Vietnam: Lessons Unlearned

Vietnam: Lessons Unlearned

The Defense Department’s own account of the Vietnam War holds the clues to our defeat.


This article appeared in the January 11, 1971 edition of The Nation.

The Defense Department’s own account of the Vietnam War holds the clues to our defeat.

Office of the Chief of Military History, United States Army.
Superintendent of Documents.
Government Printing Office. Washington, D.C.

This book is "A preface to the full military history of the war in Vietnam" that is already in preparation by our War Department. It is not meaningful to call it the Defense Department. The American military hasn’t defended anything American for a generation now, but it has killed our youth in foreign wars, defending tinhorn dictators against the wrath of their own people.

The seven firefights in Vietnam, beginning with the account of a black officer, Major Cash, of the fight at Ia Dran, usually end with an American victory. These recitals contrast with Bernard Fall’s battle reports of the French fights against the same enemy. Fall’s accounts usually end in disaster. In selecting these particular battles, are the military bringing out our best efforts or are they trying to show the Americans winning where the French lost?

In the fight at Ia Drang, as in most of the other firefights, aircraft (something the French did not have) played a leading role: "At 0755 Moore directed all units to throw colored smoke grenades so that ground artillery, aerial rocket artillery and tactical air observers could more readily see the perimeter periphery, for he wanted to get his fire support as close as possible. As soon as the smoke was thrown, supporting fire was brought in extremely close. Several artillery rounds fell in our perimeter and one 105 jet, flying a northwest-southwest pass, splashed two tanks of napalm into our area, burning some of the men and exploding M-16 ammunition stacks. While troops worked to put out the fire, Captain Dillon rushed into the middle of the zone and laid a cerise panel so that our strike aircraft could better identify the area." But, as usual, our defense was successful and "By 1000 the enemy’s attempts to overwhelm the area failed and the attack ceased."

At the end of the battle there is a picture of Colonel Moore examining the enemy dead. There are no pictures of the American dead, although there were seventy-nine Americans killed in the fight. It is interesting that among enemy casualties there are listed 581 estimated dead. As to how this figure was arrived at, your guess would be as good as Major Cash’s.

Firefight number two, the convoy ambush on Highway One, also differs from Bernard Fall’s French disasters. His article on the French convoy ambush ended with complete annihilation of the French outfit. John Albright’s firefight ends with the line: "National Highway Number One remained open." Again it was the jets and the helicopters to the rescue. "The arrival of the jets in a battle that was only eight minutes old brought pure joy to the men crouching in the ditches."

A convoy ambush is not a hit-or-miss operation. The insurgents — or the "unfriendlies" as they are called in Vietnam among other things, in an attempt to generalize about the various forms of VC and NVA — set up a carefully arranged ambush long in advance. It is not something out of a Western movie with Indians hiding behind the rocks. In this case, the convoy ambush on Highway One, the preparations had been going on for weeks, months, in advance. The enemy consisted of two battalions and headquarters of the Fifth VC Division, 274th Regiment. The ambush was laid in a wall of jungle grown up around an old French rubber plantation and banana grove, which afforded concealment for approach and withdrawal. The Vietcong commander placed his main force of 1,000 men in concealment. Seventy-five-millimeter recoilless rifles close to the road covered the area of the ambush killing zone. Farther back in the banana grove were more recoilless rifles and 82-millimeter guns for supporting fire. Heavy caliber machine guns were scattered through the killing zone to take on American helicopters and jets. A well dug-in regimental headquarters at the top of the hill overlooked the entire area of the killing zone. Bunkers were built along the route of withdrawal against air attacks. More bunkers were built along the road for defensive positions. When the ambush was sprung, part of the American convoy managed to get through the killing zone, but the convoy was cut in half. Air support arrived quickly. The battle continued throughout the day. "Colonel Howell then directed the squadron to coil around the ambush site for the night."

And so the war goes. We lost four trucks, seven men killed, and two armored personnel carriers lost. But the conclusion that National Highway One remained open is simply not true. "Remained open" suggests that the war is over. No highway in Vietnam remains open if it takes a convoy of jets, a swarm of helicopters, an army of tanks to get from one part of Vietnam to another. The ambush at Phuoc An is of a different kind. Each side ambushes the other on trails, dirt roads, any place the enemy is coming or going. We call those we are ambushing "enemy terrorists." These ambushes are more expedient and less carefully planned than a convoy ambush, but are frequently just as deadly. This is how most of the fighting in Vietnam is carried on, small units attempting to trap small units. Frequently the ambushers are ambushed by the ambushed. The ambushes in the seven firefights in Vietnam end O.K. for us, but where is the war? One has the feeling that this kind of thing can continue for 100 years, always ending as does the ambush of Phuoc An: "There was no further sign of the Vietcong." But what about tomorrow?

The last firefight in the book is called the Gunship Mission. What we think of the religious shrines of Asians, and how the war goes in that regard is best brought out by a conversation between ground and air on the last page of the book.

