Official Optimism and Vietnam (2)

Another aspect of the upbeat reporting by U.S. administrations during Vietnam was what I consider to be a misunderstanding of the nature of the war by the U.S. military. General Westmoreland and his subordinate commanders saw the conflict as a contest of attrition. They fought a conventional war with large combat units taking to the field in pursuit of the enemy. Their measure of success was body counts, often no more than an estimate, because of the North Vietnamese practice of removing the bodies of their slain from the battlefield. Body counts, in sum, was a misleading indicator.

The North Vietnamese, moreover, doggedly pursued a stratagem of guerrilla warfare summed up in the words of Mao Tse Tung: “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.” Hence, the U.S. military spent a great of time looking for the enemy and not finding him.

What repeatedly baffled American officials was that the data showed we were winning the war, but the enemy kept getting larger and controlling more and more territory. How could that be?

Because we Americans didn’t understand the war that the North Vietnamese were fighting. They focussed on the village and hamlet level, spreading their control with small irregular units and political cadre while avoiding contact with U.S. military units. Over time, their strategy worked, and we never understood why.

Next time: a footnote.

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