January 28th, 2008

Writing the war

I’m still reading Lewis Sorley’s A Better War, about the second half of our involvement in Vietnam.

It’s slow going, for many reasons. One of them is that it’s painful to read it and think what might have been.

Not what inevitably would have been—we can’t rewrite history and know what would have happened had public opinion in the US not turned so heavily against the war. But Sorley’s account of Creighton Abrams’s implementation of a totally different—and far more successful—policy than that of his predecessor, William Westmoreland, convinces this reader that there was a very good chance of South Vietnam having staved off the North’s incursion if we had kept up our financial aid during the mid-70s.

In this respect, as I’ve written here, Abrams and his policies are somewhat parallel to General Petraeus and the surge. They emphasize repulsing an invader (in the case of Vietnam, the Northerners; by the time Abrams was commander the native Southern Vietcong had already been decimated) who had taken over many towns by terrorizing and intimidating the local inhabitants. Like that of the surge, the new Abrams policy helped the population to feel secure in their own hamlets.

For those of you who haven’t read Sorley’s book, what I have just written may seem preposterous. After all, wasn’t it the US who was the invader, putting fear and insecurity into the South Vietnamese, who just wanted to be left in peace, and who didn’t mind the Northern takeover all that much? No. Read this extensively researched book and see what actually happened during Vietnamization, and note how similar it is to what has happened post-surge in Iraq.

In fact, there is little doubt that General Petraeus studied the lessons of the second half of the Vietnam War, and learned them well.

Others clearly have not; just see this example, a quote from Senator Warner when the surge was being discussed and battled in Congress back in August of 2007:

The debate is not just academic for Sen. John Warner, former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who called last week for Bush to begin pulling out 5,000 troops from Iraq by Christmas. The 80-year-old Republican is still haunted by the memory of Vietnam.

“The army generals would come in [and say], ‘Just send in another 5,000 or 10,000,’” Warner recalled. “You know, month after month. Another 10,000 or 15,000. They thought we could win it. We kept surging in those years. It didn’t work … You don’t forget something like that.”

Senator Warner might want to refresh his memory by reading Sorley’s book. He is remembering only the first half of the war, the Johnson/Westmoreland half. Once Nixon/Abrams were in charge in Vietnam, there was no surge but rather a continual drawdown. It was the policy of “clear and hold” that was successful during this second half, according to the evidence in Sorley’s book, and it is something very much resembling this policy that Petraeus is implementing through the surge.

Unfortunately the American people didn’t get the message any more than Senator Warner did. This was for a number of reasons, including the fact that they had become exhausted and disillusioned by the failures of the Johnson years, a process Warner has described quite well. While we can’t lay the blame entirely at the feet of the MSM for the failure to properly describe the successes of the Vietnamization period of the war, it definitely had a role.

This was brought home to me by a quote in Sorley’s book that will have a familiar ring to many readers because of what has happened since, in Iraq. Listen to veteran war correspondent (Korea) Keyes Beech, reporting on the reporting during Vietnam (Sorley took part of this excerpt from Beech’s own book on Vietnam, Not without the Americans, written in 1971):

“We fought, shouted, shrieked, attacked, defended,” [Beech] said of the [US media in Vietnam]…The camaraderie among the press corps of earlier wars was largely lacking in Vietnam, Beech lamented, and so was any sympathy on the part of the press for those conducting the war. “As the bitterness grew,” he remembered, “the press corps divided into two camps—those who wanted to win the war and those who wanted to lose it. I belonged to the former. Few members of the latter group would have admitted it, but only by losing the war could they be proved right.”

Sound familiar?

18 Responses to “Writing the war”

  1. Vanderleun Says:

    That book is taking you longer to read than it took to withdraw from Vietnam!

  2. Vanderleun Says:

    That said it is clear that when the myth of a war becomes a war that was “lost,” the parts of that war that were won go down the memory hole.

  3. gcotharn Says:

    “[O]nly by losing the war could they be proved right.”

    It’s amazing that so much of the Democrat Party – and especially their serious Presidential Candidates – have put themselves in this position.

    Dem foreign policy positions and military positions ought be more carefully considered than Vietnam reporters’ private opinions. Yet … that’s where we are. If Hillary wins the nomination, she is enough on both sides of the issue to hopefully give herself a way around reckless withdrawal.

    Keyes Beech’ words remind of embedded blogger Matt Sanchez’ words from last November 4:

    It’s hard to explain the shock I got when I finally got into Iraq. Unlike what I had read in the newspapers, I didn’t find demoralized troops complaining about a dangerous quagmire in Iraq, and believe me, I asked.
    So often, the business of reporting seemed to deal less with what was happening in Iraq and more with what was happening outside of Iraq.
    The big con job the media has inflicted on the American people, by systematically distorting so many details about the conflict in Iraq, does more than skew politics back home; it makes Americans distrust the sources of their information and is an assault on democracy.
    But while sectarian violence has plummeted, too many media outlets have stopped reporting on what is, by far, the most defining event of this century.

