One of the most frustrating aspects of the Vietnam war from the [U.S.] Army’s point of view is that as far as logistics and tactics were concerned we succeeded in everything we set out to do.  At the height of the war the Army was able to move almost a million soldiers a year in and out of Vietnam, feed them, clothe them, house them, supply them with arms and ammunition, and generally sustain them better than any Army had ever been sustained in the field.  To project an Army of that size halfway around the world was a logistics and management task of enormous magnitude, and we had been more than equal to the task.  On the battlefield itself, the Army was unbeatable.  In engagement after engagement the forces of the Viet Cong and of the North Vietnamese Army were thrown back with terrible losses.  Yet, in the end, it was North Vietnam, not the United States, that emerged victorious.  How could we have succeeded so well, yet failed so miserably?…

At least part of the answer appears to be that we saw Vietnam as unique rather than in a strategic context.  This misperception grew out of our neglect of military strategy in the post-World War II nuclear era.  Almost all of the professional literature on military strategy was written by civilian analysts – political scientists from the academic world and systems analysts from the Defense community….Even the Army’s so-called “new” strategy of flexible response grew out of civilian, not military thinking.

This is not to say that the civilian strategists were wrong.  The political scientists provided a valuable service in tying war to its political ends.  They provided answers to “why” the United States ought to wage war.  In like manner the systems analysts provided answers on “what” means we would use.  What was missing was the link that should have been provided by the military strategists – “how” to take the systems analyst’s means and use them to achieve the political scientist’s ends.

 

Source:  Col. Harry G. Summers, Jr., On Strategy:  The Vietnam War in Context, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 1982, p. 1.

Image © Steven Hardesty 2011

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