- - Thursday, January 30, 2020

The U.S. government is trying to figure out how to extricate itself from what is considered an unwinnable almost 20-year counterinsurgency campaign against the religiously extremist Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. Many lessons can be applied from the United States’ earlier military intervention in Vietnam from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s to understand the predicaments facing America in Afghanistan, where the local government is unable to defeat the Taliban on its own. 

What are these lessons? William C. Haponski points out in his authoritative and extensively detailed “Autopsy of an Unwinnable War: Vietnam” that America never had a real chance to win the war in Vietnam, just as the earlier French Expeditionary Corps had lost its war in the 1950s. This is because no foreign power could manage a successful war effort when the local South Vietnamese forces were unable to mount effective warfare on their own against the much more militarily capable and determined North Vietnamese forces.

The author, a retired U.S. Army colonel, arrived in Vietnam in 1968 as a lieutenant colonel, where he served as commander of task forces involved in combat and pacification operations. After Vietnam, he returned to West Point (from which he had graduated) and became a professor of military studies at several universities, where he undertook extensive research on the history of the Vietnam War, which became the basis for this book.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part covers the French intervention in Vietnam. France had long been involved in Vietnam as a colonial power, with the country partitioned into a Communist North and non-Communist South following the defeat of the French forces in March 1954. 

The book’s second part covers the period of 1954 to 1972. From 1954 to 1964, the American intervention was largely a military support and advisory mission, after which there was a major escalation in U.S. military involvement. The Americans took over from the French, the author writes, because the French had failed to contain the spread of communism into South Vietnam, and, with the Communists taking over China in October 1949, there was concern that if the Communists weren’t stopped in South Vietnam, they would succeed in taking over Southeast Asia.

The account’s third part covers the war’s last phase from 1973 to 1975, with the last U.S. forces evacuating from Saigon in April 1975. 

What are the findings of the author’s “autopsy” of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War? With America possessing the world’s “best military” in the form of massive firepower by its conventional military forces, it was expected that its forces could easily defeat the less well-armed North Vietnam-backed Viet Cong guerrillas. The author points out, however, in the first fault line, that the Army’s organization and equipment were “formalistic and cumbersome,” with the forces not trained to fight the kind of unconventional war that Vietnam presented. 

In a second strategic fault line, the author explains that America set about fashioning the South Vietnamese armed forces along the same lines as their own, but they lacked flexibility in their organization and weaponry, in addition to lacking motivation to fight on behalf of their inefficient and corrupt government. As Col. Haponski explains, “The South Vietnamese needed to learn how to plan, launch, and support combat operations all by themselves. But their dependence on U.S. advisers who provided crucial air and other support sapped their self-reliance.” He adds, “The South Vietnamese could never have won. As circumstances developed, they needed foreign troops in massive numbers to ensure their survival; they were plagued by corruption and favoritism in political and military appointments; they failed to offer their people a cause around which they could rally; and their forces too often victimized the people they were charged with protecting.” 

In a third strategic fault line, the South Vietnamese government “needed to work among the people and win their support,” with the pacification programs that were intended to safeguard villages from the Viet Cong “should have been a Vietnamese endeavor” but they were not, as the U.S. was always in control of them. 

In a final strategic fault line, the author concludes that America forces and South Vietnamese forces were no match for their Viet Cong and North Vietnamese adversaries, who, whether at the top levels were “dedicated Vietnamese Communists,” or, at the bottom levels, “were tough fighters.”

These four fault lines form the book’s overall framework, with each one explained through a series of fascinating battle accounts, many of which involved the author, including his interactions with American generals who commanded the military campaigns, such as William C. Westmoreland and Creighton W. Abrams.

Throughout this account, the author cites the questions raised by American military campaign planners over whether the continual failures of U.S. military, economic and societal reform efforts in South Vietnam should trigger additional involvement or withdrawal — which are similar to what American military planners have been facing in Afghanistan. This important book provides the answer to George Santayana’s famous dictum that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  

• Joshua Sinai is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant on counterterrorism issues.

• • •


By William C. Haponski with Jerry J. Burcham

Casemate, $32.95, 288 pages

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