Notes on Losing a War

There are some who claim we won itbut from the Pentagon to MACV headquarters at Tansonnhut, reports Mr. Just, the search is on for scapegoats for what went wrong in Vietnam. Since 1965 a WashingtonPOST correspondent in the field, in Saigon, and here on the home front, Mr. Just published a book,TO WHAT END: A REPORT FROM VIETNAM (Houghton Mifflin), last year. He covered the 1968 election campaign, and made a return visit to South Vietnam last fall before filing this account.


THE Atlantic


THE Pentagon is now the most melancholy building in Washington. Wracked with bitterness and dissension, near-paranoid since the enemy’s successful assault at Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, and the assault on Saigon in May, the generals and their aides, in one of President Johnson’s favorite phrases, are hunkered down like jackrabbits in a hailstorm.

The events at Tet are instructive, although the rot set in long before. The point is not whether the success was ours or theirs, for it can be argued either way depending on the definition of success, but the fact that Tet was done at all. No one, not the colonels, the diplomats, the intelligence agents, or the journalists, thought that the Viet Gong had the capacity to mount the offensive that they did; the enemy hit Saigon, every provincial capital in the country, more than thirty district capitals, and held Hué for twenty-two days. The fact of it produced a crisis of confidence in the American ability to estimate the resources of the enemy, and confidence that when the enemy struck he could be quickly contained.

In America, the public perception of the war as something Out There in the rice paddies ended forever when the Viet Cong occupied the American Embassy — in living, vivid Cronkite color. Whatever the situation was (and who knew?), it was certainly different from what the public had been led to believe in November of 1967, when Ellsworth Bunker and William Westmoreland came marching home again to give positive accountings. The one reality did not square with the other, and it did not matter whether the spectator was thinking linearly or not; none of it jibed.

At any event, Tet was a sobering experience from which American officials in Washington still have not recovered. Could the estimates ever be trusted again? £Tt is very strange,” said an embassy official in Saigon. “After Tet, Washington became very pessimistic, and we became very optimistic. Before, it was the other way around.”

Why did Tet produce a surge of optimism in Saigon? It is quite simply that officials there believed that for the first time the Vietnamese saw the seriousness of the struggle and therefore would take the steps required to deal with it. In Washington Tet was commonly analyzed as a military victory for the allies and a psychological victory for the Viet Cong. In Saigon, it was regarded as both a military and psychological triumph for the allies: the latter in the sense that everyone could plainly see that the situation was grim. The argument went that the Thieu government could no longer dither over reforms; the enemy was at the gates. It appeared to be true for a time that government efficiency increased. The prospect of imminent disaster concentrated the minds of Vietnamese officials wonderfully, the Americans said. For the first time, Saigon and Hué felt the effects of war; far from being demoralizing, the Americans said, the disaster would prove positively beneficial. The Vietnamese people would not now hesitate to place themselves in the center of the struggle against the Communists. It was for this reason that when the pessimism began to pour in from Washington, American diplomats fought against it. If only the Administration could hang on; victory was closer than ever. But Washington had concentrated its own mind and taken a reading. It had looked at the situation and decided to cut bait.

So there were no more optimistic readings from Washington. More important, the fact followed the logic: Westmoreland requested more men, and Lyndon Johnson refused to give them to him. The American command would have to make do with what it had, and the Vietnamese had to be made to understand that there was a bottom to the pit. As a practical matter, Tet seemed to confirm the belief here that the war would not end with a victory on the battlefield. However obvious that may seem, or have seemed, to the civilian strategists, it was never obvious to the American military, who customarily fought to win, nor to the principal civilians who dealt with the war, beginning with the President.

Wear him down. Wear the Cong down, and he’ll quit. Put him through the meat grinder. Attrit him. He is hurting, said the American commander in mid-1967. He can’t take it much longer. During the trip to Washington late that year, when he and the ambassador spoke so confidently of success, the general indicated that withdrawals of American troops could begin in 1969. They could begin because the war would be winding down, the beginning of the end begun. Of course there were other, more pessimistic estimates in Washington, most of them muted. “If we have not made marked progress in six months,” said one of the ablest American experts in October, 1967, “then we ought to begin to disengage.”

