- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at email@example.com.
For a symposium put on recently by FPRI, I drew up a list of questions I have about the Vietnam War. Here they are:
- How much new information about the war is coming out? Is there more to come? How is it changing what we thought we knew? There has been a lot out of North Vietnam over the last 20 years. So far, as one person at the symposium said, it is as if our histories of the war were written by Custer.
- Second, to what extent do these new revelations challenge our basic assumptions about the war? For example, we often used firepower lavishly in Vietnam. But what do enemy accounts and documents tell us about our use of firepower? How much empty jungle did we kill? How many civilians did we turn against us?
- That leads to a broader question. There is an assumption that for much of the war, we were good tactically. Were we?
- When Westmoreland said "counterinsurgency," what did he mean? He said he meant "firepower." I see some historians these days waving memoranda they’ve found saying Westy wanted COIN, and assume he didn’t mean that. Such an approach strikes me as a bit lacking in skepticism. Here’s a surprise: Government documents do not always reflect the truth, or even what the author really meant. Officials sometimes have other purposes — to set up a straw man, to record a dissent, to show they are complying when they really are not, or perhaps to cover someone’s butt. Just as oral histories have problems, so do smoking gun documents.
- Generally, can we learn more about what worked and what didn’t? I think Mark Moyar is on to something. I was struck, for example, that the Vietnamese army’s official history of the war concedes that the strategy of the imperialists and the puppets worked very well in 1968 and 1969. Rice taxes on the peasants were cut off, Viet Cong lived near starvation, and recruiting went way down. Why were we unable to take better advantage of those developments? So the other shoe for me is: How bad were U.S. forces in that period? And how inept were some commanders in the field that they could not push on that open door?
- Related: Were enemy forces just lying low in 1969 and 1970, waiting for the politics of the thing to work out?
Finally, some other, broader questions:
- Wade Markel wrote that in Vietnam, we developed "an Army that avoided error rather than exploited opportunity." Is that correct? If so, how and when did it happen?
- Was Vietnam a flawed strategy or poor operational execution? Or both?
- Last question: Is the military today telling itself a tale similar to the one it told itself after the Vietnam War, that basically it did everything right but the civilians screwed it up?