The Documentary “The Vietnam War”: Artistic License as History

The Documentary “The Vietnam War”: Artistic License as History

W.R. Baker

As time creeps or races by, those who experienced the Vietnam War are fading from the scene and it’s becoming increasingly important to record a history of that war that is truthful.  Increasingly, the written word is being tossed aside in favor of film and the “documentary” – both allow for “artistic license” instead of facts.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick took $30 million and ten years and used only 80 interviews that, like some others have said, tell how America was wrong, while the communist bloc with the American protestors and politicians were right all along.

Was the American soldier (using this as an all-encompassing term) always right, always moral, always politically correct (especially by today’s standards)? Of course not. Among the many things missing from the documentary were the answers to these same questions of the VC, NVA and the North Vietnamese Government who habitually violated all their agreements, including the Geneva Conventions.

The documentary cherry-picked American actions during the war – just as many predecessors have in books and films. But this was, unfortunately, predictable and expected.

Even before the first show aired, some in the press claimed the documentary to be a masterpiece, blah, blah. Now that they may have seen it, they won’t change their evaluations, egg on their faces are not something they know how to handle.

Too bad the documentary will be pushed as history – accuracy used to be something the press strove for, “but that was yesterday and yesterday’s gone.” A major problem will be in our schools, however, where accuracy will be presumed.

Just ask the 1-2.5 million persons who entered in re-education camps and listen hard for the whispers of the 165,000 who died as a result of the North’s inhumane treatment, though in the Paris treaty, they promised no retribution.

Months ago, Burns and Novick were interviewed with the last question asking if the war could have turned out differently? In reply, everything was the fault of the U.S., of course. When you set out to prove a point and you use only highly selective items to show how balanced on the subject you have been, then guess at the result.

Vietnam remains a communist country today because the military was not allowed to fight and win because the politicians knew best. Then, they sealed the fate of the Vietnamese by letting South Vietnam die on the vine, with nary a word by the press.

Figures.

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Comments

BEGIN QUOTE

As Williams put it, the goal of U.S. grand strategy has been to create an "Open Door world" -- and international system, or "world order" -- made up of states that are open and subscribe to the United State's liberal values and institutions and that are open to U.S. economic penetration. An Open Door world rests, therefore, on two pillars: the economic Open Door (maintaining an open international economic system) and the political Open Door (spreading democracy and liberalism abroad). These pillars are linked by the PERCEPTION that "closure" abroad threatens the survival of American core values -- what policymakers call "the American way of life" -- at home. ... In other words, U.S grand strategy is based on the Open Door-derived assumption that political and economic liberalism cannot flourish at home unless they are safe abroad. This deeply rooted belief was reiterated by President George W. Bush in his second inaugural address, when he declared, "the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands." ...

(See Pages 30 and 31.)

Indochina

America's involvement in Indochina in the late 1940s and early 1950s -- the first step down the "path to Vietnam" -- is a good example of how the link between economic openness and grand strategy not only requires the United States to defends its allies from direct threat but to guarantee their economic access to the periphery. ...

Although Indochina's intrinsic strategic value was minimal, it became important because Washington viewed it as a firewall to prevent the more economically vital parts of Southeast Asia from falling under Communist control. The United States crossed the most crucial threshold on the path to the Vietnam War in the early 1950s, when Washington concluded that the strategic requirements of economic openness -- specifically Southeast Asia's economic importance to Japan and Western Europe -- necessitated that containment be extended to that region. The progressive U.S. entanglement in Indochina that culminated in the Vietnam War was the logical consequence of Washington's commitment to the economic Open Door.

(See Pages 128 and 129.)

END QUOTE

(From Christopher Layne's 2006 "The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present.")

(Slapout: Re: your thoughts below on our Constitution: Note that the preamble to our Constitution will be specifically quoted and discussed in NSC-68 -- the "Open Door" document whose rationale for intervention seems to extend even unto our present time [see President Bush above and, accordingly, our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq today].)

(Warlock: Do the above explanations help re: the questions in your comment below? As to your specific thought that only the threat posed by the Soviet Union drove the NSC-68 "Open Door" strategic train, did you not see the quoted item which I provided from NSC-68, wherein, a clear statement to the contrary is put forward (see: "a policy which we would probably pursue even if there were no Soviet threat.")

(dfil: You said: "To also say that Afghanistan is part of some grand democratization project is also frankly absurd." dfil: Do you want to reconsider this and your other thoughts -- based on the information that I have provided above?)

(COL Jones: Note that this book by Christopher Layne seems to, in general I believe, both agree with and support certain of your ideas and contentions.)

Attempting to come full circle now:

Should we say that our "Documentary on the Vietnam War" adequately addressed, rather glossed over, or, indeed, completely ignored -- the compelling "Open Door" aspects of America's, enduring, post-World War II grand strategy outlined above?

BillC,
I believe that premise is fundamentally flawed. There is no mandate per the Constitution to go abroad and enforce our will on other systems of government in order to remain safe. What the Constitution does mandate is a requirement to defend the USA, which as President Reagan so aptly understood, we should install a peace shield around our country not constantly provoke adversaries with a threat of invasion and occupation.

This fundamentally flawed understanding of the Constitutional mandate and the resulting Foreign policies are the root cause of the security issues we face today.

(Edited and added to from my initial offering):

First, from a COL Jones comment below:

BEGIN QUOTE

Self determination. A simple concept that the founding of America is premised in, and that many revolutionary movements seeking support have turned to America, only to be denied because we valued some perceived interest of the day over their inalienable right. Don’t twist history to appease our conscience. We made a mistake in Vietnam. We exaggerated our Fears; we let our Honor fix us to our mistakes; and we created false Interests to validate our decisions. Admitting this does not dishonor those who served our nation in that tragic conflict; But ignoring it dishonors those who are sent in their footsteps...

END QUOTE

Note here that -- in denying other peoples their right to self-determination -- COL Jones suggests that this such action was/is undertaken because we valued some perceived "interest of the day" over other peoples' such inalienable right.

Given, however, that -- now 50 years after the height of the Vietnam War -- the U.S./the West continues to deny other peoples their right to self-determination, then can we honestly say that these such "denial" efforts were, then and/or now, undertaken because, as COL Jones's suggests, of some perceived "interest of the day?"

Or, based on the enduring nature of our such denial of other peoples' right to self-determination, should we not agree that:

a. Not our "interest of the day," per se, was and/or is the driving force behind our such "denial" actions and activities. But, rather,

b. Our "enduring interests," best described and articulated -- then as now -- in NSC-68:

BEGIN QUOTE

Our overall policy at the present time may be described as one designed to foster a world environment in which the American system can survive and flourish. ... a policy which we would probably pursue even if there were no Soviet threat ...

END QUOTE

https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/nsc-68/nsc68-2.htm

Thus, while we might argue that denying other populations their right to self-determination (for example, the communists back-in-the-day and/or the Islamists today) was and/or is "a smart" and/or is "the best" way for the U.S. to achieve its such enduring interest (to wit: "fostering a world environment in which the American system can survive and flourish"); one certainly would not seem to be able to argue, as COL Jones does below, that this/these such actions/activities (denial of other populations their right to self-determination) this was then -- and/or is now -- being done because of some perceived "interest of the day." Yes?

Bottom Line Question -- Based on the Above:

Given that, then as now:

a. "Enduring interest" appears to drive America's strategies ("containment of communism" during the Old Cold War; "advancing market democracy" in the current age); given this such understanding,

b. What now are our thoughts on these and on subordinate/corresponding matters?

(Thus, a possible better way of looking at these matters:

In the "Long War" -- to "foster a world environment in which the American system can survive and flourish" -- the U.S./the West, post-World War II, has engaged in at least two major campaigns:

a. First, the Cold War Campaign; wherein, [a] the strategy of "containment of communism" is formally adopted and, wherein, among others, [b] the "Battle of Vietnam" takes place.

b. Second, the Post-Cold War Campaign; wherein, [a] the strategy of "advancing market democracy" is formally adopted and, wherein, among others, [b] the "Battles of Afghanistan and Iraq" take place.

Herein, and in such a "Long War" -- which now finds itself running for over 70 years -- the U.S./the West consistently determining [rightfully or wrongfully] that [a] the "self-determination" of other countries and peoples; this [b] was not, and still is not, compatible with our "enduring interest" -- of "fostering a world environment in which the American system can survive and flourish?")

Bill C.

America does have a handful of enduring vital interests, such as:

1. Maintain access to resources and markets;

2. Do not allow an enemy power, or coalition of enemy powers, to dominate the Eurasian landmass.

The liberal, post-cold war fluffiness found in National Security Strategies are a great deal like reading Clausewitz. Clearly true and important, but of little help in making practical decisions.

Making the same mistake repeatedly, while rationalizing away failure to any number of factors beyond our control, however, does not an "enduring interest" make. We as a nation are still too convinced of our power, our goodness and our rightness to see things as they actually are. So why evolve when the failures of these operations were never our fault?

Bob

COL Jones:

Are you not clearly wrong -- to suggest that the U.S./the West has "failed" -- herein, you (improperly?) focusing on certain battles (such as the Battle of Vietnam and/or the Battles of Afghanistan and Iraq); this, instead of focusing on:

a. The Campaigns (to "contain communism" in the Old Cold War and to "advance market democracy" in the Post-Cold War era) and

b. The Long/Generational War itself (to "foster a world environment in which the American system can survive and flourish"); a war which, properly understood, transcends both the Old Cold War and Post-Old Cold War periods?

