Best Defense

Some reflections on the Vietnam War after visiting where my battalion was cut off and surrounded near Hue during Tet ’68

By Charles Krohn Best Defense department of Vietnam War analysis I found the place where we buried 11 U.S. soldiers in February 1968, improving chances of my battalion escaping encirclement undetected. Despite expectations of some traumatic flashbacks, I found the experience more provocative than distressful. I thought about our dead soldiers and former comrades, but my sorrow hasn’t ...

U.S. Army
U.S. Army

By Charles Krohn

Best Defense department of Vietnam War analysis

I found the place where we buried 11 U.S. soldiers in February 1968, improving chances of my battalion escaping encirclement undetected. Despite expectations of some traumatic flashbacks, I found the experience more provocative than distressful.

I thought about our dead soldiers and former comrades, but my sorrow hasn’t changed from then until now. Time and distance seem irrelevant.

Reflecting later at the hotel in Hue with the Red Flag flying in the background from the Citadel, I thought about how much the Vietnam I knew during Tet ’68 changed physically. Maybe it changed other ways as well, or perhaps I was too unsophisticated then to see the Vietnamese as I do now. One thing’s for sure: The nuances have changed completely. Not only are there no Americans on the roads, in the air or in the fields, doing what Americans do, the Vietnamese seem perfectly in control of their own destinies. Maybe they were then too, but we were too driven to notice. Accomplishing the mission was everything.

This makes me think about the American Way of War — maybe best expressed as "you move over, we’re taking over." Despite our good intentions, sometimes I think our various invasions are unwise, unproductive, and indecisive. If we had provided material assistance, I suspect the South Vietnamese would have made a good showing of themselves without our fighting the fight for them or looking over their shoulder to make sure they were following our doctrine, rather than their indigenous impulses.

Portraying the Ia Drang fight as a success for our side and an NVA failure may be one of the greatest mistakes in the history of warfare. But it set the pace, for better or worse. Westmoreland was wrong about pinning his hopes for victory on body counts and attrition, because the end result was to strengthen the North Vietnamese while sapping the strength of our allies in the South. Simply put, I ride with Sorley when he makes the argument that Westy’s strategy dragged us backward in time. The only thing to celebrate about the battle at Ia Drang was valor.

Given Westmoreland’s strategy, our response to Tet ’68 was predictable, and perhaps the choices were few, but the die was already cast.

Even now we are trying to influence outcomes in Afghanistan by sending in more trainers. Is this effective or does Afghanistan merely accept our presence to leverage the resources we provide in hopes of stabilizing Karzai’s government in Kabul? 

Looking back, I think the way we entered the Vietnam War was horribly flawed by hubris, perhaps a defining American quality, and perhaps connected to notions of exceptionalism. Surely the way Ambassador Bremer tried to manage the fiasco in Iraq adds weight to this argument. 

Perhaps we invaded Iraq with an insufficient force because size does matter when one country invades another, especially with plans to rebuild the nation. But there’s something to be said for objectivity and proportionality after the shock of invasion fades.

Looking around me now, I see the Vietnamese building their country with energy unparalleled in my experience. I doubt Ho Chi Minh had any influence over the destiny of the country, other than to unite it. My private wish is that I had the historical depth to compare the final outcome of our civil war with theirs. 

Charles A. Krohn is the author of The Lost Battalion of Tet. Now retired to Panama City Beach, Florida, he served in Iraq in 2003-2004 as public affairs adviser to the director of the Infrastructure Reconstruction Program, and later as public affairs officer for the American Battle Monuments Commission.

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. Twitter: @tomricks1

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