.
Also prominent will be problems with the press. In 1944 the military could appeal to press patriotism and the national interest to prevent leaks and critical coverage. The rise of multinational press corps and the 24 hour news cycle significantly diminishes the strength of these appeals. News organizations such as Al Jazeera are arguably more supportive of the enemy than US policy, and such cannot be counted on cooperating at all.
Amidst such trends, Summers’ advice not to sugarcoat warfare is perhaps perceptive (Summers 37). With news access directly to the battlefield, and all its tragedies, there will be no more “splendid little wars.” Civilian casualties, refugees, and enemy agents are no longer merely distant statistics and empty suits; they can be on the average American’s TV at a moment’s notice. How to square these images with the historic American view of war as idealistic crusades for peace and justice is unclear, for these idealistic goals often run crosscurrent with the extraordinarily messy realities of war.
A reduced emphasis on firepower during counterinsurgency could be helpful. Additionally, Americans will probably never fight as brutally as their enemies. Nonetheless, there is a limit below which wars cannot be sanitized, lest they be prolonged and result in failure. This suggests that the propaganda war should be more focused on the ends of American policy, rather than its means. How we fight is ultimately less important than what we are fighting for. Here, an emphasis on the fact that we fought World War II brutally when circumstances required it, yet did not lose our national soul, might be effective.
The military should also prepare itself for wars fought without public mobilization, for its current professional nature tends to lend itself to disconnectedness between a mobilized Army and a demobilized people. Arguably it is in part this ability to wage war in such a manner which provides much of a professional army’s attractiveness to politicians in the first place.
As an analysis, The Army in Vietnam’s best quality is its ability to set aside the reasons for the bottoming out of support for the war after the Tet Offensive It asked why the Army failed to make better use of its long involvement prior. Vietnam did not begin as an unpopular war. It only became unpopular after the Army’s strategy seemed bankrupt both to the public and its civilian leadership. The Tet Offensive caused the complete fallout of civilian backing for the Army’s attritional strategy. This finally brought leadership to the top who truly believed in integrating the war on the battlefield with the “other war” for the political support of rural South Vietnam.
Nevertheless, in spite of General Creighton Abrams reformist views, Krepinevich asserted that the long term Army commitment to the “Concept” proved too well entrenched. It should be pointed out, however, that there is revisionist scholarship, particularly Lewis Sorley’s A Better War, that suggests that Vietnamization, though late and rushed, could have succeeded and Abrams was more effective than Krepinevich suggested. Furthermore, Krepinevich omitted the major changes that occurred in South Vietnam’s position after Tet.
Certainly, the corrupt and vapid South Vietnamese government was a difficult tool with which to mobilize support. Political reformation could have nipped the insurgency in the bud in the 1950s or early 1960s. Nonetheless, by the end of American involvement immediate political reformation might not have been so critical.
The corruptness and brutality of Sygman Rhee’s government in Korea surpassed the RVN, and yet the South Korean government still won a conventional war in 1950, defeated a limited insurgency in 1968, and survived continued disgruntlement towards autocratic rule until its democratization in the late 1980s. The lesson here is that people will rally behind even a decrepit regime given an awful enough alternative.
There is evidence to suggest that the well-publicized [in Vietnam] massacres in Hue, and the increasing predominance of the North over the effort in South Vietnam, prompted a similar rallying of non-Communists to the South Vietnamese government’s colors. To quote Lewis Sorley, an ARVN with over a million men under arms and “four million members of the People's Self-Defense Force, armed with some 600,000 weapons, represented no threat to the government that had armed them; instead they constituted an overt commitment to that government in opposition to the enemy” (Sorley 217). Moreover, these numbers do not include the families of the men, nor the civilian participation in the government itself. They suggest a population with a stake in its government.
Summers cited evidence that in 1970, 80% of what was known as the VC actually consisted of NVA cadres (Summers 82). Although this exact statistic may be disputed, it is widely accepted that the effort increasingly took the image of a low-intensity Northern invasion, rather than an indigenous insurgency. This culminated in two conventional invasions that grew almost entirely out of the NVA in North Vietnam.
Krepinevich correctly noted note that by 1964, a largely indigenous VC was beating the ARVN without significant northern assistance. This was not true after Tet, however, when the Viet Cong was no longer a force independent of North Vietnam’s effort. Years of undercover infrastructure work and grooming of Southern Vietnamese cadres were thrown away, and replaced increasingly by northern infiltrators. Whether this was mere coincidence or actually intended by the North Vietnamese leadership is immaterial, but after Tet the insurgency in the South was probably dependent on North Vietnamese assistance, and the threat had changed from an internal to an external origin.