Herein to suggest that, as to both "a" and "b" immediately above, the U.S./the West would not appear to have "failed" but, indeed, would appear to have "succeeded" -- or, at least -- "made significant and measurable progress." Yes?

BEGIN QUOTE

Over the past quarter-century, a large number of nations have made a successful transition to democracy. Many more are at various stages of the transition. When historians write about U.S. foreign policy at the end of the 20th century, they will identify the growth of democracy--from 30 countries in 1974 to 117 today--as one of the United States' greatest legacies. The United States remains committed to expanding upon this legacy until all the citizens of the world have the fundamental right to choose those who govern them through an ongoing civil process that includes free, fair, and transparent elections.

END QUOTE

https://www.state.gov/j/drl/democ/

Thus:

a. As to this exact such perspective (we may have lost/may be having difficulties as to certain battles -- but we have clearly won/are clearly making progress as to the Campaigns and as to the "Long/Generational War" itself; a war which, properly understood, transcends both the Old Cold War and present Post-Cold War eras). As to this exact such perspective:

b. What great and/or significant reason do we have to "change"/to "evolve?"

Bottom Line Thought -- Based on the Above:

Thus:

a. Denying self-determination (as our "successes" in the Campaigns and in the Long/Generational War seem to indicate?),

b. This seems to have "worked?"

(Our belief in "our power, our goodness and our rightness," thus, to be understood more in terms of our such successes?)

I did not say we were a failure as a nation. I said we failed in how we understood, framed and approached those three situations.

If a man lives to be 100, but gets divorced three times for making the same mistake of having an affair with his mother-in-law; you don't rationalize that he had an enduring interest to engage in that flawed behavior; and that overall his life was a success.

Armed with a better sense of the nature of those three situations; Armed with a better sense of how the dynamics of major power intervention into the political dynamics of others was evolving in the post-WWII (accelerating in the post-Cold War) strategic environments; Armed with a better sense of our own truly vital interests; Armed with greater confidence in the power of self-determination and the ability of our own system of governance to survive in a world where others might decide to take paths better suited to their own cultures. Armed with these things, we could have avoided the tragedy of those three failures.

We would do well to appreciate and accept that self-determination is the ultimate expression of "democracy" - even if a population opts to adopt a communist or Islamist flavored, autocratic approach to governance.

The problem here appears to be that:

a. The "tragedy of those three failures" (Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan); these WOULD NOT seem to "loom large" -- as a reason for "changing, "evolving," etc. -- this, when compared to:

b. Our amazing successes, to wit: the fact that -- via our anti-self-determination approaches post-World War II ("containment of communism" during the Old Cold War; "advancing market democracy" in current age) --

1. The threat of communism and the Soviet Union was largely defeated/curtailed/overcome. (Herein, only communist N. Korea causing us significant problems today?) And:

2. Our "enduring interest" -- of "fostering a world environment in which the American system can survive and flourish" -- significantly advanced. (Herein, 87 new democratic nations being added to our roster since 1974.)

Thus, it is these amazing and many "successes" -- rather than those few "failures" -- seeming to validate and, thus, still drive, our anti-self-determination strategies, etc., "train?"

(Thus, when I tuned into C-Span recently, and watched LTG Michael Nagata, Director, Directorate of Strategic Operational Planning at the National Counterterrorism Center; John E. McLaughlin, former Acting Director of the Central Intelligence Agency; Jon Alterman, Senior Vice President and Director of CSIS's Middle East Program; and Christine Wormuth, former Deputy Undersecretary Department of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Force Development -- watched these folks discuss [a] terrorism in N. Africa, etc., and [b] the best approach to same -- these folks seem to conclude, near the end of their such discussion, that:

a. Our anti-self-determination approach was still the best way to go [our "whole of government" efforts to be understood in this context]; this, given that:

b. Such was the manner by which we [a] ultimately brought communism and the Soviet Union to its knees and, thereby, [b] advanced our ongoing effort to "foster a world environment in which the American system can survive and flourish.")

https://www.c-span.org/video/?438027-5/security-threats-north-africa-pan... (Note: One can go in -- to about the 40 minute mark -- to see what appears to be this/these conclusions.)

(Note: The only "change"/"evolution," that I seem to be seeing re: our current anti-self-determination approaches, is the acceptance of that fact that, post-the Old Cold War, [a] our "soft power" has failed us in certain parts of the world and, thus and accordingly [b] our installation of and/or support for authoritarian governors/governments -- before conflict if possible but after conflict if necessary -- may be needed; this, to transform outlying states and societies more along modern western lines.)

One would do well to consider that the US did not "defeat" the Soviet Union or Communism. Communism collapsed of it's own weight; and the Soviet's were never defeated - their government quit. The net effect is a "win," but it is a very different type of win than comes with far less privilege than one gets from imposing a defeat.

Equally we should not take too much credit for increasingly empowered populations and enlightened societies turning to some variation of democracy.

We're not a bad nation - but we've allowed our fears, our pride, and our confusion over what conditions we need for national success to rationalize some very bad decisions and behavior.

"Fear, pride and confusion" -- "over what conditions we need for national success" -- these WOULD NOT seem to be our primary motivation. Rather, something akin to "properly understood need, necessity and opportunity;" THESE, in stark contrast, would seem to drive our anti-self-determination efforts; yesterday as today.

First, as to actual "need" and "necessity" (rather than as to "fear, pride, and confusion") -- from the Old Cold War and NSC-68:

"The objectives of a free society are determined by its fundamental values and by the necessity for maintaining the material environment in which they flourish. ... Our overall policy at the present time may be described as one designed to foster a world environment in which the American system can survive and flourish. ... a policy which we would probably pursue even if there were no Soviet threat."

Next, as to actual "need" and "opportunity"(and not so much "fear, pride, and confusion") -- from the Post-Old Cold War and former NSA Lakes's introduction to then-President Clinton's Engagement and Enlargement Strategy:

"Moreover, absent a reversal in Russia, there is now no near-term threat to America's existence. ... Above all, we are threatened by sluggish economic growth, which undermines the security of our people as well as that of allies and friends abroad. ... America's challenge today is to lead on the basis of opportunity more than fear."

Bottom Line Thought -- Based on the Above:

Above all, I am impressed with the honesty -- and the clarity -- which is to be found in the above quote from NSC-68:

"The objectives of a free society are determined by its fundamental values -- and by the necessity for maintaining the material environment in which they flourish."

Herein, to understand that states and societies which are not organized, ordered and oriented more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines; these such states and societies are thought to deny the U.S./the West this such "material environment" which we require.

Thus, the requirement to deny "self-determination" -- and to organize, order and orient other states and societies so as to best provide for the wants, needs and desires of the U.S./the West -- this seems to become something of a sacred duty for American foreign policy.

Finally, for a possible proper context/a possible proper perspective:

BEGIN QUOTE

The principle (of self-determination) has been followed when it does not conflict with higher priority United States objectives or in those instances when following the principle adds rather than detracts from the ability of the United States to satisfy even more fundamental objectives of responsible policy.

END QUOTE

(Item in parenthasis above is mine.)

http://www.jstor.org/stable/20671232?seq=10#page_scan_tab_contents

My suggested examples -- of "higher priority U.S. objectives"/"more fundamental objectives of responsible policy?"

a. Achieving and maintaining the "material environment" by which our fundamental values are maintained. And, correspondingly,

b. "Fostering a world environment in which the American system can survive and flourish."

"The objectives of a free society are determined by its fundamental values -- and by the necessity for maintaining the material environment in which they flourish."

Where in this statement does it mandate running around reorganizing and changing other countries? It certainly provides a rationale for opposing the Soviet Union, which at the time was, with varying levels of success, trying to bring more and more of the world under its exclusive influence and control -- a credible, existential threat to U.S. relationships with other countries, U.S. allies, and to the U.S. itself. Nowhere does anything say "maintaining the material environment" equates to "organize, order and orient other states and societies so as to best provide for the wants, needs and desires of the U.S./the West."

There's also certainly nothing in the above quote that's at odds with this one:
"Moreover, absent a reversal in Russia, there is now no near-term threat to America's existence. ... Above all, we are threatened by sluggish economic growth, which undermines the security of our people as well as that of allies and friends abroad. ... America's challenge today is to lead on the basis of opportunity more than fear."

That all said, your two suggested policy objectives are good ones, so long as your realize there are many roads to get there that don't involve taking over the Soviets' old role to transform the world economic and political system.

