Best Defense

Burns’s ‘Vietnam’ 4: I think I see the point. Maybe.

T.R. Fehrenbach, in his classic book about the Korean War, says that bombs from the sky aren’t the same as boots on the ground.



By Charles A. Krohn
Best Defense war TV critic

T.R. Fehrenbach, in his classic book about the Korean War, says that bombs from the sky aren’t the same as boots on the ground. A fraudster convinced President Lyndon B. Johnson this isn’t true, provided enough bombs are dropped.

A recent review of Fehrenbach’s This Kind of War warrants applause: “I wish McNamara had read and understood the lessons of Korea. The parallels are uncanny.”  Watching Episode 3 of Ken Burns’s Vietnam War, I recognized we were doomed to fail because we were unwilling to take aggressive action against North Vietnam as the NLF (National Liberation Front) did in the South. It won’t be the last time we are out-smarted by patient adversaries unimpressed with our bluster.

Johnson made this misjudgment after we took over control of the war from the government in Saigon. We believed our painful pin-prick strikes on military barracks around Hanoi and oil holding tanks near Haiphong were the new equivalent of offensive ground attacks. When we entered the war as advisors during the Kennedy administration, our aim was to help suppress an internal insurgency within the borders of South Vietnam. As soon as we committed ground troops, however, our strategy did an about-face to include offensive air campaigns against North Vietnam.

I suppose that then-Secretary of Defense McNamara sold Johnson on the idea that bombs, enough of them anyway, replaced boots. This is a counter-historical proposition, however, suggesting we could leapfrog experience with New Age wisdom. Whiz kids could not even replicate or even surpass the blitzkrieg formula. Not everything is quantifiable, as the narrator correctly explains.

We learn from this documented episode that Johnson hoped to force Hanoi to negotiate with precise targeting selected in the White House basement. Ground action was ruled out for fear of repeating the Korean fiasco.

Even as McNamara misled the public with rosy statements, privately he told Johnson that we were losing. Johnson’s solution was to beg the public for patience until the cross-over point could work. Theoretically, this was the moment when we killed more NVA (North Vietnamese Army) than Hanoi could replace. No serious soldier bloodied in combat could conceive of such a hair-brained formula. Recall Germans fighting on in 1945, even after the country’s infrastructure was fundamentally demolished. The blitz killed a lot of Brits, but the attacks made them more determined to fight on. Hanoi’s minions reacted the same way. Nor did the Russians every give up, despite Hitler’s unrelenting punishment that killed millions.

The ideal solution would have been to support South Vietnam with whatever was necessary so they could take the war to the North, not just defend the borders, and porous ones at that. A few raids across the border proved nothing. This might have been possible while we were in Vietnam as advisors, well before we deployed 550,000 soldiers expecting to win the war on Saigon’s behalf.

Retired Air Force general Merrill McPeak makes the same observation, although perhaps not so directly.

This episode paints American casualties as tragic losses, NLF deaths as triumphant victories, supporting my contention that we don’t move on after losing a war, we just move over.

A couple of things worth noting:

  • The first Battle of Dak To,  in June 1967, was a disaster for us, pitting our hasty response against careful NVA planning. To save face (yes, even Americans care about this) we claimed over a thousand NVA casualties, although only 15 dead NVA were found. We lost 76 out of 137 from the company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade engaged in the fight. The NVA plan was to draw Americans from the big cities into the remote regions in preparation for the Tet 1968 Offensive a few months hence.
  • Displaying the head of an NVA soldier to please Colonel Hank Emerson is ghastly. He promised a case of booze to soldiers who provided the trophy. But he was different from his contemporaries in other ways too. He was also a champion of the late Colonel David Hackworth, stranger in many ways than Emerson. (see hackworth/slate/krohn)
  • Clausewitz reminds us that morale is more important in warfare than physical factors. The NVA dedication to their cause and unrelenting sacrifices until victory was achieved is a remarkable achievement, however measured. There were many in the South with similar convictions, but they play only a minor role in this episode. Still, they should not be forgotten.

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 has been seen in the vicinity of Panama City Beach, Florida.

Photo credit: Yoichi R. Okamoto, White House Press Office

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 @tomricks1
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