Best Defense

‘Vietnam’ Episode 3: Casting the die

Episode 3 forgets how the U.S. neglected greater cooperation with South Vietnam at great cost.

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By Charles A. Krohn
Best Defense war TV critic

By the end of 1964 the North Vietnamese are so triumphant, South Vietnam so poorly led, the Americans so confused, the inevitable end appears around the corner. Perhaps now, but it wasn’t the case then. Just the reverse.

Through my eyes, or the eyes of others who prepared to deploy to Vietnam in January 1967, we were unstoppable. I’m not saying that’s the way it was, but that’s what we believed and how we felt in the 1st Cavalry Division.

Much of our optimism was inspired by our 1965 success in the Ia Drang Valley against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars. As this episode reports, our casualties were surprisingly high but the battle ended with us holding the high ground, our enemies in retreat. The 1:10 body count in our favor was decisive proof, especially by the bean-counters in Robert McNamara Pentagon.

What we didn’t see or predict were the consequences of our taking over the war from Saigon, instructing the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) to get out of the way so we could end the war quickly without having to bother too much with allied cooperation. We instructed the ARVN to protect the civilians in cities and hamlets while we did the serious fighting at the borders before handing their country back to them. This may not be precisely true in all cases, but it’s close enough.

The message missing in Episode 3 is that the Saigon government lost momentum after we pulled out in 1973, and proved unable to reconstitute itself. Meanwhile, the North was battle-tested, well equipped and full of steam. We didn’t predict that when we took over the war in 1966.

Looking back, there are a couple of early events that didn’t bode well for South Vietnam — the assassination of Diem, including the leadership vacuum that followed, and our victory at Ia Drang where the wrong conclusions were drawn — that we could win a war of attrition, although we didn’t call it that then.

While I don’t find anything particularly offensive in this episode, it does seem to make an epiphany out of every ARVN shortcoming and, alternatively, every Viet Cong/NVA success. Shakespeare could get away with this, but not storytellers aiming at capturing history in a scholarly sense.

Shakespeare is not a random reference. I was reminded of the bard during each appearance of Joe Galloway, the UPI reporter who collaborated with Hal Moore in We Were Soldiers Once and Young. Galloway doesn’t talk, he emotes. We are casual friends and I hope he reads this in the spirit I’m trying to convey. Besides, we both worked for UPI. At the time of Ia Drang I was working in the Chicago bureau, trying my hardest to get UPI to send me to Vietnam. They didn’t, so when the Army asked me if I wanted to return to active duty as the PAO of the 1st Cavalry Division, I accepted. I figured going to Vietnam couldn’t be that much worse or different from the Chicago riots I was covering from deep inside the South Side.

LTC Charles A. Krohn, U.S. Army (ret.), is the author of The Lost Battalion of Tet, and a former deputy chief of public affairs both of the Army and the American Battle Monuments Commission. He is a man about Panama City Beach, Florida.

Photo credit: United States Army

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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