I agree with much of the comments made by the author. The media was prejudiced against America's involvement in the war and the peace movement that has been unduly glorified was actually more of a draft resistance movement. Where are the huge anti-war protests since the reformation of an All-Volunteer Army?
One only has to follow the story of General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan summarily executing Nguyễn Văn Lém. It was a legal execution, Lem was a terrorist murderer, killed women and children, families he had been tried in absentia and no one denies his guilt. The American war resistance to this day describes it as an act of wanton
murder and proof of widespread war crimes.
There are authors who claim 2 million civilians were killed by the US the fact is the NVA and VC raped, tortured and murdered with impunity, by and large American forces followed prescribed articles of war not to say the fighting wasn't brutal but what the war resistance did was blame all civilian casualties on the USA. The USA is to blame simply by the fact it attempted to help the South Vietnamese defend itself from a Communist insurgency and an invasion from the North.
Saigon did not fall because of a popular uprising, the VC were largely destroyed when they attempted a main coup on Tet. It was only after the US 113th Congress reneged on its promise of military aid did Saigon fall and that was by an invasion straight down the highway from the North.
Even the widely dispersed photo of a young girl caught in napalm was falsely reported by the "liberal" media in the USA. I heard her speak to my Unit she was grateful, , the napalm burned her but destroyed the NVA trying to murder her; she was saved from what the NVA would have done to her, rape torture death.
It was not a phobia or false hysteria that sent millions of Vietnamese into pirate infested waters braving high seas in leaky boats to escape the brutality of the Communists, and nearly a million died.
5 years ago in Hanoi over 100 Christians peacefully protesting for religious freedoms were shot down by the same sort of communists who brought so much destruction to their own country 50 years ago.
I know personally of dozens of NVA and vC atrocities, I did not witness the thousands are even a handful of atrocities committed by US troops. My response to such propaganda is if Senator Kerry witnessed these crimes while serving as an Officer in the US navy why didn't he try to stop them, doesn't that make him an accessory after the fact or just a plain old liar?
The last veteran I had a discussion with after he claimed to have thrown POWs off a helicopter ended when I proved he couldn't have done so, the fact was he didn't even recall the proper or general safe way to even get on a Huey. He might have been a veteran but I still don't get why he would confess to committing a crime he didn't commit? Why would he think that was a good thing?

If I recall this documentary on the Vietnam War correctly, I seem to remember seeing interviews/excerpts therein, where, both President Kennedy and President Johnson say, that in order to get re-elected/elected, they would need to -- despite their misgivings -- take a clear pro-Vietnam War/clear anti-communism stance. (Or words to that effect.) The implication being, that this is what the American people wanted, needed, expected and required of their presidents.

Do I recall these parts of the documentary correctly?

In consideration of the above, and looking at the Gallup poll provided below, can we say, then, that the Vietnam War was more of an American people's war -- a war that the American people, themselves, (at least until Tet) wanted, needed, expected and required -- and no so much a war of either President Kennedy or President Johnson?

("Blame," etc., thus, to be allocated accordingly?)

http://news.gallup.com/vault/191828/gallup-vault-hawks-doves-vietnam.aspx

Perversely, the post-WWII American population and their Congressional representatives has been reasonably enthusiastic about going to war (or some facsimile) so long as a) we're winning, and b) it's relatively short and doesn't demand much sacrifice in terms of American blood and treasure...any conflict we're involved in becomes an "American people's war" simply by virtue of our being there, even if we're in the minority. Korea was popular, until it started dragging out into a stalemate and sucking up lots of troops for no apparent gain. Ditto Vietnam. Ditto Afghanistan. Ditto Iraq. It's no accident that Afghanistan and Iraq were funded by borrowing, and troop surges were hotly debated...levying a war tax would have dampened voter (and donor) support, and sending more troops is always a tacit admission that Things Aren't Going Well. I know this is an extremely cynical view, and would be happy to be proved wrong.

Agree with Bill C. on this one, I think most of knew we were talking about the grand strategy of containment, and from that optic Vietnam was a protracted battle. Also, from that optic it can argued that we both won and lost. Ultimately we lost the battle, but we demonstrated our political will to oppose communist expansion (contrary to the arguments to the contrary). After Vietnam, we continued to oppose communism aggression around the globe with diplomacy, economic levers, information, the CIA, and Special Forces as the key means for implementing that strategy. We rightfully avoiding getting our conventional forces stuck in an expensive and protracted fight that would over time put us in a bad light (instead of the solution, we became the problem). As the former Singapore Prime Minister Lee often repeated, he believed the Vietnam War gave Asian nations a breathing spell to subdue local communist insurgencies. PM Lee had a nuanced understanding of Asia, especially SE Asia, so I don't take his comments lightly.

Paradoxically, our initial involvement in Vietnam, from a Cold War perspective, had little to do with Vietnam and SE Asia, and much more to do about Europe. There are no simple models that explain the complexity in the world. As one wise man said, all models are wrong, but they're still useful. We could view the Vietnam War through 6 different models, and each one would explain an aspect of it, but they all would fail to explain the whole.

To Warlock's point, it does the American people are easier to manipulate with sound bytes than I'm comfortable to admit. It seems the early genre of Western movies reflected our national view of the dividing the world into good and bad. The frontier lawman versus the outlaws, and the cavalry versus the Indians. Complexity doesn't resonate with the larger population, explanations must quickly define the challenge and our approach to it as good or bad. Our wars are generally perceived as good until they're not. Equally troubling, there has always been element in the American population that reflexively believes America is always wrong. Regardless of who we're fighting or why we're fighting we're automatically wrong. I don't think it is possible to move beyond this dynamic, people are either too busy, their views of the world are too engrained, or they just don't care to gain a more nuanced understanding. This is understandable, but also a shame when we give wide latitude to politicians to commit our forces and treasure to a war.

Bill C.,

You make an important point about American crises often being collectively self-inflicted.

Kennedy certainly escalated U.S. involvement in Vietnam, raising the military personnel numbers there from 900 to 16,000. Although Kennedy had refused to send in ground forces and had planned on withdrawing 1,000 advisors from Vietnam prior to his assassination, you will note that Johnson only sent in major ground forces after relying on a combination unconventional warfare and airpower for over a year. Despite posthumous myth-making about Kennedy, the evidence suggests that he would have escalated in the manner that Johnson did.

There is a considerable delay between events occurring and events being popularly understood to be occurring, for both cognitive and emotional reasons. The Soviet Union was presented as an ally during World War II in U.S. propaganda films, and it was difficult for the U.S. government to reveal not only that its "ally" was an aggressive and totalitarian state not unlike those that it had defeated, but that Soviet intelligence had deeply penetrated U.S. government and society. The determination of 1964 was in fact twenty years too late.

Yet Vietnam was hardly an "American people's war" as most of the killing and dying was done by the Vietnamese. However, there was a 5-year surge that exceeded the levels of troops deployed during the Korean War.

Bill M.,

I am afraid that you are up against emotional biases so entrenched, that there is no allowance even for the mere moderation of cognitive ones. Most people are very averse to chaotic complexity, and therefore strive to conceive of the world in ordered and simple terms. Unfortunately, this proclivity applies as much to combat veterans of the war as anti-war activists who never served. Historical events are debated with such ferocity for two reasons: to find meaning in the event, and to connect the past with the present.

With respect to Bob, he is an Army Special Forces Colonel (ret.) who served in Afghanistan and the Philippines during OEF, providing him a front row seat for the circus of American CT/COIN/FID efforts being conducted in corrupt and weak states. I also understand that RC served in Iraq after the 2003 invasion in a similar unconventional capacity. There is no question that successive U.S. presidential administrations have subjected diplomats and warfighters to extreme stress for almost fifteen years as they pursued multiple and concurrent military campaigns and state reconstruction initiatives that were deliberately under-resourced. Therefore, I cannot fault any veteran of these conflicts for leaning towards the perspective of Engelhardt and his group of similar-minded veterans affiliated with “The Nation”. Yet the quest to draw a clear line from the Spanish-American War to Operation Inherent Resolve, in which the Vietnam intervention plays a central role, is a march to folly.

Azor

So, not a real psychologist, but you play one on tv?? No worries, that assessment is no more flawed than your strategic ones have been.

I think the real issue of perspective is one of nature vs. character. You appear to focus on the facts of the conflict within the context of the character of that specific conflict. That is sound tactical thinking. I don't disagree with your facts or your tactical characterizations.

Nature is the art of how conflicts are the same. Character is the art of how they are unique. The first is the key to strategy, the second is the key to tactics. One really needs to try to do both. Americans in particular, and the West in general, are handicapped in this process as we tend to think "war is war" and attempt to shoehorn all manner of political conflict into a Clausewitzian context. Where I differ from the accepted norm is that I have come to believe that political conflict within a single system of governance is fundamentally different from political conflict between two or more systems. Our doctrine does not make that distinction. To further complicate matters, the two forms of conflict often take place in the same time and space, do not look much different on the ground, so must be accounted for in one's strategy and campaign design. We don't do that.

What I attempt to do is focus on the facts of the conflict within the context of the nature of political conflict in general. To me, this is the key to sound strategic thinking. And if we are to derive strategic lessons from our tactical actions, this is the critical step. Frankly it is a step that Americans as a society do not seem to be very good at. We are good at putting together vast tactical assessments and calling the lessons strategic. We are good at adding up tactical metrics and calling our conclusions strategic. But we are not good at thinking about conflicts in fundamental terms and deriving strategic lessons or assessing them in strategic terms.

This does not make me emotional, biased, or entrenched. Nor does it tie me to three of a million other experiences that shape my thinking. Quite the opposite. Cognition is what one knows. That is level one thinking. Wisdom is in what one understands. That is a much harder journey that one can strive for, but rarely achieve. These are "the understanders" and the military does not encourage or reward this behavior. But one must strive, and not just sit comfortably in a box of cognition, facts, school solutions and doctrine. These are "the memorizers", and the military loves a good memorizer. Most are not comfortable stepping outside of that box, or with those who do.