That is the meaning of Paris, and it also accounts for the odd silence in Washington, a silence that endured for most of the last half of 1968. The articles datelined Saigon, South Vietnam, appeared with merciless regularity on the front pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times, but they caused little comment. General Creighton Abrams, unlike his predecessor, made few pronouncements on the war’s course: “No comment,” he said time and time again. Any expression of optimism, either in Washington or in Saigon, was tolerantly smiled down.

Except that one day in October, Abrams slipped out of Saigon and flew to Washington to spend the early morning hours with the President. He told Lyndon Johnson that the allies could stand a bombing halt; so the bombing stopped. The action was in Paris, but no one could make sense of that pattern, if there was one. Less and less was heard from Robert Komer, the generalissimo in charge of the pacification program, and just days before the election the President nominated him to be American ambassador to Turkey. Komer left Saigon with relief.

Where have all the hawks gone? There are no new proposals for more and better bombing, no carefully leaked plans for 200,000 more troops. In Vietnam, save for the two northernmost provinces, the multidivision offensive operations have mostly ceased, to be replaced by sorties from B-52 bombers. In fact, the term “search and destroy” has been replaced by “reconnaissance in force,” a phrase at once more and less descriptive. Search and destroy, as an offensive tactic born of an essentially defensive strategy, is dead. No one speaks now of a war of attrition. Even before the talks began, the war was existing largely as a holding action. To any American military man, to say this is to say that American forces have been held to a standoff. We have not won the war or even contained it. We have endured with it, and while that may be a triumph for American stamina, it is not as clear-cut as a colonel would like. The toughest colonels are calling it a defeat. And that is why the search for scapegoats has begun.

WHAT this country does not need right now is a wave of recrimination over Vietnam, but that is what is likely to happen. If anything in the war was predictable, it was that at some point there would be a search for those responsible and a reckoning. Who lost China? The logic is inexorable: Who lost Vietnam? “We are in for a very bad period,” said a senior official of the State Department early this summer. “They are getting ready for a stab-in-theback thing.” By “they,” of course, the official meant the military in the Pentagon.

Since by everyone’s agreement the situation in Vietnam is not satisfactory, someone, somewhere, must be held accountable for what went wrong. A nation of 200 million people with the most powerful army and air force in the world does not get stood off by a nation which collectively dresses out to 28 million, many of them half-naked natives, without there being something terribly wrong. Forget all the guerrilla books by Che Guevara or Vo Nguyen Giap; they say very little that Clausewitz does not, and in any case do not explain the disaster in terms that the ordinary citizen, or captain or colonel of infantry, can understand.

The most convenient scapegoat, now as in 1963, is the press; but it won’t stick. Newspapermen were not doing the fighting, nor were they devising the strategy and the tactics or advising the Saigon government. There will be a postmortem on the war, and many will say that press accounts fortified morale in Hanoi. The officers, with Brigadier General (Ret.) S. L. A. Marshall in the vanguard, will say that an American victory was clear and present “if only the people were permitted to view it.” There will be charges that the press lacked simple American patriotism, and charges that the war was covered from the bar of the Caravelle Hotel. Some of these charges will be accurate. Of course the press will counterattack. None of it will be very edifying. But the argument that the press lost the war will not stick for the elementary reason that it is demonstrably not true.

Similarly, civilians of one stripe or another will find generals in the woodpile. If anything, the military is an even more convenient goat than the press: for every rum-soaked Hildy Johnson at the Caravelle, there is a Bat Guano at MACV (the acronym for the American military command). And from time to time, fascinating clues to the attitudes of the brass are uncovered. The most intriguing period is early 1965, when the President decided to send combat troops to South Vietnam. The initial domino was a brigade of the 173rd Airborne.

