September 18, 2017
The Vietnam War, a 10-episode, 18-hour documentary which premiered last night allegedly seeks to correct the record that generations of American have grown up with—a mistaken war that the United States lost. Its press claims that it is also reportedly the deepest exploration of the origins and the fighting of the war. This sets a high bar given the Vietnam War has been one of the most widely reported conflicts in history as it was the first war that was piped nightly into the homes on main street USA. It was here that the war was eventually lost. I’ll be watching with interest to see if this point comes home.
In 1961 when I stood on the Plain at West Point to be sworn in as a new cadet the idea that in five years time some of us standing there would be dying in Vietnam was unimaginable. Our class began to be aware of the growing conflict in Vietnam in 1962-63. By the time we graduated in 1965 we had studied the division of French Indochina and many other insurgencies and what had worked for other militaries.
We had attended Ranger School and some of us were parachute qualified. Did this help us in Vietnam? We will comment on that at the end of the miniseries. When the war was over my West Point Class had lost over 30 combat fatalities and we are still counting the losses from Agent Orange and other causes. Will future episodes respect the loss of these great Americans?
The first episode of the new PBS Vietnam War series felt like reliving history through a focus that serves the interests of left wing historians. If the Déjà Vu episode is indicative of the lens of the entire series, it will further antagonize many veterans who are convinced that such historical revisionism disguises the war that was won by their blood sweat and tears and lost due to the efforts of leftist journalists and their anti-war student leftists.
It is this dichotomy of views that the PBS miniseries fails, at this point, to address. To be exact the insertions of body bags into the historical mistakes of the French compounds this image.
The two episodes are painful to watch because they show the unravelling of civil society in the United States as an exit is sought form Vietnam. Nixon was to call it “Peace with Honor.”
The most painful thing for me was to revisit the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. The police riot and the protestor riots sickened me. I had just returned from Vietnam and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I actually called home and told my folks “that at least in Vietnam I was armed and knew who the enemy was.”
It was reactions like mine caused Richard Nixon to win the presidency, promising law and order at home and peace overseas. In Vietnam, the war went on and soldiers on all sides witnessed terrible savagery and unflinching courage. The episode is short on highlighting the courage and focuses on the ravages of war. The number of casualties shown and the extent of their wounds was greatly overplayed.
It is interesting that there is no mention of Jane Fonda in the vividly displayed anti-war activities. Hanoi Jane was actually a rallying image for the forces in Vietnam and the veterans. She is still mutually hated by most Vietnam veterans.
Episode 8 focuses on the plummeting morale of the troops in Vietnam. It also argues that the Vietnamese Armed Forces were corrupt, while trying to explain “Vietnamization”. Vietnamization was the strategy that allowed President Nixon to begin withdrawing American troops.
The episode paints the incursion into Cambodia as a strategic mistake because of the public debates the rectitude of the war. The My Lai massacre contributes to the renewal of the anti-war excesses.
Since the entire documentary is short of strategic explanations and long on adding to the history of moral outrage at the war it is not surprising that the invasions of Cambodia and Laos are not explained. Their purpose of course was to try and gain time for Vietnamization. It can be argued that in this regard they were a success. I say that while reminding the reader of two things:
- The invasion of Laos was a tactical defeat for RVN
- If the invasion had occurred in 1968, not 1971 the results would have been much different.
The final note that I would add to this discussion is how important Nixon made the return of the POWs. Their health and welfare was a rallying issue for most Americans. Their importance gave the North Vietnamese more leverage in the negotiations.
September 24, 2017
This episode covers the time period from January to July 1968.There are really two parts of the episode:
- The Tet Offensive in South Vietnam.
- The political turmoil in the United States linked to the war, the death of Martin Luthur King and to some extent the death of Bobby Kennedy.
The brutal battles of the Tet offensive occurred just two months after Gen. William Westmoreland had assured the press that the North Vietnamese are “unable to mount a major offensive,” The presentation argues that American forces were surprised by the scale and scope of a coordinated series of attacks. However, it also quotes several sources as saying that they saw something coming but had not pieced the information together.
The attacks on the eve of the Tet holiday in late January 1968, were intended to cause the ARVN to fall apart and the civilians to turn to support the communists, The surprise attacks on cities and military bases throughout the south, caused the VC and NVA to endure devastating losses but casted grave doubt on President Lyndon Johnson’s promise that there is “light at the end of the tunnel.” The focus is on the political loss of credibility.
It is interesting to hear President Johnson talk about the lies and misreporting of the main street press. Sound familiar? The press focus was on Saigon. The picture of the Police Chief executing a VC who had just kille3d a soldier and his wife and 4 children dominated the news coverage. (Of course the atrocities committed by the VC are never mentioned.) One of the VC survivors is quoted as saying that they paid a high price for that picture.
