The Vietnam War: The Defeat of Technowar
The American empire met a humiliating defeat in the war in Vietnam. Despite it's massive technological advantage it was beaten by a nation of peasants. In "The Perfect War: The War We Couldn't Lose and How We Did" James William Gibson provides a brilliant analysis explaining how the Vietnamese were able to win against these seemingly insurmountable odds. It thus also provides clues to the defeats the empire has suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also exposes the horrors of the war in Vietnam. The "Perfect War" is undoubtedly one of the most brilliant books ever written on the Vietnam War.
He begins his account by providing a long historical background to the war. He observes later that most American Policy makers had absolutely no understanding of the history of Vietnam. With typical American arrogance they didn't think it was worth studying. They despised the very people they claimed to be helping and hence most had no idea that Vietnam had a history of two thousand years of successful resistance to empires. Vietnam throughout it's history was repeatedly conquered by China and repeatedly won it's independence. This history played an important part in Vietnamese culture which held up various resistance leaders as heroes and models for confucian imitation. Their defiant speeches were preserved and formed an important part of Vietnamese literary tradition. Likewise those Vietnamese who had collaborated with the Chinese were remembered as villains and held up for abuse in the Vietnamese literary tradition. Thus Vietnam possessed a culture and history of resistance. Next the French would attempt to colonize the country. Vietnam would fight a brutal war for independence lasting almost a hundred years. French rule eventually would give way to that of Japan an ally of Vichy France (The government in France which had chosen to collaborate with the Nazi's.) Ironically the OSS would briefly train the Vietnamese resistance during the war. Ho Chi Minh would attempt to gain American support for an independent Vietnam after the war but his generous proposals were completely ignored. Instead the US would funnel millions of dollars to the French as they attempted to reassert control over their colony. French rule had been a disaster for the Vietnamese the French stole massive swaths of land converting them into huge plantations. This teansformed many peasnts into landless hired laborers. Land reform and independence were the two chief themes of the Vietnamese resistance lead by Ho Chi Minh and General Giap. They had lead the resistance since before the war and another major theme of the resistance was generational struggle. The Vietnamese were willing to carry on the war for as long as it took. However the French defeat occurred surprisingly quickly in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu the Viet Cong managed to capture a massive base the french had believed to be impenetrable. Ironically the French strategy was developed after the failure of their "Fort Strategy." They had built tiny forts across the countryside which proved to be easy targets for the guerrillas. So instead they decided to build massive fortresses which would force the guerrillas to mass their forces if they wanted to attack and then the french assumed with their superior firepower they would be able to destroy any attack by the Viet Minh (The Vietnamese resistance.) At Dien Bien Phu however the Viet Minh were able to enlist the people in a heroic effort to transport artillery by bicycle and by hand through hundreds of miles of dense jungle. Thanks to this they managed to hide artillery positions all around the base and managed to surround and capture the base inflicting a decisive defeat on the French. In the Geneva treaty that ended the war it was agreed that elections would be held to determine the future government of Vietnam. However since Ho Chi Minh was certain to win America instead decided to back Diem as a dictator in south Vietnam and indefinitely postpone nationwide elections. Instead Diem was installed in crooked elections with the help of massive bribery and massive brutality. However his brutal crackdown aimed at eliminating all opposition inspired new resistance. For almost a decade the CIA waged a covert war aimed at keeping Diem in power before a faction of the CIA decided he had to go. Diem was overthrown in a coup and killed along with his brother replaced by a string of corrupt generals who were constantly plotting against each other. The new president Lyndon Johnson decided to commit American troops since their corrupt South Vietnamese puppets had proved incapable of stopping the North Vietnamese supported guerrillas in the south from controlling the countryside. (See my two previous articles on Vietnam the March 2015 "Wars in Korea of Vietnam" and the April 2015 "The Phoenix Program." for more on the origins of the war and the nature of the Viet Cong resistance.)