The late Robert F. Kennedy, in a conversation with this writer last fall, said it was his understanding that the Joint Chiefs of Staff sold the White House on the commitment by indicating that it was temporary. The Chiefs indicated that the single brigade would be enough to contain the insurgency, according to Kennedy, and would then be withdrawn before the end of 1965. If this is so, it was a miscalculation of staggering proportions; by the end of 1965, there were almost 200,000 troops in South Vietnam. Whether or not this account is correct, it is beyond dispute that from the beginning the military, led by their civilian Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara, were relentlessly optimistic. Every day. in every way, the war was going better and better. The effect on the policy-makers in the White House and in the Cabinet was obvious.

Who then are the villains? First the press, from the point of view of the military. Second the generals in Washington, from the perspective of the demonologists. What of the generals in Saigon? An initial impression is that William C. Westmoreland is surely the least accountable commanding officer in American history, if not in the history of major conflicts since the beginning of warfare. The point is very tricky, since Westmoreland had the command and the authority, was the technically responsible official, and theoretically had full control over tactics in the South. But it is one thing to criticize his priorities: the emphasis on search and destroy; the failure properly to retrain the Vietnamese Army (ARVN); the persistent misreading of enemy strength and intentions; and quite another to hold him responsible for the course of the war. Bombing was applied not massively and immediately but piecemeal, by stages; Laos and Cambodia were off limits; as civilian casualties mounted, additional restrictions inhibited tactical bombing. In retrospect, many of MACV’s decisions seem wrong; but in retrospect, almost everything about the war seems wrong, including the reasons for getting into it in the first place. If the Americans had cleared and held, rather than searched and destroyed, would the war have been won? If the ARVN had been equipped with M-16 rifles in 1965 rather than 1968, would Haunghia Province now be pacified? If the American command had known to a man how many Communists there were in South Vietnam, could it then have accomplished their extinction? If. If. If. If Nguyen Cao Ky had been Ho Chi Minh, the people would have rallied behind the government of South Vietnam.

In any case, Westmoreland was never permitted to run the war the way he wanted to run it — which is to say he wanted more aircraft, more men, and fewer limits on the targets permitted to be destroyed. Massive deployment of American troops, perhaps a million or more, was in fact the only way the Americans could make their strategy of attrition work. “Attrition,” incidentally, was a word used by Westmoreland in Saigon, never by Lyndon Johnson in Washington. It is an ugly word, signifying a long-drawn-out struggle with many dead and one side or the other exhausted and beaten at the end.

So Westmoreland wanted to strike Laos and Cambodia, where the sanctuaries were, and he wanted to hit the port of Haiphong. He wanted more and heavier bombing of the North. Some members of his staff wanted to drop nuclear bombs in the South Vietnamese highlands (“nukes in the highlands,” as one colonel put it), but the general stopped well short of that. He thought conventional power was sufficient, if applied in force.

None of this was done because the civilians in Washington controlled strategy.1 Vietnam was a civilian-run war from the beginning, notwithstanding the paradox that in the war zone itself MACV entirely dominated the civilian establishment. But that was tactical; the rest was strategy. The principal philosophical difficulty was the absence of a clearly stated war aim; in an age of doubt and Tito, it is not enough to state that the enemy is Communist.

The closest that senior officials could come to defining what the United States wanted out of the war was the celebrated formulation of Dean Rusk: “We want them to stop doing what they are doing.” The war would end. Rusk said, when the North decided to “leave its neighbors alone.” While not subject to misinterpretation, Rusk’s statement was not subject to much interpretation, either. It was to say everything and nothing, the use of simple arithmetic to solve a quadratic equation.

So the object of the war became to kill the enemy. As the American techniques became more sophisticated, a pacification program was introduced. Its intent was to secure the countryside for the government, and induce the enemy to rally. The Americans prosecuted the war on the one hand and the pacification program on the other, never quite understanding where the one ended and the other began, if indeed there was a dividing line. The war part was run by the military, and the pacification part by the civilians.

The selection of bombing targets in North Vietnam was made by military officials but approved by the civilians, often by the President himself. The decision to introduce combat troops gradually was a civilian decision. The policy of restraint in the bombing of Laos and Cambodia was a political decision as, of course, were all the decisions relating to internal Vietnamese politics — to permit the fall of Ngo Dinh Diem, the establishment of Nguyen Cao Ky, the slow ascendancy of Nguyen Van Thieu.