RCJ wrote-
'We are good at putting together vast tactical assessments and calling the lessons strategic.'

I would argue that we are lousy at tactical assessments. The simple reason being we fail to accept and/or understand the effects of tactical actions - whether they be ours, theirs or neutrals. Impoverished by this shortcoming, we then compile vast assessments based on lousy, wrong or non-existent effects.

Like the man said -

'Strategy is the use of the engagement for the purpose of the war'

Clausewitz's engagement is a human act. Strategy is also an exclusively human activity and like every human action, it lives or dies at the tactical level.

If you misunderstand the net tactical effect of the engagement your Operational Art will have little or no positive consequence, even less strategic effect and before you know it you've screwed the pooch.

No amount of firepower, blood or treasure can redeem the situation if you fail to grasp the net effect of your tactical actions.

The connection between the humble tactical effect and a lasting political End is a direct one. A winning strategy merely resources / shapes/ facilitates the bridge between the engagement and the political Ends.

IMHO only the Mark One Eyeball can gauge the true tactical effects of the mano o mano action. At this embryonic stage ground-truth will readily determine if your chosen strategy has aligned Operational consequences sufficiently to achieve the desired Strategic effect.

If your Strategy bridge is of a sound design and resilent enough to cope with the inevitable missteps, your positive tactical effects will build Operational and Strategic momentum. This Strategic momentum builds over time until the desired political Ends becomes a foregone conclusion.

RC

In the Napoleonic era (i.e., Clausewitz); tactics were strategy because battle was war. In warfare between nations it is a more comprehensive matter than that of a French nation against various kingdoms, or between kingdoms. Likewise, revolutionary conflict within a single nation, is not really war at all, but more an exercise of illegal democracy. Most of the recent conflicts we've injected ourselves into are a blend of war and revolution and that has to be accounted for in one's strategy. We don't make that distinction, we trust our "mark one eyeballs" to be able to assess intent from action (they can't), and the results speak for themselves.

I don't own any soda straws, I'm just looking past the character of specific conflicts to assess the underlying nature of the same. I don't see a lot of that in what Rant, Azor or Bill M. are arguing. Without appreciating the underlying nature, you are just executing tactics and hoping your desired end will result. That isn't strategy.

RCJ,

Every military conflict is different in character as you rightly point out, but the causal nature of conflict can also be different.

I mean to ask was it within normal German nature to push a Jew into a gas chamber. That would suggest a young German today is perfectly capable of murdering a Jew for no reason whatsoever and fascist ideology had little influence.

Was it the Japanese nature to celebrate the beheading of Chinese by putting the 'score' of the leading Japanese officer executioners on the front page of leading Japanese daily newspapers - wherein the populace marvelled at it like a batting average?

Starving to death 30 million fellow Chinese in Moa's 'Great Leap Forward'? Stalin having 600K innocent people shot, Pol Pot, Turk massacre of the Armenians etc.

Hitler,Tojo, Moa,Stalin, Pol Pot etc probably never murdered anyone. Folks as normal as you and I did the deed. Something has to undermine human nature for this to happen and I would argue it has little to do with natural urges.

Within a more imaginable/respectable lens- it defies human nature for a twenty year old airman with 18 missions under his belt to climb into a B-17 knowing there is zero chance of him coming back. Equally inhuman is to get the same spotty kid to drop incendiary bombs and kill thousands of innocent women and children cowering in their basements. We even call the men who survived the ordeal the Golden Generation.

More pointedly placing IEDs at random that have a 90% chance of killing an innocent Afghan civilian, walking into mosque and blowing to pieces 300 innocent people, emptying a full mag of 7.62 from PKM into a dormitory of sleeping school children.

This is not a fulfillment of self-determination any more than it be the consequence of RRE.

In the war against the Soviets the notion of the Muj randomly blowing up civilians, suicide attacks on mosques, machine-gunnning school-children would have been rightly condemned as lunacy - but you expect us to accept the Muj and the Talibs are driven by the same natural human motivators.

COL Jones:

Andrew Mack, in his "How Big Countries Lose Small Wars," appears to give credit for how the Vietnam War was won by our enemies -- not to communism -- but, rather, to our enemies' use of guerrilla/asymmetrical warfare; this, in pursuit of their nationalist objectives:

BEGIN QUOTE

A cursory examination of the history of imperialist expansion in the nineteenth and early twentieth century reveals one thing very clearly: Third-World resistance, where it existed, was crushed with speedy efficiency. In terms of conventional military thinking, such successes were not unexpected. Indeed, together with the Allied experience in the first and second World Wars, they served to reinforce and to rigidify the pervasive notion that a superiority of military ability (conventionally defined) will mean victory in war.

However, the history of a number of conflicts in the period following World War II showed that military and technological superiority may be a highly unreliable guide to the outcome of wars. In Indochina (1946-54), Indonesia (1947-49), Algeria, Cyprus, Aden, Morocco, and Tunisia, local nationalist forces gained their objectives in armed confrontations with industrial powers which possessed overwhelming superiority in conventional military capabilities. These wars were not exclusively colonial phenomenon, as was demonstrated by the failure of the United States to defeat its opponents in Vietnam.

For some idea of the degree to which the outcome of these wars presents a radical break with the past, it is instructive to examine the case of Indochina. The French successfully subjugated the people of Indochina for more than sixty years with a locally based army only fifteen thousand strong. The situation changed dramatically after 1946, when the Vietnamese took up arms in guerrilla struggle. By 1954, the nationalist forces of the Vietminh had forced the French -- who by this time had deployed an expeditionary force of nearly two hundred thousand men -- to concede defeat and withdraw their forces in ignominy. Within twenty years, the vast U.S. military machine -- with an expeditionary force of five hundred thousand strong -- had also been forced to withdraw.

END QUOTE

https://web.stanford.edu/class/polisci211z/2.2/Mack%20WP%201975%20Asymm%...

Given that this (guerrilla/asymmetrical warfare) also appears to be a/the manner by which our present-day enemies (both large and small and both state and non-state actors?) appear to be waging war against us (the goal being political attrition -- destroying our will to continue our efforts to "transform and incorporate" the outlying states and societies of the world?), just how much credit should we give to this such suggestion/observation?

Does our opponents' use of guerrilla/asymmetrical warfare stand alone as the reason for "our" loses and "their" (our enemies') gains -- yesterday and today?

Or is the "toxic cocktail" (as far as the U.S./the West is concerned) BOTH:

a. THEIR use of ideology, religion, culture, history, etc., AND

b. THEIR use of guerrilla/asymmetrical warfare, etc.; these to:

1. Achieve THEIR nationalist/independence goals. And to:

2. Thwart OUR "transform and incorporate" ends?

Rant,
This is true, and furthermore Bob and others are far providing a strategy, they're simply critics of existing policy. While policy ends are a key component of strategy, a strategist must also address means, ways, and balance risk. Policy makers weighing the risk for engaging in Vietnam viewed risk from a perspective that had little to do with Vietnam itself, so Bob's tactical explanation of legitimacy explains little from a strategic perspective. That is viewing strategy through a soda straw. It is the same explanation we have heard for decades from multiple so called explainers. We need to hit the refresh button and view it within a larger context without discarding deep understanding of local conditions. A strategist would seek to leverage local conditions to advance their interests. That is when tactics become nested to strategy. Otherwise they're just tactics.

Re: "strategy," etc.:

a. With regard to Vietnam, et al., and U.S. activities during the Old Cold War more generally, why have we not seen the words "containment" and/or "roll back" (of communism) more frequently, if at all, in this most recent discussion? Likewise re: strategy:

b. With regard to Iraq, Afghanistan, the Islamists, etc., and in the case of U.S. activities post-the Old Cold War generally, why have we not see the words "advancement" and "enlargement" (of, in this case, the world's market-democracies)?

(In this latter case, to consider the following from Anthony Lake, then-National Security Advisor to President Clinton:

BEGIN QUOTE

Throughout the Cold War, we contained a global threat to market democracies; now we should seek to enlarge their reach, particularly in places of special significance to us.

The successor to a doctrine of containment must be a strategy of enlargement -- enlargement of the world's free community of market democracies.

END QUOTE

https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/lakedoc.html)

As to "policy objectives"/the "policy ends" of the U.S. -- which strategy was/is supposed to serve both during the Old Cold War and again today -- might we consider these such "policy ends" as being somewhat consistent, then as now:

a. First, from NSC-68 of 1950:

BEGIN QUOTE

II. Fundamental Purpose of the United States:

The fundamental purpose of the United States is laid down in the Preamble to the Constitution: ". . . to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity." In essence, the fundamental purpose is to assure the integrity and vitality of our free society, which is founded upon the dignity and worth of the individual.

Three realities emerge as a consequence of this purpose: Our determination to maintain the essential elements of individual freedom, as set forth in the Constitution and Bill of Rights; our determination to create conditions under which our free and democratic system can live and prosper; and our determination to fight if necessary to defend our way of life, for which as in the Declaration of Independence, "with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor." ...

VI. U.S. Intentions and Capabilities--Actual and Potential

A. POLITICAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL

Our overall policy at the present time may be described as one designed to foster a world environment in which the American system can survive and flourish. It therefore rejects the concept of isolation and affirms the necessity of our positive participation in the world community.

