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Monthly Archives: January 2018

General Westmoreland and the Vietnam War Strategy

Returning to John Mason Glen’s opinion piece in the New York Times (“Was America Duped at Khe Sanh?”) We must also set the record straight about General Westmoreland and the strategy in Vietnam War.  Again Mr. Glen displays his lack of historical perspective by attributing the strategy of attrition in the Vietnam War to General Westmoreland’s analysis of the battle of the Ira Drang Valley. (The basis of the book and movie We Were Soldiers Once, Young and Brave.)

Glen correctly paints General Westmoreland as the perfect image of a soldier—World War II leader, Airborne Infantry leader, former Superintendent of West Point—with  a very stiff soldierly look.  Westy, as he was called by cadets at West Point and soldiers in the field in Vietnam was all that Glen describes.  One must also remember at this point in history the Airborne Mafia, as it was called ruled the Army.  There was admiration for the Airborne coming out of World War II.  President Kennedy was enamored with the Special Forces (Green Berets) all of whom were airborne qualified. Glen attributes Westmoreland’s strategy to this background and does not attribute the country’s experience and successes to the strategy in Vietnam.

When Westy was superintendent at West Point I was a cadet there studying military tactics and history.  Much of our studies revealed that the US military strategy grew out of Grant’s defeat of Lee.  The battles of the Wilderness in late 1864 and 1865 were battles of attrition.  The North had the wherewithal in terms of men and equipment to fight a war of attrition against the South.  This strategy succeeded. The lesson learned was that attrition warfare was a way to win.

The world wars in Europe and Asia were also wars of attrition where superior resources were able to win the day, over time.  When one couples the US military experience of success through attrition warfare with Robert McNamara’s “bean counting” revolution in the Pentagon one can understand how body count became the measure of success for the war in Vietnam.  If more bad guys were killed in an engagement than good guys then the good guys “won”.  This became the approach in Vietnam.

Given this view that attrition / body count would cause the enemy to stop fighting one can clearly understand the desire of a set piece firepower intensive battle to crush the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).  Khe Sanh offered this opportunity.  The hope was that the NVA would go for the bait that was the Khe Sanh Combat Base and provide a large number of targets to be attacked by superior fire power and destroyed.  For this strategy to succeed the bait could not be compromised by the NVA learning of the plan.  The close-holding of the intelligence that the NVA was going to attack Khe Sanh lead to my advisory team in Khe Sanh village being “expendable”.  We were part of the bait and could not leak to our Vietnamese counterparts what was coming for fear that they in turn would leak it to the NVA.  The solution was to just not tell us what was about to occur.

Many of the readers of Expendable Warriors have commented on how critical we deal with General Westmoreland.  One former Chief of Staff of the Army refused to endorse the book because of this perspective.  I must admit that the after taste of being “expendable” may have colored my perspective.  However, I have learned the bigger lesson—strategic leaders must make strategic decisions based upon the bigger picture.  In this regard the small advisory team and mixed force of Vietnamese, Bru Montagnards and Marines may have truly been expendable.  Though we will probably never admit it.

The soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines did not lose the war in Vietnam the politicians and strategists did.  In April/May of 1968 the strategy had succeeded.  The NVA and Viet Cong had been defeated by all body count measures, but the political will to win was gone.  The political will had not been considered by the strategists of the day.  It was not until Colonel Harry Summers published his book On Strategy; a Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War that Clausewitz’s dictums on political will were brought again into consideration by strategic thinkers.  Colonel Summers was part of the Vietnam negotiating team and his discussion with a North Vietnamese counterpart is often quoted.  He told his counterpart: “we won every battle.” To which the North Vietnamese officer replied “But you lost the war.”

If one reads my writings on conflict termination he will see Colonel Summers’ views used as a basis for defining what it means to win. Body count is also dismissed as the failed measure of success that it is.  A subject of another blog in our continuing discussion leading up to the 50th anniversary of the siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base.

Was America Duped at Khe Sanh

As we approach the fifty-third anniversary the siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB) we can anticipate a plethora of articles about the battle that decided the Vietnam War. To give my readers a true perspective I will repost previous articles.  The first of these was in the New York Times on January 1st , 2018(“Was America Duped at Khe Sanh?”)  The article by John Mason Glen is spectacular in its attention grabbing title but weak on strategic analysis.  Having lived through the battle and written about it in Expendable Warriors: the battle of Khe Sanh and the Vietnam War, I feel uniquely qualified to rebut Glen’s argument.

The main theme of the article is that the attack on Khe Sanh was a diversion to draw American forces away from the populated areas in anticipation of the Tet Offensive which started 9 days after the beginning of the siege of the KSCB.  This argument is inaccurate for many different reasons:

  • The attack on Khe Sanh had been anticipated for 3 months. Elements of 2 Army Divisions had been moved north in vicinity of Hue and Quang Tri.  It was these forces that blunted part of the attacks on those two province headquarters.

Map of the Khe Sanh area.  Hue is just off the map to the southeast (lower right corner of the map)

  • Khe Sanh was reinforced by 4 battalions of Marines with most of the reinforcements arriving after the North Vietnamese Army launched its missile and artillery barrage on 21 January 1968. (More on the multiple implications of this attack in subsequent articles.) 4 battalions of Marines in the bigger scheme of things was not consequential to stopping the Tet attacks.
  • The diversion of air assets to support the defense of Khe Sanh was not as significant as Glen would have one believe. Mush of the air support used was B-52 carpet bombing not pin point close air support.  Such bombing approaches were inappropriate for populated areas.
  • Glen mentions the internal opinion divisions within the North Vietnamese leadership. One faction was focused on the Tet offensive and the other on Khe Sanh.  He correctly points out that one faction focused on the general uprising goal while General Giap was seeking to break the American public support for the war by the attack on Khe Sanh.  He wanted to repeat his success at Dien Bien Phu where the French public support for the Indochinese war was destroyed.  To people like Glen it was one or the other.  Why couldn’t they have been reinforcing? Glen does not examine this point.
  • The agony of Khe Sanh played out for 77 days on the screens and in the newspapers of main street America. This is where the war was lost!  Certainly Tet contributed to the loss but it was Khe Sanh that was the deciding factor. 
    • It should be noted that in the Burns PBS documentary which has been critiqued on these pages the siege of the KSCB is barely mentioned—another of its fatal flaws as has been recounted on these pages.
  • In fact both Khe Sanh and Tet were significant failures militarily for the North Vietnamese. They lost both battles.  The war was there to be won, but the political will to do so had been lost.  Giap had been right.  (There is a unique event highlighted in my book that makes this point explicitly.)

But the bottom line is that the battle of Khe Sanh was won and the war lost at the same time.

In my next response to the Glen’s article I will respond to his critique of General Westmoreland.  Stay tuned!