Col. Anil Athale.
A military historian and coordinator of Inpad, Pune based think tank.
On 29 April 1975, forty years ago, ended an epic struggle between Vietnamese nationalism and American armed might with victory going to the tiny Vietnam over the mighty US. The war lasted close to 10 years, since the first major American formations landed in 1965 and at peak in 1966, the US had close to 400,000 troops there. But a combination of Viet Cong guerillas and resilient regular Army of North Vietnam, backed by Soviet Union and China, proved too much for the Americans who lost close to 59,000 soldiers dead in this conflict. The Vietnamese losses were ten times more. The Americans tried everything from massive bombing of North Vietnam (including prohibited napalm as well as chemical warfare agents like defoliant ‘Agent Orange’) and also escalated the war to neighboring Laos and Cambodia. Nothing worked and finally a peace accord in Paris in January 1973 facilitated American troops to withdraw by March same year. American hope that their proxy South Vietnam Army will withstand North Vietnam offensive proved illusory and war ended when the capital city of Saigon fell to North Vietnamese regular forces in on 30 April 1975.
The American loss of Vietnam in 1975 marked the end of American military domination of the world; on ever since 1945. Combined with the de-linking of dollar from Gold (34 $ to an ounce of Gold) and end of the ‘fixed exchange rate’, this will be seen as the beginning of the end of an American era. But the interpretation of this event has spawned many myths that continue to have effect on world politics and it is worthwhile to have a closer look at the event. ‘Vietnam’ has become an adjective as well as verb-the Americans for instance were driven by the passion to do a ‘Vietnam’ on Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
Vietnam mystique, in popular imagination is seen as an instance of rag tag guerillas defeating mighty super power. Seen in a series of successful insurgencies in Cuba, Bolivia etc, the image of an ‘invincible guerilla’ captured public mind. Some saw in this a rise of third world country defeating an industrial power of the first world. Communist sympathizers saw this as yet another example of the inevitability of the ultimate triumph of ‘Socialism’.
But the reality is very different than these commonly held perceptions. The capital of South Vietnam fell not to some rag tag guerilla force but a well oiled war machine of North Vietnam, armed with Soviet tanks and guns. It has been lesson of last few centuries that ever since the dawn of industrial era, the power of conventional armies armed with modern weapons is such that no agrarian society can withstand it. Vietnam was fully backed by the industrial might of the erstwhile Soviet Union and China (to a lesser extent). With this support, at the level of fighting infantry battles, the Vietnamese were equal match to the American or South Vietnamese soldiers. It was the greater skill, motivation, morale and skillful use of the terrain (jungles, swamps and paddy fields) that led to Vietnamese victory. But for this to happen, Soviet support was essential. While the Vietcong guerillas played a major role in lowering the morale of opponents, the final blow was delivered by the regular Vietnamese army. In another war few years before that, in Bangladesh, the Mukti Bahini guerillas played a prominent role, but the knockout punch was delivered by the Indian army. Henry Kissinger in his ‘White House years’ continues to lament that the Vietnam war, within few years of Bangladesh war showed American arms in bad light and worried about the impact it would have on the other US allies similarly armed.
This lesson of inadequacy of guerilla forces was brought home forcefully in Afghanistan when the Najibullah govt. survived full two years after the withdrawal of Soviet forces. The end came only when the major formations of Afghan forces under war lord Rashid Dostum switched sides to Taliban. In Vietnam as well the North Vietnamese gained easy victory because the regular forces of South Vietnam en mass deserted to their side or simply melted away.
But the myth of ‘invincible guerilla’ persists from jungles of Chhatisgarh where Naxalite guerillas, local and Pakistani guerilla fighters in Kashmir, Palestinian Mujahids to Syrian insurgents and is causing untold miseries. Under its thrall insurgents from Kashmir to Baster continue to dream of victory. It is an iron law of modern warfare that unless the regular forces crumble, the guerillas on their own can never win a victory. Neither the Israeli defence forces nor the Syrian regular army or for that matter the Indian army is likely to follow the South Vietnamese example. The violent movements depending on guerilla warfare alone to achieve their objective are thus living in fool’s paradise, like the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam) was till tragically decimated by Sri Lankan forces. In a way these tragedies are a result of incorrect understanding ‘why’ Vietnam happened.
As to Vietnam being an ideological battles between ‘Socialism’ and ‘Capitalism’ the less said the better. In less than one and half decade after Vietnam War, Communism collapsed in Soviet Union and got modified beyond recognition in China. In less than 4 years after the Saigon victory, two brotherly Communist countries, China and Vietnam fought a border conflict. Vietnam itself, after its triumph; is now turning to market economy and capitalist system and ready to befriend the Americans. Vietnam victory was a triumph of Vietnamese nationalism, pure and simple.
