Why is there now
an argument about whether or not we could have won the Vietnam War
Because it is an immensely clever attempt to frame our thinking on Iraq.
Read below the fold to see my analysis on this article by Stephen Morris and how it attempts to shift frames of debate.
The author is Stephen Morris, a fellow at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. His article
is thought-provoking, much as any attempt to argue counterfactuals is thought-provoking. But the article is itself a bit bulky.
Vietnamese Motivations: Independence Or Ideology?
The author's goal is to show that the US "snatched defeat from the jaws of victory" in Vietnam. He begins by trying to counter the prevailing idea that the US was fighting an independence movement (which, by implication, would prove the US effort ultimately futile). He supports this by saying more South Vietnamese peasants fought on the side of the South than the North. I would argue that, as in conflicts throughout the world, this was not an national/ideological consideration for most peasants. Peasants/civilians by and large try to avoid involvement in conflicts, and when they do enter in, I would argue motives of personal/familial protection factor in more strongly than national/ideological alignments; the Southern peasants cast their lot with the Southern armies because it made the most sense in terms of protection. Whereas the author would like to say "They fought for the South because they supported the South," I would argue that he's making a logical fallacy in attributing causation where there is none proven, conflating action with motivation--that the statement can be just as equally "They supported the South because they fought for the South." No doubt, some peasants decided to support the North only after they felt insufficiently protected (or threatened, as did happen a lot) by the US and the South--not because of national loyalties, but because of simple desires for protection.
Likewise, more (subcontinental) Indians fought as British soldiers than as armed opposition in the 1920s and 30s. According to this author's logic, that would mean that Indian armed opposition (and by implication, the independence movement) did not enjoy strong popular support--a false conclusion, indeed. I'm trying to illustrate that peasant support in the conflict does not prove sides.
After that, the author takes a sharp turn from his argument about independence-orientation into the Soviet assessments of the Vietnamese and tension between Soviet and Vietnamese leaders, purportedly to show how weak the North was. I would argue that the tension between Soviet and Vietnamese leaders probably occurred for several reasons, chief amongst them precisely the fact that the North Vietnamese were focused on independence and had a distrust of outside forces, due to its colonial history. And it's not a big leap to say Soviet assessments of the situation might not be so accurate if, as the author states, the North Vietnamese were actively deceiving their liasons. But more importantly, I don't see how this refutes the contention that the North Vietnamese were "weak"--assymetrical forces are effective because they don't play much defense; it's mostly offense. And certainly none of the author's argument here refutes the emphasis of the Vietnamese on independence.
Then the author talks about ideological committments of the Vietnamese after the war as an implication that the war was not so much about independence. While I don't doubt their alignment with Communist nations, shipment of arms to El Salvador does not on its own prove a "a deep commitment to the messianic internationalism of Marxist-Leninist ideology." In fact, it is more accurately a manifestation of the complex dynamic between aligned Communist nations. To boot: The Vietnamese invaded Cambodia (which was supposedly already Communist) not to "spread Communism," but because of border disputes and the unmanageable refugee problem the Khmer Rouge had created. The Soviets backed this action, but China (aslo Communist!) opposed it and in fact launched a punitive invasion of northern Vietnam! All of this to say that "Communists" were not monolithic, and that an arms shipment is probably more likely a manifestation of the power play between aligned nations than a "messianic internationalism." (Or maybe you think US arms shipment to apartheid South Africa signalled the US' "deep committment to messianic internationalism of racism?")
But suddenly, the author drops this heavy statement:
"Precisely because Vietnam has changed for the better, we need to recognize what a profoundly ideological and aggressive totalitarian regime we faced three, four and five decades ago."
Really? We need to understand what it was because Vietnam is better? No, this is not much of a reason at all. In fact, this is an empty antecedent--it is meaningless padding to introduce a normative statement of what "we need to recognize." So then, why do we need to recognize how totalitarian and agressive Vietnam was--really? It seems oddly out of place.
And in fact, it reveals much.
The Point is not Vietnam; The Point is Iraq
Why is this article in the NYTimes now? The Vietnam War's end was marked recently, sure. But more than that, it is an indirect contribution to the debate on what to do in Iraq. The author is trying to shape how we should think about Iraq. Why do we need to recognize how "ideological[ly] and agressive[ly] totalitarian" the North Vietnamese were, rather than focused on independence? Because the author wants us to draw a parallel to how ideologically and agressively totalitarian the Iraq opposition is, rather than focused on independence. Why argue how winnable the war was? Because he wants us to see how winnable the war in Iraq is.
I would not refute this characterization of the Iraqi armed opposition. What I am saying is that the author is using his explanation of the totalitarian, ideological North Vietnamese as a way of framing our thinking about Iraq, so that he can go on to talk about how winnable the war was. The author includes these ideas because your current American reader will likely think about Iraq upon reading it. By simply locating the ideas next to each other, the author is trying to create an association that is meaningless in terms of explaining the winnability of the Vietnam War, but is incredibly meaningful in terms of explaining the winnability of the Iraq War. He wants to say, "Look, the we would have won the war in Vietnam because they weren't really focused on independence, so we'll win the war in Iraq since they're not focused on independence either."