END QUOTE

https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/nsc-68/nsc68-1.htm

b. Next, from testimony before the State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Subcommittee, Committee on Appropriations, U.S. Senate, by former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, on Tuesday, May 9, 2017:

BEGIN QUOTE

... America has always been about its principles. Its history has been the record of its struggle to realize these principles at home and to advance them abroad. ...

Political democracy and free markets were at the core of the rules-based international order that America and Europe created in the aftermath of World War II. And every war that America has fought since that time has been fought in the name of advancing the cause of freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.

America has never accepted the idea that it had to choose between its democratic principles and its interests. This is a false choice. Advancing freedom and democracy in the world also advances American interests. For a world that reflects these principles, is more likely to be a world in which America -- and Americans -- can thrive and prosper.

END QUOTE

https://www.usip.org/publications/2017/05/us-democracy-assistance

Bottom Line Thought -- Based on the Above:

COL Jones, it would seem, is most concerned -- re: this and other discussions -- with (a) the wants, needs and desires of other populations and with (b) the manner by which these such populations seek to achieve their such ends.

While this is important, I think that -- to better understand our conflicts yesterday (to include Vietnam) and today (for example Iraq and Afghanistan) -- I believe that we must, first and foremost, come to better understand and acknowledge:

a. The -- often diametrically opposed to the desires of other populations -- wants, needs and desires of the U.S./the West (we will only allow activities that are seen as being consistent with "creating/fostering a world environment in which the American system, and thus Americans, can survive and prosper"). And come to better understand and acknowledge:

b. The manner by which we seek to achieve our such desired ends (during the Old Cold War, by "containing" and "rolling back" communism; in the post-Old Cold War era, by "advancing" and "enlarging" the number of market-democracies in the world -- see our recent such efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan).

(This, especially if we are going to discuss such things as "strategy," "policy ends," "political objectives," "tactics," etc. Yes?)

I think I'm starting to perceive that you think the United States is an empire of sorts.

For example, "...often diametrically opposed to the desires of other populations." Those who know the recent history of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will know that during the occupations the governments of those countries were granted plenty of sovereignty. In fact, they were granted so much sovereignty they shot themselves in the foot in innumerable ways such as in corruption, failed military operations, and matters of governance. Wikileaks hammered the U.S. over the Iraq War logs for not reporting torture for detainees turned over to Iraqi police and security forces. But when you are respecting a state's sovereignty (on some level), they have the jurisdiction over detainees and the right to deal with them in their own justice system. But it's Iraq, so it's pretty likely they will get tortured in the process. When it comes to Afghanistan, there was enormous friction between Hamid Karzai and his American counterparts. You cannot assume (at least I think you may be assuming this) that simply because a country is under occupation, that all its government and people are being told what to do. At a strategic level, if the U.S. feels compelled to conduct regime change, it has no choice as a democratic nation but to lay the foundation for democratic institutions in place of whatever system it is replacing.

Gen. Petraeus also said in an interview as CENTCOM chief that he was perfectly fine with local shuras adjudicating disputes in Afghanistan, even though it was an alternative system of governance to the Afghan government, because it was local custom and enjoyed a high level of trust by the people. Democracy is not the same in every country, and nobody with a brain is going to think that Afghanistan or Iraq are going to become developed democratic states overnight.

In regard to Afghanistan specifically, the Taliban has a single digit approval rating among the Afghan people, which is obviously not the same for the Afghan government. It would be extremely disingenuous to suggest that the war in Afghanistan is somehow against the better interest and the will of the Afghan community. The Taliban is not even from Afghanistan originally. What do you think the choice of the Afghan should be, side with a 60+ nation coalition, including the United Nations and large constellation of development NGOs, all of whom have invested tens of billions into Afghanistan's development and economy in past years, or the Taliban, who put millions of women out of work, have always committed the vast majority of civilian casualties in the past 16 years of war, and earned international condemnation when they were in power in the 90s?

To also say that Afghanistan is part of some grand democratization project is also frankly absurd. The U.S. (and dozens of other nations) is clearly there to contain an insurgency (as evidenced by numerous official policy statements and documents), and democratic institutions just happen to compliment that effort. You are clearly reading certain statements of strategic vision and applying it to everything in a blanket manner. The impetus to go to war in Iraq or Afghanistan has its own organic strategic and policy considerations (such as containing an insurgent movement that could turn an internal state conflict into greater regional conflict). Going to war in Afghanistan to establish a budding market economy is about the worst justification there could possibly be considering it's one of the poorest countries on the planet and whose government has next to no self-sufficiency. Trillions of dollars have been spent on the endeavor without a commensurate economic return, and this will not change for the foreseeable future.

It also seems painfully obvious that you believe that the U.S. is advancing democratization by empire. You also do not seem to recognize that democratization support does not have to come at the expense of the free will of foreign populations, and democratization support does not always take the form of forceful means. I urge you to learn more about the U.S. State Department and what it does every single day to build and foster trusting relationships with other nations. It's a shame how little is known about the day-to-day diplomatic and development operations between states. USAID and State play the leading role in democratization support for the U.S. government, and the means they employ are not exactly insidious.

dfil:

First, from Niall Ferguson's "Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire:"

"I set out to write this book in the belief that the role of the United States in the world today could be better understood by comparing it with past empires. I understood well enough that most Americans feel uneasy about applying the word "empire" to their country, though an influential minority ... are not so inhibited. But what I had not fully understood until the first edition of "Colossus" was published was the precise nature of "imperial denial" as a national condition. It is, I discovered, acceptable among American liberals to say that the United States is an empire -- provided that you deplore the fact. It is also permitted to say, when among conservatives, that American power is potentially beneficent -- provided that you do not describe it as imperial. What is not allowed is to say that the United States is (a) an empire AND (b) that this might not be wholly bad. ... Empire, however, denotes something more sophisticated still: The extension of one's civilization, usually by military force, to rule over other peoples."

Next, as to this "extension of one's civilization" -- and the United States' participation in same -- aspect of "empire," from Hans Morgenthau's "To Intervene or Not to Intervene:"

"The United States and the Soviet Union face each other ... as the fountainheads of two hostile and incompatible ideologies, systems of government and ways of life, each trying to expand the reach of its respective political values and institutions and to prevent the expansion of the other."

(dfil: Thus to see that the "grand democratization project" [a] clearly exists and [b] clearly has "legs;" this, given that it transcends both the Old Cold War and the present era?)

Now, as to the selfish -- yet at the same time perceived of as benevolent -- reason to engage in such "imperial" activity (done right), from Franklin Delano Roosevelt:

"Imperialists don't realize what they can do, what they can create! They've robbed this continent (Africa) of billions, and all because they are too short-sighted to understand that their billions were pennies, compared to the possibilities! Possibilities that MUST include a better life for the people who inhibit this land."

Finally, again from Niall Ferguson's "Colossus::

"The United States today is an empire -- a but a peculiar kind of empire. It is vastly wealthy. It is militarily peerless. It has astonishing cultural reach. Yet by comparison with other empires it often struggles to impose its will beyond its shores."

(Much as we saw in Vietnam in the past, and much as we are seeing in Afghanistan and Iraq today?)

(Note: All items in parenthesis [except "Africa"] -- in all areas above -- are mine.)

Bottom Line Thought -- Based on the Above:

Q: What new understanding -- and what related new activity -- is the United States contemplating today; this, to address our inability to (a) "impose our will beyond our shores" and to, thereby, (b) advance our way of life, our way of governance and our values, etc., throughout the world? (For the selfish-imperial -- yet at the same time perceived of as benevolent/philanthropic -- reasons noted by FDR above?)

A: As to this such new understanding and related new activity, this would seem to be that:

a. Given the failure of our "soft power," in many parts of the world post-the Old Cold War, the United States -- now in peacetime, in war and indeed, in war's immediate aftermath -- has determined that we may need to install and support "interim" authoritarian rulers and regimes. These:

b. To "force" the modernization (more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines) of "resistant"/"uncooperative" states and societies; states and societies who -- of their own will, volition, ability and/or desire -- seem to have no great interest in, and/or who are vehemently opposed to, making the transition that both we and they require. Likewise, in specifically this exact same such "our soft power has failed us/thus our hard power is now required" imperial light, to:

c. See and understand such things as our decision to establish and deploy our "Security Force Assistance Brigades" (again: "hard power"), etc.; these, to deal with both the state and non-state actors who, together and/or separately, stand in our -- and thus "progresses' " -- way?

Bob,

There are two types of biases: cognitive and emotional. When confronted with another’s biases, and we all have them, the best approach is to adapt to the emotional and moderate the cognitive ones. U.S. combat operations in Vietnam were the logical consequences of the grand strategy of containment, and were undertaken after non-military means had seemed to have been proven ineffective. Unfortunately, the intervention itself was poorly planned and executed at all levels. Yet when major ground forces were deployed to Vietnam beginning in 1965, the U.S. government probably had a better understanding of the target country and region than they had prior to any previous intervention. For reference, the British lost the plot in Northern Ireland when the Troubles began, despite having more than four centuries of experience there.

