The book A Better War by Lewis Sorley has just gone on my all-too-lengthy must-read list (to find the book review, scroll down a bit after you click on the link).
Yes, more “Vietnam revisionist” history. Dismissed by those who are convinced the Vietnam war was hopeless, it interests me because it focuses on what I’ve called the second act in Vietnam, the Nixon/Vietnamization years.
Based on a quick survey I’ve done among my boomer peers, it seems that, although the majority remember the events of the 60s in Vietnam rather well, the 70s are mostly a blur to this group who lived through them. Forget the controversy over what it all means and whether the war was winnable; only the few who’ve devoted themselves to a study of history even get most of the basic facts right, including how many US fighting forces were in Vietnam for the couple of years before we pulled the financial plug (answer: none).
The press and events in Vietnam caught our attention in the 60s, as did the draft. By the 70s when public opinion had turned and solidified against it all, our direct involvement and casualties were in fact far fewer, and the focus was on Congressional efforts to stop a war that the overwhelming majority of people were united in agreeing was a useless, hopeless, expensive (and perhaps immoral) waste.
Sorley’s book focuses on this second act and its designated hero (tragic hero, in this case), General Creighton Abrams. Here’s a summary excerpt from the book review:
Sorley reminds us that Abrams assumed command in 1968 when 500,000 American military were in Vietnam, yet the Vietnamese countryside remained dangerous–a testament to the bankruptcy of the strategy of attrition. Four years later, when Abrams departed MACV to become Army Chief of Staff, only 50,000 Americans remained in country, but well over 90 percent of the countryside was secure. Pacification had worked, and although South Vietnam’s imperfect democracy and military forces had vulnerabilities, Hanoi’s go-for-broke 1972 Easter Offensive had failed, North Vietnam’s army was in disarray, and it was our war to lose from that point forward.
….That we actually came closer to victory than most thought is Sorley’s message, delivered with a powerful broadside aimed at the anti-war movement’s love affair with their romanticized image of the Vietnamese communists, and punctuated by a well-aimed volley directed at the anti-war movement’s allies in the US Congress.
But while Sorley’s persuasive thesis holds together and comports with what this reviewer experienced on the ground in Vietnam, it also reminds us of an important lesson-learned (or, more accurately, not so well-learned). Namely, that from 1964 to 1968, because of America’s ignorance of Vietnamese geography, history, culture, and language, the US military consistently underestimated its adversary, underestimated (and later overestimated) its ally, and, in so doing, squandered the support for the war that had existed in the media, in the Congress, and among the American people. As a result, when Creighton Abrams took the helm and teamed up with Ambassador Bunker and the South Vietnamese to wage an integrated political, military, economic, and psychological campaign, it was too late.
Sound familiar? Does Petraeus not resemble Abrams? And the “surge” and its related counterinsurgency approach apply some of the lessons learned way back when in Vietnam, as well as new information and experience.
The big difference so far is this Congress and this President. Bush may not be popular, and some diehards may even consider him to have been unelected, but he has hung tough on this issue and is a far cry from the truly unelected Gerald Ford who presided over the final Vietnam ignominy. But we shouldn’t blame Ford overly, either, because he was dealt a veto-proof Congress so firmly antiwar (and not just the majority Democrats, but many of the Republicans as well) that there was no stopping the tidal wave of restrictions and abandonment that had preceded Ford and achieved their final goal during his presidency.
That’s what the last paragraph of my quote from the book review is all about. Public and Congressional opinion had gone way too far by the mid-70s for any news to counter it, and the press was not interested in conveying that sort of news, anyway. Lately there’s been a rash of books such as Sorley’s trying to correct the record. Not surprisingly, historians of the other side (and yes, historians do take sides) disagree.
Iraq and Vietnam are very different. But they also bear some similarities, particularly in the crucial arena of US public opinion. Both began—as wars so often do—with costly errors that turned public opinion against them. Both received promising mid-course corrections, the success of which remains somewhat controversial. Both faced Congressional opposition in their later years.
The extraordinary emotional valence of the Iraq war resonates with the long-lived emotional intensity of the Vietnam years. In a strange irony, it was by only by a margin of about 100,000 votes in Ohio in the 2004 election that the country missed being led in the Iraq “second act” by one of the most controversial figures of the Vietnam antiwar movement, John Kerry.
But history’s like that; it doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. “Abrams” and “Petraeus” may not literally rhyme, but they do have a certain symmetry. Fortunately—at least so far—the rest of the story isn’t following the rhyme scheme.