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The Wrong War - Why We Lost in Vietnam
April 18, 2007 11:24 AM   Subscribe

...By refusing to recognize or admit that the Vietnam War was from its inception primarily a civil war, and not part of a larger, centrally-directed international conspiracy, policymakers assumed that North Vietnam was, like the United States, waging a limited war, and therefore that it would be prepared to settle for something less than total victory (especially if confronted by military stalemate on the ground in the South and the threat of aerial bombardment of the North). In so making this assumption, policymakers not only ignored two millennia of Vietnamese history, but also excused themselves from confronting the harsh truth that civil wars are, for their indigenous participants, total wars, and that no foreign participant in someone else's civil war can possibly have as great a stake in the conflict's outcome--and attendant willingness to sacrifice--as do the indigenous parties involved.
The Wrong War - Why We Lost in Vietnam
See also Who Lost Vietnam ?
See also Vietnam in Retrospect: Could We Have Won?
posted by y2karl (77 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Exterminate the brutes!
posted by Artw at 11:35 AM on April 18, 2007


Nice post. "Political Empathy", I believe, is what McNamara kept referring to in his Fog of War dirge.
posted by four panels at 11:39 AM on April 18, 2007


And yeah, if you have't seen Hearts and Minds, move it up in your Netflix queue.
posted by four panels at 11:49 AM on April 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


Cool articles.

I still can't believe America went to war with Iraq.
posted by chunking express at 11:51 AM on April 18, 2007


I remember when people who argued that we "could have won Vietnam" used to be considered marginal nutjobs.
posted by DU at 11:56 AM on April 18, 2007


I haven't yet read the whole thing, but this (pdf) looks to be a really interesting study of how the perception of past wars changes as we approach/enter/end new wars. Vietnam being an obvious example, but there looks to be some great stuff about WWI and WWII as well.

Stealing the summary from Marginal Revolution, from whence I stole the link: older wars look better as we approach newer ones; the volume of news coverage is all that matters, *not* the "tone" or "slant" of that coverage; external conflict increases internal cohesion. Only the last of these was obvious to me.
posted by freebird at 11:59 AM on April 18, 2007




It's hard to win a war when you don't understand the nature of the war. The Vietnam War was essentially about Vietnamese nationalism and anti-colonialism.

In the end it all boils down to one question: Could we have won a military victory in Vietnam? Record's answer is: Yes, but not at any price even remotely acceptable to the American people.

"You can kill ten of our men for every one we kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and we will win." -- Ho Chi Minh

They accepted odds that were much worse. The US had 58,000 killed in Vietnam; the North Vietnamese lost 1,100,000.

I think the second link in the post should go here. Also, the book and review are from 1998.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:08 PM on April 18, 2007




The US war effort was compromised not only by failure to appreciate the complexity and evolution of the war's character, but also by a fundamental ignorance of [Vietnam], its history and culture.

I wonder if future Mefites thirty years from now will have the same discussion about the current bunch of clowns running things:

Now the five-term Texas Democrat, 62, is facing similar unpleasant surprises about the enemy, this time as the incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

That’s because, like a number of his colleagues and top counterterrorism officials that I’ve interviewed over the past several months, Reyes can’t answer some fundamental questions about the powerful forces arrayed against us in the Middle East.


And it doesn't end there. Neoconservative ignorance of Sunni and Shiite culture has been catastrophic, as evinced in the tragic stupidity displayed by Wolfowitz here:

And unlike Saudi Arabia, Paul Wolfowitz thought, Iraq did not have holy cities such as Mecca and Medina that would make the stationing of U.S. troops there objectionable: Iraqis, he said, “don’t bring the sensitivity of having the holy cities of Islam being on their territory.” (He apparently did not then know about the Shiite shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala).
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:16 PM on April 18, 2007


also, regarding Martin van Creveld: Why Iraq Will End as Vietnam Did, there is this:
However, loud voices in Washington want American forces in Iraq to start a two-front war, attacking the Shiite militias as well as the Sunni insurgents, on the grounds that both are threats to our puppet Iraqi government. Should those voices prevail, the Shiites would at some point have to respond, with Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Militia probably in the lead. They would be foolish to fight us where we are strong, in and around Baghdad where the "surge" is focused. A far better target would be our vulnerable supply lines, which again run south through the Shiites' home turf. At the least, such an attack would draw many of our forces away from Baghdad, relieving the pressure on Sadr City. Potentially, it could leave our troops in Baghdad cut off and quickly running out of beans, bullets and POL, not to speak of bottled water. Anyone who thinks air transport could make up the difference should reference Hermann Goering and Stalingrad...
Operation Anabasis
posted by y2karl at 12:20 PM on April 18, 2007


I remember when people who argued that we "could have won Vietnam" used to be considered marginal nutjobs.

Astonishingly, one of 'em was an Army E-6 father of one of my friends -- usually, it was fairly senior officers or sillyvilians expressing that sentiment -- but I think he spent all of 'Nam either Stateside or in Europe and most of his later career drunk.
posted by pax digita at 12:28 PM on April 18, 2007


Anyone who thinks air transport could make up the difference should reference Hermann Goering and Stalingrad...

Or the failure of the Berlin Airlift, for example, which is about the same thing as comparing Iraq to Vietnam. Iraq will not end as Vietnam did - it's going to be much worse than that.
posted by three blind mice at 12:29 PM on April 18, 2007


Sure, we could have won in Viet Nam. All we had to do was kill enough Vietnamese to make them give up. Clearly, we could have done this. We had the air power. As it stands, we killed several million (many of those in the south, where the bombing was heaviest, if I recall correctly). If we'd killed maybe five million more, we'd have controlled the country. But, fortunately, the US public wouldn't tolerate that kind of escalation in the brutality and, instead, forced the government to withdraw.