No matter the origin of the insurgency, COIN was still the proper strategy to enable the population to defend and police itself from what could now be portrayed as northern imperialism. However, Krepinevich’s description of the VC as self-sufficient was no longer correct. Within this context, Summers’ suggestions become more helpful, even if they would not replace COIN as the primary effort. In the face of external sanctuaries, it was likely that a proper COIN effort would require efforts towards both the interior and exterior.
Direct invasion of North Vietnam was always risky. We now know from post-Cold War evidence that Mao probably would have intervened in such an event, at least until the Nixonian Sino-American rapprochement. The Laotian and Cambodian sanctuaries were another story, and it is probably correct to call them a “self-inflicted wound,” as Summers does (Summers 95).
The Johnson Administration mistakenly allowed the North Vietnamese presence in these countries to be normalized in international and domestic opinion, a severe political defeat. The belated result was a half-hearted Cambodian Incursion that was prematurely terminated due to an emotive political backlash. This is something to consider today, when we are facing insurgents that sometime infiltrate into Iraq and Afghanistan from neighboring countries.
The bombing halts and geographical constraints were also probably self-defeating, and resulted from the Johnson Administration’s increasing conviction that since the war seemed un-winnable, a negotiated settlement preserving the South was necessary. Setting aside the question of whether the war was winnable, we failed to understand our enemy. Negotiation points were essentially worthless against an enemy who would accept nothing less than total victory.
General strategic thought and methods, such as gradual escalation, were misapplied to a local situation which we did not fully understand. From the very beginning, we thought that we could bring the enemy to accept something less than total victory. Our efforts took the form of carrots such as economic aid, or sticks such as the restricted Rolling Thunder bomber raids. All were feckless owing to the nature of our enemy. Here, the lesson for today is that American strategy and forces must be tailored specifically for the contingency in question, and to turn a quote, generals cannot be mere generalists.
According to John Nagl, On Strategy “quickly became the U.S. Army’s approved version of why it lost the Vietnam War.” He noted Summers’ argument that it neglected conventional strategy for counterinsurgency “was just the message the Army wanted to hear as it refocused attention on European style conventional war fighting in the 1970s and 1980s” (Nagl 206). As a result, it did not absorb the lessons of the failed counterinsurgency effort in Vietnam. Even many who did see the need for proper COIN tactics decided that for all the Army’s assets and skills, it just was not built for such operations, and therefore should not even try.
The apotheosis of these sentiments was the Powell/Weinberger Doctrine which implied that if the Army could not and did not want to fight such a war, it would declare so ahead of time. The result was a declaration that the Army should never be placed into the harmful environment that Summers said plagued its efforts in Vietnam. The unfortunate result was that the Army did not learn its lesson after Vietnam.
Instead of truly taking to heart the lesson that it needed to learn how to fight outside of its box, it reacted by further strengthening the limits of the box. The Weinberger/Powell doctrine is a nice wish list, but it spite of American power it is never certain that the United States will decide the conditions under which it goes to war. How this mentality can harm American efforts is evident in the following example.
It is well known that post-Vietnam Army reforms followed the spirit of Summers’ writings by placing vital war-making capabilities within the reserves. This was based on the theory that mobilizing the reserves would require the political mobilization of the American people in cases of wartime. Although this seems a reasonable desire, the Army truly should not dictate the circumstances under which it would be called to fight, even indirectly. This is the prerogative of its civilian leadership, even if it can and does sometimes act unwisely.
The result of this force restructuring was that during the 1990s the reserves were rotated in and out of odd places throughout the world, forced to take part in what were really, minor efforts in places such as Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia. This caused burn out in some vital reserve components even before they were needed for the war on terror. This was the result of an institution prepared to fight the wars that it wanted to fight, rather than the wars it might have to fight.
The Army may have to fight without international support, without the total commitment of the American people, and without an obvious exit strategy. It may lack any number of the presupposed conditions of the Powell/Weinberger Doctrine. Yet it may still be a necessary war, and it is the Army’s duty to fight that war to best of its ability. Today we are relearning the COIN lessons of Vietnam, because after three decades of pretending otherwise, we have again realized, to quote Leon Trotsky, that while we might not be interested in counterinsurgency warfare, our superiority on the conventional battlefield guarantees that counterinsurgency warfare is interested in us. We had better be ready for it.
1. Krepinevich Jr., Andrew F. The Army and Vietnam. (The Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 1986).
2. Summers Jr., Harry G. On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War. (Presidio Press: Novato, 1982).
3. Boot, Max. The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. (Basic Books: New York, 2003).
4. Nagl, John A. Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2005).
5. Sorley, Lewis. A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam (Harcourt, Inc.: 2000).