    A free people need a free press, but through omission, exaggeration, bias and just flat-out deceit, the American public has been taken for a ride – and we will all be paying a price.

    link to Sanchez

  4. Bugs Says:

    One reason I’m *almost* tempted to vote for Obama – he’s about the same age as I am, which means Vietnam, Watergate, and the Civil Rights movement were not the defining experiences of his life. It’s really time our ruling elites – politicians and journalists especially – stopped fighting in Indochina and started looking to the future.

    Unfortunately, a President Obama would bring a lot of much less desirable Democrats into power. Ted Kennedy’s endorsement makes me feel a little ill. So now Obama’s the new JFK? Great. So maybe some of the old farts have stopped living in the Vietnam years. Unfortunately, now they seem to have taken up habitation in Camelot. Let’s hope Obama’s ego doesn’t get snagged by that comparison.

    Oh, well – at least he ain’t a Clinton.

  5. Erik Says:

    Ted Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama makes me ill, also. Then again, that man makes me ill no matter what.

    The media parallels between Iraq and Vietnam are very interesting. I grew up inundated with anti-Vietnam movies and anti-Vietnam sentiment as an integral part of my education. I don’t think I’ve ever read a pro-Vietnam novel or seen a pro-Vietnam movie. I’ve never read an article that stated we could have won if we had stuck it out, or increased funds. So I guess I never even considered it.

    It’s an interesting thought, however, especially looking at it from within the modern lens of Iraq and the War on Terror. So often America fails in its efforts because we fail to stay the course. We don’t fully commit. This has been the case in Iraq before; in Vietnam and Korea; in Africa. Perhaps it’s time we followed through with something–in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then we can focus on our other battles–Iran, Pakistan, North Korea….

  6. Tim P Says:


    While I can sympathize with what you say about boomers in general, when you say about Obama, “…which means Vietnam, Watergate, and the Civil Rights movement were not the defining experiences of his life…” implying that the older folks are forever doomed to wrestle over these divisive issues again & again. As a boomer myself, I am too well aware of how tedious we must seem.

    However, those events shaped the political/social framework that those who came after know. As a student of history, I would hope that those who come after learn from the mistakes made then. These events are ‘historically’ fresh and the history that will be the record of those times after those who lived them are gone, is being forged now.

    I too get tired of the same old arguments being rehashed over & over, but they, especially Vietnam, are issues that still resonate, have meaing and influence today’s events (i.e. Iraq) as Neo has written about and quite well I may add. Let me also add that is is usually the left that trots them out.

    Those who write about the truth of these issues as Lewis Sorley has, provide a voice of truth to counter the chorus of lies. The lies of those who weren’t there and don’t know any better and the lies of those who were there and should.

    I’m glad Mr. Sorley, Neo and many others have taken up task. It needs to be said. These past events do have a large effect on events today. I suspect they will until this generation cedes control & passes away.

  7. harry9000 Says:

    It’s probably just as well they got the old “Liberal Lion” to a microphone before happy hour.

    Wouldnt want to mis-pronounce “Obama” at the same moment you’re endorsing him. That could be embarrassing.

  8. miriam Says:

    I thought our abandonment of the Vietnamese was shameful at the time, and I still think so. It was dishonorable.

  9. njcommuter Says:

    It was more than dishonorable. It was disgraceful and shameful, it was a violation of our own principles, a breach of our solemn promise under treaty, and perhaps the most costly mistake in a hundred years. It took years to put our military back together properly and more years before it became a source of pride for most Americans.

    The classic analysis, in both military and political terms, is Harry Summer’s On Strategy. Last I heard, it was still a required text at our military academies. For me, it answered the questions I had without violating what I knew, or what I believed. (That last part is dangerous, as the Sanity Squad would be quick to say.)

    On the left, it seems impossible to believe that the tragedy of Mai Lai was that once, just once, American soldiers behaved the way the VC behaved all the time. Just once, in self-defence, a stressed-out officer and his stressed-out men resorted to the terror tactics that were the backbone of the VC’s doctrine. The doctrine that became the policy of the conquering North.

  10. Dan Says:

    I was one of those sign carrying students of the 60s who thought LBJ and Nixon were the most evil people in the world and vets like John Kerry who courageously flung their medals back at the government were my idols.
    Years later, when I became a practicing physician I was astounded at the large numbers of Vietnamese and Cambodians who had become residents and citizens of the US. I realized then that they had been forced to leave their homeland with nothing but the clothes on their backs to escape “liberation” by the victorious communists of North Vietnam and the Kymer Rouge in Cambodia. I came to understand that my actions had been part of a betrayal of millions of innocents of people who wanted no part of a socialist agrarian paradise in SE Asia. It is my greatest fear now that the defeatists centered in the Democrat Party will use their (probable) victory in November to abandon those Iraqis who believed this time the US would stay the course. Look for the next President and Congress to wash their hands of the blood spilled in the coming years in Iraq. They will try to lay it all at the feet of Bush and it will be up to us to not let the truth by drowned out by the shrillness of their lies. A lie can make it halfway round the world before the truth gets its boots on.