The same is true in Iraq. In fact, my guess is that the Iraqis would fold more quickly. Instead of a body count in the millions, I'll bet that one mass slaughter of, say, five or six hundred thousand would do the trick. I'm talking about a quick, massive air campaign against, say, Sadr City. We go in and carpet bomb the place and broadcast the whole thing live on CNN. Then we tell them that Fallujah or Tikrit is next. It wouldn't take long for them to give up.

But even if I'm wrong about the numbers required, it doesn't matter. We could wipe out the entire population of the country if we chose to. If we kept killing large numbers of people, sooner or later we'd find their breaking point.

But that's not going to happen because the people in the US simply will not tolerate such actions. Therefore, while we can win in Iraq, we won't. And that's a wonderful thing to know.
posted by Clay201 at 12:35 PM on April 18, 2007 [2 favorites]


It's not that they didn't KNOW Vietnam was a civil war. They did. It's they couldn't align our domestic political machinery to that fact becuase of all the cold war hysteria politicians had whipped up to get elected.

Sounds familiar, huh?

My dad was one of the first advisor's in Vietnam. He was part of the 5th and 7th Special Foces group there. Our entire family was stationed in country and at that time is was deeeluxe posting. Big French colonial villas, top notch food, pristine beaches, and only the occasional poorly aimed mortar round. I was conceived in Vietnam as a result of a mortar hitting the local movie theater forcing my parents to stay home.

Consequently I am a big fan of agrarian Marxism and Ho Chi Min.

Anyway. It was clear to my father in 1962 that was no Chinese communist inspired domino about fall. And the SF group was in total agreement about that with their reports. Few above the brigade level read them. His take was that there was a complete ignorance and misread of the culture and no understanding of the intentions and motives of the colonial independence movement. They supplied plenty of good intelligence to counter these gaps. It was mostly ignored.
posted by tkchrist at 12:43 PM on April 18, 2007 [4 favorites]


tkchrist;

The higher-ups were aware of the independence movements and what they meant. That's why they bombed so heavily in the south: to crush those movements. They were, in fact, the "threat" we were combating in Viet Nam. If the country went independent, other countries in the area might do likewise. The whole of SE Asia might have opted for independence (or alliance with China or alliance with a power to be named later).

In fact, in this sense, we didn't lose the war. We completely crushed the VN's move towards independence and made the other countries in the region understand that if they followed suit, there'd be hell to pay. As a result, we were able to keep a pretty tight grip on the region for decades to come.
posted by Clay201 at 12:52 PM on April 18, 2007


Astonishingly, one of 'em was an Army E-6 father of one of my friends -- usually, it was fairly senior officers or sillyvilians expressing that sentiment

My father was a Lt. Colonel.

It's not a "we COULD have won" argument with him. It's a "what IS winning" argument.

We killed 2.5 million people in Vietnam. Most completely innocent.
To "win" we would have had to kill what? Five... six times that number? And then we are then new dictators and stay there for forty years battling low level insurgence and spending trillions getting client state running? Or do we just walk away and pat our selves on the back and the place either descends into chaos anyway or becuase it's a failing state it really IS a strategic concern for the Communist Chinese and they ARE forced to invade.
posted by tkchrist at 12:56 PM on April 18, 2007


Clausewitz's words in the Jeffrey Record book: "The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish ... the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its true nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive."

For all of their supposed smarts, the policymakers in the Bush White House have either never read Clausewitz or have chosen to completely disregard him.
posted by blucevalo at 12:56 PM on April 18, 2007


We held that line for 10,000 days. As a delaying action, it was quite successful. By tying the communists down in Southeast Asia, we bought valuable time.

(George "Sonny" Hoffman, "Vietnam in Perspective")

Man, I first stumbled on this thing in I think the Army Times in '94 when I was working for the base newspaper in Kaiserslautern, Germany. Never thought I'd see it again. "Delaying action" - what a sweet bit of absurd long-after-the-fact rationalization that is. I remember it striking my 20-year-old self as the sort of final word on how far people will go to defend an indefensible position. Didn't see the Bush Administration coming . . .

Also, tkchrist - was your dad the Quiet American?
posted by gompa at 1:01 PM on April 18, 2007


It was a tie!
posted by Divine_Wino at 1:02 PM on April 18, 2007


I'm just not buying the argument that the Bushians don't understand what's going on in Iraq. They have installed a government that does what they tell it to do. They want it to remain in power. The people in Iraq want to get rid of it. The only reason they haven't gotten rid of it already is that there's this massive military force there which will kill them if they try. Remove the military force and the people storm the green zone, guillotine their "leaders" and start over from scratch. (Everyone knows this, but no one will come right out and say it on CNN). Whatever government (or governments) they create will almost certainly not do what the US tells them to.

So that's why Bush wants to keep the US military there. Very simple. And every action he takes, every policy he announces, is easily explained by this strategy. This indicates to me that he and his people have a clear understanding of the situation.
posted by Clay201 at 1:08 PM on April 18, 2007


Clay201, what exactly does the US get out of its "control" of Iraq right now. Cheap oil? A stable foot hold in the middle eat? Maybe i'm missing something.
posted by chunking express at 1:13 PM on April 18, 2007


The "This player takes Peak Oil economic damage at half rate" card?
posted by Artw at 1:20 PM on April 18, 2007


In fact, in this sense, we didn't lose the war. We completely crushed the VN's move towards independence and made the other countries in the region understand that if they followed suit, there'd be hell to pay. As a result, we were able to keep a pretty tight grip on the region for decades to come.

What planet did you say that happened on? In 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and deposed the Khmer Rouge. the next year, Vietnam was fighting a border war with China. Is that what you mean by "completely crushed," or does your 'VN' not refer to Vietnam?

tkchrist, were you born in Vung Tau?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:21 PM on April 18, 2007


Clay201- "Give up"? This isn't a regime or a government. This is dozens of factions of people taking opportunistic attacks on US soldiers. You can bomb a whole city into nothingness and only end up giving more civilians reason to decide to ALSO kill US soldiers.

