Sunday, July 25, 2010

Vietnam, Conventional Warfare, and Insurgencies

Posted by Chris at 5/19/2007 8:44 PM...

I've spent the past couple of weeks thinking about Mark Moyar's reported argument that the Vietnam War could be won, the claim by the anonymous poster from Texas Tech that Moyar argued that bombing North Vietnam's Dams to drown the Northern populace could have played an important role in winning the war, and Nagl's Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife. I still have not had the opportunity to find and read Moyar's work, so I'm just working off of supposition here. This may lead me to make some flawed arguments, but that doesn't seem to stop politicians, so here goes nothing.

So the first question is whether or not the Vietnam War was "winnable" by the United States or the Republic of Vietnam. There are three ways to approach this question. The first approach is in simple terms of comparative military power and conventional warfare. By any measure, if the United States had waged a full-fledged conventional war against North Vietnam along the lines of the campaigns of World War II, it could have inflicted a military defeat on the Communist North. This would obviously require massive artillery and aerial bombardment of government, industry, transportation, and population centers, followed by a massive land invasion, but it was technically possible. It could have simultaneously defended the South, defeated the Communists, and fit in the the offensive mindset of the United States Army and United States Air Force.

So why did this not occur? Like everything else in war , it's complicated.

One reason is certainly due to Eisenhower-era cuts to the Army in favor of the cheaper nuclear deterrent. The argument was that with nuclear weapons, it was no longer necessary or desirable to maintain a large standing Army. Why not desirable? Not only did Ike warn against the dangers of the military-industrial complex, but maintaining a large number of troops is expensive. Not only do you have to pay them, provide uniforms, food, and weapons, but you have to keep them trained. Training is expensive and difficult, and invariably causes its own loses of men and materiel. In the long run, training it cheaper than actual combat, but only if you train for the wars you fight, and the enemy cooperates in that. Ike wanted to cut costs, and he had his new superweapon - the hydrogen bomb to keep us safe.

I also can't help but think that some traditionally American suspicion of standing armies played a role here. Before the Korean War, the United States played catch-up in all of its wars because it had very small professional forces that had to be expanded for actual fighting, and training likely as not came under fire. Maybe Eisenhower's warning against the military-industrial complex was an extension of our age-old fear of what bored troops and despotic leaders might do.

In addition to the Eisenhower defense cuts is the fact that Vietnam borders on China. There was surely a fear that invading the North with ground troops and embarking on a full-scale aerial assault on North Vietnam would draw the People's Republic into yet another war with the United States on the heels of Korea. The danger of drawing the PRC into the war, almost certainly affected the strategy employed in Vietnam. Rather than repeat the mistake of invading the Communist North, the United States chose to defend South Vietnam. This decision ruled out an aggressive all-or-nothing campaign. Unfortunately, that was all the United States Army knew how to fight (See Nagl).

In choosing how to train the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), the Army chose to train and equip it to fight a conventional war against external enemies, which would have been the right choice for a Korean War style invasion. ARVN was built into heavy brigades that relied on artillery and air support to punish the enemy in a conventional war of maneuver. Nagl argues that the U.S. Army went this route because that is how it fought, and how it expected opponents to fight. Unfortunately, most of what ARVN and the U.S. Army faced was an insurgency, not conventional warfare against large formations mechanized infantry and armor, and it was sadly unprepared to fight against insurgents.

One of the tragedies of the Vietnam War, and there are many, is that the United States and ARVN did not have to train and equip themselves to fight a conventional war. There were previous examples, some quite recent, of how to deal with an insurgency. The British experience in Malaya provided a clear example of how conventional warfare did not work against insurgents, but instead drove the populace into their arms. The British were quickly able to recognize this problem, and through the work of able soldiers like Sir Robert Thompson, changed paths to develop a useful counter-insurgency doctrine, that included providing security for the population and using political solutions to attack the legitimacy and power of the Communist insurgency. The British had two significant advantages over the United States, though. Not only were most of the Malay insurgents ethnic Chinese, and thus easily identifiable, but according to Nagl, the British Army was used to fighting small wars and governing colonies. In Vietnam, the U.S. Army not only had to deal with a largely homogenous population, but was also used to fighting wars for national survival, not limited campaigns for smaller causes.

One of the signifcant problems of the Vietnam War, and now Iraq, is that the U.S. Army was either unable or unwilling to adjust its tactics to suit the conflict it found itself embroiled in. Despite the arguments of John Paul Vann, Sir Robert Thompson, Lt. Gen Victor Krulak, and the directives of President Kennedy, General Westmoreland refused to embrace counter-insurgency, instead preferring the offensive tactics of search and destroy, in which large groups of U.S. forces swept areas in search of groups of insurgents. Air strikes, artillery barrages, and infantry weapons invariably killed innocent civilians, which drove the populace into the arms of the insurgency, which also used terror tactics to force villagers to provide supplies and personnel. The focus was onl finding the enemy, not providing physical security or necessary services. When the U.S. Marine Corps attempted to use a workable counter-insurgency doctrine by developing the Combined Action Platoon, Westmoreland complained that they weren't offensive minded enough.

Not until after the Tet Offensive of 1968, in which organized groups of Viet Cong insurgents cooperated with the North Vietnamese Army, did any serious effort go into counter-insurgency on the American side, and by that time the political battle in both Vietnam and the United States had been lost. As both Lt. Col. Paul Yingling of the 3rd ACR and Nagl write, it was too little, too late. It is important to note that Yingling knows whereof he speaks - the 3rd ACR had a successful counter-insurgency program in Iraq, but it fell apart when the unit returned to the United States.

So we have two potential ways the United States could have won in Vietnam - one by engaging in Total War in the model of World War II, and the other by adopting the practices of the USMC and Royal Army in counter-insurgency. If we accept the information provided by the anonymous poster from Texas Tech, Moyar falls into the Total/Unrestricted War mindset.

If you accept the assumption that all wars are basically the same, and that the goal is to force the enemy to submit unconditionally, which Nagl argues is the American way of war in the 20th century, then Moyar's supposed assertion that the attacking dams as a method of denying North Vietnam resources (water, people, and potentially power) is a logical one. It also fits well with the post-Napoleonic concept of Total War or the more recent Unrestricted War.

The problem is that unless you agree with Admiral Arthur W. Radford that atomic weapons should be used in a tactical manner to lift (see Dien Bien Phu), you can't jump on the dambusting bandwagon. This is the same as firebombing Dresden or Tokyo, the only difference is in the use of water as the method of devastation instead of fire. The American public no longer accepts massive attacks on defenseless civilian populations as a method of waging war against other states. Even if the main goal of the attack on dams is to deny the industrial and military benefits they provide, the morality of drowning thousands of civilians is questionable, particularly for believers in JustWar Doctrine.

More on insurgencies, Vietnam, and Iraq tomorrow...

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