Giap and Westmoreland, Redux
Adam Trueblood Commentary Index
Giap and Westmoreland, Redux

Reading the US administration’s rosy assessments of Iraq, one can’t help but be reminded of the war that had supposedly seared the words “never again” into the consciousness of America.  The military is an institution to be used in warfare when the nation is endangered, as a last resort, not for entanglement in civil wars or crusades to spread liberty in far off countries that pose no threat to the United States.  In Vietnam America’s leadership both forgot this and was deluded by anti-communist hysteria.  Though there are important differences between Iraq and Vietnam, the similarities are profound.  In reading the following quote by General Westmoreland from the sixties, if one were to substitute Iraq for Vietnam, terrorist for communist, and Middle East for Southeast Asia, one could indeed be listening to Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney or President Bush as they speak of Iraq today.  “These men [the US forces] understand the conflict and their complex role as fighters and builders.  They believe in what they are doing.  They are determined to provide the shield of security behind which the Republic of Vietnam can develop and prosper for its own sake and for the future and freedom of Southeast Asia.  Backed at home by resolve, confidence, determination and continued support, we will prevail in Vietnam over communist aggression.” (Address to House of Representatives, 1968*)  The current US leadership, to provide a charitable view, is blinded by idealism and the fantasy of spreading liberty in the Middle East.  As in Vietnam, we are led by a president who won’t consider pulling out for fear of being branded weak or defeated.  We are involved in a civil war in a country that poses no direct threat to us and have no defined purpose or timetable.  It does not matter that this time we are on the side of the majority rather than minority, for we are enmeshed regardless and are supporting a client government that would topple without our considerable military backing.

Just as the current leadership feeds the public misplaced optimism and disinformation geared to deflecting dissent, Westmoreland and McNamara in Vietnam were “can-do” optimists when facing the public, men who could produce statistics and charts and rational strategies that would allow the superpower to force the poor Vietnamese nation into submission.  Westmoreland had spent his life as a star in the military, graduating first in his class from Westpoint, demonstrating his bravery and leadership in WWII.  When faced with the inscrutable situation of Vietnam, however, he wrongly chose blunt force and technological superiority as his preferred weapons.  He was enamored of victory, body counts, kill ratios and the awesome might at his disposal.  When faced with factual data countering his optimism, he chose to persevere on his course rather than reassess his purpose, a choice with tragic consequences for the American and Vietnamese soldiers.  For as Ho Chi Minh had said to the French, “You can kill ten of my men for every one that I kill of yours, but even at those odds you will lose…”.   Westmoreland believed that no Vietnamese leader would take his people “to the point of national disaster for generations”, and thus set out on his ruthless course to bring the Vietnamese to the point of annihilation.  Tacitus’s words seem appropriate as a reflection on the grand designs of the Americans in Vietnam:  “They made a wasteland, and called it peace.”  Whether it was the application of millions of 750 pound bombs dropped from B-52s, or the widespread use of napalm, or the helicopter gunships mowing down innocent peasants, or the rape and torture of civilians and suspected VC, the US brought its full force to bear against an impoverished nation of only 16 million.

The results were predictable in one sense, in the grotesque measure of dead and displaced, for over two million Vietnamese died in the war and a quarter of the population were made into refugees.  What was unexpected was that the Vietnamese continued fighting, and that their leadership was composed of men like Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap who were prepared to make any sacrifice to drive out what they perceived as an imperial power.  Giap and Ho correctly perceived the war as a struggle between “grasshoppers and elephants”, one in which a “damn piss ant country” (as President Johnson referred to Vietnam) would over time wear out the more powerful nation through tenacious fighting and unswerving commitment.  When General Giap was asked after the war how long he would have continued fighting, his response was “another twenty years, maybe a hundred years, as long as it took to win, regardless of cost.”  An American general, Bruce Palmer, observed that “their will to persist was inextinguishable” and a civilian interrogator conveyed that “short of being physically destroyed, collapse surrender, or disintegration was – to put it bizarrely – simply not within their capabilities.”

Giap embodied many of the qualities demonstrated by his fighting force, and was a foil to the lumbering, bludgeoning Westmoreland.  He was a fine representative of the nation that had driven out the two previous colonial occupiers, the Chinese after over a thousand years of struggle, and the French after over a hundred years.  Giap was a fervent nationalist, well-versed in history, indoctrinated with Ho Chi Minh’s beliefs, an intellectual and military strategist with a clear goal of liberating Vietnam from the US presence.  He had an agile mind, an adaptive strategy, and an approach of total sacrifice.  Born in 1911, Giap had from the time of reaching his teenage years been involved in the struggle to drive out the French.  He had been imprisoned early on for subversion and was later one of the founders of the Vietminh fighting force.  By the time of Westmoreland’s arrival in the mid-sixties, Giap had spent twenty five years directing guerrilla bands and battling the French, overseeing victories such as Dien Bien Phu and the eventual withdrawal of the wounded European power.  Faced with such a shrewd adversary, Westmoreland was reduced to producing body counts for individual battles and repeating his tired mantra that the economic and military might of the US would eventually wear down his weakened adversary.  Westmoreland’s remarks in 1968 about the battle of Khe San are indicative of his myopia:  “I know that there was great concern back here about Khe San, but it was a great victory.   They gave us the best targets we have had in the war.  From January until just a few days ago, we had over 6,000 secondary explosions and 1,300 bodies seen on the ground, 900 bunkers destroyed and 300 gun positions.  The NVA are not ten feet tall as the press reports them.”*  Around this same time, even after having witnessed debacles such as the Tet Offensive and having faced the North Vietnamese for several years in a rapidly deepening quagmire, Westmoreland rejected withdrawal and declared “We would like the North Vietnamese to go home and turn in their weapons.”*

The recent elections in Iraq do not change the fact that the US is engaged in a raging civil war between Shiite and Sunni factions.  That we are this time on the side of the majority does not lessen the legitimacy of the claim that we are committing a blunder as large as that made in Vietnam.  The body count continues to rise, the US continues to expend its national wealth, and our standing in the world continues to plunge, while at the same time the resentment of our unwelcome presence grows within both factions.  It is a war that we cannot win, and in fact have already lost, for our very presence unites those who are fanatical in their desire for independence from an imperialist power. 

January 2005