It's like if you tried to bomb a city to stop drug market. Shall we carpet bomb Baltimore? How about LA? Will drug dealers magically decide, "Whoa, we can't keep doing this?" and the drug problem disappear?
posted by yeloson at 1:30 PM on April 18, 2007


“It's not a "we COULD have won" argument with him. It's a "what IS winning" argument.”

I like your dad.

“And every action he takes, every policy he announces, is easily explained by this strategy.” - Clay201

Well said (several times). But the bizarre part of the thing (to me) is getting away with it. I can’t believe some top brass hasn’t, and considering the firings/resignations/etc. I suspect someone has, turned and said “what’re you fucking nuts?”

But there’s always been a good deal of incestuous relations between top brass and defense contrators and political honchos. Cheney himself is a good example.
Vietnam had a number of justifications (”fighting communism” and so forth) that seem transparently jingoistic now. And yet, there was at least some basis for it. Fear of the Soviets, fear of the Chinese, strategic concerns, etc. etc.
Iraq was more or less “he’s got WMDs...oh, no he hasn’t. Oh, well, uh...*cough* *mutter*)

I suppose the eternal ‘war on terror’ is the equivalent of fighting a holding action.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:32 PM on April 18, 2007


chunking express:

Control over Iraq means control over the oil. We don't really need it to power our SUVs (that's what Venezualan and Nigerian oil are for). But it is a huge strategic asset. Other countries do depend on that oil and if we control their oil supply, we control them. Also, it's a huge amount of money that winds up in the pockets of our corporations. Simply put, oil is a huge source of power. (Just ask Hugo Chavez). And you don't get to be the most powerful country in the world by leaving huge sources of power lying around for other people to control.

Now, in another sense, this is also simply a battle for control of the middle east. A US controlled Iraq is basically the barrel of a sawed-off shotgun shoved in the face of Iran, the gunman saying "you're next." Likewise, it could be used as a launching ground for an invasion of Saudi Arabia should the population there try to revolt against their oppressors (which might happen any minute now). But of course, no one in the US government would give a shit about any of these countries if they didn't have oil (unless they substantially beefed up their militaries or got nukes). So it's true to say that this is about control of the middle east. It's just that "control of the middle east" translates pretty directly to "control of middle eastern oil." And if you have one, you have the other, so the distinction is kind of superficial.
posted by Clay201 at 1:50 PM on April 18, 2007


It was a tie!

Yes. They got Vietnam. We got “Good Morning Vietnam”!
posted by French Fry at 1:55 PM on April 18, 2007


...You can bomb a whole city into nothingness and only end up giving more civilians reason to decide to ALSO kill US soldiers....

It's like if you tried to bomb a city to stop drug market. Shall we carpet bomb Baltimore?


Good points.

To answer your question... yes, in a case like this, you can still get the opposition to give up. It's harder, but it can be done. See, drug dealers and guerillas are, as you point out, diffuse and unorganized, so they have no central command. But they do depend on the general population to support them. What you have to do is punish the civilian population so severely - say, by killing and torturing large numbers of them - that they stop supporting the resistance. This was done pretty successfully in Nicaragua. After a decade or two of US terrorism directed against civilians, they finally gave in and voted in the government we told them to.

In the case of Baltimore... well, yeah, it'd be pretty easy to drive the drug dealers away by blowing up large parts of the city. Drug dealers don't give a shit about Baltimore. Why should they stick around to fight for it? The G could identify certain neighborhoods where drug use was high and turn them into parking lots. Drug dealing would drop like a rock. They'd all head for other cities or find some other way to earn a buck. And even if that didn't work, there are a dozen other ways to do it. How about mandatory drug tests for everyone and executions for those who test positive? That'd resolve the issue pretty quickly.
posted by Clay201 at 2:04 PM on April 18, 2007


tkchrist, were you born in Vung Tau?

No. Ceti Alpha Six. Until it blew up and it became Ceti Alpha Five! GOD DAMNED YOU KIRK! FROM HELLS HEART I SPIT AT THEE!

Oh sorry. (Inside joke - my dad's name is Con... "Kahn"... get it)

No. I was conceived in Vietnam. I was born in the nick of time in North Carolina.

The whole of SE Asia might have opted for independence

Clay, I don't know who you've been reading, but SE DID opt for independence as a RESULT of us being in Vietnam.

Also if you remember the Chinese DID invade the border of N Vietnam after we pulled out... and lo and behold the Vietnamese did not embrace them as liberators or brothers. They kicked their asses. It was perfect illustration of how idiotic the Domino theory was.

Our involvement in Vietnam provided us absolutely zero real strategic advantage when you weigh out the costs.
posted by tkchrist at 2:12 PM on April 18, 2007


I long for clarity, the kind of clarity that led Bill Murray, in the cinematic tour de force Stripes, to exclaim, "We've been kicking ass for 200 years! We're ten and one!"

What's our record now? 11-1-1 at best? Do we get a point for taking it to OT against N. Vietnam, like in the NHL?
posted by Mister_A at 2:13 PM on April 18, 2007


Vietnam invaded Cambodia and deposed the Khmer Rouge.

The US was in favor of that invasion. Pol Pot was doing a better job of resisting US power than the US, so they used Viet Nam as a weapon against him.

Is that what you mean by "completely crushed,"

Nope. Completely crushed would be assuming their role as a third world country, handing over its resources to first world countries. Look at Viet Nam today; that's what they're doing. The opposite would be, say, Venezuala or Cuba; countries that remained independent, refused to accept their role as third world servants and, as a result, prospered. There are a number of countries in South America forming alliances with Venezuala and trying to emulate them. As a group, these countries are turning into a threat to US control down there. See anyone looking to Viet Nam to fulfill the same function in Asia?
posted by Clay201 at 2:18 PM on April 18, 2007


oops...

Pol Pot was doing a better job of resisting US power than Viet Nam...