The American officials who planned the war were certain that they would be victorious. James William Gibson gives a brilliant analysis of the mindset of the technocrats who planned the war. To describe their philosophy he coined the term "Technowar." During World War Two the US had succeeded in creating a massive Military Industrial Complex. They had achieved a great deal of efficiency using management science. They decided the American war effort had been successful because it's production side had been run like a giant business. They decided that the next war itself would be run like a giant business. America would use it's massive industrial base and it's mastery of science and technology to outproduce the enemy. Then on the battlefield it would use it's massive technological advantage to produce massive casualties among the enemy. Eventually a tipping point would be reached when the US would be killing more of the enemy then they could replace and their surrender would become inevitable. A primary theorist behind all this was Henry Kissinger who also believed that only westerners because of their enlightenment traditions had the ability to perceive reality accurately. The author has a great deal of fun throughout the book turning this axiom on it's head by showing that the war managers were on the contrary completely disconnected from the on the ground reality believing in deeply flawed statistics promising victory that bore no relation to the truth. Another feature of technowar was the idea that war could be rationally managed like an algorithim or a computer program. Vietnam was a war fought with flow charts. The whole country was classified and filed. For example there was the so called Hamlet evaluation system every hamlet would be graded on a variety of factors. They applied the same system to their own troops and commanders everyone was graded in an elaborate system of performance evaluation. The war planners believed that the enemy would respond rationally and predictably to the use of force. Ultimately they would realize they had no chance of winning and would surrender. Ultimately Technowar was the belief that with it's technological advantage America could not lose. With all those tanks, bombers, helicopters and artillery it was only a matter of time before the Vietnamese realized that resistance was futile and would surrender. As noted they paid no attention to Vietnamese ideas of generational resistance. They did not bother to stop and wonder why the french had been beaten. In technowar which reduced the world to numbers there was no place for the human spirit. Their theories assumed that the Vietnamese were merely inferior copies of themselves and that they would respond in the same way as they themselves would. Needless to say they completely underestimated the Vietnamese.
Ironically the Vietnamese would win by understanding the nature of their foe and turning their strengths into weaknesses. For Instance the American's would wage war along set patterns. First would come a spotter plane. Then helicopters would fly in the men and artillery. The VC (the Communist Vietnamese Guerrilla resistance) would learn these patterns and would thus know exactly when and where the americans were planning to attack. Forgotten by the war planners in their air conditioned Washington offices was just how noisy all this american technology was. Planes and tanks could be heard coming from miles away. The VC knew exactly where the americans were and what they were planning as soon as they would arrive in an area since they always followed the same patterns. As a result they were able to ambush the US forces at will. The author quotes statistics proving that the VC held combat initiative in 75% of engagements with battles at the VC choice of time place, type, and duration. In other words the Americans were constantly being ambushed and further the VC were usually able to successfully escape. Cynically the whole American strategy of search and destroy was based on this fact. the troops would be sent out to get into ambushes which would allow the Americans to pinpoint the enemy and call in massive artillery and airpower to destroy them. However since the VC understood this they were able to calculate exactly how long each attack should last because they knew how long it would take artillery or air support to be called in and thus could escape in time. When the US tried to compensate by using agent orange to destroy the jungles this only made the US troops easier targets.
The US troops constantly being ambushed retaliated by indiscriminately attacking the civilian population and by destroying their villages. Relying on war memoirs and novels the author reconstructs the brutal war crimes that formed the reality of the war. The Vietnam war was an orgy of rape, torture and murder. However this massive destruction was not merely the result of vengeful troops. Instead the genocidal nature of the war was determined by policy. As mentioned earlier the US hoped to win by producing more death then the other side. As a result they established production targets or kill quotas. Platoons that didn't produce enough kills could be punished by being forced to remain in the field. On the other hand a unit could win privileges and vacation time if it had a high kill count. Officers promotions depended on them meeting their quota on the amount of kills. Some units would get into fights over the body parts each side wanting to get the kill count. Of course this would lead to false and exaggerated reporting that would delude the war managers into believing victory was near. More tragically for the Vietnamese it would result in the reporting of all civilian deaths as VC deaths. One joke floating around american units at the time was "When we kill a pregnant woman, we count it as two VC, One soldier and One Cadet." After that ugly quote I should mention that the author manages to provide quite a Horrifying picture of the war by compiling some of the songs and jokes current among the troops at the time. I'll provide another example here is a forward air patrol song.
Bomb the Schools and Churches.
Bomb the rice fields, too.
Show the children in the courtyards
What napalm can do.
Strafe the town and kill the people.
Drop napalm in the square.
Get out early every Sunday
And Catch them at their morning prayer.
Throw candy to the ARVN [South Vietnamese Army]
Gather them all around
Take your twenty mike-mike [20mm Automatic cannon]
And Mow the bastards down.
