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Reflections on a War

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  Vietnam: Few Heaven-Born Captains Previous
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David Hackworth enlisted in the Merchant Marines at age 14 and the U.S. Army at 15. He spent almost 26 years in the Army, over seven of them in combat theaters. After five years in Vietnam, Hackworth, then the Army's youngest colonel, spoke out on national television, saying, "This is a bad war... it can't be won. We need to get out." Hackworth earned numerous decorations, including eight Purple Hearts and the United Nations Medal for Peace, given for his anti-nuclear work in Australia.

He has been a regular guest on national radio and TV shows, and from 1990 to the end of 1996, he was Newsweek's contributing editor for defense. Hackworth's books include The Vietnam Primer, the international best seller About Face, and Hazardous Duty.


by David Hackworth

He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent, and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain.
-- Sun Tzu

In the spring of 1965, America began to dispatch a great conventional army to Vietnam. Pound for pound those airmen, marines, sailors and soldiers were collectively the finest warriors we had ever sent to war. In the beginning, they were highly trained regular volunteers, who had long been indoctrinated to kill a "Commie for Mommy."

But the Americans were trained to fight the Soviet Union. Their doctrine, tactics and equipment were designed to engage a Communist enemy on a European battlefield, not an Asian opponent in the jungle. The training and mindset of their generals and admirals were to fight great air, land and sea battles not unlike those that brought us victory in World War II.

There was another problem. Their Vietnamese opponent refused to be sucked into a war of attrition or to fight an American style war. He had over the centuries defeated the Chinese, Japanese and the French not by fighting by conventional rules, but by following the strategic and tactical doctrine of Sun Tzu, written two and a half thousand years before: enemy attacks, we retreat; enemy digs in, we harass; enemy exhausted, we attack; enemy retreats, we pursue.

For eight years, the powerful U.S. war machine mostly attacked shadows and mainly bombed an invisible enemy. It was seldom able to lock its opponent into the much sought-after classical big battle, where it could bring to bear its overwhelming firepower and technological advantage over its Third World foe. The enemy fought battle for battle mainly on his terms and almost always played the tune. He acted, we reacted. When the fight was over he danced away to fight another day, almost always leaving the ground bloody from American casualties. He took his lumps too, but they weren't shown on the Vietnamese nightly TV news. And he was prepared to pay any human price to wear down his American opponent.

Sadly, from "The Iron Triangle" to "Hamburger Hill" -- always in search of the big battle, the big victory, the big knockout -- the American leadership never learned. What worked in World War II was the standard. In their haste to recreate a Guadalcanal or a Normandy KO, the top brass failed the basic lessons of war-fighting: to understand your enemy and know cold the nature of the war.

For eight years, America fought the same battles on the same terrain using the same obsolete tactics. There was no clear cut military plan (The Objective, a principle of War), nor was there an institutional memory. Front line unit leaders were shifted every few months and the division and corps commanders -- whose tenure was considerably longer -- were totally out of touch with what went on down at the pointy end of the bayonet. The mistakes that were made in 1965 were repeated each year, as each annual crop of American cannon fodder was fed unto the field until 1973, when we withdrew.

The valiant men with the rifle squads, platoons and companies well understood the enemy's game. How he would dart in, make them bleed and run away. How he was into making the Second Vietnamese War a protracted affair that would frustrate America's leaders and wear down the American people, who from the beginning of the conflict questioned the morality of the war, wondered how our country's national security was even remotely at risk in the far away jungles of South East Asia, and saw the wrongheadedness of our being there.

Virtually no senior commanders spent time with the grunts to learn the true nature of the war. Most were isolated from the fighting men -- not unlike the French, British and German senior brass of World War I. Similarly, they lived in royal comfort, complete with white-coated servants and sparkling China-set tables, safely away from the killing fields. When a battle did rage, they whirled above it in helicopters making decisions that may have worked in another war, but didn't make sense to the men on the ground. These sky-borne leaders became bitterly known to the men who did the dying as "The Great Squad Leaders in the Sky."

The Vietnam War was a disaster from its bad beginning until its tragic end. It killed four million Vietnamese and over 58,000 Americans. Millions more, Vietnamese and Americans, were wounded by shell or shock and the war came close to ripping our country asunder. With the exception of the Civil War, no war wrought such long range damage to the American soul.

Did our military establishment learn from the tragic lesson of Vietnam? The mistakes were all buried. No autopsy was conducted. In 1993, in Somalia, the U.S. Army made exactly the same mistakes that were made in Vietnam. Again, mainly young Americans paid the supreme sacrifice.

Unless we learn from the past we will again face dark days ahead.


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