Sorry bout that.
posted by Clay201 at 2:23 PM on April 18, 2007


From the first link: The profound misjudgment that propelled the United States into the Vietnam War was captured in two November 1961 cables from Gen. Maxwell Taylor to President Kennedy, which are reprinted in The Pentagon Papers.

These cables are also available online.

US policymakers saw the conflict as being a case of Communist aggression, similar to the Korean War. From Maxwell Taylor's letter to Kennedy, November 3, 1961:
... If the Hanoi decision is to continue the irregular war declared on South Vietnam in 1959 with continued infiltration and covert support of guerrilla bands in the territory of our ally, we will then have to decide whether to accept as legitimate the continued guidance, training, and support of a guerrilla war across an international boundary, while the attacked react only inside their borders. Can we admit the establishment of the common law that the party attacked and his friends are denied the right to strike the source of aggression, after the fact of external aggression is clearly established? It is our view that our government should undertake with the Vietnamese the measures outlined herein, but should then consider and face the broader question beyond.

We cannot refrain from expressing, having seen the situation on the ground, our common sense of outrage at the burden which this kind of aggression imposes on a new country, only seven years old, with a difficult historical heritage to overcome, confronting the inevitable problems of political, social, and economic transition to modernization. It is easy and cheap to destroy such a country whereas it is difficult undisturbed to build a nation coming out of a complex past without carrying the burden of a guerrilla war. ...

It is my judgment and that of my colleagues that the United States must decide how it will cope with Khrushchev's "wars of liberation" which are really pare-wars of guerrilla aggression. This is a new and dangerous Communist technique which bypasses our traditional political and military responses. While the final answer lies beyond the scope of this report, it is clear to me that the time may come in our relations to Southeast Asia when we must declare our intention to attack the source of guerrilla aggression in North Vietnam and impose on the Hanoi Government a price for participating in the current war which is commensurate with the damage being inflicted on its neighbors to the south.
tkchrist: Also if you remember the Chinese DID invade the border of N Vietnam after we pulled out... and lo and behold the Vietnamese did not embrace them as liberators or brothers. They kicked their asses. It was perfect illustration of how idiotic the Domino theory was.

There's a great document--from the CWIHP, if I recall correctly--describing the breakdown in relations between Vietnam and China after the US pulled out. I'll see if I can dig it up.

David Halberstam thought that a major factor in the blundering of US policy was the McCarthyist purge of China experts from the State Department. John Paton Davies Jr., for example, who ended up making furniture in Peru:
I think that we have handled China so badly, because China is the natural balance against Russia in Asia and Vietnam (laughs) is the natural balance against China in East Asia. We fought with both.
posted by russilwvong at 2:23 PM on April 18, 2007


To answer your question... yes, in a case like this, you can still get the opposition to give up. It's harder, but it can be done.

It CAN be done. But the more important question is - is it WORTH doing.

Winning a war is about real logistical and strategic control or a geographic area, resource, or people that costs you less to achieve than other means. When the costs in lives, treasury, national morale, world opinion (read: TRADE), become so high there simply is no winning. Except for some nefarious notion of pride or worse, vengeance.

Holding Vietnam with have provided us with nothing. It would have deterred our strategic enemies in no real sense. Indonesian Oil Reserves (what little there is left) was not threatened. Rubber plantations were of little economic value. The Soviets were actually emboldened by witnessing how difficult it was to employ strategic military to asymmetrical guerrilla war... it gave them a perfect case study on warfare on the cheap. To bad they too had their own established idiots in charge who ignored these lessons and invaded Afghanistan.

The strategic threat Soviet "communism" posed to the US was real. But very limited in scope. With nukes holding the balance most of the proxy wars we THOUGHT we had to fight we just didn't have to fight- now looking back we know.

You should read the many many recent books referencing declassified materials coming out of former Soviet intelligence vaults. We had SO misread the soviets, their capabilities and intension's... it's remarkable.

Lot's of people THEN knew this. Lot's of Defense Industries suspected this and they manipulated foreign policy for monetary gain none the less.
posted by tkchrist at 2:29 PM on April 18, 2007


Here we go: Comrade B (Le Duan) on the Plot of the Reactionary Chinese Clique Against Vietnam, following China's 1979 invasion. (Deng Xiaoping ordered the invasion to punish Vietnam for invading Cambodia, which was aligned with China at the time. As noted by tkchrist, China got its ass kicked.) Commentary is in CWIHP Bulletin 12/13 (Section 4).
posted by russilwvong at 2:37 PM on April 18, 2007


HTML version.
posted by russilwvong at 2:40 PM on April 18, 2007


It CAN be done. But the more important question is - is it WORTH doing.

I've got a better question. Should it be done at all? The answer is easy; no, it shouldn't. You shouldn't invade a country, crush popular organizations and impose your will on them. Even if it's easy and doesn't cost you anything, you still shouldn't do it.

Now, from the point of view of the people in the White House or the people who put them there... was crushing VN's move towards independence worth it? Sure. Why not? They didn't die, did they? And it wasn't their money they were spending. Did it result in a decrease in American power? Not so's you'd notice. In fact, the chief drawback, from the point of view of these people, is that they weren't allowed to do the same thing all over again in South America. Viet Nam so pissed off the American public that they refused to allow invasions of Nicaragua, El Salvador, etc. But in the end, it didn't matter, because they got what they wanted in those countries eventually.

You talk about the cost. For these people - the ones who were making the decisions - the correct response would be "What cost?"
posted by Clay201 at 2:42 PM on April 18, 2007


I like your dad.

Me too—sounds like a fascinating guy. I always used to reproach my dad for not taking me with him when he visited Saigon in 1960 (he was a Foreign Service officer then stationed in Bangkok); I'd love to be able to say I had a drink on the terrace of the Continental Hotel, even if I was just a kid and it was a glass of Coke. (I have a treasured Golden Guide to South & East Asia from 1961 with great ads: "Air Conditioned/ AU BACCARA NIGHT CLUB/ Paris Atmosphere in Saigon/ DANCE MUSIC FLOOR SHOW/ French Management/ 165 Tran Quy Cap (Ex Testard) SAIGON"; "L'AMIRAL/ French Specialities/ The best burgundies and clarets in Saigon/Banquet room available on request/ 39 That Lap Thanh (Ex Admiral Dupie) near Tu Do Street Saigon.")

they used Viet Nam as a weapon against him.

