Vietnam in Perspective

"Vietnam in Perspective"
By George "Sonny" Hoffman

Intelligent, rational human beings have difficulty accepting the U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. I had trouble. Aside from the involvement issue, our conduct of the war seemed even more indefensible. No-fire zones, free-fire zones, bombing restrictions, and the ubiquitous rules of engagement defied reason. To look at the Vietnam War in isolation also defies reason.

The war was never fought to win. That is an absurdity to most people, veterans especially. The strategy was to contain the spread of global communism. This may seem laughable in light of the fall of communism, but no one was laughing in the fifties and sixties as country after country fell behind the iron and bamboo curtains. Communism was perceived as a serious threat to our national security. The threat of a global nuclear war loomed on the horizon, and we had come damned close several times before the first troops landed in Vietnam. The demise of humanity, indeed, all life on Earth, teetered on the brink of annihilation. Statesmen on both sides had this reality to deal with.

It was in this atmosphere of fear and insecurity that our leaders decided to draw a line in the jungle. Clearly, a line needed to be drawn somewhere. Once that line was drawn, it needed to be defended. The world watched to check our resolve. We held that line for 10,000 days. As a delaying action, it was quite successful. By tying the communists down in Southeast Asia, we bought valuable time. Other countries successfully resisted insurgency movements as the weakness inherent in the rigid socialist systems began to show. When we no longer needed to defend the line in the jungle, we pulled out. By then, communism was no longer on the march. If anything, it was on the defensive.

As to our irrational and irresponsible conduct of the war, I submit that is was neither. Counter-insurgency warfare is a tricky business. It is more political than military. In the post Napoleonic era, theory returned to war as a rational, limited instrument of national diplomacy. This approach was best articulated by the Prussian military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz. He set the tone of modern armed conflict in his 1837 book, On War. It was he who stated, "War is the natural extension of diplomacy," and that "War, followed to its natural conclusion, is total."

In the aftermath of two global wars and the advent of nuclear weapons, his words took on greater significance. Military planners and statesmen on both sides read the book and bought into the philosophy. The cold war was fought using his book as a guide. The Vietnam rules of engagement were a direct result of this philosophy. Who can say whether he was right or wrong. The fact remains that we did not annihilate mankind in a nuclear holocaust, and China did not invade as they did in Korea. Our strategists had to carefully maneuver the tactics to straddle these two main concerns.

To be viewed correctly, Vietnam must be seen in the context of a much bigger war--the Cold War. Vietnam was one battle in a very long war. Even if you accept the popular notion that the U.S. lost that battle--which I do not--we, never-the-less, won the war. The Union soldiers that fought at Fredricksburg during our Civil War undeniably lost that battle. Some of those men were in the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue at the war's end. They had the satisfaction of knowing that their comrades did not die in vain. They were winners, not losers, even if Fredricksburg was the only battle they fought.

Vietnam, as big as it seemed to those of us involved in the fighting, was a minor skirmish. The losses were insignificant to what was at stake. Fifty-eight thousand placed on one scale against five billion on the other, makes it insignificant. I cringe at the notion that those lives were wasted, sacrificed in vain. If anything, no warrior ever gave a life for so noble a cause or sacrificed it for so many. Indeed, Churchill's words about the RAF ring true for the veterans of Vietnam: "Never have so many owed so much to so few."

I have no doubt that when the world looks back on the twentieth century with crystal vision, Vietnam will be seen for what it was: the turning point of the greatest threat humanity ever faced--communism. If you had a part in the Vietnam War, take pride, hold your head high. When you visit The Wall, revere those names etched thereon. If you can not see their glory, your great grandchildren will.

Copyright: 1994 By George "Sonny" Hoffman