I have just finished reading Robert McNamara’s In Retrospect (Times Books-Random House, 1995). It was a searing experience. McNamara spares neither himself nor the presidents he served (Kennedy and Johnson) in accepting the blame for a war lost in Vietnam.
The text begins with the sentence, “This is a book I planned never to write.” McNamara then offers a detailed history of his and the presidents’ failure to understand the war.
I found two passages especially moving. McNamara quotes army Major Andrew F. Krepinevich, a military historian, diagnosing why the U.S. military failed so completely:
“In developing its Vietnam strategy to use operational methods successful in previous wars, the Army compromised its ability to successfully combat . . . insurgency operations at anything approaching an acceptable cost. In focusing on the attrition of enemy forces rather than on defeating the enemy through denial of his access to the population, MACV [Military Assistance Command, Vietnam] missed whatever opportunity it had to deal the insurgents a crippling blow. . . . Furthermore, in attempting to maximize Communist combat losses, the Army often alienated the most important element in any counterinsurgency strategy—the people.”
In short, Westmoreland’s strategy of search-and-destroy and using body counts as the measure of success was grossly misguided in dealing with an enemy using guerrilla tactics. The North Vietnamese strategy is 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.”
In short, we failed to understand the enemy, fought the wrong war, and drove the populace into the arms of the enemy.