As the author discusses in his chapters on the air war schools, hospitals and churches really were frequent targets of american bombers. Just as dead civilians were reported as dead VC. Bombed churches and schools were reported as destroyed barracks. However to return to the ground war in addition to demanding high kill counts war planners were directly responsible for the massive destruction in the countryside. They hoped to cut the VC off from their base of support in the countryside by forcing the vietnamese into model villages in the countryside. Here the author also has many interesting things to say about the delusional war planners who always conceived the VC as some outside other since it fit into their mythology of the war. In this mythology America was there to defend south Vietnam from outside communist aggression. In border regions it was true that the North Vietnamese sent their army to attack keeping the bulk of american forces pinned down. However in the interior of the country the war was a guerrilla war by the south vietnamese peasants themselves they were the VC. However the American strategy constantly sought to create a barrier to protect the vietnamese from some outside other which was pointless since the Vietnamese peasants were that other. However using such a mythology as a justification they carried out war on the entire populace under the cover of protecting them from the VC.
As mentioned they attempted to force the peasants into model villages. In reality these were more like prison camps surrounded by barbed wire fences and machine gun nests. For the average peasant this was also a spiritual catastrophe. In Vietnamese Buddhism the villagers buried their ancestors in the village and regularly performed rituals to aid them in the after life. To be separated from the burial places of their ancestors was a terrible trauma for them. On a more practical level they were peasants who were cut off from their land. They were handed propaganda leaflets promising them prosperous new lives. The Americans were supposed to supply the new villages with food. However their south vietnamese puppets were notoriously corrupt and specialized in ripping off american aid and making fortunes by selling them on the black market. The food for the peasants met the same fate most of it never reached them. Often the building materials for their new houses were also sold on the black market and they lived in card board boxes. Anyone who didn't leave the village or anyone who returned to it was a target those areas were labeled Free-Fire Zones. One amusing feature of the book is that Vietnam marked a definite turning point towards using euphemisms. Thus such accurate terms as Free Fire Zone, or Search and Destroy were replaced during the war by specified strike zone and search and clear in an effort to disguise reality. Even ambushed was changed to engaging the enemy on all sides or meeting engagement on all sides. They even made a list for the press of terms that were no longer acceptable and their new and more boring Orwellian replacements. A process that has reached untold heights during the Obama administration when they attempted to rename the "War on Terror" "Overseas Contingency Operations."
A free-Fire Zone was exactly what it sounded like an entire area where everything was a legitimate target for artillery strikes, bombing raids and roving search and destroy patrols. These search and destroy patrols were often exactly what they sounded like when they found a village they would often destroy everything in it the standard order was often "Kill Anything that moves" (The the Title of Nick Turse's excellent book on Vietnam). They would kill old men, women and children. The young men were never around either drafted into the ARVN, fighting with the Viet Cong or hiding since death was certain for any military age man found by US troops. They even killed the livestock burned the crops, blew up the well and burned down the village. This was one of the ways that the Vietnamese were forced into model villages. If they returned to their land they were subjected to daily bombing and artillery strikes. To survive they grew expert in digging bomb shelters beneath their huts usually they could only farm at night. The Americans would spray their crops with agent Orange to destroy them. First to starve would be the children, then the old, then the babies when their mothers milk would run out. Frankly it is long past time we started calling what happened in Vietnam a genocide. It is time we began writing histories that portray the heroism required for these civilians merely to survive in places where the US wages it's endless wars. Places like Vietnam, Guatemala, Iraq, Syria and Ukraine. Instead we get histories with a lot of nonsense about tragic errors and noble sacrifice, and best intentions which completely ignore all the horrors the American Empire have inflicted on the planet. Take up your pens Iraqi's and Vietnamese write down your stories before it is to late.
As You can see I get angry just thinking about all the Vietnamese peasants had to endure so let's return briefly to the land of Technowar back in the air conditioned offices in Washington DC thousands of miles from the hell on earth they had created over in Vietnam. Here they finally received a dose of reality during the Tet offensive. As mentioned everyone had good reason to inflate their kill numbers and to record civilians as dead VC. Even more ridiculously the General in charge decided to erase the entire Viet Cong guerrilla force from the estimates of enemy strength. This was in keeping with the myth that the United States was "defending" south Vietnam. They noticed a lull in incidents and they ignored intelligence of a massive VC offensive. They announced that victory was finally in sight lulled by the phony numbers the military was feeding them. Instead the VC launched the massive Tet offensive targeting cities around the country. The VC suffered heavy casualties in the offensive but on the other hand the US was forced to bring all it's troops in from the countryside to retake the cities. The VC were able to further strengthen their control of the countryside. More importantly this was the moment the war planners realized that they would lose. Thus Tet led to Lyndon Johnson deciding not to run for President again. Increasingly they turned to air power in an attempt to delay the inevitable.