Another convenient myth of ‘victory of third world’ country etc, as said earlier it was a contest between Soviet and American arms and not a contest between a third world country and industrialized nation. Even in Afghanistan, the Afghan Mujahideen forced Soviet troops out fighting with the latest American weapons and not local muzzle loaders. In reality, Vietnam was a multi layered conflict. It was a proxy war by the Communist block to spread its influence. The Americans were concerned with their ‘Domino theory’ as well as Christian people’s welfare. Though both claimed it to be being fought for ‘liberation from Imperialism’ or in defence of free world. For the Vietnamese, it was simply a continuation of their war of liberation. It was each of these factors that operated simultaneously.
But the greatest impact of the Vietnam debacle was on the US. As late as 1991, when this author visited the US and had discussions with Washington DC think-tanks, I was politely told to avoid mention of Vietnam. In the subsequent American conduct of war, the memories of Vietnam and need to avoid the mistakes done, has been a constant factor. Immediately following Vietnam debacle, the US engineered minor conflicts to claim victory. Postages stamp sized country like Grenada was invaded and the operation touted as great military triumph. Even the decision to avoid going to Baghdad in 1991, was prompted by this fear of getting involved in land fighting. Such was the American fury over its loss to Vietnam that if found it expedient to support the world’s worst genocide ever in Cambodia by Pol Pot govt. just to spite the Vietnamese supported alternative.
Part of the American dilemma is to have deluded itself on Vietnam. Thus what was a nationalist assertion on their part was seen as global Communist conspiracy. The ‘domino theory’, loss of Vietnam would lead to loss of other countries, proved false.
This still leaves the question open about ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the Vietnam defeat of the US. If one looks at the history of counterinsurgency and counter guerrilla wars of the last several decades, one can clearly discern an inflexion or ‘tipping point’- an event or an occurrence that changed the ultimate outcome in favour of one or the other side as the result of perception of no-win by one side. In the case of the two-decade-long Vietnam war, that point was the Tet Offensive in January 1968.
Coinciding with the Vietnamese New Year, during which generally both sides observed cease fire, the Vietnamese guerrillas launched a successful attack on all the provincial capitals in South Vietnam as well as capital city of Saigon and Hue, the ancient capital, the two biggest cities in South Vietnam. The attack shook the Americans by its scope and breadth. The earlier optimism of Americans gave way to pessimism and domestic opposition to the war mounted. Militarily the Vietnamese guerrillas suffered huge casualties and American forces quickly regained the cities, but the perception that they could not win this war took root, both in the military and general public in the US. After this it was a matter of time before Americans withdrew from Vietnam. The Tet offensive succeeded in creating the perception of no-win in the minds of the Americans. The end however came only in 1975 when the Vietnamese forces finally captured Saigon on 29th April 1975, seven years after the ‘Tet’ offensive.
Vietnam also offered another military lesson, superior air power alone cannot guarantee victory against a tenacious enemy. The US used more bomb tonnage in Vietnam war than the entire WW II (including the two atom bombs). Yet despite this they failed to subdue Vietnam. There is no substitute to ground troops in war.
Wearing down the enemy and lowering his morale are concepts that are common to all forms of warfare. But in revolutionary war and in the Maoist conception, it is the loss of morale that leads to the defeat of enemy’s armed forces and victory. The order thus gets reversed. In the classical concept, destruction of armed power leads to collapse of morale and eventual victory. The Americans could not fathom this subtle difference and paid the price. The Vietnam War was lost not in the paddy fields of the Mekong delta but in American living rooms. The unprecedented television coverage brought the horrors of war right into American homes, and it is the drying of public support for the war that ultimately led to the military disengagement. The Tet offensive created a situation of no-win in the minds of the general American public.
Another under played issue of the Vietnam war is the role religion played in it. Jomini, the French military historian of Napoleonic era, devoted a separate chapter to what he called as ‘Wars of opinion’[i] He identified religion as the earliest form of ideology for war: ‘Religion can be a powerful ally, for it excites ardour of the people and also creates a party.’
Even in the 20th century, two major conflicts in Asia, the Korean War and Vietnam War had subtle undertones of religious conflict. In Korea as well as Vietnam, the regimes supported by the Christian West, initially were dominated by their co-religionists. But such is dominance of the West in the field of research that this issue is seldom mentioned and has never been seriously investigated. The Americans found a shadowy character, Tom Dooley to carryout propaganda against Vietnam and accuse it of atrocities on Christians. Dr. Tom Dooley attained to an iconic status not only among American Catholics, but the wider society as well, he was also an instrument in the hands of the (so called) Vietnam Lobby, a group of public relations executives, former socialists turned anti- communist, shadowy military figures and CIA operatives. These folks, none of whom were Catholic, ardently desired a Catholic figure who might be a bridge from American non-sectarian anti-communism to the fiercely Catholic leader in South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem. Thus began the American involvement in Vietnam. Rest they say, is history.
Even forty years after the Vietnam war, its lessons ought to be learnt by the nations as well as insurgents. Insurgents must know the limits of guerilla war and states must be wary of losing the battle of perception domestically, lest the war incites domestic opposition and becomes unviable. Military defeat is a consequence and not cause of this loss of battle for public mind. The world in 21st century has entered an information age. The issue of management of perception has climbed to the top of military agenda.