David H. Hackworth
April 25, 1995
LEARN FROM THE PAST OR BLEED IN THE FUTURE
In the July 5, 1971 issue of Newsweek I said, "The North Vietnamese flag will fly over Saigon in 1975." Twenty years ago, as predicted, Saigon fell to Hanoi's assault troops.
I'm still often asked how I knew. My reply: I'd been there five years commanding U.S. infantry units and advising Vietnamese (ARVN) airborne, ranger and special forces. After three years of eyeballing the Vietnamese firsthand, I damn well knew that their "elite" units couldn't hack it and that ordinary ARVN grunts would cave-in when put to the test.
I felt like a doctor with his hand on a dying patient's pulse. There was no medicine, no transfusion, no magic pill that could have saved the corrupt South Vietnamese government and its equally corrupt and inept military.
Now Robert S. McNamara has brought back that sorry war with his confessions ("In Retrospect," Times Books, $27.50). A top Pentagon source who served in Vietnam and asked not to be named says, "If McNamara is so smart now, why was he so dumb then?"
Smart or dumb, future generations of Americans will hopefully benefit from his long AWOL memoirs. An honest examination of where our country went wrong in Vietnam has been desperately needed for too long. Perhaps McNamara's book will at last cause the Pentagon to take a hard look at why we failed in Vietnam, the first war America ever lost.
Retired Colonel Dennis Foley, who was an instructor at the Army Command and General Staff College in 1975, says that even before the fall of Saigon, "The 'V' word (Vietnam) was banned from Army service school training. The Army was back to the 'big battle war' on the plains of central Europe that it loved so well."
Defeat was too painful and too humiliating for the military bureaucrats to bear; they couldn't bring themselves to examine what they did wrong in order to avoid a recurrence. The hard lessons learned there were quickly swept under the rug in a mind-set of denial that prevented any serious post-mortem of the war.
In 1989, retired Lt. Gen. Henry "Hank" Emerson and I briefed the Pacific Command on our experiences fighting guerrillas. They seemed thunderstruck by the basic "two up, one back and feed 'em hot chow" squad leader material we gave them. Because the top brass and their planners had plum forgotten the hard lessons of Vietnam, we both felt as though we were reinventing the Vietnam wheel. I walked away shocked and scared to my bones.
An honest evaluation back in the mid-1970s could have prevented the errors of Somalia in 1993, mistakes which were identical to Vietnam almost 30 years before: a failure to recognize the limitations of firepower, technology and doctrine in fighting unconventional, highly motivated movements; a failure to understand the enemy; lousy command and control; poor intelligence; arrogance on the part of the war leaders from the White House to the Pentagon to the generals who ordered the undoable; a total ignorance of the history, culture and politics of the different clans; the reluctance of any of the policy makers and shakers to say this is mission impossible; and a failure to gain popular support on the home front.
The human cost: 45 dead and 175 wounded. The dollar cost: $2 billion. And then we cut and ran, just as we did in Vietnam!
Low intensity conflict is the future main event of warfare. As I write, hit-and-run operations, mines, booby traps and terrorist attacks are bubbling all over the world: Africa, Asia, the former Soviet Union, south of the border and even in our heartland, Oklahoma City.
Perhaps now our leadership will have the horse sense to learn from the past. But it won't be easy to persuade our leaders to give up their big-battle and big-budget wars. Low intensity conflicts, if fought correctly, don't bring in heavy-duty dough for the defense industry, the porkers or the brass. You didn't see any stealth bombers over Somalia, Haiti or Oklahoma City.
It's too late to save those who died and suffered in Vietnam and Somalia because our brass didn't do it right. But as McNamara belatedly but wisely says, "It's not too late to prevent future generations from meeting the same fate."