The issues in civil-military relations and within the military itself are constants and were as salient in victory as they were in defeat. Despite the head start given by the British, the fact is that the American system has been the most effective strategically and the most beneficial to humanity than those of any great powers past or present. However, fear of decline is a key driver of American success, resulting in excessive scrutiny of failures such as Vietnam and Iraq. Perhaps that collective anxiety is preferable to the confident complacency that brought down the European empires?

Azor

From SWJ quotes today, a worthwhile reminder to those who continue to try to sell the false argument of Ho's legitimacy with the Vietnamese people. Ousting the French was a nationalistic and legitimate, imposing the foreign ideology of communism was not.

Quote.

“But the Viet-Minh had had about ten months in which to establish their administration, train their forces with Japanese and American weapons (and Japanese and Chinese instructors), and kill or terrorize into submission the genuine Vietnamese nationalists who wanted a Viet-Nam independent from France but equally free of Communist rule. The first round of the war for Indochina already had been lost for the West before it had even begun.”

-- Bernard B. Fall, Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina

The peace of Westphalia established that legitimacy came from power, rather than from God. And of course Mao noted that power comes from the barrel of a gun. Yes, many wanted independence without communism, but it was communism that was able to bring independence in the face of French and American efforts to the contrary. Ho was legitimate, validated by his success.

Bob,

Perhaps a bit more reading on the Thirty Years War, prior royal-papal disputes and medieval concepts of ‘auctoritas’ and ‘potestas’ is in order, no?

I recall South Vietnam being an independent and sovereign state, until its invasion by North Vietnam. I also fail to see how depending upon foreign backing (Sino-Soviet) and relying upon Red Terror – including mass-murdering 4% of the North Vietnamese population and expelling 10% of the South Vietnamese one – makes Ho “legitimate”. He was more legitimate than Kim in North Korea, but far more brutal than any South Vietnamese leader.

Azor

South Vietnam was a fiction created by the West to deny the VietMinh the full measure of their victory over the French. And my understanding of how the peace of Westphalia altered the concept of legitimacy is solid. You are entitled to your positions but I stand by mine.

All nation-states are created by men, so according to your logic, all nation-states are fiction. It really doesn't matter if they were created by the East or the West. As for legitimacy, your facile explanation that government/ance legitimacy explains all, in reality explains little. Of course, like all good lies and propaganda, there is "some" truth to this argument, but it fails to provide a meaningful understanding of the complex factors that more accurately describe historical events.

On a related note, the government in the North was no more legitimate than the one in South. If you perhaps measure legitimacy by the degree of force needed to sustain control, with less force equating to more legitimacy, then the government in the South was more legitimate by a significant measure.

A lot of naïve views of predetermined history emerged in our leftist campuses in the 1960s that continue to stunt our ability to view the world through unbiased eyes. Simplistic explanations, propaganda perceived as fact by a gullible population, far right reactions based on their own simplistic interpretations, and the ultimate victim in this contest of views was the truth. Facts were omitted or selectively by both sides to push their views. I do tend to think that we never recovered from the political divides this war generated. We always had them, starting with our own Revolution, but they have taken on a new character. The stated purpose of the PBS series was to start an overdue dialogue on the war that has been grossly misrepresented by both sides of our political divide, yet instead of an honest conversation people continue to default to simplistic explanations that don't stand up to any rigor if examined under the light of facts.

Today, we are wrestling with similar overly simplistic arguments in regards to trade, immigration, etc., which are driving overly nationalistic reactions and stressing the international order to a degree that another world war not only seems possible, but likely if these views are challenged and mitigated by reason. Maybe we can't undue the enduring condition of man, and our destiny is predetermined, but centuries after the Age of Enlightenment you would think we could do better.

Bill, there was no “the North” until we created it. People from across the three provinces of Vietnam joined together by an ideology we feared unified the nation in their defeat of the French.

Self determination. A simple concept that the founding of America is premised in, and that many revolutionary movements seeking support have turned to America, only to be denied because we valued some perceived interest of the day over their inalienable right. Don’t twist history to appease our conscience. We made a mistake in Vietnam. We exaggerated our Fears; we let our Honor fix us to our mistakes; and we created false Interests to validate our decisions. Admitting this does not dishonor those who served our nation in that tragic conflict; But ignoring it dishonors those who are sent in their footsteps...

Bob,

Like Azor, I have no desire to refight the war, but I also tire of people conflating their opinion with fact. What you assert is opinion disguised as fact. Your opinion on the topic is the popular one, so you have that going for you. Yet self-determination is mostly a myth in its purest sense.

The communists quite simply were better at mobilizing the population than we were. In my opinion there were two reasons for this. First, they opposed corrupt and inept governments with simple propaganda that at times resonated with the uneducated peasants, and second when that didn't work terrorism did. At the end of the day both the French and communism were illegitimate.

Furthermore, your arguments are often void of context, for example Ho and his merry band of patriots would never have defeated South Vietnam without substantial support from the USSR. The point is a myriad of factors determined the war's outcome, it was never predestined based on the magic power of self-determination.

Finally, since the Vietnamese people are currently rejecting communism while the communist party struggles to maintain power indicates what we always suspected, communism is a road to nowhere. In my opinion, we were right to oppose it. We were wrong in supporting a corrupt government that only supported a minority Catholic population. We certainly need a new approach that doesn't default to supporting governments that are antithetical to our values because it is simply convenient. This always undermines our interests in the long run.

Perhaps we exaggerated our fears and let our honor encourage us to cling to hope, but I think political greed for power kept us clinging to a failing strategy. Presidents wouldn't make the hard right decisions due to self interests. Bush created the same mindset when he started the don't be weak on terror narrative. Backing off CT operations anywhere became politically untenable, which in turn limited the freedom of politicians to back out missions that proved to be ill advised.

Bill M,

As you have often stated our open support for the French after 1950 condemned us from the outset. In the discussion with Mike in Hilo I gathered many folks in southern Vietnam were anti-French, anti-Chinese and anti-communist in that order.

Vietnam was 90% Buddhist when we decided to get involved. We entered the war-zone supporting French colonialism indirectly at first and after their defeat with our own invasion force.

On to a fiercely independent and Buddhist population we attempted to maintain/impose a corrupt Catholic/Francophile dominated civilian and military elite with our own 500K strong round-eye military force.

We poured political petrol onto this powder-keg by insisting the virulently anti-Chinese natives were in fact harboring Chinese fifth-columists working towards the PRC overrunning all of SE Asia - including Vietnam itself.

I mean to say is it any wonder the Communist cadre were able to shape a political message (that many of subsistence farmers would have known was a complete nonsense) that appealled to just about anyone with or without some sort of grievance aimed at the established order.

RC

RantCorp, concur with your comments above 100%. While we can never know, I constantly wonder how history would have played out if we drew a line in Laos and Cambodia, and didn't interfere in Vietnam. Of course our decision makers didn't believe they had that option. There focus was on Europe, and when the French threatened to pull out of NATO if we didn't support them in Vietnam our leaders opted to support the French. They didn't understand SE Asia, the decision was based on the situation in Europe.

The world isn't as simple as Bob makes it out be, but we can all agree we had terrible strategic judgment when it came to Vietnam. Then we added worse to bad by supporting an inept regime and waging the war incompetently.

Bill M,

In AF/PAK I went searching for the Revolutionary and Resistance Energy (RRE)that Bob rightly (IMHO) argues were the root-cause cause of our failure in Vietnam.

Our efforts in AF/PAK were failing and I was convinced the root-cause for failure would be the same or similar to those in Vietnam.

It was my experience that it was not.

My search for answers to the first and foremost task then changed tack and I pursued the more obvious primary driver and approached the belief in a supernatural being as a primary motivator.

Among a populace wherein 90% couldn't write their own name in their native tongue and 99.9% could not comprehend a single sentence of Quranic script I expected to encounter a widely varying degree of religious motivated energy.

It was my experience that there was not.

There was the considerable amount of the human fantasy one would expect in a normal peace-time Islamic culture but very little of this civilian devotion was carried into the battle ecosystem.

The surprising degree of cynicism devotees (who upheld a strict civilian observance) embraced when they found themselves at the sharp was something I found difficult to come to terms with and/or explain.

It took a year before I was willing to accept the RRE and religious energy I had convinced myself were playing a significant role were, for the vast majority, of little or no significance as to why the 'jihadi' was fighting.

The best simple description I ever heard was the natives considered it as paid farm-laboring but with guns and considerably greater risk.

I already knew this to be the case from the Iran - Iraq War but the sanctions and Iran's international pariahic status kept their brand of fascism - dressed as Islamic fundamentalism, to remain a purely Iranian disaster - or so it was until the recent strategic lunacy.

The most sobering peculiarity among the natives - be they Pak, Iranian or Gulf Arabs was nobody was under any illusion that it was a purely economic inspired choke-hold, prosecuted by a fascist elite, that blighted not only their own political, economic and spiritual lives but any other nation that had the misfortune to be their strategic neighbor/s .

When they hear us regurgitate their elite's fascile ruse that it is Islam that is the root-cause of all their woes, as well as our own, they are completely dumbfounded that we could be so misguided.(The Domino Theory returns to haunt us)

The enemy are perfectly aware of the trauma our strategic failures in Vietnam has had on our current military’s intelligentsia and take great care in maintaining the spiritual/supernatural narrative that we struggle to recognize for the deceit that it is designed to achieve.

