Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 18-hour documentary series on the Vietnam War started this week. So far, it is well worth watching. It is also well worth discussing one of the most persistent, and pernicious, myths to emerge from that war: the military lost because civilian leaders tied its hands.
The myth takes different forms, but the gist of it is that feckless civilian politicians prevented the U.S. military from applying the sufficient firepower in Vietnam to win the war. Journalist Arnold Isaacs explains why this argument is wrong in the first of a series of essays about Vietnam for War on the Rocks,
During the Vietnam War the United States dropped approximately twice as many tons of bombs in Southeast Asia as the Allied forces combined used against both Germany and Japan in World War II. Between 1964 and 1973, U.S. aircraft expended over seven million tons of bombs in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, compared to 3.4 million tons dropped by the United States and its allies in all of World War II. There were restrictions on some targets, particularly in areas of North Vietnam that were close to China and where U.S. leaders were concerned that American airstrikes might provoke a Chinese response. But those do not change the fact that the American air campaign in the Vietnam war was the heaviest in the history of war, by a very large margin.
Similarly, in his 2002 book on wartime civil-military relations, Supreme Command, Eliot Cohen of the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies explains why the civilian restrictions made sense:
Consider the prime example of overweening civilian control—[President Lyndon] johnson’s control of target selection. The most careful study of the conduct of the air war over Vietnam notes that in fact Johnson ended up approving most of the targets submitted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. To be sure, the process of approval meant a drawn-out air campaign rather than the sudden shock that is (in theory, at any rate) critical in order for air power directed against a national economic and political entity to work. Undoubtedly too, the exclusion of certain areas from bombing (early on, antiaircraft sites, but also targets in Hanoi proper and the port of Haiphong) sharply reduced the U.S. air war’s effectiveness, both as a way of brining pressure to bear on the North Vietnamese government and in support of the nominal operational mission: cutting off supplies coming in to feed Hanoi’s aggression in the South. There are, however, two mitigating arguments.
First and most important, Johnson and his advisers feared and sought to avoid an extension of the war by Chinese intervention in it. As we now know, this was no idle fear, for in fact the Chinese sent over 300,000 troops into Vietnam and lost over a thousand killed in action. At the time too, it must be remembered, the Korean war was less than fifteen years in the past, and the Cuban Missile crisis less than five. Both events taught the American decision makers that the threat of escalation by the major Communist powers was real. Korea seemingly taught the lesson that pressing too far—as the Americans had when they advanced to the Yalu River, in particular—could indeed widen the war, while restrictions on the use of military power (e.g. refraining from bombing Chinese and Soviet installations supporting Communist units in Korea) could confine it. The Cuban missile crisis demonstrated the artfully restrained use of force—while providing evidence that in some military quarters the urge to use massive violence required civilian restraint. Today historians might qualify or object to these readings of what occurred in 1950-1953 and 1962, but at the time the lessons seemed altogether clear.
But it wasn’t just that civilians had understandable reasons for the restrictions it did place on the military. The U.S. Army also chose a strategy that fit with its organizational preferences rather than one appropriate for fighting an insurgency. Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army colonel and defense analyst, summed up the problem: “Simply stated, the United States Army was neither trained nor organized to fight effectively in an insurgency conflict.”
I briefly touched on this issue in my latest appearance on The Secure Line podcast (available here). The idea that the involvement of civilian politicians impedes military victory still very much affects American politics today, as Donald Trump’s references to loosening the rules of engagement in his recent speech on Afghanistan demonstrated. But war, as Clausewitz told us, is the continuation of politics with other means. Unless civilian leaders choose achievable politics objectives in America’s wars, the continuing application of firepower matters little.