The War Nobody Won 4

Retrospective appraisals of wars are invariably litanies of “what- might-have-beens” that benefit from the acuity of hindsight, and the Vietnam conflict is no exception.
Americans overwhelmingly backed Lyndon Johnson when he first sent U.S. combat troops into battle in March 1965. Approval of the war dwindled afterward—and, since its end, attitudes have been mixed and contradictory. A Time poll published in April 1990 showed that 57 percent of the U.S. public considered the intervention to have been “wrong.” But roughly the same proportion held that, once involved, America ought to have employed all its power to prevail. Perceiving the war through a different prism, most veterans viewed the com¬mitment as having been justified and voiced pride in their participa¬tion. An earlier study similarly disclosed that 82 percent asserted that they were prevented from winning—and, astonishingly, two-thirds declared a readiness to fight again in Vietnam without the curbs that, they alleged, had hobbled them during the war. Paradoxically, though, nearly half the veterans surveyed by Time in 1990 favored the eventual establishment of diplomatic relations with the Communist govern¬ment in Hanoi.
By then, scores of veterans were revisiting Vietnam. They toured old battlefields, now reclaimed by the jungle, and rediscovered towns and villages they had once known. Numbers of Vietnamese, though isolated from the outside world, had absorbed American pop culture by listening to American radio broadcasts and tapes of American music, or by watching videocassettes of American movies. And, as if time had stood still, the former Gls found themselves surrounded by grinning urchins shouting the familiar wartime greeting, “Hey, Joe!” In January 1989, in Ho Chi Minh City, as Saigon had been relabeled, a former Vietcong guerrilla named Van Le handed the American television correspondent Morley Safer a poem he had writ¬ten in honor of the returning “grunts.”
How many American soldiers
Died in this land?
How many Vietnamese
Lie buried under trees and grass? . . .
Now the wineglass joins friends in peace.
The old men lift their glasses.
Tears run down their cheeks.
Looking back, U.S. political and military specialists have diagnosed the struggle in detail, so that studies of the war have become a minor industry. But prescriptions for how America might have averted its defeat in Vietnam are as numerous and as diverse as the analysts.
General William C. Westmoreland, who commanded the U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1965 to 1968, predictably claimed in his mem¬oirs that restraints had thwarted his effectiveness. He faulted President Johnson for escalating the war too slowly, refusing to permit incur¬sions against enemy bases in Laos and Cambodia, furnishing the South Vietnamese army with inadequate equipment, and, among other things, “failing to level” with the U.S. public. He also disparaged President Nixon and his negotiator, Henry Kissinger, for “abandon¬ing” the Saigon government by conceding to a cease-fire agreement in January 1973 that allowed North Vietnamese troops to remain in the south. Above all, he denounced America’s television networks and newspapers, contending that their distortions had turned U.S. opinion against the war. He offered me a corollary to that comment in 1981, when we chatted over dinner in Charleston, South Carolina, his home¬town. “A lesson to be learned,” he said, “is that young men should never be sent into battle unless the country is going to support them.”
Other American officers have also derided the press, alleging that correspondents poisoned opinion at home by exaggerating U.S. set¬backs and atrocities. To many, the news coverage itself, whether true or false, undermined the U.S. cause. Lieutenant Philip B. Davidson wrote that the scenes of “destruction, suffering and blood” on nightly television “horrified and dismayed the American people.” General Fred Weyand, the last U.S. commander in Vietnam, has further em¬phasized that the nation’s growing disaffection with the war, fueled by the press, boomeranged to demoralize the American forces in the field. “The American army is really a people’s army in the sense that it belongs to the American people. . . . When the army is committed the American people are committed; when the American people lose their commitment, it is futile to try to keep the army committed.”
Yet Johnson and Nixon recoiled from imposing censorship along with stiff economic controls that, they calculated, would have elevated the importance of the war and perhaps damaged their political image at home. Instead they adopted what they termed a “policy of minimum candor,” under which military information officers tried to manage the news by confecting optimistic accounts contrived to show pro¬gress. But, as William M. Hammond concluded in an official U.S. army history of the war, the dispatches of the correspondents in Viet¬nam were, despite flaws, “still often more accurate” than the govern¬ment’s rosy reports. So the attempt to mask the fact that the war effort was faltering produced a so-called credibility gap that, over time, eroded the American public’s faith in official statements.
For many U.S. officers, the main culprit was Johnson, who refused to put the country on a war footing out of fear that a full-scale war would doom his domestic economic and social programs. As a result, they have claimed, they were denied victory—and numbers have even argued that the joint chiefs of staff ought to have resigned rather than accept the limitations inflicted on the forces in the field.
Professional soldiers have ventilated a catalogue of specific griev¬ances since the end of the war. Several have contended that they were crippled by a command structure that authorized different branches to function autonomously—so that, for example, ground and air op¬erations could not be coordinated. Former air force pilots have asserted that intensive bombing of North Vietnam from the outset, instead of Johnson’s gradual escalation, would have crushed the Communists before the Soviet Union and China helped them to build up their lethal antiaircraft defenses. To Brigadier General Robert Montague, who served in Vietnam during the early 1960s, a crucial mistake was to have pitched American troops, trained to repulse Russians on the plains of central Europe, into a tangle of mountain jungles and rice fields, where enemy guerrillas could not be distinguished from local peasants. Westmoreland’s former deputy, General Bruce Palmer, Jr., has in¬dicted the rotation system, under which American soldiers returned home after only a year—barely time for them to integrate into their units. Speaking in his damn-the-torpedoes style, Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, a former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told me: “We should have fought in the north, where everyone was the enemy, where you didn’t have to worry whether or not you were shooting friendly civilians. In the south, we had to cope with women concealing grenades in their brassieres, or in their baby’s diapers. I remember two of our marines being killed by a youngster who they were teaching to play volleyball. But Lyndon Johnson didn’t want to overthrow the North Vietnamese government. Well, the only reason to go to war is to overthrow a government you don’t like.”

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