That the United States has set in motion machinery which will lead sooner or later to its withdrawal from the Vietnam War, whether by negotiation with Hanoi or unilaterally, is now accepted in Saigon, and it is a measure of quite genuine progress during the past eighteen months that this understanding has not precipitated a landslide into the ranks of the National Liberation Front. The city has learned to live with the occasional rocket that comes blasting in from the orchards and vegetable gardens of Giadinh and with the new Viet Cong tactic of stepped-up assassinations. Vietnamese friends warn against traveling to remote parts of the city at night and worry about the future of their children. But, as ever, they think the situation will unravel slowly and that there is still time enough to make critical personal decisions.
A fair chance of survival is what the United States is promising, with the rider that if the Vietnamese muff their chance, they will have no one to blame but themselves. It is difficult to quarrel in principle with this. One of the weaknesses of the allied effort after 1965 was the inferior role allocated to government forces. They were simply pushed aside while the United States went ahead to show how the war could be won. The stress now is on recouping the lost time in order to give the Vietnamese armed forces and government the chance, either in peace or war, to do what the United States failed to do on their behalf.
Whether the United States can in all honesty offer such a chance has only recently been called into public question. It raised specters that few in Saigon cared to face, and it was not until President Nguyen Van Thieu left for his meetings with President Park in Seoul, with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in Taipeh, and with President Nixon that fears of a “counterfeit” peace began to come to the surface in Saigon. “I hate the Viet Cong, but I also hate the war,” says a Vietnamese intellectual, who is willing, like many others, to take a chance on peace. And there are a few who argue, and truly do seem to believe, that the situation is so much better that South Vietnam’s survival as a sovereign, independent, non-Communist state has now been virtually assured.
This proposition commends itself to the U.S. Military Assistance Command in Saigon, where the Office of Information is now handing out to visiting newspapermen some highly interesting and detailed summaries of recent war years. MACV found “the year 1968 unquestionably the most significant year of the war to date and [it] may prove to have been the turning point.” No one could disagree with that, you might think. Yet, as MACV sees it, the enemy “failed to achieve a single one of his original principal objectives.”
Since the psychological effect of the Tet offensive on Washington can be compared quite realistically with that of the fall of Dienbienphu on Paris in 1954, and since it shattered the illusion that pacification in Vietnam brought real security, this is truly a singular comment. But the body counts are all there to establish the case. At the end of 1968, according to MACV’s compilations, the cumulative total was 436,000. Unfortunately, in adding up these figures, no one has bothered to match known enemy losses against known enemy strengths. This is an instructive exercise. In 1961 official estimates were that the Viet Cong had an order of battle of around 15,000 men, half of whom were believed to have guns. That year the body count totaled 12,133. Allowing three wounded for every man killed (the normally accepted ratio for those requiring hospitalization), and not counting the bodies that escaped the eager eyes of the counters, the Viet Cong must have had a casualty rate of about three for every man they put into the field. Last year, according to MACV, they lost 181,146 killed. Again, by the three to one wounded to killed ratio, total casualties must have run to three quarters of a million out of a force that MACV believed to be not much more than a quarter of a million strong!
These figures suggest one of two possibilities. Either the body count is grossly exaggerated, or, since no army in the world has ever survived a persistent casualty rate of 300 percent and succeeded in multiplying itself at the same time, the enemy forces, and capabilities, were heavily underestimated. No less an authority than Hanoi’s General Vo Nguyen Giap himself has recently confirmed that his side’s losses have reached the half million mark. If we ever learn the true figures, they may in fact prove to be substantially higher. MACV’s explanation of the discrepancy is that the Viet Cong and the NVA just kept on feeding men into the machine. No one is likely to quarrel with this explanation. But if the recruits to fill, and even to expand, the ranks so quickly were so readily available, not only the body counts but all the weight of emphasis attached to them helped to create an entirely illusory appreciation of the progress of the war, and the nature of the problem.
This is not to discount the losses that American firepower has inflicted, but to indicate the futility of attempting to measure progress by counting dead bodies. It simply was never that sort of war. By using comparative casualties as a yardstick in what was always primarily a political contest of wills, we not only misled ourselves, but, in the pursuit of what seemed to be tangible evidence of progress, often indulged in tactics that were heavily counterproductive.
This was as true of the effort when the war was primarily Vietnamese in character as it was after the major commitment of American forces. The first divisional-sized operation of the war took place in Vinhbinh Province, between the Mekong and the Bassac rivers in the summer of 1961, and I was there to watch it. ARVN artillery blazed away into villages from which never a shot was fired in return. When I protested to the divisional commander, he replied: “You don’t understand. The villagers have asked us to shell them because it gives them a chance to run away from the Viet Gong.” Not very long afterward a Buddhist leader in Vinhbinh was listed among the founder members of the National Liberation Front. No doubt we killed some Viet Cong in this action —the bodies were there to be counted—but no one tried to estimate the converts to the Viet Cong caused by the shells so irresponsibly aimed into the ranks of the civilian population. And God alone knows how many thousands we created later on the basis of the American rationale that villagers, provided they received adequate warning, blamed the Viet Cong, or the NVA, and not the U.S. or government forces, if their homes were destroyed by bombing or shellfire because of the presence of enemy troops.