It is impossible to say with certainty how important the internal situation was to the war effort, but my impression is that it was controlling. With the establishment of Ky, for example, the possibility of a neutralist government was foreclosed. But none of these decisions came flatly, by fiat. They are all characterized by gradualism, in Saigon as in Washington. They were hesitant policies, which flowed from the central presidential decision that America could have both guns and butter, could simultaneously win the war on poverty at home and the war against the Communists in Asia. That is, of course, if the war could be kept limited.

IN HIS final eighteen months of the war, when visits to America became more frequent, Westmoreland began to learn something of the public dissatisfaction with the effort, He was honestly surprised, and appalled, when pickets appeared on his speaking tour. He shook his head, couldn’t understand what was happening to the country. COMUSMACV picketed? Something had gone very wrong. Friends said that the general only began to understand the depth of disaffection when he returned to Washington in 1967 to speak at the Joint Session of Congress. He began then to comprehend what Lyndon Johnson was up against.

This is all by way of explanation why neither Westmoreland nor his command was finally accountable any more than anyone else. A brilliant tactician might have produced some startling temporary successes. A man with a more ironic turn of mind might have been able to convey the essential truth of the situation to the troops and the congressmen who invaded the war zone. But the war was more than public relations. There was no chance of structural change so long as the civilians were running it, and no chance for cosmetics so long as the soldiers were fighting it. Limited war, limited ends, as the President liked to say.

All of this, plus some other things as well, has produced in the military man something that can only be called rage, usually cold, sometimes hot. And thus the search for some rational explanation of why it all went so wrong. To Lieutenant Colonel William R. Corson, the literate Marine whose superiors tried to suppress his book The Betrayal (Norton, 1968), the villains are the timid American official in Saigon who refuses to demand that the Vietnamese government rid itself of corruption, and the hidebound general at headquarters who refuses to permit deployment of American forces to protect the Vietnamese people in their hamlets. To Lieutenant Colonel David H. Hackworth, one of the most decorated officers in the American Army, it is the refusal of his superiors to cast aside World War II tactics and fight the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army on their own terms, which is to say, a return to guerrilla warfare. To Lieutenant General Stanley R. (“Swede”) Larsen it is the American press, which refused to support the success of the American pacification program. To a high-ranking Marine general, now retired, it is moral cowardice not to do what needs to be done. “We have told the Communists: ‘Go ahead, take it over,’ ” he said last August; to the Marine general, American political leadership failed the men in the field.

The military establishment, of which the two generals can be said to be a part, tends to find its villains in high places. They wouldn’t let me do this . . . that . . . something else. One man accuses the CIA, another the diplomats at State, a third the White House; a vacillating Congress, a selfindulgent public, left-wing journalists, men who were afraid, men who wouldn’t let us win it. A single thread runs through these complaints: it is that if America had fought the war differently, it could have been won.

THE American apparatus now sprawls over Vietnam like sleep. In the huge MACV headquarters at Tansonnhut — Pentagon East, it’s called — colonels pad down well-lit noiseless corridors, the light a greenish hue from the special windows meant to withstand nearby explosions. There are heavy bunkers built of sandbags, with a concrete veneer all around the structure. A forest of antennas reaches over the buildings. Standing outside, looking up, you see aircraft of all kinds: Pan Am jets from Guam; an Army Caribou from Cantho; an Air Force C-130 from Pleiku; an RVNAF Skyraider returning from a sortie in Tayninh; a Navy Cod from an aircraft carrier on Dixie station in the South China Sea; a Phantom jet from an air strike in the Delta; and now the big four-engined 707 jets with unfamiliar names: Seaboard World Airlines, for example.

As if by rote, the old measurements are trotted out and dusted off for the visitor. At Camp Evans north of Hué, the intelligence officer of the 1st Cavalry Division (Air Mobile) talks of the body count for the past two months, avers that the commander of the 1st ARVN Division “is a real tiger” who, if unleashed, would willingly thrust north. Intelligence-gathering is now so improved that specialists can draw a circle around a house in a hamlet; beyond that, the enemy has moved away from Hué. He no longer commands the approaches into the city. “He knows he cannot win, and that is why he has pulled back,” the intelligence officer says. “Every time we fight him, we win and he loses.”

