Unwinnable?

On November 20, 2009, in Culture, History, Politics, War, by marc

Peter Braestrup’s Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington has been an interesting read so far.  The first chapter is a detailed description of exactly how many people were staffing press offices in Vietnam prior to 1968, and what their resources were.  In chapter two, we go from facts and figures into the story of Tet itself, and Braestrup makes this preliminary observation about reactions to the crisis:

Big Story by Peter Breastrup

Big Story by Peter Breastrup

…as it turned out, very few of the claims bade by “optimists” or “pessimists” concerning “progress” in Vietnam had much immediate relevance to the radically changed situation that followed the January 30-31 Tet attacks.  Perhaps out of shock, the Johnson Administration was to respond with caution and relative candor to the new situation; however, the press and TV, especially in commentary at home, were to hark back immediately to Johnson’s autumn progress campaign and cry, in effect, “Tet proved that you were all wrong and, thus, that the critics were right.”

This reaction lacked discernment.  The onset of the Tet offensive, per se, did not show that the war was winnable or unwinnable, worthwhile or not, moral or immoral.  By February 1968, one did not need Tet to make a judgement on these issues.  Tet showed that the enemy had scored a major surprise, and its ultimate effect was initially obscure.  It did not prove that either optimists or pessimists were right or wrong on the much-debated 1967 “facts,” except on two points.  First, Westmoreland was wrong in publicly underestimating (in November) the enemy.  Second, the media pessimists were wrong to write off South Vietnamese ability to fight and “muddle through with U.S. help.”  Americans did not know enough about Vietnam, North or South.

In a more fundamental, even ethical, sense, of course, the President was wrong both to launch the rose-colored progress campaign and to persist in it without warning the U.S. public of what he knew; that possible heavy fighting lay ahead… Journalists’ memories skipped back to Westmoreland’s star role in the progress campaign, to his promise that “success” was discernible on the horizon.

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Books I’d Like, Vol. IV

On November 20, 2009, in Books I'd Like, Culture, General, War, by marc

I’m currently reading Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1966 in Vietnam and Washington.  It’s an interesting read, but I’m finding that I’m pretty uninformed about the ins and outs of Vietnam in general.  The thesis of Big Story is that press portrayals of the Tet offensive by the communists portrayed the battle as a disaster for the Americans, and the negative image portrayed by the press led to massive political repercussions in the US, and ultimately, probably the eventual collapse of the war effort in Vietnam.  In reading, I’m finding that I really know very little about the history and geography of the war, so I set about looking for a decent account of the conflict with some current perspective.

Here’s what I found: A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and the Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam. A review:

A Better War by Lewis Sorley

A Better War by Lewis Sorley

There was a moment when the United States had the Vietnam War wrapped up, writes military historian Lewis Sorley (biographer of two Vietnam-era U.S. Army generals, Creighton Abrams and Harold Johnson). “The fighting wasn’t over, but the war was won,” he says in this convention-shaking book. “This achievement can probably best be dated in late 1970.” South Vietnam was ready to carry on the battle without American ground troops and only logistical and financial support. Sorley says that replacing General Westmoreland with Abrams in 1968 was the key. “The tactics changed within fifteen minutes of Abrams’s taking command,” remarked one officer. Abrams switched the war aims from destruction to control; he was less interested in counting enemy body bags than in securing South Vietnam’s villages.A Better War is unique among histories of the Vietnam War in that it focuses on the second half of the conflict, roughly from Abrams’s arrival to the fall of Saigon in 1975. Other volumes, such as Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam and Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie, tend to give short shrift to this period. Sorley shows how the often-overlooked Abrams strategy nearly succeeded–indeed, Sorley says it did succeed, at least until political leadership in the United States let victory slip away. Sorley cites other problems, too, such as low morale among troops in the field, plus the harmful effects of drug abuse, racial disharmony, and poor discipline. In the end, the mighty willpower of Abrams and diplomatic allies Ellsworth Bunker and William Colby was not enough. But, with its strong case that they came pretty close to winning, A Better War is sure to spark controversy. –John J. Miller

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