The brutality of the Communist Tet Offensive unfolds DAILY on television, increasing opposition to the war. The episode notes that Tet failed Although it fails from a military standpoint but it had a devastating effect on American opinion about Vietnam involvement. We see the entire comme3ntary from CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, known as “the most trusted man in America,” when he expresses his opinion that the war is hopelessly deadlock. “If I’ve lost Cronkite,” Johnson reportedly says, “I’ve lost middle America.”
What is missing from this entire episode is any discussion of the ‘agony of Khe Sanh”. Khe Sanh is treated as a secondary battle in comparison to the Tet offensive. I have heard this argument before and have tried to put it into perspective using the NVA’s own strategy in my book Expendable Warriors: The Battle of Khe Sanh and the Vietnam War.(Pages 135-136). .I spend over a page debunking the side show assertion of the episode. In the conclusion I question the side show assertion by noting that 5000 Marines, Soldier, ARN and Brou Montagnards tied down and ultimately destroyed 2 divisions that could have been used elsewhere. Secondly assert that victory at Khe Sanh or victory in the cities during Tet would have been victory. Finally, I debunk the assertion that Khe Sanh was a diversion by noting that over two divisions were drawn to the Northern Corps and thus were available to counter the attacks on Hue and Quang Tri. These forces did not get involved in Khe Sanh until after the destruction of the Tet offensive communist force and thus the diversion argument fails in the shadow of military reality.
On 31 March President Johnson stunneds the nation by announcing, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”
I argue that it is at this point that the war in Vietnam was lost politically. Johnson had forgone a military victory. Interestingly on the next day, Major Paul Schwartz briefed Major General John Tolson, Commander of the forces that were about to relieve the Khe Sanh Combat base, about the 1st Cavalry Division’s next mission to attack the remnants of the NVA who had escaped Hue in the Aschau Valley about 40 kilometers or so south of Khe Sanh. Major Schwartz’s concept was to use the Corps sized force that was relieving Khe Sanh and continue west into Laos, turn south on the Ho Chi Minh trail and enter the Aschau valley from the west rather than the east. This would have done several things:.
- Achieved tactical and possibly strategic surprise
- Cut the Ho Chi Minh trail, and
- Used the 90 days of supply that were at Khe Sanh
Tolson interrupted the briefing by saying: “Didn’t you hear the President last night? What you are proposing is politically impossible.”
The war was to run on for 7 more years when it was virtually won at that point in history.
This episode has three major thrusts.
The first focuses on American casualties in the Central Highlands and south of the DMZ that divided North and South Vietnam. The DMZ was part of the Paris accords of 1954 that ended the French Indochina war. There is also a discussion of enemy body count. The argument was that demographics argued that the North Vietnamese did not have the manpower to replace their losses.
I have also been a critic of body count as a measure of combat effectiveness and thus a measure that a side was “winning.” Body count does not measure will to endure. Many have argued that body count as measured in number of body bags was the US weakness that our opponents discerned coming out of the Vietnam War. Saddam Hussein, in an attempt to deter the US from restoring Kuwait in the first Gulf War, claimed that the US should prepare for many body bags. This weakness came from the weekly body count—US and opponents—that were released by the Military Assistance Command Vietnam.
The second thrust was that body count meant that the US was winning. This is juxtaposed against a belief that all relevant measurements showed that the US won the war before it started.
Third is a teaser for the upcoming episodes as Hanoi lays plans for a massive surprise offensive. What the episode does not reveal is that the fights around Con Thien and the DMZ were really a test by the NVA. The North Vietnamese leadership wanted to verify that the US would not invade North Vietnam. Once assured by the actions along the DMZ they were free to move more than 2 divisions towards Khe Sanh for January 21st attacks there.
If the authors of this series were really interested in a strategic analysis that above would be apparent.
September 20, 2017
This episode focuses on North Vietnamese troops and materiel stream down the Ho Chi Minh Trail into the south. The flow is uninterrupted by U.S. airpower over Laos.
Meanwhile ARVN struggles to “pacify the countryside.” By safeguarding the population in strategic hamlets, increasing the use of popular force units to guard villages and aggressive patrolling. This effort was of marginal effectiveness according to the documentary. This result may not be as negative as the series would have us believe. This will become much more evident a year or so later when ARVN and others do not join the VC during the Tet offensive.
The episode also includes the growing antiwar movement. The authors attribute this to college students who have avoided the draft. This draft avoidance is also allegedly a cause for the force being more and more populated with uneducated and lower intelligence personnel. This is truly a slap at those brave men and women who served.
As the need for more troops for Vietnam increased, draft rules were changing and this further fueled the anti-war movement.
Finally, the episode argues that the soldiers and Marines discover that the war they are being asked to fight in Vietnam is nothing like their fathers’ war—mostly World War II. As one of those soldiers whose father was killed in World War II, and who is a student of war. there was no illusion that the war I was fighting was like my father’s. However, during the siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base. I sometimes likened my experience to the trench warfare of World War I.