Are you nuts? You think VN was doing America's bidding in 1977?

Good post and thread!
posted by languagehat at 2:45 PM on April 18, 2007


Clay201 writes "
The US was in favor of that invasion. Pol Pot was doing a better job of resisting US power than the US, so they used Viet Nam as a weapon against him.
...
Nope. Completely crushed would be assuming their role as a third world country, handing over its resources to first world countries. Look at Viet Nam today; that's what they're doing. The opposite would be, say, Venezuala or Cuba; countries that remained independent, refused to accept their role as third world servants and, as a result, prospered. There are a number of countries in South America forming alliances with Venezuala and trying to emulate them. As a group, these countries are turning into a threat to US control down there. See anyone looking to Viet Nam to fulfill the same function in Asia?"


I don't even know how to respond to this mind-bendingly facile analysis.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:57 PM on April 18, 2007


russilwvong - I'd always read in sources here that the Chinese invasion of Vietnam was due to what they regarded as an attempt at encirclement by the Soviet Union, and one reading of the Wiki article supports that. The intention was to call the Soviet's bluff and show they wouldn't go to war to defend Vietnam.
The cliam here is that it was a victory akin to the border war with India - in quick, showed the Russians weren't going to respond, then out again. Another big nation who can't admit they lost in Vietnam.
posted by Abiezer at 3:03 PM on April 18, 2007


Clausewitz's words in the Jeffrey Record book: "The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish ... the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its true nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive."

For all of their supposed smarts, the policymakers in the Bush White House have either never read Clausewitz or have chosen to completely disregard him.


The "statesman and commander".... I guess you could say W is the commander ("decider"), but by no means is there a statesman anywhere near this administration. Really. Diplomacy is just a $5 word to them, one they don't quite comprehend. You need soldiers, weapons and tactics to wage a war; you need diplomacy to wage a peace.

And that is the reason Iraq will end so much more badly than Vietnam.
posted by Doohickie at 3:07 PM on April 18, 2007


You know one thing my dad noted in 1963? The Vietnamese were tough mother fuckers.

This may seem silly and obvious now. But to a nascent super-power with the ability to slag the planet - it wasn't. It certainly wasn't obvious at first to my dad.

Here he was this over six foot white dude towering above these little people who had a way of life that seemed a century and half behind the rest of the world. And he knew nothing about them.

His first order of business was to talk to the locals who had a knowledge of the history of the place. And he saw, as a student of history with an understanding what the fuck history MEANS, the VN had been fighting wars non-stop for centuries. They did not ever give up.

Here we were putting con men in charge of the place just becuase they wore business suits, hated all the "right" people, greased the wheels of commerce, and were catholic. Sure they skimmed a little off the top. Sure they killed people willy nilly. But they drank coke.

It was an obvious recipe for disaster.

My old man says that if his experience that has taught him one thing it's that history should be treated like a logistical necessity before any important decision is made.

He advocates that we implement a Department of History that is equal in stature to the State Department and Department of Defense. Every important decision must be put in context with the DOH before anybody picks up a war kit and gets on a plane.
posted by tkchrist at 3:07 PM on April 18, 2007 [6 favorites]


At least the North Vietnamese, in spite of their Communism, had issues with the Chinese and the Soviets, further up the chain. Vietnamese national identity played into this, and Macnamara acknowledged later that this was a huge blind spot for American foreign policy in Southeast Asia.

Iraqi Shia? There's a reason that the Sunnis refer to them as "the Iranians."

So yeah, let's not be overly optimistic. The situation in Iraq is worse than Vietnam ever was.
posted by bardic at 3:11 PM on April 18, 2007


Abiezer: The claim here is that it was a victory akin to the border war with India - in quick, showed the Russians weren't going to respond, then out again.

Fascinating. I wonder how many people in the Anglosphere even know about this war? Maybe it'd make a good FPP some day.
posted by russilwvong at 3:14 PM on April 18, 2007


In anecdote mode, I used to work on a rural development project in south-west Sichuan. One of the villages we were doing projects in up in the hills had a household with a single deaf and mentally ill father (failing) to care for a ten year old lad.
Turned out the man was a "Vietnam vet." The others said he'd been a heavy gunner in the invasion and had lost his hearing there. His mind went a bit more slowly after his return, and his wife left him and the boy to it. The kid had just the one set of raggy clothes as I recall and had dropped out of school to care for his dad. Their house was barely standing. He wasn't getting any kind of welfare support beyond the tiny pittance (a bit of rice and some second-hand clothes every now and then really) from Civil Affairs.
I still think of them and the thousands like him when I see films like Deerhunter. Guess we're a long way from ever seein the Chinese version.
posted by Abiezer at 3:14 PM on April 18, 2007


The 1990 Hong Kong film Stars and Roses touches on the conflict. It was a long time ago that I saw it, but I seem to remember some Chinese survivors staggering back across the border and collapsing.
posted by russilwvong at 3:16 PM on April 18, 2007


The United States could have avoided the war by living up to its principles in World War I and World War II. Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points called for "a free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims."
In 1919, Woodrow Wilson arrived in France to sign the treaty ending World War I, and Ho, supposing that the President's doctrine of self-determination applied to Asia, donned a cutaway coat and tried to present Wilson with a lengthy list of French abuses in Vietnam. Rebuffed, Ho joined the newly created French Communist Party. "It was patriotism, not communism, that inspired me," he later explained.
World War II's Atlantic Charter said "all peoples had a right to self-determination." The United States supported the Viet Minh resistance against Japan. Ho Chi Minh based the September 1945 Vietnamese Declaration of Independence on the American one and France's Declaration of the Rights of Man, but the US backed the reinstatement of French colonial rule in the First Indochina War. The Geneva Accords that ended the war called for nationwide elections, but the US and South Vietnam suppressed the elections because the Communists would have won.

the North Vietnamese, in spite of their Communism, had issues with the Chinese and the Soviets, further up the chain

I'd say it was more a triangle than a chain, given the Sino-Soviet split.

