What we should have learned from the Vietnam experience

April 16, 2000|By Bruce B.G. Clarke

From the Vietnam War experience we should learn the relationship between political and military objectives, if we learn nothing else. In this process we should develop a sense of what it means to win. Winning is not necessarily the destruction of the enemy, though it will often help.

The Vietnam War was a political war -- not for the United States but for the North Vietnamese. They understood that the war would not be won on the battlefields of Vietnam. It would be won in the streets of the United States. The same thing happened in 1954 in France.

The United States had not learned from the French experience this critical strategic lesson -- the relationship between military operations and political objectives.

Previously, traditional thought held that when diplomacy failed, things were turned over to the military. The linkage between the two was not apparent. There was also prevalent in Washington a belief in gradual escalation-/de-escalation, and the idea that you could vary the amount of force applied for signaling.

The Vietnamese understood the relationship of political and military objectives.

The North Vietnamese attacked the U.S. strategy and our political center of gravity (public support) through a combination of actions on the battlefield that created casualties, media concern for our POWs, and a greater than expected devotion to their objective of conquest of the South.

The Tet offensive and "Agony of Khe Sanh" of early 1968 were designed with precise political objectives in mind. For two months the American people were confronted daily in the media by the possibility of a major battlefield defeat. This was the high point of the war. The United States won the battles on the ground, but lost in the living rooms of America. During the Paris peace talks an American colonel said to his Vietnamese counterpart: "You know you never defeated us on the battlefield." To which the Vietnamese colonel responded: "That may be so, but it is also irrelevant."

Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger realized that the war had been lost in 1968, but it took five more years to finish the war following the battles of Tet and Khe Sanh. Maintaining credibility and saving face became the political objectives.

The political loss of the war began with the credibility loss that resulted from the North Vietnamese being able to launch the Tet offensive and to besiege Khe Sanh. This capability had been repressed in Washington before1968 in order to maintain the public perception that we were winning the war. The ability to launch such an attack so caught the public off guard that it startled them and was the beginning of the end -- the beginning of the political loss.

Battlefield decisions were also highly influenced by the political situation. The announcement of the bombing halt by President Johnson is a classic case in point. During March 1968, while preparing to conduct the relief of the Khe Sanh Combat Base, the 1st Cavalry Division was given its next mission -- an attack into the A Shau Valley to destroy the North Vietnamese Army "remnants" from the occupation of Hue during Tet 1968.

On the first of April, 1968 the division plans officer started to brief a concept for the attack to the Commanding General of the 1st Cavalry.

The concept was to execute the planned attack to relieve Khe Sanh.

The attack, however, would be continued past Khe Sanh into Laos and then leap-frog south along the Ho Chi Minh trail, while blocking and destroying the trail, and enter the A Shau Valley from the north -- not the traditional attack route west from Hue.

The commanding general dismissed the concept quickly by asking whether we had heard the president's speech the night before. President Johnson had announced a partial bombing halt. We answered that we had not. He said: "What you are proposing is not politically feasible." He turned and left.

This is a classic example of the political limitations on even the operational aspects of the war in Vietnam. It also highlights the need for clear, unwavering military and political objectives that are in consonance before a conflict begins.

It was the experience of this war with its political gradualism and the constant interplay between the political and the military that gave birth to the doctrine of overwhelming force espoused by Gen. Colin Powell and practiced during the Gulf War against Iraq. It had its roots in situations similar to the one described.

What Khe Sanh in particular and the Vietnam experience in general should teach us is not necessarily the criticality of overwhelming force.

They should teach us the importance of military objectives being a clear translation of the conditions that a politician seeks for the U.S. military to achieve at the end of the conflict -- what it will mean to win. There are three critical pieces of guidance that need to developed during the policymaking process, before hostilities begin:

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