The Army and Vietnam
From The Mason Historiographiki
Andrew F. Krepinevich. The Army and Vietnam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1986.
Written by a career Army officer and instructor at West Point, Maj. Andrew Krepinevich, “The Army and Vietnam” gives a compelling account of the military’s methods of training and combat during the Vietnam conflict, and why these methods were doomed to failure. Krepinevich begins the book by explaining how insurgencies develop and become successful, and what governments must do to combat them. In the beginning he also explains what he referrers to as the Army’s “Concept”, which was based around the Army’s successes during the Second World War and Korea and geared towards a potential conflict with the Soviet Union. Because the Army is focused around fighting these kinds of conflicts it organized itself in large divisions of heavy, mechanized infantry and armor. Krepinevich argues that that “Concept” and the military’s organization and strategies, which are a part of that paradigm, were not affective against insurgencies such as the Viet Cong in Vietnam.
Throughout the entire book, Krepinevich portrays the Army as an organization that is very bureaucratic and unwilling to change. A major example of this is the Army’s responses to the Kennedy Administration’s attempts to focus more of the Army’s attention and manpower on Special Forces and Counterinsurgency operations. Kennedy, who understood that the military needed to think beyond conventional warfare, pushed the military to increase the Special Forces and think about ways to improve Counterinsurgency operations. The Army was essentially, with a few exceptions, hostile to Kennedy’s attempts at reform. Generally they went through the motions to keep the Administration happy, but did little to create real reform.
According the Krepinevich, the Army’s “Concept”, and the Army’s overall conservative and unbending culture, had a negative impact on the South Vietnamese military and the American advisors sent over during the early 1960’s. He explains how the advisors essentially trained the South Vietnamese military according to the U.S. military’s concept. Thus, soldiers in the South Vietnamese army were organized into large divisions and trained to fight in conventional wars completely unlike what they were facing against the Viet Cong. There were other, simpler, problems as well. For example the advisors, who were often non-commissioned officers, knew very little about the country of Vietnam and lacked a basis understanding of the Vietnamese language.
As the United States began to take a larger, more active role in Vietnam, other mistake, according to Krepinevich was that the Special Forces were used for guerilla operations rather than counterinsurgency operation. This led to the Special Forces units, such as the Green Berets established during the Kennedy Administration, to not be used effectively. Also, once the United States began major combat operations in Vietnam, the Army continued to act according to the Army “Concept” despite not making progress against the Viet Cong. As a result of the situation, the Army turned to a tactic of attrition, hoping to destroy the Viet Cong, and thinking that the Army’s superior technology and firepower would complete the job. Meanwhile no real attempts were taken to adapt counterinsurgency tactics, and the war of attrition proved unsuccessful.
The major turning point was the Tet Offensive of early 1968. Although the military felt that Tet was a tactical victory for the United States, the American public and President Johnson, who later decided not to seek reelection, disagreed about the outcome as it illustrated that the Army’s war of attrition was not working. As a result, the government decided on a policy of “Vietnamization” in which the South Vietnamese would again take over the war. At the end of the book Krepinevich is careful to note that this was a decision made by the government, and not by the military.
Jim Sweeney, Fall 2006
Overall I feel that this book does a good job in explaining why the United States, despite all of its advantages, were unable to defeat the Viet Cong in Vietnam. I especially thought that the section about how an insurgency can topple a government, and how a government can crush an insurgency, to be quite informative. In addition to explaining how the Army’s “Concept” was not geared towards a low-intensity conflict like Vietnam, I think that the book gives the reader an insight into the culture of the Pentagon and the top brass of the military, raising some serious questions. This is especially true given the current problems faced by the military in Iraq, and how many of the top brass in the Army and in the Pentagon have been criticized for their actions prior to and during the war.
One major problem with the book is that it takes an entirely top-down approach to the Vietnam War, with the sole focus of the book on those who made the decisions rather than those who carried them out. Also, the book is often rather technical, which can make it sometimes difficult to read. Keeping these things in mind, I think it is clear that this book is not aimed at historians as much as it is aimed at those either in the military, West Point cadets, for example, or others who impact military policy.