Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Thinking more about Vietnam: Wars are neither won nor lost by strategy alone

By Col. Gregory Daddis, USA Best Defense guest respondent For the past six months, the Vietnam War has been a popular topic among The Best Defense readers. In October 2011, Lewis Sorley identified ten reasons why General William Westmoreland near single-handedly lost the war during his tenure as the MACV commander between 1964 and 1968. ...

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By Col. Gregory Daddis, USA

Best Defense guest respondent

For the past six months, the Vietnam War has been a popular topic among The Best Defense readers. In October 2011, Lewis Sorley identified ten reasons why General William Westmoreland near single-handedly lost the war during his tenure as the MACV commander between 1964 and 1968. In January 2012, retired Lieutenant General John H. Cushman argued that he had solved the knotty problem of pacification as early as 1964, yet the unfortunately timed American escalation in 1965 prevailed over his revelations. More recently, Charles A. Krohn has offered a fascinating traveler's account of a veteran retracing his steps across the 1968 Hue battlefields. Given the inescapable comparisons between our nation's current struggles in Afghanistan, it seems unsurprising that Vietnam has garnered so much interest as of late.

By Col. Gregory Daddis, USA

Best Defense guest respondent

For the past six months, the Vietnam War has been a popular topic among The Best Defense readers. In October 2011, Lewis Sorley identified ten reasons why General William Westmoreland near single-handedly lost the war during his tenure as the MACV commander between 1964 and 1968. In January 2012, retired Lieutenant General John H. Cushman argued that he had solved the knotty problem of pacification as early as 1964, yet the unfortunately timed American escalation in 1965 prevailed over his revelations. More recently, Charles A. Krohn has offered a fascinating traveler’s account of a veteran retracing his steps across the 1968 Hue battlefields. Given the inescapable comparisons between our nation’s current struggles in Afghanistan, it seems unsurprising that Vietnam has garnered so much interest as of late.

The unfortunate thread interwoven through nearly all of these accounts is the near universal oversimplification of American strategy in Vietnam. Guest columnists, along with many commentators, invariably have applied well-worn clichés like "search-and-destroy," "big unit war," and most notoriously "attrition" to explain Westmoreland’s concept of operations for the employment of military force in South Vietnam. At the risk of tilting at windmills, I would like to suggest that such aphorisms are unsuited for a deeper understanding of what irrefutably was a much more intricate war. If we are going to benefit collectively from the American experience in Vietnam, it is time to unhinge ourselves from all too convenient tropes which hinder critical analysis of historical events. This appeal is hardly novel.

In August 1965, roughly three months before the Ia Drang battles of which Mr. Krohn spoke, The New York Times ran a page one story titled "The Undefinable War." Reporting from Saigon, correspondent James Reston argued that the war in Vietnam was "so alien to American experiences" that it defied "precise definition and [was] almost beyond comprehension." Conventional language failed to capture the political, cultural, religious, and regional complexities of a country and a conflict which were unfamiliar to contemporary Americans. The article further underscored the difficulties of accurately portraying the violence then escalating within South Vietnam’s borders. As Reston pronounced, "This war needs a new vocabulary."

Nearly five decades later, Reston’s largely unheeded admonition reminds us how many historians and veterans have used-and misused-language in their portrayals of the American experience during the Vietnam War. Just as the word "surge" now embodies the entirety of American operations and strategy in Iraq during the Petraeus era, catchphrases like "attrition," "body counts," and "search-and-destroy" have become mainstays within the Vietnam War’s historiography. One historian even has described Westmoreland’s "strategic equation" as "mobility + firepower = attrition." Strategy could not be made any simpler.

Yet in their employment, these shibboleths have helped distort the historical record. As the MACV commander, Westmoreland never implemented a strategy focused solely on attriting enemy forces, just as he never focused solely on pacifying the countryside. As much as the general’s detractors wish him to be a narrow-minded traditionalist intent only on achieving high body-counts, the real Westmoreland simply never viewed the war in such limited terms. Throughout his correspondence with both senior officials in Washington, D.C. and subordinate commanders in South Vietnam, MACV’s chief consistently highlighted the problems of a war that could not be won by military force alone. Certainly, attrition was a part of American strategy under Westmoreland, just as it was under his successor Creighton Abrams. How else were American forces supposed to confront the threat of both North Vietnamese regulars and the armed forces of the southern National Liberation Front?

Lost in the selective use of words like "attrition" are the attendant non-military aspects of American strategy in Vietnam. If Westmoreland was so intent on killing the enemy, it is doubtful that one of his first messages to the commander of the incoming 1st Infantry Division would have spoke of something other than attrition. Less than three weeks after Ia Drang, Westmoreland directed the 1st Infantry to place emphasis on rural construction that would assist South Vietnamese units in their own population security operations. As the general noted in early December 1965, "an effective rural construction program is essential to the success of our mission." In fact, even before Ia Drang Westmoreland wrote to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Earle Wheeler that "civic action in the form of food, medical care and other assistance" was a "critical aspect" of the war. These were not hollow words. Examining the operations of the 25th Infantry Division in Hau Nghia province, for instance, one finds a unit balancing the myriad tasks of both a military and political struggle rather than artlessly floundering about on search-and-destroy missions. Other units, like the 4th Infantry Division, followed suit.

The perils of simplifying American strategy in Vietnam lie in the potential for misusing history by misreading it. If I may be so bold as to disagree with my kind host, Mr. Ricks misconstrues Clausewitz when he contends that war is simple. In fact, Clausewitz maintained just the opposite and it is worthwhile to read the entirety of Book One, Chapter Seven in On War to understand why the Prussian proposed such an argument. More to the point of Vietnam, if we dismiss Westmoreland’s strategy as simply one of misplaced attrition, it becomes all the easier to succumb to the belief that a well-conceived strategy can solve all of our foreign policy problems. It is possible that what failed in Vietnam was not an attrition strategy, but something much more complex.

The ramifications of this hypothesis are worth considering beyond the tropes and clichés of a lost war in Southeast Asia. Talented Americans generals can develop and implement a comprehensive political-military strategy and still lose a war. What does it say about strategy if even good ones aren’t enough to win wars?

Gregory A. Daddis is an academy professor at West Point and author of No Sure Victory: Measuring U.S. Army Effectiveness and Progress in the Vietnam War.

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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