"Okay, Chad, we’ll work over the pagoda and around it initially. Got it?"
"Roger," radioed Payne. "But let’s make sure we’re looking at the same pagoda. I see one not too far behind it at a greater range. Let’s be sure, Jim. Over."
"Is this pagoda we’re talking about on the west side of the road?"
"That’s affirm. You’ll see an abandoned truck out in the road in front of it. Over."
Both pilots search for the vehicle but to no avail.
"I can’t see the vehicle from this angle but I believe it’s a yellow or cream color pagoda, isn’t it?"
"That’s affirm."
"Are you picking up a lot of fire down there? Over."
"From the pagoda itself?"
"We’re receiving an awful lot of small arms fire from the general area. You can start any time, and the artillery has been turned off. Over."
"No sweat. We’ll start our run at this time. Out."
He fixed the target through the infinity sight mounted directly in front of him and, as the pagoda loomed ever closer in the reticle, pressed the firing button slowly three times. The helicopter shuddered as the rockets left it. From the pagoda base black smoke rose and fragments of masonry flew in all directions while Payne’s two door gunners laced the area just forward of the target with M60 fire. Petit radioed his satisfaction.
"You’re doing a fine job. Keep it up. Over and out."

And so the war goes and goes and goes. Maybe it will never be, over and we will never be out. Our "victories" will continue as our defeats endure. When did we lose the war in Vietnam? We lost it, as General Gavin suggests, when we got involved. It was another disastrous political decision. The American military could not possibly win in Asia, any more than the Germans could have won in Russia after the politicians’ decision to invade was dumped on the Wehrmacht.

We shall begin winning wars when we stop fighting them, just as Germany and Japan have gone on from victory to victory, so we have gone, from defeat to defeat. They have learned from their defeat, while American leaders have become ignorant and arrogant with victory. The pattern will not change until we learn that survival of ourselves and this planet is political and economic, not military; moral, not expedient; a matter of understanding, not contempt; concern, not self-serving-something that depends on the emancipation of the human spirit, not the point of a bayonet a la Seven Fire fights in Vietnam.’

Only the other day when Nixon was making a public relations deal with the Pope he announced with all the weakness of the President of a banana republic, "I fly from here to the most powerful fleet in the world." Which would cause a lot of laughs in Europe if these were not the same people who made the mistake of laughing at Hitler. Our Sixth Fleet is worthless so close to Russian rocket bases, as is our army in Vietnam, so close to Asian wrath. We are fighting our seven firefights under the guise of bringing democracy to Asia. The recent election we held there was a fraud in which everyone could run for office but the opposition, and it could have fooled no one except MacNamara’s Band and the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt. Meanwhile, despite denials, the defoliation continues, napalm rains supreme, and the tragic comedy of the seven firefights in Vietnam continues, despite the revulsion of the world and the alarm of our military at being sucked into such an immoral trap that they are ashamed to wear the uniform.

Counterpointing the firefights in Vietnam are the bombings at home. Stop one, you stop the other. Nixon wants "victory" in Asia for which he will accept war at home. The student would rather die here defending what he believes than die in Asia. But let us return to the seven firefights in Vietnam for which you have already paid your $100 billion entry fee.

"To the soldiers who took part in the actions these narratives will afford an opportunity to see more clearly beyond the fog of battle what happened to them as individuals and as a group." Tragically not true. What was happening to them was happening in secret in Washington. Deals were being worked out to extend the war into Laos and Thailand, and to invade Cambodia, deals that would lead to American defeat, depression, inflation, riots. An undeclared war in Asia would be decided by the undeclared war at home. The war in Asia has already cost 1 million deaths. But this "full military history of the war" will not deal with most of them, only with the senseless death of 50,000 of our own youngsters. Within these narrow lines these volumes will do an excellent job, if this first work is an indication of those to follow. The writing is clear, succinct, and keeps the military jargon to a minimum. The topographical maps are helpful. The book provides an overall perspective of matters tactical and strategic. From what I learned at first hand about the war there, these battles have the ring of truth. But will the American people believe anything about the war? They have been lied to for so long by succeeding Commanders in Chief. Johnson: "No American will fight in Asia." Nixon: "I have a plan to end the war." Right from this high level down so the army’s falsity about enemy KIAs, political corruption ends by corrupting all. I see by today’s paper that a general was awarded a silver star for an action that was invented by army public relations. If we can invent a hero or a President by public relations, why can’t we invent a war? We did.

This volume and the following volumes will not mention how the war was lost, any more than military histories will tell us how we finally lost the Spanish-American War after backing successive military dictators south of the border for over half a century, until we lost the possibility of friendship with Cuba as we will finally lose the friendship of every country in South America. The arrogant American Presidents belief in the success of the Monroe Doctrine finally led to its application in Southeast Asia. We can learn something from our defeat in Asia. The 50,000 of our own that died there will not have died for nothing if their deaths can lead to our withdrawal from South America before it is too late. Another 50,000 lives will be saved, perhaps another million of the innocents.

Will there be another series of books like this one about our boys fighting in the jungles of the Amazon? I don’t think so. If the American Army does not revolt against the politically imposed losing wars, then the American people will, because the people must. As an American soldier told me outside of Dok To, a man who could have been a participant in any one of these seven firefights in Vietnam: "If we keep this up there ain’t going to be no planet left for anybody nowhere." Ah, victory! How do you like those apples?

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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