The Air war in Vietnam was in many ways the embodiment of the technowar. First it involved demonstrating America's technological superiority. Second the air war planners seemed to believe in the beginning that if they struck just the right targets with the right intensity they could force the North Vietnamese to surrender. They had ever expanding target lists. The war planners viewed the air war as a form of communication and the author cleverly examines their insane views hatched by the technocrats at the Rand Corporation. The Air war would both Signal to north Vietnam that they couldn't hope to win and signal their resolve to their allies in south vietnam. However the air war eventually evolved into bombing everything in sight as I explained earlier. They would drop twice as many bombs on Vietnam as were dropped in all of world war two. They also expanded the air war into Laos and Cambodia. Nixon who replaced Johnson developed the Mad Man doctrine. He would attempt to terrify North Vietnam into submission and told his subordinates to tell the North Vietnamese that he could barely be restrained from using Nuclear weapons. The Americans dropped so many bombs that they caused almost as much destruction as a nuclear war would have in terms of explosive kilotons they actually dropped the equivalent of several nukes in conventional bombs.
However just as Technowar would fail on the ground it would fail in the Air as well. The Vietnamese came up with clever solution. Everyone in North Vietnam was issued an assault rifle a major reason that America never dared to invade directly. The North Vietnamese became one giant air defense system every time a plane would approach and they could be heard from miles away everyone would fire up into the air. The Americans were forced to fly out of their range which put them in range of the North Vietnamese radar guided anti-air defenses. Many planes were shot down. During one major bombing offensive the pilots were forced to fly unfamiliar planes because of the scale of the attack so every plane was supplied with a huge library of technical manuals. When one of these bombers was shot down the North Vietnamese were able to adjust their air defenses perfectly to target US airpower using all the valuable information in the technical manuals. In addition North Vietnam was a largely Agricultural not industrial society thus it was able to survive the massive destruction of it's cities. Aside from trying to force the North Vietnamese to surrender the Air war also hoped to cut off their ability to supply the VC. Yet this only revealed yet another paradox of technowar. It turns out the VC only needed 12 tons of supplies a day. It was impossible to stop such a tiny amount of supply from reaching them. The Americans turned to one of their most high tech solutions. They built a massive sensor network along the Ho Chi Minh trail. If the sensors detected a loud noise the information would be sent to a bomber which would target the site. However the VC learned to mask the sound of trucks using tape recorded nature sounds and also to make the Americans target non existent trucks by playing truck sounds. Since the sensors were also destroyed in the attack they had no idea whether any trucks had actually been destroyed. Of course they reported that trucks had been destroyed but when planes were sent to assess the damage the next day usually there was no wreckage to be found. Even if they had managed to destroy all the north Vietnamese trucks the VC required so little outside supply that they could have used bicycles or backpacks to smuggle the needed 12 tons across the border. They could also always buy whatever they needed from America's South Vietnamese allies who stole billions in supplies and operated a massive black market of American weapons across the country.
The Air war thus proved as much of a failure as the ground war. There was also an economic war the US tried to win the south vietnamese over by flooding them with cheap consumer goods. In one revealing example they attempted to conquer the country with TV. They set up TV stations to air propaganda tinged soap operas and other programs. Color Television was coming into use in america so the government shipped all the black and white sets people were tossing out over to Vietnam. This was only one aspect of a massive propaganda war the US waged on the country billions of leaflets were dropped and hundreds of Vietnamese journalists were paid to spread CIA propaganda. However since they didn't bother to learn anything about Vietnamese culture this propaganda war often backfired just like every other aspect of technowar. American efforts to turn Vietnam into an urban consumer society were equally disastrous. Millions of refugees who avoided the model villages ended up in the massive slums that surrounded the cities. Many were forced to survive by prostitution, begging, and by eating garbage. The money the US flooded the country with drove up inflation to the point where the south vietnamese troops couldn't support their families. To make matters worse their officers often stole their pay. In this regard America did succeed in shaping south Vietnam in it's own image it was a land where a few crooks got rich while everyone else got poorer. It's the American way.