What's our record now? 11-1-1 at best?

12-1-1, based on Wikipedia's List of wars involving the United States:

W: American Revolution, Quasi-War with France, First Barbary War, War of 1812, Second Barbary War, Mexican-American War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, Philippine-American War, World War I, World War II, Gulf War.

L: Vietnam War.

T: Korean War.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (or the War on Terror) are looking to end up in the L column.
posted by kirkaracha at 3:18 PM on April 18, 2007


To put the Chinese case a bit better, I think the way they handled the spat with India support their claim somewhat. They were the arse-kickers there, yet didn't press a military advantage having made a political point.
I'm not sure they would have been interested in overthrowing the Vietnamese regime, so they might be telling it like it was.
I saw Wiki said there's some memoirs come out recently. Must hunt them up.
posted by Abiezer at 3:20 PM on April 18, 2007


Bosnia? Kosovo? Wasn't each of the conflicts in the former Yugoslav republics "primarily a civil war, and not part of a larger, centrally-directed international conspiracy?"
posted by Slap Factory at 3:22 PM on April 18, 2007


The situation in Iraq is worse than Vietnam ever was.

Potentially? Absolutely.

Think about what is at stake?

Iraq is situated geo strategially right where every power would want to be... under the steppes to Central Asia and Russia. you can keep tabs on everybody.

Iraq has the second largest Oil reserves in the region. It has most of the WATER in the region. It is the cultural and historical center of the Arab world (and, indeed, western civilization when you get down to it)
posted by tkchrist at 3:28 PM on April 18, 2007


Bardic: That's nonsense. During the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, American casualties were more than 2,100 per week. Our casualties are nowhere near that in Iraq or Afghanistan.
posted by Slap Factory at 3:29 PM on April 18, 2007


Viet Nam was a centerpiece of the East versus West cold war but had a background going back to WWII
http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1945vietnam.html

The French/Japanese rule of that nation resulted in a division between South and North, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Vietnam
not unlike what we still see today in Korea.

The war in Iraq differs when you consider the particpants:
The US, some AlQaeda, trbal militia groups; sunni and shia factions, with help coming into the country via Syria and Iran.

In Viet Nam, and in Korea, either the one side (communist) or the other (westernized democracies) would prevail. In Iraq? Lord only knows.
posted by Postroad at 3:30 PM on April 18, 2007


Our casualties are thankfully lower. Our long-term standing in the world is in much graver danger. We're basically empowering Iran over and over and over again. Guess I could have made that more clear.
posted by bardic at 3:39 PM on April 18, 2007


Our casualties are nowhere near that in Iraq or Afghanistan.

But you're not actually fighting a war on any fronts there - the casualties you have are just the baseline casualties from trying to maintain the status quo.
posted by Artw at 3:42 PM on April 18, 2007


W: ...War of 1812, ...

No, I think we have to put that one in the Tie column. What Americans choose to remember is the essentially meaningless Battle of New Orleans (which was fought after the peace treaty had already been signed); aside from that, it was basically a draw. As Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton say in their excellent Dominion of War, "the Americans failed to secure their most important objective: expansion beyond the Great Lakes into Upper Canada."
posted by languagehat at 3:47 PM on April 18, 2007


This has piqued my interest. Googling reminded me that the war is known in China as the 对越自卫反击战 - "the war of counterattack in self-defense against Vietnam," which tells a fair bit of the story in itself.
Skimming this summary in Chinese, as well as the allegations of victimisation of Chinese Vietnamese, they claim border incursions. They do give that Soviet encirclement background, and claim that Deng revealed the intention to attack during his visit to the US by saying, "小朋友不听话,该打打屁股了!" -- "The kid's being naughty and needs his arse smacked!" I wonder if that's true?
As to withdrawing and whether it was a victory, it says that after they had taken control of all major towns and cities in north Vietnam:
大军云集,千钧一发,威逼河内的态势已经形成,反击作战的战略目的已经达到。3 月5 日军委下达撤军命令,各部队交替掩护撤退,途中一路实行焦土政策,能拿走的机器设备全部拿走,能破坏的公产全部破坏,是为惩罚。东线部份伤亡惨重的部队撤退时,拼命盲目扫射放炮,发泄愤懑。3 月16日撤回国境,对越自卫反击作战告一段落
"Our forces were gathered in strength ready to strike at any moment, and were in a position to threaten Hanoi; the objective of the war of counter-attack had been achieved. On March 5 the Military Commission gave the order to withdraw, and the brigades made a staged withdrawal, each taking its turn to cover the other [forget the proper term for this tactic]. They applied a scorched eart policy along the way as they went, and took all the materiel and machinery they could. They also sabotaged whatever state facilities they could, with the intention of punishing [the Vietnamese]. On the eastern front, as some of the brigades that had taken heaviest casualties were withdrawing, they strafed and shelled indiscriminately to release their pent-up anger. By March 16 [our forces] were back inside our own borders, ending this chapter in the defensive wars with Vietnam."
posted by Abiezer at 4:01 PM on April 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


Some pictures from the 79 war.
posted by Abiezer at 4:31 PM on April 18, 2007


No, I think we have to put that one in the Tie column.

OK, 11-1-2. Although we did get a fun song out of it.
posted by kirkaracha at 5:00 PM on April 18, 2007


It's been downhill since the American people lost the American Revolution.
posted by davy at 6:26 PM on April 18, 2007


W: ...War of 1812, ...

No, I think we have to put that one in the Tie column


A tie at best. Come visit Fork York in Toronto sometime to get the view from the other side of the fence. The British burned down the White House; you managed to hold a third-rate colonial outpost (Toronto) for a short period and held New Orleans. From the point of view on invading Upper Canada, it was pretty much a complete loss.

