Ken Burns’s Vietnam, Part 5

There’s a saying in the Pentagon: “No horse is too dead to beat.” Ken Burns proves himself eager to box the pony with the best of them. He entitled this episode “This Is What We Do.” A better title may be “Welcome to the Dead Marine Zone.” There are three points that Burns misses in his rush to beat a dead horse.

The first point concerns battlespace. Is land important when one’s enemy rejects owning it? Borders meant nothing to the communists. Villages, roads, rivers and railways served as fields of dreams: they would occupy only to watch the Americans charge in. Occupy, hit, melt, refit, move was the 5-step tactic used. The North Vietnamese were people-oriented.

In contrast, America committed to observing borders and providing safe places for the communists. America fought as land-oriented. North Vietnam fought one war, the Americans fought another war entirely.

The second point concerns learning. Burns talks about units – this battalion of marines, that 173rd Airborne. What isn’t being talked about is the system of personnel replacements used to fill the ranks. Along with this was the attrition among experienced small unit leaders – the NCO and company-grade officers who are invaluable to winning. The Americans fought each battle as an amateur unit, with Instant NCO and no formed, bonded teams. What of the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong?

In our unCivil War, Union and Confederate regiments would be enter a rest-&-refit stage to recover from combat and prepare for the next fight. General Grant changed that dynamic in his drive from DC to Petersburg in 1864. His regiments fought, marched, fought, marched – with fresh units replacing combat-ineffective ones. The Confederates had gone through a different process in which small units were consolidated again and again so that some regiments had veterans, survivors of many other regiments.

Grant did not seek to gain land, or hold it much beyond the basics of security lines of communication. Lee had to focus on land with Richmond so close behind him. Grant sought to inflict casualties among the Army of Northern Virginia, and to force Lee to consume supplies beyond the Confederacy’s ability to replace.

Americans did the same in World War I, pursuing the enemy; and again in World War II with the Island-Hopping Campaign that made casualties of Japanese garrisons – cut off and as good as dead while they secured their islands. Land becomes important after total victory, not before. Destroying the enemy’s will to fight is the goal. We forgot that Vietnam.

The third point is one of culture. Burns shows us hippies, but not how a hippie is made. Hollywood was in the process of exchanging “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” for “Hang ‘Em High” revisionism. The new films brought a seeming-new point of view to young audiences – Americans as bad guys. Winners as losers, You are not only NOT special – you’re probably a villain. Music, art, sports, and education underwent similar transformations. Like the South Vietnamese in the countryside, young Americans at home lost their sense of security as the changes destroyed their Ozzie & Harriet lives.

This is what we do? The American way of war is most-violent maneuver, Vietnam was an aberration. Thoroughly beaten, the horse is still dead. The only thing sadder is the tears of a clown.

About DaveO

Retired soldier, micro-farmer, raconteur and pet owner from the great state of Oklahoma. Wandered in as a frequent commenter and have been enjoying blogging ever since.
This entry was posted in History, Insurgency & Counterinsurgency, Strategy. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Ken Burns’s Vietnam, Part 5

  1. burkemblog says:

    I would argue that maneuver was very much at the heart of the fighting depicted in parts 4 and 5–the helicopters, the massive ground attacks in the central highlands, maybe even the search and destroy missions (though I’m not so sure, the more I think about it, that I would buy that myself). The problem is, as you point out, the NVA didn’t fight like conventional armies. Westmoreland, like Grant, made defeating the enemy army his central objective–but Westmoreland used a flawed metric, the body count, which became meaningless as each level of command inflated the numbers. Grant, at least, bottled them up and forced them to maneuver or surrender–depending on how you look at the Appomattox campaign, they did both. In the case of Vietnam, alas, maneuver didn’t matter. Any way we fought was wrong because the strategic vision was wrong. we and the NVA were fighting two very different wars (shades of the US in Iraq 2003-on).

    The only logical thing to have done would have been to carry the war on the ground to North Vietnam–invaded the country rather than just bomb it. And we knew from our experience in 1950 in Korea that the closer one gets to the Chinese border, the more likely the Chinese would attack (shades of Putin and NATO expansion). So that was off the table, at least in the minds of the strategists. So we did not take the one step that would have possibly changed the outcome of the war.

    To your point about personnel policy–the turmoil was symptom, not the disease. Too many short-term soldiers (draftees served just two years, so they would get 12 months in Vietnam, after 8 weeks of basic training (I think it went to 6 or 7 for awhile during the war because the demand for troops was so high), plus AIT–most draftees got out of the Army after their Vietnam tour, assuming they survived it. Same for officers–two year commitments unless scholarship guys or USMA grads (four years obligation then, not five like now).

    The “shake and bake” NCOs were actually mostly draftees themselves who did leadership schools of 90 days or less, and were selected by their GT scores (had to be over 100 unless waived because they were born leaders). Many were dedicated, but they were not well trained and lacked experience, and they either got out or got killed or wounded in large numbers. I had several in my platoons when I was a lieutenant–the few who reenlisted (we sometimes forget there was a recession in 1972-4 that incentivized folks to reenlist). On the other side of this coin, we had the infamous “Project 100,000” where people with GT scores below, say, 70, were enlisted and supposed to be assigned to support units like stevedoring or engineer labor. I had lots of these folks, too–none were supposed to reenlist, but many did as the Army became increasingly desperate to keep up its numbers.

    The disease was our decision to fight a long-term war with short-term soldiers, which eventually led to the volunteer army and our current system (which is itself problematic). If Burns included that discussion, I don’t think it would matter at all to the narrative–it would come across as excuse-making on the part of the Army for not winning a war. Drafting people rather than mobilizing the reserve or guard (some were, but they were very few) led to the short tour lengths. and that draft policy was a political, not a military decision. Most units, however, as Burns points out, were competent at the tactical level–those short-term soldiers, NCOs, and officers did OK, by and large (save for the aberrations he mentions in the section devoted to atrocities). One might well argue they were betrayed by their leadership in Washington and Saigon–Burns gets that right, I think.

    Another thing Burns gets right, in my mind, is how self-serving so many on the antiwar side were. Seeing people like Jerry Rubin speak back then reminds me just how awful so many were. More principled resisters, like the one featured in episodes 4 and 5, make a better case for themselves.

    One thing this vexing issue of antiwar demonstrations raises is the even more vexing issue of political figures using the image of “troops in the field” to silence dissent–the idea that somehow we can’t criticize a war after it’s started because we would harm our own forces deployed in harm’s way. I think citizens of a free country have the right to criticize the government, to try to hold it to account for dumb decisions (Vietnam, invading Iraq in 2003). Hiding behind “support the troops” is the saddest act of cowardice I can imagine. Burns, I think, rightly spends time on this because it is a question at the heart of our representative government, that the people we elect to office are accountable to us, not the other way around. I don’t think Burns answers the question–so far, at least–but he certainly asks it. As we all should.

    Like

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