The corruption, the poverty, and above all the massive slaughter inflicted by the Occupying american army only served to increase the popularity of the VC and discredit the south vietnamese government. Despite the massively destructive ground war the VC managed to maintain the initiative throughout the war ambushing the Americans at will. Despite the massive bombing campaign that also targeted Laos and Cambodia the Americans were unable to force the North Vietnamese to surrender nor could they cut off their supplies. In the end there were advantages to being low tech that the americans didn't foresee. It was cheaper making it impossible for the americans to cut off their supplies. It was also quieter and less visible. It was also less detached from reality Technowar allowed the war to be directed from thousands of miles away and thus to be directed by people completely separated from the day to day realities. Even the commanders stationed in Vietnam itself were divorced from reality by technowar. They directed their troops from helicopters flying over the battlefields their experience very different from the grunts trudging through the jungle below. In another technowar disaster they arrogantly sent their commands over open channels. The VC well supplied with american radios purchased on the black market could hear everything further enhancing their ability to lay ambushes and evade detection. Above all it was the VC's irrational determination to struggle on no matter what the odds that foiled the rational plans of the technocrats back in Washington as they re-ran the numbers after Tet they realized that they could never send enough troops to win. Incidentally the author shows that contrary to popular belief the troop buildup in Vietnam was not decided on piecemeal but had been scheduled in advance from the beginning. Nixon hoped to use airpower to prop up south Vietnam but this also proved a failure. South Vietnam quickly collapsed after US troops were withdrawn the country was finally reunited and independent. America would quickly find another war in Angola but it would be forced to wage it covertly and it suffered another humiliating defeat.
The author ends the book by discussing how American came to understand the war. There were the liberals who saw it as tragic but noble mistake. Then their were the conservatives who claimed America could have won if only the generals hadn't been restrained by the politicians. Both were equally delusional there was nothing noble about a genocidal war that killed millions in order to protect the regimes of a string of corrupt dictators. Nor was America on the verge of victory. If they had invaded North Vietnam they would have encountered an entire nation organized into an armed militia in addition to the massive force North Vietnam kept in reserve to meet this eventuality. They would have faced a more intense form of the same guerrilla war they were already losing in the south and they lacked the manpower to occupy north and south Vietnam. Not only that but China itself might have intervened. This is why the US never invaded North Vietnam although it did launch covert attacks across the border. Instead of this mythology the lessons we should learn from Vietnam are obvious. First it is the story of a genocidal assault on the Vietnamese people using everything short of an atom bomb. Second it is the story of a successful resistance against this overwhelming might in the end brains and determination were enough to defeat the American Technowar. Wherever people are struggling against the empire they should remember Vietnam. In fact as Pepe Escobar reported in the weeks before the invasion many Iraqis carefully studied the writings of General Giap who masterminded the military campaign in Vietnam. Once again America's massive Technowar machine would be brought to a standstill and shock and awe would prove useless against a determination to resist no matter what. Once again the arrogant war planners were humbled. And once again the Empire killed millions in revenge. Now in Afghanistan the US is poised for yet another defeat and few doubt that their puppet government will quickly collapse once the last foreign troops are withdrawn.
I based this article on James William Gibson's excellent book "The Perfect War:The War We Couldn't lose and how we did." I highly recommend it. Actually I decided to take my own advice and rewatched Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" and was surprised to find many lines of Dialog taken directly from the "The Perfect War." For more on the American war crimes in Vietnam read "Kill Anything That Moves" By Nick Turse for a discussion of the conventional war. Also Read the excellent "The Phoenix Program" By Douglas Valentine for a discussion of the CIA's covert war in Vietnam using death squads and special forces. For a discussion of the Origin of the War as well as more on the wars in Laos and Cambodia read Peter Dale Scott's "The War Conspiracy." I Discuss Scott's "War Conspiracy in my March 2015 "Wars in Korea and Vietnam." I discuss Doug Valentine's "The Phoenix Program in my April 2015 "The Phoenix Program"
An Excellent two hour interview with James William Gibson is available online it is highly recommended and is what inspired me to read the book in the first place. Warning it contains many graphic descriptions of war crimes.
Check Out More great episodes of alternative views an old public access news show that serves as an invaluable historical resource because of all the great coverage they did. They have great shows on the wars El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Angola as well as many interviews with CIA whistleblower John Stockwell who I discussed in my February 2015 article The CIA in Africa.