The War Nobody Won 5

Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr., a foremost analyst of the war, has been less harsh on the press and politicians than many of his fellow officers. A veteran of two tours in Vietnam, he has criticized American military planners for pursuing Vietcong guerrillas, who were deployed to harass the U.S. forces until big North Vietnamese divisions could launch major operations. In short, the Americans exhausted them¬selves in a futile counterinsurgency effort—“like a bull charging the toreador’s cape rather than the toreador.” This was Westmoreland’s “war of attrition,” predicated on the theory that superior U.S. fire¬power would inevitably wear down the enemy. But while the Amer¬icans succeeded tactically, Summers has written, their performance was a strategic failure. “You know,” he boasted to a North Vietnamese colonel after the war, “you never defeated us on the battlefield.” To which the Communist officer replied, “That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.”
In Summers’s estimation, the United States should have gone on the offensive late in 1965, after they had spoiled a Communist attempt to cut across South Vietnam from the central highlands to the pop¬ulated areas along the coast. He would have pushed through the “de¬militarized zone” that separated North from South Vietnam, then driven into Laos to the Thai border on the Mekong river to seal off the enemy infiltration routes running south—an approach that would have required fewer U.S. troops than Westmoreland’s “search and destroy” missions, and thus reduced American losses. The task of fighting the Vietcong, in his view, ought to have been entrusted to the South Vietnamese forces. Other military analysts have made the point, however, that the Saigon government army would have aborted that mission—since its leadership was riddled, in the words of one U.S. military adviser, with “politics, corruption and nepotism.”
But such autopsies, like war games, often bear little resemblance to actual war. In reality, the Communists were almost fanatical in their resolve to reunify Vietnam under their control. They saw the struggle against America and its South Vietnamese allies as another chapter in their nation’s thousands of years of resistance to Chinese and, later, French rule. And they were prepared to accept unlimited losses to achieve their sacred objective.
Ho Chi Minh, the ascetic figure who led their crusade, had made the equation clear to the French on the eve of their war in 1946. “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours,” he warned a French official, “but even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.” General Giap, commander of the Communist forces, echoed the same theme more brutally at the time. “Every minute, hundreds of thou¬sands of people die on this earth,” he said. “The life or death of a hundred, a thousand, tens of thousands of human beings, even our compatriots, means little. ” When I interviewed him in Hanoi in March 1990, he repeated that his principal concern had been victory, not casualties. “How long would you have gone on fighting against the United States?” I asked. He replied instantly, “Another twenty years, maybe a hundred years, as long as it took to win, regardless of cost.”
American strategists went astray by ascribing their own values to the Communists. Westmoreland, for one, was sure that he knew the threshold of their endurance: by “bleeding” them, he would impress upon their leaders the realization that they were draining their pop¬ulation “to the point of national disaster for generations” and thus compel them to sue for peace. Even after the war, he still seemed to have misunderstood the dimensions of their determination. “Any American commander who took the same vast losses as General Giap, ” he said, “would have been sacked overnight.”
But Giap was not an American confronted by a strange people in a faraway land. His troops and their civilian supporters, fighting on their own soil, were convinced that their protracted struggle would ultimately wear away the patience of their foes and carry them to their goal. The strategy had worked for Giap against France, and he was persuaded that it would work against the United States.
“We were not strong enough to drive a half million American troops out of Vietnam, but that wasn’t our aim,” Giap explained to me. “We sought to break the will of the American government to continue the conflict. Westmoreland was wrong to count on his superior firepower to grind us down. Our Soviet and Chinese comrades also failed to grasp our approach when they asked how many divisions we had in relation to the Americans, how we would cope with their technology, their artillery, their air attacks. We were waging a people’s war, a la maniere vietnamienne—a total war in which every man, every woman, every unit, big or small, is sustained by a mobilized population. So America’s sophisticated weapons, electronic devices and the rest were to no avail. Despite its military power, America misgauged the limits of its power. In war there are two factors—human beings and weap¬ons. Ultimately, though, human beings are the decisive factor. Human beings! Human beings!”
Ironically, many U.S. officers concurred with his thesis. “The American army and its South Vietnamese allies,” wrote General Pal¬mer after the war, “demonstrated a tendency to rely on superior fire¬power and technology rather than on professional skill and soldierly qualities. . . . There were U.S. officials who constantly sought to develop some magical scientific breakthrough—something akin to the Manhattan Project of World War II that developed the first atomic bomb—that was to produce dramatic results and bring the war to a quick close. But it was a will-o’-the-wisp, an unattainable, somewhat foolish wish.”
Giap admitted during our talk that the Communists were bedeviled by “difficult” periods. “But,” he thundered, “we were never pessi¬mistic. Never! Never!” He sounded like general’s everywhere, who gloss over their setbacks and remember their triumphs. Yet few Amer¬icans who served in Vietnam would have denied the perseverance of his troops.
“They had an extraordinary ability to recuperate,” wrote Palmer, “absorbing casualties in numbers unthinkable to us, replacing people, retraining and reindocrinating them, and then bouncing back. . . . Their will to persist was inextinguishable.” Konrad Kellen, a civilian specialist who interrogated prisoners, observed of the Communist soldiers: “Short of being physically destroyed, collapse, surrender or disintegration was—to put it bizarrely—simply not within their ca¬pabilities.” Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Herrington, an American mil¬itary adviser, recalled that he “couldn’t help admiring the tenacity, aggressiveness and bravery” of the North Vietnamese forces, who sincerely believed that they were “saving their southern brethren from the clutches of imperialism.” A U.S. general called them “the best enemy we have faced in our history,” and Colonel David Hackworth, a celebrated infantry officer, has described the sight of a Communist bunker being deluged by American bombs. “The fortified positions were manned by hardcore mothers who didn’t give up even after their eardrums had burst from the concussion . . . and blood was pouring out of their noses.”

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