September 20, 2017
Part III focused on the introduction of US ground troops into the South Vietnam. In doing so it started to lay the groundwork for the eventual disillusionment of the American body politic.
We are introduced to a young high school graduate and his family. We know that in a future part of the series he will be killed and the audience will have had its heart strings played.
What was truly interesting in this almost 2 hour segment was the leadership styles introduced and the emerging critique of President Johnson, General Westmoreland, the Vietnamese leadership and the humble Ho Chi Minh. We learn that there Le Duan, who was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam was the driving force behind the aggressiveness of the North Vietnamese. He is credited with advocating the introduction of the North Vietnamese Army into South Vietnam. This is a little known fact.
The South Vietnamese leadership was unstable at best, according to the series. It mentions numerous coups by different military leaders and mentions in particular General Nguyễn Khánh… I mention him because I can remember him being introduced to the Corps of Cadets during lunch in 1964. The US military went out of its way to gain the support of the different Vietnamese leaders.
President Johnson is shown to be much more calculating than is normally the case. He had what became known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that was a blank check for the introduction of ground forces 10 days before the events in the Gulf occurred. He also ordered the introduction of 3 battalions of Marines secretly. There is a brief mention of the 1964 Presidential election where Johnson hammered Goldwater on escalation to include nuclear weapons while Johnson portrayed himself as a reluctant warrior. The opposite of what was to become reality.
LTC Hal Moore and his battalion of the 7th Cavalry and the battle of the Ira Drang Valley are a focus of the study. My friend Joe Galloway talks extensively about Moore’s leadership—first into the battle and last out. Unfortunately, one critical event is not mentioned. During the height of the battle of Ira Drang Valley Moore leans against a tree and disconnects from the battle swirling around him and tries to anticipate what he can do to influence the battle 10 to 20 minutes into the future. This is a skill that every leader should seek to achieve. Anticipate what will be needed rather than reacting to the minute.
We can hope that this focus on leadership continues into future parts of the series.
Part III Continued
Why groiund troops? The series gave two reasons for the introduction of ground troops into the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) and the two are actually related.
President Johnson, even though he had won the election 1n November of 1964 was reportedly worried about being humiliated.
The second reason is the pyric victory that the Vietnamese Army won at Banh Gia.
The Viet Cong had launched a major offensive on December 4, 1964 and captured the village of Binh Gia, 40 miles southeast of Saigon. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) eventually recaptured the village. It took an eight-hour battle and the reinforcement of the initial assaulting force by three battalions which were brought in on helicopters. Losses included an estimated 200 ARVN soldiers and five American. advisors killed.
Reportedly battles such this, in which ARVN suffered such heavy losses at the hands of the Viet Cong, convinced President Lyndon B. Johnson that the South Vietnamese could not defeat the communist without the commitment of U.S. ground troops to the war. The documentary refers to this as a turning point in the conflict.
The actual turning point occurred several months earlier when Le Duan caused the infiltration of NVA units into the south to increase. It is this infiltration that made the pyric victory possible.
As we continue through the series there will be several other turning points.
Part III continued
This documentary has habit of inserting what appear to be throw away lines except they are value loaded. In this case the idea was planted like gospel that the anti-war movement was legitimate. This concept must be considered as the series develops.
September 19, 2017
I watched with fascination as the second installment of the PBS Vietnam War “documentary” unfolded last night. The revisionist version of history continued. The “Riding the Tiger” episode dealt with the period 1961-63. With this installment the slippery slope to the eventual withdrawal in 1975 has begun as has the “waste” of lives and treasure.
The attempt to clothe the events of 1961 in new clothes was fascinating. Several theses are advanced: President Kennedy was a “victim” of history. Buddhist monks were continually immolating themselves. The South Vietnamese military were both cowards and incompetent. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese were great warriors and nationalists. I could go on.
Some historians have argued for the last few years that President Kennedy would never have gone through the build-up that President Johnson did. The one comparison I found truly amazing was the President who was dynamic and went against his generals’ advice during the Cuban Missile Crisis followed the generals from a position of not wanting to appear “weak”.
This juxtaposition of the President as strong in one instance and weak in another shows the difficulty that historians are having to enhance the Kennedy image in spite of historical reality.
Kennedy went to Texas because he had to enhance the possibility of being re-elected in 1964. His play for the black vote was more of the same. In short, he was a political opportunist. Once the commander in Vietnam announced in 1963 that he could see the light at the end of the tunnel he may well have been appealing to the opportunist President. We will never know.
What we “learn” in this episode is that the United States backed totalitarian leaders and as a result we were doomed to fail. This documentary has not yet addressed the feelings of the many warriors who fought in Vietnam who believe their efforts and sacrifices were for naught.
Without acknowledging those deep wounds, the film’s attempts to heal the divisions created by the Vietnam War seem doomed to fail.