The truth is, the winnability of the war has always been questionable.
The (in)Capacity of the South Vietnamese Regime
The article fails to address the South Vietnamese regime itself. A politicized promotion system tended to push incompetent officers to higher levels of leadership within the South Vietnamese military (and therefore, government). Because they were completely dependent upon the United States for technology, firepower, and mobility, the South Vietnamese military leaders tended to rely on their American advisors to make decisions. But the biggest issue of all was massive corruption. Taken from Vietnam, The End: 1975 by Thomas M. Bibby, Major USAF:
"Corruption assumed many forms from bribery to black marketeering. However, its most serious form involved the buying and selling of military appointments and the collection of army pay from "ghost soldiers" and "roll-call" soldiers. In all cases, corruption succeeded in destroying morale and crippling the effective combat power of the South Vietnamese armed forces.
The buying and selling of military appointments enabled inept officers to obtain positions, and in some cases critical military commands, for which they were not qualified. In the case of "ghost soldiers," superior officers would pocket the salaries of soldiers who had been killed or had deserted by simply not taking them off the payroll. In order to evade the draft, the system of "roll-call soldiers" was devised whereby soldiers would appear only for roll-call and would give their salary to their superiors in return for being allowed to be absent from duty. This had a more serious implication other than the loss of large amounts of money: many units were severely under-manned and this was not discovered until they had to go and fight in combat.
More important than under-manned units and incompetent commanders, corruption created an ever widening gap between the leaders and the ARVN soldiers. This demoralizing situation eventually affected the soldier's desire to fight for their leaders and the country. A former South Vietnamese commander made the following comments concerning the effect of corruption upon the soldiers and the people:
Corruption always engenders social injustice. In Vietnam, a country at war, social injustice was more striking than in any other country. Corruption had created a small elite which held all the power and wealth, and a majority of middle-class people and peasants who became poorer and poorer and who suffered all the sacrifices. It was these people who paid the taxes to the government, the bribes to the police, who had to buy fertilizer at exorbitant prices and to sell their rice at a price fixed by the government, and it was also these people who sent their sons to fight and die for the country while high government officials and wealthy peopled sent theirs abroad. An army doctor once told me that he was disheartened to see that all the wounded, all the amputees who crowded his hospital came from the lower class, from the peasants' families, and that they had suffered and sacrificed for a small class of corrupt elite. The government professed to win the heart and the mind of the people, but all it had done was to create a widening gap between the leadership and the mass; and this increasing conflict, this internal contradiction, if we were to use Communist parlance, could not last; it had somehow to be resolved. Unfortunately it was resolved in the Communist way."
A distillation of the effect of this corruption is in this quote from another high-ranking South Vietnamese officer:
"Yeah, you are a soldier, you are a squad leader with your squad, and you get the order to defend a hill to the death. You cannot defend to the death, when every week you hear from your family that they don't have enough food to eat. And you look back to Saigon, the rich had food, liquor, they have money, they relax, have a good time. Why fight to the death? For whom?"
And a choice quote from President Nixon that reveals the effect of this corruption:
"Of course, the weak link in our whole chain is the question as to whether the South Vietnamese have the will to fight.... The real problem is that the enemy is willing to sacrifice in order to win, while the South Vietnamese simply aren't willing to pay that much of a price in order to avoid losing."
The South Vietnamese regime certainly would have continued to survive longer with 1972 levels of American military support, but a deeper analysis suggests that the South Vietnamese regime was rotting from the inside out, perhaps due to its unconditional, turn-the-head-and-look-away American support--and there is no indication that this would somehow have changed under continuing US protection. Ergo, I would say that "winning" the war was not a done deal--who knows how much longer it would have continued and where it would have ended up.
Morris' Rhetorical Jiu-Jitsu
The winnability of the Vietnam War remains questionable, given the sad state of the South Vietnamese regime (and the attendant question that lingers: "How long and at what cost would we have had to continue to support the Vietnamese in the mid 1970s?"). The author wants to remove that question. He does this by ignoring other evidence and making the case that the Vietnamese opposition was not interested in independence (whereas if they were, the war would be unwinnable). This leads the author to say the Vietnam war was definitively winnable. That question settled, it also cleverly shifts our thinking to Iraq, where there is a conflict whose opposition is not interested in independence (per se). Suddenly, his supposedly rock-solid argument for winnability in Vietnam builds a direct connection to winnability in Iraq--something we all desire, but there is debate as to whether or not it is possible.
It is a performance, intended to frame the thinking of those who do not know their history. And I'm calling him on it. Daily War News has a digest of what's going on in Iraq--use that to make your judgment about winnability, not a stale argument about Vietnam.