The 'jihadi' has taken on the gravitas we appropriate to the 'Strategic Corporal'. However, unlike the strategic ramifications of the genuine physical act by a single individual the 'Strategic Jihadi' is an elaborate myth. We punch and counter-punch and are transfixed by our failure to land a telling blow on their cleverly conjured ghost.

Among the shadows the enemy watches us punch ourselves out on their apparition, thereby freeing them to further their fascist interests, address their fascist fears and satisfy their fascist 'honor'.

RC

I think that more important than decision makers not perceiving options, or not understanding the region, was the fact that what we attempted to do in Vietnam would have worked 50 years earlier.

But the world had changed, power was shifting, and the ability of a great state power to simply impose their will upon a population and place was becoming increasingly obsolete. Britain, far weaker than the US coming out of WWII, quickly came to realize that they could not simply impose their will onto others any longer, so they converted from colonies to the commonwealth, from control to influence. That is the strategic lesson of Malaya (and Kenya, India, N. Ireland, etc.).

The US however, was at our peak power, so we ignored the strategy of Malaya and only borrowed the tactics. We were not just powerful, but "exceptional," so we convinced ourselves that our actions were not just feasible, but also good. We were wrong. Today this policy is even less feasible as power continues to shift, but we remain confident in our power and exceptionalism, and refuse to evolve.

As has been observed before, "Americans will always do the right thing - after we have attempted everything else." We just haven't quite got to that point yet.

I’m just saying the conflict was never about communism. Just as modern conflicts are not about Islamist. To run a successful insurgency or UW campaign there are a few essential ingredients. First of those is a population who believes their governance situation intolerable, and perceived no effective legal means of redress available to them. The second is a narrative that speaks to that aggrieved population that also takes a position that the governance in question is either unable or unwilling to adopt. Communism and labor reform did that in czarist Russia; communism and land reform did that in the rice cultures of Asia. Islamism and the dignity of a Caliphate do that in Sunni regions. We fixate on that critical requirement of effective narrative and confuse it for the center of gravity of perceived poor governance. The US believes we can resolve these movements by crushing those who dare to act out, offering a counter narrative of democracy that speaks to us, and by providing them with government that derives its legitimacy from our power, rather than from sources perceived as legitimate and self-determined by them.

We don’t understand these conflicts in fundamental terms, so we continue to address them in ways that are fundamentally flawed. We seek to impose solutions that are impossible at the policy level from inception. It is an avoidable tragedy that we will continue to recreate until we learn. This is not about good and evil. This is about human nature and governance. If we were more willing to help others get to self-determined good governance when condition one exists; there would be no need for these people to rally behind some self-serving ass peddling an effective condition two.

Bob,

Communism was certainly a big part of the conflict; however, if your point is that the Vietnamese would have fought for their independence without the toxic, secular religion of communism, then you're probably right. Of course if that was the case it is unlikely they would have received the decisive assistance they received from the communist states of the USSR and to a lesser extent China. Wars are seldom conflicts simply between two groups that seek power in the modern world (meaning post WWII in this case).

There are multiple actors assisting and manipulating these conflicts, which frequently changes the essence of original conflict over time. For example, kicking the French out over time became something very different. This isn't unusual, we saw this in Iraq. We started with the goal of kicking Saddam out (and if you believe the WMD argument), then the war became a war against AQI and countering Iran's proxy war in Iraq. In Syria, we initially sought to remove Assad, then we backed off that. Our protracted UW approach allowed the character and actors in the fight to change considerably. This is the normal course of war in the modern era. Every actor, internal and external to the fight, has a say in the fight's outcome.

As for your constant drum beat about assisting others get to self-determined good governance as a cure all for our ills. I beg to differ, the world isn't that simple. We have to accept who we are as a nation also, and we simply couldn't help a group of rebels that were already co-opted by the USSR or Islamists and assist them them establish a government that conducts mass murder, establishes a bankrupt economic system, and a brutal dictatorship that is worse than the one they replaced. Unfortunately the world hasn't generated too many George Washingtons or Ghandis. But again, these conflicts are rarely about establishing good governance, it is about gaining power. External actors, including the U.S., want their share of that power, and make their bets accordingly.

In any war, one or more groups are attempting to impose their will on another group. It has been that way throughout the history of man, and unfortunately it seldom means they're seeking to establish self-determined good governance, rather they're seeking to establish power. Very few instances in history when these wars didn't result in the establishment of an oppressive government. We were on the right side of history to oppose communism; however, I agree we made unforgivable errors in how we chose to oppose it. I believe we're on the right side of history to oppose radical Islam, but again we're making grave errors in how we're waging the war. Errors that undermine our righteousness of our cause.

The Islamists do believe in their perverted view of Islam, and their Umma is global. Their view of self-determined good governance is to establish their radical version sharia law and all that it entails, to include a woman's rightful submissive role in society, and a host of human rights violations. We have seen their form of good governance recently in Mosul and Raqqa, and not too many years ago in Kabul. Their aim is not isolated to select countries, they seek to establish a caliphate globally, and there isn't a majority population anywhere that wants to live under these conditions. We have every right to oppose it.

Bill you are shooting behind the target, and fixated on symptoms we find problematic to our interests. What I am promoting as a drumbeat, is that if we shift our focus forward to the actual problem, we can shape policies that serve our interests in ways that are both feasible AND consistent with our professed values as a nation. The thinking that shaped our engagement in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq was neither of those two things.

We also overly apply war theory to non-war problems. All war is political conflict, but not all political conflict is war.

We forced the Vietnamese into the Russian and Chinese camp when we denied their independence twice. First when they helped us to defeat the Japanese occupation and we betrayed them by allowing the French back in; and again once they defeated the French and we robbed them of half their victory by cancelling the nation-wide elections and creating two states. The one thing you see as the existential reason for our involvement was a problem of our own creation. Likewise with the rise of AQ and ISIS.

If one is going to take on the man, you aren't going to do it with a piss weak ideology, and you aren't going to do it without the support of powerful allies. The US ideology of popular control of government and liberty was radical as hell to the kings of Europe, and we needed the French to force a military victory. Likewise with populations forced to turn to Russia or China in post WWII efforts to throw off colonialism.

This is indeed simple. Not simplistic, but simple. Things like gravity, the speed of light, and human nature emotions like dignity are simple. How one deals with their interactions with myriad facts can become complex. But the fundamentals of good strategy, like the fundamentals of sound science, are simple.

Communist Vietnam was a fiction until decades of terror, displacement and mass-murder.

Do tell about Westphalia...

Fall was a colonialist. Like many of his generation he was convinced European culture was not only superior but the Vietnamese wanted to be Francophiles/Coca-Cola as well.

However that is all conjecture - what I want to know is what was it that a sandal-wearing Ho and Giap bought to the fight that they could carry the country in a mere ten months that the French, the US and all their allies after 30 years of war, 7 million ton of bombs and 4 million dead not only failed to reverse but suffered an ignominious defeat.

The Vietnamese taught everyone in th developed world a lesson. Communism was merely a characteristic - the nature of the conflict was much deeper in the psych of the natives and that was what carried the day.

RC

RantCorp,

It is not only "all conjecture", but ad hominem as well. Where is the evidence for your claims about Fall?

In addition, your remark about the North Vietnamese leadership being "sandal-wearing" smacks of the popular and ignorant Western civilian conception of the North Vietnamese alluded to by McLuhan.

Please explain to me how Communism, a European ideology intended originally for industrialized Europe, was "native" to Vietnam? If Communism fit so perfectly to Vietnamese society, why were ~4% of North Vietnamese murdered to establish it and ~10% of South Vietnamese later expelled? Why did Hanoi do orders of magnitude more killing to suppress dissent than Saigon did?

Nor are your metrics on the Vietnam War of any use:

-More than a decade passed between the French withdrawal and the U.S. ground campaign, which actually only lasted 7 years (1965-1972).

-The U.S. dropped more tons of bombs on North Korea than it used during the entire Pacific War, so does that mean that the U.S. made more of an effort to defeat North Korea compared to defeating Japan?

-Most of the dead were locals killed by their co-ethnics, and most civilian deaths were at the hands of the Communists, including various Red Terror and Collectivization campaigns. The total is closer to 3 million than 4, by the way.

I wonder if the North Vietnamese would have "taught everyone in the developed world a lesson" had:

-The developed Soviet Union not fully supported North Vietnam, incl. providing it with the latest equipment and establishing the densest IADS in the world?

-The Chinese not based hundreds of thousands of advisors and soldiers in North Vietnam as a trip-wire and to free up North Vietnamese for recruitment?

-Had the Soviet Union and China not competed to out-supply North Vietnam, and done so unhindered by the U.S.?

-Had Johnson not hamstrung the air campaign out of fear of conflict with China and/or the Soviet Union?

-Had Congress not cut-off aid to South Vietnam?

Azor

Azor,

First up - if you are in the jungle in a Denied Area one of the most important pieces of equipment you must maintain are your sandals. You literally live or die on your feet. In a DA there is no medivac - you march or you die and if you get 'jungle-rot' on your feet you are kaput.

The only way to avoid trench-foot in a steaming jungle is to air-out your feet as often as you can and sandals are the best way to do this.

