102 How was the war in Vietnam lost?

Posted on April 29, 2012 by

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The War in Vietnam has been analyzed innumerable times. Narratives have been established to explain “How was the war in Vietnam lost”?[1] I’m not going to plunge into the mire of arguments, but point to a creeping logical error, which may have contributed to the outcome. To spot such errors might be of interest for the future.

The outcome of war is a political agreement between the two sides on how to “normalize” their relations in the future. This can range from “total surrender” to “status quo ante” and anything in between. How to predict when and how this outcome will emerge?

Winning battles is of course the easiest – but decisive battles are a thing of the past. Wars drag on, as enemies subject themselves to the “audit of war”[2].

One way to do it is to measure one’s “inputs” – what we have done to the “other”.  This is what happened in WWII with strategic bombing. The number of sorties flown over Germany was taken as “proxy” – a rough measure of the “damage” inflicted. The next step was to assess effectiveness by the “damage” to the enemy forces or industrial and political structures.

Measuring damage is relatively easy if there is a clear order of battle and a battle line. Then one can reconnoiter and count divisions, planes, tanks destroyed – whatever. But what should one measure, if guerrilla warfare prevails? The enemy is like fish in a pond – invisible. New proxies are needed.

“Hold and control” is a proxy – but the enemy may return, and in any case guerrilla is not about “holding real estate” but about “capturing the hearts and minds” of the population – either through fear or conviction – so as to lessen the room for guerrilleros to operate in.

“Search and destroy” is another proxy – eliminating the enemy by “searching” for fighters, then “destroying” them, and the “body count” would be the measuring tool to determine the success of the strategy. So “body count” became the telltale proxy.

I shan’t go into the matter that “body count” is a measure subject to self-serving manipulation and uncritical assessment by superiors. The essential fact is, “body count” is but one necessary condition for winning – no more. The outcome depends on infinite other factors. To collapse as complex and impenetrable a reality as guerrilla warfare into one proxy is to negate its essence – a most dangerous attitude to take.

“We squeeze them in order to make them surrender” slowly turned into “We squeeze them, therefore they’ll surrender”. The necessary condition is transformed into a sufficient condition. The means becomes the objective.

In the case of Vietnam this process did not take long to harden, once “boots were on the ground”. It was abetted by ignorance[3]. This ignorance was partly hubris, of course, but partly the “other side” of the equation: the need to explain to an impatient public “progress” in guerrilla warfare. Once the confusion between necessary and sufficient condition is implanted in the public’s mind – and this is easily done as politicians desperately vie for approval – a path dependent outcome is foreordained. Loss of lace and of popular support becomes the overarching preoccupation of the harried politician fighting for political survival.

War is never popular – after casualty figures start rolling in. To show sustainable progress is essential. Guerrilla wars are protracted and messy affairs; they are difficult to explain[4]; patience is paramount. The greatest danger is the hasty creep from indicator or proxy to goal.

Beware of faulty logic!


[1]           For a recent contribution to this running debate, see: Jonathan MIRSKY (2012): Dreams of Westy. NYRB, 10 May.

[2]           See: Corelli BARNETT (1986): The audit of war, Macmillan, London

[3]          The late James C. Thomson, who served in the State Department and White House from 1961 to 1966, explained the Vietnam mistake:

A recurrent and increasingly important factor in the decision-making process was the banishment of real expertise. Here the underlying cause was the “closed politics” of policy-making as issues become hot: the more sensitive the issue, and the higher it rises in the bureaucracy, the more completely the experts are excluded while the harassed senior generalists take over (that is, the Secretaries, Undersecretaries, and Presidential Assistants)…. Even among the “architects” of our Vietnam commitment, there has been persistent confusion as to what type of war we were fighting and, as a direct consequence, confusion as to how to end that war.

[4]           There is a myth doing the rounds of international relations, according to which democracies don’t go to war. This is nonsense. They do. But the only do short wars. See: Victor Davis HANSON (1988): The Western way of war. Infantry battle in classical Greece. Stodder & Houghton, London.

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