Viet Cong round
Now that they have abandoned hope of a general uprising in the cities, the Viet Cong, with their rocket and mortar attacks, are falling into the same error, but their success in creating a mass base among large sections of the rural population relates directly to the intensity of their effort, and to their understanding of peasant hopes and aspirations. Though the cadres operating in the villages and hamlets often suffered from human failings, the system itself was effective. People counted much more than terrain. Thus, the Viet Cong could lose every battle, and, while the rural population remained on their side, still expect to win the war.
Even after all these years, however, this is not fully understood. In the winter-spring offensive this year, MACV again stressed the scope of the victory by claiming 27,000 Viet Cong and NVA forces killed in the first six weeks of the campaign. Unlike the Tet offensive, when government units were the principal targets, the main enemy effort was directed against American positions. To have lost only 1718 Americans during the first six weeks and to have accounted for so many Viet Cong and NVA may, therefore, seem to be very good military arithmetic. The kill ratio was up from 1:5.2 during the Tet offensive to 1:7. But, as Hanoi was well aware, by pushing the American losses through the Korean War level, and revealing once again a significant military capability, the offensive provided a new psychological impetus for those demanding the rapid de-Americanization of the war. Unfortunately for the Allied cause this tactic often proved beyond the comprehension of some U.S. commanders. By assaulting Hamburger Hill last May Major General Melvin Zais took conventional military action, won some sort of military victory, and, by sharply increasing the American casualty rate, aroused a new storm of protest against the war in the United States. Hanoi could not have asked for more. By continuing to sit in Paris and conceding nothing, Hanoi has everything going for it. Peace by negotiation is still possible in the long haul on highly advantageous terms. For the present, the bombing in the North has been stopped, the B-52 raids in the South have been pruned for economy’s sake, and before long, the American forces will have begun to withdraw.
It is improbable that either the Viet Cong or the NVA could have sustained indefinitely the very high level of casualties that their forces suffered last year. But there is an economy of effort about their offensives this year which will not overtax their manpower reserves, despite the continuing high level of casualties, or test their political allegiance in the hamlets. It is against this background and not on the basis of body counts and the kill ratios that the current situation in South Vietnam, and the future prospects for the government in Saigon, ought to be measured.
Compared with Tet, when American and government forces used their firepower recklessly and ruthlessly to repulse the Viet Cong and NVA from the cities and towns, multiplying the destruction and the misery, the Allied military performance this year has been both professional and restrained. A village died under South Vietnamese military orders in the liquidation of an NVA battalion during the attack on Bienhoa February 26, the biggest single action of the offensive, but elsewhere firepower was used with moderation in built-up areas. Intelligence, both at the strategic and tactical levels, was fast and accurate. Equipped with the entire enemy battle plan, government forces were standing to when the attack came at Bienhoa, and B-52 attacks prevented two of the three NVA battalions committed from reaching their targets. Psychological warfare teams worked speedily and effectively. During the early fighting the deputy commander of the NVA battalion became a prisoner. Within an hour leaflets with his picture and the news of his capture had been dropped on the village where the NVA troops were holding out in bunkers built initially as shelters against rocket attacks. Seventy-nine members of the NVA battalion surrendered.
Nowhere did the NVA offensive really get off the ground. Operation Dewey Canyon picked up more than five hundred tons of enemy weapons and ammunition in the southwestern corner of Quangtri Province, effectively preventing any renewed thrust against Hué. This was the biggest haul of the war and included trucks, five-ton tracked vehicles, and thousands of rounds of mortar ammunition. For the first time in the war, NVA ranks appeared south of the I Corps area. They were quickly knocked out, or driven back across the border into Laos. Everywhere the attacking forces made greater use of artillery. This succeeded in its primary objective of putting up the American casualty rate, but it did not deny to the Allied forces the technical control of the battlefield in areas where they regard control as vital to their interests, especially around Saigon. By the same test, the Viet Cong, though they abominate the B-52 raids, are in full control over the base areas vital to their own interests, and they are highly offensive where their rights are contested, especially south and southwest of Danang, in Quangngai Province, and around Cuchi, in Haunghia Province, where the U.S. 25th Division has established its headquarters in the heart of a region which for many years was an uncontested Viet Cong zone.
