Escalation 13

The same pattern was repeated again and again throughout Vietnam during the war, with the Americans conquering territory that could not be held. The war was not a classic conflict between armies pushing back the enemy as they advanced across fronts, but a test of endurance in which the side able to last longer would prevail. A key to the struggle lay in mobilizing people—or at least reducing their opposi¬tion—by persuasion or coercion or a mixture of both.
General Westmoreland never understood this reality. He refused to recognize that the Communists might represent a tempting alternative to a rqral population eager for political, economic and social change; he simplistically dismissed them as “bully boys” who could be defeated in a conventional war—the only kind he knew how to wage. Sir Robert Thompson, the British counterinsurgency adviser to the Sai¬gon government, saw more clearly that time was working against the United States and its South Vietnamese allies unless they could isolate the Vietcong from peasant support. Pleading for a more modest anti¬guerrilla approach, he cautioned the Americans against squandering their resources in attempts to wear out the enemy in big battles. The Communists could deadlock the conflict and exhaust the U.S. forces, he warned; in a revolutionary war, “you lose if you do not win.”
The Communists did in fact pursue a protracted struggle, making horrendous sacrifices in lives to attain their long-range objective. They sent more than a hundred thousand North Vietnamese regulars into the south every year after 1966 and at least a half million of their troops died in action. Yet there were always fresh recruits to replace the casualties from their pool of some two million men. Overwhelming American firepower piled up mounds of enemy dead—grotesquely termed the “body count” in official parlance—but the tactical triumphs failed to add up to a strategic victory. Westmoreland’s war of attrition, calculated to grind down the North Vietnamese and Vietcong, instead wore out his own forces—and, in the process, gradually exhausted the patience of the American public. The Communists were prepared to go on and on, and they had factored their human costs into the equation.
There was no “typical” U.S. soldier in Vietnam, despite the stereotype of the “grunt” promoted by the news media, politicians and even veterans themselves. The three million Americans who served there went through many varied experiences—partly because the quality of the war varied in different areas of the country, and partly because its nature changed over time.
American units in the Mekong Delta slogged week after week across paddy fields, occasionally tangling with Vietcong guerrillas, while other units clashed with North Vietnamese regiments in big engage¬ments in the highlands. Still others were continually peppered by snipers as they patrolled the perimeters of sprawling U.S. installations at Danang and Bienhoa and Camranh, and many more spent seem¬ingly endless periods at lonely hilltop batteries, firing artillery shells at real or presumed enemy concentrations. Air force pilots could return from dangerous missions over North Vietnam to the relative comfort of their bases, and some lucky Gls drew assignments in Saigon, where the military bureaucracy resembled a miniature Pentagon.
But Vietnam was unique among American wars in at least two respects: under a rotation schedule, draftees were committed for only a year—which meant, for many, that survival became their main preoccupation; but in a war without front lines, few could feel safe anywhere. A survey published by the Veterans Administration in 1980 underscored the point statistically: of the veterans sampled, most had been exposed to “combat,” which meant that they had come under some kind of attack. But in reality, only a minority had actually clashed with large North Vietnamese units or Vietcong irregulars, run into mines or booby traps or been ambushed. Yet 76 percent had been on the receiving end of enemy mortars or rockets, and 56 percent had seen Americans killed or wounded. While infantrymen obviously faced greater risks, headquarters typists were also vulnerable.
In many ways, the American troops sent to Vietnam were no less ideological than their North Vietnamese and Vietcong adversaries. Exhorted by Kennedy and Johnson to join in the crusade to halt the spread of global Communism, they firmly believed in the sanctity of their cause. Also, their fathers had fought in World War II, and they felt it was their generation’s turn to do its duty. They knew the United States had never been defeated in a war, and their impulses were stimulated and dramatized by the exploits of movie and television heroes—a factor that emerges repeatedly in their personal recollections. William Ehrhart, a former marine sergeant, emphasized the influence on him of what he called the “John Wayne syndrome,” and another veteran, Dale Reich, imagined himself to be “a soldier like John Wayne, a dashing GI who feared nothing and either emerged with the medals and the girl, or died heroically.” In Born on the Fourth of July, an account of his service, Ron Kovic recalled his decision to enlist in the marines after two recruiters had stirringly addressed his senior high school class: “As I shook their hands and stared up into their eyes, I couldn’t help but feel that I was shaking hands with John Wayne and Audie Murphy.”
According to the 1980 Veterans Administration study, most Viet¬nam veterans did not lose their patriotic pride after the conclusion of the war. Looking back, 71 percent of those polled said that they were “glad” to have gone to Vietnam; 74 percent claimed to have “enjoyed” their tour there; 66 percent expressed a willingness to serve again. But these responses, though astonishing, do not necessarily contradict the more familiar notion that ordinary U.S. soldiers became increasingly disillusioned as the war dragged on. For, as the prospect of victory dimmed, their zeal was eroded by frustration, and they sought to attribute blame for their disappointment. In the retrospective survey, 82 percent complained that they had been sent into a conflict which “the political leaders in Washington would not let them win”—a sentiment shared by Americans as a whole, which has doubtless con¬tributed to their declining faith in their public institutions. Yet no nation, least of all the United States, readily admits to failure. So the veterans and civilians who viewed the war as a tragedy could also subscribe to President Reagan’s description of its purpose as “noble.”

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