Chieu hoi (the program to induce enemy defections) figures are way up in Quangtri and Thuathien provinces, the two northernmost in the country. It is inexplicable, unless you assume that the enemy is losing badly, is coming apart at the seams, is prepared to give up the struggle. So that is what is believed. The best Viet Cong cadres are rallying to the government, supplying important data about enemy movements; some of the ralliers are of field-grade rank.

All this — the chieu hoi, the defectors, the KIA. and the rest — are now, as they have been since 1965 and before, quantified on charts and bar graphs. The colonels point to the bar graphs and say with pitiless simplicity: We are winning now . . . we are winning, yet the American people want to give up. They want to stop the bombing. The colonel shakes his head bitterly. If the bombing is stopped, it all might be lost. To the colonel, it is a question of the bombing; in Saigon, among the Vietnamese rulers, it is a question of the National Liberation Front. Simply a matter of proportion, or of perception of what the struggle means.

When the bombing was stopped, and the Saigon government was exercising its right not to participate in the talks at Paris, Nguyen Van Thieu talked of the NLF, and what recognition, at the talks or anywhere else, would mean: “They will become the winners,” he said. “And the people will believe them. The regional force and popular force militia, quite a few of them I’m afraid, may be discouraged and lay down their weapons and go home, or worse join the Viet Cong. All the painfully built democratic institutions will collapse. Our existence is at stake.” It was not precisely the remark of a man who saw victory around the corner; he was saying that the mere recognition of the existence of the Front would be sufficient to unravel the people of the South. The leaders of South Vietnam have never been as bullish on progress as the Americans; perhaps it is because the war has gone on so long.

Now that the end is in sight, it seems the cruelest irony that the Americans at last have an authentic hero (at least among themselves) in Saigon. He is General Creighton Abrams, who is admired and respected by literally all segments of opinion in Saigon; including, for what it is worth, the most dovish and disbelieving of the American correspondents. They say he understands the political realities, is less impressed with his weight as a political figure. He understands the climate in the United States. He is offhand with journalists, does not cultivate them, apparently regards them as a necessary evil. He is a superb tactician. He listens to Mozart in his villa in the evening.

As Chief of Staff of the Army, Westmoreland himself spends as little time at the Pentagon as he can get away with. He has gathered much of his old staff around him: Lieutenant General Bruce Palmer, a corps commander in Vietnam, is vice chief of staff: and Major General Joseph McChristian, the controversial chief of intelligence for MACV. is now chief of intelligence for the entire Army. As in Vietnam, he tours Army bases giving pep talks and shoring up morale. He sees little of the press in Washington, but meets the locals occasionally when he turns up at Fort Benning or Fort Bragg. By at least one account, he is an unhappy man. “Why do they keep saying that Giap is such a great strategist?” he asked a recent visitor. The implication is obvious. “If Westy had had the good luck to leave Vietnam in late 1966, he would have looked pretty good. But the longer he stayed the worse it got,” said an American official who has watched him here and there.

But Westmoreland is not much thought about in Saigon now, any more than is Henry Cabot Lodge or Ngo Dinh Diem. Memories are twelve or eighteen months long, no longer. The faces change, the war goes on. It has been for many of them a problem of bureaucracy. Officials working with the Hamlet Evaluation Survey (HES), the controversial method of computing which hamlets are friendly, which are unfriendly, and which are toss-ups in the race with the Communists, are in command of extraordinary facts which are said to ensure accuracy. Check and doublecheck; check and balance; check and recheck. Robert Komer until his ambassadorial nomination was in charge of it. Ask him or his extremely able aides about the HES, and they will display it and discuss it in the manner of a Swiss watchmaker discussing a Girard Perregaux. Wheels click and whir, mesh, and the machine runs. It does what its makers want it to do. It does not matter if the clock is five minutes fast or five hours slow. It is the mechanism that counts, and the mechanism is a marvel.

