Sunday, February 24, 2008

How well prepared was the US military prior to Vietnam?

Colonel Summers’ anecdote about his exchange with Colonel Tu of the NVA is telling.  Summers reportedly said to the North Vietnamese: “You know you never defeated us on the battlefield.” Tu responded: “This may be so, but it is also irrelevant.” Even in the aftermath of the war, analysts from the two sides were looking at two different battlefields. The Americans did not seem to recognize what they were looking at when they entered the war, and they were not sure what they saw on the way out.

In broad terms, it seems that both France and the US got distracted and bogged down combating the “insurgency” as if that was the center of gravity in the war. Harry Summers has made the point in many places that the counter-insurgency fight was a distraction from the conventional war that was utterly winnable in 1965 but utterly lost in 1975. Nixon seems to have intuitively recognized that the conventional nature of the enemy, and unleashed a bombing campaign against the North’s infrastructure that looked like a light version of Curtis Lemay’s campaign against the Japanese. What made Linebacker and Linebacker II light versions of total war is that there was not contemporary effort by the infantry to fight its way towards Hanoi. Instead, there were gestures towards conducting a conventional war, but that was only after the US public and government had lost faith in prosecuting the counter-insurgency that some have called “slow motion defeat” for the Americans.

The longer an insurgency or guerrilla force can stay in the field against a conventional force, the more likely it is that public opinion on the side of the conventional force will prove decisive. Eight years of war in the Colonies was enough for the British public to demand an end to the Revolutionary War in 1783. So that pattern has continued. On the other hand, if a conventional force can be seen rolling up an enemy and continuing the offensive, public opinion will allow the battles to continue. The key is taking the fight to the enemy’s true center of gravity and destroying his ability to fight effectively.

This gets back to the question of whether the American forces were well prepared for Vietnam. Assume for a moment that American leaders had perceived that North Vietnam was conducting a conventional invasion of the South with the VC guerrillas forming a skirmishers line to harass and pin down the more capable American force. Suppose for a moment that the Americans had rushed North in a bid to capture Hanoi and end the war. I recognize that the US leadership was wary of provoking the Soviets or the Chinese into a costly war the US might lose. However, not recognizing and fighting the conventional war that Vietnam actually was actually coaxed America into fighting a war that it DID lose.

We are all in agreement that the doctrine and training of the US armed forces was adequate prior to Vietnam. The US military won the conventional battles it fought, and when it applied tried and true counter-insurgency doctrine, that worked as well. The problem is that the senior leadership did not adopt the right strategy until too late. As soon as US forces began taking casualties, the clock of public opinion in the United States began ticking. US forces only get so long to achieve victory before they will be forced to withdraw.

We saw a repeat of that dynamic following the quick conventional victory against Iraq in 2003. US public opinion began to sour on the American presence in Iraq as soon as it appeared that there was a guerrilla force that was killing Americans and the US forces did not appear to be willing to take the fight to the enemy. When President Bush ordered the escalation of forces and a re-commitment to counter-insurgency principles, an when that strategy began to work, the American public was satisfied. Gen Petraeus did not invent the strategy now being employed, but he recognized the fight he was in, and responded appropriately. Just as in the Vietnam War, American forces were prepared and trained to fight and win the type of war ordered by senior leadership. The difference between victory or defeat then as now was whether the senior leadership had enough tempo in their OODA loops to prevent US public opinion from declaring defeat and forcing a withdraw from the field.