Editor’s Note: This is the fourth installment of “A Vicious Entanglement,” a series by Jon Askonas on The Vietnam War, a new documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Read the first three installments: “Elusive Responsibility for the Vietnam War,” “Idealism Chastened in Vietnam,” and “The Asymmetries of Vietnam.”
There’s a wonderfully absurd moment in “The River Styx (January 1964-December 1965),” the third installment in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War, that encapsulates the illusions American forces in the early stages of the conflict had about what the war would be like. U.S. troops have arrived in force to protect ongoing American bombing operations, support the Republic of South Vietnam, and destroy North Vietnamese forces operating south of the border. Prior to LBJ’s decision to escalate involvement on the ground, American forces in the region had been specially trained with these kinds of missions in mind: Green Berets, CIA officers, and aid workers. But after escalation, the bulk of American troops were increasingly conventional forces tasked with securing the countryside, fighting the North Vietnamese Army, and conducting a counter-insurgency campaign against the Viet Cong.
And so, at 1:22:55, we are treated to a surreal scene. A battalion commander in the 1st Cavalry Division stands before a crowd of several hundred Vietnamese peasants, and tells them that they are going to see a demonstration of American strength, to “show you how much we are able to protect you.” Part of the 1st Cav Marching Band (complete with trombones and a drum major) strikes up a merry tune as an Air Force fighter-bomber drops ordnance on Viet Cong positions in a nearby valley. The smoke plume from the bombs forms the backdrop for band’s maneuvers. The scene tells us that the commander has no idea how vicious and tangled the war in front of them will be, or how many American and Vietnamese lives will be lost. At the beginning of 1965, 416 American servicemen had died in Vietnam. 57,804 deaths were still to come, almost ten percent of them in the 1st Cav. What did American leaders fail to understand about the enemy’s strategy that led them to such optimism?
In 1965, the leaders of the 1st Cav were not, of course, alone in their rosy outlook. Despite quiet reservations scattered within the American government, senior U.S. political and military leadership were planning for a short war. The documentarians interview a number of soldiers and journalists heading to Vietnam in 1965 who worry the war will be over by the time they get there. The U.S. Army adopted abbreviated command tours for junior officers (six months in the field, and six months on staff) in order to generate as much combat experience in the force as possible for the ongoing Cold War.
On paper, this optimism was justified. Gen. William Westmoreland’s plan of victory had two elements, and both seemed to be going well. The “other war” of pacification and counter-insurgency had been going on for some time, consisting of conducting a population-centric security and development campaign, fighting an intelligence war on Viet Cong operations and building up the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). South Vietnamese military and political capacity was steadily increasing, and economic and political development efforts seemed to be progressing according to all of the metrics the American command was measuring.
But it was impossible to win a “hearts and minds” campaign, to convince the populace to support or accept as inevitable the South Vietnamese government, without providing security. The Viet Cong were a dug-in insurgency with a robust physical and organizational infrastructure supported by the North Vietnamese government. They were operating with increasing boldness, acting as much as a jungle-bound guerrilla army as a political insurgency. That’s where what was later called the “big unit war” came in. Americans would act as a backstop for ARVN forces and operate independently to find, fix and finish Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army units, disrupt North Vietnamese supply chains, and effectively allow the “other war” to proceed apace. Westmoreland’s confidence came from the fact that the North Vietnamese were increasingly engaging in big unit actions targeting the ARVN (partially in hopes of causing the regime to fall before American escalation). It seemed unlikely that the North could prevail in the face of massive losses in the “big unit war” that the U.S. Army liked to fight.
In retrospect, the “Two Wars” strategy has come in for a lot of grief. Westmoreland’s successor Creighton Abrams later rebranded it as a unified “one war effort,” in a typical example of a new commander espousing a big new idea to distinguish himself from his “lackluster” predecessor. Yet Westmoreland’s assessment of the “other war” was informed by classical counterinsurgency doctrine, and he viewed the “big unit war” as a necessary adjunct to winning the primary political war. In his understanding of counter-insurgency strategy, Westmoreland, like most of the command staff and its civilian counterparts, was thoroughly orthodox. American Army officers were reading widely on insurgencies and guerrilla wars, including from a 1963 field manual. Mao, Vo Nguyen Giap, and Truong Chinh were required reading at West Point in 1962. Even counter-insurgency guru David Galula himself was lecturing at RAND and Harvard up until his 1967 death, and documentary evidence suggests he was read by the leaders of American counterinsurgency efforts in Vietnam. The Army at the time would have agreed with the notion, oft-repeated during the Iraq War, that “while causes change regularly, the fundamentals of insurgent strategy remain relatively constant.”