So rather than the racist assertion you aimed at me, my comment regards 'sandal-wearing' was anything but. If you actually understood the OE you would have understood my remark highlighted my respect for their soldiering skills.

Google ' Ho and the OSS'. You will note some of the US military personnel(who are most definitely war-fighting on the ground) are also 'sandal-wearing'. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery -probably late 1944.

Can we agree 1945 is somewhat prior to the period you highlighted US involvement.

Fall's remarks quoted above refer to the period in 1945-6 wherein the Japanese occupation was ending and French colonialism was being re-imposed - unfortunately with considerable assistance from us at the behest of Truman.

Millions of people died unnecessarily. The significant point being if the French colonialists had stayed away and PAVN had remained in power after Ho's Declaration of Independence in 1945, those 3 or 4 millions would have been spared.

You suggested I believed the Vietnamese were by nature communistic - I can't see why you've interpreted the very opposite of what I was hoping to say. Marxist doctrine in times of war provides a simple, unforgiving and dogmatic chain of command that appeals to poor as much as the affluent when a society believes it is opposing an existential threat.

A form of Mission Command without the tactical initiative aspects - if you will. A means to an end.

Its utility in times of wide-spread violence is reciprocated in scale by its ruinous folly in times of peace. As it has proved for Russia, China, Eastern Europe , Vietnam, Afghanistan, North Korea ad nauseam.

I can't see why Fall's sentiment towards the Vietnamese surprised you but I have to confess to a bias.I don't have any time for journalists but in my experience I have never met a Frenchman who didn't believe French culture was superior to all cultures - as superior to the Vietnamese as they believe it superior to American. But that's just my opinion.

RC

RC,

Firstly, your comment “sandal-wearing” remark was an attempt at portraying the Communists as a David confronting the anti-Communist Goliath. Yet there was nothing inferior about the Soviet-built integrated air defense system in North Vietnam or the Soviet-built tanks that crashed through the gates of the Independence Palace in 1975. Therefore, my riposte can hardly be unexpected and there is nothing “racist” about it. I am well aware of the Allied campaigns in Southeast Asia and various Pacific islands against the Japanese, and the very different conditions they faced compared to their compatriots in Europe.

Secondly, what quote of Fall’s are you referring to?

Thirdly, your claim that “3 or 4 millions [sic] would have been spared” had the French given Vietnam independence, is laughable. The Communists still would have had to kill or drive out 1 to 3 million Vietnamese in order to suppress dissent and collectivize the country.

Fourth, you also misunderstand War Communism. Its role in the Russian and Chinese Civil Wars – in which the Communists fought corrupt and disunited opponents – aside, the North Vietnamese won in spite of Communism, not because of it. As for the Eastern Front of World War II, Stalin inflicted as many casualties on the Red Army and Soviet citizenry as Hitler did. Ideological fervor, social cohesion and centralized authority are all important in wartime, however, this has nought to do with Marxism. Indeed, demoralized fighting forces that are aware that victory is impossible are still quite capable of inflicting hideous damage on their adversaries.

Azor

Azor,

You have a bad habit of telling people what they believe. I can accept my written explanations can be confusing but I'm rather doubtful a complete stranger knows what I actually believe.

Fall's quote that framed my comment -

'“But the Viet-Minh had had about ten months in which to establish their administration, train their forces with Japanese and American weapons (and Japanese and Chinese instructors), and kill or terrorize into submission the genuine Vietnamese nationalists who wanted a Viet-Nam independent from France but equally free of Communist rule. The first round of the war for Indochina already had been lost for the West before it had even begun.”

-- Bernard B. Fall, Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina'

Like I said this was an observation around the time of the Deer Team - 1945-6. The SA 2 gig you refer to is a generation away.

You wrote:

'Firstly, your comment “sandal-wearing” remark was an attempt at portraying the Communists as a David confronting the anti-Communist Goliath. '

I'm afraid you are mistaken. 'Sandal-wearing' in my mind's eye has no biblical connotations whatsoever. I would concede an anti-RMA sentiment lurking in the background somewhere but a super-natural analogy it was not. In all truth-fullness the wearing of sandals related to my own extensive experience in the jungle and indicated to me that the folks wearing sandals understood a basic fundamental as to what fighting jungle-warfare was all about.

'War Communism?' I'm sorry, I have no idea what that means.

RC

'

RC,

Unfortunately, my response to you disappeared before I could submit it. Perhaps I do misunderstand you.

With regard to Fall, he was referring to the French losing the first two “rounds” of the conflict with the Viet Minh due to their own folly, which led to the division of Vietnam. He never claimed that the Communists “carried” the country in a mere ten months. Nor do I see how he was a “colonialist”, although he was anti-Communist at a time when Communism appeared to be a monolithic force gobbling up Central Europe, swathes of China and making inroads everywhere else.

As regards proper jungle warfare footwear, I was countering the trope that the mighty U.S. military was defeated by a poor band of peasants. I also take a dim view of “anti-RMA sentiment”, as had the technology of 1991 been available a generation earlier, the PAVN and NLF would have suffered unbearable and rapid losses such that continuing the war would have been a futile waste. There is a “time value of attrition” to paraphrase financial mathematics, whereby the compression of grossly disproportionate casualty ratios causes a fighting force to collapse.

As for War Communism, it was Communist planners directing all resources to a war effort, and came into vogue during the Russian Civil War, when Lenin had to delay the promised “bread” until after the land and peace elements of the triad were secured.

Azor,

Fall's quote refers to American and Japanese weapons. This indicates to me OSS supplied weaponry and captured WW2 Japanese weapons - 10 years prior to Dien Bien Phu and well before the avalanche of Chincom weapons that were neither Japanese nor American. The timing is important as the scale of the politically inspired killing at PAVN's infancy in 1946 was dwarfed by the wholesale slaughter the West participated in once we and the French decided to re-impose colonialism.

Azor wrote-

"There is a “time value of attrition” to paraphrase financial mathematics, whereby the compression of grossly disproportionate casualty ratios causes a fighting force to collapse."

Westmoreland and MacNamara believed exactly the same thing.

Rant,

The deux ex machina of the Japanese surrender was a tremendously potent gift to the Communists. In a calculated move to stick it to the Allies, the Japanese, rather than wait to be disarmed by the designated Allied forces, turned their weapons over to the Communists. Shortly thereafter, when the Allied power designated to occupy the North (nominally Chiang's China, but in the event, the Warlord of Yunnan) did so, the latter became an enthusiastic purveyor of all the weapons the nascent Communist forces could use--for the money. By the way, Ho's North had ingratiated itself with the Allies by engaging in the rescue of downed airmen, while the Communist Party's Committee of the South, headed by veteran Stalinist Tran van Giau--a native son of My Tho in the Delta--had collaborated closely with the Kempeitai. [An Aside: I contend that Ho's 1946 replacement of Giau with Nguyen Binh, a Northerner, constituted a conscious assertion of Northern control over the South within the Party, with an eye on the Southerners' traditional (predating colonialism)separatist proclivity. There was operational logic as well, insofar as the South's rubber plantation laborers were all from North or impoverished northern Central Vietnam (the South had no excess labor) and these were organized as the first Vietminh mass cannon fodder in the South.]

Truman Admin. assistance to the French struggle for Indochina didn't begin until 1950, when (1) it was unclear to policymakers that the PLA, flush with victory, would be content to stop its advance within the extant borders of China, and (2) of course, there was Korea...(3) The pretext was creation by the French of the State of Vietnam. The pound of flesh the US exacted in return was an accelerated rate of Vietnamization of both, the military and the State's civilian governance.

We might do well to recall that thousands of Vietnamese served on the anticommunist side in the First Indochina War. Historian Martin Windrow chronicles their valor in The Last Valley, as exemplified, inter alia, by the incredible, dogged heroism of Company Commander Phu, who had risen to Corps Commander by 1975--and who, rather than bug out as others did, shot himself when the South surrendered...

Cheers,
Mike.

Mike,

At the end of WW2 many Realpolitik certanies that had existed for centuries were dissolving. Vietnam had many foreign players who were weighing up their own vested interests with little or no regard for the political aspirations of the natives.

As you pointed out between 1945 and 1950 events in Japan, China, Korea ,France, America and Britain were all considered important as to how Vietnam was to be governed.

Unfortunately for everyone - but especially the Vietnamese - none of these players bothered to ask the first, the foremost and the most critical question in Vietnam.

Convinced of their own magnificence none of these outsiders thought to ask the Vietnamese Clausewitz's primary question as to the political nature of the war that appeared inevitable.

The Vietnamese wanted to rule their own affairs without any foreign input/interference. If the Vietnamese chose Communism, Feudalism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Paganism, Flower-power whatever, they were infuriated that a bunch of foreigners were convinced it was somehow anyone else's goddam business.

The West choose to ignore this fundamental principle and convinced itself the Vietnamese were backward orientals and needed to know their place in the grand scheme of things.

They compounded their folly on an non-existent threat of Chinese hegemony threatening a fictitious country - as if deluded state of mind or illusory nation-state would make the slightest bit of difference to the inevitable outcome.

The West spent 30 years in Vietnam applying a military strategy that was completely at odds to the nature of political aspirations of the only peoples that mattered - the Vietnamese themselves.

As far as every Vietnamese was concerned it was never about anyone else but them, and if any foreigner wanted to fight about it - see what happens.

RC