Vietnam: Retrospective Part 7 of 8
Today, we recognize that all battlefield intelligence, regardless of the source, is subject to the fog of war. Everybody is inclined to interpret facts in a way that suit their preconceived notions.
Misleading reports and conflicting interpretations left the American public confused and, without their support, the war effort in Vietnam was threatened.
General Westmoreland was correct; our lack of resolve was our Achilles heel, and the North Vietnamese communists exploited it with their own lies.
I met General Westmoreland briefly when he stopped at Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii for a physical exam following his replacement by General Creighton Abrams as the Commanding General of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV). I was the Special Services officer there at the time and provided facilities and equipment for recreational activities. Westmoreland was an avid tennis player.
Throughout his career, General Westmoreland earned a reputation as caring for his men and their welfare more than any other commanding officer. In Vietnam, he excelled by using mobility and a highly flexible logistics system to support rapid deployments to confront the enemy wherever they might pop up. As a former artillery officer, he also pioneered the use of mobile fire bases to provide fire power wherever a battle might develop. However, there was one problem he could not overcome. He could not find an effective means of communicating results. Body and weapons counts simply failed to impress the American people favorably.
The problem in Vietnam was that it was not like any previous war. There were no battle lines. Objectives were taken and surrendered, and then retaken repeatedly. Strategic targets were off limits, so Westmoreland had to content himself with engaging the enemy in small unit actions until enough had been killed to persuade them to abandon their invasion of the south. Thus, body counts seemed significant. However, body counts were gruesome reminders of the tragedy of war, and coupled with uncensored television images, repulsed the American public. Where Westmoreland saw a light at the end of the tunnel, Americans saw only the darkness of horror.
Westmoreland's house of cards was about to crash about his head when CIA, State Department, White House, and Army officials met in Saigon to clear up the conflicting assessments of enemy strength. Threats and recriminations were traded until, surprisingly, the Army relented and agreed to higher estimates than they had previously reported. Many have speculated on the reversal of the Army position. However, it is possible that Westmoreland learned of the Viet Cong's plans to mount a massive offensive during the lunar festival, Tet, and he would have the major battle he needed to deliver a decisive defeat without resorting to body counts.
Ultimately, when the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong agents staged the Tet Offensive of 1968, few cared that U.S. forces smashed the enemy in the first major battle the communists had attempted. They reacted only to the lies and grossly deflated estimates of enemy troop strengths. Inflamed by exaggerated reports from correspondents who hunkered down in terror in Saigon for several days, Americans believed that the Viet Cong had won the battle. Walter Cronkite sealed the fate of the counterinsurgency effort when he proclaimed that the war was lost. Indeed, I did not hear a shot fired in anger from the time of the Tet Offensive in January, 1968, until I left the country the following May 4th, the beginning of “mini-Tet,” when North Vietnamese Army regulars had infiltrated and took over the prosecution of the war against the south.
Generally, Vietnam Veterans also hated the body counts. In a war of small unit engagements, small body counts were not impressive enough to sway anyone's opinion, and some commanders inflated them. Counting bodies also forced young soldiers to confront the consequences of their actions in ways soldiers in previous wars had avoided.
How else could the war be reported? The Army tried to use statistics gleaned from civic action programs. Patients treated. Latrines built. Tons of food stuffs delivered. However, no one believed that any war could be won with humane treatment of the enemy. You see, most Americans believed that we were fighting a popular insurgency when, in fact, we were battling an invading army. It ceased to matter that neither the Viet Cong nor the North Vietnamese Army ever won a significant battle. The myths contrived by the antiwar movement simply got in the way.
So, which were worse: The lies told by the politicians or the ones told by the antiwar movement?