Also, I normally skip your posts y2karl, but I found this one appealing and interesting. Less is more for your posts perhaps.
posted by GuyZero at 6:39 PM on April 18, 2007


The question of 'winning' and 'losing' in Vietnam is a bit strange. Why exactly do people assume the purpose is to win?

In Viet Nam, and in Korea, either the one side (communist) or the other (westernized democracies) would prevail. In Iraq? Lord only knows.

See, this is the point. What people don't appreciate is that the Cold War (aka World War III) was good for America. And so there's now enormous pressure to get something like the Cold War going again. The only problem with Iraq is that the enemy is so damn diffuse. There is no single, clear, absolutely evil Big Bad Villain. This makes marketing the war to Americans very difficult. Some people are trying to salvage the production by casting Iran as the villain but this is difficult because we're four years into the story. It's just too late to introduce major new characters.

I've always found assertions that we "lost" Vietnam a bit strange. America wasn't significantly weakened and the "loss of face" didn't alter the logic of the Cold War. It's not like anybody sat down and said, "hey, maybe this single minded war against Communism isn't good for America." The American people would still go on to elect Reagan. Really, the development of a strong opposition in America along with this notion that we had been "defeated" only strengthened the resolve to overcome Communism. Really the war served to crystallize the Cold War as something real, something that mattered. This is something only the spilling of blood can do.

Similarly Iraq, as a marketing exercise, has really brought the Global War on Terror into its own. Even if we were pull out tomorrow nobody could ever again doubt that America has real enemies and these enemies are dangerous and hard to defeat and so we must redouble our efforts etc etc etc. All this talk of 'winning' and 'losing' is just a distraction. Whether we win and especially if we lose, Americans have committed to victory in the long war. And that means profits.
posted by nixerman at 7:09 PM on April 18, 2007


Department of History

I am channeling so much "yes" at this idea my nose is bleeding.
posted by The Power Nap at 7:23 PM on April 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


each taking its turn to cover the other
I believe its called leapfroging, at least when your advancing.
kirkaracha, I agree with you. The best foregin policy the U.S. government could have on the long term is to support the results of popular movements even if it hurts our corporations and some of our larger allies. The end result of having good relations with new countries would easily offset the losses incurred. Unfortunately our leaders are in power in a few years. Just long enough to do serious damage to the world, but short enough they can escape the results of their actions.
As cool as having a Department of History would be if it was filled with academics and real history scholars it would probably be just filled with partisan hacks with no real interest in future of country.
posted by roguewraith at 7:53 PM on April 18, 2007


Dong Ha
Con Thien
Khe Sanh / Lang Vei
Tchepone
A Shau
Tri-border
Dak To
Chu Prong Massif / Ia Drang
Duc Co
Fishhook
Parrot's Beak
Michelin Plantation
The Iron Triangle
The Plain of Reeds

Serious students of the war know of the above battlefields and the efforts -- and great expense in blood and treasure -- the US went to deny them to the VC/NVA.

After the 1973 cease fire, the NVA controlled all of them.

Its strategic position was so sound in 1973-1975 that the communists were busy building road nets *inside* S. Vietnam, eg. QL-14 net from Khe Sanh (yes that Khe Sanh), through the A Shau valley, down around Dak To and Kontum, to their base areas west of Pleiku.

Revisionists bemoan the withdrawal of US air power from the theatre, but IMO this is ignoring a very important element of the post cease-fire landscape: the cease-fire was our designated military exit, and after the POW exchange, any servicemen the NVA captured (should we return to the battle) would simply be held indefinitely without hope of return.

Given able leadership and adequate materiel, ARVN had the resources to statically defend around three-fifths of the country (Hue / Danang, Pleiku, MR 2 coast, Saigon, the Delta: pick 3). But militating against even this was that, given SVN's military geography; PAVN enjoyed essentially interior lines of communication from its DMZ strongholds down through the Central Highlands to its base areas on the border facing the Saigon capital region.

In 1975 the NVA were throwing entire divisions at ARVN battalions in the Central Highlands. The Center could not hold, the rout was on, and GVN's days became numbered.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 8:05 PM on April 18, 2007


Wy don't we just nuke and pave everything from the Indus to the Caspian and from Mediterranean to the Tien Shan and sell it to the Chinese and Russians to park their BMWs on?
posted by davy at 9:20 PM on April 18, 2007


nixerman wrote:
This is something only the spilling of blood can do.

So you, who so strongly approve of these wars, shed blood in Vietnam? Are you shedding any now?

The Vietnam war was not "good for America." Certainly not for that component who actually did your shedding of blood, or for their families, or for the many thousands like me, who had their lives interrupted by that stupid adventure in somebody else's country.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:29 AM on April 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


the Senators brought up Vietnam during their meeting with Bush the other day: ... "Reid talked about a recent conversation he had with a retired general where they talked about the similarities between the current situation and Vietnam," the source relates. "He talked about how the President and Secretary of Defense [during Vietnam] knew that the war was lost but continued to press on at the cost of thousands of additional lives lost."

"The analogy to Vietnam appeared to touch a nerve with the President. He appeared a little sensitive to it," the source continued. "And he clearly didn't like to hear people in the room say that the war couldn't be won militarily." ...


and maybe we should be looking at Cold War and Israeli policies too: US military building 3 mile wall separating Sunnis, Shiites in Baghdad
posted by amberglow at 8:55 AM on April 19, 2007


^^That'll work really well.^^

Divided cities have a history of wendelling.
posted by Mister_A at 9:08 AM on April 19, 2007


I've always found assertions that we "lost" Vietnam a bit strange.

A bunch of Americans died. It cost America a whole bunch of moneys. The country fell to the Viet Cong anyway. Most people call that a loss, but I'm glad to see you've worked out a way not to.
posted by chunking express at 11:05 AM on April 19, 2007


A bunch of Americans died. It cost America a whole bunch of moneys. The country fell to the Viet Cong anyway.

