Tragic Ignorance in Vietnam

THE lesson Americans should derive from these two wonderful books about an awful war pivots on a terrible word: ignorance - overestimation of American power and underestimation of the enemy's skill, tenacity, and dedication. The authors draw on both their own Vietnam experiences and on careful research to counter the argument that American forces fought hard and successfully but were let down by cowardice and dissent at home.

Was it really so? Or did the communist readiness to fight and die help create a stalemate, with the Americans suffering heavily as they attacked, attacked, and attacked again?

All this emerges in "We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young," a beautifully crafted, hour-by-hour account of the Ia Drang Valley battles in the Central Highlands during November 1965, written by Lt. Gen. Harold Moore and Joseph Galloway, a young reporter during the battle.

"The Ia Drang campaign was ... a dress rehearsal; the place where new tactics, techniques, and weapons were tested, perfected, and validated," begin the authors in the prologue. "Both sides claimed victory and both sides drew lessons, some of them dangerously deceptive...."

Like any disaster story that horrifies yet fascinates, the book compels the reader to read on - anticipating the cries of the wounded, the courage and ability of the medics, helicopter pilots, and certain commanders, and the bitter struggle against an enemy just yards away.

Be it platoon, company, or battalion, a cohesive unit can save its members from the maelstrom of battle. A unit "overrun" signifies a perimeter collapsed, the enemy flooding in, wounded lost, and every man for himself. The word "overrun" overhangs this book, giving it a feel of battle comparable to S. L. A. Marshall's best work, John Keegan's "The Face of Battle," and Michael Shaara's "The Killer Angels."

Two understrength battalions of the First Cavalry Division had leapt from their helicopters into combat with Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars. Moore commanded the battalion at Landing Zone X-Ray; Galloway was present with a camera in one hand and an M-16 in the other. An aggressive adversary swarmed in on them, trying "to hang on the enemy's belt" (as the North Vietnamese put it), in close, where communist numbers would count.

Moore's men avoided - just barely - being overrun. They protected their wounded, were reinforced by helicopter, and survived. But their sister battalion at Landing Zone Albany was poorly led and organized, and was surprised, outflanked, and nearly destroyed by enemy waves that surged in from zero range.

The antidote to such mass attacks is firepower from machine guns, artillery, and tactical aviation, but both sides were so intertwined at first that the Americans could not bring it to bear. Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, who had crushed the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, often spoke of achieving battlefield equality by "separating" Americans from their fire support. His subordinates nearly achieved that in the Ia Drang Valley.

In his impressive account, "After Tet," Ronald Spector suggests that far too many battles in 1968 were nearly even and that Americans paid far too much for the empty victories they gained. He presents the big picture, a broad overview of the watershed year after the Tet offensive. Balance, insight, clear and dispassionate writing, careful use of military studies - these are Spector's hallmarks here, as in the earlier works on the Pacific and the Vietnam wars by this former Marine Corps historian. His co nclusions are authoritative:

"The American failure was a failure of understanding and imagination. The American leaders did not see that what for them was a limited war for limited ends was, for the Vietnamese, an unlimited war of survival in which all the most basic values - loyalty to ancestors, love of country, resistance to foreigners - were involved."

So Washington avoided taking the actions - broadening the draft, mobilizing the reserves and the economy - that would have put the nation solidly behind the numerically strong but psychologically vulnerable US forces in Vietnam, Spector says.

Without a sense of purpose and direction, morale sank rapidly in the Army and Marines during 1968. Combat units were far understrength; rotation of soldiers back to the US damaged cohesion and experience; obsession with body counts distorted many operations; and drugs, alcoholism, racial tension, and black marketeering were rife. The American army was slowly becoming what the South Vietnamese army already was: hollow, dispirited, and purposeless.

The weakness of the Saigon government made the war ultimately unwinnable. The Americans would, after all, eventually go home. Would the generals in Saigon, with their French colonial associations and hunger for wealth and position, be able to withstand the fanatical nationalism of Ho Chi Minh and General Giap?

Spector does not argue for building democracy a la the American model, but for creating a system in Vietnam that could compete favorably with the communists. No amount of American wealth and valor, firepower and high technology, could fill the void. American arrogance in ignoring this reality shaped the ultimate tragedy, he says.

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