In many attacks both Viet Cong and NVA forces lacked spirit. The defection rate was up, especially in Phuyen and Binhdinh provinces, where the Viet Cong hold was once solid. A significant proportion of the Viet Cong and NVA forges committed were teen-agers, whose morale was often anything but high. Most teams working in the accelerated pacification program held their ground. The ARVN and the regional and popular forces fought well. Many roads which once could be traveled only with a high degree of risk are safer than they used to be. And, most important, the three-pronged tactics worked out by the late General Nguyen Chi Thanh for the concerted use of regular, regional, and guerrilla forces no longer functions so easily against the tactics employed by General Creighton Abrams. Without lines of supply laid down ahead of their forces, the regular Viet Cong and NVA battalions cannot operate beyond their sanctuaries. Today there are many more Allied troops, and many more that are better armed and trained, working in and around the denser areas of rural population. In the past, Allied intelligence used to be good on the strategical level. On the tactical level, it was almost nonexistent. Although the backroom boys had plotted the massive material buildup in Laos and Cambodia and were predicting with quite remarkable accuracy the weight of the 1968 general offensive and even its approximate timing, tactical intelligence was so little in the picture that some local Viet Cong units in the Saigon-Cholow area, which had been broken down for security into sections and were waiting for the order to reassemble, were not carried on the enemy’s order of battle. That sort of error no longer occurs.
Back to politics
If this pattern were to continue for another five or ten years, it would be reasonable to suppose that the war might end in some sort of victory, however temporary, for the Allies. Nothing is more certain, however, than that the pattern is changing. The United States will not maintain its forces indefinitely at anything like the present level. And, once the withdrawal has begun, it is likely that domestic pressures will demand a rapid acceleration.
Assuming that a political solution of the war is in the making, it is still difficult to be more sanguine about the government’s long-term chances. President Thieu has moved slowly, but in his own way quite effectively, since his installation. He has consolidated himself in power, introduced general mobilization, conducted village elections, and negotiated doggedly, and properly, with his American allies to prevent compromising the Republic of Vietnam’s status at the Paris talks. Now, belatedly, he has begun to organize what he hopes will become a solid base of political support for the government. But his National Social Democratic Front is both slow-moving and without the mass popular support that the situation demands.
Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky believes that the unity of no more than fifteen to twenty key men is needed to create an effective national united front. Thieu puts the figure significantly higher—at between fifty and seventy-five. Whatever the figure, it would be highly optimistic to expect that so many Vietnamese leaders will subordinate their own personal differences to the national need, even at this critical time. Thieu is in no sense popular. He lacks charisma, and his style is devious. Inevitably, in the strengthening of his own authoritarian power base, he has not helped to create the conditions under which he can personally hope to rally popular support. Press censorship has not been stricter since the end of the Diem era, and the tenyear jail sentence imposed on Thich Tien Minh, the militant Buddhist leader, alienated many of his followers, who were not disposed to alter their views when the sentence was subsequently reduced to three years. Finally, Thieu’s appointment of General Tran Thien Khiem as deputy prime minister in charge of the key security ministries has had the effect of strengthening the administration’s controls at the expense ol its popular appeal. Thieu is not helped by congressional attitudes. Most members see their role in the legislature as that of an opposition to the executive, and regard suggestions that Thieu may need support as unsophisticated and even undemocratic. In short, the country remains in characteristic political disarray. Instead of helping to create unity, any progress toward a negotiated settlement may only add to the divisions, and harden the central opposition to such a settlement. This is, in fact, already happening.
If free elections were ever held, it is still a reasonable assumption that non-Communists and anti-Communist groups would win the majority of votes, even if the NLF campaigned under the banner of Uncle Ho. If, however, fragmented nationalist groups were to enter the contest separately, as they have in past elections, there is also little doubt that the Front would prevail, for it is the only disciplined mass political organization ever created in Vietnam.
Throughout South Vietnam the Front is now engaged in a major campaign to prepare for the day when it takes over. A document bearing the imprint of the Laodong (Communist) Party of North Vietnam instructs that the administration at all levels must be under the absolute control of the Party. “Not enough attention has been paid to the indoctrination of women,” it complains. “They should be prepared for harder trials. They are credulous and cannot resist love.”
The “establishment of a revolutionary government system from high echelon to village level” has been given highest priority. This includes the organization of cadres competent to run everything from trade unions to postal services. Topbracket recruits are being sent to North Vietnam for the formation of specialized command cadres to serve later at all branches and levels. Children whose parents have earned merit in the cause are also going North for training. They fall into two age groups, those from ten to fourteen years and from fifteen to seventeen years. People’s courts have been reintroduced with the basic instruction that they “should be dictatorial toward the enemies of the people, including the landlord, the mercantile bourgeoisie, the reactionary elements, and especially the lackeys of the U.S. imperialists.” The killing of “tyrants and antirevolutionary ringleaders” is specifically and liberally authorized: assassins carry death sentences, stamped in advance, with blank spaces for the names of their victims. Peace, when it comes, may be no less bloody than the war, and our crisis of conscience will persist long after the last American soldier has left South Vietnam. Fifteen years ago there used to be a sign on a work project outside Hanoi. “Think of each rock you crush as an American head,” it read. America’s head will survive the Vietnam crushing, but its soul will carry not only the scars of engagement but of disengagement, also.