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.”