Vietnam: picture book fails; analysis succeeds

The Eyewitness History of the Vietnam War: 1961-1975 is a perplexity. A visually and tactilely handsome volume, it is nonetheless confusing, frustrating , and ultimately disappointing.

Largely a picture book of Associated Press photographs, it was written by George Esper in conjunction with the AP. It is published in paperback by Ballantine at $9.95.

Initial confusion arises from the somewhat misleading title. One expects a coherent series of pictures reflecting the many phasesm of war. Instead ''Eyewitness'' focuses on a few facesm of the war. Given the paucity of interesting pictures or illuminating text and the puzzling inclusion of several maps, personal letters and telegrams, sketches, and newspaper headlines, the real eyewitnesses are the select (mostly anti-war) American soldiers and Vietnamese more than the AP.

Frustration awaits the serious reader in the form of profuse, careless errata. What should have been a fast, easy-reading exercise apparently was an insurmountable task for the editor. Is Ho Chi Minh really welcoming Russia's recognition of his government (Page 6) at the same forum Stanley Karnow identifies as the French Parliament? (See Karnow's ''Vietnam: A History,'' p. 128.) Can we expect the AP to recognize Robert Kennedy, Robert McNamara, and McGeorge Bundy (identified in a caption but not actually seen in the accompanying photo on Page 45)? Is it nitpicking to expect the date in a caption under a print of an envelope to match the postmark?

Perhaps such criticism is the hobgoblin of the small minds of reviewers. But is it really? So much of the criticism leveled at the media during the Vietnam war included charges of carelessness, sensationalism, and biased reporting that we are hard put not to wonder if, when in peace-time and at leisure such sloppiness makes it through the editing, proofing, and galley stages of publishing, we can be assured about the accuracy of urgent, wartime reporting. If such recognizable visages as Lyndon Johnson's advisers are mislabeled, can we assume those of the less well known are correct?

Despite the occasional personal story that captures as well as any reportage the agony of warfare, the weaknesses of ''Eyewitness'' far outweigh its strengths and amount to the worst thing an alleged factual book can be - unreliable, and thus of no real value even to the most casual reader. The AP squandered a unique and privileged opportunity.

On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (Presidio Press, 240 pp., Army analysts think so. Subject to the popular stereotype that it prepares for war by implementing the lessons of the last, however, inappropriate, the Army significantly has adopted ''On Strategy,'' a book critical of both civilian and military strategists, as a textbook at its War College.

Summers repeats the common wisdom that, militarily, the United States consistently ''won'' in its battlefield engagements with the North Vietnamese (NVN). But the author also notes, in citing an NVN officer, ''That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.''

Thus, ''On Strategy'' addresses the question: ''How could we have succeeded so well [tactically], yet failed so miserable [strategically]?''

The answer for Summers lay in a litany of failures which ultimately amounted to the absence of a strategic military doctrine. Washington violated the first dictum of the distinguished Prussian strategist Karl von Clausewitz: War is always an ''instrument of policy,'' a means to political ends.

''On Strategy'' uses Clausewitzian theory and the classic principles of war to examine how the domestic ''environment,'' the relationship between the military and the American people, interacts with the apparatus that determines strategy and conducts the war, ''the engagement.''

Summers blames White House policymakers, who, concerned with a threat to domestic programs, determined early on not to invoke the ''national will'' by mobilizing th American people. But could Americans rally behind a limited war? After World War II, it was assumed not. So the Korean conflict was waged without ever being declared a war at all, and the American public evidenced, as Gen. Maxwell Taylor wrote, ''disenchantment with a policy which had led to stalemated war.''

A Korean-type war in Vietnam proved even more repugnant to Americans. Without the ''moral consensus'' of popular and congressional support, Vietnam exacerbated the natural ''friction'' between the American people and its army.

Moreover, dominated by civilian systems analysts who espoused a rationalistic approach to war, the bureaucracy declined to provide adequate logistical support , Summers maintains. The forces perceived necessary by the military were actuarialized in Washington to fill a paper estimate of ''how much is enough.'' The Army mistakenly ''surrendered its unique authority based on battlefield experience'' for the sake of rationalistic consistency, according to the author. The price paid was loss of ''the ability to react to rapidly changing circumstances'' - flexibility in military doctrine. In Summers's view, this was the most critical lesson of the Vietnam war.

For Summers, the Korean conflict was a proper parallel for the Vietnam war. But few acknowledged the analogy, despite the presence of an identical fear - Chinese intervention. The US faced the same dilemma: it thought the warfare was a manifestation of a worldwide Communist strategy, yet fearing the Chinese, it sought to limit its risk. Vietnam was not worth it.

Thus, instead of designing a ''grand strategy'' for Vietnam, the US decided on a ''limited-war'' strategy, however, with uncertain political aims - what Summers calls ''grand tactics.'' The United States failed to alter its goals in the face of perceived fact, as it had altered them in Korea, by settling for the status quo anti.m

American strategist also failed to remember that in Korea the US had left the problem of internal security to the Koreans. America limited its role to protecting South Korea from external attack. In Vietnam, the US was convinced that it faced a new kind of warfare. Instead of securing the South Vietnamese borders against external aggression, the United States engaged in a series of scattered hit-and-run battles, only to lose the war in the end.

By adhering to a policy of containment, rather than destruction, of communist power, Summers asserts, the US pursued a defensivem strategy in pursuit of a negative aim.m Clausewitz defined this kind of strategy as ''the natural formula for outlasting the enemy, for wearing him down'' by gaining time. However, Summers points out, ''the longer the war progressed, the more obvious it became that time was not on our side.''

American, not North Vietnamese, will eroded. Summers postulates that, had the US focused on the containment of NVN expansion, the failure of US strategic doctrine would have been redressed. Instead, the US dealt with the symptoms of war, the Vietcong, rather the source, the NVN.

''On Strategy'' offers a coherent, cogent analysis of US military involvement in Vietnam. Summers postulates that the US Army is truly a people's army, unable to operate effectively without broad-based moral support. He provocatively reminds readers that US policies are effective when they reflect a balance among what he calls the ''trinity of war'' - the people, the government, and the army. A theory which ignores any one of these factions conflicts with reality and proves useless. Summers does his best to ensure that policymakers and stragetists take heed of that balance.

Sociologist Daniel Bell notes that , after any large-scale event, such as the Vietnam war, people tend to reflect. The results might manifest themselves suddenly, but they are the product of a period of gestation.

Whether Americans have gestated long enough for proper examination is uncertain. It may be that definitive scholarship on Vietnam is yet to be presented.

Clearly writing heals. Yet one must be sufficiently healed to write. The new Vietnam literature reflects a measure of renewed American well-being, though with a caution to avoid relapse.

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