So the Army in 1965 had good doctrine on how to fight a counter-insurgency and how to fight a conventional war in the jungle and mountains. In separating the effort into “two wars”, Westmoreland was recognizing that the set of tactics and operational requirements appropriate for conventional, jungle warfare were inappropriate for counter-insurgency. But good doctrine does not automatically make good strategy, and the United States never quite figured out how the military and political elements fit together in North Vietnamese strategy, or how to counter it.
The problem was that the North Vietnamese, very inconveniently, did not want to use the standard insurgency playbook. They did not want to pursue a conventional insurgency strategy (or, more precisely, they had pursued one up through about 1965 and had to alter their approach in light of American intervention). As we begin to see in this episode, besides a gradual and graduating campaign of violence aimed at dividing the population, the North Vietnamese are also providing men and materiel to regular and guerilla units in the South, as well as undermining and destroying ARVN capabilities leading towards a general offensive (conventional and unconventional) concentrating on cities. This, in turn, was to lead to a popular general uprising that would end the war.
It was not necessarily a good strategy: In 1968 it ended twice in military disaster, as did the more conventional version of it in 1972. But it’s the strategy the North Vietnamese chose, based on their own strategic aims and constraints, not some theoretical conception of war or insurgency. They also tinkered with their strategy repeatedly. Ironically, a great deal of adaptation was induced by American efforts. Pressure on senior Viet Cong leadership led to increasing decentralization and local adaptation in Viet Cong units. American tactical superiority forced the North back towards guerilla tactics and insurgency and, after 1968, away from “General Offensive, General Uprising.”
Americans were partially victims of their own close study of theory. Giap, who was widely read by American analysts trying to understand North Vietnamese strategy, was sidelined by Le Duan throughout much of the war. The North Vietnamese generally controlled the tempo not because they had a better overarching strategy or because the Americans lacked a secret sauce (like an invasion of Laos or a focus on counter-insurgency) but because the North adopted (or was forced to adopt) a variegated and flexible strategy that responded to local conditions. This strategy was, frankly, bewildering to anyone trying to understand the war as a united effort with a single best approach. North Vietnamese notions of how to achieve victory were more flexible than America’s. The United States was caught by surprise time and again because the North was not fighting the war in the way it had expected.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that it’s necessarily false to assert that insurgency strategy remains stable over time. It’s more that, as Lucas Milevski has recently pointed out, wars have ways of escaping the categories we place them in. The most astute observers constantly worried about American difficulties bridging the gap between the realities on the ground in Vietnam and the concepts and processes the United States was using to make sense of the war. Senior civilian and military leadership wrestled with how to fight a “war without fronts” and a “mosaic war”. But the American national security apparatus kept muddling through, never quite coming to grips with a war whose conduct, tactics, and strategies varied widely geographically and over time.
In their defense, one of the “lessons” of Vietnam is that there is no tactical, operational, or strategic checklist that a military leader can run down to deliver victory. Without a theory of victory derived from the dynamics of the conflict itself, in all its messy complexity, it is impossible to tell whether the “progress” you’re measuring is real or simply a reflection of a change in the enemy’s strategy. One of the most pernicious myths of Vietnam was that bad leadership, bad doctrine, bad organizations, or bad processes caused defeat. The more closely you examine the actual history of the war, the more you are impressed by the intelligence, dedication, and resourcefulness of the American leadership in Vietnam (in Washington is another story). But that wasn’t enough, without better ways of making sense of a bewildering battlefield and an enemy who understood every aspect of the conflict in his bones. As the American military of today looks towards confrontations with near-peer competitors who are happy to blend political, military, economic, and ideological warfare, the experience of Vietnam should leave it sober and circumspect about what it will take to succeed.
Jon Askonas is a predoctoral fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas-Austin and a DPhil candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford. His current research addresses the impact US Army policies in Vietnam had on knowledge production, learning on the ground, and battlefield effectiveness.
Image: U.S. Army