On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War.
by Harry G. Summers, Jr.
Presidio Press. 137 pp. $12.95.
Colonel Harry Summers begins this concise and fascinating study of American strategy in Vietnam by disposing of two myths. The first, prevalent among many civilians (and fed by misleading books like Richard A. Gabriel and Paul L. Savage’s Crisis in Command), is that American troops were defeated in Vietnam. The second, prevalent among many officers, is that we lost the war simply because of a failure of will on the part of civilian politicians. Summers explains that we never lost a battle but that we did indeed lose the war. He has the courage to say that the armed forces failed in their first duty: “As military professionals, it was our job to judge the true nature of the Vietnam war, communicate those facts to our civilian decision-makers, and to recommend appropriate strategies.”
Although this is a short book, it is one which raises a host of important questions about the course of the Vietnam war, the nature of American civil-military relations, and the essence of strategy itself. Summers makes painstaking use of classical strategic throught to explicate our failure in Vietnam. He quotes extensively but shrewdly from Clausewitz’s On War, and devotes a large section of the book to an analysis of the Vietnam conflict in terms of the “principles of war” (the objective, the offensive, mass, economy of force, maneuver, unity of command, surprise, security, and simplicity). His deft treatment shows how these seeming platitudes take on meaning in the context of military history.
Summers’s arguments are provocative: he claims that from the beginning the United States government generally, and its military advisers in particular, completely misunderstood the nature of the Vietnam war. By concentrating on the counter-guerrilla campaign in the South we neglected the real threat, a North Vietnamese conventional invasion, to which, in the end, our allies succumbed. According to Summers, we misdirected our efforts because our military leaders allowed the foremost question—what are we trying to do?—to slip away from them. Without a firm grasp on the objective, our efforts were doomed to failure.
Colonel Summers would seem to prefer, in retrospect, a strategy of battlefield isolation. The United States Army (aided by the South Koreans and perhaps crack South Vietnamese units) should have isolated South Vietnam from its northern enemy by occupying a line extending from the sea to the Thai border. Behind that line the South Vietnamese could have quashed the Vietcong insurgency and, with our aid, created an effective conventional force to cope with the North Vietnamese. Our strategy thus would have been one of active defense, i.e., a strategy aimed at denying the enemy access to the battlefield. Instead we chose a strategically passive defense, which involved reacting to enemy infiltration with a multitude of search-and-destroy missions. This tactical offensive did indeed kill hundreds of thousands of enemy troops, but it left the initiative with the North, as the offensives of 1968 and 1972 demonstrated.
Summers argues that American leaders misread the lesson of the Korean war. We interpreted the outcome of the conflict as a warning against becoming involved in unwinnable Asian land wars. In fact, he points out, our Korean strategy was a success, because the United States obtained its objective of creating a defensible Republic of Korea. Unlike our policy in South Vietnam, in Korea we fended off North Korean and Chinese regulars while our South Korean clients wiped out Communist guerrillas and gradually, under our aegis, created an effective conventional force.
Summers’s argument here is intriguing but open to question, for it is conceivable that Korea and Vietnam differ from one another less in degree (as he suggests) than in kind. It is, of course, impossible to know how the North Vietnamese would have reacted to the creation of a strategic barrier extending some two hundred miles inland, or how such a barrier would have operated, but the history of such cordon defenses is not encouraging. What is clear, in any event, is that the strategy and tactics we adopted did not prevent South Vietnam from falling to the Communists.
Underlying Summers’s account is a deep unease over the rupture between the Army and American society during the Vietnam period. In the years following 1940, the American Army, and above all its professional officer corps, had grown accustomed to a substantial amount of respect and even deference. The hostility directed at the armed forces by civilians during the Vietnam period aroused a horror which pervades Summers’s book, and which remains today an undercurrent in conversations I have had with colonels who were junior officers (lieutenants and captains) in Vietnam.
Summers insists, as do most of his contemporaries and colleagues, that our biggest mistake was the attempt to fight Vietnam in cold blood, without a declaration of war. Unable to depend upon the psychological mobilization that would have accompanied such a declaration, the Army, composed of citizen-soldiers though it may have been, acquired the reputation of a monster, stupidly and squalidly consuming eighteen-year-old lives. A declaration of war, Summers believes, would have brought Army and society into harmony. Although it would also have meant a commitment to victory, victory would have been defined as the achievement of a specific, limited political objective—the creation of an independent South Vietnam—not the unconditional surrender of the North Vietnamese.
It is an appealing argument, but, again, open to debate. The United States, because of its role as guarantor of order in large parts of the world, must, like Great Britain before it, be ready to fight a multitude of small, dirty wars. Such wars must be fought in cold blood, for to conjure up the energies of an embattled nation is to risk either disproportionate public attention to minor problems or the inevitable feelings of disgust that are aroused in a democracy when it confronts the grim necessities of chronic warfare. The Johnson administration did not mobilize large numbers of reservists in 1967-68 because it feared that such a move would provoke calls for an invasion of North Vietnam and a dangerous widening of the war (including perhaps Chinese intervention). On the other hand, a frequent resort to declarations of war, accompanied by conscription and reserve mobilizations, might provoke a refusal to take on such ugly but necessary campaigns as that waged in Korea.
One solution to this dilemma might be the exclusive use of our elite, professional Marine Corps to fight small, undeclared wars. The Marines have long been composed mainly of volunteer career soldiers, and are accustomed to fighting nasty conflicts without the benefit of popular support. The strictness of their discipline and the monkish peculiarities of their traditions at once isolate them from American society and prevent them from depending (as the Army does) on constant approbation. The Army has fought every major war with masses of citizen soldiers; the Marines have preferred, insofar as is possible, to take only volunteers—“a few good men” as the advertisement has it.
There are difficulties with this solution, however. The Marines are few in number, and the other services are unlikely to view with equanimity an expansion of their size. They must devote much of their attention and resources to the peculiar requirements of amphibious warfare; they do not have organic logistical and administrative support; they are scattered around the globe. Perhaps most important, it is in the nature of things that the Army will not allow others to fight a sizable American war, if for no other reason than pride.
One of the many merits of Summers’s book is that it brings questions like these to the forefront of our attention. It is indeed the proper role of military men to educate civilians, be they politicians or average citizens, in the nature of war. Of late, civilian policy analysts, journalists, academics, and mere onlookers have usurped this role—indeed, one source of our failure in Vietnam was the government’s fascination with unrealistic academic theories of military strategy (as Stephen Rosen argues in a forthcoming article in International Security). There is a place, in fact a great need, for informed civilian discussion of military policy, but strategy and tactics are and should be the business of professional soldiers. Colonel Summers’s book indicates that the armed forces are perfectly capable of producing lucid and literate strategists. One may disagree with his conclusions, but one hopes that there are more like him.