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An Idea, and Bullets
By Jack Mallory (reviewer)
An Idea, and Bullets: A Rice Roots Exploration of Why No French, American, or South Vietnamese General Could Ever Have Brought Victory in Vietnam
by William Haponski
(Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2016)
We lost. They won. When a nation loses a war, it's not a judgement on the morality of the war, on the bravery of our soldiers, on Congress, on the media, on hippies or anti-war protesters. It's because one side fought longer, smarter, better than the other. In a world in which we are too frequently at war, we should want to know why we lost the war in Vietnam.
Lt. Col. William Haponski wrote "An Idea, and Bullets: A Rice Roots Exploration of Why No French, American, or South Vietnamese General Could Ever Have Brought Victory in Vietnam" to explain why and how the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were able to fight longer, smarter and better than the French, the Americans, and the South Vietnamese. How and why, as he puts it, "the Vietnam War was lost before our first American shot was fired," or the first French shot, or the last South Vietnamese shot. How did the North Vietnamese win on the ground in Vietnam, which was the only place that mattered?
Haponski is a career Army officer with two tours in Vietnam, and subsequently a military historian. This book is his attempt, a very successful attempt, to answer the question I and many other Vietnam veterans ask, "What in the hell was it all about?" To answer this question, Lt. Col. Haponski uses his experiences, US, ARVN and North Vietnamese unit histories, interviews with Vietnamese military on both sides, information from Vietnamese civilians, and numerous secondary accounts.
So what did the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong have that enabled them to fight longer, smarter, and better? What did we lack? "Fire in the belly," says Haponski. Haponski argues that fire in the belly comes from the power of an idea: independence and unification — goals that evolved throughout centuries of Vietnamese history, the same goals that motivated the American Revolution. We attempted to combat this idea in Vietnam the way we fought German and Japanese armies during WWII, with firepower, and destructive capability. We were unable to destroy this idea militarily and unable or unwilling to convert our WWII thinking into strategies and tactics that could destroy or change the idea. Anti-communism, the Domino Theory, international credibility — these aren't goals that create fire in the belly.
On a personal level, "An Idea, and Bullets" explains why I always felt like the red-headed stepchild as an S-5, Psychological Operations/Civil Affairs officer in the 11th Armored Cav during 1969-70. Haponski explains the enormous "cultural" power of the WWII military generation and their military descendants who were determined to fight WWII again. Engaging the VC/NVA in major battles, made it impossible to carry out the pacification of populated areas and Vietnamization which might have allowed the South Vietnamese to fight a war that a foreign army couldn't fight for them. The allure of Patton's motto, "Find the Bastards and Pile On" trumped "Winning Hearts and Minds."
I had gone to Armor Officer Candidate School, trained to be a speed-bump in the path of a Soviet attack in Germany. But I received orders to the Special Warfare Center at Ft. Bragg, and a couple of years in the 8th Special Forces converted me to the special warfare model of counter-insurgency, which makes the political, hearts 'n minds battle of even greater importance than the military battle.
While combat units in Vietnam like the 11th Cav had organizational slots for S-5 folks who specialized in the political aspects of the war, most commanders never really understood their crucial importance. Our enemies had understood this since their wars against the Japanese and French, and this is what made their victory, and our loss, inevitable. As a fellow Cav trooper put it to me recently, "It always seemed to me that the mission of the Blackhorse in the war was almost the definition of hubris. By the time you are committing an Armored Cavalry Regiment in a counter-insurgency operation, you have already lost."
After a few months of trying to implement my psy-ops/civil affairs training with the Blackhorse, I knew something was wrong, but I didn't know what. In the daily hurly-burly of MEDCAPs, tossing leaflets out of helicopters, running loudspeaker missions in the air and on the ground, and negotiating with Vietnamese authorities for school or clinic construction in the villages, there wasn't time to compare lessons from Ft. Bragg to realities in III Corps.
A month after I got to VN, Nixon announced Vietnamization, turning the war over to the ARVN, and the beginnings of US unilateral troop withdrawal. Then, during July and August we had attacks throughout our AO. During heavy fighting between US and NVA units, South Vietnamese units took little part. I remember riding to a contact to do loudspeaker appeals to the NVA to defect. On the way to the sound of the guns we passed an ARVN unit with hammocks still slung between trees, brewing tea. Vietnamization seemed a farce.
Pacification, in the form of building schools or clinics in the villes, was frustrated by corrupt village/district/province authorities, as Haponski also recounts. And no matter how hard we hammered the NVA, or how many chieu hoi leaflets we dropped or loudspeaker broadcasts we did, NVA defectors were almost nonexistent. Fire in the belly kept the enemy fighting. Our allies seemed to lack that fire completely.
Ideas win wars, not tanks, planes, and guns. Fire in the belly, not firepower, motivates soldiers, and societies, to fight longer, better, and smarter. In the famous exchange between an American and an NVA negotiator, a week before the fall of Saigon, the American said, "You know, you'll never beat us on the battlefield." The Vietnamese replied, "That may be so, but it is also irrelevant."
Haponski leaves it up to his readers to abstract lessons to be learned from Vietnam, other than to say that such lessons exist relevant to our current war(s) in the Middle East. He quotes "the commander of US Special Operations in the Middle East" who says, "We do not understand the movement, and until we do we are not going to defeat it . . . We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea."
Jack Mallory is a long-time VVAW member.