All true. But looking back Vietnam did bring about several benefits for the country. It confirmed the essential logic of the Cold War, it established the precedent for preemptive strikes on flimsy and false pretense (though it's difficult to say whether we'll get our Tonkin moment with Iran and the UN isn't going to play along again so we'll have to get really creative), and it tainted the left with a virulent anti-militarism that it's never recovered from. Not bad for a total military disaster, eh? You might say War is the Health of the State and America, being extremely well defended behind an ocean, thousands of ICBMs and the most powerful military ever created, can afford to work out a lot. Now that there's no longer any threat of planetary destruction what's the harm of having two, three or even four more Vietnams? Sure, people would die etc etc but it's difficult to see how America could ever truly "lose" a war. In the worst case we'd get tired of fighting and have to content ourselves with bombing the enemy occasionally (who else thinks we'll still be doing bombing runs over Iraq in five, ten years?) and in the best case we get direct imperial power over a destroyed client-state. With that sort of risk/reward on the table the neocon desire to invade anything that moves doesn't seem so crazy at all.
posted by nixerman at 2:13 PM on April 19, 2007


"benefits"

You keep using that word. I do not believe it means what you think it means.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:16 PM on April 19, 2007


Also, in case you had not noticed, the most powerful military ever created is having considerable trouble keeping one already-beleaguered backwater subdued. The only way it could effectively take on another one is by using some of those nukes you're so proud of. If you come out in favor of that, I will know that you're full of it.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:21 PM on April 19, 2007


nixerman: But looking back Vietnam did bring about several benefits for the country.

Like Kirth, I'm having trouble seeing what you're describing as "benefits."

Louis Halle describes the importance of consent in maintaining one's power:
... real power is always something far greater than military power alone. A balance of power is not a balance of military power alone: it is, rather, a balance in which military power is one element. Even in its crudest aspect, power represents a subtle and intimate combination of force and consent. No stable government has ever existed, and no empire has ever become established, except with an immensely preponderant measure of consent on the part of those who were its subjects. That consent may be a half-grudging consent; it may be a consent based in part on awe of superior force; it may represent love, or respect, or fear, or a combination of the three. Consent, in any case, is the essential ingredient in stable power--more so than physical force, of which the most efficient and economical use is to increase consent. By using physical force in such a way as alienates consent one constantly increases the requirements of physical force to replace the consent that has been alienated. A vicious spiral develops that, continued, ends in the collapse of power.
It's difficult to express how differently the US was seen before Vietnam. Hans J. Morgenthau, Vietnam: Shadow and Substance (September 1965):
The expedition into Vietnam is a creeping debacle, more insidious for not being spectacular, conjuring up immense risks and narrowing with every step the avenues of escape. And the greatest risk we are facing is neither political nor military. It is the risk to ourselves, to our mission in the world, to our very existence as a distinct nation.

I have spoken of the prestige of the nation and of the prestige of those who govern it, that is, of the mental image which others have of us. Yet there is another kind of prestige: the image we have of ourselves. That image will suffer grievous blemishes as we get ever more deeply involved in the war in Vietnam. This war is a guerrilla war, and such a war, supported or at least not opposed by the indigenous population, can only be won by the indiscriminate killing of everybody in sight, that is, by genocide. The Germans proved that during the Second World War in occupied Europe, and they were prevented from accomplishing their task only because they were defeated in the field. The logic of the issue we are facing in Vietnam has already driven us onto the same path. We have tortured and killed prisoners; we have embarked upon a scorched-earth policy by destroying villages and forests; we have killed combatants and non-combatants without discrimination because discrimination is impossible. And this is only the beginning. For the logic of guerrilla war leaves us no choice. We must go on torturing, killing, and burning, and the more deeply we get involved in this war, the more there will be of it.

This brutalization of the Armed Forces would be a serious matter for any nation, as the example of France has shown. It is intolerable for the United States. For this nation, alone among the nations of the world, was created for a particular purpose: to achieve equality in freedom at home, and thereby set an example for the world to emulate. This was the intention of the Founding Fathers, and to this very day the world has taken them at their word. It is exactly for this reason that our prestige has suffered so disastrously among friend and foe alike; for the world did not expect of us what it had come to expect of others.
The Vietnam War was a disaster: it ripped apart American society, and it destroyed the respect that Americans had for their leaders. Abroad, it demonstrated the limits of American military power, and it destroyed any claims the US might have had to moral superiority.
posted by russilwvong at 4:00 PM on April 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


War is always lose-lose.
posted by Twang at 4:24 PM on April 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


It confirmed the essential logic of the Cold War

Communism was not a monolithic entity bent on conquering the world. The Domino Theory was bunk. Aristotle was not Belgian, the principle of Buddhism is not "every man for himself", and the London Underground is not a political movement.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:00 PM on April 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


Our clearly damaged and incoherent President today on Vietnam v. Iraq--appalling: ...Yes, thank you. The, there's a lot of differences. A first, the Iraqi people voted for a modern constitution. And then set up a government under that constitution.
Secondly, that's as opposed to two divided countries. North and south. The, in my judgment, the vast majority of people want to live underneath the constitution they passed. They want to live in peace. And what you're seeing is radical on the fringe, creating chaos and order to either get the people to lose confidence in the government or for us to leave.
A major difference as far as here at home is concerned as far as the military is it's an all-volunteer army. We need to keep it that way. By the way, the way you keep it that way is to make sure the troops have all they need to do their job and to make sure their families are happy.
And there are some similarities, of course. Death is terrible. There's no similarity, of course, is that Vietnam is the first time that a war was brought onto our TV screens to America on a regular basis. Looking around, looking for baby-boomers, I see a few of us here. A different, for the first time, the violence and horror of war was brought home. That's the way it is today. ...

posted by amberglow at 7:19 PM on April 19, 2007


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