January 30 was the 50th anniversary of the launch of what is known as the Tet Offensive, Tet being the name of the Vietnamese New Year. The forces of the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese army launched a concerted attack on US and South Vietnamese all over South Vietnam and even right in the heart of Ho Chi Ming City (then called Saigon), including the headquarters of the South Vietnamese General Staff, the Independence Palace, the US Embassy, the Navy Headquarters, and the National Radio Station.
While the attacks were repulsed, the sheer audacity of it was a major propaganda defeat for the US that had been telling the US public that things were going well with their invasion of Vietnam and they had things under control. The widely broadcast images of fighting in the capital city laid bare the fact that the US government had been lying to the American people about the progress of the war.
Part of the reason for this was that the US military was also lying to itself and to its political leaders, who are always eager to hear favorable news and not so much to hear bad news. James A. Warren writes about how some US military advisors on the ground in Vietnam had a good idea about the true state of affairs, that the South Vietnamese army was corrupt, brutal, and incompetent and that US military strategy was hopelessly inadequate to deal with the political and counterinsurgency methods of their opponents. But the people at the top did not want to hear it.
While attending the Armed Forces Staff College in late 1964, just as the U.S. Army was gearing up to deploy its own combat forces to Vietnam, Col. Volney F. Warner attended a speech by the Marine commandant, Gen. Wallace Greene. Before he began his talk, Gen. Greene asked his audience of a hundred 100 majors and colonels a pointed question: “How many of you think that U.S. forces should be sent to fight in Vietnam and draw the line against communism there?”
Virtually everyone in the audience raised their hands enthusiastically. Then Greene, a decidedly hawkish member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked a second question: “How many think we should stay out of Vietnam?” Six officers raised their hands … hesitantly. Warner was among them.
“There are a few cowards in every bunch,” quipped the commandant.
But those six officers weren’t cowards. They were soldiers and Marines who had recently returned stateside from tours of duty as advisers to South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) combat units. They knew from firsthand experience what the senior leadership of the American armed forces did not: That the ARVN officer corps, like the government it served, was riven by nepotism, corruption, and indifferent to the plight of the peasantry it was supposed to protect. Moreover, the ARVN was fighting a decidedly unconventional, “people’s war” against small units of guerrillas with tactics and doctrine developed by the U.S. Army for conventional conflicts between regular armies. Not surprisingly, it was losing.
The battle of Ap Bac, opines Neil Sheehan—who was covering the battle for the United Press International, and later wrote a brilliant book about [John Paul] Vann in Vietnam called A Bright Shining Lie—compelled this driven American adviser to launch a crusade “to convince the military and political leadership in Washington that the only way the United States could avoid being beaten in Vietnam was to drastically change strategy … Vann saw the elements of this catastrophe with more clarity than anyone else in Vietnam at the time, and he was determined to do everything he could to prevent it.”
Thanks to Vann’s sterling reputation and contacts, he was ultimately able to secure a hearing with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington about what needed to change if the United States and South Vietnam were to prevail in Vietnam. A couple of hours before he was scheduled to give his briefing, General Maxwell Taylor, chairmen of the JCS, nixed the presentation when he was informed of its substance. He didn’t want bad news on the record.
Warren thinks that the US military has learned some lessons from that debacle.
The U.S. military’s searing experience in Vietnam did, of course, prompt a great deal of soul searching within the services about the way they had conducted business, and about the dangers of manipulating—or ignoring—candid reporting from its soldiers on the ground. Since the fall of Saigon, all the services have placed much more emphasis on collecting uncorrupted information from the field, and incorporating lessons learned there into training and doctrine. And there is a widespread awareness from the Joint Chiefs of Staff on down through the ranks that the skills and tactics required to fight insurgencies and other “asymmetrical conflicts” are vastly different than those required for conventional war.
Whether the U.S. military packs the gear to win “political wars” remains a much-debated question.
I think the answer to that last question is ‘No’. Some things never change. The people at the top still want to hear positive news and it is those who provide such news who are rewarded while the Cassandras are shunted aside. The US public is still lied to about how well the wars undertaken in their name is going. The war in Afghanistan may not make the front pages much these days but observers on the ground say that the Taliban is slowly regaining control. The Taliban is nothing like the NLF in terms of the level its military prowess and its political model but despite those shortcomings, their recent attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul was clearly meant to send the signal that they remain a force.
The lesson of Vietnam and subsequent acts of aggression by the US is that it is easy for the US, with its military might, to destroy a country with bombs, to topple and even kill its political leadership, and install a puppet regime. But winning a war on the ground against a determined local force, even a repressive one like the Taliban, is something else entirely.
The lesson that there is a limit to what raw power can achieve is something that big powers never seem to learn.