The Algerian analogy is now being used freely in Washington, and while very few men see a Secret Army Organization rising from the ashes of the Vietnam War, a number do see unprecedented bitterness and frustration among the officer corps at not being “permitted” to win the war. But this undercurrent is not evident in South Vietnam. For the first time, one hears majors and lieutenant colonels speaking of the war’s absurdity. Creature comforts are at an unparalleled high (except for the wretch in the foxhole), and the sense of it is men watching the slow slide to the dark side of the moon. Marijuana is everywhere, casually available on street corners and in the bar of the Continental Palace Hotel. One finds bitterness, but the suspicion is that for the majority it is only skin-deep. The perversity of attitude allows a man to hate both the war and the press for “knocking” the effort, allows him to hate the Viet Cong and respect and admire him as a tough and tenacious fighter. It is a product of emotion. The war is not to soldiers an abstraction, but an existential event that must somehow be given meaning. To men accustomed to thinking in terms of honor and country, it is not enough to explain Vietnam away as a terrible mistake, an aberration in the American conscience, the result of nascent imperialism, a radical departure — as Eugene McCarthy says — from the traditional themes of American foreign policy.

Did all those men, the enlisted men for whom the officer corps is responsible, die in vain? If the war was worth fighting in 1966 and 1967, why is it not worth fighting in 1968 and 1969? It is one thing for a politician or a journalist to understand how it happened, how we got from here to there in Asia, denounce it as wrong, and say it will never happen again; quite another for a battalion commander who fought all three battles of Dakto. They have done the dirty work of the state, when all is said and done, and sooner or later if the enterprise fails they are entitled to explanations of why it failed. The rest of us are merely accomplices.

ONE returned finally to South Vietnam to talk to the inmates, to try to find out what lessons have been learned. We have been in it now for — what, three years? Five years? What do the people there think about it? How does it look inside the kaleidoscope?

“It really is a lot better now,” a friend, an official, said, as if speaking of someone who was ill. “Really, it is . . . The civil defense forces really are doing very well; the GVN has supplied the guns faster than we ever thought they could. The coordination has been fantastic. . . . You know about the new miracle rice. It’s terrific. It is going to revolutionize farming in Southeast Asia. There is only one small trouble [smile]: the Vietnamese don’t like the rice much [smile]; they don’t like the taste of it. . . .”

He had been nodding, and speaking very slowly. Then his voice became an edge, and looking at me, he went on: “You know the GVN has beefed up the ARVN. They are past their 1968 quota and well into 1969. I know there are troubles with the officers and the rest; none of it is perfect. But the GVN has gotten off its ass better than we ever thought they could. It is a real government now; it’s working.”

Now he looked at me directly: “Look. We have proven one thing. We have proven that if something like this happens somewhere else in the world we have proven now that we know how to do it. We know how to contain an insurgency. We have made a hell of a lot of mistakes, but we’ve won this war, make no mistake about it. We have proven that we can win. We can do it. We have proven that now. . . .”

He went on for a little, but I did not pursue it. There was no point. I no longer lived in Vietnam; I lived in America. He had been in the country since the 1950s, had spent the better part of the last ten years dealing with the Vietnam problem. He knew more about it than I did. If he wanted to win the war, wanted to believe that it was won, it seemed to me that he had every right. There was nothing I could say that would help, because I saw it as an outsider. But as we left the restaurant I thought of the country, South Vietnam, as a corpse: molding, long dead, but with the hair and fingernails continuing to grow.

  1. It is a bit more complicated than that. Sometimes members of the JCS presented the service point of view only to get it on the record. The architects of the “civilian” decisions were often generals, and of course vice versa. It was often argued that the most important split was not civilian /military but Washington/ Saigon, including elements of both on each side. Though some of the top military men who held office up to 1963 opposed a major land involvement in Vietnam, most generals after that time preferred a military solution applied massively. Most civilians were gradualists, uneasy to the end about the efficacy of arms to win a war whose roots lay in social revolution. Of course, Dean Rusk and his followers regarded the problem as one of external aggression.