  11. Martin Bebow Says:

    Don’t be so sure the Dems will win in November. Al Qaeda put McCain back in the race by assassinating Bhutto. They could put him in the White House.

  12. Ymarsakar Says:

    Read this extensively researched book and see what actually happened during Vietnamization, and note how similar it is to what has happened post-surge in Iraq.

    And yet it took years before Vietnamization was adopted. Precisely because the US did not obtain victory, hence people don’t tend to go with failed policies, even if they failed due to circumstances that were not directly connected to those policies in the first place. This cycle of defeat and having to relearn lessons over, is a trait of what happens when people give up in wars. For nations that don’t give up in war, but still lose, they at least have known that they did their best and were defeated by superior enemy tactics, strategy, or logistics.

    When nations give up in war, they also tend to try to forget the successful strategies employed, because it brings up bad memories. This means more Americans will die in future wars, future wars that could be benefited by adopting previous strategies. However, not many people care about the long term consequences to human life. It is always going to be the other guy dying, they think.

    It didn’t work … You don’t forget something like that.”

    Defeatism is a self-fulling prophecy. That is why nations often do not win against a foreign enemy because of internal squabbles.

    Unfortunately the American people didn’t get the message any more than Senator Warner did.

    That’s because when Americans stopped dying, and only Asian folks were, the media didn’t give a damn anymore to provide coverage for what would not benefit them. Saving Asians provides the Democrats nothing at all. That is the realist and isolationist philosophy under the slimy rock called the Left.

    Few members of the latter group would have admitted it, but only by losing the war could they be proved right.”

    The Left knows as well as we do that wars and violence solves many things and proves the victorious right, often and almost always. We know that they know. The Left is the only one using self-deception when they say wars don’t prove anything. Wars prove a great many things, much of which is the foundation upon which the Left stands. How many revolutions have the Left attempted to “prove” their existence and righteousness?

  13. njcommuter Says:

    And how many times has the subsequent “peace” been worse than the war?

  14. Bugs Says:


    I understand what you’re saying, and I, too, appreciate the excellence of Neo’s writing on the subject. One thing about vast conflicts like Vietnam, the Civil War, and the Revolution – nobody ever completely understands them. Still, something compels us to keep trying. The Vietnam War will probably never cease to be written about, even when it ceases to be historically fresh.

    I guess what I don’t understand is, since we’re all so self-reflective about Vietnam and we know that we’re re-fighting the damn thing 40 years later – like in the election of 2004, for example – then why do we keep doing it? Or are we in fact not all that self-reflective?

    Maybe I don’t understand because I grew up in the 70s rather than the 60s so I don’t have any vast political/social/cultural schisms by which to define my identity. I mean, there was Disco – but I think I’ve pretty much gotten over that.

  15. Tom Grey - Liberty Dad Says:

    Great question, Bugs — we keep refighting it because we don’t quite really agree on the facts.

    Like: 1973, Nixon (& Henry K.) “win” in Vietnam with 1973 Paris Peace Accords.

    We won.
    The war,
    when we fought.

    Then we left.
    Fact: by 1973 Nixon had pulled out of Vietnam.
    Fact: the Democratic Party controlled house voted to forbid re-introduction of troops into Indo-China (Neo, don’t you have the date of this act?)
    Fact: in 1975 Congress cut militry support funds for S. Vietnam
    Fact: the USSR continued to supply weapons to the North Vietnamese
    Fact: the N. Viet VIOLATED their international treaty, and invaded in 1975. And won in a fine Blitz of the somewhat cowardly/ incompetent/ corrupt S. Viet forces who did NOT get previously promised US air support.

    My analysis: the Dem Party of the USA voted to lose in Vietnam, after Nixon/ Abrams had won.

    The media problem — the above facts are not emphasized.
    “Because we DID lose, that proves we could NEVER win”.

  16. Tom Grey - Liberty Dad Says:

    Oh yes, in 1974 I left high school for the US Naval Academy, then voted for Jimmy Carter (an alumn!) in 1976 — because I didn’t like the Nixon pardon from Ford, and hated the fotos of him bent over in a suit with a stupid football, ready to snap it. Even if he had been a fine center, I hated those pictures of him, and those of him stumbling.

  17. Bugs Says:

    There’s no logic or reason about it. For some people, it’s still 1975 and it always will be. Too bad so many of them are in charge.

    Which is part of my point – Sure, keep questioning, keep writing, keep arguing. That’s human nature. But how about fighting our present battles rather than using them as an excuse to re-fight our past battles?

  18. Truth Says:

    Writing the war

    Good War….Bad War

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