Small Wars Journal


Tue, 05/30/2017 - 8:10am


Volney F. Warner

Saint Anselm College, New Hampshire - 8 May 1986

Tonight I wish to talk about the Vietnam Experience in retrospect.  My Vietnam Experience.  I plan briefly to state my personal involvement, and my subsequent views.  Then I would most appreciate any and all questions you might have.

I worked on Vietnam in both our Civil and Military support programs for about 10 years as a province advisor, member of an Army pacification study, Vietnam desk officer in the Pentagon, member of the White House Staff and Brigade Commander.

My Conclusions, Up Front and In Retrospect, Based on My Composite Experience

1. Our truly most pernicious problem was the government of South Vietnam.  No amount of iron bombs dropped on the North could ever bring into being an effective government in the South.

2. For the U.S. to do what needed to be done politically in South Vietnam would have required its virtual colonization for which the French had just been repudiated and driven from the country.  (Mind you, I am not opposed personally to the U.S. attempting colonization, just to being so clumsy and inefficient at it.)

3. When it became apparent in 1965 that, despite the best efforts of the U.S. Advisory Team, the South Vietnamese were losing the war for their people, we should have withdrawn, without further U.S. military involvement.

4. There never was a time in the war when U.S. forces could have won militarily in South Vietnam.

5. However, since we did decide to deploy U.S. forces to fight the war against the North Vietnamese regular forces, we should have carried it to the North on the ground in order to win.  (And here there is admittedly a serious question as to what win would mean.  Once the war was over, someone would still have to govern SVN!)

6. To blame the U.S. military for the unfavorable outcome of Vietnam is fundamentally wrong.  The decision to make war is a political decision, not a military one.  However, once the decision to fight is made, and the battle is joined, there is no reason to fight it any less well because the political decision was a poor one!

So in summary, we reaped the worst of all decisions, failing in the advisory effort we deployed U.S. forces only in the South to accomplish wholly unattainable objectives then publicly blamed our soldiers!

Personal Experience

Except for language, my preparation for Vietnam was as good as the United States had available:  Special Forces/Psywar/Civil Action Course, plus had an MA in Psychology.

I became a Province Senior Advisor just after murder of Diem.  At first I experienced the incredible feeling that I had joined a civilization in the Delta 100 years behind my own -- a Peace Corps atmosphere prevailed (Peace Corps with side arms).  Where little old ladies with beetle nut tinged teeth tried to pull body hair from our arms and squeeze their noses in mistaken imitation of us as French.  A place where more humanitarianism could be accomplished in one year by helping the Vietnamese people than perhaps in the U.S. in one's lifetime.  We, the advisors, worked with Montagnards, Hoa Hao, Father Wa and his Sea Swallows, Laotian Bru, Cambodian Kymer Serai, Cao Dai and Nungs to name a few.  It began as a heady, self-satisfying experience.  Passing out tactical advice to the military plus providing bulgur, cooking oil, and APCs (aspirin) to the civilians.  All while interfacing with U.S. governmental contemporaries in a microcosm country team miles from Washington.  In effect, we were dealing with what could be considered the equivalent of U.S. State Government, Vietnamese province chief and his staff.  Over time, possibly six months, the glow wore off, and by tour's end I concluded that had I been a Vietnamese in the Delta in 1963, I most assuredly would have been a Vietcong.  Reasons were complicated.  The Regional/Popular Force extracted a yearly tithe from peasants, especially in contested areas, by a combination of artillery fire and bagmen.  Many province officials had fought with the French against their countrymen.  Graft and corruption flourished everywhere.  The cruelty was intolerable.  Regard for the peasant was non-existent.  The idea that Vietnamese peasants understood the political differences between communism and capitalism, was absurd.  They wanted only food, a place to live and security for their families.  Items neither side could provide on a continuous basis.  I returned convinced U.S. Foreign Military Aid and Assistance Program was being administered totally on the familiar Lesser Developed Country format.  Aid simply did not "trickle down" but instead fueled graft at the top.  The Advisory effort was limited to personal relationships with counterparts and based on force of personality as a means to obtain action on advice given.  The province team was a country team in microcosm but it seldom worked as effectively as we wished.  However, it worked better than anything else and truly held promise as a future way of dealing with the basic sources of insurgency through reluctant hosts.  The U.S. Army Civil Affairs structure was designed to provide replacement government for Europe post WWII, so was correctly judged not the vehicle to administer the Vietnam Advisory program -- (judged so even by Diem).  And Special Forces were best left to cross-border operations with minority sects and garrisoned along the borders for surveillance.

Convinced that we were losing, I was equally convinced the U.S. Advisory effort needed leverage in the form of money and the power of removal of the inefficient and ineffective Vietnamese in positions of authority.  Further, that the Vietnamese were not as interested in their war as we were.  They actually profited from its continuance.  Until and unless that attitude changed, the introduction of U.S. ground forces to join the fight would be a spurious ingredient.  So upon return to the U.S. in '65 I welcomed the opportunity to develop alternative solutions as part of the PROVN Study commissioned by then Chief of Staff, General Harold K. Johnson.  PROVN's recommendations were never implemented but were a red flag on the fields of Vietnam.  We derived some 140 recommendations to improve of the war effort.  After the study, all of the study members were assigned key positions in the Vietnam decision-making hierarchy with the challenge to "put your proposals into action yourselves."  To an extent this helped by letting us expose the pacification/civil side of the equation in the Pentagon and articulate reservations concerning the corruption of the S. Vietnam government, plus raise questions about the utility of U.S. forces and the command arrangements under which they should pursue the war.

Ultimately, I wound up in the White House in 1967 sounding the same drums as a Lieutenant Colonel under auspices of Ambassadors Komer and Leonhard.  Bob Montague, a close associate, understood the Vietnam war in all its dimensions as none before or after him but seemed unable to change the course of policy and focus of the war to small unit actions, pacification and the like.

The military machine is not unlike a lawn mower, once the machine is placed in action it lacks capacity to distinguish weeds from flowers and likely mows them all down if not pushed in the proper direction.

After the White House tour and a stint at the National War College, I returned as a brigade commander in Pleiku in 1969-70.  (Anyone who aspires to a military career must move to the sound of the guns.)  Now I faced the moral crisis of fighting a war whose political basis I questioned, leading soldiers to die for a politically questionable cause.    I felt challenged to use all my tactical experience to accomplish objectives with minimum casualties.

As I returned in 1970 to work as General Westmoreland's Executive Officer in Washington, I vowed that in the future I would trust my instincts, speak from my guts and force my superiors to face my views.  Nonetheless, this is little solace when standing at night in front of that black wedge on the Mall, reflecting on those 58,000 + names of soldiers who died in a war they could not understand-- much less win!

About the Author(s)

Volney Frank Warner is a retired United States Army four-star general who served as Commander-in-Chief, United States Readiness Command (USCINCRED) from 1979 to 1981. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Class of 1950. General Warner’s Vietnam War military awards include the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star (2 awards), and the Distinguished Flying Cross.



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