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.